Dhammapada: Wisdom of the Buddha

Translated by Harischandra Kaviratna

First Edition copyright © 1980 by Theosophical University Press (print version also available). Electronic version ISBN 978-1-55700-132-0. All rights reserved. This edition may be downloaded free of charge for personal use. Except for brief excerpts, no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted for commercial or other use in any form without the prior permission of Theosophical University Press. For ease of searching, words are not accented in this version.


Illustration of Palm Leaf Manuscript

small photo of the Buddha

I can imagine no scholar in this country or elsewhere, who could produce a better rendition of Dhammapadam than Dr. Harischandra Kaviratna. Early in life he acquired a knowledge of Sanskrit, Prakrit, Magadhi, Hindi, English, German, Latin, and other languages and arts. Dr. Kaviratna has contributed immensely to our Sinhala literature on a multiplicity of subjects such as Yoga, Indian philosophy, Mahayana, Theravada, Zen, Tantrikism, Peruvian and Mayan cultures, pre-Christian European cultures, and Egyptology. The present version of Dhammapadam is a verbatim translation which has carefully preserved the true spirit of Buddha's very word. This anthology may be regarded as a Buddhist encyclopaedia in miniature.
— Rt. Ven. G. Punnasara Maha Thero, Spiritual Instructor, Government Central College, Madamba, Sri Lanka

Palm Leaf Manuscript

Photo: Courtesy of K. D. Paranavitana, Assistant Archivist, Department of National Archives, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Photo of Palm Leaf Manuscript

Outer wooden covers ("Kamba") and the first and last pages of the Pali text of the Dhammapada in Sinhalese characters. This palm leaf manuscript (17 1/2" x 2 1/2") is believed to be the oldest extant copy of the scripture.

The upper cover depicts the Bodhi tree in green, under which the mendicant Gautama is said to have attained supreme enlightenment, and eight stupas colored amber against a red background. The lower cover shows a relic casket and two stupas beside the Sri Pada Mountain with the Buddha's footprint, and portrays also the Great Passing of the Buddha into Parinirvana.


Buddhist tradition has it that shortly after the passing away of the Lord Buddha five hundred of his Arhats and disciples, led by Kasyapa, met in council at Rajagaha for the purpose of recalling to mind the truths they had received from their beloved Teacher during the forty-five years of his ministry. Their hope was to implant the salient principles of his message so firmly in memory that they would become a lasting impetus to moral and spiritual conduct, not alone for themselves and the brethren in distant parts of the land, but likewise for all future disciples who would seek to follow in the footsteps of the Awakened One.

With the Teacher no longer among them, the monks found themselves with the responsibility of handing on the teaching and discipline of the Order as faithfully as possible. Having no written texts to rely on, they did as their forebears had before them and prepared their discourses "for recitation," that is, basic themes were repeated with variations in order to impress the ideas on their hearers. At that time, according to the Sinhalese, the Dhammapada was orally assembled from the sayings of Gautama given on some three hundred different occasions. Put in verse form the couplets contrast the vanity of hypocrisy, false pride, heedlessness, and selfish desire with the virtues of truthfulness, modesty, vigilance, and self-abnegation. The admonitions are age-old, yet they strike home today, their austerity of purpose fittingly relieved by gentle humor and earthy simile.

Subsequently, several renditions of the Dhammapada in the Sanskrit and Chinese languages came into circulation; likewise, a number of stanzas are to be found almost verbatim in other texts of the canonical literature, testifying to the esteem in which its content was anciently held. Since first collated, the Dhammapada has become one of the best loved of Buddhist scriptures, recited daily by millions of devotees who chant its verses in Pali or in their native dialect.

It was inevitable that differences in interpretation of teaching as well as of disciplinary practices would arise, with the result that about a century after the First Council was held a second gathering was called to affirm the purity of the doctrine. It was at this Second Council that the Arhats divided into two main streams, namely, the Mahasanghika or "Great Assembly" and the Theravada or "Doctrine of Elders." These gradually developed into the Mahayana or Northern School of Buddhism espoused chiefly in India, Tibet, China, and later Japan, and the Hinayana or Southern School whose stronghold is Sri Lanka, Burma, and the countries of Southeast Asia.

The range of Buddhist literature is vast, and much is made of the difference in emphasis between the Mahayana and the Hinayana: Mahayana or the "great way or vehicle" is the large "ferryboat" or fuller doctrine of the Lord Buddha that will ferry all beings across the ocean of births and deaths to the "other shore"; Hinayana or "incomplete or deficient way or vehicle" is, the Mahayanists say in contempt, the "ferryboat" of inferior quality because it contains less of the vital essence of the Master's wisdom. The Theravadins, the largest branch of Southern Buddhism, repudiate the title, and never refer to themselves as Hinayanists, because they hold that as the Pali Canon represents the oldest records of Buddha's life and message they are closer to the source than are the later and more elaborate doctrines of the Mahayanists. In fact, the Theravadins reverently state that the Dhammapada preserves the buddhavacana or "word of Buddha." Without doubt it carries the spirit of the Master's teaching, but there is no firm assurance that the Pali texts represent the most primitive Canon, for there appears to have been more than one collection of scriptures at a very early stage, from which both Pali and Sanskrit Canons may have developed.

With the passage of years, although both derive inspiration from the same source, the two Schools diverged rather widely. To put it almost too simply, the basic difference lies in this: the goal of the Theravadin is to transmit in utter fidelity the teaching and example of Buddha-Gautama and by the steadfast practice of the virtues to become, in the course of time, an Arhat, one "worthy" of attaining the supreme nirvana or bliss of omniscience; the goal of the Mahayanist is to become a Bodhisattva, one whose "essence is bodhi or wisdom," and when nirvana is reached to renounce it for the sake of the world and the "weal of gods and men." In this sublime act of compassion is the promise that all beings are potential Buddhas, having the same intrinsic capacity for enlightenment.

Significantly, the same character training and purification process must be undergone by all devotees, by those who would become Buddha and enter nirvana, and by those who would refuse nirvana, as did Gautama Sakyamuni in the manner of his predecessor Buddhas. But let it not be thought that because the Theravadins do not explicitly delineate the Bodhisattva ideal they lack compassion. In actuality, the power of the Compassionate One is implicit in every word and incident recorded in the Pali Canon, the Tripitaka or "Three Baskets," the second of which, namely Sutta-Pitaka, includes the Dhammapada and the famed Jatakamala or "stories" that relate the previous "births" of Buddha.

One has only to read a little in this extensive literature to feel the depth of love that filled the Tathagata. He comes through not as a god or far-off divinity, but as a wonderfully wise and compassionate friend who understands human weakness yet has the gift of inciting the least of us to noble endeavor. His very presence on earth was witness of the "earnest resolve" he had made "a hundred thousand cycles vast and four immensities ago" to join the line of Bodhisattvas who periodically fulfill their dhamma of bringing light and hope to a troubled humanity. Were this still not a potent influence in every Buddhist land today the populace would not gather in villages and groves, as they do in Sri Lanka, on full moon nights of their holy days, particularly in the month of Vesak (April/May), to hear once again the monks chanting the sacred verses of how Prince Siddhartha became Gautama-Bodhisattva out of love for all beings everywhere.

The present translation of the Dhammapada by Dr. Harischandra Kaviratna originally appeared as a serial in Sunrise magazine from August 1970 through September 1971. It has been revised by the translator where needed, and a Glossary of Pali philosophical terms with Sanskrit equivalents added.

Dr. Kaviratna, a native of Sri Lanka, is equally versed in Sinhalese, Pali, and Sanskrit, and since youth has been a dedicated researcher into the esoteric implications behind the Vedas, Vedanta, and Buddhist canonical and noncanonical literatures of both Northern and Southern Schools. It is our sincere hope that readers will find food for contemplation in this ancient devotional scripture which for more than twenty centuries has inspired in its hearers a genuine conversion, a "turning about" of the soul from the limitations of the personal toward the light within, the light that is our Self, our refuge, and our strength.

