Nepal in the Mahabharata Period, Part 32


The Holy Krakutsanda consecrates Brahmins who become Monks
Illustration from Swayambhu Purana

Mar 13, 2013 — CANADA (SUN) — The Yadava dynasty's presence in Nepal, and the events that preceded and followed.

Today we'll continue to discuss how the Nepalese text, Swayambhu Purana demonstrates how circa 14th Century Nepalese Buddhism re-merged with Vaisnavism. The following narrative is an adaptation of the Introduction to Swayambhu Purana by Min Bahadur Shakya, Director of the Nagarjuna Institute, a center for Buddhist studies. His comments offer an interesting perspective on the Swayambhu Purana as an historical record of Nepalese Buddhist tradition and practice.

'The Swayambhu Purana is one of the oldest texts of Nepal's Newar Buddhist cult. As the title suggests, its main purpose is to glorify the sacred Buddhist shrines of the Kathmandu Valley, and the Svayambhū Mahācaitya in particular. It seems that the Swayambhu Purana was created by Newar Buddhists in order to integrate the teachings of the Mahāyāna with the older avadana stories. The text has been handed down to us mostly in Sanskrit and partly in Newari versions. Most of the Newari manuscripts contain the ten chapter version of the story.

A study of the sources of the Swayambhu Purana and the way in which they are adapted shows the sophistication of Newar Buddhist Sanskrit writings during the 14th and 15th centuries. In the aftermath of the collapse of Indian Buddhism, Newar Buddhists had to adapt and localize the great tradition, which was now bereft of its pilgrimage sites, its great universities, its oceanic trade routes, and its political patronage.

When Buddhism lost most of its material foundation in India, the valley of Nepal became a safe haven for the continued practice of Sanskrit-based Buddhism. It is now accepted that a number of Newar Buddhist texts, such as the Swayambhu Purana, Gundākarandavyuha, Vrihat Jatakamala and so on were written to consolidate the vanishing tradition.

A king spending his days killing poor gazelles for no reason later
takes birth in the body of a gazelle, and is killed by a hunter
Illustration from Swayambhu Purana

The Swayambhu Purana gives the origin myth of the Kathmandu Valley and its self-existing divine light (svayambhū jyotirūpa). The Kathmandu Valley is said to have been a sacred place for practicing Buddhism from the very beginning, long before the appearance of the historical Buddha Śākyamuni. After the light of Svayambhū appeared, it became the center of Newar Buddhist devotions.

The shortest version of the Swayambhu Purana, containing 280 verses, begins like a typical buddhavacana sūtra (Evam maya srutam…). The tradition of this Svayambhū Purāna was handed down from Buddha Śākyamuni to Maitreya,and continued as follows: Maitreya→ Bhikshu Upagupta→ King Aśoka→Bhikshu Jayaśrī→ Jinaśrī Raj Bodhisattva.

A survey of the Swayambhu Purana literature carried out by Horst Brinkhaus reveals that there are as many as four different recensions of this text. The shortest recension with eight paricchedas has two versions, one in prose and one in verse. Their contents are, however, similar in nature.

It is quite difficult to determine an exact date of composition for the Svayambhū Purāna and its various recensions, given the present state of research. So far there is no consensus on the date of the Swayambhu Purana. The text belongs to a genre of literature known as anonymous literature, that is, literature which has grown over the course of long periods of time. Works of this type can only be dated with great difficulty.

Alexander Rospatt suggests that the Svayambhū text was developed and popularized in the wake of the raid of Nepal by Shams-ud-Din in NS 470 (1349 A.D.) when the situation for introducing new elements into Buddhism may have been particularly favorable.

