Nirvana in Early Buddhist Inscriptions


  • Alice Collett Independent scholar



nirvāṇa, relics, the Buddha, inscriptions, Apadāna, the Buddha’s presence, Mahāyāna


Nirvana is often considered the quintessential goal of the Buddhist path. In this article, I focus on one aspect of the conceptualization of nirvana that becomes apparent through an analysis of its occurrence in early Indian epigraphy. Surveying pre-Gupta inscriptions, it becomes clear that the aspiration for nirvana has one recurring feature attached to it; the aspiration of the donor for the attainment of nirvana — whether for themselves or others — occurs when the donation is connected in some way or another to the relics or figural or non-figural representations of the historical Buddha. This suggests that the idea of being in the Buddha’s presence grew in importance in relation to the efficacy of religious practice in this period. The same ideas can be seen emerging in the later canonical Pali Apadana, and connect to developments in the emergence of Mahayana.


Allon, Mark and Richard Salomon. 2010. ‘New Evidence for Mahayana in Early Gandhara’. Eastern Buddhist 41(1): 1–22.

Apple, James B. 2014. ‘The Phrase dharmaparyayo hastagato in Mahayana Buddhist literature: Rethinking the Cult of the Book in Middle Period Indian Mahayana Buddhism’. Journal of American Oriental Society 134(1): 25–50.

Bailey, H. W. 1982. ‘Two Kharosthi Inscriptions’. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 114(2): 149–155.

Bareau, André. 1960. ‘La construction et la culte des stupa d’après les Vinayapitaka’. Bulletin de l’École française d’Extréme Orient 50(2): 229–274.

Baums, Stefan. 2018. ‘A Framework for Gandharan Chronology based on Relic Inscriptions’. In Problems of Chronology in Gandharan Art, edited by Wannaporn Riejang and Peter Stewart, 53–71. Oxford: Archeopress Publishing.

Baums, Stefan and Andrew Glass. 2012. A Dictionary of Gandhari.

Baums, Stefan, Arlo Griffith, Ingo Strauch and Vincent Tournier. 2016. ‘Early Inscriptions of Andhradesa: Results of fieldwork in January and February 2016’. Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient 102: 355–398.

Bentor, Yael. 1988. ‘The Redactions of the Adbhutadharmaparyaya from Gilgit’. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 11(2): 21–52.

———. 1995. ‘On the Indian Origins of the Tibetan Practice of Depositing Relics and Dharanis in Stupas and Images’. Journal of the American Oriental Society 115(2): 248–261.

Bhattacharya, G. 1987. ‘Dana-Deyadharma: Donation in Early Buddhist Records (in Brahmi)’. In Investigating Indian Art: Proceedings of a Symposium on the Development and Early Buddhist and Hindu Iconography Held at the Museum of Indian Art Berlin in May 1986, edited by Marianne Yaldiz and Wibke Lobo, 39–60. Berlin: Museum für Indische Kunst, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz.

Boucher, Daniel. 1991. ‘The Pratityasamutpadagatha and Its Role in the Medieval Cult of the Relics’. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14(1): 1–27.

Collett, Alice. 2015. ‘Women as Teachers and Pupils in Early Buddhist Communities: The Evidence of Epigraphy’. Religions of South Asia 9(1): 28–42.

———. 2018. ‘Reimagining the Satavahana Queen Nagannika’. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 41: 329–358.

———. (forthcoming). Women in Early Historic India: The Changing Political Landscape.

Collins, Steven. 1993. ‘Nirvana, Time and Narrative’. History of Religions 31(3): 215–246.

———. 1998. Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities: Utopias of the Pali imaginaire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cook, Francis, H. 1975. ‘Nirvana’. In Buddhism: A Modern Perspective, edited by Charles Prebish, 133–136. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Cousins, L. S. 2003. ‘Sakiyabhikkhu/Sakyabhikkhu/Sakyabhiksu: A Mistaken Link to Mahayana?’ Nagoya Studies in Indian Culture and Buddhism: Sambhasa 23: 1–27.

