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This revised version of Saundarananda in English has been prepared (circa February 2012) in a two-line format, each line corresponding to one yuga-pāda of the original Sanskrit, instead of the four line-format which was observed for the translation published day by day on a blog (between December 2008 and November 2011). The two-lined format has the advantage of allowing greater flexibility of word order and is therefore generally more amenable to a natural-sounding English translation.




Om! Homage to the Buddha



A sage named Kapila Gautama, an outstanding upholder of dharma, /

Became as consumed in ascetic practice as was Kākṣīvat Gautama.1// 1.1 //


Ceaselessly he shone his light, like Kāśyapa the sun, on blazing asceticism; /

And in promoting that asceticism he pushed himself, like Kāśyapa the sage,2 to extreme achievement. // 1.2 //


For the offerings he served himself, he milked a cow, like Vasiṣṭha. /

In schooling his disciples in asceticism, he milked a cow, like Vasiṣṭha.3 // 1.3 //


In high-mindedness, he was like a second Dīrgha-tapas;4 /

And he was like a third in the mould of Kāvya5 and Āṅgiras,6 in religious thought. // 1.4 //


On a bright slope of the Himālayas this man steeped in ascetic practice /

Had his ashram, the domain and the very seat of ascetic practices. // 1.5 //


Wooded with charming shrubs and trees and abounding in lush, soft grass, /

It was so thick7 with sacrificial smoke that it constantly resembled a raincloud. // 1.6 //



With soft, sandy, and smooth soil, made yellowish white by a covering of kesara blossoms, /

And divided into areas, with no commingling,8 it was like a body painted with cosmetic pigments. // 1.7 //


Pure, esteemed for their sacred presence, edifying and cultivating,9 /

Like friends, were the lakes it stood among – fluent and bearing lotuses. // 1.8 //


With abundant flowers and fruits beautifying the forests all around it, /

It shone and it flourished, like a man furnished with a means. // 1.9 //


Content to feed on wild rice and fruit, the ascetics were self-abiding, inhibited, and retiring. /

Though the ashram was full of them, it seemed to be utterly empty. // 1.10 //


The sound of the fires receiving offerings, of the peacocks with their crested heads / uttering their repetitive cry,10

And of the sacred bathing places, during ablutions, was all that one heard there. // 1.11 //


The stags there, their manes beautifully braided, on undefiled elevations fit to be sacrificial altars, /

Seemed as though, complete with puffy rice and mādhavi flowers, they had been prepared as religious offerings. // 1.12 //


Even lesser creatures moved there in the same subdued11 manner as the stags, /

As if from their ascetic protectors they had learned the rules of discipline. // 1.13 //


Even in the face of a precarious immunity to rebirth and notwithstanding inconsistencies in their time-honoured texts, /

There and then, as if seeing with their own eyes,12 the great ascetics practised asceticism. // 1.14 //


There some prayed to Brahma; none suffered the frustration of losing his way; /

The soma,13 at the right moment, was measured out; and nobody, at a random moment, came to nothing.14 // 1.15 //


There, each disregarding his body, but having his own view with regard to dharma, /

And almost bristling with zeal, the ascetics set about their ascetic practice of asceticism. // 1.16 //


There the toiling sages, hearts straining heavenward, /

Seemed by their passion for asceticism almost to do dharma a mischief. // 1.17 //


Now, to that ashram, that seat of intensity, that domain of austerity, /

There came certain sons of Ikṣvāku,15 royal princes, wishing to stay. // 1.18 //


Tall they were like golden columns, lion-chested, strong-armed, /

Worthy of their great name and royal insignia and good upbringing. // 1.19 //


For deserving were they, where undeserving was he. Big-minded were they, where fickle-minded was he. /

And bright were they, where brainless was he: their younger half-brother. // 1.20 //



The royal authority that had come to him, as his mother's bride-price, they had not usurped;16 /

Rather, keeping their father's promise, they had retreated to the forest. // 1.21 //


The sage Kapila Gautama became their preceptor; /

And so, from the guru's surname, those Kautsas became Gautamas17 -- // 1.22 //


Just as, though they were brothers born of one father, because they had different gurus /

Rāma became a Gārgya and Vāsubhadra a Gautama. // 1.23 //


And since they made a dwelling concealed among śāka trees, /

Therefore those descendants of Ikṣvāku were known on earth as Śākyas.18 // 1.24 //


Gautama performed services for them as for his own sons, /

Like the Bhārgava sage later did for the child-prince Sagara;19 // 1.25 //


Like Kaṇva did for Śākuntala's son, the intrepid Bharata;20 /

And like the inspired Vālmīki did for the inspired twin sons of Maithili.21 // 1.26 //


That forest, through the sage, and through those warrior heroes, /

Radiated tranquillity and security -- the majesty of the brahmin and of the kṣatriya, in one yoke. // 1.27 //


One day, while holding a jug of water, in his desire to nurture the princes' growth /

The sage went up, into the air. Then he said to them: // 1.28 //


"There will fall to earth from this flowing jug, whose flowing is unbreakable, /

A line of drops: Do not overstep this mark, as in step you follow me." // 1.29 //


"Yes!" they said to this, and respectfully bowed, letting their heads fall forward. /

Then all went up, onto chariots that were swiftly drawn, and well prepared. // 1.30 //


So they followed him in the flow, while, walking on air, /

The ends of the earth of that ashram he sprinkled with water. // 1.31 //


He set out a plan like a chessboard, like an eightfold plan, revealed by signs;22 /

Then the sage, standing still, spoke thus to those offspring of the guardians of the earth: // 1.32 //


"Within this sprinkled line of drops, wherein your wheels have left a mark, /

You are to build a city, when I am gone to heaven." // 1.33 //


Thereafter those lads, when in time the sage passed away, /

Roamed about in their unbridled youth like elephants unchecked by a driver's hook. // 1.34 //


They roamed about with bows in hand and leather-clad fingers on arrows, /

Shafts causing sizeable quivers to swell, feathers preened and fastened on.23 // 1.35 //


Wishing to test their mettle among the elephants and big cats, /

They emulated the god-like deeds of the forest-dwelling son of Duṣyanta.24 // 1.36 //


Seeing their natural character emerge as those lads grew, like tiger cubs, /

The ascetics abandoned that forest and retreated to the Himālayas. // 1.37 //

Then, seeing the ashram without ascetics, desolate, the princes were desolate in their hearts. /

In the red-hot anger of their indignation, they hissed like snakes. // 1.38 //


In time, through good conduct, they came to a maturity /

In which they could obtain the great treasures that are disclosed through acts of knowing them. // 1.39 //


Sufficient for full enjoyment of dharma, wealth, and pleasure;25 /

Abundant; and of many kinds: these were treasures beyond the reach of enemies. // 1.40 //


On the grounds of what they thus acquired, and of the fading influence of their past karma, /

They who knew building, at that site, founded a splendid city. // 1.41 //


It had a moat as broad as a river, a main street that straightened and curved, /

And great ramparts rising like mountains, as if it were another Giri-vraja.26 // 1.42 //


With its fine frontage of white watchtowers, and a well-apportioned central market /

Overlooked by crescents of large houses, it was like a Himālayan valley. // 1.43 //


Brahmins versed in the Vedas and Vedāṅgas,27 and engaged in the six occupations,28 /

There they caused to pray, for peace and for prosperity. // 1.44 //


The regular soldiers they employed there to repel assailants from their territory /

They caused, with their sovereign power, to be victorious in battle. // 1.45 //


Householders of character and means, who were modest, far-sighted, /

Worthy, stout and able, they caused to settle there. // 1.46 //


Individuals possessed of particular strong points such as thinking, talking, and taking steps, /

They installed in corresponding offices as counsellors and ministers. // 1.47 //


Thronged by men who were wealthy but not wanton, and cultured but not conceited, /

The city seemed like Mt. Mandara,29 thronged by kiṁnaras.30 // 1.48 //


There with glad hearts, desiring to bring joy to the citizens, /

They commissioned those glorious abodes of beauty that we call 'gardens.' // 1.49 //


And lovely lotus pools of finest quality water, /

Not at anybody's behest,31 but because of being uplifted, they had dug in all directions. // 1.50 //


Rest-houses of the first rank, welcoming and splendid, on the roads and in the woods, /

And complete even with wells, they caused to go up on all sides. // 1.51 //


Crowded with elephants, horses, and chariots,32 the city33 was crammed with people who did not crowd each other. /

Material wealth was available to the needy, not secreted; but learning and spirit ran secret and deep. // 1.52 //


Like a place where goals converge, where energies are focused, /

Where learning activities are housed together, and where achievements come together, // 1.53 //


It was a homing tree for high flyers, a refuge for those seeking a place of rest, /

An arena for those skilled in scientific endeavour, and a tethering post for the mighty. // 1.54 //


By means of meetings, festivals, and acts of giving, and by means of traditional observances, /

The heroes brought that city, the light of the world, to a glorious readiness. // 1.55 //


Since they never levied any tax that was not just, /

Therefore in a short time they caused the city to be full. // 1.56 //


And since, on the site of the ashram of the seer Kapila, /

They had built that city, therefore it was called Kapilavāstu. // 1.57 //


Just as cities sited on the ashrams of Kakanda, Makanda and Kuśāmba34 /

Were called after them, so that city was called after Kapila. // 1.58 //


Those equals of Indra took charge of that city with noble ardour but without arrogance; /

And they thus took on forever the fragrance of honour, like the celebrated sons of Yayāti.35 // 1.59 //


But under the sons of kings, active though they were as protectors, that kingless kingdom lacked kingly lustre -- /

Like the sky, though stars are shining in their thousands, before the moon has risen. // 1.60 //


So the senior among those brothers, in age and in merits, like the bull which is chief among bulls in bodily power, /

They anointed there, attaching to the important, like the Ādityas in heaven anointing thousand-eyed Indra. // 1.61 //


Possessed of good conduct, discipline, prudence and industry,

Bearing the big umbrella for duty's sake, not to pander to the power of the senses, /

He guarded that realm, surrounded by his brothers,

Like roaring Indra guarding heaven with his retinue of storm-gods. // 1.62 //



The 1st Canto in the epic poem Handsome Nanda, titled "A Portrait of Kapilavāstu."




1 An ancient Indian exemplar of ascetic practice – the kind of practice from which the Buddha turned away (see 3.2).

2 Kāśyapa is a patronym from kaśyapa, 'having black teeth,' which is (1) a name of the sun, and (2) the name of one of the seven great seers of ancient India, supposed author of several hymns of the Ṛg-veda.

3 Vasiṣṭha, 'the most wealthy,' is the name of another ancient Indian seer, celebrated in the vedas as the owner of the mythical cow of plenty. Gām means a cow, and at the same time the earth, as the milk-cow of kings. The verse sounds like praise but is ambiguous – suggesting either that Vasiṣṭha's practice was “self-serving” in that it seemed to do itself, naturally, spontaneously, effortlessly; or else “self-serving” in that he served himself, and exploited others in the process. Aśvaghoṣa's real intention may be the latter, but in his undermining of Brahmical and Buddhist views, he is always circumspect, relying on irony rather than polemics.

4 Dīrgha-tapas, 'performing long penances,' is the name of several ancient Indian seers.

5 Kāvya is the patronymic of the ancient sage Uśanas, teacher of the asuras, who presides over the planet Venus.

6 Another of the seven great seers, author of the hymns of the Rg Veda.

7 A play on the word vitāna, which means (1) 'out of tune', dejected, empty, dull; (2) great extent, heap, abundance; (3) an oblation, sacrifice.

8 Asaṁkīrṇaiḥ means not mixed, not adulterated, not polluted, not impure, not born of a mixed marriage. Beneath a camouflage of kesara flowers, Aśvaghoṣa may be alluding, always with due circumspection, to traditional Bhramanical conceptions around caste.

9 The description of the lakes as cultivating (bhāvanaiḥ) presages the Buddha's exhortation in the second half of the poem that Nanda should eradicate influences that pollute the mind by the means of cultivation or development of the mind (bhāvanayā). See 15.5 and 16.5.

10 A sardonic allusion to the chanting of the ascetics with their dreadlocked hair-dos.

11 I.e. stilted. Aśvaghoṣa is making fun of unduly careful practice – the result of trying to be mindful.

12 The key word is iva, “as if.” Aśvaghoṣa is damning the great ascetics with faint praise.

13 Soma: an intoxicating licquor offered in libations to ancient Hindu gods.

14 Each line contains a play on the ambiguity of mīyate, which is one passive form from two different roots: (lose one's way, perish, come to nothing) and ma (measure out, pray). Randomly coming to nothing may be understood as an ironic expression of nirvāṇa.

15 Ikṣvāku, from ikṣu ‘sugar cane,' was the first king of the solar dynasty which bears his name. Many royal families in India, including the Buddha's family, traced their lineages back to him.

16 Vi-ṣah means (1) to overpower, and (2) to endure. Either meaning could apply here: they did not overthrow him, or they could not endure his sovereignty.

17 I.e. the original surname of the Buddha's ancestors was Kautsa.

18 Hence the Buddha's name Śākyamuni, “Sage of the Śākyas.”

19 Sa-gara, literally "With Poison," is the name of a great solar dynasty king brought up in the ashram of a Bhārgava sage named Aurva, who intervened after Sagara's mother was poisoned by a rival queen. The story is told in Book 3 of the Mahābhārata.

20 The story of how Kanva brought up in his ashram Bharata (the son of King Duṣyanta and his wife Śākuntala) is originally told in the Mahābhārata. But the story is best known through Kalidasa's play The Recognition of Śākuntala. See also 1.36.

