Buddhism

The Mystical Mahasiddhas of Buddhism and Their Odisha Connection


Odisha is well known as a great seat of Buddhism, especially of the Tantric genre. The Buddhist sects of Mahayana, Vajrayana, Kalachakrayana, etc. include Tantra as a major ingredient. However, this was not the case at first – Tantra was a later development in the history of Buddhism. The gradual development of philosophies and the addition of layers led to schools within Buddhism which then blossomed into a rich tradition of tantra. Ratnagiri, Udayagiri, Puspagiri, Bajragiri Mahaviharas of Odisha were renowned research institutes all over the country. (There was also Purnagiri, Alatigiri, Lalitagiri. The large number of these ancient educational centers in Odisha is astounding.) In these institutes great teachers such as Lakshminkara, Pitopa, Naropa, Bodhisri were teaching. These Odisha institutes have played a crucial role in the formation of Tantra in Buddhism, especially in the history of Vajrayana, Hinayana and Sahajayana.

Before going any further, it is interesting to note that Buddhist treatises refer to Odisha as Oddiyana or Uddiyana. To anyone accustomed to the ancient names of Odisha, such as Odra and Udra, these seem obviously related. However, there has been a historical error in identifying this Oddiyana with the Swat Valley in Afghanistan, due to the general ignorance about Odisha in academic circles a few centuries ago. Xuan Zang named Odisha as Udyana. Buddhist texts also use Oda, Odra, Odivisa as variants of Oddiyana. The great master Indrabhuti is identified in Buddhist tradition as the king of Sambhala, Oddiyana – which is Sambala-pura (Sambalpur) in Odisha. Unsurprisingly, Indrabhuti begins his treatise with a prayer to Jagannatha. Several Buddhist deities have specific variants which bear the name Oddiyana – an obvious reference to a particular manifestation of the deity worshiped in an area. Iconographic details are meticulously described in Buddhist manuscripts preserved in the Tibet region, but the only extant carvings of such deities in the world are found in Odisha. Over the past decades, several researchers have done pioneering research to correct the conventional misidentification, and gradually the correction is being recognized. All we need to know is that Oddiyana is Odisha, without a shadow of a doubt.

Indrabhuti – King of Sambalpur

Around the 7th century, a group of eighty-four mystics emerged in eastern India. They were called the ‘Mahasiddhas’, masters who had reached perfection. The Mahasiddhas were powerful figures, performing miraculous feats and with a significant number of followers, regarded by people with awe, awe and reverence. Some of the Mahasiddhas wrote songs to spread their ideas; these songs, known as Charyapada (Charjyapada) or Charyagiti are written in a kind of proto-language which is the ancestor of Odia, Bangla and Ahomiya. Some songs lean strongly towards Odia and the same with the others. This provides a valuable clue in determining the regions of the various Mahasiddhas. With the traditional legends and biographies preserved in different regions, one can make a fair estimate of the origin of each of them.

Many Mahasiddhas such as Kanhupa, Luipa, Sabaripa, Bhusukupa, Birupa composed Charyapadas at Lalitagiri Mahavihara, Jajpur. One of the fascinating aspects is the mystical language used by Buddhist teachers. An inscription collected at Ratnagiri contains lines of Buddhist hymns that go – “Dhara dhara. Hara hara. Prahara hara. Mahabodhi chitta dhare. Chulu Chulu…” This confusing language was intended to convey its real message only to the true recipient, that is that is, one who has trained in the right method under a good guru and has learned enough to be able to decode metaphorical statements. One point to note is that metaphors are not random; quite often they resemble to a codebook, following standard metaphors for specific concepts. The metaphors would be taken from everyday life, like a musician playing the vina or maybe a weaver at work. The songs were relatable and therefore popular.