DeCaroli, Robert. 2015. Image Problems: The Origin and Development of the Buddha’s Image in Early South Asia. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Dehejia, Vidya. 1992. ‘The Collective and Popular Basis of Early Buddhist Patronage: Sacred Monuments, 100 BC–AD 250’. In The Power of Art: Patronage in Indian Culture, edited by Barbara Stoler Miller, 35–45. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Drewes, David. 2009. ‘Early Indian Mahayana 1: Recent Scholarship’. Religious Compass 4(2): 55–65.

Falk, Harry. 2008. ‘Another Reliquary Vase from Wardak and Consecrating Fire Rites in Gandhara’. In Religion and Art: New Issues in Indian Iconography and Iconology, edited by C. Bautze-Picron, vol. 1, 63–80. London: The British Association for South Asian Studies/The British Library.

Gummer, Natalie. 2015. ‘Survarnabhasottamasutra’. In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Volume 1, edited by Jonathan Silk, Oskar von Hinüber and Vincent Eltschinger, 246–60. Leiden: Brill.

———. (in press). ‘Translating the Buddha’s Body’. In Translating Buddhism: Historical and Contextual Perspectives, edited by Alice Collett. New York: State University of New York Press.

———. (forthcoming a). ‘Texts and Rituals’. In the Oxford Handbook of Buddhist Practice, edited by Paula Arai and Kevin Trainor. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. (forthcoming b). Performing the Buddha’s Body.

Gupta, Vinay Kumar and Monika Zin. 2016. ‘Parinirvana Representations in the Art of Mathura: A Study based on the Discovery of a Unique Parinirvana Stele from the Varaha Temple of Mathura’. In Art of the Orient 5, edited by D. Kaminska-Jones and A. Staszczyk, 37–60. Torun: Adam Marszalek.

Habata, Hiromi. 2015. ‘The City of Nirvana: Conceptions of Nirvana with Special Reference to the Central Asian Tradition’. The Eastern Buddhist 46(2): 61–84.

Hallisey, Charles. 2015. Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hardy, E., ed. 1899. The Anguttata-nikaya, Vol. IV. Oxford: The Pali Text Society.

Harvey, Peter. 2011. ‘An Analysis of Factors related to the kusala/akusala Quality of Actions in the Pali Tradition’. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 33(1–2): 175–209.

von Hinüber, Oskar. 2003. Beiträge zur Erklärung der Senavarma-Inschrift. [Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Mainz. Abhandlungen der geistes- und sozialwissenschaftlichen Klasse, Jg 2003, Nr. 1]. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

Jamison, Stephanie W. 1984. ‘The Vedic Passive Optative and its functional equivalents: A study in the syntax of the Gerundive’. Journal of the American Oriental Society 104(4): 609–620.

Jongeward, David, Elizabeth Errington, Richard Salomon, and Stefan Baums. 2012. Gandharan Buddhist Reliquaries. Seattle, WA: Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project.

Keyes, Charles F. 1983. ‘Merit-transference in the Kammic Theory of Popular Theravada Buddhism’. In Karma: An Anthropological Inquiry, edited by Charles F. Keyes and E. Valentine Daniel, 261–286. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kinnard, Jacob. 1999. Imagining Wisdom: Seeing and Knowing in the Art of Indian Buddhism. London: Routledge.

Konow, Sten. 1929a. Kharoshthi Inscriptions with the Exception of Those of Asoka. Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum 2.2. Calcutta: Government of India: Central Publication Branch.

———. 1929b. ‘Remarks on a Kharosthi Inscription from the Kurram Valley’. In Indian Studies in Honour of Charles Rockwell Lanman, 53–67. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

———. 1931–1932. ‘Kalawan Copper-Plate Inscription of the Year 134’. Epigraphia Indica 21: 251–259.

