29 June 2007

Indra in the Writings of Kukai

Indra on Elephant back weilding his VajraIn this article I want to look at some associations with the Vedic god Indra which have found their way into Buddhism. Indra, under the name Sakka, is a frequent character in the Pali texts, and plays an active and positive role in the Jatakas. Although Buddhists acknowledge no creator god, no supreme being on the model of Jehovah, gods do play an important role in the Buddhist religion.

My starting point will be two mentions of Indra by the 9th century Japanese master Kukai, who I've written about on several previous occasions. In Kukai's writing there are several references to Indra. He uses the image of Indra's Net frequently. It comes from the Avatamsaka Sutra where it conveys the idea of the interpenetration of all things by all things, that is central to Kukai's understanding of the Dharma. I want to pass over this image, however, and look at two other references which are quite different in nature and relate to Indra's role as a god of speech.

The two references are found in Hakeda's translations of Kukai's major works. In the Shoji jisso gi, or Meaning of Sound, Word, and Reality Kukai quotes a verse from the Mahavairocana Sutra:
The perfectly Enlightened One's mantras Are made up of syllables, names, or clauses; Like the statements of Indra, They are meaningful and effective.[1]
Then in the Ungi gi Kukai is discusssing the meanings of the phonemes which make up the seed syllable hum (ie hūṃ) and says:
Next, if interpreting from the point of view of their common features, it can be stated that each letter embraces the universe principle, all the teachings, religious practices, and attainments, just as [each word in the grammatical] statements made by Indra contains many meanings...[2]
In the first instance Kukai explains away the presence of Indra as an authority on truth by equating the name with a secular Sanskrit grammarian known as Shakradeva. This is plausible, but I think there is a better explanation. In the Shatapatha-Brahmana there is a sory about Indra defeating the demon Vritra. Indra is cheated out of part of his reward by the messenger god Vayu, and as a result decides to make only one fourth of speech, that is the vocal sounds of humans only, intelligible. The speech of birds, animals, and insects are therefore unintelligible.[3] Beck points out that this is a reworking of a Rigvedic myth which reinforces Indra's role as grammarian, or as the god responsible for making Vac comprehensible. Later, although still prebuddhist, in Chandogya Upanishad it says "all vowels are embodiments of Indra" (CU ii.24.3). It seems as though Indra maintained this function in the Mahavairocana Sutra, although this does not sit well with Kukai.

The second idea, that things said by Indra can have many meanings, also harks back to Vedic literature. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 5.2 shows another Vedic god, Prajapati, conversing with gods, humans, and demons. In answer to questions from each he merely says "da". By this the gods understand daamayata (self-control); humans datta (giving); and demons dayadhvam (compassion). The short section ends with the words
This is what the divine voice that is thunder repeats: 'DA DA DA', 'Be self-controlled! Give! Be compassionate![4]
Now although it is said to be Prajapati speaking it is very clear in Vedic myth that thunder is associated with Indra. Indeed one could say that for the Vedic speaking people Indra was thunder. So this would seem to be one of those cases, common in Indian texts, where one god has assumed the attributes of another. Further more we see the idea that a single syllable can have very different meanings - a phenomena modern scholars call polysemy (from the Greek = multiple meaning). This is precisely what Kukai is exploring in the Ungi gi. Kukai allows for infinite meanings, not only for hum itself, but for each of it's constituent parts.

Later on Indra's role as Vagishvara - or lord of Speech - was taken over by the bodhisattva Manjusri who, in early Chinese imagery, is sometimes depicted as riding a white elephant, just as Indra does. Manjusri has yet to take up this role in 9th century Japan. It is possible that had not occured even in China, which is the likely home of the cult of Manjusri. As the original wielder of the thunderbolt or vajra, Indra is also a model for Vajrapani.

Portrayals of Indra in Buddhist and Vedic literature do seem to vary quite a bit. So much so that Rhys Davids was moved to write in his Dictionary:
Europeans have found a strange difficulty in understanding the real relation of Sakka to Indra... Sakka belongs only to Buddhist mythology then being built up. He is not only quite different from Indra, but is the direct contrary of that blustering, drunken, was god.[5]
As I have said, Indra, often plays a positive role in the Jatakas, and is often shown payin homage to the Buddha. He appears to be a representative of the old Vedic gods, and is often paired with Brahma representing the later Vedantic gods.

