The Lives of Indian Buddhist Saints

by James Burnell Robinson



[page 57] The great religions come down to us by means of a great chain of masters who receive faithfully the teachings from those before them and convey compassionately to those coming after them. The Tibetan schools of Buddhism have been very aware of the importance of these links of tradition. An important feature of Tibetan Buddhism is the authoritative role that representatives of Indian Buddhism have had. Indeed, the Tibetans often portray themselves as transmitters, rather than as originators, of doctrine and practice. As a consequence, the life stories of Indian masters, teachers and saints are zealously preserved by the Tibetans.

Biography and history are genres more characteristic of Tibetan than Indian Buddhist literature and it is Tibetan accounts of the lives of Indian masters that have been most accessible. Tāranātha's rGya gar chos 'byung ("History of Buddhism in India") gives accounts of the major Buddhist figures in India, particularly those important in Tibetan teaching lineages. It has been translated into a number of European languages. A biography of the Indian master Nāropa by the Tibetan master lHa'i btsun pa Rin chen rnam rgyal of Brag dkar has been translated by Herbert Guenther as The Life and Teaching of Nāropa.

Both of these texts were written by Tibetans. Tibetan translations of Indian biographies are somewhat more rare, and it is a sample of this translated literature that I want to examine here:[page 58] the Caturaśitisiddhapravṛtti, in Tibetan the Grub thob brgyad bcu rtsa bzhi'i lo rgyus (GTGC) ("The Lives of the Eighty-four Siddhas"). This text, originally written in Sanskrit by the twelfth-century master Abhayadatta, exists now only in Tibetan translation.

There have been three translations of this text into Western languages. The first was a German translation by Albert Grünwedel, Die Geschichten de vier und achtzig Zauberers aus dem Tibetischen übersetz (1916). The other two are in English: one my own, assisted by Geshe Lhundup Sopa, published as Buddha's Lions (1979); and the other by Keith Dowman, Masters of Mahamudra (1986).

The siddhas are the figures associated with the rise and transmission of tantric Buddhism in India. A siddha is literally "a perfected one," a "perfect master," and there are both male and female siddhas. A siddha is also one who possesses siddhi, a term which means "success," particularly in yoga; it came to be applied to the magical powers which are the signs of yogic success. The siddhas then are not only successful in their spiritual quest, but possess magical powers that confirm it. While early Buddhism tended to downplay the role of magic, by the time of the tantras, magical powers were very much an item of interest. And the stories of the siddhas are notable for the accounts of extraordinary feats which they are said to have performed.

After looking at certain structural elements common to the stories in the GTGC, I want to examine some methodological problems raised by these accounts. Although the masters are almost surely historical personages, and these accounts have a historical dimension, this literature is best considered hagiography; beyond even that, we may fruitfully call these narratives "Buddhist myths" which function in both a horizontal and a vertical dimension.

The Stories of the Siddhas

At least two types of accounts can be recognized in the eighty-four stories of the siddhas collected in the GTGC. The more common type is an almost formulaic narration of how individuals in various walks of life achieved high spiritual status, often by taking their daily lives in the world as the basis of spiritual exercise—what the Hindu tradition would call karmayoga.

Then there are stories of the great heroes, male and female, of the Buddhist Tantra: people like Virūpa, (the tantric) Nāgārjuna, Kṛṣṇācāri, Kambala, Indrabhūti and his sister Lakṣmīṅkarā and[page 59] Ghaṇṭapāda—all of whom figure prominently in tantric lineages. Compared with the first type, these stories are more complex and are often made up of several episodes. Keith Dowman uses a convention of calling the protagonists of the first type siddhas, and the figures of the second type mahāsiddhas or "great siddhas" (xv), though the tradition seems to use these terms interchangeably.