Lilley, Mary E., ed. 1925–27. The Apadana, Parts I & II. London: Pali Text Society.

Longhurst, A. H. 1938. The Buddhist Antiquities of Nagarjunakonda, Madras Presidency. Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of India No. 54. New Delhi:Archaeological Survey of India.

McCombs, Jason Matthew. 2014. Mahayana and the Gift: Theories and Practices. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of California, Los Angeles.

McDermott, James P. 1974. ‘Sadhina Jataka: A Case against the Transfer of Merit’. Journal of the American Oriental Society 94(3): 385–387.

Monier-Williams, M. 1899. A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morris, Richard, ed. 1888. The Anguttara-nikaya, Vol. II. Oxford: The Pali Text Society.

Norman, K. R., trans. 1969/1971. The Elders’ Verses I. Theragatha. The Elders’ Verses II. Therigatha. London: Luzac.

Pargiter, F. E. 1913. ‘A Copperplate discovered at Kasia, the Buddha’s Deathplace’. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 45(1): 51–53.

Radich, Michael. 2007. The Somatics of Liberation: Ideas about Embodiment in Buddhism from Its Origins to the Fifth Century CE. Unpublished PhD thesis, Harvard University.

———. 2015. The Mahaparinirvana-mahasutra and the Emergence of Tathagatagarbha Doctrine. Hamburg: Hamburg University Press.

Rienjang, Wannaporn Kay. 2013. ‘Bodily Relics in Gandharan Stupas’. Gandharan Studies 7: 1–10.

Rosen Stone, Elisabeth. 1994. The Buddhist Art of Nagarjunakonda. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Salomon, Richard. 1986. ‘The Inscription of Senavarma, King of Odi’. Indo-Iranian Journal 29(4): 261–293.

———. 1996. ‘An inscribed silver Buddhist reliquary of the time of King Kharaosta and Prince Indravarman’. Journal of the American Oriental Society 116(3): 418–452.

———. 1998. Indian Epigraphy: A Guide to the Study of Sanskrit, Prakrit and the Other Indo-Aryan Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 2007. ‘Dynastic and Institutional Connections in the Pre- and Early Kusana Period: New Manuscript and Epigraphic Evidence’. In On the Cusp of an Era: Art in the Pre-Kusana World, edited by Doris Meth Srinivasan, 267–286. Brill’s Inner Asian Library 18. Leiden: Brill.

Salomon, Richard and Gregory Schopen. 2002. ‘On an Alleged Reference to Amitabha in a Kharosthi Inscription on a Gandharian Relief’. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 25(1–2): 3–32.

Schopen, Gregory. 1975. ‘The Phrase sa prthivipradesas caityabhuto bhavet in the Vajracchedika: Notes on the Cult of the Book in Mahayana’. Indo-Iranian Journal 17: 147–181.

———. 1979. ‘Mahayana in Indian Inscriptions’. Indo-Iranian Journal 21: 1–19.

———. 2004. Buddhist Monks and Business Matters: Still more Papers on Monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

———. 2005. Figments and Fragments of Mahayana Buddhism in India: More Collected Papers. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Schmithausen, Lambert. 2000. ‘Zur zwölfgliedrigen Formel des Entstehens in Abhängigkeit.’ Horin, Vergleichende Studien zur japanischen Kultur 7: 4–76.

Seyfort Ruegg, David. 2005. ‘The Kalawan Copper-Plate Inscription: Early Evidence of Mahayana-type Thinking?’ Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 28(1): 3–9

Shimoda, Masahiro. 1997. Nehon gyo no kenkyu: Daijokyoten no kenkyu hoho shiron (A Study of the Mahaparinirvanasutra). Tokyo: Shinjosha.

———. 2003. ‘Stupa Worship as Historical Background to Tathagatagarbha Theory: As Suggested by Several Seemingly Irrelevant Texts’. In Mori Sodo hakase shoju kinen ronbunshu, edited by the Mori Sodo Hakushi Shoju Kinen Ronbunshu Kankokai, 247–258. Hamamatsu: Kokusai Bukkyoto kyokai.

Shizutani, Masao. 1962. ‘Mahayana Inscriptions in the Gupta Period’. Journal of Indian and Buddhist Studies (Indogaku Bukkyogaku Kenkyu) 10(1): 358–355.

Skilling, Peter. 2008. ‘New Discoveries from South India: The life of the Buddha at Phanigiri, Andhra Pradesh’. Arts Asiatiques 63(1): 96–118.

Skilling, Peter and Oskar von Hinüber. 2011. ‘An Epigraphical Buddhist Poem from Phanigiri (Andhrapradesh)’. Annual Report for the International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology 14: 7–12.

Sircar, D. C. 1963–1964. ‘More Inscriptions from Nagarjunakonda’. Epigraphia Indica 35: 1–36.

———. 1965. Select Inscriptions bearing on Indian History and Civilization. Vol. 1. From the Sixth Century BC to the Sixth Century AD. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Sircar, D. C. and K. G. Krishnan Ootacamund 1961–1962. ‘Two Inscriptions from Nagarjunakonda’. Epigraphia Indica 34: 17–22.

Soudara Rajan, K. V. 2006. Nagarjunakonda (1954–60) (MASI no. 75 vol II) New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India.

Strong, John. 2004. The Relics of the Buddha. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Subrahmanyam, R. 1975. Nagarjunakonda (1954–60) (MASI no. 75 vol I) New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India.

———. 1985. ‘On the Nature of Utilization of Epigraphs for Art History’. In Indian Epigraphy: Its Bearing on the History of Art, edited by Frederick M. Asher and G. S. Gai, 25–27. New Oxford: Oxford and IBH, and American Institute of Indian Studies.

Theratherigatha. Oldenberg, Hermann and Richard Pischel, eds. 1883. The Thera- and Therigatha: (Stanzas ascribed to Elders of the Buddhist Order of Recluses). Oxford: Pali Text Society.

Vogel, Jean P. 1908. ‘Note on Excavations at Kasia’. Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report 1904–1905, 43–58. Calcutta: Superintendent Government Printing, India.

———. 1929–1930. ‘Prakrit Inscriptions from a Buddhist site at Nagarjunakonda’. Epigraphia Indica 20: 1–36.

———. 1930–31. ‘Two Additional Inscriptions fro Nagarjunakonda’. Epigraphia Indica 21: 61–72.

Walters, Jonathan. 1997. ‘Stupa, Story, and Empire: Constructions of the Buddha Biography in Early Post-Asokan India. In Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia, edited by Juliane Schober, 160–192. Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i.

———. 2018. Legends of the Buddhist Saints: Apadanapali.

Williams, Paul. 1989. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London: Routledge.

Willis, Michael. 2000. Buddhist Reliquaries from Ancient India. London: Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Press.

———. 2001. ‘Buddhist Saints in Ancient Vedisa’. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 3.11(2): 219–228.

———. 2009. ‘Relics of the Buddha: Body, Essence, Text’. In Buddhist Stupas in South Asia: Recent Archaeological, Art-Historical, and Historical Perspectives, edited by Jason Hawkes and Akira Shimada, 41–50. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Zin, Monika. 2016. ‘The Buddha’s Relics and the Nagas an Attempt to Throw Light on Some Depictions in the Amaravati School’. In South Asian Archaeology and Art 2012, Vol. 2. South Asian Religions and Visual Forms in their Archaeological Context, edited by Vincent Lefevre, Aurore Didier and Benjamin Mutin, 757–776. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers.




How to Cite

Collett, A. (2020). Nirvana in Early Buddhist Inscriptions. Buddhist Studies Review, 36(2), 221–247.