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Tibetan Buddhist Literature : A preview of Sanskrit texts translation in Tibet

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by Lobsang Norbu-Shastri

Buddhist Sanskrit texts and other Indian dialectical literatures began to be translated into Tibetan from seventh century onwards. Since that time, enormous volumes of Buddhist texts were deliberately reconstituted in the native language. The translations include many teachings of the Buddha, commentaries, and other exegetical works of Indian scholars. These texts were translated accurately and with a systematic methodology,2 framed under the luminary Indian Panditas such as 'Acarya Santaraksita, Danasila, Surendrabodhi with Tibetan translators Kawa Peltseg, Chogro Lui Gyaltsen, San Yesede, etc. This fine work is unparalleled in the history of scholarship. This is particularly remarkable given the geographical isolation and small population of Tibet. This effort lasted for several generations, and manifests the richness and precision of the Tibetan language, which in modern days too is uniquely suited to the restoration of the original Sanskrit.3 These works form the corpus of the Kangyur (Buddha’s teachings) and Tangyur (treatises) which are familiar to many. These materials, ranging from profound Buddhist philosophy to the science of versification and fine arts, are objects of intensive modern research and scholarship. Works of great siddhas written in doha were also translated into Tibetan.

The translations of this huge corpus of enormous texts were completed under two periods viz., earlier and later dissemination of Buddha’s doctrine in Tibet. The former include the translation works carried before King Lang Darma’s destruction of Buddhism known as

  • Associate-Professor, Translation Dept., Research Faculty, Central University of Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, Varanasi (U.P.)
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the ‘early period of translationNgagyur Nyingma and the works carried out after revival of Buddhism in Tibet known as the "era of new translation" Chigyur Sarma. The phase of spread of Buddhism took place from mid seventh to mid ninth century mainly through the three pious kings viz., the thirty-third king Srong-btsen-sgam-po (617-649), the thirty-seventh king Khri-sde-srong-btsen Sad-na legs (799-815) and the fortieth king Khri-gtdug-lde-btsan Ral-pa-chen (815-838), Through royal patronage, the newly arrived religion has greatly contributed to the development of Buddhism in Tibet. The adoption of Buddhism resulted in a huge process of trans-cultural reception of a complex of cultural elements. In the wide range cultural elements adopted in this process the most relevant aspect is Buddhist literature. Translation of the Buddhist treatises on a large scale did not commence before the second half of eighth century under king Khri-sde-srong-btsen Sad-na legs. Particularly after founding of the first monastery bSam-yes (circa 775) built on the replica of Odantapuri Vihara in India and the acceptance of Buddhism as state religion this was furthered.

It was through royal patronage of the translating activities that has stimulated centralization and standardization of these processes. A central committee of translators, consisting of both Indian and Tibetan scholars, was constituted, authorized to revise old and new translations in order to attain uniformity in terminology as well as translation methodology and techniques. This committee is generally referred to as Bcom-ldan-’das-kyi-ring-lugc-kyi-’dun-sa. A major contribution to the standardisation and codification of the translating methods and particularly the terminology employed to translate the host Buddhist terms, are the Sanskrit-Tibetan lexicographical works entitled Mahavyutpatti and Sgra-sbyor-bam-po-gnis-pa, that were composed during this period by the same central committee. These lexicographical works were intended to standardise and codify the Tibetan terminology used to translate the corpus of Sanskrit Buddhist texts.


Under the auspices of king Khri-sde-srong-btsen Sad-na legs and later during kingKhri-gtdug-lde-btsan Ral-pa-chen, this process also involved revision of earlier translations and checking of new translations by the central committee of translators, in order to attain uniformity in terminology and translation methodology. Mahavyutpatti provided the standard lexicon to be adhered to, and Sgra-sbyor-bam-po-gnis-pa, as a handbook for translators, played a crucial role in the creation of the rich Indo-Tibetan translation-literature, which indeed uses a great many set patterns and phrases to translate Sanskrit. Mahavyutpatti is a systematic Sanskrit-Tibetan dictionary, merely stating the Tibetan equivalents of Sanskrit words and phrases, mainly Buddhist terms, but also terms common to Indian literature and culture in general. No alphabetical or similar ordering has been adopted, but the 9565 entries are arranged on 283 meaning-categories, ranging from ‘names of Buddhas’ to ‘names of diseases’ in accordance with Sakaki’s edition, whereas, Sgra-sbyor-bam-po-gnis-pa, is a commentary on 414 of the entries occurring in Mahavyutpatti. It states the Sanskrit term and the Tibetan translation, commenting upon and explaining the Tibetan translation chosen for the term in question. As such it gives an important insight into the translation-methodology used in the early period of formation of the Tibetan canonical literature.

