So far the canon, almost all of which is now accessible to readers of Pāli. But a good deal of work is still required before the harvest of historical data contained in these texts shall have been made acceptable to students of philosophy and sociology. These works of the oldest period, the two centuries and a half, between the Buddha's time and that of Asoka, were followed by a voluminous literature in the following Periods - from Asoka to Kanishka, and from Kanishka to Buddhaghosa, - each of about three centuries. Many of these works are extant in MS.; but only five or six of the more important Have so far been published. Of these the most interesting is the Milinda, one of the earliest historical novels preserved to us. It is mainly religious and philosophical and purports to give the discussion, extending over several days, in which a Buddhist elder named Nāgasena succeeds in converting Milinda, that is Menander, the famous Greek king of Bactria, to Buddhism. The Pāli text has been edited and the work translated into English. More important historically, though greatly inferior in style and ability, is the Mahāvastu or Sublime Story, in Sanskrit. The story is the one of chief importance to the Buddhists - the story, namely, of how the Buddha won, under the Bo Tree, the victory over ignorance, and attained to the Sambodhi, "the higher Wisdom," of Nirvāna. The story begins with his previous births, in which also he was accumulating the Buddha qualities.
And as the Mahāvastu was a standard work of a particular sect, or rather school, called the Mahā-sanghikas, it has thus preserved for us the theory of the Buddha as held outside the followers of the cannon, by those whose views developed, in after centuries, into the Mahāyāna or modern form of Buddhism in India. But this book, like all the ancient books, was composed, not in the north, in Nepal, but in the valley of the Ganges, and it is partly in prose, partly in verse. Two other works, the Lalita Vistara and the Buddha Carita, give us - but this, of course, is later - Sanskrit poems, epics, on the same subject. Of these, the former may be as old as the Christian era; the latter belongs to the 2nd century after Christ. Both of them have been edited and translated. The older one contains still a good deal of prose, the gist of it being often repeated in the verses. The later one is entirely in verse, and shows off the author's mastery of the artificial rules of prosody and poetics, according to which a poem, a mahā-kāvya, ought, according to the later writers on the Ars poetica, to be composed.
These three works deal only quite briefly and incidentally with any point of Buddhism outside of the Buddha legend. Of greater importance for the history of Buddhism are two later works, the Netti Pakarana and the Saddharma Pundarīka. The former, in Pāli, discusses a number of questions then of importance in the Buddhist community; and it relies throughout, as does the Milinda, on the canonical works, which it quotes largely. The latter, in Sanskrit, is the earliest exposition we have of the later Mahāyāna doctrine. Both these books may be dated in the 2nd or 3rd century of our era. The latter has been translated into English. We have now also the text of the Prajnā Pāramitā, a later treatise on the Mahāyāna system, which in time entirely replaced in India the original doctrines. To about the same age belongs also the Divyāvadāna, a collection of legends about the leading disciples of the Buddha, and important members of the order, through the subsequent three centuries.
These legends are, however, of different dates, and in spite of the comparatively late period at which it was put into its present form, it contains some very ancient fragments.
The whole of the above works were composed in the north of India; that is to say, either north or a few miles south of the Ganges. The record is at present full of gaps. But we can even now obtain a full and accurate idea of the earliest Buddhism, and are able to trace the main lines of its development through the first eight or nine centuries of its career. The Pāli Text Society is still publishing two volumes a year; and the Russian Academy has inaugurated a series to contain the most important of the Sanskrit works still buried in MS. We have also now accessible in Pāli fourteen volumes of the commentaries of the great 5th-century scholars in south India and Ceylon, most of them the works either of Buddhaghosa of Budh Gaya, or of Dhammapāla of Kāncipura (the ancient name of Conjeeveram). These are full of important historical data on the social, as well as the religious, life of India during the periods of which they treat.