The work, of which a translation is here, for the first time, presented to the English reading public, has had a strange and interesting history. Written in Northern India, at or a little after the beginning of the Christian era, and either in Sanskrit itself or in some North Indian Prakrit, it has been entirely lost in the land of its origin, and (so far as is at present known) is not extant in any of the homes of the various sects and schools of the Buddhists, except only in Ceylon, and in those countries which have derived their Buddhism from Ceylon. It is true that General Cunningham says that the name of Milinda ‘is still famous in all Buddhist countries.’ But he is here drawing a very wide conclusion from an isolated fact. For in his note he refers only to Hardy, who is good evidence for Ceylon, but who does not even say that the ‘Milinda’ was known elsewhere.
Preserved there, and translated at a very early date into Pali, it has become, in its southern home, a book of standard authority, is put into the hands of those who have begun to doubt the cardinal points of Buddhist doctrine, has been long a popular work in its Pall form, has been translated into Simhalese, and occupies a unique position, second only to the Pali Pitakas (and perhaps also to the celebrated work of Buddhaghosa, the ‘Path of Purity ‘). From Ceylon it has been transferred, in its Pali form, to both Burma and Siam, and in those countries also it enjoys so high a repute, that it has been commented on (if not translated). It is not merely the only work composed among the Northern Buddhists which is regarded with reverence by the orthodox Buddhists of the southern schools; it is the only one which has survived at all amongst them. And it is the only prose work composed in ancient India which would be considered, from the modern point of view, as a successful work of art.
The external evidence for these statements is, at present, both very slight and, for the most part, late. There appeared at Colombo in the year of Buddha 2420 (1877 A.D.) a volume of 650 pages, large 8vo.—the most considerable in point of size as yet issued from the Simhalese press—entitled MILINDA PRASNAYA. It was published at the expense of five Buddhist gentlemen whose names deserve to be here recorded. They are Karolis Pins, Abraham Liwera, Luis Mendis, Nandis Mendis Amara-sekara, and Charlis Arnolis Mendis Wijaya-ratna Amara-sekara. It is stated in the preface that the account of the celebrated discussion held between Milinda and Nagasena, about 500 years after the death of the Buddha, was translated into the Magadhi language by ‘teachers of old’ (purwakarln wisin) ;—that that Pâli version was translated into Simhalese, at the instance and under the patronage of King Kirtti Sri Raga-simha, who came to the throne of Ceylon in the year of Buddha 2290 (1747 A. B.), by a member of the Buddhist Order named Hinatikumbure Sumangala, a lineal successor, in the line of teacher and pupil (anusishya), of the celebrated Woeliwita Saranankara, who had been appointed Samgharaga, or chief of the Order—that ‘this priceless book, unsurpassable as a means either for learning the Buddhist doctrine, or for growth in the knowledge of it, or for the suppression of erroneous opinions,’ had become corrupt by frequent copying—that, at the instigation of the well-known scholar Mohotti-watte Gunananda, these five had had the texts corrected and restored by several learned Bhikkhus (kipa namak lawa), and had had indices and a glossary added, and now published the thus revised and improved edition.
The Sinmhalese translation, thus introduced to us, follows the Pali throughout, except that it here and there adds, in the way of gloss, extracts from one or other of the numerous Pitaka texts referred to, and also that it starts with a prophecy, put into the mouth of the Buddha when on his death-bed, that this discussion would take place about 500 years after his death, and that it inserts further, at the point indicated in my note on p. 3 of the present version, an account of how the Simhalese translator came to write his version. His own account of the matter adds to the details given above that he wrote the work at the Uposatha Arama of the Maha Wihara near Sri-ward- hanapura, ‘a place famous for the possession of a temple containing the celebrated Tooth Relic, and a monastery which had been the residence of Woeliwita Saranankara, the Samgha-raga, and of the famous scholars and commentators Daramiti-pola Dhamma-rakkhita and Madhurasatota Dhammakkhandha.’