Pasadena, California
April 15, 1980


Ballads and folklore are the most precious remnants of a glorious and prolific culture that disappeared from the surface of our globe many centuries prior to the dawn of our present civilization. Embedded in age-old legendary poems are the loftiest speculations of our most ancient forebears and, although their culture vanished in the prehistoric past, we may discern its indelible impress upon the extant literature that is the universal heritage of mankind. The Dhammapada, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the ascetic poems of the Jains, for instance, perpetuate ethics and norms that were promulgated by the sages of an age that is still shrouded in mystery. Valmiki and Vyasa of Aryavarta, Homer and Pindar of Greece, Druid bard and Mayan priest, Chinese lawgiver and Egyptian hierophant — all echoed these moral values in their epics and systems of thought.

It is evident that even in the earliest dawn of prehistory men used a universal system of signs and symbols to transmit ideas and impressions — without doubt a symbol can more adequately represent a philosophical conception than the written word. Among ancient peoples, such as the Indo-Aryans, literacy and education were not considered of primary importance but merely as aids to interior illumination and religious insight. And indeed, throughout the centuries, mystics of both East and West have attained enlightenment and union with supreme Reality not through scholastic study, not through dialectic discourses, but through self-abnegation and intuitive direct comprehension. Rarely do those of great intellectual stature alone penetrate to the deepest esoteric truths embodied in the symbology of scriptural texts. With this in mind, we can better understand the conviction of the Brahmans that the sacred knowledge would be perverted when put into writing: the Vedas had to be heard.

The art of writing, therefore, did not become popular, as the emphasis of education was on the development of memory and its retentive power. If the expounder of a special branch of knowledge wished to protect his system from falling into oblivion, he rendered it into verse, to be sung or chanted; only on rare occasions did he commit it to writing. Paleographic evidence indicates also that writing, in its earliest stages, was used mostly to chronicle historic events; it was not used to impart instruction in mysticism and philosophy, exorcism and religion, for Druid bard and Brahman sage alike considered this a profanation of the esoteric wisdom. In that golden epoch of intuition and memory culture no teacher ever attempted to hand down the sacred knowledge through the medium of script. The immortal epics of poet-philosophers, such as the Iliad of Homer and the Ramayana of Valmiki, were learned by professional bards and minstrels who recited them in the courts of kings and in the pleasure gardens of the great cities where they drew large cosmopolitan gatherings. They wandered from land to land reciting the traditional ballads in order to entice a zealous following from among the curious. In those days erudition was judged not by a scholar's literary achievements, but by his ability to inspire his bearers to seek wisdom. It was customary also in every court throughout the world for a professional royal minstrel to chant the dynastic history from its beginning up to the time of the living king. For example, in pre-Columbian America, in the palaces of the Incas and Aztecs, reciters were employed who had memorized the genealogy of the solar rulers from the most remote eras.

In this way the hoary wisdom of the Vedas as well as of the non-Vedic literature of India was safely passed from generation to generation by word of mouth for many thousands of years with the utmost preservation of their purity, until in later times they were recorded and printed in book form. Even today in traveling through India, Sri Lanka, or Burma, one may come across numerous individuals who can dictate for days the great works of scripture, grammar, astrology, medicine, and those of other branches of ancient knowledge. Some of this ancient lore is still being orally transmitted, having never been recorded. In Sri Lanka and Burma it is customary for every Buddhist novice to learn the Pali grammar, lexicons, and the Dhammapada by heart. Of course, most of these works are metrical compositions which makes the memorizing of them quite easy. It is rare to find a Buddhist monk in those countries who cannot recite the Dhammapada verbatim. It is well known that even the physical philosophers of Miletus and Athens presented their speculations in poetic form. The versification of the Dhammapada was done in the Audience Hall of Jeta's Grove at Sravasti to enable the followers of Buddha to learn them by rote. Most people think that the versification of these discourses was done after the demise of the Great Master, but my own research leads me to question this.

