The term ‘Sutra’ refers to ‘thread’. It signifies something being told in a sequence like a thread. In Pali language, the synonym for the word ‘sutra’ is ‘sutta’. This word holds a great significance in the three popular religious faiths Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism wherein the meaning remained the same but the principles varied on the basis of the vested thought process. In ancient periods, these sutras were orally transferred from one generation to another. The ‘guru’ or the leader would teach the disciples/followers orally and the knowledge was given in the form of these sutras or principles.
In the Buddhist religion, Ananda is believed to be the first disciple of Lord Buddha who recited the teachings of Buddha in the form of Buddhist sutras in the First Buddhist Council. This council was organized by the senior monks under the support of the King Ajatashatru at Sattapanni caves, Rajgriha soon after the death of Gautam Buddha in around 400 BCE. These sutras comprised of the main teachings of the Buddha imparted after his nirvana until his death. It is believed that for almost 500 years these Buddhist sutras were memorized by practitioners and passed on to the next level of learners. But after some centuries, with the growth of the Buddhist community, it became difficult to sustain with the accuracy and effectiveness of the oral transition processes of the preaching.
It was during the first century of BCE that the Buddha’s teachings were written down, the language used was the popular local language ‘Pali’ that was quite similar to Sanskrit. These teachings were referred to as sutras and are written in the form of aphorisms that could be remembered easily. The sutras in Buddhism usually start with the saying “Thus I have heard”. It signifies that they were composed in a passive manner to pass on the message that has originated from someone else. It also states that the purpose of sutras, which are in an easy to remember form, is to pass on the learning to others.
These compiled sutras became a part of a collection of the Buddhist scriptures known as ‘Tripitaka’ of Theravada Buddhist School which means ‘three baskets’. Although the original sutras are believed to be the words spoken by Lord Buddha, a part of Buddhist community (Mahayana and Vajrayana) believe that apart from the Buddha, some respected and important disciples might also have contributed to the official canon of the Buddhist sutras.
Tripitaka is divided into three categories- the Vinaya Pitaka, the Sutta Pitaka, and the Abhidharma Pitaka. According to the tradition, the Vinaya Pitaka is believed to be recited by Upali and the subject matter greatly deals with the monastic rules and behaviors of the Buddhist monks and nuns.The Sutta Pitaka of the Pali canon has sutras classified into five compilations of Dhamma namely Digha Nikaya Suttas, Majjhima Nikaya Suttas, Samyutta Nikaya Suttas, Anguttara Nikaya Suttas, and Khuddaka Nikaya Suttas. The Abhidarma Pitaka comprises of the scholastic analysis of Buddha’s teachings and sutras in a systematic Buddhist doctrine. It is likely to be composed in the 3rd century BCE and the compilation style indicates it to be a work of the disciples for effective and methodical representation of the teachings in the Buddhist sutras.