A Possible Scenario
A thousand years ago or more, a solitary yogin walks out of the Bengali jungle just after sundown and sits cross-legged under the canopy of a village banyan tree. He is dressed in little more than a loincloth. His beard and mustache are unkempt, and his long, matted hair is tied up in a bun. He carries a mendicant’s staff and a double-headed hand drum. His eyes shine in the torchlight. His reputation has preceded him, and an audience quickly gathers at his
feet, mostly young village men but some women, too. They’ve heard that he mocks the elders, teaches a way to live freely in the world, and sometimes will perform a miracle, like turning base metals into gold or flying through the sky. Older men cast suspicious glances from the edge of the crowd. They’ve heard that he’s a dropout from the monastic university, lives near a cremation ground with a low-caste woman, participates in debauched rites, works at a low-class occupation if he works at all, and is out to subvert the social and religious order. The silence of evening is broken by the barking of dogs, the lowing of cattle, and the screeching of birds; the scent and haze of home fires fills the air.
When his audience has settled down, the man starts slowly to beat out a rhythm on his drum, and then he begins to sing. His voice is untrained and his melodies rough, but his lyrics are sharp and aphoristic. In rhyming verses, using words from the common tongue, he celebrates the ecstasy of enlightened awareness and the free-roaming life, while mocking the pretensions of ritualists, scholars, contemplatives, ascetics, and anyone who claims that realization can be found
anywhere but within oneself. His words are simple, but his meanings complex and full of paradox. He sings of the sky and stars and sea, of animals and plants, of husbands and wives and kings and commoners, but in ways that seem to point below the surface. He says the mind is pure but that we have to do without it; he suggests we can live sensuously in the world but warns against the traps of pleasure; he damns obsession with religious rites but hints at mystical practices of his own; he rails against experts of every sort but venerates his guru without reserve. When he is finished, he gets up, turns his back to the crowd, and walks back alone into the jungle.
The next morning, the village work resumes as it always does, but now some of the young people, and the old men, too, find that they’ve got the yogin’s songs stuck in their heads, a phrase here, a rhyme there, which they try to puzzle out. At odd moments during the day, and even more so at night, they find their thoughts turning to the jungle, to truths that might be discovered beyond the village clearing, to the sound of that strange troubadour’s voice, the rhythm of his drum, the look in his eyes.
This is at least one way of imagining the origins of the verses translated here, the three surviving Apabhramsa-language collections of rhyming couplets, doha¯kosfia, literally “treasuries of doha¯” attributed to three Buddhist tantric masters who probably lived in northern India sometime around 1000 c.e.: Saraha, Kanfiha, and Tilopa. These men, and other extraordinary men and women like them, are known collectively as maha¯siddhas (great adepts, or great perfected ones, “siddhas” for short).1 Through the songs they composed, the instructions they left, and the stories that have been told about them they have
deeply influenced the shape of religious and literary culture in a number of Asian countries, especially India, Nepal, and Tibet. In India, even after the virtual disappearance of Buddhism in the thirteenth century, their criticism of the status quo and their celebration of a mystical ecstasy attainable through the human body and the grace of a guru helped to set the tone for a variety of later religious movements, including the sant tradition of Kab¯ır and Na¯nak, certain strains of bhakti devotionalism, and aspects of Sufi Islamic mysticism; while in literature they helped to hasten the eclipse of Sanskrit and the rise
of various north Indian vernacular languages, whose poetic traditions still carry echoes of their rhymes, rhythm, and imagery. In Nepal, they served as models, and sometimes as deities, for the Buddhist vajra¯caryas (“tantra experts”) among the Newars of the Kathmandu valley, who to this day perform rituals and sing songs that tradition traces to them. In Tibet (and culturally related areas such as Mongolia, Ladakh, Sikkim, and Bhutan), they were seen as charismatic, powerful, wise, and compassionate exemplars of the tantric Buddhist approach to life and as the crucial sources for many important lineages of
spiritual practice; at the same time, their songs became models for genres of oral and written poetry that have been immensely popular and influential, whether produced by great hermit yogins like Milarepa (Mi la ras pa, 1040–1123) or powerful clerics like the First Panchen Lama, Lozang Chokyi Gyeltsen (Blo bzang chos kyi rgyal myshan, 1567–1662).
Despite their importance and influence, the siddhas in general, and the three that concern me here in particular, remain profoundly elusive, especially to the historian. We don’t know exactly who they were, what religious allegiance they claimed, where or when—or even if—they lived, or how many of the works attributed to them really are theirs.
The most widely disseminated tradition, reflected in a twelfth-century hagiographic collection by the Indian scholar Abhayadattasri¯, tells of eighty four great siddhas, most of them adepts of the esoteric and controversial Yogini tantras, an interrelated set of sexually and soteriologically charged texts that flourished among north Indian Buddhists starting around the eighth century, and would become especially important in the “later” (post-1000) orders of Tibetan Buddhism: the Kagyu (bKa’ brgyud), Sakya (Sa skya), and Gelug (dGe lugs). Saraha, Ka¯nfiha, and Tilopa all are counted among the eighty-four, as are such
equally famous figures as Savaripa, Virupa, and Naropa, and a Nagarjuna who may or may not be the same as the great Madhyamika philosopher. There are, however, other treatments of siddhas, with different enumerations and often with different names, such as a partly differing list of eighty-five attributed to Abhayadatta’s contemporary Abhaya¯karagupta; a thirteenth-century Nepalese guru lineage text that mentions nearly two dozen; an eighteenth-century Tibetan
account of lineages that relates the stories of fifty-nine—as well as texts that count as siddhas various Indian yogin¯ıs (some of whom appear on other lists, some of whom do not) or the Indian progenitors of the great perfection (rdzogs chen) practice tradition popular in the Nyingma (rNying ma) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism (e.g., Manjusrımitra, Garab Dorje [dGarab rdorje]], Sri Simha, Vimalamitra, and above all Padmasambhava).3
The figures found in these lists are generally acknowledged to be “Buddhists.” Certainly, the legends surrounding them and the words attributed to them have influenced countless Buddhists in India, Nepal, and Tibet for a thousand years; but in their original setting, it is not always easy to separate them out—whether in terms of terminology, rhetoric, or practice—from similar figures in non-Buddhist, especially “Hindu” traditions. They seem quite closely related to Saivite ascetics like the Pasupatas and Kapaikas; tantrikas like the Kashmiri S´aivas and Bengali S´aktas; or the wonder-working Na¯th siddhas and Rasa
siddhas. More broadly, there are general similarities between ideas and practices found in Buddhist siddha writings and those of other Indian yogic and ascetic communities—from such “textualized” movements as those reflected in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali and the Samfi nyasa Upanishads to such seemingly timeless and “unwritten” groups as the Nagas, Kanfiphatfias, and Aghoris . Nor can their possible connections with similar sorts of groups in, for instance, Persia, central Asia, or China be overlooked; the resonance, and possible historical connections, between Indian siddhas and Chinese Chan masters or Taoist immortals
suggest an especially intriguing, if uncertain, path for further research. What is more, it is entirely possible that, as suggested long ago by Agehanada Bharati, most of the siddhas actually were pre- or nonsectarian wandering yogins, who appropriated various religious terms without intending to promote a particular religion—yet willy-nilly were appropriated by those very sectarian traditions that they resisted or ignored.
The figures mentioned in the siddha lists often are related explicitly to one another, for instance as guru and disciple, and often are situated in a specific place and/or during the reign of a particular king—many of them, for instance, in north or northeast India during the Pa¯la and Sena dynasties (c. 750–1250 c.e.). Unfortunately, however, the minimal historical information supplied in one account often contradicts claims made in other sources, or simply is too vague to be interpreted clearly, so that it is very hard to specify that siddha X lived in such and such a place and time and was the disciple of siddha Y and
the teacher of siddha Z. Indeed, such discussion begs the question whether many of the siddhas may not simply be literary inventions, no more reliably “historical” than stock characters in epics and folktales the world around. The hagiographies of the siddhas show unmistakable links to Indian narrative traditions dealing with wizards (vidyadhara), zombies (vetfiala), and ghosts (bhuta), epic and folk treatments of powerful, capricious 8rfisis, and
Mahayana sutra celebrations of the heroic bodhisattva. They also beg comparison with the traditions surrounding such universal figures as the saint, the trickster, and the superhero. These mitigating factors—which frustrate so many efforts to understand the religious and cultural history of pre-Muslim India—make it very unlikely that we ever will be able to discover the “historical siddhas.”
Hundreds of works of literature are attributed to the siddhas revered in Buddhist traditions; sometimes they have been preserved in Indic languages (usually Sanskrit or Apabhramsa), but more commonly they are found in theirs Tibetan versions, either in the Tangyur (Bstan ’gyur) collection of “new school” (post-1000) translations or the Nyingma Gyubum (Rnying ma rgyud ’bum), with its “old school” (pre-850) translations.6 The siddhas are credited with a tremendous range of types of texts, including initiation ceremonies, mandala rituals, fire offerings, hymns of praise, meditation textbooks (sa¯dhanas), and tantric
treatises and commentaries, as well as works that deal with such originally non tantric philosophical topics as meditation theory, and Madhyamaka and Yogacara ontology and epistemology, not to mention various worldly sciences. The texts that have drawn the most attention, in part because they are the most “personalized,” in part because of their impressive literary qualities, are the collections of song-poems in such genres as the doha¯ (aphoristic couplet),
caryagıti (performance song), and vajragıti (diamond song). Unfortunately, there is very little way of knowing whether a particular text attributed to a particular siddha—even if that siddha was a historical figure—actually was written by that siddha, so the notion of a “corpus” of texts unambiguously belonging to a specific figure must be regarded with considerable suspicion. This may be even more true in the case of song-poems, where the “texts” most likely were originally oral and were only written down and redacted into collections years, or even centuries, after their composition.