I'm just back from a foray down to London where I picked up a copy of Alexander Studholme's book The origins of Om Manipadme Hum : a Study of the Karandavyuha Sutra. I read enough on the train coming back from Cambridge to have a major realisation.
Some time ago in pursuing my interest in mantra I began to delve into Vedanta and Veda. Buddhists seem not to write that much about mantra. Leaf through any book on Tibetan Buddhism and it will contain at most a couple of paragraphs about mantra - usually they trot out the folk etymology from the Guhyasamaja Tantra, and something about mantras being symbols of Awakening. Given that this is not really what mantras are used for, either popularly or in the Tantras themselves it has always puzzled me. Kukai, the Japanese Vajrayana master, by contrast is preoccupied with what mantra is, and how it works and is a lot more informative. In any case Vedic scholars of mantra, while not exactly abounding, outnumber the Buddhists by at least 10 to 1. I became especially interested in those linguists from the pragmatist school, and in the cognitive linguistic approach of George Lakoff.
It emerges, when one takes the time to study them, that Buddhism is rather heavily indebted to the Vedic religion. This had already begun to dawn on me when I discovered Richard Gombrich. His How Buddhism Began is misnamed but goes a lot further into this area than I had managed (it helps if you can read Sanskrit!). While attending his lecture series last year I became even more deeply acquainted with Gombrich's ideas, and with those of Joanna Jurewicz who has explored some of the same territory from the Vedic point of view. It became obvious that the Buddha knew the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, and probably the Chandogya as well. He quotes and parodies these texts, and what's more makes use of metaphors that only make sense if you know the Upanishads. It's clear that the people who wrote down the Pali Canon had already lost the sense of some important metaphors - Brahma Vihara is a stand out - by the time the Canon was finalised in about the first century BCE. Jurewicz, also a fan of Lakoff, has shown that the well know sequence known as the Nidana Chain, can be viewed as a Buddhist polemic of Vedic cosmogony. To me this is a revelation. What it says is that despite Buddhist chauvinism against Hinduism, some central features of our discourse - going for refuge for another instance - are directly traceable to the Vedic discourse current in the 5th century BCE when the Buddha was active.
In tracing the arc of mantra as it traverses the Rigvedic period and into the Vedantas there is a reasonably logical progression which relates to the abstraction of the meaning of rituals. The basic shift was from external rituals to imaginative internal rituals. To put it a little simplistically here was a movement away from the fire rituals and the development of meditation as a substitute. The connection with early Buddhism is detectable in the Paritta texts, and in certain magical rites especially the so-called Saccakiriya or Act of Truth.
However from there the trail is quite faint. Dharanis, which are not quite mantras as they appear in the Vajrayana, and yet very different from any use of words/language in early Buddhism. They begin to appear in texts such as the White Lotus, the Golden Light, the Lankavatara etc, in about the 4th or 5th century CE. You will often hear that a Dharani is a sort of aide de memoir for Dharma teachings, but I'm here to tell you that none of the Dharanis that appear in the above named sutras look like that. It is true that as early as the Lalitavistara there were "alphabets of wisdom" where the syllables of Sanskrit (more or less) were associated with aspects of Dharma teachings about the nature of phenomena. But the link between this idea, which is followed up in the Perfection of Wisdom texts and the Mahavairocana Sutra, and the actual dharanis in sutras is not credible. It has always seemed to me that the presence of those dharanis, in the absence of any exegetical tradition, must remain a mystery. I'm not so sure now.
It began to seem as though the appearance of what were called mantras in the Tantric texts came out of nowhere as far as Buddhism is concerned - and yet the obvious presence of magic speech in the Pali texts made it seem a rather unsatisfactory conclusion. Did the practices and ideas completely die out and have to be re-imported several centuries later? Or was there a link I was missing? But one more back-track. Many years ago now Sangharakshita noted, almost in passing, that the presence of the goddesses Sri (aka Laksmi) and Sarasvati in the Golden Light Sutra represented some lumps of only partly digested Hinduism. Of course we know that the Vajrayana contains a fair number of the lumps at various stages of assimilation. Studholme, in his study of the Karandavyuha Sutra seems to have caught a snap shot of the historical processes at work, and to explain how those lumps might have got their.
Early Buddhism existed in a milieu which was largely twofold, with the old Vedic religion on the one hand, and the more experimental and disparate Samanas on the other. The Pali texts are full of polemic and critique of Brahmins, Jains, Ajivakas and non-Buddhists of every sort. Brahmins and their theology get the bulk however. Five of six centuries later however a change in the religious landscape had taken place. Probably in response to the success of Buddhism in the centuries following Asoka, the Brahminical tradition began to reorient itself away from the Vedas, and towards almost equally ancient texts known as Puranas. These texts emphasise a different set of gods, so that Indra, Agni, and Brahma, give way to Vishnu. At the same time the assimilation of the tribal religion which worshipped Siva was more of less complete. Sacrifices gave way to devotional practices known as puja. This is more of less Hinduism as distinct from Vedism. Not that the Vedic tradition disappeared completely - India doesn't seem to ever completely abandon any religious idea.
So the Mahayana grew up in an entirely different milieu to early Buddhism. And what Studholme has shown is that Mahayana Buddhism was in as close a dialogue with devotional Puranic Hinduism as early Buddhism was with Vedism and Vedantism. This accounts for the apparent discontinuities which I have observed in the use of magical words. One of Studholme's main theses is that the Om Manipadme Hum mantra was part of a response to Puranic Shaivism, and bears a close relationship to the Saivite mantra Om Namah Shivaya. I haven't read far enough to know what to think of that yet, but from what I've seen it promises to be fascinating!