Even in this brief treatment I think you can see that the Vedic Indra did indeed find his way into Buddhism and that these two roles - the one who makes things meaningful, and the one who allows for polysemy - are present in the writing of Kukai in 9th century Japan. These things are impossible to prove of course, and there may be some 'black swan' piece of evidence waiting out there to show the theory to be wrong, but the precedents existed and Buddhists have a long history of borrowing from their surrounding culture, so the circumstantial case is quite good.


[1] Hakeda. Kukai : Major Works. p. 238
[2] Hakeda. p. 259
[3] quoted in Beck, Guy. Sonic Theology. p.26.
[4] Roebuck, Valerie J. The Upanisads. p82 (BU 5.2.3)
[5] Rhys-Davids, Pali-English Dictionary. sv Inda, p.121.

image: Indra (with vajra) and consort on elephant. Keshava Temple, Somnathpur. www.art-and-archaeology.com

06 June 2007

The Seed Syllable of Perfect Wisdom

Siddham Script

The seed syllable dhīḥ (धीः) shown left in the Siddham script, turns up in a number of mantras such as those of Mañjughoṣa and Prajñāpāramitā. There doesn't seem to be much written about dhīḥ so I thought I'd summarise what I know here. It is frequently said that mantras, especially seed syllables (bīja) are untranslatable, and this is often true. In the case of dhīḥ however we find that it is a regular word. Monier-Williams gives several definitions for dhī:
1. to perceive , think , reflect
2. f. thought , (esp.) religious thought , reflection , meditation , devotion , prayer (pl. Holy Thoughts personified); understanding , intelligence , wisdom (personified as the wife of Rudra-manyu ) , knowledge , science , art; mind , disposition , intention , design; notion , opinion , the taking for (comp.)
Dhīḥ is singular of either the nominative or the vocative form of the noun - ie it is either a name or attribute; or form of address as in Oh (she) who perceives. The word occurs rarely in the Ṛgveda where it's usually translated as intelligence or prayer, though clearly the connotations are much broader. Antonio T. De Nicolas translates it as vision in his essay Religious Experience and Religious Languages. Monier-Williams definition 2. is clearly interesting territory for Buddhists and covers much the same religious territory as the wisdom dieties mentioned below.

So dhīḥ, not surprisingly became the seed syllable - the sonic quintessence - of the goddess of wisdom in Buddhism, Prajñāpāramitā, who names means "perfection of wisdom". It occurs, unusually in the middle of her mantra: oṃ āḥ dhīḥ hūṃ svāhā.

And with the connection between her and Mañjuśrī which becomes apparent in tantric literature it should be no surprise that it is also his seed syllable. In the case of his mantra is it tacked onto the end of the Alphabet of Wisdom, om arapacana dhīḥ

Geshe Rabten describes the formal debating procedure of Tibetan monks at the beginning of which they yell dhīḥ - invoking Mañjuśrī. They pose some problem for an opponent, and yell dhīḥ as they clap their hands together leaving the opponent to answer as best they can. He says:

Tibetan Uchen Script
"Then you draw the right hand back, and at the same time put the left hand forward. This motion of the left hand symbolizes closing the doors of the three lower states of rebirth; drawing back the right hand symbolizes one’s wish to bring all sentient beings to liberation. But to fulfil this wish is not easy. You must have great knowledge and wisdom; and for this you recite ‘dhīḥ’, asking Mañjuśrī to pour down a torrent of wisdom upon you."
But the word also has an effect on Mañjuśrī he "blesses us with wisdom and understanding". These two aspects of the use of mantra go back to Vedic times when the sacrifice provided 'food' for the gods, who responded with 'food' for the worshippers - the food in both cases being metaphorical rather than literal.

Edie Farwell and Anne Hubbell Maiden, in The Wisdom Of Tibetan Childbirth tell us that Tibetans paint dhīḥ on the tongue of newborns using saffron so that they will be articulate and wise.

So dhīḥ is the syllabic, even sonic, representation of perfect wisdom - the wisdom that sees everything just as it is, without adding or subtracting anything, and is applied in ways which both evoke and invoke the qualities of perfect wisdom as embodied by Mañjuśrī and Prajñāpāramitā.

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