Of several catalogues and listings of translations that must have been compiled at the time, one has been preserved as it was included in the Tibetan Buddhist canon. It is commonly called the Pho-brang-stod-thang-ldan-dkar-gyibka’-dang-bstan-bcos-’gyur-ro-cog-gi-dkar-chag or Lhankar-ma or Ldan-dkar-ma catalogue, named after a palace where much of the translating work was done. The list is attributed to dPal-rtsegs and Nam-mkha’s ñing-po, two translators who were active during the reign of king Khri-sde-srong-btsen Sad-na legs and later during king Khri-gtdug-lde-btsan Ral-pa-chen. So the first version of the catalogue can be dated to the second half of the eighth or the first quarter of the ninth century. Evidently titles translated during the reigns of Khri-sde-srong-btsen Sad-na legs and Khri-gtdug-lde-btsan Ral-pa-chen were added to it at a somewhat later date, but not after the middle of ninth century. The catalogue as we know now contains 736 titles, the majority of which being translations from Sanskrit. Eight of the titles have been identified as translation from Chinese. Among these titles there is no mention of translations of grammatical texts.

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These translations carried were superb and owe much to the later development of Tibetan literary works also. The translations of Abhidharmakosakarika4 translated by 'Acarya Jinamitra and dPel rTseg Raksita; Madhyamakavatara5 translated by 'Acarya Tilakakalasa and Patshab Nyima grags and re-translated by 'Acarya Kanakavarma and Patshab Nyima grags; Bodhisattvadanakalpalata6 translated by 'Acarya Lakshmikara and Songton, and re-translated by Chokyong Zangpo and Bodhicaryavatara7 of 'Acarya Santideva translated by 'Acarya Sarvajñadeva and dPal rTseg Raksita; re-translated by 'Acarya Dharmasribhadra and Rinchen Zangpo, re-translated by 'Acarya Sumatikirti and Patshab Nyima grags are some of the finest chef-d’oeuvre works. The translations almost are literal and even consisted the same flavour and flow of Sanskrit. Some of the above cited translations even imbibe better rhythms and flow than the original works. Especially, the translation of Bodhisattvavadana-kalpalata of 'Acarya Ksemendra became an outstanding literary piece in the secular field. It came to be known as the ‘king of all literary works’ and was commended by later scholars alike.

Among the Tibetan scholars, with the emergence of Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen Pal Sangpo (1181-82 to 1251 A.D.), we see the development of a new phase in the literary tradition of Tibet. Till then Tibetans mostly exerted themselves in the work of translation and their writings were mainly composed in a more freestyle, not based upon particular Kavya rules.8 But Sakya Pandita foresaw the need for a profound literary development on the basis of Sanskrit literary works. He himself wrote many literary texts bearing close affinity with Sanskrit poetry, prosody, etc., in accordance with the Sanskrit rules. He wrote Khespa la jug pai go, (Entrance to Wiseman), forming new rules on discourse, debate and composition. He excerpted profusely from Saraswatikan_thabharana and Kavyadarsa, but excluded the remaining portion, stating "...the Tibetan scholars don’t have interest at all in poetry." His compositions, especially the Entrance to Wiseman, left a great impact on succeeding Tibetan scholars. Later, with the help of the Indian Pandita Laksmikara, Lotsawa Songton Dorjee Gyaltsen translated the entire Kavyadarsa with short annotations. Subsequently, Pang Lotsawa Lodoe Tenpa translated portions of 'Acarya Ratn"a«sr+i’s commentary on the Kavyadarsa and composed his own treatise on it, which paved the ground for the introduction of the study of poetry in Tibet.

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Sakya Pandita first composed a treatise on prosody called Debjor Metok Chunpo (Prosody of a Bunch of Flowers), portraying the salient features of the rules of the art of articulation on the basis of the Sanskrit metrics of Chandovicitti, Ratnakarasanti’s Chandoratnakara, and Paingala with Jayadeva’s commentary. TheChando-ratnkara9 with auto-commentary10 were translated more than three centuries later by Lochen Jangchub Tsemo and Namkha Sangpo on the basis of Sanskrit mss possessed by Pang Lotsawa Lodoe Tenpa.

Sakya Pandita also initiated the extensive study of the [[Prama]navartika]] along with the Pramanasamuccaya. Earlier, the study on Buddhist logics mainly included Nyayabindu, its commentaries, and the Pramanaviniscaya lineage, propagated after their translation into Tibetan by Lotsawa Loden Sherab, etc., around the 12th century, and indigenous scholars’ treatises composed by the eight "Sengchen" (Great Lions), viz., Chapa Chokyi Senge, etc. S"akya Pandita received the oral transmission of the Pramanavarttika and other logic works from Sakyasribhadra of Kashmir. The oral11 and literary12 traditions preserved in Tibet reveal that Sakya Pandita composed a treatise in Sanskrit on the logic text Pramanayuktinidhi (Treasure of Reasoning of Valid Cognition) with auto-commentary, for his teacher Sakyasribhadra to appraise his knowledge of logic. This is the first ever known Sanskrit treatise written by a Tibetan scholar.

Under the patronage of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682 A.D.), the translator Darpa Ngawang Phuntsog Lhundup was sent to India to study Sanskrit. He sat under the feet of Mahapandita Balabhadra and Pt. Gokulanatha Mishra of Kuruksetra.13 He translated the Prakriyakaumudi of Råmacandra into Tibetan. This Sanskrit grammar text belongs to the new school of Panini grammar (Sarvavarman’s Kalapa was the first such attempt), in which the relevant sutras of Panini were arranged differently than in the older Astadhyayi lineage. Thence ushered the lineage and study of Panini grammar in the Land of Snow.

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In the Tangyur set of Indian master’s work the Rajaniti or Niti is categorised under the heading of Thunmon ba lugs kyi btan bcos or Common Treatises on Ethics. In this category there are eight different texts translated in different periods. Most of these texts are translated during the ‘early period of translation’, and few in the later ‘era of new translation’. The Catalogue of Tohoku Imperial University of Japan also includes these texts in a consecutive sequence. Among them three texts authored by 'Acarya N"ag"arjuna viz., Prajñ"ashataka-n"ama-prakara]na14 was translated into Tibetan by the Indian Pa]n]dita Sarvajñadeva and the Tibetan translator (Lotsawa) dPal bTsegs; Nitisastraprajñada]da-nam 15 was translated into Tibetan by the Indian Pandita Surendrabodhi and the Tibetan translator (Lotsawa) Yeshes sDe and Nitisastrajnanosanabindu-nama 16 was translated into Tibetan by the Indian Pandita Shilendrabodhi and the Tibetan translator (Lotsawa) Yeshes sDe. Thereafter, Gathaksa-nama 17 by 'Acarya Ravigupta was translated into Tibetan by the Indian Pandita Jñanashanti and the Tibetan translator (Lotsawa) dPal gyi lhunpo sDe; Shatagatha 18 of 'Acarya Vararuci was translated into Tibetan by the Indian Pandita Vinayacandra and the Tibetan translator (Lotsawa) Choskyi Sesrab; Vimalaprasnottaramala 19 by 'Acarya Amoghavarsa was translated into Tibetan by the Indian Pandita Kamalagupta and the Tibetan translator (Lotsawa) Rinchen bSangpo; Canakyarajanitisastra 20 by Canakya was translated into Tibetan by the Indian Pandita Prabhakarasrimitra and the Tibetan translator (Lotsawa) Rinchen bSangpo; Nitisatra 21 by Masuraksa was translated into Tibetan by Dharmasribhadra and Sakya blo-gros. On the basis of the colophonic references of texts, it can be said that the first six texts were translated during the 8th and 9th century i.e. earlier period of translation, whereas the later two texts were translated in the 11th century i.e., during the era of new translation.

