Nepal in the Mahabharata Period, Part 31


Brahma and Indra worshipping Lord Buddha
2nd-3rd Century A.D., Gandharan region, Pakistan
Art Institute of Chicago

Mar 12, 2013 — CANADA (SUN) — The Yadava dynasty's presence in Nepal, and the events that preceded and followed.

With the proliferation of Buddhism in Nepal during the 5th Century B.C., the practice of Vaisnavism and Shaivism waned somewhat, but all three continued to be pervasive religious influences in the region. In addition, the Kirat religion of Mundhum emerged. Blending animism, Shaivism and Buddhism, it also represented a derivation of Vedic culture. Likewise, as we have discussed in previous segments, Buddhism itself is, in good part, a derivation of Vedic culture, with Asiatic/Chinese influence.

By the 3rd Century A.D., the melding of Vaisnava and Buddhist themes was well developed in North India, as evidenced by the sculpture above of Indra and Brahma worshipping Lord Buddha.

The extant art and architecture of Nepal clearly show the merging of Buddhism and Vaisnavism, and for the most part, this has been discussed in terms of the Buddhist influence imposing itself onto Vaisnava culture. But there is also evidence of the process happening in reverse: Many centuries after Buddhism was firmly established in Nepal, having developed its own strong religious identity, some sectors of the multi-faceted Buddhist faith again became imbued with an increased Vaisnava identity. One of the documents that illustrates this re-emergence of Vaisnavism in the Buddhist religion of Nepal is the Swayambhu Purana, dated to approximately the 14th Century A.D.

While we generally think of the Puranas as being narratives of Hindu religious and social history, there are also Sanskrit Puranas addressing religious topics from both Buddhist and Jain traditions. These puranic narratives describe each religion's version of creation and destruction, history of the universe, the genealogies of kings, heroes, sages and demigods, and treatises on cosmology, philosophy, and geography, etc. By the dating of these later Puranas, one can see the heavy Vedic influence on both Buddhism and Jainism. The Swayambhu Purana, while predominantly a narrative of Buddhist personalities, pastimes and iconography, still includes many references that clearly place it as a subset of the earlier Vedic Puranas.

The Swayambhu Purana is a Buddhist scripture that specifically deals with the origin and development of Kathmandu Valley. The text gives a detailed account of all the Buddhas who came to Kathmandu, as well as a narrative of the first and second Buddhas central to Buddhism.

Many Vaisnava personalities whose names are found elsewhere in Vedic sastra are mentioned in Swayambhu Purana, such as:

  • Lord Shiva, Parvati and Ganesh;

  • Kulik, the king of the Nagas, and the story of the salvation of Takshaka Naga at Punya Tirtha;

  • pastimes of Shiva and Parvati at Gokarna and Shanta Tirtha;

  • the salvation of the shepherd Gopal at Shankar Tirtha;

  • the liberation of the demon Danasur and his wife at Danaga;

  • Lord Indra helping to build stupas to cover-up Dharma Dhatu Vagiswor, placing bowl-shaped dipa over it; and

  • the prophecy of Lord Bhagwan as to how the Nepal Valley would face drought for seven years.

Bhairava, Durbar Square, Kathmandu
A Buddhist representation of Lord Shiva the Destroyer

The inclusion of histories of these many Vaisnava personalities in the Buddhist's own Swayambhu Purana is proof positive that at least by circa 14th Century, Buddhism acknowledged not only the Vedic precursors to personalities re-made in the Buddhist image, such as Lord Shiva's persona as the fanged, wide-eyed Bhairava, but many others as well. The personality Bhairava manifested during the pastime between Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva, described in the Shiva Mahapurana. An angry Shiva cut off one of Brahma's five heads, and for this crime against a Brahmana, Shiva was cursed to roam the earth for ages as the mendicant Bhikshatana, carrying Brahma's head with him. This purely Vaisnava pastime has been wholly incorporated into the Buddhist religion as Aakash Bhairav, famously taken out on procession at Indra Jatra in Kathmandu.

In our next segment, we'll look at some of the particulars of Swayambhu Purana that stand as evidence of the re-integration of 14th Century Nepalese Buddhism with traditional Vaisnavism.


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