Horst Brinkhaus observes that the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project alone has filmed more than a hundred manuscripts, and there are more still in the Kathmandu Valley. According to the findings of Kamal Prakash Malla, the oldest manuscript is dated 1558 A.D. Hubert Decleer is of the opinion that shortest version is the oldest and the extended version was created later, with some modifications and inclusions. The title Purāna or Mahāpurāna might have been introduced later to compete with the increased Hindu dominance of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Kotikarna Stories
Illustration from Swayambhu Purana

Integration of Saiva and Buddhist tradition in the Svayambhu

Whether this integrated system appeared as a systematic Hinduization process or as the Newar Buddhists' strategy for survival of their tradition is open for discussion. Nonetheless, the development of the Swayambhu Purana text shows how Hinduization took place. For example, in the sixth chapter of the present text we read:

    "The mind of those who offer prayers to the Eight Vitaragas while bathing in the Vāgmatī will be pure. They will be prosperous. They will be fit for entering Śivaloka [the realm of Śiva] after enjoying worldly pleasures. Those who wash the vitaraga of Svayambhū with ghee will be entitled to Śivaloka. Those who wash it with honey will have access to Brahma-mandira [the temple of Brahma]. Those who wash it with curds will have access to Vaishnavaloka [the realm of Vishnu]. Those who anoint it with scent, milk, and cool liquids will attain Gandharvaloka [the realm of heavenly musicians] and Candraloka [the realm of Moon]. (Decleer, p.183)"

The text can be used to understand how Newars have conceived their own form of Buddhism.

    "On this point, Horst Brinkhaus speaks of asystematic 'inclusivism' by means of which the forces of Hindu orthodoxy tried to absorb and appropriate, with the necessary twists, any 'Sanskritisation'. Mr. Decleer, on the other hand, suggests an alternative cause of this inclusivism. He says that this integrative style was adopted as auto-defensive measure from within the Buddhist camp. It is said that when ŚankarĀcārya, in the course of pillaging Buddhist scriptures, confronted a Buddhist text containing the name of Ganesh or Mahādeva, that text was spared from destruction."*

Kulika threat of flooding Nepal
Illustration from Swayambhu Purana

Author Min Bahadur Shakya's opinion is that Newar Buddhists must have prepared a series of survival strategies or policies of amalgamation – technically speaking, skill in means (upāyakausalya) – for the survival of their own form of Buddhism. The solution was quite different from those chosen in other Buddhist countries. The veneration of Svayambhū, Mañjuśrī/Sarasvati, Guhyeśvari/Parvati, and the eight vitaragas/eight sites of lingeśvaras was a powerful syncretic strategy on the part of Newar Buddhists. Besides, they never abandoned such basic Buddhist practices as the triple refuge and the various vrātas (namely, the uposadha vrāta as well as the Bodhivrāta), as the text relates.

The lifestyle of an "Adikarmic Bodhisattva" (who performs basic rituals such as vrāta) provides a strong basis for the retention of Vajrayānic traditions in a situation where monasticism is declining. Mr. Decleer observes that "eventually, the Vajrayāna became a closed system, accessible only to high caste Buddhists." Vajrācāryas became the parallel of Brahmanic priests.

However, Dr. John K. Locke points out that caste-based Vajrayāna practices, although untenable from a strictly Buddhist viewpoint, worked well for centuries in a Hindu setting, preventing them from vanishing altogether. Whereas in India and other countries, the rejection of syncretic approaches to Hinduism, along with the pressure of Hindu or Afghan fundamentalism, led to the complete disappearance of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

    "In Southeast Asia, the Śiva-Buddhist syncretism, as witnessed in Java and Bali, resulted in only Śaivism surviving, with only a few Buddhist names and symbols remaining. On the other hand, Southeast Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar abandoned the Mahāyāna and Vajrayānaal together in favor of an exclusively Theravāda tradition, which places major emphasis on the Vinaya. By contrast, Newar Buddhism survived relatively intact, preserving secret Mantra, even maintaining the language and the styles of the Sanskritic world."

King Manicuda departing for city, Padmavati becomes pregnant and
gives birth to Prince Padmottara, later anointed King
Illustration from Swayambhu Purana


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