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Mantramārga and Mantrayāna

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– Christopher D Wallis

Tantric Buddhism and Tantric Śaivism are conterminous, coeval, and co-functional. In fact, I believe the evidence supports the notion that they are co-functional and conterminous to the same degree as Tantric Śaivism is with Brāhmanism, thereby belying the notion that the latter two are “branches of Hinduism”, at least for the early medieval period. For various agenda-driven reasons, the interchange of Śaivism and Brāhmanism is well documented; what is less frequently acknowledged is the extent to which Tantric Śaivism and Tantric Buddhism borrowed freely from one other, creating marked parallelisms primarily in practice, and sometimes in thought as well. They even have synonymous names: for the emic name for Tantric Śaivism is the Mantramārga, a parallel with Tantric Buddhism’s Mantrayāna as well as the earlier Mantranaya. But much more convincing evidence will be presented below.

First I will briefly examine common doctrinal presuppositions and intellectual exchange and interdependence in philosophical discourse. Then I will demonstrate how both Śaivism and Buddhism formulated a religious hierarchy of truth that included the other on lower levels. Thirdly, I will touch on the issue of ritual co-functionality, and fourth, on outright appropriation from each other on many levels. Finally, I look at the movement towards total assimilation in the late medieval period. All this evidence will further serve to show that modern scholars have not gone entirely astray in their attempts to formulate an interreligious category called ’Tantra‘.

We noted above that with very minor exceptions, all of the criteria that Buddhist scholars identified with Buddhist Tantra above apply equally to Śaiva Tantra. This is perhaps because Tantra is fundamentally a way of thinking and a modality of practice that is not necessarily tied to a specific doctrine (though it might make more sense in certain doctrinal environments), making it malleable, protean, and exportable. It is a form, not so much content, and is therefore adaptable and adaptable.

Without denying any of the elements in the useful polythetic lists given above, my non-sectarian definition of Tantra is as follows: an Indian interreligious movement driven by a ritual practice presupposing initiation, oral instruction from a guru, and micro-meso-macrocosmic correlations, and utilizing mantras, creative meditations, and sometimes sensual or antinomian means to access and experientially assimilate the divine energy of the (variously conceived) Godhead, in order to achieve power, pleasures, and liberation. This definition, while dense, seems to encompass as much that is essential of what we would like to call Tantra as possible.

Śaiva and Bauddha Tantra are also nearly coeval and parallel in the structure of their canons. As we saw above, Tantric Buddhism as defined began in the sixth century. This is also the date for the earliest scripture of Tantric Śaivism, the Niśvāsatattvasaṃ hitā, the bulk of which was composed by 550 CE. There is a key difference, however: the Niśvāsa represents the irruption into the textual record of a tradition that must have been developing orally for some time, for the text is a vast (4500 v.) and complex work, treating not only ritual but theology, cosmogony, and cosmology. Therefore we must conclude that Śaiva Tantra predates Bauddha Tantra, for the contemporaneous Bauddha Tantric texts show none of this complexity, sophistication, and nuance, even if we were to date the Niśvāsa nearly a century later. But sufficient evidence of this to convince the scholarly community must wait for the publication of an edition of the Niśvāsa.

The development of the two Tantric canons is parallel, with the exception that the Śaiva texts of the Mantramārga (= Tantric/Āgamic) are very much concerned with doctrine (jñāna) for they are (for the most part) unconnected from any earlier textual strata, whereas, as we have seen, the Bauddha scriptures of the Mantrayāna are relatively unconcerned with doctrine, for nearly all necessary doctrine had already been enunciated by the Mahāyāna. The first phase of the Mantramārga, that of the Śaiva Siddhānta, is dualist, non-transgressive and does not include worship of the feminine in any substantial way (though it did initiate women); it may be compared to the Caryā and Yoga Tantras in the Bauddha canon, though its textual output is at least two or three times more substantial (Dyczkowski 1988).

The second main phase, sometimes called the Mantrapīṭha or the Svacchanda-Bhairava sect, introduces mild transgressive imagery and worships the deity and his consort more or less equally; this parallels the Yogottara Tantras, which introduce erotic elements. Finally, the third phase of Āgamic (scriptural) Śaivism, sometimes called the Vidyāpīṭha (where vidyā is a feminine equivalent of mantra), is the most highly transgressive, including both mortuary and erotic elements, the most focused on the worship of the feminine, and the most emphatically non-dual in its doctrine.

Thus it is parallel to the Yoginī Tantras, which have all the same features; unsurprisingly, as it is this phase of Vajrayāna texts that is most directly indebted to the Śaiva sources. All these texts on both sides are usually written in a register of Sanskrit that deviates from Pāṇinean norms and reflects vernacular influence. This does not indicate that they were written by non-elites, but probably that most of them were composed in marginal regions, outside the brāhmanical heartland of Āryāvarta in the Gangetic Plain.

This style was in time established as a scriptural register of Sanskrit, and bizarrely, we have evidence of later scriptural authors attempting to imitate the ’poor‘ Sanskrit of these texts. At any rate, their language contrasts greatly with that of the sophisticated exegetes of the scriptures. On both Śaiva and Bauddha sides, the exegetes flourished from the 10th to the 13th centuries, and both sides produced some towering intellectual polymaths in this period (e.g., Utpaladeva and Abhinavagupta; Abhayākaragupta and Ratnākarasānti). Of course, this was also the period in which Tantric Buddhism was effectively transitioning out of India and into Tibet, or else, I suspect, these parallelisms would have continued, perhaps even to the point of syncretism, at least in practice.

The two tantric traditions also contain significant parallels in the theory that undergirds their practice. In a recent article, Francesco Sferra outlines some of these, citing numerous primary sources. Both traditions emphasize, as we have seen, the prerequisite of initiation and the importance of the guru who grants it. In both traditions, initiates are enjoined to view the guru as an aspect of the deity and never to speak ill of him.

Secondly, Sferra notes that for both these two traditions, liberation means in some sense Becoming the deity, whether through merging with it, realizing one always was identical with it or becoming a deity separate but equal to the one evoked. Thirdly, he correctly argues that both traditions, despite their hyper-ritualism, possess what Sanderson has called a ‘subitistdimension of spontaneous gnosis, the notion that immersion into our true nature (svabhāva) is possible at any moment; whether that nature is conceived of as śūnyatā or śivatva.

Sferra states, “Although the concepts relating to the true nature of the self are very different, the underlying belief is the same.“ This might seem a surprising and even unscholarly claim, yet scriptural passages can be cited to support it. A number of Śaiva texts describe Śiva, the highest aspect of reality, as a stainless void, a clear transcendent space of pure awareness. And Sferra here simply means that both traditions assert that our inner being or true nature “lies behind adventitious maculations” and that experiencing it, through whatever means, is the goal. He wonders if there is any real difference between the concept of śūnyatā and that of sarvaṃ sarvātmakaṃ (which the Śaivas assert). He notes that a verse expressing this sentiment, of unknown provenance (though Abhinavagupta attributes it to the arhats), is found in a number of Bauddha, Śaiva, and Vaiṣṇava works:

eko bhāvastattvato yena dṛṣṭaḥ sarve bhāvāstattvatastena dṛṣṭaḥ | eko bhavaḥ sarvabhāvasvabhāvaḥ sarve bhāvā ekabhāvasvabhāvāḥ ||

“One who sees one entity as it really sees all entities as they really are. One entity has the (same) innate nature as all entities, and all entities have the same innate nature as any single entity.“ Sferra’s point then, as I take it, is that this principle underlies the different religious theories about what exactly that innate nature is and that the different names given to it obscure the parallel thinking at work. He notes further that both traditions require a relinquishment of the notions of ’I‘ and ’mine‘, the vikalpas that veil the truth. Finally, Sferra notes that both traditions entail in their soteriological sādhanas a process of de-identification with one’s conceptual representations of the past and the future and immersing oneself in the consciousness of the present moment, and both allow for the possibility of final liberation through gnosis alone.

Exegetes of both traditions cite the other sympathetically, despite the de rigueur attacks on one another (which Sferra argues are generally clichés, stock criticisms, and simplifications); after citing a number of examples, Sferra writes,

“More generally, it is evident that Buddhist doctrines constituted an important standard of comparison for many exponents of Hindu Tantrism, at least in exegetical literature; one only has to think how heavily authors such as Utpaladeva and Abhinavagupta depended on Buddhist logicians just to develop their technical terminology.”

This leads us to briefly consider the interdependence of the philosophical discourse of these traditions, which is a feature mainly of the exegetical phase. Davidson presents the notion that in the seventh century Buddhist philosophy underwent a “turn to epistemology“, that is, it began to engage in debate using the pan-Indian, inter-sectarian terms of epistemological discourse rather than the terms and arguments endemic only to the Buddhist tradition.

This shift, he suggests, both strengthened and weakened the Buddhist tradition in various ways, for it brought Buddhist thought into a wider sphere of debate, equipping it with tools but comprising its religious capacity for self-validation. The main proponents of this development were Dignāga (early sixth century) and Dharmakīrti (first half of the seventh century), the latter of which was more influential, possessing a highly refined analytical mind and writing in an extraordinarily dense and concise kārikā style of high-register Sanskrit. It was Dharmakīrti whom the Śaivas took on as their principal non-Śaiva interlocutor, as well as Dharmottara, one of his successors.

For example, Dharmakīrti is quoted no less than 44 different times in a single chapter of a work by Śaiva exegete Rāmakaṇṭha. Raffaele T Orella writes that the masters of Buddhist logic “are opponents, of course, but they are evoked so constantly and always with such profound respect, particularly Dharmakīrti, that the nature of their relationship is not immediately evident.“

Here he is referring mainly to non-dual Śaivas (such as Utpaladeva and Abhinavagupta) who engaged most frequently with the Pramāṇavārttika, Pramāṇavinishchaya, Pramāṇasamuccaya, and Nyāyābindu and were clearly aware of some of the commentaries on those works as well. Torella discusses this engagement and the resulting dialectic in two important articles (1992 and 2001). A central work of Śaiva non-dualist philosophy, the Ishvara-pratyabhijñā-kārikā (early 10th c.) is also deeply engaged with Buddhist thought, and Torella’s annotated translation of it briefly takes this up at various points in his notes.

The intellectual connection between Śaivas and Buddhists can be even more easily seen in the work of a dualist exegete of the Śaiva Siddhānta school, Bhatta Rāmakaṇṭha, for a young scholar of the Oxford school has recently published a thorough examination of the latter’s views in a book entitled- The Self’s Awareness of Itself: Bhatta Rāmakaṇṭha’s Arguments against the Buddhist Doctrine of No-Self (Watson 2006). This work is a study primarily of a philosophical Śāstra of Rāmakaṇṭha called the Nareśvaraparīkṣā-prakāśa.

In it, Watson clearly shows Rāmakaṇṭha’s “sympathy with and understanding of” the Buddhist position, for the latter positions his Buddhist interlocutor above other so-called ’Hindus‘ like the Sāṅkhyas, Naiyāyikas, etc. in terms of their relative understanding of the true nature of being. In fact, Rāmakaṇṭha’s strategy in the first two chapters of this text is to have his Buddhist pūrvapakṣin refute the arguments of all the other schools so that when he himself refutes the Buddhist, he will be seen to have claimed the intellectual victory.

This strategy clearly entails a vision of the Buddhist interlocutor as a ’proximate other’ rather than a ’remote other’. Watson says, “He stands with Buddhism against the Brāhmaṇical realist traditions in denying a Self beyond cognition [itself].“ Indeed, in Rāmakaṇṭha’s Kiraṇavṛtti he uses almost identically worded arguments to those of his Buddhist in Nareśvaraparīkṣā-prakāśa but here attributing them to his own school!

It would appear that the only difference he has with the Buddhist is that while he agrees there is no perceiving self apart from consciousness, the Buddhist believes that consciousness to be different with each cognitive perception, while Rāmakaṇṭha believes the same consciousness witnesses different perceptions. But this agreement on many points would not be sufficient for Rāmakaṇṭha to make the Buddhist his ally in their argumentation if he perceived the latter as ’wholly other‘.

It has long been noted that ritual is an identity marker in Indian religious culture, and those sectarian boundaries are more likely to be drawn along ritual lines than doctrinal ones (Granoff 2000: 399). However, in an important article of seven years ago, Phyllis Granoff broached the subject of what she calls ritual eclecticism, that is, the permission or even injunction on the part of one Indian religion to perform the rituals, use the mantras, or worship the deities of another.

She presents much interesting evidence there but strangely does not clearly draw from it a conclusion which I would regard as fundamental and significant, that all ritual eclecticism takes place on the level of mundane pursuits (siddhi and bhoga), none involving soteriological rituals. I will summarize some of the evidence she presents, together with corroborating sources. My argument here is not that the religious boundaries were blurred in the early medieval period, but rather that all the different traditions saw themselves as co-functional with each other on the laukika level (excepting perhaps the Vaidika), Buddhism no less than the rest.

It is not surprising that the least successful (in terms of numbers of adherents, amount of patronage, etc.) of the early medieval Indian religions was also the most permissive: Jainism, as represented by the Yogabindu of Haribhadrasūri, enjoins its hearers to worship all the gods equally (!), saying “And so the teacher of religion, who knows that his disciple, like a dumb beast [paśu], is not capable of discriminating with respect to rituals such as the worship of the gods, and who therefore directs him to perform all rituals, to worship all the gods without distinction in order to accomplish some specific goal, is not to be faulted in any way.” Yogabindu 15-16 (Granoff 2000: 403)

The implication of ’some specific goal‘ here is a non-soteriological goal. It seems as Haribhadrasūri, knowing that Jainism did not offer enough in the way of worldly ritual technology to compete in the ’marketplace‘, encourages Jains to use whatever means necessary to accomplish their worldly ends. I would propose that this was seen as preferable to losing adherents by denying them such permission.