As Kirtti Sri Raga-simha reigned till 1781, this would only prove that our Pali work was extant in Ceylon in its present form, and there regarded as of great antiquity and high authority, towards the close of the last century. And no other mention of the work has, as yet, been discovered in any older Simhalese author. But in the present deplorable state of our ignorance of the varied and ancient literature of Ceylon, the argument ex silentio would be simply of no value. Now that the Ceylon Government have introduced into the Legislative Council a bill for the utilisation, in the interests of education, of the endowments of the Buddhist monasteries, it may be hoped that the value of the books written in those monasteries will not be forgotten, and that a sufficient yearly sum will be put aside for the editing and publication of a literature of such great historical value. At present we can only deplore the impossibility of tracing the history of the ‘Questions of Milinda’ in other works written by the scholarly natives of its southern home.
That it will be mentioned in those works there can be but little doubt. For the great Indian writer, who long ago found in that beautiful and peaceful island the best scope for his industrious scholarship, is already known to have mentioned the book no less than four times in his commentaries; and that in such a manner that we may fairly hope to find other references to it when his writings shall have been more completely published. in his commentary on the Book of the Great Decease, VI, Buddhaghosa refers to the quotation of that passage made in the conversation between Milinda and Nagasena, translated below, at IV, it And again, in his commentary on the Ambattha Sutta (D. III, 2, 12) he quotes the words of a conversation between Milinda and Nagasena on the subject he is there discussing. The actual words he uses (they will be found at pp. 275, 276 of the edition of the Sumangala Vilasini, edited for the Pali Text Society by Professor Carpenter and myself) are not the same as those of our author at the corresponding passage of Mr. Trenckner’s text (pp. 168, 169; IV, , ii), but they are the same in substance.
I have first to notice a few points as to the history of the Milinda book have either come to light since the former Introduction was written, or which I then omitted to notice.
Mr. Bunyiu Nanjio in his Catalogue of Chinese Buddhist Books mentions a Chinese book called Na-sien Pikhiu Kin (that is ‘The Book of the Bhikshu Nagasena’ Sutra). I have been so fortunate as to receive detailed information about this book both from Dr. Serge d’Oldenbourg in St. Petersburg and from M. Sylvain Levi in Paris. Professor Serge d’Oldenbourg forward to me, in the spring of 1892, a translation into English (which he himself had been kind enough to make) from a translation into Russian by Mr. Ivanovsky, of the Chinese Introduction, and of various episodes in the Chinese which seemed to differ from the Pali. This very valuable aid to the interpretation of the Milinda, which the unselfish courtesy of these two Russian scholars intended thus to place at my disposal, was most unfortunately lost in the post; and I have only been able to gather from a personal interview with Professor d’Oldenbourg that the Introduction was a sort of Gataka story in which the Buddha appeared as a white elephant. By a curious coincidence this regrettable loss has been since made good by the work of two French scholars. Mons. Sylvain Levi forwarded to the Ninth International Congress of Orientalists, held in London in the autumn of 1892, a careful study on the subject by M. Edouard Specht, preceded by an introductory essay by himself.
It appears from this paper, which excited much interest when it was read, that there are, not one, but two separate and distinct works extant in China under the name of Na-sien Pikhiu Kin, the one inserted in the Korean collection made in that country in 1010 A.D, and the other printed in the collection of Buddhist books published under the Sung in l9. Neither the date nor the author of either version seems to be known, but Mr. Bunyiu Nanjio states of his work, which is probably one of the two, that it was composed between 317 and 420 A. D.1 The Korean book gives much less of the matter contained in our books II and III than the later work in the Sung collection, the former containing only 13,752 characters while the latter has 22,657. In the matter of the order of the questions also the later of the two Chinese books follows much more closely the order found in the present translation than does the work found in the Korean collection.
This paper has since been published in the Proceedings of the Congress, and it gives translations of several episodes on questions in which the Chinese is said to throw light on the Pali. Both M. Specht and M. Sylvain Levi seem to think that the two Chinese books were translations of older recensions of the work than the one preserved in Pali. This argument does not seem to me, as at present advised, at all certain. It by no means follows that a shorter recension, merely because it is shorter, must necessarily be older than a longer one. It is quite as possible that the longer one gave rise to the shorter ones.
