Legends of the Buddhist Saints (Apadāna) is a collection of about six hundred autobiographical poems ascribed to the accomplished Buddhas and Arahants of the early Buddhist community. Composed in India in the Pāli language around the second century, B.C.E.,1 the collection has been preserved for more than two thousand years in Sri Lanka (and later in Burma,Thailand, Cambodia and Laos) as part of the “Miscellaneous Division” (Khuddaka-nikāya) of the “Basket of Discourses” (Sutta-piṭaka) of the Pāli Buddhist Canon (Tipiṭaka). Apadāna is the source of many of the best-loved stories of the saints in the Buddhist world, which have been transmitted through vernacular literature and art into the present. It is also a particularly rich and colorful source for the social and religious history of ancient India.

Each poem narrates the process by which an individual saint came to attain nirvana (Pāli nibbāna), the consummate elimination of suffering (dukkha) through escape from the otherwise endless cycle of birth, death, rebirth and redeath (saṃsāra). Though the final effort — entailing monastic discipline, study, and meditation to cultivate Awakening — is always understood to have been made during the saint’s present/final lifetime, Apadāna was one of several texts2 preserved in the “Miscellaneous Division” of the Pāli Canon which explored the relationship of previous-life karma to present-life experiences and accomplishments.

Speaking in the first person, each saint recalls3 the original pious deed or “seed” karma (bīja-kamma) which he or she performed in a remote previous lifetime, during the era of a previous Buddha; the intermediary ripening of that deed during successive rebirths among gods and men; and its eventual bearing of “fruit” (phala) — sainthood — during the time of Gotama Buddha. The typical apadāna is thus a more-or-less embellished version of a basic tripartite template: “I was X during the time of previous Buddha Y who lived Z number of aeons ago, and I performed X seed karma in Y circumstances at that time; because of that original seed karma, I enjoyed X good rebirths ever since performing it; as the fullest fruit of that original seed karma, I attained nirvana during the present lifetime.” Most of the poems conclude with a standard refrain which reinforces and celebrates the individual’s final achievement of sainthood (as an Arahant or a Buddha).

The central revelation here, that nirvana is the fruit of good karma performed during previous lives, was made during a watershed in Buddhist history. Following the third century, B.C.E. reign of Aśoka Maurya (Pāli Asoka Moriya), India’s physical and spiritual landscapes were transformed by rapid expansion of the Buddhist community. The Apadāna revelation that pious deeds produce future nirvana corresponded to and helped constitute the order of the day: it presented evidence that justified the extraordinary expenditure of wealth and effort required for massive construction projects focused on monasteries and the distinctively Buddhist reliquary monuments known as stupas, adorned with fine art; it narrated a readily transportable religious ideology and cultus that evidently proved compelling as the Buddha’s Teaching and Discipline (dhammavinaya) were carried into new parts of India and beyond; it explored various types of lay piety, with a special focus on kingship (and queenship), as lay practitioners began to be included in conceptualizations of the Buddhist community (Sangha), and as specifically Buddhist royal ideologies and kingdoms developed.

The attractiveness of this revelation, which provided a master narrative for living life as a non-renouncer who could nevertheless feel assured of future nirvana, was augmented by the beauty of the text itself. Composed entirely in light, sing-song Pāli verse, and originally recited or even enacted in large festival settings, the text is clearly meant to be enjoyed for more than its ideological bent. The anonymous authors of the poems embellished that basic template with all manner of stylistic ornament (rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, repetition, juxtaposition), with an extraordinary range of extra-religious content (including botany, mathematics, medicine, economics, technology, sociology, architecture and fine art, history and mythology, feminism, statecraft), and with good doses of humor, pathos, and devotion.

The collection is divided into four unequal sections. The first, Buddhāpadāna, contains a single poem ascribed to Gotama Buddha himself;4 the second, Paccekabuddhāpadāna, contains various verses5 ascribed to anonymous “Lonely” Buddhas whom Gotama Buddha encountered during his own long journey towards nirvana; the third, Therāpadāna, contains about6 five hundred and fifty poems ascribed to early Buddhist monks; the fourth and final section, Therī-apadāna, contains forty poems ascribed to early Buddhist nuns.7 In all, the collection contains nearly eight thousand verses (gāthā). The vast majority of these are composed in variations of the epic siloka (Skt. śloka) meter containing four feet of eight syllables each, though the text is peppered with six-footed verses, as well as four-footed verses composed in more elaborate meters.

  1. On the composition history of the collection see my “Stupa, Story and Empire: Constructions of the Buddha Biography in Early Post-Aśokan India,” in Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia, ed. by J. Schober (Hawaii, 1997), 160–92.

  2. These are: Buddhavaṃsa, which chronicles the lives of the previous Buddhas, of the present Buddha (Gotama), and of the future Buddha Metteyya (Maitreya); Jātaka-gāthā and Cariyāpiṭaka, which are early collections of stories of Gotama Buddha’s own previous lives; Vimānavatthu and Petavatthu, which narrate the good and bad future births caused by good and bad deeds performed in the present life, respectively.

  3. One of the virtues of Buddhists and Arahants (and even of advanced non-Buddhist religious adepts) is that they can recall their own (and others’) previous lives; this truism undergirds the text’s claim to authenticity, reinforced in the colophon to each poem which stipulates that the foregoing was actually said by the Buddha, monk or nun to whom that poem is ascribed. Paccekabuddhāpadāna is atypical in many ways, one of them being that the verses of the individual Lonely Buddhas are recalled and recited by Gotama Buddha, rather than by the Lonely Buddhas directly, but the same underlying logic is at work here: Gotama Buddha, being Buddha, can recall what the Lonely Buddhas uttered in the past.

  4. A most remarkable second Buddhāpadāna, which uniquely describes bad karma and its bad results, is tucked away as number 387 {390} (“The Rags of Previous Karma”) of the Therāpadāna, perhaps because it proved very controversial in later Buddhist discourse (on which, see my “The Buddha’s Bad Karma: A Problem in the History of Theravāda Buddhism,” Numen 37, no. 1 (June 1990): 70–95.)

  5. Most of these verses are lifted from the first (“Rhinoceros Horn”) sutta of Sutta-nipāta, an early collection of Buddhist discourses which also has been preserved in the Khuddaka-nikāya.

  6. The Pali Text Society (PTS) edition, in Roman script, contains five hundred and forty seven poems ascribed to early monks; the Buddha Jayanthi Tripitaka Series edition, in Sinhala script, contains five hundred and fifty-nine poems ascribed to early monks.

  7. Though the Therī-apadāna section is thus considerably shorter than the Therāpadāna, the collection as a whole enumerates a far greater number of nuns than of monks, because several of the Therī-apadāna poems (#29-#32) are collective ones, spoken by groups of ten, eighteen or eighty-four thousand nuns at once.