Narratives of the first type follow a certain pattern which, since it is repeated again and again, takes on an almost ritualistic quality (Robinson: 9). The central figure is first introduced by name, caste and country. This name is usually not the name by which the individual was known in ordinary life but a spiritual nom de guerre obtained in the course of practice. Lūyipa,1 for example, broke attachment to the fastidious pattern of eating he had acquired as a prince by eating the innards of fish that fishermen discarded in cleaning their catch. From this practice, he came to be known as Lūyipa, a name derived from a Bengali word for fish guts. Śiyalipa, the twenty-first siddha, took his name "Jackal-man" from the fact that the howling of jackals was at first an object of fear for him, then an object of meditation. Other names, such as Tantipa ("The Weaver") or Cāmāripa ("The Cobbler") or Kamparipa ("The Blacksmith"), are drawn from their respective occupations, which served as a focus for meditation.

Following the name, the account states the siddha's occupation and caste. While the most famous of the siddhas are monks, the majority are laypeople—a notable fact, given that Buddhism has often identified spiritual practice with monasticism. Furthermore, most of the siddhas had lowly origins and worked in menial positions. The text is clearly affirming that one can practice the Dharma in any condition of life.

Then follows a short description of a life situation that prompts the protagonist to seek the Dharma. The problems confronting the siddhas-to-be are familiar and universal: Kankaripa, the seventh siddha, is grieving for his deceased wife; Tantipa is old, senile, and neglected by his family; Kucipa is afflicted with a painful tumor; Medhini is a farmer who is sick and tired of having to work all the time. Still other protagonists are caught up in various self-destructive obsessions: Tantipa is a compulsive gambler; Sarvabakśa is an insatiable eater; Thaganapa is an incessant liar; Mahipa is inordinately proud of his physical strength.

Not all of these life situations that turn the individual from his or her ordinary concerns are unpleasant. Udheli sees the flight of[page 60] the wild geese and longs to be able to fly with them. Śavaripa is so impressed by a magic arrow that he wishes only to possess its power. Khaḍgapa is a thief who desires a magic sword to make him a better thief. Both positive and negative aspirations as well as life-crises are openings for the guru to offer transforming instruction. In some cases, the guru himself (occasionally herself) points by his (or her) very presence and example to higher possibilities in the human existence. Confronted with the living results of the Dharma, many protagonists simply surrender themselves and request teachings.

Most gurus are wandering ascetics living on what they can beg, sleeping in cemeteries, wearing patched clothes, etc. But the guru can also be a superhuman bodhisattva. Avalokita appears to the deer hunter Śavaripa and persuades him to abandon his practice of killing. Mañjuśrī appears to a seemingly lazy and dim-witted Bhusuku (Śāntideva) and delivers knowledge and wisdom to him.

Of particular interest is the fact that some of the gurus are ḍākinīs, the feminine embodiments of wisdom, who appear when needed to provide insight (Govinda: 190ff.). Some appear in dreams and visions, but in several of the stories the ḍākinīguru seems to be a human female adept (Robinson: 15).

Once the individual expresses a desire for the Dharma, the guru gives two things: initiation and instruction. Initiation, as the name implies, is a ceremony that begins the practice, but it is also seen as communicating an actual spiritual force, without which the student cannot be successful. The tantric systems of the Guhyasamāja, the Cakrasaṃvara, and the Hevajra are all mentioned.

After the initiation, the guru gives instruction to the student in terms that relate to his or her immediate situation. Often a worldly occupation or object of concern is used as a vehicle for transcending the world. As a consequence, unlike some other forms of spiritual discipline which require physical isolation, engaging in meditation and living in the world of ordinary human affairs do not exclude each other so long as both are done in the proper way. For example, Kamparipa, a blacksmith who develops a disgust for saṁsāra in general and for his work in particular, is told that he should let his inner acts of meditation be like those deeds he did outwardly. The right and left tantric veins should be the bellows, the central channel the anvil and the consciousness the smith. The conceptions should be fuel and his wisdom and insight the shining[page 61] fire. He should hammer the iron of misery; the result will be the stainless Dharma Body (Robinson: 160).

The student then works for a period of time—twelve years is a common span—and in the end achieves success. There may be some mention of how the siddha instructed others or performed some miraculous feat. Finally, he or she goes to the realm of the ḍākas, a type of tantric paradise.2

Stories of great masters of Tantra are not so easily analyzed. Sometimes we are told the condition in which they achieved enlightenment, other times we are simply given stories that manifest their signs of success. Saraha, a tantric adept, is forced by some Brahmans to justify his drinking wine, a violation of caste restrictions. He undergoes a trial by ordeal, plunging his hand into boiling oil, drinking molten copper and walking on water. Finally, the king simply says, "If anyone who has powers like these drinks wine, then let him drink" (Robinson: 43). Saraha then preaches to the king, who with his court is converted.

The story of Virūpa tells how a monk became a siddha through tantric practice. He eats the pigeons of the monastery then resurrects them. When he consumes vast quantities of liquor, he stops the sun to pay the bill. He humbles worshippers of Śiva and overcomes cannibal witches. In the story of Nāgārjuna we are told how he withstands the assaults of demonesses, attempts to change a mountain into gold until dissuaded by Mañjuśrī, helps a cowherder become king, and how he lives for several hundred years. The story of Kanhapa or Kṛṣṇācāri tells of a yogin who had gained all the worldly siddhis but found it difficult to put away his pride. Though he did not obtain full success till the end of his life, he was still able to walk on water and change his form from man to wolf. The stories of Ḍombipa and Kambala likewise portray awesome magical power.

The Stories as Biography and History

Like all religious texts, particularly those that deal with an esoteric tradition, these biographies can be read on several levels. I propose three ascending and mutually enriching ways of reading the accounts of the siddhas: as history, as hagiography and as myth.

These three approaches do not exclude each other; each has its own particular emphasis and each puts the stories into a particular[page 62] perspective in the overall context of Buddhism. The historical approach looks for what the texts can tell us about the history of Buddhism in India, particularly the rise of tantric Buddhism. The hagiographic reading focuses upon the religious purposes of a text and how those purposes have affected its transmission and reception. The mythological perspective focuses upon the texts as sacred narrative. Keith Dowman suggests that stories of the siddhas can be read first as edifying tales, second as tantric allegories and symbolic narratives and finally as works that may offer historical insight (xi). Allegorical symbolism is undoubtedly very important here; Govinda, for instance, suggests that accounts of Virūpa stopping the flow of the Ganges and halting the sun are not at all to be taken as descriptions of literal events, but should be understood as descriptions of inner yogic processes (53). But it has been the historical and more strictly biographical levels that have attracted modern scholars, and so it is to these stories as historical narrative that we turn to begin our discussion.

Abhayadatta most likely set down the accounts in the GTGC as he had received them, that is, as actual biographical accounts. Tāranātha records similar stories (214-215) in a work intended as history, and while there are those in the Tibetan tradition who look more to the symbolism involved, many simply take these accounts in the same spirit that Americans take the account of Washington crossing the Delaware River in the American Revolution.

While the extraordinary nature of the activities of the siddhas requires careful analysis, there is no doubt that, at the very least, we may derive from them certain broad insights into the social conditions of the period. Every account that is passed on reflects its time, if for no other reason than that it has some degree of credibility with its audience. Even if the historical accuracy of certain events and personages may seem suspect to critical scholarly eyes, recurrent motifs probably are quite accurate in mirroring the conditions of the time. For example, the prevalence of lay people in the stories suggests that the tantras were reaching out beyond the monastic establishments, which were traditionally the centers of Buddhism. And the fact that several individuals claim that no one would teach them because they were of low caste suggests that, while Buddhism was less tied to ideas of caste than Hinduism was, it did function within Indian caste society and was not completely free of caste prejudice. Both Khaṇḍipa and Kamparipa remark that they had not expected to find a teacher because of their[page 63] caste status. While the significance of these observations may be modified by further research, these accounts have historical value quite apart from the credibility of specific events.

But be that as it may, the extraordinary feats attributed to these figures play a striking role in the stories and may cause modern readers some perplexity. We are unaccustomed to being told as historical fact that men and women fly by their own power through the air, that they can walk across water or engage in magical duels with witches, to say nothing of stopping the sun to pay one's bar tab. Some degree of skepticism seems in order.

Yet the siddhas are not simply products of a religious or literary imagination. Not only do they live in a certain time and place that is often identifiable to some degree, but, more importantly, we have texts attributed to the siddhas—someone had to write them. If, for example, Saraha did not write the Dohās, the cycle of tantric songs attributed to him, then they were written by someone else to whom we can only give the name "Saraha" (Guenther: 1969). Whether or not Abhayadatta's account of him is true in all its details, somebody in the history of Buddhism likely answered to the name "Saraha." And doctrines and practices do not emerge from thin air; someone has to develop them and someone has to transmit them. In the case of the Tantras, siddhas frequently appear in this role. As a consequence, we have little ground to deny ab initio that we are dealing with actual historical figures. So we have seemingly real characters who perform seemingly unrealistic deeds.

Western scholars have become increasingly sophisticated in evaluating accounts from other cultures. We examine their sociological function; we may look at them as a reflection of cultural dynamics, as expressions of deep psychological forces or may even consider their value from the point of view of their impact upon individuals and communities. Yet one cannot help but suspect that scholars develop these elaborate and sophisticated analyses precisely because they say in their hearts: of course, we all know that these extraordinary tales cannot be really true.

It is not unfair to say that for Western scholars, by and large, any explanation, to count as explanation, is put in terms of purely natural (some would say purely physical) causation and conditions. Anything which cannot be explained at present in purely natural terms simply awaits a natural explanation that will come with future research. As heirs of David Hume, whose essay on miracles (1964: 205-229) has been important in shaping scholarship,[page 64] we apply a strict canon of probability to historical events. The presumption is that there is no such thing as the miraculous or the extraordinary, though scholars can be very subtle in explaining how any given account came to be. In the final analysis, we are to side with "common sense."

But the rationality of common sense has an inherent limitation; it is by definition founded on the ordinary experience of ordinary people. It is the accustomed and familiar. The accounts of the siddhas contain extraordinary happenings but, after all, siddhas are extraordinary people. Abhayadatta nowhere claims that walking on water or resurrecting pigeons are events carried out in the normal course of our everyday world. We need not thereby subscribe to the historical truth of these stories but we have to acknowledge the limitations of common sense when used as a criterion of truth. The contemporary historian may well argue that common sense is all we have; but, in the end, it is a cultural postulate and an assumption.

One additional caveat: while such dramatic events as stopping the sun cannot be held literally without our substantially changing the laws of physics, instances of other extraordinary powers and discernments may not be as easily dismissed. Virtually every religion in which practitioners cultivate altered or expanded states of consciousness—that is, the mystical or shamanistic religions—also affirms that those who are successful acquire superhuman powers and perceptions. The siddha is only the tantric version of a type found all over the world. While individual religions vary as to their attitude concerning these powers, they affirm that they do exist. In the face of such widespread testimony, some caution is in order before dismissing such claims out of hand.3

These Accounts as Hagiography and Myth

These Accounts as Hagiography and Myth

Abhayadatta does not seem primarily interested in a history defined by the canons of an empiricist rationality—i.e., just the "facts" in their most plausible form. Rather, he is illustrating a particular tradition through the stories of the siddhas. Though he may have intended every story to be history, they may also be taken as symbolic tales in a historical form. Indeed, he might respond to a Western historian by asking what genuine insight anyone gets from mere recitation of facts unilluminated by a spiritual purport.

[page 65] If we cannot fully grasp what these stories are about by regarding them as straight history or biography, we may consider this genre of religious literature under the fruitful category of hagiography, "writings about holy people." The term emerges from the Christian tradition, where it refers to an account of a saint that is read to the people on the saint's feast day. From this, the term took on a generic meaning of a biographical story presented as historical fact but also designed to convey a religious meaning over and above the historical narration.

While a biography has someone writing a detached and critical account of the major events in the life of a subject, hagiography is concerned first and foremost to illuminate religious truth as exemplified through the lives of extraordinary men and women. This purpose is by no means incompatible with historical accuracy, but holding up a model or illustrating a doctrine shapes the narrative in a way that subordinates mere detail of fact.

The Roman Catholic scholar Hippolyte Delehaye has done much to try to recover the most authentic accounts of the lives of Christian saints (1963). Delehaye defined some of the factors that bear on the transmission of hagiography over time. For example, it is quite common for a link in the chain of transmission of a story to elaborate or refine certain details of an account. The religious purposes and messages are highlighted, other details are suppressed. Complex events are simplified, gaps are filled according to the pious creativity of the transmitter, multiple events and/or characters become conflated and single events and characters can become multiple and circulate independently. So it is with the stories of the siddhas. All of these factors come into play, often simultaneously.

To give an example of one such factor, how partially understood elements are provided explanation, we may look at the eleventh siddha, Cauraṅgi. The original form of his name was Caturaṅgi, "the man with four limbs," which probably referred to the fact that he practiced a yoga characterized by having four parts. However, in a story similar to the Greek myth of Phaedra and Hippolytus, a young prince who resists his lusty stepmother is sentenced by his father to have his four limbs cut off. By yogic siddhi, the prince is able to regain his limbs; hence the name Caturaṅgi, which in old Bengali became Cauraṅgi. In Sanskrit, this latter name can mean "member of the robbers"—a perplexing[page 66] name for a yogin and a detail begging for a story to explain it. So we are told some merchants were travelling at night near where Cauraṅgi slept. They woke him up. When he asked who they were, the merchants, afraid that he was a robber, said that they were carrying coal, though in reality they were carrying precious things. Cauraṅgi's curiosity being satisfied, he simply replied: "So be it," and went back to sleep. The merchants discovered the next day that their goods had turned to coal, since Cauraṅgi had spoken "words of truth," a yogic power by which whatever a yogin says comes to pass. They went back to him and begged him to return their original goods. Cauraṅgi denied any unfriendly intent and told them that everything would be as it was before. And so he is called, from this case of mistaken identity, "member of the robbers."

Reading religious biographies as hagiography allows us a richer degree of understanding the process by which this genre comes to be and the dynamics which shape the stories. It bridges the categories of history and symbolic literature; the stories can be presented as true in the spiritual sense and also, for the audience at which they are directed, true in the historical sense as well.

Extending this process one step further, hagiography may be considered a sub-genre of sacred narrative, equivalent to what might be meant by "myth"—a story, sanctioned by a tradition and used to convey what the tradition regards as deep truths. The story may focus on gods, on human beings, on both or may even focus on neither. In contrast to its usage in common parlance, the term "myth" need say nothing about historical accuracy or whether it is true to scientific fact or not.4

Mythology in the classical sense has seldom been acknowledged as having an important role in Buddhism, in contrast to Hinduism, for example, which has a particularly rich body of clearly mythological lore. But in this broader sense, Buddhism does indeed have a mythology. Unlike the Hindus and the Greeks, whose myths abound with superhuman beings, gods, devas, and spirits, the Buddhists have preferred to populate their mythology with human characters.5 The life of the Buddha illuminates the origin of the tradition and provides a model for understanding both what it means to be a Buddha and what it means to be a Buddhist.6

Using the life of the Buddha as a figure in history to illustrate the Dharma may provide a grounding principle for additional[page 67] myths—namely, that the lives of others, presented as historical narrative, may further reveal the Dharma. Understanding religious biography as myth allows us to bring Buddhism into structural comparison with other religions, both to highlight the similarities with the other religions and also to bring out the distinctive and unique features of Buddhism. The stories of the siddhas have more complex purposes than to serve as mere historical accounts that stand or fall by contemporary empiricist canons alone.

The Horizontal and the Vertical

To summarize: the hagiographical literature about Indian saints is important for the Tibetan tradition because the men and women that it describes are intrinsically worthy of honor by their spiritual success. But their mythic function can be analyzed further into what may be called vertical and horizontal dimensions.

The vertical dimension of myth allows the saints to "humanize" the transcendent; they make the status of an enlightened being accessible to the human level. They give living focus for devotion. They exemplify spiritual triumph in ways understandable to those who still struggle. They give hope in the sense that if they were able to achieve their goal, so might the aspirant who makes the requisite effort. And the symbolic levels of the stories reveal how such a transition may take place. This value is transcendent in the sense that it does not depend upon historical accuracy.

But the horizontal dimension of history is not to be ignored. The claim of these stories to historicity anchors this vertical linking of spiritual success and the ordinary life. The saints represent continuity; they bind the great figures of the past to our own history-bound humanity. They are links in the chain of enlightened beings going back to the Buddha himself, the source of highest wisdom and the supreme teacher in the present age. By their insight and success, the Indian saints guarantee the value of the Dharma and preserve the purity of transmission. They legitimate lineages of spiritual masters living in times closer to our own. The fact that these masters link the present with the sacred past makes their historical existence very important. The alternative is a rupture in the tradition. So this genre derives its value not just from doctrine but also from its affirmation of the sacred in the process of history in which we all live.




GTGCGrub thob brgyad bcu rtsa bzhi'i chos skor. New Delhi: Chophel Legdan, 1973.

Corless, Roger

1989The Vision of Buddhism.New York: Paragon House.

Delehaye, Hippolyte

1962The Legends of the Saints.New York: Fordham University Press.

Dowman, Keith

1985Masters of Mahamudra.Albany: State University of New York Press.

[page 69] Eliade, Mircea

1964Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.Translated from French by Willard Trask. New York: Pantheon Books.

1970Yoga, Immortality and Freedom.Translated from French by Willard Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Govinda, Anagarika

1960Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism.New York: E. P. Dutton.

Guenther, Herbert V.

1963The Life and Teaching of Nāropa.London: Oxford University Press.

1969The Royal Song of Saraha: A Study in the History of Buddhist Thought.Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Grünwedel, Albert

1916Die Geschichten der vier und achtzig Zauberers aus dem Tibetischen übersetz.. Leipzig: Baessler Archiv.

Hume, David

1964Hume on Religion. Ed. by Richard Wollheim. Cleveland: World Publishing.

Robinson, James

1979Buddha's Lions.Berkeley: Dharma Publishing.

Smart, Ninian

1983Worldviews.New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.


1970History of Buddhism in India. Translated from Tibetan by Lama Chimpa and Alaka Chattopadhyaya. Ed. by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya. Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study.




[1] [page 68] Due to the different languages and dialects in which the tantric traditions were transmitted as well as the inevitable textual corruptions, the names of the siddhas have many variations. This paper uses the forms found in Buddha's Lions. Both Robinson and Dowman give extensive notes as to variations of names and some of the likely historical backgrounds of the figures.

[2] Ḍāka is the male form of ḍākinī; but the beings thus referred to do not seem to function in the same way as the female forms. The Tibetan form of ḍākinī is mkha' 'gro ma, literally "sky-walking woman," which can be understood symbolically as those who course in emptiness (Govinda; Guenther, 1963) or perhaps understood more psychologically as a form of yogic ecstasy. The term ḍāka most commonly appears in stock phrases such as "the treasure of the ḍākas," meaning the tantras, or "realm of the ḍākas," referring to where the siddhas go when they depart this material realm.

[3] A full demonstration of these connections would take us far from the focus of this paper, but the works of Mircea Eliade (1964, 1970) show that the correlation between altered states of consciousness and reputed superhuman abilities is widespread.

[4] I am particularly indebted to Smart for this discussion of myth as sacred narrative.

[5] The rich Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna pantheon of "cosmic" Buddhas, while very complex in nature, represents divinized abstractions with little or no sacred narrative attached to them. The high bodhisattvas such as Avalokita or Mañjuśrī or Tārā do figure in sacred narrative, but most commonly in the context of the lives of great historical or quasi-historical figures. The bodhisattvas themselves are rarely the central focus of a sacred narrative or myth.

[6] For example, Roger Corless's The Vision of Buddhism is structured to highlight the way in which the traditional twelve "acts" of the Buddha may serve as a framework for understanding Buddhism as a religion.