The story of a discussion between Nagasena and Milinda is no doubt, if the arguments in the Introduction to Part I are of any avail, an historical romance with an ethical tendency. In constant repetition, after it had become popular, it is precisely those parts which do not appeal so easily to the popular ear (because they deal, not with ordinary puzzles, but with dilemmas or with the higher mysteries of Arahatship), that would be naturally omitted. I do not go so far as to say that it must have been so. But I venture to think that for a critical judgment as to the comparative dates of the three works on the same subject, now known to exist, we must wait till translations of the whole of the two independent Chinese versions are before us. And further that the arguments must then turn on quite other considerations than the very ambiguous conclusions to be drawn merely from the length or shortness of the different treatment in each case. It is very much to be hoped therefore that M. Specht will soon give us complete versions of the two Chinese works in question.
At present it can only be said that we have a very pretty puzzle propounded to us, a puzzle much more difficult to solve than those which king Milinda put to Nagasena the sage. If the shorter version (or rather paraphrase, for it does not seem to be a version at all in our modern sense)—that from the Korea—be really the original, how comes it that the other Chinese book, included in a collection made two centuries later, should happen to differ from it in the precise parts in which it, the supposed original, differs from the Pali? Surely the only probable hypothesis would be that of the Chinese books, both working on the same original, the later is more exact than the earlier: and that we simply have here one more instance of an already well-known characteristic of Chinese reproductions of Indian books—namely, that the later version is more accurate than the older one. The later a Chinese ‘translation’ the better, in the few cases where comparison is possible, it has proved to be (that is, the nearer to our idea of what a translation should be); and Tibetan versions are better, as a rule, than the best of the Chinese.
Since the publication of this very interesting paper, M. Sylvain Levi has had the great kindness to send me an advance proof of a more complete paper, to be published in Paris, in which M. Specht and himself have made a detailed analysis of the three versions setting out over against’ the English translation of each question (as contained in the first volume of the present work) the translations of it as they appear in each of the Chinese versions. I have not been able by a study of this analysis to add anything to the admirable summary of the conclusions as to the relations of these two books to one another and to the Pali which are given by M. Specht in his article in the Proceedings of the Ninth Congress. The later version is throughout much nearer to the Pali; but neither of the two give more than a small portion of it, the earlier does not seem to go much further than our Volume I, page 99 (just where the Pali has the remark, ‘Here end the questions of king Milinda’), and the later, though it goes beyond this point, apparently stops at Volume I, page I 14.
These details are of importance for the decision of the critical question of the history of the Milinda. The book starts with an elaborate and very skilful introduction, giving first an account of the way in which Nagasena and Milinda had met in a previous birth, then the life history, in order, of each of them in this birth, then the account of how they met. Throughout the whole story the attention is constantly directed to the very great ability of the two disputants, and to the fact that they had been specially prepared through their whole existence for this great encounter, which was to be of the first importance for religion and for the world. This introductory story occupies in my translation thirty-nine pages. Is it likely that so stately an entrance hall should have really been built to lead only into one or two small rooms?—to two chapters occupying only sixty pages more? Is it not more probable that the original architect had a better sense of proportion? As an Introduction to the book as we have it in these volumes the story told in those thirty-nine pages is very much in place; as an Introduction to the first two chapters only, or to the first two and a portion of the third, it is quite incongruous. And accordingly we find in the very beginning of the Introduction a kind of table of contents in which the shape of the whole book, as we have it here, is foreshadowed in detail, and in due proportion. This will have to be taken into account when, with full translations of the two Chinese books before us, we shall have to consider whether they are really copies of the original statue, or whether they are interesting fragments.