Although at a certain phase of human culture, learning by rote and oral transmission as a mode of preserving knowledge were admired by the philosophers both in East and West, we cannot underestimate the magnitude of the disadvantages involved. Natural catastrophe, pestilence, war, or other large-scale disasters could destroy the line of priests, bringing to an abrupt end the collective wisdom of untold centuries. This is the exact cause of the disappearance of most of the spoken languages of the archaic past, before the emergence of Sanskrit, Sumerian, Hamitic, and Semitic which, according to our modern philologists, can rightfully claim to be of very early antiquity. How many languages with their literary treasures have vanished from the surface of our planet is still an unsolved question. Dialects which we now know only by name have left us no more than their imprint on the grammatical structures and vocabularies of our modern tongues.

While the age-old method of oral instruction had intrinsic esoteric merit, the ancient philosophers caused neglect of the written word, which did not reemerge before the sixth century b.c.e. at the dawn of the new intellectual epoch in India. Throughout the Buddhist canon are passages which presuppose the existence of that very ancient religious tradition known as the Vedas, of which the Great Mendicant, Buddha, had acquired mastery under the renowned sage Visvamitra, "the universal friend." Yet the source of this literature is lost in the mists of time. Although its system of philosophy differs vastly in some of its cardinal tenets from Brahmanism, any critical student is aware that Buddhism contains many of the teachings of the earliest Upanishads. For a fuller understanding of Buddha's spiritual teachings, a regard for the atmosphere in which they developed at the convergence of Vedic and non-Vedic streams is indispensable.

The sacred tradition of the Vedas was already in the possession of the Aryans (1) many millennia ago. Its mystic religio-philosophy was not only closely related to that of their relatives in Iran (where it took the form of the Avesta), but is also similar to the Eleusinian and Orphic traditions of the Western Aryans who migrated to and established their cultural empires in Greece, Central and Northern Europe, and the Emerald Isle. It should be noted, however, that the seeds of desuetude had been germinating in the Aryan religion before that great family divided.

Orthodox Hindus hold that the Vedas existed even before the creation of the world, coeternal with Brahman. Consequently, most of the hymns of the Rig-Veda are not just odes to the beauty of nature, but are musings about a transcendental reality beyond visible natural phenomena. It is said that the rishis, while in spiritual trance, came in direct contact with celestial beings of whom they sang, and whom they considered as expressions of the cosmic intelligence, manifestations of the immanent divine principle. Thus they conceived of nature as a living organism controlled by conscious, intelligent entities. To denote these deities, the poets coined a special appellative term, deva, for which there is no adequate equivalent in modern European languages. It literally means the "shining one" or the "donor." The rain, therefore, is a deva, because it gives nourishment to all life on earth. Sun, moon, and stars are devas, because they shed light throughout the solar system and universe. The Ganges, Indus, and Sarasvati are deified rivers, because they irrigate the arable lands of Aryavarta. In addition, many gods of the pluralistic pantheon once were great heroes, warriors, or philanthropists, who later were venerated as devas for their valor or benevolence.

The religion of the Vedas is neither naturalism nor anthropomorphism, neither polytheism nor monotheism, but a unique mysticism, a synthesis of religious streams known to the ancient Aryans. But when esotericism was ousted by exotericism, symbolism by ritualism, idealism by sacerdotalism, this early spiritual vision dwindled into a polytheistic sacrificial creed, and the cultural life of the Aryans became completely dominated by a priesthood. The Brahman priests made every effort to monopolize for themselves the religious hymns of the Vedas and the ballads which the Aryans sang in praise of the deified natural forces, thus arrogating to themselves as much power as possible. Dr. T. W. Rhys Davids writes in Buddhist India:

We cannot, therefore, be far wrong if we suppose they [the Brahmans] were not merely indifferent to the use of writing as a means of handing on the books so lucrative to themselves, but were even strongly opposed to a method so dangerous to their exclusive privileges. And we ought not to be surprised to find that the oldest manuscripts on bark or palm leaf known in India are Buddhist; that the earliest written records on stone and metal are Buddhist; that it is the Buddhists who first made use of writing to record their canonical books; . . . — p. 119

And so it was that with the advent of the Buddha the art of writing was given renewed impetus, and began to rise again from the gloomy limbo where it had been concealed for so long by the Brahman priesthood.

For a genealogy of Prince Siddhartha Gautama Sakya Muni, full-blown lotus of the solar dynasty, Lion of the Sakya clan, prince and heir-apparent of the city state of Kapilavastu, we have to rely mostly on the literary material embedded in the immortal Sanskrit poetical works of Avaghosha and Kshemendra. Asvaghosha flourished in the second century c.e. at the court of the Kushan King Kanishka in Northern India and recorded the Buddhist chronicles which had been handed down through oral tradition. Kshemendra, a great Buddhist poet of Kashmir in the eleventh century, wrote a poetical chronology of the dynastic history of the Sakya clan in his Avadana Kalpalata, an epic work which was translated into Tibetan in 1272 c.e. by Sovi-rton Lochava under the supervision of Phags-pa, spiritual instructor of Kublai Khan. The original Sanskrit text was lost for many centuries but recovered in 1882 by the Buddhist scholar Sri S. C. Das in the Tibetan printing establishment at Potala. The Sakya-utpatti ("Birth of the Sakya clan") of Kshemendra, as well as Pali commentaries and Tibetan legends, together give a comprehensive account of the origin of the Sakya clan.

Almost thirty miles to the south of the foothills of the Himalayas, a rolling plain extends for hundreds of miles along the Nepalese frontier, verdant and picturesque, rich in scenic delights and silent forest glades through which flow sparkling streams. In this ideal retreat Buddhist tradition has it that a bodhisattva, Kapila Gautama Muni, lived about three centuries before the advent of Gautama Buddha.

Sometime between 950 and 900 b.c.e. there reigned a mighty king named Virudhaka, lord of a vast confederation of vassal states, and descendant of the Ikshvaku dynasty. On a pleasure trip he beheld a most charming young princess and felt himself compelled to make her a matrimonial proposal, which the princess accepted only on condition that the king appoint her youngest son, instead of her eldest, to be his heir to the throne of Kosala. In due time the queen reminded her lord of the promise he had made; the king was distressed by the demand that he break the Vedic convention, but the four older sons volunteered to accept banishment. They loaded their chariots and rode towards the Himalayas whose snow-covered peaks glittered on the far horizon. After some days they reached the monastery of the celebrated sage Kapila Gautama.

The princes were well received and, instructed by the sage, they founded a flourishing metropolis which became known as Kapilavastu. After many centuries of benign rule, the sovereignty of the Sakya kingdom fell to King Sinhaharm. During his reign Kapilavastu became a center of international trade, learning, and spiritual culture. (2) King Sinhahanu had four sons and four daughters. The oldest son was Prince Suddhodana. He became known as King of Law, for he governed in accordance with the rules prescribed by Manu for righteous kings, and was loved by all his subjects.

King Suddhodana married his cousin Maya and, after her death, another cousin, Maha-Prajapati. Queen Maya was the personification of beauty and purity, compassion, cosmic love, and intelligence. In esoteric schools she was considered the materialization of a divine vision: Queen Maya had all the virtues to become the mother of the universal Lord of Compassion, and yet after several years of married life the royal couple had not been blessed with a child. The account of the annunciation of the Sakya prince who was to become Buddha, known to every Buddhist in Sanskrit, Pali, or his native vernacular, is charmingly rendered into English by Sir Edwin Arnold, one of the great poets of the nineteenth century who spent a large part of his life in India. His classic, The Light of Asia, relates:

That night the wife of King Suddhodana,
Maya the Queen, asleep beside her Lord,
Dreamed a strange dream; dreamed that a star from
heaven —
Splendid, six-rayed, in color rosy-pearl,
Whereof the token was an Elephant
Six-tusked, and white as milk of Kamadhuk —
Shot through the void; and, shining into her,
Entered her womb upon the right. Awaked,
Bliss beyond mortal mother's filled her breast,
And over half the earth a lovely light
Forewent the morn. The strong hills shook; the waves
Sank lulled; all flowers that blow by day came forth
As 'twere high noon; down to the farthest hells
Passed the Queen's joy, as when warm sunshine thrills
Wood-glooms to gold, and into all the deeps

A tender whisper pierced. "Oh ye," it said,
"The dead that are to live, the live who die,
Uprise, and hear, and hope! Buddha is come!"
Whereat in Limbos numberless much peace
Spread, and the world's heart throbbed, and a wind blew
With unknown freshness over lands and seas.
And when the morning dawned, and this was told,
The grey dream-readers said "The dream is good!
The Crab is in conjunction with the Sun;
The Queen shall bear a boy, a holy child
Of wondrous wisdom, profiting all flesh,
Who shall deliver men from ignorance,
Or rule the world, if he will deign to rule."
In this wise was the holy Buddha born.

It was the age-old custom that the first confinement of a young mother should take place in the home of her parents, so, when Queen Maya felt that the blessed day was drawing near, she intimated her desire to go to her childhood home for the great event which the whole world was anticipating. The Lord of Kapilavastu caused the road connecting the two cities of the Sakyas to be swept and decorated, embellished with festoons and garlands. It was the month of flowers; the day was Vaisakha (Vesak) Full Moon Day in the year 623 b.c.e. (3) Between the two cities lay the famous pleasure garden Lumbini, and it was here, as the cortege paused on the journey, that the holy child saw the light of day among blossoming trees and warbling birds, while strains of heavenly music filled the air and soft breezes enriched with a celestial aroma blew throughout the Sakya kingdom.

Buddhist tradition records that as soon as Prince Siddhartha was born, King Suddhodana summoned the most erudite scholars and astrologers to the palace of Kapilavastu to cast the horoscope of the newborn babe. After examining the planetary positions, seven of the eight astrologers announced that the prince would become either the universal monarch of the present cycle, or he would retire from the world and become Buddha. Kaundanna alone, youngest member of the Astrological Council, predicted that Siddhartha would indeed abdicate the throne of the Sakyas and become omniscient Buddha to save suffering humanity. Later, when the prince renounced the throne, Kaundanna also gave up the "householder life" and joined a small group of contemplatives in the forest. It was this community of five ascetics with whom Gautama-Siddhartha spent six years practicing austerities so severe that, when near death, he perceived that enlightenment was not to be attained by this means. It was then he adopted the system of moderation that came to be known as the Middle Way. After Gautama's illumination under the Bodhi tree, these five monks became his earliest disciples.

Another who correctly foresaw the infant's destiny was the venerable sage Asita (or Kala Devala), who was spiritual guide and mentor to King Suddhodana and to his father before him. On learning of the birth of Siddhartha, the sage hastened to the palace and, observing the distinguishing marks on the child, the aged Asita wept — not for the prince, but for himself, as his great age would prevent him from seeing the child grow up to become Buddha.

As King Suddhodana strongly believed in the prediction that his son would be a world monarch, he had him instructed by Visvamitra in the extensive curriculum befitting such a prince, including the Vedas and all systems of mysticism then current. It is noteworthy that the young man was taught to decipher pictographs as well as the sign language of cave dwellers and those plying the seas. In fact, from the vivid descriptions in ancient Sanskrit and Tibetan Buddhist works, and even from those in the rival literatures of the Jains and Vedantins, we may safely deduce that the Buddha had mastered all the sciences, arts, and languages known in India at that time.

