Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Divine Stories - Preface

Divyāvadāna Part 1


Meritorious deeds are to be performed.
Not performing meritorious deeds brings suffering.
Those who perform meritorious deeds
can rejoice in this world and in the next.

             —The Divyāvadāna

It is my honor to have this translation of the first half of the Divyāvadāna presented as the inaugural volume in the new Classics of Indian Buddhism series. I believe that the Divyāvadāna is an excellent choice to launch the series, for it encapsulates much of what is distinctive and inspiring about classical Indian Buddhism. Here one is introduced to various people, places, and philosophies of the Middle Country, with the Buddha and his disciples as the star performers. Traveling through the kingdoms of Kośala, Magadha, and beyond, they encounter characters from all walks of life: animal, human, divine, and demonic. In these encounters, they teach the dharma by word and deed, generating faith and new converts, as well as illustrating for the listener the merits of the Buddhist path.

The avadānas, or stories, in the Divyāvadāna have traditionally served as a means of sharing Buddhist teachings with a broad audience of both monastics and laypeople, and this, too, makes the present volume a good choice for launching the Classics of Indian Buddhism series. The aim of the series is to present Buddhist texts that were influential within classical India in a way that both specialists and more general readers can appreciate. To this end, translations are meant to combine accuracy with readability—a tall task indeed. I have tried to succeed on both accounts, providing readers with a glimpse of Indian Buddhism that complements and enriches the perspective gained from more contemporary works.

I first began studying the Divyāvadāna as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and the critical study of the text that began as my dissertation is being published simultaneously by Oxford University Press (Rotman 2008). That book, Thus Have I Seen: Visualizing Faith in Early Indian Buddhism, can be read as a companion to this translation. In it I consider faith as a visual practice in Buddhism, and how seeing and faith function as part of overlapping visual and moral economies. In particular, I analyze the mental states of śraddhā and prasāda—terms rendered as “belief ” and “faith” in this translation; how these relate to practices of “seeing” (darśana) and “giving” (dāna); and what this configuration of seeing, believing, and giving tells us about the power of images, the logic of pilgrimage, and the function of narratives in Buddhist India.

During the last twenty years, scholars with interests ranging from gender, ritual, and cultural studies to visual anthropology, intellectual history, and the sociology of religion have increasingly recognized and made use of the Divyāvadāna as an important repository of religious and cultural knowledge (e.g., Lewis 2000; Mrozik 2006; Ohnuma 2007; Rotman 2003b; Schopen 2004; Strong 1992; Tatelman 2000; Wilson 1996). Our work, however, has often been hampered by the lack of reliable translations of the stories in the collection—and in many cases, by the lack of any translation at all. Few of the stories in the Divyāvadāna have ever been translated into English, owing to the bias of scholars from previous centuries who favored philosophy over narrative, and owing as well to the text’s complex linguistic structure and idiosyncratic vocabulary. The present volume will help remedy this situation by offering translations of the first seventeen of the thirty-eight stories in the Divyāvadāna. The remaining stories will be published later in this series in a second volume.

I have tried to be both colloquial and technical in my translations, for these stories are precise legal documents as well as popular tales. Whether they were legends incorporated into Buddhist scholarly discourse or Buddhist didacticism crafted into a folksy idiom, these narratives are certainly more than transcriptions of folklore. They’re also fakelore—learned treatises posing as popular tales—and as such they need to be translated meticulously to capture their subtleties. In short, I have tried to refrain from translating this text into what Paul Griffiths (1981) has so poignantly referred to as “Buddhist Hybrid English.” My goal has been to produce a document in English that could be studied by specialists and appreciated by nonspecialists, yet still be entertaining to both. I hope I have been successful.


So many people and institutions have helped me with this project that I am humbled as I try to catalogue all the teaching, advice, and financial assistance that I have received over the years. At the University of Chicago, I was fortunate to read portions of the Divyāvadāna with Sheldon Pollock and Steven Collins. I was also fortunate to learn much about the complexities of Sanskrit from Wendy Doniger, David Gitomer, Paul Griffiths, and Bruce Perry, and from A. K. Ramanujan, quite a lot about the art of translating. From my years in Chicago there are so many friends to thank for so many kindnesses: Nick Collier, Laura Desmond, William Elison, Arnika Fuhrmann, Caitrin Lynch, Erin O’Donnell, Elizabeth Pérez, and Amy Wescott, to name just a few, for kindnesses far too many to list.