But let us turn back to Buddhism, for it too engaged in such eclecticism, though in a more restricted manner. Granoff explores sections of the Manjuśrīmūlakalpa (relatively) late Kriyā Tantra class text of which she says, “There is nothing inherently Buddhist about the rituals of the [text] or about its goals”, corroborating the argument about the Kriyā Tantras generally above, though she may here be slightly overstating the case. We do see in the text the injunction that “a bodhisattva is told both not to abandon his own mantra nor to let go of the mantras belonging to others“ and on the following page the instruction to “not belittle either laukika or lokottara mantras” where of course the former refers to non-Buddhist mantras.

All mantras, the text declares, of any sect or religion (citing those of Vaidika, Śaiva, and Vaiṣṇava deities) can be utilized, as long as they are brought into a Buddhist context, either by prefixing the seed-syllable or ekākṣara given by the text or by reciting them before its maṇḍala. Indeed, the implication seems to be that it is the text’s maṇḍala, conceived as Buddhist, that renders them efficacious. In other words, by integrating them into a Buddhist vision of the world, they become valid. The Caryā Tantra called Mahāvairocanābhisambodhi-sūtra (its commentator Buddhaguhya calls it a tantra) exhibits a similar attitude, for it instructs the listener to draw the laukika divinities in the outer layer of its maṇḍala (such as Agni, Yama, the Mothers, Indra, Varua, Aditya, Sarasvati, and so on, implying their ritual worship as well.

Such ’inclusivism‘ (cf. Paul Hacker) is attested in a number of other Buddhist sources as well. The commentator describes these deities as “Adornments of the Bhagavat’s Inexhaustible Body” and argues that as such (i.e. in a Buddhist context) they are more powerful. Additionally, in its first chapter, the Mahāvairocanābhisambodhi-sūtra presents a hierarchy of nine different types of mind, all subordinate to the bodhicitta.

The first seven of these generate merit through moral observances, leading to the appearance of ’spiritual friend‘ who instructs them in the worship of the laukika divinities, such as the Vaidika (brahmā viṣṇu śaṅkara, etc.) and popular divinities (Nagas and sages), saying “These gods are great gods: they bestow happiness upon all. If you respectfully make offerings to them, you will become fortunate in all things.“

The text clearly sanctions such worship for people of lower aptitudes, saying “This is the most excellent refuge of the foolish common folk who wander lost in saṃsāra. The sense seems to be that any religiosity is better than none, and can be considered a step towards the right path. Higher than this eighth mind are those of the Sāṅkhya/Yoga school (the ones who pursue kaivalya), but higher than them of course is the mind that seeks to generate Bodhicitta (though that specific term is not used).

Śaivism exhibits this eclectic quality far less often, which is not surprising, as it is the dominant religion of the early medieval period, and did not have to be as accommodating. We see some eclecticism, however, in the influential Śaiva text called the Netratantra (9th c.), which teaches the worship of Amṛteśvara Bhairava, aka Mṛtyuñjaya. The text declares that Amṛteśvara can be worshipped not only in the form of any of the other Śaiva deities (which cross-sectarianism is unusual enough), but also in the form of Viṣṇu, Sūrya, Brahmā, Gaṇeśa, and the Buddha or indeed “all other deities”, by incorporating their names within Amṛteśvara’s mantra.

This astonishing assertion is explained by Sanderson as due to the fact that the purpose of this text was to give Śaiva officiants the ritual tools necessary to take on the position of the rājapurohita or king’s royal chaplain, traditionally the province of Atharvavedin brāhmans. The audacious attempt to replace orthodox Vaidika officiants in this crucial role is itself evidence of Śaivism’s success, and Sanderson presents further evidence that they were successful to some extent, at least in the far north and that Atharvavedins responded by appropriating Śaiva techniques.

As for the inclusion of the Buddha in the forms in which Amṛteśvara could be worshipped, Sanderson explains this by saying that the Buddha is one of the deities of the local religious calendar of required observances in Kashmir, as documented in the Nīlamatapurāṇa and that the officiant of the Netra had to be able to worship all such deities on the king’s behalf. The worship of the Buddha though was also done for the women of the court, as the Netra states that the Buddha’s special role is “bestowing the reward of liberation upon women”, perhaps because Kashmirian queens in this period were patrons of Buddhism. At any rate, none of this contextual information invalidates my claim for a degree of co-functionality between Buddhism and Śaivism.

Just as Buddhism had its laukika dimension, within which it admitted co-functionality with other deities, Śaiva texts too spoke of a laukika realm, which for it was generally the Vaidika one. The fact that it extended co-functionality to this realm was not evidence of co-religiosity; just like Buddhism, Śaivism did not admit of any soteriological value to any Vaidika rite.