Poets designated ragas such as Gabuda, Malasri Gabuda, Baradi, Gujjari, etc. for their creations, and their songs continue to be sung in the traditional ragas of Odissi music. Some of these 8th century lines continue to be popular in Odisha and are sung during Lord Jagannatha’s Ratha Jatra by the Dahuka. Charyas such as ‘Alie Kalie Bata Rundhela’ (Kanhupa), ‘Ucha Ucha Pabat Tahin’ (Sarahapa), ‘Apane Rachi Rachi’ (Sarahapa), ‘Kaa Tarubara Pancha Bi Daala’ (Luipa) are almost entirely understandable, as they seem to be very close to the current Odia. It should also be noted that many Ragas of the Charjyapada are only found in Odissi music and do not exist elsewhere.

Sarahapa was one of the prominent Mahasiddhas. It is widely believed that he was one of the first poets to write to Odia. He was born in Odisha. The story goes that Sarahapa followed her Brahmin work during the day and performed her Buddhist rituals after dark. As he drank too much, his Brahmin companions complained to the king. So the king arranged a private meeting and gently asked Saraha to avoid drinking too much, an accusation that Saraha simply denied. To prove his point, he dipped his hand in boiling oil and drank molten copper without any harm. Seeing this, the others bowed down.

The Mahasiddha Jalandharipa described in the previous story is also known as Hadipa, the name by which it is popular in Odisha. The iconic ballad sung by ascetics Natha of Odisha, tilting their kendera instrument, tells how King Gobinda Chandra left his riches and became the disciple of this same Hadipa. A story that Odia’s grandmothers fondly tell is how Hadipa orders a coconut palm tree to bow down and the tree does so out of respect. Mahasiddhas such as Hadipa and Kanhupa may have been forgotten by most, but their vivid accounts are still found in the oral tradition of Odisha. I remember listening to this story when I was a child, imagining these wonderful and magical characters. Stories about the Mahasiddhas are often full of colorful miracles – they are interesting to read.

Another Mahasiddha who is well known in Odisha even today is Luipa. Traditional accounts say that he too was born in Odisha. He met Sabaripa, a disciple of Sarahapa and learned from him. Then he walked north and sat down by a river. Luipa was initially disgusted with the food, but eventually began to eat piles of fish intestines along the shore. This led him to enlightenment. The message conveyed by the above accounts is that as long as the mind sticks to notions of purity and impurity, love and loathing, one cannot achieve determination, one of the goals of penance. The vision is to stop dividing the world into good and bad, to avoid the dichotomy and to see the world for what it is, without judgment. The tales are quite taboo and go to shocking efforts to get this point across.

Mahasiddha Kanhupa is also well known in Odisha. A popular legend in Odisha says that when he walked, seven umbrellas and seven dambaru drums hovered above him. Proud of his accomplishments, Kanhupa decided to go to Sri Lanka with his disciples. When he reached the sea, he just walked on the water. And so delighted with his own miracle, he thought, “Even my guru doesn’t have such power!” The instant he thought about it, he fell into the depths of the sea, helpless. Discouraged, he returned and apologized to his teacher Jalandharipa. His guru sent him to another Mahasiddha by the name of Tantipa. Kanhupa should follow whatever Tantipa has said. Tantipa asks him to eat a corpse and even excrement, and Kanhupa is completely shocked. Disgusted, he endures and forces himself as best he can, but finally decides to leave and everything ends in a mess. Kanhupa is an uplifting tale, but his songs are also the most famous, possibly resulting from experience in words.

Lakshminkara was the sister of Indrabhuti of Sambhala (Sambalpur) – one of only four women on the list of the eighty-four Mahasiddhas. She was the founder of a new school called Sahajayana in Buddhism, a thought that deeply influenced all of eastern India. Even today, the people of Odia knowingly or unconsciously believe in some of its principles. Sahajayana deeply affected Odisha’s society at the time, and some things became ingrained in the rituals, stories, and beliefs of the state. And that was a brief overview of the history of Tantra in the popular belief of Odisha.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. Opinions expressed are those of the author and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or opinions. OTV does not assume any responsibility in this regard).

More from the author: sacred quarrel