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The Mahāvastu (Sanskrit for "Great Event" or "Great Story") is a text of the Lokottaravāda school of Early Buddhism. It describes itself as being a historical preface to the Buddhist monastic codes (vinaya). Over half of the text is composed of Jātaka and Avadāna tales, accounts of the earlier lives of the Buddha and other bodhisattvas.

The Mahāvastu contains prose and verse written in mixed Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit. It is believed to have been composed between the 2nd century BCE and 4th century CE.

Pali Canon parallels

The Mahāvastu's Jataka tales are similar to those of the Pali Canon although significant differences exist in terms of the tales' details. Other parts of the Mahāvastu have more direct parallels in the Pali Canon including from the Digha Nikaya (DN 19, Mahāgovinda Sutta), the Majjhima Nikaya (MN 26, Ariyapariyesana Sutta; and, MN 36, Mahasaccaka Sutta), the Khuddakapātha, the Dhammapada (ch. 8, Sahassa Vagga; and, ch. 25, Bhikkhu Vagga), the Sutta Nipata (Sn 1.3, Khaggavisāṇa Sutta; Sn 3.1, Pabbajjā Sutta; and, Sn 3.2, Padhāna Sutta), the Vimanavatthu and the Buddhavaṃsa.

Mahayana themes

The Mahāvastu is considered a primary source for the notion of a transcendent (lokottara) Buddha, common to all Mahāsāṃghika schools. According to the Mahāvastu, over the course of many lives, the once-human-born Buddha developed supramundane abilities including: a painless birth conceived without intercourse; no need for sleep, food, medicine or bathing although engaging in such "in conformity with the world"; omniscience; and, the ability to "suppress karma."

English translations

Jones, J.J. (trans.) (1949–56). The Mahāvastu (3 vols.) in Sacred Books of the Buddhists. London: Luzac & Co. volume1 volume 2 volume 3


The longest and most detailed ancient Buddhist teaching on governance is found in the Mahāvastu and is an elaboration of the Tesakuṇa Jātaka from the Jātaka (Ja.V.109). What follows are some extracts from this work:

'A king should never fall into the power of anger. Rather, let him control his anger, for neither a person’s interests or duty thrive when one is angry...

When a dispute arises, he should pay equal attention to both parties, hear the arguments of each and then decide according to what is right.

He should not act out of favoritism, hatred, fear or foolishness, but should hear the arguments of both sides and then decide according to what is right...

While keeping an eye on state affairs, a king should dispense happiness to all.

He should prevent all from committing violence and show that it is righteousness which brings reward.

As in the days of former kings, large numbers of immigrants came together to be admitted into the realm, so should you admit them.

Always show favour to the poor but also protect the rich who are your subjects...

Do not foster hostility towards neighboring kings. Whoever hates, will be repaid with hatred by his enemies. Cultivate ties of friendship with your neighbors, for others honor those who are steadfast in friendship.

Do not talk at great length on all sorts of subjects, but give your judgement at the appropriate time and keep it to the point...

Always protect those who live justly. For the wheel of power turns in dependence on the wheel of justice...

Do not appoint as headmen of villages or provinces even your own sons or brothers if they are unscrupulous, violent or base...

A foolish or greedy minister is of no value to either ruler or realm. Therefore, appoint as your ministers men who are not greedy but prudent and devoted in counsel and who can guide the realm. Your eyes are not as good as those of an informer, nor is your policy. Therefore, you should employ an informer in all your affairs.'

The essence of this and all later Buddhist political theory is the concept that 'the wheel of power turns in dependence on the wheel of justice' (balacakram hi niśrāya dharmacakram pravartate), i.e. that power is only legitimate when it upholds and promotes fairness, equality and the rule of law.