Emergence of Gautam Buddha on the spiritual scene more than two and a half millennia ago was a turning point for mankind in more than one ways. He freed religion, (to borrow Tagore’s expression), ‘from the dreary desert sands’ of dogma, rid philosophy of the dark mysteries of intangible metaphysics, redefined the goal of ethics as service of humanity rather than pleasing unseen gods and assured mankind that every human being was capable of achieving his own salvation without the clergy’s mediation.
Going by the historical details of Buddha’s life it is evident that he was a great wanderer and a prolific orator. Instead of keeping himself confined to his own fixed abode expecting the ‘seekers’ to visit him with heads bowed and hands folded in reverence as was the practice of spiritual masters and religious leaders of the times Buddha himself travelled places speaking to the masses who instantly turned his disciples because of the simplicity and appeal of his teachings. Quite obviously his public discourses and preaching or discussions he held with his close disciples individually or in groups would have been voluminous requiring compilation for the benefit of the future generations.
Shortly after ‘the lamp of wisdom had been blown out by the winds of impermanence’ Buddha’s closest followers held a series of councils for systematic compilation of their Master’s teachings. At the first Council held at Rajgriha (present day Rajgir in the Indian State of Bihar) three of the leading disciples Kasyapa, Upala and Anand were asked to recite Buddha’s teachings relating to Metaphysics, Ecclesiastical Discipline and Tales and Parables Buddha used to narrate during his address to masses respectively. The gathering metaphorically called each of these a ‘Pitaka’ or basket and named them ‘Abhidhamma Pitaka’, ‘Vinaya Pitaka’ and ‘Sutta Pitaka’.
How vast and wide ranging each of these Pitakas are has been beautifully summarized by Dr S Radhakrishnan in his magnum opus, ‘Indian Philosophy’.
Abhidhamma Pitaka or the basket containing Buddha’s views on basic philosophical issues relating to ethics, epistemology, psychology and metaphysics as recited by Kasyapa has seven subdivisions, namely, Dhamma Sangani, Vibhanga, Kathavattu, Puggalpannatti, Dhatu, Yamak and Pat thana.
Vinaya Pitaka or the basket containing Buddha’s teachings on rules of ecclesiastical discipline including the conduct of the monks has three subdivisions; ‘Suttavibhanga’, ‘Khandak’ and ‘Parivar’. Of these the first two have two parts, each dealing with the rules of conduct for the monks in a highly nuanced manner.
Sutta Pitaka as narrated by Anand, the closest and probably the dearest disciple of Buddha has an elaborate account of tales and parables mentioned by Buddha during the course of his lectures. Apart from the spiritual and philosophical insights the parables also give us an idea of the lucidity of style of Buddha’s oratorical skills. It has five ‘Nikayas’ or units. These are; Digha Nikaya, Majjhima Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya, Anguttar Nikaya and Khuddak Nikaya.
These Nikayas deserve to be looked into little more closely for understanding the vast scope of their subject matter. While Diggh and Majjhima Nikaya have lectures that are lengthy or of ‘middle length’ delivered by Buddha, the Samyutta Nikaya has a combination of both. It also contains Buddha’s first sermon or the ‘dhammachakkapabattan sutta’ delivered at Sarnath. Anguttar Nikaya is divided into 11 sections so systematically that while the first section deals with objects of a singular kind, the second deals with objects that are of two kinds and so on till it reaches objects having eleven varieties or kinds. Khuddaka Nikaya has fifteen divisions one of which is the ‘Jataka’ that over the years has emerged as the most popular source of Buddhist folklore.
Buddha encouraged absolute freedom of thought and expression that led to emergence of many schools of thought, sects and sub-sects among his followers. However the three Pitakas are accepted as the most proximate source of his teachings by all the schools and sects. These were handed down to successive generations through oral tradition maintained by Buddhist monks with absolute devotion and were reduced in written form around 80 BCE by Srilankan Buddhists under the reign of king Vattagamani.
For nearly fifteen hundred years after Buddha’s ‘mahaparinirvan’ large number of Buddhist scholars continued to elaborate and comment on their master’s teachings voluminously adding to an ever growing mass of philosophical literature painstakingly preserved in monasteries in Tibet, present day Central Asian Republics and some centers of advanced learning like Taxila and Nalanda in India. Most of these were destroyed when fanatical invaders set them on fire in the central Asian region. The manuscripts preserved in the Mahavihar at Nalanda were destroyed when Bakhtiyar Khilji reportedly set the library on fire in early thirteenth century. The Pitakas have however survived such wanton attempts of destruction. Many other manuscripts preserved in monasteries in Tibet and in the adjoining Himalayan kingdoms have also survived thanks to the dedication of the inmates.
Bulk of the early Buddhist literature in spite of having survived various vagaries still remains inaccessible to students of Buddhism and even practicing Buddhists. Serious, concerted efforts to translate the Pitakas in different languages of the world and publication to bring them within affordable reach of those who wish to study in depth is the need of the hour. In 1954 the Burmese government sponsored a council in Yangon where the then Prime Minister U Nu authorized publication of the Pitakas. As this was done only in Burmese script the publication remained of little use for others.
On the auspicious occasion of His Holiness Dalai Lama’s birthday we humbly convey our earnest wishes for a long life for him and hope that the Tibetan government in exile with monetary and logistic support from His Holiness’s followers and admirers world-wide will initiate a project for publication to mark this auspicious occasion.
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