Fourth Buddhist Council: An Overview

4 minute read
Fourth Buddhist Council

In the historical records of Buddhism, there are mentions of two Buddhist Councils, which can be considered as “ Fourth Buddhist Council”. They were held nearly 200 years apart from each other. The first council was held in Sri Lanka amongst the Theravada monks around 100 BCE. The other council took place in Kashmir by the Sarvastivada school around 72 AD. Both councils were convened to preserve and pass the baton of teachings of Gautam Buddha to future generations. Let us get to know more about these two councils known as the Fourth Buddhist Council in this blog. 

Theravada Fourth Council

The Theravada Fourth Council was held within the traditions of Theravada values and culture. The council was held in Tambapanni, Sri Lanka around 100 BCE under the reign of King Walagamba. It occurred at a very crucial time when the monks feared that their roots were in danger.

It is believed that after a year of severe famine caused by poor harvests, numerous monks who had memorized the complete Pali Cannon passed away. Several Theravada monks were concerned that this wealth of teachings could be lost if it remained only an oral tradition. Therefore, they convened at Sri Lanka’s Aluvihara Rock Temple to record these teachings in writing. The process took around three years to finish and the outcome was a vast collection of palm leaves inscribed with the entire Pali Cannon.  Pali was the official language in which the Theravada traditions were transferred. 

Venerable Maharakkhita along with five hundred monks recited the Dhamma and compiled the Cannon.

Also Read – Buddhist Education System: Features, Role & Merits

Sarvastivada Buddhist Council

The Sarvastivada Buddhist Council was convened according to Sarvastivadan traditions. It took place in the Kundalavana region of Kashmir around 72 AD. While some believe the location of Kundalavana is not exact, others believe this council was held on the banks of the Jhelum river in the modern-day Srinagar city of Kashmir. 

The fourth Council was held under the patronage of Emperor Kanishka of the Kushan Dynasty. In the late first century CE, the Fourth Buddhist Council took place in Kashmir and Northern India within the Sarvastivada School. Kumaralata, a member of the school, rejected the Abhidharma texts’ authority and instead relied only on the Sarvastivada sutras. The tradition that followed him came to be known as “Sautrantika.” 

Around the same time, the Kushans, who came from Central Asia, conquered Gandhara, Kashmir, and Northern India, establishing the Kushan dynasty. During the reign of the Kushan emperor Kanishka, the Fourth Council was convened in Kashmir under Venerable Monk Vasumitra. The council members rejected the Sautrantika’s assertions and codified the Sarvastivada Abhidharma teachings in the Mahavibhasha Sutra. 

This became the foundation of the Vaibhashika division of Sarvastivada. Both Vaibhashika and Sautrantika teachings were taught in Indian monastic universities and are still taught in Tibetan monasteries today.

Statue of Buddha inside Aluvihara Rock Temple, Sri Lanka, Credits – 123RF

People Involved in the Fourth Buddhist Council

The Fourth Buddhist Council was attended by a large number of monks like-

  1. King Kanishka – Emperor Kanishka sponsored the Fourth Buddhist Council at Kashmir at the request of Venerable Pasva.
  2. Vasumitra – Venerable Vasumitra was the President of the Fourth Buddhist Council.
  3. Asvagosha – Venerable Asvagosha was a famous Buddhist scholar who too participated as the deputy of respected Vasumitra.

Nearly 500 Bhikkus under the leadership of Vasumitra attended the Council and again recited the versions to authenticate the teachings from Pali or Prakrit language to classical Sanskrit language.

Also Read – Buddhist Education System: Features, Role & Merits

Reasons for the Fourth Buddhist Council

Some of the reasons why the Fourth Buddhist Council took place – 

  1. Compilation of the Tripitaka: During the Fourth Buddhist Council, the Theravada and Sarvastivada traditions came together to compile authenticated and written scripture of Tripitaka in both Pali and Sanskrit languages. This collection of scriptures includes the Vinaya Pitaka (rules for monastic discipline), the Sutta Pitaka (teachings of Buddha) and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (philosophical and metaphysical analysis). The Vibhasha Sastras which were the commentaries and discussion of some difficult topics was also a matter of concern.
  2. Debates on Buddhist Philosophy: Scholars and monks engaged in discussions and debates on various aspects of Buddhist philosophy, such as the nature of reality, the concept of selflessness, and the path to enlightenment. These debates helped in clarifying and preserving the core teachings of Buddhism.
  3. Establishment of Sectarian Differences: The Fourth Buddhist Council also witnessed the emergence of sectarian differences within the Buddhist community. While the Theravada tradition focused on preserving the original teachings of Buddha, the Sarvastivada tradition introduced new texts and interpretations.

This resulted in the creation of two sects of Buddhism – Hinayana ( Lesser Vehicle) and Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism.

Also Read – Sects of Buddhism: History, Origin, Branches

Outcome of the Fourth Buddhist Council

The fourth Buddhist Council resulted in – 

  1. The written version of the Tripitakas and Dhamma were compiled.
  2. Creation of Hinayana and Mahayana sects of Buddhism within the Community.
  3. Nearly three hundred thousand verses and over nine million statements were authenticated and compiled.
  4. Usage of classical Sanskrit language for the first time in Buddhism.
Four Noble Truths of BuddhismBhakti and Sufi Movement
First Buddhist CouncilJain Councils
Noble Eight-Fold Paths of BuddhismSecond Buddhist Council
Third Buddhist CouncilHow Many Buddhist Councils Were Held?
Sufi MovementFirst Buddhist Council Was Held During The Reign Of

That’s all about the Fourth Buddhist Council. If you want to read more articles like this, you can get Study notes on the Modern History of India here. Also, you can visit our general knowledge page on Indian History!

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *