The Siddhas in India
The Indian vajrayana contains many references to the siddhas, the tantric masters who were held to be fully and perfectly enlightened. Just as the arhat and the bodhisattva embodied the human ideals of the “18 Schools” and mahayana traditions, so the siddhas represented what enlightenment in tantric Buddhism is like when it expresses itself in human form. The siddhas had received the full tantric teachings from their gurus, exhibited the tantra in the large and small activities of their lives, and transmitted what they had received to the next generation of students. There is no doubt that the siddhas depicted in the tantric literature were human beings and the strength of the vajrayana is proof of their creativity. But, at the same time, their students always entertained certain doubts as to whether the siddhas did not also in some way transcend the human condition.
The siddhas lived in India during the entire tantric Buddhist period, from roughly the middle of the first millenium A.D. (nobody knows exactly when the tradition began), down to the end of the twelfth century, when the raids of Muhammad Ghuri put the finishing touches on the destruction of Buddhism in India. During the some seven centuries of their existence, the Indian siddhas had a tremendous impact on the spiritual life of the culture. Countless Buddhist monks and laypeople, who were at first shocked and offended by the siddhas, later came to accept the new and unexpected things they had to say about reality. And even when people did not become Buddhists or follow the vajrayana, the creativity of the siddhas touched them, for through their style and their teachings, these individuals profoundly affected the religious life of non-Buddhist India on countless levels. The impact of the siddhas on Tibetan life was equally important, for they were the ones who carried the vajrayana to Tibet and were instrumental in helping the Buddhist teachings as a whole to survive in the new Tibetan environment.
The siddhas were strange and paradoxical figures who must have struck many people as un-Buddhist, particularly in the early days of tantric Buddhism. Unlike earlier Buddhism, which regarded monastic life as the most conducive to enlightenment, the siddhas were usually not monks. They required their monastic pupils to give up their vows (at least temporarily), and proclaimed that an ordinary life in the world was a higher form of Buddhist practice. They themselves followed every conceivable type of occupation from king to street sweeper, and they frequently made participation in an ordinary job part of their students’ sadhana.
On top of this, in contrast to the relatively definable and dependable personalities of the “18 Schools” monk and the mahayanist bodhisattva, each with his specific ideals and style, the siddha was unpredictable. Pupils could depend on neither clarity nor confusion. They never knew where they stood. One can imagine them uncertain as to whether the siddhas’ unpredictability was the crumbling of Buddhist tradition, the ravings of a madman or the expression of the groundlessness of reality itself. And this was a problem that no verbal doctrine or dogma would overcome.
To make matters more difficult, the siddhas were highly unconventional individuals. They frequently disobeyed the rules and structures of Indian Hindu life, breaking cast regulations, polluting themselves and others, and generally showing disrespect for Hindu social and religious forms. This kind of action might be acceptable, if not tasteful, to the average Indian Buddhist. But the siddhas went considerably farther than this, contravening the basic rules and conventions of Buddhist lay and monastic life. They drank intoxicants, ate meat and appeared to break other strictures of the lay and monastic codes, and frequently encouraged others to do the same things.
At the root of the siddhas’ return to the mundane task of making a living, and at the base of their unpredictability and unconventionality were a new attitude and relationship to the phenomenal world. The “18 Schools” and mahayana traditions, as the siddhas understood them, involved moving away from the ordinary world. The practice of the “18 Schools” aimed at clearing experience of the defiling, ego generating emotions, called the klesas. By leaving samsara behind, nirvana was attained. In the mahayana tradition, samsara was not exactly abandoned. Instead, its structural dependence on nirvana, the other side of the seesaw, needed to be appreciated. Psychologically, it was necessary to confront the empty and deficient quality of samsara and nirvana as independent and self-existing realities. This emptiness (sunyata), as it became more and more part of one’s experience, was enlightenment for the mahayana.
The siddhas regarded the doctrines and practices of the “18 Schools” and mahayana as valid up to a certain point. But they also saw in them a subtle hankering after a goal and an attempt to manipulate experience in certain directions. Such a goal orientation and manipulation imply an actor, an ego, a self image of some sort. The siddhas proclaimed that liberation lies much nearer to hand. When the goal orientation is given up, when manipulation ceases, when experience is not measured against standards of one sort or another (including the “18 Schools” nirodha or “cessation” and the Mahayanist sunyata), that is enlightenment. Such insights led the siddhas to return to the phenomenal world, the world that is constantly showing itself to experience. The experience of that world might be called natural, because it is simply what is there all the time, with nothing laid on it. It might also be called uncommon since, as the siddhas observed, the total lack of ideology implied by such a return is impossible to attain because it is no achievement and involves no act of mind. Such experience is ordinary, so the siddhas took up ordinary jobs, married and had children. It cannot be rationalized or predetermined in any way, so the siddhas were unpredictable. It stands utterly apart from cultural forms and conventions, so the siddhas were unconventional. The word “siddha” comes from the Sanskrit verbal root sidh, to succeed or accomplish, and it means “one who is fully attained.” According to the vajrayana, the “accomplishment” of the siddhas was that they had truly ceased to exist as separate individuals. They had no self image, no conception of themselves or their world. They functioned simply as spokesmen to all other sentient beings for the phenomenal world itself, in all its power and purity, without any distortion or conceptual overlay.
Women and the Siddha Tradition
Women have occupied a curious position in the tantric Buddhist traditions of India and Tibet. On the one hand, in contrast to the earlier Buddhist vehicles, in the tantric literature one frequently runs across women who are described as fully enlightened beings. And in the vajrayana psychology, women are not considered inferior to men in their inherent spiritual potentialities.
Furthermore, they occupy an important place in the tantric lineages, and are depicted as great teachers and authors. In the vajrayana biographies and histories we find accounts of women siddhas such as Vilasyavajra, known variously for being a wineseller and swinekeeper; Ni.gu.ma, Naropa’s former wife; the famous nun Laksmi who began the cycle of Mahakarunika which eventually reached Atisa; Mandarava, Padmasambhava’s Indian consort; Manibhadra, who carried out her practice as the wife of a Hindu; Srimati Liladevi, Vajrasri, Srimati Sahajavajra, Vajravati Brahmani, and many, many others.
At the same time, one finds that by far the majority of siddhas remembered by the tradition are men. The explanation for this apparent anomaly seems to be that women faced more obstacles in practicing the vajrayana than did men. This was true partly because of their biological nature as childbearers, and partly because of the karmic weight of the ancient Indian idea that it is primarily the men who carry on spiritual traditions. We shall presently see factors such as these operating in the life of Laksminkara, creating difficulties for her in her tantric practice that men would not have faced.
In addition, it appears that another factor may have operated in the relative lack of material on the women siddhas. Tantric students looked to the biographies of the siddhas for inspiration in their practice. Since most students were men, and most of the text redactors were consequently male, more weight would have been attached to the biographies of male siddhas as providing the most appropriate and interesting models for them. Perhaps there were many more important women siddhas that we do not know about. In light of this, the life of a woman siddha such as Laksminkara becomes all the more interesting.
Numerous accounts of the Indian siddhas existed in the Indian tradition and were faithfully translated by the Tibetans. Beyond preserving these, the Tibetans added to them by writing down circulating oral traditions received from teachers who had studied in India and by adding their own commentaries to the biographical material. The result is that we have an interesting array of material on the siddhas, all the way from brief anecdotes in Tibetan histories such as Gzon.nu.dpal’s Blue Annals to extended Tibetan biographies of lineage founders such as Pad.ma.dkar.pa’s biography of Tilopa. In between these two extremes is probably the oldest and in some ways most problematic type of biographical accounts, the collections of the legends of the eighty-four mahasiddhas. These collections, of which several exist in Tibetan, contain short biographies, rarely more than a page in length, of each of the eighty-four “Great Siddhas.” These mahasiddhas all seem to have lived between the eighth and eleventh or twelfth centuries and were the teachers from this period particularly remembered and revered by the Buddhist tantra. Laksminkara is one of these eighty-four mahasiddhas.1
The sources on the siddhas’ lives have themselves presented western scholars with many difficulties. Everyone has noticed that these biographies are not “history” in any straight forward or literal sense. Instead, they are steeped in an atmosphere of mystery and magic that constantly verges on the unbelievable. Famous teachers behave in bizarre and incomprehensible ways; pupils accept the most outrageous dictums from their gurus; and events occur that go against any normal, social, moral, logical, or scientific sense of what can and cannot, or should and should not, occur in the world.
Western scholars have usually relegated these siddha lives with their strange contents to the realm of fairy tales, told mainly for their entertainment value. As what has gone before and what will follow should suggest, there is much more to these stories than entertaining anecdotes. They depict a way of experiencing the world that is closely connected with the notion of enlightenment in tantric Buddhism. This is, to be sure, not a “normal” way of seeing things but rather one without expectations of any kind and without the mind-set that we usually carry as individuals and members of society. Events are magical and mysterious because they have no precedent and no explanation. Magic here is a wholly non-manipulative and non-grasping way of taking everyday experience. And mystery proceeds from the insight that some kind of absolute gap exists between experience and conceptual understanding. Such is the atmosphere pervading the stories of siddhas like Laksminkara, and it was just this atmosphere that made these tales so important as teaching aides for generation after generation of tantric students.
Another thing that gives trouble in these biographies is the question of why the tantric tradition chooses to regard the activities of its great teachers as having in themselves, uninterpreted, some sort of power for the reader. Although the heart of the matter must elude us for the present, some things can be said. According to the Buddhist tantra, so-called ordinary experiences have the potential of containing profound meaning. In fact, in their primal form, they are not different from enlightenment. This potential is more and more realized, the less a conceptual overlay is placed on them and mistaken for them. A teacher in the vajrayana is effective because he knows how to communicate his own enlightenment experience of “no precedent, no explanation ” to pupils who ordinarily do not see things in that way. Pupils have found that this communicates itself in some unexplainable but powerful way, through the simple daily gestures and actions of their gurus.
Finding extraordinary meaning in the activities of their teachers, tantric students kept records, both written and oral, of what they saw and experienced. The tradition found that the creativity of the siddhas extended beyond their lives, for something in these accounts is intelligible to readers apparently far removed from the time and places of the stories. And this intelligibility seems to have something to do with the power and unpredictability of the world when it is seen without conceptual overlay. It is these communicative accounts, which are tremendously varied in their form and their impact, that make up the heart of the biographies of Laksminkara and the other siddhas.2
Laksminkara3 was born in the eighth century A.D. in Northwest India in a country called Uddiyana, known since the early days of the vajrayana as an important center of tantric activity and teaching. She belonged to a lineage of nobility, with her father described as a great king in the area, ruling over a place called Sambhola, containing two hundred and fifty thousand households. As a child, Laksminkara felt herself drawn to spiritual practice and, before she attained puberty, had studied with the mahasiddha Kambala and with other tantric teachers. Tradition recounts that even at this young age she had a genuine understanding of many tantras.
When she was seven years old, in accordance with Indian custom of the time, she was betrothed by her older brother Indrabhuti, who was now king, to the son of Jalendra, the King of Lankapuri, an adjoining Hindu kingdom. Since she was too young to take up the role of a wife, it was agreed between Indrabhuti and Jalendra’s family that Laksminkara should remain in Sambhola until she became old enough to assume her duties as a wife in the royal household. While she remained in Sambhola, she continued her spiritual training under such siddhas as Lawapa, from whom she received initiation (abhiseka) and instruction (upadesa), and with whom she studied diligently. She seems also to have had scholarly talents and interests as well, for she studied with Hindu teachers such as the noted brahmana scholar Suryaketu. During this period, which extended for some nine years, her experience must have matured and she must have regarded the approaching consummation of her marriage with a Hindu king and her future as a Hindu queen with some doubt and misgiving.
When Laksminkara had reached her sixteenth year, King Jalendra sent a party to bring her to her new home. For the time being she accepted the fact of her betrothal and set off with her retinue and her dowry to the country of her husband. When she arrived before the palace gates, the Hindu astrologers told her that the day was inauspicious for entering into the palace, and they made her wait outside. One may not be wrong to see in this event Laksminkara’s first concrete indication that Lankapuri was going to be an inhospitable place. Perhaps the Hindu astrologers were expressing the general feeling in the kingdom toward Laksminkara as a Buddhist, as a lowly wife under the jurisdiction of the more senior wives in the court, and as an outsider by blood whose presence was due only to political exigencies. Whatever the reasons behind this incident, tradition says that while waiting outside the palace, she noted that everyone around her was Hindu and she became downcast at her situation. We can imagine her wondering how she could possibly continue her practice as a Buddhist, and moreover as a tantric student, in such a hostile environment.
While she continued her wait outside the palace gates, a group of people rode by, led by a man dressed in princely garb. They carried the fresh corpse of a deer which they had killed in a hunt. Laksminkara asked who these people were and what they were doing. She was told that this group was from the palace, and had been out hunting for sport, under the leadership of her own husband. This killing for amusement opened Laksminkara’s eyes to the brutality of her new family and the impossibility of her own situation. The thought occurred to her that she had been betrayed into the hands of Hindu barbarians by her brother and, in horror, she fainted.
These events outside the palace gate were a turning point for Laksminkara, for when she revived she calmly gave her dowry to the poor and distributed her jewels to her followers. Then she sent her retinue back to Sambhola. Saying that she would not see anyone for ten days, she shut herself up in a room, smeared herself with oil and ashes, and unbound her hair, letting it fall disheveled. Remaining naked, she pretended to be insane. The tradition says that all of these things were done for the sake of the dharma, and that her heart never wavered from her commitment to her practice.
With his wife apparently insane, Jalendra’s son became concerned about her and sent his physicians to try to cure her. But she would have nothing to do with them, throwing things at them and beating them whenever they tried to approach. King Jalendra, having also failed in his efforts to change Laksmink’s behavior, sent a letter of recrimination to Indrabhuti, complaining that Laksminkara was not acting as a wife should and requesting that Indrabhuti exert his influence to rectify the situation. Normally in this kind of situation, it would have been natural for the family of an unsatisfactory wife to do what they could to bring her back into line. But Indrabhuti, knowing his sister very well, discerned what was really going on, and evidently refused to take action.
After this, according to tradition, Laksminkara’s spontaneous renunciation of samsara became complete, and she left the palace grounds to carry on her practice singlemindedly. As other siddhas before her had done, she continued to behave as if she were insane, effecting a complete break with the forms and conventions of the human world, wandering through the alleys of the towns in the area. She ate from garbage heaps, often staying in cremation grounds where tantric yogis were found. For seven years, until she was twenty-four, Laksminkara continued her practice unknown to anyone. The former princess had ceased to exist for all anyone knew. She was anonymous and alone, except for her practice. Finally, at the end of this long period, the tradition says that she attained enlightenment.
As an enlightened siddha, Laksminkara subsequently became known as a great teacher and author. Two of her early pupils were the two men who had been particularly important in her life. Her older brother Indrabhuti found himself inspired by her example and eventually gave up the throne to his son, in order to practice meditation. He too went into seclusion, and during some twelve years of practice received from his younger sister initiation, instruction and transmission of her spiritual lineage. In particular, she instructed him in the Guhyasamaja Tantra, which she had learned from the siddha Cittavajra, who had received it from a lineage composed of a farmer, a wine merchant, a weaver, a lady brahmin and a baker. Her former husband, the son of the King Jalendra, was also inspired by Laksminkara’s example to give up his throne, convert to Buddhism and practice the tantric vehicle. He did not study with Laksminkara directly, but rather, through her insistence, with one of her pupils, a street sweeper whose job it was to clean the prince’s very own latrines.
Laksminkara had many other disciples. One of her most famous was Virupa to whom she taught the Phag.mo.gzung.drug or “Six Dharanis of Varahi.” She was also the guru of Vilasyavajra, the lady wineseller and swinekeeper, and of Jalandhara, one of the most famous and powerful of all the siddhas and the teacher of Krsnacari. Laksminkara was furthermore a writer, and composed important texts such as the Advayasiddhisadhananama. Her fame, as the tradition says, shone far and wide like the sun, and teachings she gave her students were transmitted down through succeeding generations, to the present day.
We have no way of knowing exactly how literally to take the various places, people, and events in Laksminkara’s biography. In any given instance, with no outside sources to confirm what we find in the story, who can be certain of this or that detail? The doubt we feel here is the same as that which arises in the biography of nearly any person who lived before the modern period, and particularly in biographies that deal with spiritual founders and are preserved by religious communities. With Buddha, with Jesus, and with countless others, details escape us, and we are frequently in the dark as to how to evaluate the details we find.
In spite of this, we need not entertain too many doubts about the power that this and the other siddha biographies had for the Buddhist tantric tradition. The Princess Laksminkara evidently overcame enormous obstacles to find her way to wisdom. She was clearly a woman of courage and insight. She founded more than one important lineage and her personality had a marked impact on her followers. As an expression of their devotion to who she was, they passed on this short biography, which found its way into the mahasiddhas’ collection. It is her personality that stands behind her biography. To paraphrase something Richard Robinson once said, surely we only see her through the eyes of her pupils, who worked, reworked and selectively remembered her story. But, just as surely, Laksminkara is in some fashion responsible for the way in which they saw her.3 In this sense, we can have confidence in what is before us. Details may be in doubt, but it seems we can trust the communication that comes to us from her story.
The ‘biography’ of Laksminkara represents a compilation from three main sources: 1) The Tibetan grub.thob.brgyad.cu.rtsa.bzi (“The 84 Siddhas”) by the Indian Mi.hjigs.pa.sbyin.pa.dpal, (published by E. Kal- sang, Buddhist Temple, D 64/135, Sigra, Varanasi, India), which I read with help from Grunwedel’s translation of this work, Die Geschichten der vierundachtzig Zauberer (Baessler Archiv, Vol. V, pp. 137-228, Leipzig, 1916, pp. 219-220) and from Keith Dowman who is working on this biography in Nepal; 2) Grunwedel’s Taranatha’s Edelsteinminne (Petrograd, 1914, Bibliotheca Buddhica, No. 18, scattered references), for which I have not been able to obtain the Tibetan; and 3) the Blue Annals (Calcutta: Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1949 and 1953, pp. 196-200). While the information obtainable from these sources needs to be supplemented, nevertheless, we can draw from them the picture of a remarkable woman.
Certainly these ideas are only a first suggestion that the biographies of the siddhas are not primarily the ‘popular literature’ they have usually been taken for, but rather subtle and sophisticated expressions of Vajrayana teaching. How else could we explain the fact that they have been used by the masters of the tradition and their pupils through generation after generation. Any adequate understanding of these biographies would require two steps: first, development of general interpretive principles along the lines of the preceding paragraphs; second, working out specific interpretations in the individual biographies, for each siddha has his own style and teaching, and general principles applying to all of the biographies can take one only so far.
Also Sanskrit “Laksmikara”; Tibetan “Legs.smin.ka.ra” “dPal.mdzad.ma.”