We have here an interesting parallel between King Suddhodana of Kapilavastu appointing the sage Visvamitra as teacher to Prince Siddhartha and the selection by King Philip of Macedonia of the great philosopher Aristotle to be preceptor to Prince Alexander. In both Aryan princes the age-old dream of establishing an invincible brotherhood of peoples was ingrained in their racial soul; but while Alexander spent most of his short life in military expeditions in an effort to expand the borders of his empire, Prince Siddhartha bade adieu to a worldly realm in order to establish an imperishable, eternal kingdom of the spirit.

The seventh-sixth centuries b.c.e. marked a new historical epoch in the religious evolution of Northern India. The racial intellect of the time was compelled to face two opposing psychological trends. The solution lay in the emergence of a magnetic individual who could successfully synthesize the realism of the physical philosophers with the idealism of the ancient Vedas, one who could blend the best of the old with the vigorous and constructive elements of the new. This mighty task, undertaken by Gautama Sakyamuni, was successfully accomplished by setting the "Wheel of the Sacred Law in motion" — that eternal Law which is forever valid, for the past, the present, and for eternities to come. This Law is preserved for posterity in the Dhammapada, a sublime ethical treatise of twenty-six cantos, which is to millions of Buddhists what the Bhagavad-Gita is to Hindus. Although it is not known when it was first committed to writing, its content suggests a direct descent from spiritual instruction given by Gautama Buddha. Extensive research confirms that these teachings express a universal wisdom, a rediscovery of the eternal Buddha Dharma which could rightly be termed the Sanatana Dharma or "eternal wisdom."

Dhammapada — the path of dhamma (Sanskrit dharma, a word comprising the essential ideas contained in the words truth, virtue, and law) — was compiled at the First Council of Buddhist Elders three weeks after the Master's passing. It is therefore the oldest anthology on Buddhism extant. The work consists of a systematic collection of stanzas, terse yet elegant, giving the quintessence of Buddhist wisdom. These stanzas were the distillation of various sermons delivered by Buddha to kings and queens, to ministers and merchants, cowherds and peasants, to grieving mothers, distressed lovers, monks, paupers, saints, and criminals. The first verse of the Dhammapada is a direct attack on the dialectical materialism prevalent at the time of Buddha. Mind is not a by-product of physical elements; according to Buddha, mind precedes everything that exists. Nor is the destruction of the physical body the end of human existence. The external cosmos is a creation of mind integrated into a cosmic order of cause and effect.

The Master admonished his leading Arhats not to compel his followers to learn Ardha-Magadhi in order to understand his doctrine. Therefore, when Buddhism expanded, as it rapidly did, beyond the frontiers of Aryavarta, the missionaries began to translate the Dharma into numerous dialects and vernaculars. We know, for example, that Dharmapadam, an early Prakrit treatise, was composed during the fourth century b.c.e., and that about a century later, the first Buddhist king, Asoka, sent his son, Arhat Mahinda, to Sri Lanka, where he and his disciples made the first Sinhalese version of this ethical manual, titled Dhampiya. Unfortunately, this earliest rendition of Dhammapada in Sinhalese-Prakrit fell into oblivion soon after Buddhist prelates retranslated it into Pali along with the other works of the Tripitaka in 88-76 b.c.e.

It may be noted that Pali, like most European languages, has no alphabet of its own; in Sri Lanka it was written in Sinhalese script, while Burmese Buddhists used their own characters to write the Pali text. The language used by Buddha, Ardha-Magadhi dialect, is very similar to the literary language of the Jains. Pali has the coloring of this dialect. Because in a living language terms undergo continual modification as the thought life of the nation changes, the Theravada scholars tried to retranslate the Buddha Dhamma from Sinhalese back into Pali, which has the Sinhalese idiom unaltered with very little Sanskrit influence upon it. Most of the Indian versions are no longer extant, either in printed or manuscript form, in any of the museum libraries of the world. Only a few birchbark manuscripts in Prakrit were discovered in the early part of the nineteenth century in northwestern India.

