Aśvaghosa Biography


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


Aśvaghosa (AHSH-vah-GOH-sah), poet, musician, dramatist, scholar, philosopher, and religionist, flourished in India during the second century c.e., when the Kushān Dynasty of Kaniska paved the path for Indian civilization to extend to Central and Eastern Asia. Events of his life are sketchy, but he resided in the court of Kaniska at Peshāwar. Born a Brahman, he became a Sarvāstivādin but championed the Mahāyānist doctrine of the saving power of the buddhas. Regarded as the first exegete of Mahāyāna, he contributed to its spread outside India and participated in the Fourth Buddhist Council convened to settle codification of Buddhist scripture. However, the council had the effect of splitting Buddhism into Hināyāna and Mahāyāna schools.

Distinguished in Sanskrit epic, dramatic, and lyric poetry, his works, Buddhacarita (first or second century c.e.; Buddhacharitam, 1911), a masterful epic life of the Buddha; Saundarānanda (first or second century c.e.; The Saundarananda of Asvaghosa, 1928), an account of the conversion of his half brother Nanda; and Mahāyāna-śraddhotoāda (first or second century c.e.), a treatise of Mahāyāna doctrine, are ranked with works of Vālmīki and Kālidāsa. Other works ascribed to him are doubtful. His literary style is characterized by simplicity in diction and clarity in meaning. His dramatic plays successfully Indianized Greek drama.


(The entire section is 486 words.)


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Indian poet and religious historian. Aśvaghosa wrote the first comprehensive account of Buddha’s life and two related Buddhist works, depicting the foundations of Buddhism and how the religion was perceived by contemporary Indians.

Early Life

Aśvaghosa (AHSH-vuhg-oh-suh) is considered to be a great Buddhist scholar, the father of Sanskrit drama, and one of the best of all known Indian poets. He did not write about himself, and he had no biographers. As a result, very little is known about the details of Aśvaghosa’s life. However, Aśvaghosa’s reported life span—some seventy years—is based on several clear lines of written evidence. Among the most compelling is that his works were edited by a Central Asian writer whose writing style, which overlays the original Sanskrit text, fits within this time frame.

Aśvaghosa was most likely born in Ajodhya into a family of the Brahman caste. Therefore, Aśvaghosa’s education is believed to have been that of a Brahman scholar, trained in religion and in all of the contemporary arts and sciences. According to most sources, Aśvaghosa became one of the most distinguished of Buddhist scholars during the reign of the Kushān king, Kanishka (d. c. 152 c.e.). Kanishka was the Indo-Scythian conqueror of North India whose reign began c. 127 c.e. At that time Aśvaghosa would have been in his late twenties. Kanishka, a very devout Buddhist, valued him highly and subsequently Aśvaghosa became both the king’s trusted counselor and the twelfth Buddhist patriarch.

Aśvaghosa was originally a militant Brahman and was converted to Buddhism after losing a debate on the relative merits of Buddhism and Vedantic religion with Kanishka’s religious adviser Parsva. After this conversion, Aśvaghosa reportedly did his best to overthrow Brahmanism.

Life’s Work

Aśvaghosa is credited with writing two important Buddhist works: the Buddhacarita (first or second century c.e.; Buddhacharitam, 1911), a life of Buddha, and the Saundarānanda (first or second century c.e.; Saundarananda of Asvaghosa, 1928), which relates the conversion to Buddhism of Buddha’s half brother Nanda. The colophons of these works state that Aśvaghosa is their author, and the works are stylistically interconnected in ways that prove their authorship by one individual. References to and citations of Aśvaghosa’s works by other writers who lived during Kanishka’s reign are testimony to their great importance.

Aśvaghosa is said to have entered Kanishka’s service after the king conquered the city of Benāres, where Aśvaghosa lived at that time. Kanishka is supposed to have shown the great worth of Aśvaghosa’s ideas by starving several horses for a week, then taking them to hear Aśvaghosa preach and giving them food. The horses supposedly shed tears on hearing Aśvaghosa preach and refused to eat. Aśvaghosa’s name, which means “voice of the horse,” is said to have come from this incident.

Aśvaghosa’s writings and sermons contain allusions to ideas that some deem to derive from the early Christianity of his time. Two of these are the idea of universal salvation, and of the power of bodhi (“awakening” or “enlightenment”), which led to the development of Mahāyāna Buddhism in the first century c.e. Mahāyāna Buddhism (which includes, among others, modern Zen Buddhism) teaches that many paths can lead to nirvana and that all human beings have the Buddha nature (enlightenment potential). Some special people, known as bodhisattvas, attain nirvana and help others to do so. More...

(The entire section is 1496 words.)