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Mahayana Buddhist Literature

Of the numerous Mahayana works, nine books, ‘so-called nine Dharmas’, which are held in great reverence, deserve to be specially noted inasmuch as they trace the origin and development of Mahayana as also point out its fundamental teachings. They are: Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita, Saddharmapundarika-Sutra, Lalitavistara, Lankavatara, Suvarnaprabhasa, Gandavyuha, Tathagata-guhyaka, Samadhiraja and Dasabhumisvara. They are also known as Vaipulya-Sutras.

The Prajnaparamitas belong to the earliest Mahayana sutras and are considered to be the most holy and the most valuable of all Mahayana works. They are further of great importance from the point of view of religion. Of the different recensions of the Prajnparamitais, the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita is probably the earliest.

The Saddharmapundarika-Sutra is the most important Mahayana sutra and as a work of literature it stands foremost. It deals with the characteristic peculiarities of Mahayana and is more devotional. It is the main scripture of a few sects in China and Japan.

The Lalitavistara is a biography of Buddha, more divine than human. In twenty-seven chapters, the text gives us an account of the Buddha legend up to the sermon of Varanasi, embodying in it all the germs of an epic. It exhibits all the remarkable features of Mahayana. From the points of view of the history of religion and literature, it is of immense value to us.

The Lankavatara presents us with valuable material for the study of the early Yogacara system. It teaches Vijnanavada. According to it, nothing exists but thought.

The Suvarnaprabhasa-Sutra is also one of the later Mahayana works. A few fragments of this work have been discovered in Central Asia. It is both philosophical and ethical. Tantric rituals are further referred to herein. It is very popular in Mahayana Buddhist countries.

The Gandavyuha which is not yet available in Sanskrit corresponds to the Chinese translation of the Avatamsaka which comes just after the Satasahasrika Prajnaparamita and Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita. It depicts the wanderings of the youth Sudhana who attained the highest knowledge through the advice of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. It is quoted several times in the Siksa-samuccaya. At the end of the Gandavyuha, there are a few verses which are used even at the present day for purposes of worship in all the Mahayana Buddhist countries.

The Tathagataguhyaka, which probably belonged to the seventh century A.D., contains Mahayana teachings mingled with elements of Tantricism. It is regarded as one of the authoritative works on the earliest Tantras.

The Samadhiraja Sutra which is also one of the works of later Mahayana sutras lays the greatest emphasis on meditation for the attainment of perfect knowledge. It also enumerates the practices necessary for developing the mental state.

The Dasabhumisvara contains an exposition of the ten stages of spiritual progress essential for the attainment of Buddhahood (enlightenment).