Buddhist Non-canonical Literature: Milindapanha

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 are excerpts 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 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.

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:


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

Vairochana is Corporeality
Ratnasambhava is Feeling
Amitabha is Sensation
Amoghsiddhi Motivation
Aksobhya is Consciousness

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

Lochana (relates to solidification)
Mamaksi (relates to cohesion)
Pandaravasini (relates to temperature)
Tara (relates to Motion)

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