Guru Padmasambhava; His Provenance

in Article
Published on: 04 October 2019

Prof. Lokesh Chandra

Prof. Lokesh Chandra is a prominent scholar of the Vedic period, Buddhism and the Indian arts. He has served as a member of the Indian Rajya Sabha, Vice-President of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, and Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research. In 2006, he was conferred with India's Padma Bhushan award.

I want to begin with a question. From where did Padmasambhava go to Tibet? The Tibetan tradition is very clear in the spellings of the place from where he went to Tibet. That is a very important part. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Waddell identified Oddiyana as Uddiyana. It was very difficult for the Europeans to distinguish between the dental and cerebral, ta and tha, da and dha. He was a very great lover of the classical Greek tradition because most of the Europeans who came to Indology, came from a grammar school. They had a very rich influence of the Greek and Latin traditions. He said that it is Uddiyana. Nowhere in any Tibetan text we have the spelling Uddiyana.

Two, in Tibetan they have a spelling called Orgyen, the ornament—rgyen is ornament. The word for ornament which begins with O, the O ornament. Nobody in the nineteenth century or even the twentieth century thought that Tamil had a very important place in the dissemination of Buddhism. I have been working on this aspect of Buddhism for the last five to six years. What is the role of Tamil in the expansion of Buddhism?

Oddiyanam is a Tamil word. What does it mean? It means waistband. If you go to a Bharatanatyam shop in Delhi, you can buy an Oddiyanam. In Sanskrit, we have the word Kanchi, in Tamil you have the word Oddiyanam. The city of Kanchi is called Kanchipuram, Kanjivaram in English, Kanchi in Sanskrit, but Oddiyanam in Tamil. This is the first thing that has to be borne in mind that he didn’t go from Swat. It was a misunderstanding, because the information at that time about Buddhism, the expansion of Buddhism, about Tibetan Buddhism, was very meagre. The other thing is that Oddiyanam, there are three words which are very similar to it.

The first word is Urdi. It occurs as early as Patanjali’s Mahabhashya, a major text on Sanskrit grammar. This is a place near Baramulla in Kashmir. So when the Chinese have to transcribe the word Uda, they have to say whether it is in the north of India, whether it is in the south of India. When they say it is in the north, they refer to the place near Baramulla in Kashmir—the family name Ohri is derived from Urdi.

The other word is Odra, which refers to Odisha. So many people would like to say that Padmasambhava came from Odisha. No.

The third is Oddiyana, which is Kanchi as I have already explained. In the Tibetan tradition, the spellings are very clearly Oddiyanam, which refers to Kanchi.

It is also very interesting that in his history of Buddhism in India Taranatha gives the dynastic list of only the Pala kings and the kings of Kanchi. Nobody has worked on that aspect of Taranatha’s work. He mentions the Kanchi kings because it has relevance to the dating and to the home of Padmasambhava.

Now the question is who is Padmasambhava? He is said to have been born upon a mound of lotuses in the lake, Dhanakosha. King Indrabhuti, while gathering precious gems from the sea, found Padmasambhava on the road and consecrated him on the throne. Padmasambhava abandoned the kingdom to practise penance. He then travelled to Zahor and met his consort Mandarava.

Indrabhuti is sometimes spelt wrongly as Indrabodhi because the word bodhi was well known to the Tibetan tradition as enlightenment. Bhuti means glory, imperial glory. It is a word that we call lectio difficilior. A word with a difficult reading that led to a simple rendering.

The king Indrabhuti had no son and he wanted an heir to his kingdom. He resolves to set out by sea to obtain the Chintamani. Now what is the Chintamani? Chintamani has many meanings. One of the meanings is, of course, a jewel that grants you whatever you want. However, the other meaning of Chintamani is a horse.

