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Buddhist Non-canonical Literature: Milindapanha

Updated on August 1, 2015
Vinaya Ghimire profile image

Vinaya is the author of "Amazing Alphabet" and "People's War in Nepal: Songs and Narratives From the Frontline."

The Buddha and the Bodhisattvas
The Buddha and the Bodhisattvas | Source

The Buddha and Buddhism

Siddhartha Gautama is the historical Buddha who was born in 623 Before Common Era, in Lumbini, Nepal. However, there are five main Buddhas in the Buddhist theologies. The Five Buddhas are:

  1. Vairochana
  2. Ratnasambhava
  3. Amitabha
  4. Amoghsiddhi
  5. Aksobhya

As stated above, there are five Buddhas. The five Buddhas are associated with five psychosomatic constituents.

  1. Vairochana is Corporeality
  2. Ratnasambhava is Feeling
  3. Amitabha is Sensation
  4. Amoghsiddhi Motivation
  5. Aksobhya is Consciousness

Apart from the five Buddhas, there are four Goddesses in Buddhism. The four Goddesses symbolize four materiality functions.

  1. Lochana (relates to solidification)
  2. Mamaksi (relates to cohesion)
  3. Pandaravasini (relates to temperature)
  4. Tara (relates to Motion)

Eyes of Truth: The Buddha's eyes painted on Swyambhu Monastry in Kathmandu
Eyes of Truth: The Buddha's eyes painted on Swyambhu Monastry in Kathmandu | Source

“As long as you understand beauty to be beautiful, ugliness will exist,” said the Buddha.

The Buddhist Scriptures

When the Buddha spoke to his followers, he wanted to illustrate the duality of human existence. The aforementioned quote emphasizes that different emotions and various phenomena are the two faces of the same reality. Buddhism is a philosophical religion there are numerous ancient Buddhist literature.

Buddhist Scriptures can be divided into two categories: canonical literature and non-canonical literature.

Buddhist canonical literature

Buddhist canonical literature deals with the orthodox teachings of the Buddha. Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidhamma commonly called Tripitaka belong to canonical literature.

Buddhist Non-canonical literature

Non-canonical literature is the interpretation of canonical literature. Canonical literature is believed to be the collection of Buddha’s actual words, whereas non-canonical literature is the discourse on the Buddha and Buddhism as interpreted by the Buddhist monks such as Nagarjuna (1st/2nd century Common Era), Buddhaghosa (5th century CE) etc.


The Buddhist Scripture: Milindapanha

Amongst the non-canonical Buddhist texts Milindapanha, the Questions of Milinda, has a significant place in the Buddhist literature. The Questions of Milinda simplifies the Buddha’s esoteric wisdom.

Milindapanha, whose author is not known but traditionally attributed to Nagasena, is divided into six books. The first book is a biography of Nagasena and Milinda, and their first encounter. The last book is a collection of parables and anecdotes. The reminders are more scholastic in nature. The Four Noble Truths, the Eight-fold Path, Nirvana, Samsara, the Self and such more are beautifully explained with interesting examples in the Questions of Milinda.

History of Milindapanha

Milindapanha was possibly composed in the 1st or 2nd century Common Era and perhaps originally in Sanskrit, but parts of this work have also been found in Chinese language. It is in questions and answers format, between the King Milinda and the Buddhist monk Nagasena.

Milinda, also called Menander, was the king of Bactria in the late 2nd century BCE whose reign in the Indian Subcontinent extended from the Kandahar region (now in Afghanistan) to the Swat River valley (in modern Pakistan). His coins, depicting his name and image on one side and the Wheel of Dharma on the other side, have been discovered. It is said Menander converted to Buddhism after listening to Nagasena

The Questions of Milinda excellently uses parables, anecdotes, metaphors, and similes to explore the esoteric wisdom that can be easily understood by a layperson.

The ultimate aim of Buddhism is to break the chain of birth and rebirth. This state of liberation is called Nirvana. Ancient and modern Buddhist monks and scholars have explained Nirvana. However, the most comprehensible explanation is given by Nagasena in The Questions of Milinda.

The Questions of Milinda, which was written in about 1st or 2nd century Common Era, is a discussion between Buddhist monk Nagasena and Milinda, also called Menander, the king of Bactria.

Here is an excerpt from The Questions of Milinda.

The Nirvana

Milinda: What is that you call Nirvana? Explain with examples, logic and features.

Nagasena: Nirvana cannot be explained with examples, logic and features.

Milinda: I don’t believe.

Nagasena: Is there anything called ocean?

Milinda: Well, who doesn’t know about the ocean?

Nagasena: What will you say when someone asks you how much water ocean carries, how many things live there?

Milinda: I will say you are asking me a question that cannot be answered.

Nagasena: That’s right. Though the ocean exists, we cannot say a word about the amount of water and number of living things. Same is the case with the Nirvana.

Milinda: Then how could I know about the Nirvana.

Nagasena: Nirvana has the properties of lotus, water, food, sky, mountain peak and medicine.

Milinda: Please elaborate.

Nagasena: Lotus blooms in water but is detached from wetness. Likewise, Nirvana is detached from suffering. Water is cooling agent, Nirvana discards the heat of suffering. Water quenches our thirst, Nirvana quells our desire. Food protects our life, Nirvana protects us from getting old and dying. Food gives beauty to life, Nirvana is attained because of good karma. Food discards hunger, Nirvana dispels suffering. Sky is neither created nor gets old, sky does not die, and it is infinite. Nirvana is neither created nor gets old, Nirvana does not die, and it is infinite. It is harder to climb the mountain, so is the case with Nirvana. Medicine ends our disease, Nirvana ends our suffering.

The Buddha's Teaching
The Buddha's Teaching | Source

The Samsara

Milinda: What is this that you call Samsara?

Nagasena: People are born here, die in another place. They take birth somewhere and die somewhere else. This is Samsara.

Milinda: Please illustrate with examples.

Nagasena: Someone eats a mango and plants the seed. It grows into a big tree and bears fruits. Someone eats the fruit and plants the seed again. Another mango tree grows and bears fruits. There is no end to this. Likewise, people take birth and die here. This is Samsara.

© 2015 Vinaya Ghimire


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    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      3 years ago

      Thanks for sharing this interesting topic. One can always benefit from knowing how others believe.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 

      3 years ago from New Delhi, India

      That's a good educational hub about Buddhism!

      Buddhist teachings have great influence in India as you obviously must be aware. But I have learnt more from this hub. Nice pictures and well presented.

      Its good to see you publishing after a long time. Hope everything is fine at your place.

      Thanks for sharing this informative hub! Voted up!

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      Well explained, Vinaya. The more I learn about religions, the more I realize that the similarities are more than the differences.

    • radhapriestess profile image


      3 years ago from Minneapolis, MN

      Well written article on the topic. There are people who say there were female Buddhas such as Tara and Kwan Yin. Some people look at them as goddesses in their own rite. I had a dream once where the Divine Mother appears to me and explained some of her forms: Durga, Mother Mary and Tara. Of course you could write an article on the whole topic.

    • thumbi7 profile image

      JR Krishna 

      3 years ago from India

      Hi Vinaya Ghimire, Great article. I love reading philosophical articles. Similar conversations I have read in the 'Gospel of Sree Ramakrishna"

      Good to see you come back. I have few friends in Nepal whom I could contact over whatasaap during earthquake. But I was wondering about all the people whom we cant contact personally

      Hope everything is back to normal in Nepal.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Greetings, Vinaya - it is good to hear from you. I find this hub very interesting and helpful. I like to learn about Buddhism - my son follows the faith. He, too, says Buddhism is philosophical and I can see why by reading you educational information. Thank you.

      Hope all is well with you and your family.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      3 years ago from Shelton

      What an educational experience with this hub you have.. and also good to see you hope all is well :) Frank


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