Fourth Buddhist council

Fourth Buddhist Council is the name of two separate Buddhist council meetings. The first one was held in the 1st century BC, in Sri Lanka. In this fourth Buddhist council the Theravadin Pali Canon was for the first time committed to writing, on palm leaves. The second one was held by the Sarvastivada school, in Kashmir around the 1st century AD.

Fourth Buddhist Council in Sri Lanka

The Fourth Buddhist council of Theravada Buddhism was held at the Anuradhapura Maha Viharaya in Sri Lanka under the patronage of Valagamba of Anuradhapura in 25 BCE, but there is a major inconsistency if this Valagamba of Anuradhapura died in 77 BCE and so was not around to patronize this Council some 52 years later.[1] Norman[2] places the life of this King in the period 29 BCE to 17 BCE which is in stark disagreement to a death year of 77 BCE for Valagamba of Anuradhapura:

The Dipavamsa states that during the reign of Vattagamani Abhaya (29—17 B.C.) the monks who had previously remembered the Tipitaka and its commentary orally now wrote them down in books, because of the threat posed by famine, war, and the growing power of the newly established Abhayagiri vihdra, which enjoyed the king's favour. The Mahavamsa also refers briefly to the writing down of the canon and the commentaries at this time

The council was held in response to a year in which the harvests in Sri Lanka were particularly poor and many Buddhist monks subsequently died of starvation. Because the Pāli Canon was at that time oral literature maintained in several recensions by dhammabhāṇakas (dharma reciters), the surviving monks recognized the danger of not writing it down so that even if some of the monks whose duty it was to study and remember parts of the Canon for later generations died, the teachings would not be lost.[3]

After the Council, palm-leaf manuscripts containing the completed Canon were taken to other countries such as Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir

The Fourth Buddhist Council of the Sarvastivada tradition is said to have been convened by the Kushan emperor Kanishka (r. 127-151 CE), perhaps in 78 CE at Jalandhar or in Kashmir. The Fourth Council of Kashmir is not recognized as authoritative for the Theravadins; reports of this council can be found in scriptures which were kept in the Mahayana tradition. The Mahayana tradition based some of its scriptures on (refutations of) the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma texts, which were systematized at this council.

It is said that for the Fourth Council of Kashmir, Kanishka gathered 500 monks headed by Vasumitra, partly, it seems, to compile extensive commentaries on the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma, although it is possible that some editorial work was carried out upon the existing canon itself. The main fruit of this Council was the vast commentary known as the Mahāvibhāṣā ("Great Exegesis"), an extensive compendium and reference work on a portion of the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma.

Scholars believe that it was also around this time that a significant change was made in the language of the Sarvāstivādin canon, by converting an earlier Prakrit version into Sanskrit. Although this change was probably effected without significant loss of integrity to the canon, this event was of particular significance since Sanskrit was the official holy language of Brahmanism in India, and was also being used by other thinkers (regardless of their specific religious or philosophical allegiance), thus enabling a far wider audience to gain access to Buddhist ideas and practices. For this reason, all major (Sarvastivad and Mahayana) Buddhist scholars in India thereafter wrote their commentaries and treatises in Sanskrit.

See also


  1. An expert is needed to comment and resolve this dispute.
  2. page 10, A History of Indian Literature, Edited by Jan Gonda, Volume VII, 1983, Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden
  3. Lopez 2013, p. 200.


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