Most people don’t read texts on architecture, texts on horsemanship, texts on horse medicine and so on. They are extremely important in the interpretation of various facets of different things. So, say Indrabhuti took a horse. Why did he take a horse? There are paintings in different places, for example, in Ajanta, where Suparaga goes to guide Indian merchants to Indonesia; in the painting a small horse is shown. When they return home, the horse is shown returning along with them. Wherever Indians went on a ship, they took horses with them because those places had no conveyance. They travelled on horseback and they could see whatever was valuable for them, whatever they could do. If they were attacked, they could get away. And this is also mentioned in the Karandavyuha sutra, I am not saying something new.

So, what did the King Indrabhuti do? He took with him a horse called Chintamani. Now people say he found many jewels, this and that. Every fact in Buddhism or any religious tradition is converted into a myth. A myth is ultimately converted into philosophical symbolism. We have to make a distinction, in every religious text, on what is the fact, what is the myth and what is the symbol. What you have been hearing so far are the symbols, not the facts.

King Indrabhuti brought Padmasambhava home; he was a foundling. He didn’t know his parents. Why did King Indrabhuti go to sea and to the islands? Because these islands were frequented by Romans, by Arabs, by all kinds of international traders and inter-oceanic traders. Wherever the traders went, after two or three months, wherever they found a woman, they put life into her. It is very important to note that these children, they were foundlings, they were wayward children wandering around. And so Padmasambhava was also one such child. King Indrabhuti brought him to the palace and named him Padmaraja. But [the boy] didn’t like the palace life, the regimentation of royal etiquette and so on. Royal life is highly regimented. The way you speak, the way you sit, the way you talk to people and so on. He didn’t like it, so he left. He said he will meditate. He went away and he was no more with King Indrabhuti.

He went to the monastery that is now known as Nagarjunakonda. Nagarjunakonda means Nagarjuna Hill. My professor worked on the identification of Nagarjunakonda—I was his student long ago, 65 years ago—so we discussed this problem many times. He disagreed saying it is not konda, it is kundal. I didn't agree to that. Konda is the Telugu word for hill. Kunda in Sanskrit means something low. It doesn’t mean a hill. So, we never agreed. But Nagarjunakonda in the inscriptions is called Sriparavatha.

It is counter-distinguished from Srisailam. Srisailam was Shaiva where one of the 12 shivalingas was situated and Sriparavatha was Buddhist. Sriparavatha was being financed, one of the monasteries there was being financed, by the kings of Sri Lanka.

All those inscriptions referring to it have been discovered from the third century onwards. They actually define the whole life of Padmasambhava. Now what they call the heaven or the paradise of Padmasambhava (Zangdog Palri), they have translated it as ‘glorious copper-coloured mountain’. Tibetans and the Bhutanese don’t understand what the words mean. Actually, it is the Sanskrit word, Tamraparni Sriparavatha. Sriparavatha is the name of the mountain called Nagarjunakonda in the present. Tamraparni, what is Tamraparni? They didn’t understand. They said it means copper coloured. Actually, Tamraparni is the name of Sri Lanka. In Latin you have the word Taprobane for Tamil Sri Lanka. Tamraparni actually meant a monastery where the Sri Lankan monks lived. These Sri Lankan monks were very clear. They were spreading Buddhism all around. There is an inscription which says where they were going. They even had a monastery in Indonesia. They had monasteries in China.

The inscription is dated 226 to 244, third century. The Brahmi inscription of the second Iksvaku king, Sri Mathariputra Virapurisadatta, mentions a chaityra criha on the Sriparavatha hill east of the Iksvaku capital Vijayapuri. It was for teachers from Sri Lanka (Tamraparni dweepa) who were spreading the dharma to Kashmir, Gandhara, Cheena, Chilata, Toshali, Avarmta, Vanga, Vanavasa, Yavana—Greece, Damila, Palura and Tambapanni-dvipa. These monks were very active in spreading Buddhism. Padmasambhava got his inspiration from these Sri Lankan monks. That is why his place is called his heaven or paradise. Actually, it is the pure land, the sacred land where he lived. It is not a heaven, it is very much on this earth. I am trying to make a specific point. This Sriparavatha actually is the place from where he went to Tibet.