I ought not to close this reference to the labours of MM. Levi and Specht without calling attention to a slip of the pen in one expression used by M. Sylvain Levi regarding the Milinda’. He says, ‘La science ne connaissait jusqu’ici de cet ouvrage qu’un texte ecrit en Pali et incorpore duns le canon Singhalais?’ Now there is, accurately speaking, no such thing as a Sinhalese canon of the Buddhist Scriptures, any more than there is a French or an English canon of the Christian Scriptures. The canon of the three Pitakas, settled in the valley of the Ganges (probably at Patna in the time of Asoka), has been adhered to, it is true, in Ceylon, Burma, and Siam. But it cannot properly be called either a Ceylonese or a Burmese or a Siamese canon. In that canon the Milinda was never incorporated. And not only so, but the expression used clearly implies that there is some other canon. Now there has never been any other canon of the Buddhist Scriptures besides this one of the three Pitakas. Many Buddhist books, not incorporated in the canon, have been composed in different languages—Pall, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese, Sinhalese, Burmese, Siamese, &c.—but no new canon, it the European meaning of the phrase, has ever been formed.
One meets occasionally, no doubt, in European books on Buddhism allusions or references to a later canon supposed to have been settled at the Council of Kanishka. The blunder originated, I believe, with Mr. Beal. But in the only account of that Council which we possess, that of Yuan Thsang’, there is no mention at all of any new canon having been settled. The account is long and detailed. An occurrence of so extreme an importance would scarcely have escaped the notice of the Chinese writer. But throughout the account the canonicity of the three Pitakas is simply taken for granted. The members of the Council were chosen exclusively from those who knew the three Pitakas, and the work they performed was the composition of three books—the Upadesa, the Vinaya Vibhasha, and the Abhidharma Vibhasha. The words which follow in the Chinese have been differently interpreted by the European translators. Julien says:
‘They (the members of the Council) thoroughly explained the three Pitakas, and thus placed them above all the books of antiquity.
Beal, on the other hand, renders:
‘Which (namely, which three books) thoroughly explained the three Pitakas. There was no work of antiquity to be compared with (placed above) their productions.
It is immaterial which version best conveys the meaning of the original. They both clearly show that, in the view of Yuan Thsang, the Council of Kanishka did not establish any new canon. Since that time the rulers of China, Japan, and Tibet have from time to time published collections of Buddhist books. But none of these collections even purports to be a canon of the Scriptures. They contain works of very various, and some quite modern, ages and authors: and can no more be regarded as a Canon of the Buddhist Scriptures than Migne’s voluminous collection of Christian books can be called a new canon of the Christian Scriptures.
This was already pointed out in my little manual, ‘Buddhism,’ published in 1877, and it is a pity that references in subsequent books to a supposed canon settled at Kanishka’s Council have still perpetuated the blunder. M. Sylvain Levi, for whose genius and scholarship I have the profoundest respect, does not actually say that there was such a canon; but his words must lead readers, ignorant of the facts, to imply that there was one.
I have also to add that M. Barth has called attention1 to the fact that M. Sylvain Levi has added another service to those already mentioned as rendered by him to the interpretation of the Milinda, by a discussion of the reference to our book in the Abhidharma-kosa-vyakhya, referred to in my previous Introduction, p. xxvi. This discussion was published in a periodical I have not seen. But it seems that M. Levi, with the help of two Chinese translations, has been able to show that the citation is not only in the commentary, but also in the text, of Vasubandhu’s work. M. Leon Feer has been kind enough to send me the actual words of the reference, and they will be found published in the ‘Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society’ for 1891, p. 476.
Professor Serge d’Oldenbourg has also been good enough to point out to me that the two Cambridge MSS. of Kshemendra’s Bodhisattvavadana-kalpalata read Milinda (not Milinda as given by Rajendra Lal Mitra3) as the name of the king referred to in the 57th Avadana, the Stupavadana. I had not noticed this reference to the character in our historical romance. It comes in quite incidentally, the Buddha prophesying to Indra that a king Milinda would erect a stupa at Pataligrama. There is no allusion to our book, and the passage is only interesting as showing that the memory of king Milinda still survived in India at the time when Kshemendra wrote in the eleventh century A. D.
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