In Buddhist commentary (from the 5th to 13th centuries CE) we find the pañcavidha niyama, fivefold niyama which occurs in the following texts:
In the Aṭṭhasālinī (272-274), the commentary attributed to Buddhaghosa on the Dhammasangaṅi, the first book of the Theravāda Abhidhamma Piṭaka;
In the Sumaṅgala-Vilāsinī (DA 2.431), Buddhaghosas commentary on the Dīgha Nikāya;
In the Abhidhammāvatāra (PTS p.54), a verse summary of Abhidhamma by Buddhaghosas contemporary, Buddhadatta.
Abhidhammamātika Internal Commentary. (p. 58) The Abhidhamma-mātika is a matrix of abstracts for the Abhidhamma, with lists of pairs and triplets of terms from which the whole of the text can theoretically be reconstructed. The passage on the niyamas is from an internal commentary on the mātika associated with the Dhammasaṅgaṇī (the niyāmas dont appear to be mentioned in the mātrix itself, but only in this appendix.); and was composed in South India by Coḷaraṭṭha Kassapa (12th13th century).
Abhidhammāvatāra-purāṇatīkā (p.1.68). Composed by in Sri Lanka by Vācissara Mahāsāmi c. 13th century or Sāriputta c. 12th century. This text is a commentary on the text of the Abhidhammāvatāra Nāmarūpa-parichedo (ṭīka) so is technically a sub-sub-commentary. This commentary is an incomplete word by word commentary.
utu-niyāma the constraint of the seasons, i.e. in certain regions of the earth at certain periods the flowering and fruiting of trees all at one time (ekappahāreneva), the blowing or ceasing of wind, the degree of the heat of the sun, the amount of rain-fall, some flowers like the lotuses opening during the day and closing at night and so on;
bīja-niyāma the constraint of seeds or germs, i.e. a seed producing its own kind as barley seed produces barley;
kammaniyāma the constraint of kamma, i.e. good actions produce good results and bad actions produce bad results. This constraint is said to be epitomised by [Dhammapada] verse 127 which explains that the consequences of actions are inescapable;
citta-niyāma the constraint of mind, i.e. the order of the process of mind-activities as the preceding thought-moment causing and conditioning the succeeding one in a cause and effect relation;
dhamma-niyāma the constraint of dhammas, i.e. such events like the quaking of the ten thousand world-systems at the Bodhisattas conception in his mothers womb and at his birth. At the end of the discussion Sumaṅgalavilāsinī passage the Commentary says that dhammaniyāma explains the term dhammatā in the text of the Mahāpadāna Sutta (D ii.12) (Cf. S 12.20 for a discussion of the use of the word dhammaniyamatā in the suttas)
In these texts the fivefold niyama was introduced into commentarial discussions not to illustrate that the universe was intrinsically ethical but as a list that demonstrated the universal scope of paṭicca-samuppāda. The original purpose of expounding fivefold niyama was, according to Ledi Sayadaw, neither to promote or to demote the law of karma, but to show the scope of natural law as an alternative to the claims of theism.
C.A.F. Rhys Davids was the first western scholar to draw attention to the list of pañcavidha niyama, in her little book of 1912 entitled simply Buddhism. Her reason for mentioning it was to emphasise how for Buddhism we exist in a “moral universe” in which actions lead to just consequences according to a natural moral order, a situation she calls a “cosmodicy” in contrast with the Christian theodicy.:
In Mrs Rhys Davids scheme the niyamas become:
kamma niyama: (“action”) consequences of one’s actions
utu niyama: (“time, season”) seasonal changes and climate, law of non-living matter
bīja niyama: (“seed”) laws of heredity
citta niyama:(“mind”) will of mind
dhamma niyama: (“law”) nature’s tendency to perfect
This is similar to the scheme proposed by Ledi Sayadaw. Western Buddhist Sangharakshita has taken up Mrs Rhys Davids conception of the niyamas and made it an important aspect of his own teachings on Buddhism.