Here is a re-edited short appreciation of the Buddhacarita by Aśvaghoṣa by J.K. Nariman, which can be found in full on my Ancient Buddhist Texts website.
Aśvaghoṣa is known to us as one of the most eminent poets of Sanskrit literature, as the masterly model of Kāḷidāsa and as the author of epic, dramatic and lyrical poems. Unfortunately, however, we know very little of his life. All tradition agrees that he was a contemporary of king Kaniṣka (about 100 A.D.).
Quite positively Aśvaghoṣa came of a Brahman family and had a sound Brahmanic education before he went over to Buddhism. As a Buddhist he joined, we may surmise, at first the Sārvāṣṭivāda school but laid great stress on Buddha Bhakti and thus prepared for the Mahāyāna. As his birthplace or home is mostly mentioned Sāketa or Ayodhya, modern Oudh. But Benares and Patna are also mentioned in this connection. His mother’s name was Suvarṇakṣī (Beautiful Eyes). The Tibetan life of Aśvaghoṣa says of him: “There was no question that he could not solve, there was no objection which he would not remove; he threw down his opponents as fast as a strong wind breaks down decayed trees.”
According to the same account he was a distinguished musician who himself composed music and with his troupe of minstrels, male and female, roamed through market towns. There he played and sang with his choir melancholy ditties on the nullity of existence and the crowd stood charmed with his entrancing melody. In this way he won many over to his religion. According to Vaśubandhu he assisted Kātyāyaniputra in the preparation of his commentary on the Abhidharma.
The Chinese pilgrim I-tsing, who journeyed through India in 671-695 speaks of the learned monks who successfully combated the heretics, furthered the religion of the Buddha and were consequently esteemed higher than gods and men by the people. And he adds that in each generation there are only a couple of such men – men like “Nagārjuna, [Āryā-]Deva and Aśvaghoṣa of antiquity.”
Hiuen-tsiang calls Aśvaghoṣa, Deva, Nāgārjuna and Kumāralabdha “the four suns which illuminate the world”. The same I-tsing relates how in his time in India was read in front of Buddhist shrines inter alia a manual of sacred texts prepared by Aśvaghoṣa. He also knows him as the author of hymns, of Sūtrālaṁkāra and of the Buddhacarita.
Of the Buddhacarita I-tsing says that it was a voluminous poem which recounted the life and the work of the Buddha “from the time when he was still living in the royal palace till his last hour in the park of the sal trees.” He adds: “It is extensively read in all the five parts of India and in the countries of the South Sea (Sumātra, Jāva and the neighbouring islands). He clothed manifold notions and ideas in a few words which so delighted the heart of his reader that he never wearied of perusing the poem. Moreover it was regarded as a virtue to read it in as much as it contained the noble doctrine in a neat compact form”.
Now since the Tibetan translation also contains 28 cantos we must indeed suppose that in the Sanskrit text which comprises only 14 cantos we have only a torso. Even the manuscript of the Buddhacarita discovered by Haraprasada Shastri reaches down only to the middle of the 14th canto. [The rest was lost during the Muslim invasions of India during the 10th-12th centuries.]
And what the Chinese pilgrim says in eulogy of the Buddhacarita we can completely substantiate on the basis of the torso we possess. Here we have in reality for the first time a proper Buddha epic created by a true poet – a poet who, permeated with love and reverence for the exalted person of the Buddha and profound reverence for the verity of the doctrine of the Buddha, represents the life and the teaching of the master in noble language of art which is not artificial.
The Buddhacarita is technically called a Mahākāvya or great poem – a courtly epic in art and it is composed in the style appropriate to Kāvya, the beginnings of which we find in the Rāmāyana. Vālmīki and his immediate followers were the predecessors of Aśvaghoṣa just as the latter himself was a forerunner of Kāḷidāsa. All the three great poets, however, agree in this that in the employment of Alaṁkāras or poetic embellishment they are throughout moderate. And moderate as to language and style is Aśvaghoṣa also in the presentment of the miraculous in the Buddha legend.
We find in the Buddhacarita a considered and artistic arrangement of the material. And although the poet is at home with the older sacred texts he stands independent of them. Not that he has in any way altered the tradition; he understands how to invest with a new poetic garb the legend known of old and to lend originality of expression to the doctrine of the primitive Buddhistic sūtras. Always is Aśvaghoṣa more of a poet than a monk – at least in his Buddhacarita.
Here in a charming way is depicted how when the news arrives that the prince had gone out the ladies of the city in their curiosity hasten from their chambers to the roofs of the houses and to the windows, hindered by their girdles which fall off, and rush forward with the greatest haste pressing on and pushing each other, frightening by the clank of their waistbands and the ring of their ornaments the birds on the roofs. The faces of the beauties, charming as lotuses, gleaming out of the windows appear, as if the walls of the houses were really decorated with lotus flowers.
The meeting with the old man whom the gods cause to appear before the prince is charmingly described. In his astonishment the prince asks:
“Who is the man coming this side, oh charioteer?
With white hair, eyes sunk deep in their socket,
Bending over his staff, his limbs quavering?
Is that Nature’s course or a sport of Chance?”
To this the charioteer replies:
“Old age it is that has broken him – age,
The thief of beauty and the destroyer or strength,
The source of sorrow and the end of joy,
The foe of intelligence and the disappearance of memory.
He too sucked at his mother’s breast,
As a child learnt to walk in course of time.
Slowly he grew big and strong – a youth,
By degrees has old age crept on him.”
After the prince had on his three walks out of his palace learnt of old age, disease and death, no more could he find any joy in life. It is in vain that the family priest by order of the king calls upon the women and maidens of the palace to bend their energies on their seductive art to soothe the prince and turn him from his distressing thoughts. The prince remains untouched by the soft distractions. He only thinks of the unthinking ways of these women and cries out:
“How senseless the man appears to me
whose neighbour ill and old and dead he
Sees and yet holds fast to the good things of this life
and is not thrilled with anxiety.
It is as if a tree divested of all flower and fruit must fall or be pulled down –
Unaffected remaining the neighbouring trees.”