Tag Archives: hinduism

Buddhist and Hindu Practices in the Kathmandu Valley


By Gergely Hidas

At the May seminar we had two guest presenters from North America, both talking about the religious traditions of Nepal. Their research activities are based primarily on Sanskrit manuscripts along with extensive fieldwork in the Kathmandu Valley.

The first speaker, Alexander von Rospatt (UC Berkeley), discussed the importance of a work from ca. the 15th century, the Svayambhūpurāṇa, a complex text about the history of local Buddhism with a special focus on the Svayambhū Stūpa, a central landmark and pilgrimage site (tīrtha) in Kathmandu. This charter-like piece, rich in narratives, is seen as an attempt for Newar Buddhism to reinvent itself: with Nepal being the centre and India the periphery. The text starts with the famous legend of origins: the Valley was once a lake, the Stūpa stood on a lotus, and the bodhisattva of wisdom, Mañjuśrī, drained this lake by cutting a gorge into the surrounding mountain range. While the area dried up resident Nāga serpents were relocated to smaller ponds and streams with Karkoṭaka being the most important up to the present. With the course of time Svayambhū developed its many tantric connections, including links to the Yoginītantras, the deity Cakrasaṃvara and the goddesses Vajrayoginī and Guhyeśvarī.

While the Svayambhūpurāṇa is translated into Tibetan, Newari and Nepali, it still lacks a complete Western rendering and only some of its versions are edited. There are four distinct recensions with slightly different titles and the length of the metrical ones ranges from a few hundred to a couple of thousand verses. The various versions also contain prescriptions for religious observances (vrata) of the bodhisattva vow. The renovation of the Stūpa is regularly sponsored by different communities in the Valley and there are exquisite depictions of the buildings and related legends both as manuscript illuminations and mural paintings.

The second speaker, Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz (Univ. of Illinois), introduced a little researched tradition, the Hindu Svasthānīvratakathā or ‘The Story of the Ritual Vow to the Goddess Svasthānī’ from the 16th century. This ritual of high-caste Hinduism focusses on the performance of the Svasthānī vow, the succesful completion of which results in prosperity. Though this goddess is little known in other sources, a copy is kept in most Hindu households, and the text is recited in these households every winter in the month of Magh (January-February). The text survives in more than 700 manuscripts, the oldest dating to 1573 CE. From the 18th century onwards the Svasthānīvratakathā underwent a ‘Purāṇicisation’ process and became an established text along with other ones like the Paśupatipurāṇa or the Nepālmahātmya. The main religious observance (vrata) takes place primarily in the ancient town of Sankhu not too far from Kathmandu. An interesting point for comparison with the observance of the bodhisattva vow at Svayambhū is that it is overwhelmingly female lay devotees who participate in both kinds of ritual.

Revisiting the Traikūṭakas and historical problems in western India

The great caitya (Cave 3) at Kanheri. (Photo: Dániel Balogh, 2018)

By Robert Bracey and Dániel Balogh

The Beyond Boundaries team met for their monthly seminar, with many guests, to discuss several problems with the history of West India in the mid-first millennium. The problem which motivated discussion was the dating of one minor dynasty, the Traikūṭakas, who are known from a handful of copper plate inscriptions and a modest silver coinage – and the first three presentations served to introduce the problem.

Michael Willis began by talking about the use of imprecatory verses in copper plate charters. These verses, which warn any prospective malefactor who might seize the granted land that they risk 60,000 years in hell, are often attributed to the sage Vyāsa and sometimes specifically to the Mahābhārata. However, according to the critical edition of the Mahābhārata, they are only found in some southern manuscripts and not in any others. The verses are, as was shown in several slides, relatively common in fifth and sixth century charters, and are also known from a Traikūṭaka grant. If the Traikūṭakas were dated significantly earlier than the fifth century, and the seminar topic was chosen in part because they sometimes are, then this would make this the earliest usage and suggests a west to east transmission of the concept (rather than an origin in a North Indian Gupta context as is often assumed).

There followed a vigorous debate about whether it is reasonable to assume that the powerful dynasties who disseminated different aspects of court culture originated those ideas, and whether the copper plate charters are representative of the distribution of similar decrees written on more ephemeral material.