A Chinese Dhammapada, translated from the Sanskrit, was not lost; it was the first book, along with the rest of the Tripitaka, ever to be produced in a printing press and was made from wooden blocks in 972 c.e. But not until 1885 was the Pali Dhammapada, which had been lost to India for twenty-two centuries or so, reintroduced into that country in Devanagari transliteration by my paternal uncle, Ven. B. Sri Dharmapala Nayaka Thero of Batapola, under the guidance of Rt. Ven. C. A. Silakkandha Nayaka Thero of Dodanduwa, Sri Lanka.

Thirty years earlier, in 1855, a young Danish scholar, Victor Fausboll, published the first European edition of the Dhammapada in a Latin translation, with Pali text, and selections of native commentary. Subsequent renditions in German, English, and French followed, making the scripture more readily available to Western students. Later, Dr. E. W. Burlingame's three-volume translation of the voluminous commentary on the Dhammapada, written by the renowned Indian scholar Buddhaghosha in the early part of the fifth century c.e., provided the modern reader with a wealth of legendary and historic details regarding the various episodes and circumstances which led to the utterance of these verses. Were Buddha to come to the world today, however, he would probably not countenance some of the stories that accompany his ethical teachings. For instance, he did not totally deny the existence of spirit in his and anatman (Pali anatta) doctrine, but used negative terms to illustrate and clarify the state of spirit.

The volumes on the Dhammapada in my possession are mostly in the Devanagari and Sinhalese scripts, the Pali text of which has undergone very little distortion, although the commentaries and translations differ greatly. Some commentators have curious and artificial renderings, which are not akin to the streams of Buddhist and Vedic thought prevalent in India during the time of Buddha. Most of the European and Indian translators have based their renditions upon these artificial commentaries without any deep penetration into the philosophic currents of that early period.

For this present small volume, I have diligently compared the best European translations of the Dhammapada with Sanskrit, Burmese, and Chinese versions. Special care has been taken to bring out a faithful word-for-word rendition that is lucid, free of bias and, as far as possible, true to the wisdom and pristine grace of the original Pali texts.

27 February 1980
Oriental Institute
Batapola, Sri Lanka


Acknowledgment is hereby made to Sunrise magazine for permission to publish this translation in book form; to the editorial and printing staffs of Theosophical University Press for their untiring labors during the preparation of the manuscript and through every stage of publication. I have a deep sense of gratitude to the late James A. Long, Leader of the Theosophical Society, Pasadena, California, who, prior to his death, inspired me to embark upon this rendition. I am also indebted to his successor in office, Grace F. Knoche, for many valuable suggestions.

Grateful thanks are extended to the Rt. Ven. G. Punnasara Maha Thero, Spiritual Instructor at the Government Central College of Madamba, Sri Lanka; also to K. D. Paranavitana, Assistant Archivist, Department of National Archives, Colombo, for supplying the photograph of the wooden covers and first and last pages of the palm leaf manuscript of the Dhammapada which is considered the oldest extant copy of the scripture in the National Archives of Sri Lanka. (see illustration above)

Lastly, a special word of appreciation to my beloved wife for her unfailing support and to my daughter Savitri who did the several typings required for the entire manuscript in Pali and English. — HARISCHANDRA KAVIRATNA


1. This word, as here used for the peoples of Aryavarta, is derived from the Sanskrit arya (Pali ariya) meaning "noble." (return to text)

2. The precise location of this city is not firmly established, though excavations in 1971 at Piprahwa, in the northeastern corner of the Basti district on the Nepalese frontier, uncovered a monastery constructed in four stages. Also at Piprahwa is a stupa erected in the time of King Asoka (273-232 b.c.e.), which bears an inscription suggesting that relics found therein are those of members of the Sakya family, close relatives of Gautama Buddha, possibly including those of Buddha himself. (return to text)

3. The dates of Sakyamuni's birth, death, and parinirvana have been variously calculated. Buddhist scholars have used at least three different calendars to compute these dates, as well as various astrological configurations. In addition, Western scholars have employed their own calendric ways of reckoning. With such diversity of opinions, no exact date can be determined. (return to text)

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