21 Along with the Mahābhārata, the other great Sanskrit epic of ancient Indian history is the Rāmāyaṇa, "Rāma's Journey," the authorship of which is attributed to Vālmīki. Maithili, or the princess of Mithila, refers to Sita, Rāma's wife, esteemed in India as a standard-setter for wifely and womanly virtues. The final book of the Rāmāyaṇa describes how Rāma, bowing to public opinion, banishes Maithili to the forest, where the sage Vālmīki takes her into his ashram. Here the princess gives birth to twin boys, Lava and Kuśa, who become pupils of Vālmīki and are brought up in ignorance of their royal identity. Vālmīki composes the Rāmāyaṇa and teaches Lava and Kuśa to sing it.

22 “Sign” is the first of several senses of nimitta used by Aśvaghoṣa in Saundarananda. Nimitta is a key word in Canto 16, where the Buddha uses it in the context of describing development or cultivation of the mind (bhāvanā).

23 Vāsas means (1) clothes, and (2) [in compounds] the feathers of an arrow.

24 The son of Duṣyanta means Bharata, legendary founder of the Indian nation and chief protagonist of the Mahābhārata -- the same intrepid Bharata mentioned in 1.26.

25 Dharma, wealth, and pleasure are three of the four aims of human existence (puruṣārtha) originally discussed in Book 12 of the Mahābhārata. The fourth aim is the aim that Aśvaghoṣa himself considered paramount: liberation or release (mokṣa) – see 18.63.

26 Giri-vraja was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Magadha. The city, which is also mentioned in 3.15 as a place the enlightened Buddha frequented, is located in a valley surrounded by five rocky hills; hence the name Giri-vraja, or "Mountain-Fenced." It was also known in Sanskrit as Rāja-gṛha, "King's House," which is thought to be the derivation of the name of the city of Rajgir in the modern Indian state of Bihar (= Land of Vihāras).

27 Vedāṅgas, “limbs of the Vedas,” are teachings auxiliary to original works like the Ṛg-veda which go back to before, or at least to the very beginning of, Aryan migrations into northern India.

28 Six occupations reserved for brahmins of the priestly caste in India's ancient system of apartheid: teaching and studying the Vedas; offering and officiating at sacrifices; and giving and accepting gifts.

29 Mandara, lit. “a pearl chain consisting of 8 or 16 strings,” is the name of a sacred mountain where various deities and mythical beings were thought to reside. When the gods and asuras were in need of a large object with which to churn the ocean and recover the deathless nectar, the story goes, they used Mt. Mandara as a churning stick.

30 Kiṁnara is lit. "what sort of man?" Kiṁnaras are mythical beings with a human figure and the head of a horse (or with a horse's body and the head of a man) in later times reckoned among the gandharvas or celestial choristers, and celebrated as musicians. Kiṁnara virtues are said to include possession of jewels, prowess in mountain climbing and the musical arts, and possession of charming smiles. Aśvaghoṣa seems to be referring here to this cultured aspect of kiṁnara society. Kiṁnaras, and their female counterparts kiṁnarīs, are also depicted in Saundarananda as deeply romantic and sexual beings. In 8.12, for example, Nanda compares himself to a kiṁnara without his lover, roaming about, his semen ready, over mountain peaks.

31 Ājñā, here used in the sense of “order” or “behest,” appears in the title of Canto 18, ājñā-vyākaraṇaḥ, in which context its meaning is ambiguous, perhaps intentionally so. Ājñā can also mean “deep or liberating knowledge,” and “unlimited power or full autonomy.”

32 “Crowded with elephants, horses, and chariots,” is an epic tag – i.e. a stock phrase that frequently recurs in epic poetry. EHJ points out that contrary to conventional use of epic tags in older models of kāvya writing like the Rāmāyana, Aśvaghoṣa, instead of unthinkingly repeating the tag, examines meaning to be found in its elements. Thus, in Aśvaghoṣa's writing the tag is not repeated – though a similar tag appears in 3.1.

33 The subject tat puram is contained in 1.55.

34 Kakanda, which means “gold,” is given in the Monier-Williams dictionary as the name of a king. Kuśāmba, son of Kuśa (a different Kuśa from the Kuśa referred to in 1.26), was the founder of the ancient city of Kauśāmbī (now represented by the village of Kosam, on the Jumna, near Allahabad).

35 Aśvaghoṣa would seem to be referring to the sons of Yayāti as good examples for the modesty, or lack of personal ambition, which four of King Yayāti's five sons demonstrated when they refused his request to trade their youth with him. The fifth son, Puru, agreed to Yayāti's bargain and became the King's successor.






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