The second presentation, by Robert Bracey, presented the numismatic evidence, which since the 1960s has been accepted by numismatists as demonstrating an early date for the Traikūṭakas. A small number of their coins, and the handful of inscriptions, record dates ranging from 197 to 284. What is at issue is whether, as most numismatists believe, those dates are in Śaka era of 78 AD or, as most epigraphers believe, in the Kalacuri-Cedi era of 249 AD. Robert presented the four arguments that have usually been deployed and critically re-examined them. He concluded that the arguments that the coins used the designs of third century Western Satrap coins, or that they fitted in a supposed gap in the Satrap dynasty, were unsound, but that the arguments based on the weight of the coins were compelling and those on hoards were compatible with an early date even if not strong.

Prof. Hans Bakker then took the opportunity to perform the same role for epigraphic evidence. He presented V. V. Mirashi’s publication on the inscriptions of the Kalacuri-Cedi era which was prepared in the 1950s but not published until after Mirashi’s death. Taking the early inscriptions in turn Prof. Bakker demonstrated how each one could be attributed to either the Gupta era of 319 AD or the Śaka era of 78 AD, for all of the inscriptions before the year 200. He further pointed out that supposed references to the dynasty in the inscriptions were ambiguous, supporting both early and late dates depending on which reference you chose. However, two strong epigraphic arguments remained for dating the inscriptions in the fifth century and thus attributing them to the Kalacuri-Cedi era. The first is the palaeography, which epigraphers are unanimous in attributing to a late period. The second, which Prof. Bakker presented for the first time at the event, was in the prose passages which show a strong continuity of the scribal and courtly traditions from the Traikūṭaka inscriptions to those of the early Kalacuris.

There followed a lively debate over the relative merits of these two strands of evidence which both seem to strongly suggest contradictory dates.

There then followed several short presentations on related issues. Daniel Balogh began by speaking about the early Rāṣṭrakūṭas of the Deccan. If the Traikūṭakas employed the Kalacuri-Cedi era, and the dates frequently assumed for the Rāṣṭrakūṭas are in fact correct, then the latter would be the southern neighbours of the former. Daniel carefully laid out how the genealogical inscriptions have been used to reconstruct several generations of the dynasty.

Francesco Bianchini then spoke about the Maitrakas. More firmly dated than the Traikūṭakas or the Rāṣṭrakūṭas, they ruled in the sixth century after the collapse of Gupta hegemony north of the Namada river in Gujarat. Francesco discussed the vexed problem of the dynasties ‘overlords’ who are frequently referred to in their inscription but never named, and whether these are the Guptas, the Huns, the Aulikaras, the Vākāṭakas, or a more deliberately ambiguous reference.

Finally Gethin Rees spoke about the cave sites of West India and particularly Kanheri. Kanheri experienced several different phases of construction during which new caves were cut, structures were added and in some cases the existing caves were elaborated with new items. However, finding fixed chronological points to tie the relative art historical dating to is very difficult. One of those which has received much attention is a Traikūṭaka inscription found as part of a relic deposit in a brick built stupa at the site.

The seminar finished with a wide ranging discussion amongst the participants on the interconnections between these dynasties and the problems of chronology, cultural transmission, and political reality that the evidence presents. Though no firm conclusions were reached it was agreed that the complex West Indian states deserve more attention, preferably inter-disciplinary, than they have received up to now.

Indian Philosophy Seminar

It was a pleasure to welcome to our workshop this month Prof. Larry McCrea of Cornell University, and Prof. Isabelle Ratié from the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle for a seminar on Indian philosophy. Larry McCrea talked to us about late-first millennium discussions of the opening phrases of Indian philosophical works. At stake in these debates was what constitutes the rational human agent who will decide whether or not to read such works based on certain criteria. The creation of gradually larger schema of criteria can help inter alia date certain commentaries ascribed to this period.

At first, within the Brahmanical commentarial tradition of the philosopher Kumārilabhaṭṭa (c. 650 AD), a tripartite set of criteria for judging the value of texts by their opening statement (ādivākya) was expressed, consisting of the text/topic (śāstra) itself; its purpose (prayojana); and the connection (sambandha) between the topic and its purpose. These three parts should motivate the reader to engage with the text at the very outset. These lively discussions suggest a mileu in which several authors and their works competed for readership within a busy philosophical and literary marketplace.

The eighth-century Buddhist philosophers took up this three-fold and unpacked its implicit consequences. Arcaṭa, for instance, in his Hetubinduṭīkā commentary on Dharmakīrti’s work criticized the claim that such criteria are sufficient for gaining even uncertain knowledge of the truth or falsehood of any work’s opening claim. Later, Vinītadeva’s commentary on Dharmakīrti’s Nyāyabindu added a fourth criterion, the purpose of the purpose (prayojanasyaprayojana): to learn epistemology in order to accomplish all human aims. Another commentator on the same text, Dharmottara (c. 750s), describes the fourth criterion instead as the purpose of the topic (abhidheyaprayojana), which he claims implies the first three criteria.

Finally, Jayantabhaṭṭa’s (c. 900) Nyāyamañjarī coins the term “opening statement” itself (with recourse to the above philosophers). However, Jayantabhaṭṭa broadens the scope of the opening statement, which he claims validates Nyāya epistemology / logic in order to ultimately validate the Vedas, out to apply to our criteria for deciding to follow any path. He argues, against Kumārilabhaṭṭa, that in the every-day world of choices, we can trust out “hunches” or “suspicions” (saṃśaya) without recourse to the intrinsic validity or otherwise of some claims. However, when approaching Vedic ritual the stakes are higher and the attendant sacrifices and responsibilities greater. Thus, McCrea suggests, the problem for Jayantabhaṭṭa’s philosophy is how one argues from the quotidian to the transcendent level of epistemology.

Isabelle Ratié presented her latest discoveries regarding the works of the grammarian-philosopher, Bhartṛhari (450–510). Among the works attributed to Bhartṛhari is the now lost work known as the Śabdadhātusamīkṣā or perhaps more properly the Ṣaḍdhātusamīkṣā, that is known only from later references and quotations. Bhartṛhari influenced both later Brahmanical and Buddhist philosophical traditions, but the content of this work, and so part of the content of his oevre, has long been in doubt.

It was assumed, given Bhartṛhari’s supposed concern with speech (śabda) in other works, for example the Vākyapadīya and Mahābhāṣyadīpaka commentary on Patañjali’s famous work, that this “investigation” (samīkṣā) also focused on language. However, Ratié has found evidence in quotations and criticism of his position in works by Somānanda (c. 900–950) and Utpaladeva (c. 925–975), who appear to be intimately familiar with this work, that it may instead have investigated the six elements (ṣaḍ-dhātu), most likely the five material elements of earth, fire, water, air and ether and the immaterial element of consciousness (cetanā) or self (ātman).

The surviving fragments of the Bhartṛhari’s text suggest that he attempted to unify these six elements as arising from a unitary consciousness or self in a similar way to the later Advaita Vedānta school. The existence of such an important antecedent to the Advaita Vedānta position of the eighth-century Ādi Śaṅkara has important consequences for the study of that school. The eighth-century Buddhist philosopher Śāntarakṣita and his disciple Kamalaśīla may also have been aware of it. Ratié notes, though, that the attribution of the Ṣaḍdhātusamīkṣā to Bhartṛhari is still not a certainty and so this position may not have existed as early as the fourth century. Nonetheless, Ratié’s investigation into the Bhartṛhari’s discussion of the six elements acts as a salutary reminder that modern philologists should not be too quick to discount the perspectives of medieval Indian exegetes in favour of a reductionist scepticism.

Śivadharma and Śiva liṅga

Kathmandu Changu Narayan 33 Shiva Lingam On Ground Next To Parijat Tree Platform On North East Side Of Changu Narayan

In October our seminar focused on the texts and practices of early Śaivism. Peter Bisschop spoke about the corpus of Śiva sacred texts known as the Śivadharma, which gives the rules and regulations for the worship of Śiva. The corpus addresses the community of lay worshippers, among whom the king is prominent. The two earliest and most widespread texts are the Śivadharmaśāstra, in which devotional worship (bhakti) is the key theme, and the Śivadharmottara, in which the figure of the king takes centre stage. A later work, the Śivadharmasaṃgraha contains the first Śaiva tantric texts.

These works have been long neglected but they are rich resources for studying the formation and development of early Śaivism. Bisschop introduced the various texts and manuscripts of the Śivadharma, and looked in particular on chapter 6 of the Śivadharmaśāstra, which consists of an elaborate mantra invoking a plethora of gods, all dependent on the great god Śiva. He showed how study of the names and iconographies of the various gods can help us to contextualise and date this early Śaiva literature. Following this, Nina Mirnig presented her recent work on the practices of the Śiva liṅga on the eve of the tantric period.