News at Tipitaka Network
Venerable Buddhagosha Maha Thera - The greatest Indian Pali commentator of the 5th century A.D.
by Rohan L. Jayetilleke, Daily News (Sri Lanka), September 28, 2005
Prior to a discussion of the life and works of the greatest Indian Pali Theravada Buddhism commentator Venerable Buddhaghosa Maha Thera, it is pertinent to commence with an account of Venerable Buddhadatta Thera, a contemporary of Buddhaghosa, who had preceded him to study at Mahavihara, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.
When Buddhadatta was en route back to India, having accomplished his task; his boat crossed another boat which was carrying Buddhaghosa to Sri Lanka. The two boats had stopped for some time due to heavy winds, and they met each other on board their own vessels. They introduced themselves, exchanged courtesy greetings, being Indians.
Buddhagosha said to Buddhadatta, "Bhante, the doctrine of the Buddha is available in the Sinhala language, I am proceeding to Sri Lanka to render them to Magadhi (early Pali)". Buddhadatta replied," Dear Bhante, I too had come to Sri Lanka for the same task, but as I shall not live very long now, I cannot finish the task".
As the two were in conversation, the winds subsided and the two boats moved away farther from ear-shot. As they departed Buddhadatta requested Buddhaghosa to send copies of each of his commentaries to him in India. which in all probability Buddhaghosa responded to subsequently.
Buddhadatta later summarized Buddhaghosa's commentaries on the Abhidhamma Pitaka in Abhidhammavatara and those on the Vinaya Pitaka in the Vinayavinicca. (Herein Pitaka means receptacle as sacred writings were kept in receptacles). Buddhadatta had come from Uragapur in the kingdom of Cola in South India.
Like Buddhaghosa he had stuided Theravada Pali Buddhism at Mahavihara at Anuradhapura. On his return from Sri Lanka he wrote his books in a Vihara built by a certain Vaisnava called Krisnadasa or Vishnudasa. on the banks of the river Kaveri in South India. (Corammandel coast). Among Buddhadatta's works Abhidhammavatara stands supreme. Buddhadatta did not accept Buddhaghosa's commentary on Abhidhammapitaka blindly.
Buddhagosha's contribution to the longevity of Pali Theravada Buddhism, defies the estimations of all scholars. Among the biographical notes on Buddhaghosa Mahavamsa ranks as the most reliable, in view of the brief and scanty references in the Buddhaghosapatti, the Gandhavamsa of India and the Sasanavamsa of Myanmar. Mahavamsa records Buddhaghosa was born near Buddhagaya, while another view is he is from South India's Tailang, which is more reliable.
Myanmar claims him to be from their country. Whatever the claims be he spent a long time at Buddhagaya Vihara. During his stay, Buddhagaya Vihara was under Lankan Mahavihara bhikkhus, whose chief was a Sinhala monk Mahasthavira Revata.
In the time of Buddhaghosa Pali in India had lost its popularity and Sanskrit had monopolized. Even Buddhist scholars accepted Sanskrit as the medium of expression to elaborate Buddhism. Asvaghosa, who lived in the 1st century A.D. wrote his poetical works in sanskrit. Gupta kings patronized Sanskrit to the exclusion of Pali. However, the Sinhala bhikkhus at Buddhagaya in the time of Buddhaghosa in the 5th century stood their grounds of Pali being the via media for Theravada Buddhism.
During this period one Ghosha well versed in Vedas, wandered in India seeking adversaries to compete with him on Vedas. One day, at Buddhagaya Sri Lankan bhikkhu Revata heard Ghosa reciting sutras from the Patanjali. He was impressed with his pronunciation and enunciations.
He decided to convert Ghosa to Theravasa Buddhism of the Pali tradition. Ghosa asked Revata," Do you understand these sutras?". Revata replied," Yes I do, but they are faulty". Ghosa requested Revata to present his doctrine to him. Revata read an extract in Pali from the Abhidharmapitaka. Ghosa asked" Whose sutras is that?" Revata replied, "Buddha mantra". Ghosa was impressed and requested him to be ordained. Thus Ghosa was ordained under the name Buddhaghosa.
Buddhaghosa: the budding intellectual became well learned in Dhamma and Vinaya under Mahasthavira Revata. While living under his tutelage, at Buddhagaya Mahavihara, he compiled his first work, the Nanodaya.
Then according to traditions, authored Atthasalini, a commentary on Dhammasangani. Revata having learnt from Budhdaghosa, that he planned to compile a commentary on Paritta-sutta, advised his pupil thus: "the original Tripitaka alone has been brought here from Lanka.
Here we neither possess commentaries nor, the tradition coming down from various teachers. But, in Lanka, there are commentaries originally brought down by the wise Mahinda Thera and later translated into the language of the Island. Go there and study them, so that they may be beneficial to all".
Buddhaghosa set off for Lanka in the manner mentioned above. He reached Anuradhapura in the reign of king Mahanama of Sri Lanka (409 - 431 A.D.) and took up residence at Mahapadana monastery of the Mahavihara complex at Anuradhapura.
This indicates, though Buddhaghosa was travelling to Lanka for the first time, he had been properly instructed by the Sinhala monks at Buddhagaya, as regards the Island route from Jambukola in Jaffna, the leading trading port of call of India trading Vaisya Setthis and also had with him letters of recommendations to the incumbent monks of the monasteries of Mahavihara to afford him residence and help in his task of translating Sinhala commentaries to Pali language.
Buddhaghosa studied under Thera Sangapala of the Mahapadana monastery and was convinced that Sinhala commentaries were very faithful translations of Pali original commentaries. The very name of the monk indicates, he was the Director (pala) of the monks of the monastery (Sangha). Then Buddhaghosa made the following request to the Maha Sangha." I want to translate the commentaries from Sinhala to Magadhi. I should have free access to all books".
Thereupon in order to test his skills bhikkhus gave him two stanzas to comment upon them. Buddhaghosa wrote a compendium of the whole of the Tripitaka based on the two stanzas given to him and named it 'Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purity). The bhikkhus being satisfied entrusted all the books to him, and arranged for him to reside at Granthakara Parivena (the residential institute of writings and writers) at Anuradhapura. Buddhaghosa completed his tasks and returned to India with his translations.
Buddhaghosa compiled commentaries on the seven texts of the Abhidhamma namely, Attahasalini commentary on Dhammasangani, Sammohavinodani commentary on Vibhanga, panchassakaranaattho and the remaining five texts namely, Dhatukatha, Kathavattu, Puggalapannatti, Yamaka and Pattana.
The Visuddhimagga above all is a testomony to the intellectual attainments of Buddhaghosha in knowledge it is encylopaediac and enshrining a deep insight, is the most valuable contribution of any Indian to the continuation of a Pali Theravada Buddhism, at a time Buddhism was in the vain in India and Sanskrit language had eclipsed Pali, in all spheres of activity both, secular, religious and literary.
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Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammāsambuddhassa.
Buddha sāsana.m cira.m ti.t.thatu.