Buddhist Literature

The prominent Buddhist canon includes Tripitaka or three baskets. Other Buddhist literature includes Jatakas, Mahavamsa, Bodhivamsa etc. AS brief description about the same is given below:


Tripitaka or Three Baskets is a traditional term used for various Buddhist scriptures. It is known as pali Canon in English. The three pitakas are Sutta Pitaka, Vinaya Pitaka and Abhidhamma Pitaka.

Sutta Pitaka

It contains over 10 thousand suttas or sutras related to Buddha and his close companions. This also deals with the first Buddhist council which was held shortly after Buddha’s death, dated by the majority of recent scholars around 400 BC, under the patronage of king Ajatasatru with the monk Mahakasyapa presiding, at Rajgir. It is divided into various sections as shown in following graphics:

Vinaya Pitaka

The subject matter of Vinay Pitaka is the monastic rules for monks and nuns. It can also be called as Book of Discipline. Its three books are Suttavibhanga, Khandaka and Parivara.


The basic code of Monastic discipline is known as Patimokkha. It contains 227 rules for fully ordained Monks called bikkhus (Maha vibhanga) and 311 rules for fully ordained nuns called Bikkhunis (Bikkhuni Vibhanga) They are contained in Suttavibhanga, one of the parts of Vinay Pitaka.


Khandhaka is the second book of Vinay Pitaka. It has two volumes viz. Mahavagga and Cullavagga. Mahavagga deals with the awakening of Buddha and his great disciples. Cullavagga deals with the first and second Buddhist councils and establishments of community of Buddhist nuns and rules for Buddhist community.


Parivara is the last book of Vinaya Pitaka. It covers the summary of analysis of rules mentioned in first two books of Vinay Pitaka. It is latest book and seems to be later than the Fourth Buddhist Coincil in Ceylon. It also contains questions and answers.


Abhidhammapitaka deals with the philosophy and doctrine of Buddhism appearing in the suttas. However, it does not contain the systematic philosophical treatises. There are 7 works of Abhidhamma Pitaka which most scholars agree that don’t represent the words of Buddha himself. The 7 books are shown in the following graphics. No need to cram this info.


Jatakas are very much close to folklore literature and they contain the tales of previous births of Buddha in poems. The Jataka have also been mentioned in the Khuddaka Nikaya. There are 547 poems. In Sanskrit it is called Jatakamala, In Khmer they are known as cietak, and in Chinese they are called Sadok.

Milinda Panha

Milinda Panha means “Questions of Milinda”. It contains the dialogue of Indo-Greek king Meander and Buddhist monk Nagasena. It has been written in second to first century BC and initially written in Sanskrit. There is only one copy in Sri Lankan Pali of this work. It was printed in the 6th Buddhist council in 1954.


The meaning of Dipavamsa is “Chronicle of Island”. It is the oldest historical record of Sri Lanka. It is believed to have been compiled around 3rd or 4th century BC somewhere in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka during the reign of King Dhatusena of Sri Lanka, the first Mauryan King of Sri Lanka. The Avukana Buddha statue was erected by King Dhatusena in Sri Lanka.

Dipavamsa is one of the most important works in Pali Literature. It details the tooth relic and Bodhi Tree’s arrival in Sri Lanka. It also deals with the arrival of Buddha’s teaching and preachers in Sri Lanka. It mentions that Buddha visited Kelaniya and Dighavapi in Sri Lanka.


Mahavamsa is the most important Pali epic poem. Mahavamsa means “Great Chronicle”. It’s a historical poem in Pali Language which deals about the Kings of Sri Lanka. The first version of Mahavamsa dates back to 3-4th century BC during the reign of King Vijaya.  Mahavamsa, Dipavamsa, Culavamsa (small chronicle) all together are sometimes known as Mahavamsa. It deals with the royal dynasties of not only Sri Lanka but the whole Indian subcontinent and is known as world’s longest unbroken historical accounts. The consecration of Asoka and details of Selucus and Alexander have been detailed in it.


Mahavastu means the “Great Event”. It’s a work in prose and verse and is written in Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit. It details the miracles & earlier lives of Buddha.

Buddha Charita

Buddha Charita is an epic style Sanskrit work by Ashavaghosa. Dharmaraksa who is known to have translated many works of Buddhism in Chinese, translated this work in Chinese in 420AD. It mainly deals with Buddha’s Life. Asvaghosa also wrote a Sanskrit Drama “Sariputra Prakaran” which deals about Sariputta or Sariputra the disciple of Buddha.

Mahāvibhāsa Śāstra

Its an early Sanskrit work on Buddhism. Vibhasa means a compendium and has 3 prongs. It is attributed to vasumitra and deals with not only Buddhism but also Vaisheshika and Samkya philosophies.


In Sanskrit Lalit is a Lotus. Lalitvistara is a Sanskrit text that deals with the biography of Buddha.


Divyavadana means divine tales. It contains anthology in 38 stories and is a Sanskrit text which deals with Mauryan and Sunga History. The Asokavadana is a story in it which deals with the legends of Asoka.


Udanavarga is an early Buddhist Sanskrit text. It has verses attributed to Buddha and his disciples.


Udana is a Pali text included there in the Sutta Pitaka’s Khuddaka Nikaya. It contains the story of “Blind men and Elephant”.

Bodhi Vamsa

Bodhi Vamsa is a mix Sanskrit Pali text which was composed by Upatissa under the rule of Mahinda IV of Sri Lanka in 10th century AD. It describes the arrival of branch of Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka and many other things which mentioned in Mahavamsa.

1 Comment

  1. Aniket w

    July 11, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    Very nice


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