Aspects of Royal Ideology in the Buddhist Vinayas

At our May workshop, Vincent Tournier discussed his research into the Mahāvastu and its part in the changing depiction of the royal, spiritual and buddhological lineage of Śākyamuni. The fruits of this work have recently been published as La formation du Mahāvastu et la mise en place des conceptions relatives à la carrière du bodhisattva (Paris:  École française d’Extrême-Orient, 2017). He showed how in the first millenium CE, what Peter Skilling called the “epochal career” of the historical Buddha was increasingly contextualised within the framework of other buddhas, and his family tree more and more intertwined with the very beginnings of kingship in India. This depiction of the Buddha then affected his status as an enlightened authority figure and that of his spiritual heirs, his disciples, within an increasingly crowded religious marketplace of first millennium South Asia.


Tournier first outlined the findings of his philological interrogation of the Mahāvastu, probably closed as a work in the sixth century CE and written like the Vinaya in the “Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit” of the first-millennium Mahāsāṇgikas. Other works describe the Mahāvastu as a Vinaya text, and though it does not describe rules to be followed by the Buddhist community Tournier argues that this should cause us to broaden our conception of the Vinaya itself. The work itself attempts to line up a number of elements within the Buddha’s biography with corresponding Vinaya doctrinal categories. Yet the Mahāvastu consists of many strata, including two different prologues, dating to various points in the development of the Buddhist literary tradition. This leads to a rich but sometimes confusing mixture of themes and portrayals of the Buddha and his pre-incarnations, many of which Tournier has expertly separated and then investigated for the light they shed on the Buddha’s purported royal heritage.

The idea of seven buddhas of the past, present and future, found in much earlier Buddhist works such as the Mahāvadana, is structured as a lineage in the Mahāvastu. There, thematic elements and poetic imagery are repeated for each buddha, unifying them into a chronologically ordered set. Furthermore, the portayals of an earlier buddha pronouncing a prophecy (vyākaraṇa) for his immediate successor increasingly resemble a king’s appointment of his royal heir, for instance in Śākyamuni’s description of Maitreya’s future life as a dharmarāja. Tournier contextualised this trend with recourse to the Lalitavistara lifestory, the Avataṃsaka sūtra and sculptures found at the Borobudur temple complex. Finally, he showed how the narrative of the royal descent of the Buddha, found in the Mahāvastu, grew out of an independent aeteliologies concerning the Ikṣvāku family lineage and the cosmogonic beginnings of people and their first king, Mahāsammata. The Mahāvastu combines these two tales into an account of Śākyamuni lineage stretching from the First King down through the Ikṣvāku royal line. Tournier highlighted the similar strategies of appropriating the stories of past kings used in both creating a Buddhological lineage and also unifying the Buddha’s royal line. He suggested this perhaps reflects a Kushan and/or Gupta milieu, in which it was necessary for the Buddhists to argue that they did not merely consist of a mixture of social classes but were instead pure sons of a Buddha prophecied aeons ago, who was himself heir to an old and exalted lineage.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s