The five ?gamas together comprise the Suttapi?aka of the early Buddhist schools, which had different recensions of each ?gama. In the Pali Canon of the Theravada, the term nik?ya is used. The word ?gama does not occur in this collection.
In Buddhism, the term ?gama is used to refer to a collection of discourses (Sanskrit: sutra; Pali: sutta) of the early Buddhist schools, which were preserved primarily in Chinese translation, with substantial material also surviving in Prakrit/Sanskrit and lesser but still significant amounts surviving in G?ndh?r? and in Tibetan translation. These sutras correspond to the first four Nik?yas (and parts of the fifth) of the Sutta-Pitaka of the Pali Canon, which are also occasionally called ?gamas. In this sense, ?gama is a synonym for one of the meanings of nik?ya. The content of both collections, the ?gama, here: Northern Collection, and the nik?ya, here: Southern Collection, are dissimilar to an extent. Large parts of the Anguttara nik?ya and Samyutta nik?ya do not occur in the ?gama, and several sutras/suttas are dissimilar in content.
Sometimes the word ?gama is used to refer not to a specific scripture, but to a class of scripture. In this case, its meaning can also encompass the Sutta-pitaka, which the Theravada tradition holds to be the oldest and most historically accurate representation of the teachings of Gautama Buddha, together with the Vinaya-pitaka.
In the 4th century Mah?y?na abhidharma work Abhidharmasamuccaya, ?sa?ga refers to the collection which contains the Prakrit/Sanskrit ?gamas as the ?r?vakapi?aka, and associates it with the ?r?vakas and pratyekabuddhas. ?sa?ga classifies the Mah?y?na s?tras as belonging to the Bodhisattvapi?aka, which is designated as the collection of teachings for bodhisattvas.
Jens-Uwe Hartmann writes,
According to tradition, the Buddha's discourses were already collected by the time of the first council, held shortly after the Buddha's death ... Scholars, however, see the texts as continually growing in number and size from an unknown nucleus, thereby undergoing various changes in language and content ...
It is clear that, among the early schools, at a minimum the Sarv?stiv?da, Kyap?ya, Mah?sghika, and Dharmaguptaka had recensions of four of the five Prakrit/Sanskrit ?gamas that differed. The ?gamas have been compared to the Pali Canon's nik?yas by contemporary scholars in an attempt to identify possible changes and root phrasings. The ?gamas' existence and similarity to the Sutta Pitaka are sometimes used by scholars to assess to what degree these teachings are a historically authentic representation of the Canon of Early Buddhism. Sometimes also the differences between them are used to suggest an alternative meaning to the accepted meaning of a sutta in either of the two recensions.
There are four extant collections of ?gamas, and one for which we have only references and fragments (the K?udrak?gama). The four extant collections are preserved in their entirety only in Chinese translation (?gama: ), although small portions of all four have recently been discovered in Sanskrit, and portions of four of the five ?gamas are preserved in Tibetan. The five ?gamas are:
The D?rgha ?gama ("Long Discourses," Cháng Ahánj?ng ? Taish? 1) corresponds to the D?gha Nik?ya of the Theravada school. A complete version of the D?rgha ?gama of the Dharmaguptaka () school was done by Buddhaya?as (?) and Zhu Fonian () in the Late Qin dynasty (), dated to 413 CE. It contains 30 s?tras in contrast to the 34 suttas of the Theravadin D?gha Nik?ya. A "very substantial" portion of the Sarv?stiv?din D?rgha ?gama survives in Sanskrit, and portions survive in Tibetan translation.
The Madhyama ?gama (traditional Chinese: ? "Middle-length Discourses") corresponds to the Majjhima Nik?ya of the Theravada school. A complete translation of the Madhyama ?gama of the Sarv?stiv?da school was done by Sa?ghadeva (Chinese: ?) in the Eastern Jin dynasty in 397-398 CE. The Madhyama ?gama of the Sarv?stiv?da school contains 222 s?tras, in contrast to the 152 suttas of the P?li Majjhima Nik?ya. Portions of the Sarv?stiv?da Madhyama ?gama also survive in Tibetan translation.
The Sa?yukta ?gama ("Connected Discourses", Zá Ahánj?ng ? Taish? 2.99) corresponds to the Sa?yutta Nik?ya of the Theravada school. A Chinese translation of the complete Sa?yukta ?gama of the Sarv?stiv?da () school was done by Gu?abhadra () in the Song state (?), dated to 435-443 CE. Portions of the Sarv?stiv?da Sa?yukta ?gama also survive in Sanskrit and Tibetan translation. In 2014,The Collation and Annotation of Sa?yukt?gama(?<?>, Chinese version), written by Wang Jianwei and Jin Hui, was published in China.
There is also an incomplete Chinese translation of the Sa?yukta ?gama ( Taish? 100) of the Kyap?ya () school by an unknown translator, from around the Three Qin () period, 352-431 CE. A comparison of the Sarv?stiv?din, Kyap?ya, and Theravadin texts reveals a considerable consistency of content, although each recension contains texts not found in the others.
The Ekottara ?gama ("Numbered Discourses," Z?ngy? Ahánj?ng, Taish? 125) corresponds to the Anguttara Nik?ya of the Theravada school. A complete version of the Ekottara ?gama was translated by Dharmanandi (?) of the Fu Qin state (), and edited by Gautama Sa?ghadeva in 397-398 CE. Some believed that it came from the Sarv?stiv?da school, but more recently the Mah?sghika branch has been proposed as well. According to A.K. Warder, the Ekottara ?gama references 250 Pr?timok?a rules for monks, which agrees only with the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, which is also located in the Chinese Buddhist canon. He also views some of the doctrine as contradicting tenets of the Mah?sghika school, and states that they agree with Dharmaguptaka views currently known. He therefore concludes that the extant Ekottara ?gama is that of the Dharmaguptaka school.
Of the four ?gamas of the Sanskritic S?tra Pi?aka in the Chinese Buddhist Canon, it is the one which differs most from the Therav?din version. The Ekottara ?gama contains variants on such standard teachings as the Noble Eightfold Path. According to Keown, "there is considerable disparity between the P?li and the [Chinese] versions, with more than two-thirds of the s?tras found in one but not the other compilation, which suggests that much of this portion of the S?tra Pi?aka was not formed until a fairly late date."
The K?udraka ?gama ("Minor Collection") corresponds to the Khuddaka Nik?ya, and existed in some schools. The Dharmaguptaka in particular, had a K?udraka ?gama. The Chinese translation of the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya provides a table of contents for the Dharmaguptaka recension of the K?udraka ?gama, and fragments in Gandhari appear to have been found. Items from this ?gama also survive in Tibetan and Chinese translation--fourteen texts, in the later case. Some schools, notably the Sarv?stiv?da, recognized only four ?gamas--they had a "K?udraka" which they did not consider to be an "?gama." Others--including even the Dharmaguptaka, according to some contemporary scholars--preferred to term it a ""K?udraka Pi?aka." As with its Pi counterpart, the K?udraka ?gama appears to have been a miscellany, and was perhaps never definitively established among many early schools.
In addition, there is a substantial quantity of ?gama-style texts outside of the main collections. These are found in various sources: