Chapter 9: Stotras, Dhāraṇīs, Tantras.
See also R, Mitra Nepalese Buddhist Literature, p. 248 ff; Hodgson, p. 115, ff.; Sylvain Lévi, Le Nepaul 1905, 1, p. 208 ff.
Hymns: Buddhist and Hindu
Besides, the Buddhist stotras or hymns are in no way differentiated from those which are devoted to the veneration of Viṣṇu or Śiva. Such stray stotras have found admittance into older texts like the Mahāvastu and others. But we have a complete collection of such hymns, some of which are in the Kāvya style and in metrical form. An example is the Kalyāṇapañcaviṁśatika the twenty-five-blessing hymn in twenty-five Sargdharā verses, by a poet called Amtānanda, and the Lokeśvaraśataka, a hymn to the Lord of the world in a hundred verses by another poet called Vajradatta. A selection of forty-nine litanies relating to Śākyamuni and other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is the Suprabhatastava. A hymn of the kind which from of old has been so common in India consisting of a succession of names or honorific epithets to the god is the Paramārthanāmasamgīti.
An untold number of Nepalese deities are invoked for the sake of their blessings. See H.H. Wilson, Works Vol. II., p. 11. Ff.
Raj. Mitra, Nepalese Buddhist Literature, pp. 99, 112, 239, 175.
Stotras which are still only in manuscripts are Samantabhadrapraṇidhasa, Mgaśatakastuti, Saptabuddhastotra and so forth.
Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Vol. II, by M. Winternitz and A.B. Keith, Oxford, 1905, p. 255 ff. The Saptabuddhastotra has been translated by Wilson, Works Vol. II, p. 5 ff.
Tārā and her poet devotees
A large number of stotras are sacred to the Buddhist goddess Tārā, the saviour, the female counterpart of Avalokiteśvara. A panegyric composed entirely in Kāvya style by the Kashmirian poet Sarvajñāmitra on Tārā is the Sragdharāstotra, otherwise called the Āryatārāsragdharāstotra, which is in thirty-seven strophes. Sragdharā or the bearer of garland is at once an epithet of Tārā and the name of a meter in which the poem is composed. The poet lived in the first half of the eighth century. According to the legend he was a personage distinguished for his liberality and according to Tāranātha a son-in-law of the king of Kashmir. After he had given away in charity all his treasures he is reported finally to have had recourse to the life of an itinerant monk. Once he happened to encounter a Brahman on the way who appealed to him in his poverty and besought him for money for the marriage of his daughter. In order to furnish money to the man Sarvajñāmitra sold himself to a king who had just instituted a great human sacrifice for which he was in need of a hundred men. But when the poet heard the laments of his brothers in sorrow with whom he was about to be sacrificed he sung his hymn to Tārā and the goddess descended and rescued the hundred victims condemned to death. Whilst the Sragdharāstotra has poetic value the Āryatārānāmaśatottaraśatakastotra or the eulogy in one hundred and eight names of the noble
According to L.A. Waddell, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, p. 63 ff, the cult of Tārā was introduced about 600 A.D. History of Buddhism, p. 168 ff.
These three stotras have been edited and translated by O. de Blonay, Materiaux pour servir a l’histoire de la deesse Buddhique Tārā (Bibl. de l’ecole des hautes etudes, fasc. 107). The Sragdharāstotra with a commentary and two Tibetan versions have also been edited by Satis Chandra Vidyabhusana. In the introduction the editor enumerates no less than ninety-six texts relating to Tārā. Of these only sixty-two are preserved in Tibetan translation. A great adorer of this goddess Tārā was also Candragomi whom we mentioned above and to whom a Tārāsādhanaśataka has been attributed. (Blonay, p. 17 f.)
Dhāraṇīs or Necromantic formulae
A great and essential element of the Mahāyānistic literature is constituted by Dhāraṇīs or magical formulæ. The necessity for formulæ for exorcisms, and charms for blessing and witchcraft which was taken into account in the earliest ages in the Vedic Mantras, especially those of the Atharvaveda, was too vigorously working in the Indian popular mind for Buddhism to be altogether devoid of it. We already know how the Buddhists of Ceylon employ some of their most charming suttas as Parittas or Pirits. In a similar fashion the Mahāyānistic Buddhists in India transform to some extent the sacred texts themselves into necromantic charms. To these we have to add innumerable invocations to the numerous deities in the Mahāyāna of a Buddhistic or Hindu origin
“So have I heard, once upon a time the Master was dwelling in the palace of the snake princes Nanda and Upananda.”
It proceeds to recount how the serpent deities made worship to the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas upon which one of the serpentine kings thus interrogated the Exalted One:
“How, Lord, may all the sorrows of all the snakes be assuaged and how may the snakes so rejoice and be happy that they may shower down rain over India at the proper time and thereby help the growth of grass scrubs, vegetation and trees, cause to sprout all seeds and cause all sap to well up in trees, thus blessing the people in India with prosperity?”
Rejoicing over the enquiry the Buddha replies: –
“By means of a religious exercise, Dharma, oh King of Snakes, all the sorrows of all the snakes may be instantly assuaged and they may be blessed with prosperity.” “Which religious exercise is this?” “It is Benevolence, Maitri. The gods and men, oh Prince of Serpents, who live in such benevolence will not be burnt by fire, wounded by sword, drowned in water, killed by poison, overpowered by a hostile army. They sleep in peace; they wake in tranquillity; protected they are by their own virtue. Therefore, oh Prince of Serpents, thou must be actuated with benevolence as regards thy body, with benevolence as regards thy speech, with benevolence with regard to thy thought. But further, oh Prince of Snakes, thou must put into practice the Dhāraṇī called Sarvasukhaṁdada, the Giver of all happiness. This assuages all the pain of all the serpents,
And here follow the Dhāraṇīs proper. They consist of numerous invocations to female deities like the Preserver, the Conserver and others to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, with interlarded apostrophes like “Clear away the wicked, purify the way,” and adjurations to snakes like “Come ye, great snakes, rain it down over India”; and finally isolated and unintelligible syllables such as “Sara sire sire suru suru naganam java java jivi jivi juvu juvu, etc.” At the end comes again a description of the wizards’ rites which are performed with these Dhāraṇīs, and the assurance that in times of a draught there is no better means of calling down a shower of rain than the use of these Sūtras.
A much simpler form of an adjuration to snakes, which however, is supposed to act as an antidote to snake poison is to be found in the Vinayapiṭaka, Cullavagga V, 6, where the snakes are tranquillized by the Buddhistic benevolence called Mettā in Pāḷi and Maitri in Sanskrit. (See also Jātaka 293 and Digha Nikāya, 32.) A Sūtra similar to the Meghasūtra is the Diśasvastikasūtra which is preserved in a fragment discovered at Turfan in Chinese Turkistan in the Uigurian language, (Tishastvustik by W. Radloff and Baron A. von Steail-Hoistein Bibliotheca Buddhica, IXX, St. Petersburg, 1910).
The dhāraṇīs often appear as parts of a Sūtra in which the circumstances are reported under which they were revealed. But there are also numerous dhāraṇīs which are preserved in individual manuscripts, and, on the other hand, entire large collections of dhāraṇīs. In these we find formulæ
Dhāraṇī literary means “a means to hold fast” especially a spirit or a secret power. It does not signify “a formula possessing great efficacy” as interpreted by Burnouf and Wilson. Burnouf deals in detail with dhāraṇīs; Introduction, pp. 466, 482 ff.; Wassiljew Der Buddhismus, p. 153 ff., 193 ff., 217; La Vallée-Poussin Bouddhisme, Etudes et Materiaux, p. 199 ff.; C. Bendall Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1880, p. 286 ff. A Mahāmeghasūtra was translated into Chinese between 397 and 439 and other translations were made between 589 and 618 and 746-771. B. Nanjio Catalogue Nos. 186-188, 244, 970.
For instances of Dhāraṇīmantra, Raj. Mitra Nepalese Buddhist Literature, p. 80 f., and Dhāraṇī Collections, pp. 93 f. 174, 176, 267 f., 283, 291 f. Numerous MSS are also registered in Bendall’s Catalogue. La Vallée-Poussin conjectures (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1895, p. 433 ff.) that the Dhāraṇī called Vidyadharapiṭaka which is quoted in the Ādikarmapradīpa is the same as the Dhāraṇīpiṭaka. A like Dhāraṇīpiṭaka is said to have been included
(Raj. Mitra. Nep. Buddha, Lit., pp.164 ff., 173 f. Winternitz and Keith, Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Vol. II, p. 257:ff.).
In the Nepalese law courts the Buddhist people are sworn on the Pañcarakṣa (Hodgson Essays, p. 18).
Sanskrit Dhāraṇīs in Japan
Many dhāraṇīs are only a kind of philosophical sūtras, the doctrines of which they are intended to present in a nutshell, but in the process it becomes less a question of the substance of the doctrine than words which are mysterious and unintelligible. Of this variety are the two Prajñāpāramitāhdayasūtras, the Sanskrit texts of which are enshrined in the palm leaves in the ancient cloister of Horiuzi in Japan since 609 A.D. These sūtras inculcate the hdaya or the heart of the Prajñāpāramitā which is a mantra to assuage all pains which embodies the perfection of all wisdom and which runs thus: “Oh Lord, thou that hast gone, gone, gone to the further shore, gone entirely to the further shore – hail!” This is by the way nothing but an erroneous etymology of the term Pāramitā. Even this apostrophe which may be said in a certain measure to represent the essence of the negative doctrine of Prajñāpāramitāsūtras stands on no more elevated spiritual level than the Uṣṇiśavijayadhāraṇī which is likewise bequeathed to us by the palm leaves of Horiuzi and consists merely in a series of unintelligible invocations.
The ancient palm leaves containing the Prajñāpāramitāhdayasūtra and the Uṣṇiśavijayadhāraṇī, edited by Max Müller and B. Nanjio (Anecdota Oxoniensia, Aryan Series, Vol. I, Part III), Oxford, 1884, Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 49; part II, p. 145 ff.
The Ganapatihdayadharani (Raj. Mitra Nepalese Buddhist Literature, p. 89 f.) is addressed to the Shaivite god Ganapati, although it is “revealed by the Buddha.”
Antiquity of Dhāraṇīs
These dhāraṇīs have found wide and deep admission into the ancient Mahāyānasūtras. We find them in chapters 21 and 26 of the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka which are later interpolations and in the last two sections of the Laṅkāvatāra, one in the oldest Chinese rendering made in 443 A.D. Accordingly we cannot consider the dhāraṇīs to be altogether younger products. We meet with them in the Chinese translations dating from the fourth century. It may be conjectured, however, that originally they were unintelligible sūtras which dispensed with the Buddhistic doctrine just as do the Parittas of the Pāḷi literature. But gradually the unintelligible mysterious syllables acquired prime importance and became the core, the bīja, which lay concealed in the magical potency of the formula. And finally under the influence of Shaivite Tantras they became powerful thaumaturgic, and the essential elements in Buddhistic Tantras which originally they were not.
The Tantras, however, are a branch of Buddhistic literature which is worth consideration as a testimony to the complete mental decadence in Buddhism. They treat partly of rites, Kriyātantra, and ordinances, Caryātantra, and partly of the secret doctrine, Yogatantra, intended for the Yogi. The best of these works belong to the former class in which the ancient Brahmanic ritual is revived. Of this category is the Ādikarmapradīpa, a book which describes in the style of the Brahmanic manuals of ritual (Ghyasūtras, Karmapradīpas) the ceremonies and religious functions, which have to be performed by the Ādikarmaka-Bodhisattva, that is, the adherent of the Mahāyāna, an aspirant after spiritual illumination.
The Ādikarmapradīpa is made up of the Sūtra text technically known as the mūlasūtra with a running commentary incorporating prescriptions regarding the initiatory ceremony for the disciple who may be a layman or a monk, sprinkling with water, ablutions and prayers, and further rules on gargling the mouth, brushing the teeth, morning and evening prayers, offering of water to the souls of the departed (pretas), the giving of charity dinners, worshipping of the Buddha and other sacred creatures, the reading of the Prajñāpāramitā, meditations and the rest, which are to be practised by the candidate or the neophite as contradistinguished from the full Yogi.
Varieties of Tantras; Yogi’s training
To the Kriyātantra texts also belongs the Aṣṭamivratavidhāna which contains the ritual to be observed on the eighth day of each fortnight. The rite entails the drawing of mystic diagrams and movements of the hand, oblations and prayers with mysterious syllables which are addressed not only to the Buddha and the Bodhisattva, but also to the Shaivite deities.
Wilson, Works Vol. II, p. 31 ff.
But a majority of the Tantras belong to the second category, that of the Yogatantra. These treatises are derived indeed from the mysticism of the Madhyamika and Yogācāra schools. What the Yogi endeavours to arrive at is the supreme knowledge of the Nullity or Śūnyatā. But it is worthy of attention that he exerts himself to attain this object not only by means of asceticism and meditation but also with the help of necromantic exercises and adjurations, hypnotism and physical excitements. To the latter contribute the use of meat and intoxicants as well as sexual excesses. Accordingly in these Tantras we encounter an agglomeration
Nevertheless many of these books enjoy great reputation. For instance, the Tathāgataguhyaka or Guhyasamāja belongs to the nine Dharmas of the Nepalese Buddhists. The book indeed begins with instructions on the various classes of meditation, but presently deviates into exposition of all manner of secret figures and formulæ which are necessary for the latria of the Buddha and it is not satisfied with the hocus-pocus of the magical words and rites, but enjoins as a means to the most elevated perfection the eating of elephant, horse and dog flesh and daily intercourse with young Chaṇḍāla maidens. The Mahākālatantra is next the model of a colloquy between Śākyamuni and a goddess and it is claimed to have been “announced by the Buddhi.” It, however, contains instruction on the mystical significance of the letters of the alphabet, composing the name Mahākāla or Śiva, on the means of discovering hidden treasures, acquiring kingship, getting a desired woman and even mantras and magical rites to deprive men of reason and to subjugate or slay them. The Saṁvarodāyatantra is again,
Raj. Mitra. Nepalese Buddhist Literature, p. 261 ff.; Burnouf, Introduction, p. 480; Raj. Mitra. Nepalese Buddhist Literature, p. 172 f.; Burnouf, Introduction, p. 479 f.
There is no room for doubt that all these books were written long after the times of Nāgārjuna and the Mahāyānasūtras and the possibility is precluded that Nāgārjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school, could have composed also the Tantras. Nevertheless he is the reputed author of five of the six sections of the Pañcakrama. At all events this book deals more with Yoga than with Tantric usages properly so called. As its title signifies the Pañcakrama is an exposition of the “five steps,” the last of which is the final position of the supreme Yogi. The preliminary steps consist in the purification of the body, speech and mind so that they acquire the “diamond” nature of the body, the speech and the mind of the Buddha. But the medium through which the five stages are reached comprises magical circles, magical formulæ, mysterious syllables and the worship of Mahāyānistic and Tantric goddesses. In this manner the Yogi acquires the loftiest step where all else ceases and there is absolutely no duality at all.
Edited with an introduction by La Vallée-Poussin Etudes et Texte, Tantriques (Resuil de Travaux publies par la faculate de philosophie et Letters, Universite de Grand, fasc. 16), Grand et Louvain, 1896. Burnouf, Introduction p. 497 ff, Vajra “The Diamond” plays a chief part in the mystics of the Tantras.
Of such a Yogi it is said:
“As towards himself so is he towards his enemy. Like his wife is his mother to him; like his mother is the courtezan to him; like a Dombi (a wandering minstrel of the lowest caste) is to him a Brahman woman; his skin to him is like the garment; straw is like a precious stone; wine and food like excreta; an abuse like a song of praise; Indra like Rudra; day as night; the phenomena as dreams; the extant as the perished; pain as enjoyment; son as a vicious creature; heaven as hell, – and so to him the bad and the good are one.”
If in reality a Nāgārjuna was the author of this section it must be another person of the same name than the founder of the Madhyamika system. But as the author of the third section is given out to be Śākyamitra, he is probably the same as the person mentioned by Tāranātha as a contemporary of Devapāla of Bengal, about 850 A.D. and this period may well belong to the entire book. When Tāranātha says that during the period of the Pala dynasty in Bengal, that is from the seventh to the ninth century, Yoga and magic preponderated in Buddhism we may well credit him, and the rest of the Tantras may have arisen rather in this than in an earlier age. Tāranātha in his history of Buddhism in India gives us an adequate conception of Tantric Buddhism. Here indeed we have the mention of Mahāyāna and Tripiṭaka of Buddhistic science and Buddhistic self-sacrifice, but a much more prominent part is played by Siddhi or the supernatural power acquired through Tantras and Mantras.
In the Catalogue of Buddhist Sanskrit MSS. in the Royal Asiatic Society by E. B. Cowell and J. Eggeling (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1876, reprint p. 28) we find the mention of Pañcakrumopadeśa by Śrīghanta. The tantra literature has no popular
Printed Tantra literature
An anthology called Subhāṣitasaṁgraha published by Bendall (Le Museon, 1903, p. 275 ff.) contains extracts from the Madhyamika and the Tantra texts. Purely magical texts are the Sādhanas published by F. W. Thomas (idid p. 1 ff.). The manuscript catalogues give an idea of the great compass of Tantra literature in India. In Tibet the Tantras were the best means of amalgamating Buddhism with the analogous creed of wizards. The Tantras were imported into China in 1200. Some of the Sanskrit tantric MSS. discovered by A. O. Franke, are dealt with by F. Kielhorn, (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1894, 835 ff). In Japan the Shin-gon sect is based on Tantra texts. (B. Nanjio, Short History of the Twelve Japanese Buddhist Sects.) On Tantras and the Tantra Buddhism in general, see Burnouf, Introduction p. 465 ff, 578 f.; Wassiljew Der Buddhismus, p. 201 ff., but especially La Vallée-Poussin Bouddhism, Etudes et Materiaux, pp. 72 ff., 130 ff., and Bouddhisme, pp. 343 ff., 368 ff.
[Ed. note: the final chapter of Nariman’s work, entitled Beginnings of Indian Studies in Europe, being unrelated to this main body of the work, has been published separately on this website. One of the Appendixes, however, is closely related, and follows next.]
last updated: December 2016