In India, those who helped me can primarily be divided by region: those in and around Sarnath and those in Pune. In Sarnath, most of my work was done at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, and I am most thankful to Samdhong Rinpoche for facilitating my stay there. During my years at the Institute, I read with K. N. Mishra, who patiently taught me the pleasures of Sanskrit narrative, and also on occasion with Ram Shankar Tripathi, whose breadth of learning in Buddhist Sanskrit was a wonderful resource. I was also fortunate to read Tibetan with many scholars at the Institute: Ramesh Negi and Pema Tenzin, who guided my work through Tibetan translations of Sanskrit avadānas, teaching me Tibetan as well as Sanskrit and Hindi, and Geshe Ngawang Samten and Lobsang Norbu Shastri, who helped me to make sense of many obscure passages, particularly those in part II of this translation, and whose hospitality never ceased to amaze me. I was also fortunate to have the help of John Dunne and Sara McClintock during part of my stay there. Both of them were enormously helpful, not just answering my questions about Tibetan grammar and linguistics, but offering me great warmth and friendship. I am also thankful to Abhaya Jain and his family for offering me food and refuge—a home away from home in Sarnath. In Varanasi, I was especially lucky in this regard, for there I was the recipient of much hospitality. Virendra Singh provided me with impromptu Hindi lessons and a role model for how to be a dedicated teacher. Ramu Pandit helped me so frequently and in so many ways, offering advice, encouragement, and always friendship. Andrea Pinkney offered me enormous kindness and counsel, all with a glorious view of the Ganga. Mat Schmalz (a.k.a. Prem Kumar) was always ready with paan and companionship, and Rabindra Goswami, with wonderful food and even better music.

My debts in Pune are also considerable. J. R. Joshi spent so many afternoons reading Sanskrit with me that I can’t possibly calculate how much material we read together or how many of my mistakes he corrected. What M. G. Dhadphale gave to me is also difficult to measure. He taught me about the subtleties of Sanskrit, always answering my most difficult questions with a bravura performance. His enthusiasm for reading Sanskrit literature continues to inspire me. I would also like to thank Shrikant Bahulkar who first directed me to Pune and offered me friendship, guidance, and considerable help in Sanskrit. Others who helped me include Ramchandra Gadgil, who read various avadānas with me, Sucheta Paranjpe, who taught me spoken Sanskrit, and Mandeep Bhander, Jeffrey Brackett, Gayatri Chatterjee, Sunila Kale, Suresh Nadkarni, Christian Novetzke, Parimal Patil, and Michael Youngblood, all of whom made Pune feel like home.

I also have many institutions to thank for the financial support that I received. A Fulbright-Hays grant allowed me to begin this translation project, three years worth of funding from the Rocky Foundation allowed me to extend my tenure in India, and two summers of financial support from Smith College allowed me to travel to India and Professor Dhadphale to travel to the United States for work on final revisions.

Closer to my current home, I’d like to thank my family and friends who have given me so much support. My parents, Arline and Barry, and brothers, Dave and Al, have been incredibly patient with my progress, and their constant encouragement and unstinting confidence have been invaluable. Numerous friends have also been exceedingly generous, with their time, their help, and their comments on my work. Over the years, the Five College Buddhist Studies faculty has kept me motivated and inspired, while those at Northampton Coffee have kept me caffeinated and inspired. I would also like to thank Christian Haskett for assisting me with some difficult passages in the Tibetan, Shilpa Sumant for correcting my errant transliterations, Connie Kassor for helping me organize the index, Paul Harrison for making some great suggestions about better readings and reconstructions, and David Kittelstrom for his sage editorial advice and assistance. Laura Cunningham, Joe Evans, Tony Lulek, Tim McNeill, Rod Meade Sperry, and the rest of the folks at Wisdom Publications also deserve special recognition for their exemplary and tireless work.

Finally, I’d like to thank April Strickland for making my life so full of love and joy. Thanks everybody.


How to cite this document:
© Andy Rotman Divine Stories (Wisdom Publications, 2008)

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