Mandarava was Padmasambhava’s wife, his Indian wife—he had one Tibetan wife and one Indian wife. Mandarava is supposed to have come from Himachal Pradesh. The identification was done by Ms Freda Bedi, the mother of the actor Kabir Bedi. She spoke to me about it and I said: Don’t do it, it is very wrong. So now even in the Princeton encyclopaedia, Buddhism, they say that Tso Pema is in Himachal Pradesh. Tso Pema means any pond with lotuses. It is not a specific name. Now people have accepted that it is there. But from where did Mandarava come? Mandarava was the sister of Santaraksita. Santaraksita had invited Padmasambhava to Tibet. Why did he invite him is the question? I shall be very brief.

Padmasambhava must have been a very imposing personality, one. Two, he had lived in a palace. He knew what impresses people. So when he went to Tibet, he built the Samye monastery. Samye means inconceivable, achintya. Inconceivable. When the Tibetans saw this monastery coming up, they were stunned. Tibetans had come from a nomadic background. When they came to Lhasa, when the Yarlung dynasty came to Lhasa, it was called Rasa, the place where goats are herded. It was a goat grazing ground. Then from Rasa, they made it Lhasa, the land of gods. From goats it became gods. They were very fond of this whole idea of architecture. Anywhere, wherever one went, for example, when Buddhism went to Sri Lanka during the period of Ashoka, Ashoka had sent his son and daughter to Sri Lanka. He sent Nandyavarta. Now people say Nandyavarta is a flower. I said, no, Ashoka sending a flower to Sri Lanka is nonsense. I looked into the architectural text. There was an American, I think he was working on this Nandyavarta. So I also got interested. I looked into the architectural text and it was a six-storeyed palace which Ashoka sent to the king of Sri Lanka. The moment they saw this coming up, they were stunned!

What is Buddhism, the grandeur of Buddhism? The British did the same thing to us in Kolkata, when the Writers’ Building came up in the nineteenth century. Indians perceived the grandeur of the British Empire through the new building. Similarly with the Rashtrapati Bhavan. A building is an indicator of the grandeur of a state. It is the creation of a psychology for the state. Padmasambhava knew that he must create something grand here, so he created this Samye monastery, this inconceivable monastery. Rich with symbolism but at the same time exquisite in its architecture.

The other thing he knew he would have to do was interiorise the local deities. This is a very important part of the spread of Buddhism. They call it Upalya Kaushalya strategy. What was the strategy of spreading Buddhism? Padmasambhava converted all the local deities to dharmapalas. They were all integrated, made a part of the system. Then Buddhism in Tibet didn’t remain Buddhism, it became Lamaism. I would like to call it Bodhiyana, the Tibetan form of Buddhism. So, many deities were brought into Buddhism.

Padmasambhava had a fantastic mind. While termas are much later texts, they are fourteenth–fifteenth century texts, 700 years after Padmasambhava. I as a historian will not go into termas. I would like to read inscriptions from Sri Lanka, from the Iksvaku dynasty of the Sriparavatha. There are many inscriptions of the Iksvaku dynasty which refer to the Sriparavatha. So, after having been in Tibet and everywhere, he came back again to Nagarjunakonda, the Tamraparni Sriparavatha.

Now to the question of Shambala. Shambala in Tamil means a Buddhist site where the Buddhists live. It is Sambara in the Tamil lexicon but it became gradually Shambhala. People say it is a mythical hidden land. They are trying to find out where is this heaven. It is not heaven anywhere. It is a Buddhist site where Buddhists live. This word is also used to refer to the heaven of Padmasambhava.

So all the words used in relation to Padmasambhava, they have to be re-identified, re-seen. All places that are mentioned can be identified and a pilgrimage route should be created. We should not be under the error that he came from Swat. Politically it is not wise.

My suggestion is that there should be a pilgrimage route built that traces the journey of Padmasambhava.