Dhammapada (The Way of Truth) Siddhartha Gautama

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Dhammapada (The Way of Truth) Siddhartha Gautama

Dhammapada (The Way of Truth) Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 50 B.c.)

A treasure of world scripture, the Dhammapada (The Way of Truth) is a 423-verse collection of Buddhist aphorisms that is revered by Southeast Asians. A store of holy writings, the text consists of three segments and 26 chapters composed in Pali, the west Indian dialect of the Buddha. The source is the WISDOM lore of Siddhartha Gautama (Gautama Buddha, 563-483 B.c.), a Hindu aristocrat born to a royal household in Lumbini in present-day Nepal. Prince Gautama withdrew into asceticism and meditation and became the founder of Buddhism. Like Jesus, he left no written record—only the oral tradition of his disciples and biographers.

Gautama Buddha rejected the idea of creating an earthly kingdom. He turned his attention from dominion and personal gain to a passionlessness and a heavenly state he called nirvana, which is Sanskrit for “letting go.” After study with mystics and sages, he developed a four-part life strategy based on the acceptance of impermanence and the renunciation of yearning, the source of all suffering. Of the sacred life, he warned men to avoid sensual women and declared, “He who wants nothing of either this world or the next, who is desire-free and emancipated—him do I call a holy man” (Dhammapada 1985, 121). His choice of serenity over aggression ruled out argument and punishments as well as killings. During the 41-year reign of the peacemaker Ashoka the Great (273-232 B.c.), a Mauryan emperor of lands stretching from Iran and Afghanistan to Pakistan, Bengal, and Assam, Siddhartha Gautama's teaching spread over southern Asia.

Like Confucius's ANALECTS (ca. 210 B.c.) and the Meditations (ca. A.D. 180) of the Roman emperor-philosopher MARCUS AURELIUS, the Dhammapada contrasts the conquest of the self with the lordship of empires. The text exhorts the seeker to strip away delusion, folly, and lies about success and prosperity and to seek blamelessness and inner control. In the first lesson, a peasant image expresses the danger of unclean thoughts: “If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts, suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox,” a cyclical image of inescapable pain (21). Gautama issued 10 commandments that forbid killing, stealing, adultery, lying, alcoholic indulgence, and the luxuries of evening meals, amusements, perfumes, jewelry, and sleeping in a bed. His warnings against mara (temptation) employ a martial motif: “Realizing that this body is as fragile as a clay pot, and fortifying this mind like a well-fortified city, fight out Mara with the sword of wisdom” (30). By appropriating war imagery, he energizes his alert to battles of the inner self.


The Dhammapada: The Buddha’s Path to Freedom, trans.

Acharya Buddharakkhita. Kandy, Sri Lanka:

Buddhist Publication Society, 1985.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of World Scripture.

Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001.