In short, except for Nepal, Tibet is the only country where for centuries ties were kept with India through a harmonious relationship terms in the annals of history as a "Guru-sisya," "teacher-pupil" relationship.22 Indian pandits crossed the impenetrable mighty Himalayas, sacrificing their own lives on the initiation of the Tibetan kings. Similarly, the Tibetan kings sent brilliant students to India for study in the unbearable heat of the Indian sub-continent. Despite undergoing these hardships of geography, customs, habits, and cultural ties were maintained until around the 17th century when Buddhism became extinct in its birth place itself.

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Through these connections, spanning centuries, a breakthrough dimension of Tibetan literary development, both in religion as well as in secular art, was ushered in. The Tibetans even closely followed the compositional framework of gatha, Tristubha style formulations. Even the usage of every Upasarga (Nye gyur), Nipata (Tsig tÙad), and Avyaya (Mizadpa) have their equivalents in Tibetan. Thus we can feel a Sanskrit touch in every literary compositional work.23 With the translation of the Sanskrit works into Tibetan carried for centuries, it has left a deep impact on the Tibetan literary works to such a close affinity next to only Sanskrit. Not only that, the Indian cultural impact is so pristine in the living tradition of Tibetan Buddhism today that when HH the Dalai Lama’s Kalacakra Initiation was in progress at Tabo recently, one of the Indian journalist covering the Bhumipuja ceremony led by the Namgyal monks reported as—chanting Gayatri mantras!


1. Thonmi Sambhota, the first translator in Tibet, translated more than 21 texts of both sutra and tantra. See Tseten Shabdrung’s book "Sum tags kyi shad pa Thonmi’ zhal lun" Intro., p. 32

2. Tangyur Natsogs: Dajarbampo Nyispa [4347], Jedag tu tog par jedpa [4346]. Later Changkya, in his book Dagyik Khespai Na Gyen, added more rules of translation from Tibetan into Mongolian.


3. This project is being carried out at the CIHTS, Sarnath and highly appraised by world scholars. See Problems of Restoration into Sanskrit from Tibetan Sources: An Analysis, Dr. K.N. Misra, V. World Sanskrit Conference, 1981.

4. Tangyur: Ku [Tohoku 4089]

5. Tangyur: ûu [3861]

6. Tangyur: Ke [4155]

7. Tangyur: La [3871]

8. Professor S. Rinpoche’s article " Tradition of Kavya study in Tibet" xxxii Oriental Sanskrit Conference, Jaipur, 1983.

9. Tangyur Natsog ‘Se’ [4303]

10. Ibid, [4304 ]

11. Authentic Sakya scholars, Ven. Khanpo of Sakya Sampradaya, CIHTS.

12. Jamgon Ngawang Kunga Sonam’s Sakya Dunrab Chenmo, pp. 130.

13. Tangyur Natsogs: "To" [4420] Darpa mentions, in the colophon, receiving the instruction at Kuruksetra, however both these renowned Panditas come from Mithila. See Introduction of Prakasikå of Pt. Balabadra, published by Sampuramånada, Sanskrit University.) The Fifth Dalai Lama’s correspondence testifies that these pandita were in Varaasi.

14. Tangyur: Ne [Tohoku 4328]

15. Tangyur: Ne [Tohoku 4329]

16. Tangyur: Ne [Tohoku 4330]

17. Tangyur: Ne [Tohoku 4331]

18. Tangyur: Ne [Tohoku 4332]

19. Tangyur: Ne [Tohoku 4333]

20. Tangyur: Ne [Tohoku 4334]

21. Tangyur: Ne [Tohoku 4335]

22. Recently His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in an interview with Jyoti Sabharwal, jokingly said commenting on Indo-Tibetan relationship, "The Tibetan kings married Chinese and Nepalese princesses but never had the courage to marry an Indian girl (laughs heartily) because they were devoted to India as their guru," City Scan, August 1991, p. 22.


Wikipedia:Tibetan Buddhist Literature : A preview of Sanskrit texts translation in Tibet