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Svayambhu Purana:
A source of Nepalese Buddhist tradition and practice
Min Bahadur Shakya
Nagarjuna Institute of Exact methods
A center for Buddhist studies

The Svayambhū Purāna is one of the oldest texts of Newar Buddhism. As the
title suggests, its main purpose is to glorify the sacred Buddhist shrines of the
Kathmandu Valley, and the Svayambhū Mahācaitya in particular.
It seems that the Svayambhū Purāna (hereafter SvP) was created by
Newar Buddhists in order to integrate the teachings of the Mahāyāna with the
older avadana stories. The text has been handed down to us mostly in
Sanskrit and partly in Newari versions. Most of the Newari manuscripts
contain the ten chapter version of the story.
A study of the sources of the SvP and the way in which they are adapted
shows the sophistication of Newar Buddhist Sanskrit writings during the 14th
and 15th centuries. In the aftermath of the collapse of Indian Buddhism,
Newar Buddhists had to adapt and localize the great tradition, which was now
bereft of its pilgrimage sites, its great universities, its oceanic trade routes,
and its political patronage.1[1] When Buddhism lost most of its material
foundation in India, the valley of Nepal became a safe haven for the
continued practice of Sanskrit-based Buddhism. It is now accepted that a
number of Newar Buddhist texts, such as the SvP, Gun_ākarandavyuha,
Vrihat Jatakamala and so on,2[2] were written to consolidate the vanishing
The SvP gives the origin myth of the Kathmandu Valley and its self-
existing divine light (svayambhū jyotirūpa). The Kathmandu Valley is said to
have been a sacred place for practicing Buddhism from the very beginning,
long before the appearance of the historical Buddha Śākyamuni. After the
light of Svayambhū appeared, it became the center of Newar Buddhist
devotions. The earliest version of the Svayambhū myth focuses only on the
importance of this divine light, but later versions give prominence to
Dharmadhātu Vāgīśvara (Mañjuśrī).

1 [1]
See William B. Douglas, ‘Literary sources of the Gun_ākarandavyuha’, paper
presented at Nepal Mandal Seminar, Kathmandu, 1998.
2 [2]
These include the Svayambhū Purāna in its various versions, the
Bhadrakalpavadana (recently discussed in a 1998 Oxford dissertation by Joel
Tatelman) and the Sŗngabheri Avadana.

The shortest version of the SvP, containing 280 verses, begins like a
typical buddhavacana Sūtra (Evam maya srutam…). The tradition of this
Svayambhū Purāna was handed down from Buddha Śākyamuni to Maitreya,
and continued as follows: Maitreya→ Bhikshu Upagupta→ King Aśoka→
Bhikshu Jayaśrī→ Jinaśrī Raj Bodhisattva.

ii. Versions
A survey of the Svayambhū Purāna literature carried out by Horst Brinkhaus
reveals that there are as many as four different recensions of this text. The
shortest recension with eight paricchedas has two versions, one in prose and
one in verse. Their contents are, however, similar in nature. In his article
‘Textual history of the Svayambhū Purāna’,3[3] Horst Brinkhaus classifies them
as follows:
Recension I (eight paricchedas)
Version I.A Sanskrit Version in prose–410 ślokas–Gosrnga parvata
svayambhūcaitya bhattarakoddesa
Version I.B Sanskrit version in verse–280 verses–Svayambhū

Rescension II (eight adhyayas)

Version II.A Sanskrit version in verse–4100 verses–Gosrnga parvata
svayambhūcaitya bhattarakoddesa
Version II B Sanskrit version in verse–4600 verses–Gosrnga parvata
svayambhūcaityabhattaroddesa or Vrhat svayambhū purāna

Recension III (ten adhyayas)

Version III.A Sanskrit version in verse–1750 verses–Svayambhūcaitya
Version III B Newari version in prose–Svayambhū utpattikathā

Rescension IV (twelve adhyayas)

Sanskrit recension partly in verse, partly in prose–3600 slokas–
Svayambhūva Mahāpurāna

RescensionV : ( Eleven adhyayas)

We also find another Sanskrit version in 5380 verses,4[4] apparently
overlooked in Horst Brinkhaus’ survey, which would be the largest recension.
It has 11 chapters in two separate sections.

iii. Date of composition

It is quite difficult to determine an exact date of composition for the
Svayambhū Purāna and its various recensions, given the present state of
research. So far there is no consensus on the date of the SvP. The text
belongs to a genre of literature known as anonymous literature, that is,

3 [3]
Gerard Toffin (ed.), Nepal: Past and Present, p.63.
4 [4]
In the personal collection of late Mr. Gajaraja Bajrācārya, entitled Vrhat
Svayambhū purāna.

literature which has grown over the course of long periods of time. Works of
this type can only be dated with great difficulty.
Alexander Rospatt suggests5[5] that the Svayambhū myth was developed
and popularized in the wake of the raid of Nepal by Shams-ud-Din in NS 470
(1349 CE) when the situation for introducing new elements into Buddhism
may have particularly favorable.
It is known that the title Svayambhū purāna was absent in the
earliest rescension. The oldest name was given as
Svayambhūcaitya bhattarakoddesa, and it was later named
Gosrnga parvat svayambhūcaitya bhattarakoddesa, etc. It
was generally known only as the Svayambhū utpattikathā.
Only the 2nd and 4th recensions6[6] mention the word ‘purāna’
(viz. Vrhat svayambhū purāna or Svayambhū purāna).

Horst Brinkhaus observes that the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation

Project alone has filmed more than a hundred manuscripts, and there are
more still in the Kathmandu Valley. According to the findings of Kamal Prakash
Malla, the oldest manuscript is dated 1558 CE.
Hubert Decleer is of the opinion that shortest version is the oldest and the
extended version was created later, with some modifications and inclusions.
The title Purāna or Mahāpurāna might have been introduced later to compete
with the increased Hindu dominance of the 15th and 16th centuries.

In my own humble opinion the shortest version (280 verses) can be

regarded as the original version of SvP. Over a long course of time later
versions were created, like the Atthakathās of the Pali sūtras. They can be
considered as commentaries on the original text, because in the later
versions the main thread of the original version is consistently retained, with
few exceptions. In particular, the unabridged thread of the account of the
Svayambhū jyotirūpa’s origin,7[8] the draining of the lake by Mañjuśrī, the visit
of the past seven Buddhas, the origin of the eight vitaraga sites, the twelve
tīrthas, Dharmaśrīmitra’s meeting with Mañjuśrī, Śāntaśrī’s activities on
formation of Svayambhū caitya and so forth are consistently retained in later
versions, with increasing detail.

5 [5]
See Alexander Rospatt's article, ‘Conflicting Conceptions of the Śriśrīśrī
Svayambhūcaitya as a Holy Shrine’, paper delivered at Nepal Mandala Seminar,
1998, Kathmandu, p.5.
6 [6]
In the same manner, Matsunami (*) distributes the many
transcriptions of the SvP into four groups: 1) Vrhat-Svayambhū
purāna, 2) Mahāt(vrhat)-Svayambhū purāna, 3) Madhyama-
Svayambhū purāna, 4) [the smallest].
7 [8]
Version.IIIA, ch.1;Version IIB, ch.1; Mitra's version I, ch.1; also in Vrhat
Svāyambhū. Purāna ch.1, II part.

Importance of the SVP text in the Nepalese Buddhist cultural life

a. Svayambhu, the Adibuddha, the embodiment of Buddha nature as the source of dharmapractice
and a new system of Buddhist trinity

The SvP offers a new model of Buddhist practice for lay people who live
the lifestyle of an Adikarmika Bodhisattva, as advocated by Ācārya
Anupamavajra as long ago as the 11th century. It is a devotional
work rather than a historical treatise, which has countless important
details about the formation of Newar Buddhism. In this sense it is a
wholly authentic source.

In their version of the three refuges, Newar Buddhists adopted the Adi–
Buddha (or Buddha Nature/Five Buddhas) as the representative of the
Buddha jewel. The Nine Scriptures (navagrantha) became the Dharma
jewel, to be recited at the eight vitaraga sites. And the Eight Great
Bodhisattvas located in these sites became the Sangha jewel. In particular,
the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was the supreme jewel of the Sangha of
Bodhisattvas. As a result, the practice of Uposadha vrāta became one of
the most important ‘monastic’ rites for lay Buddhists.

b. Uposadhavrata practice of Avalokiteshvara

The SvP frequently describes the benefits of Uposadha vrāta, and the
image of Amoghpash Lokeshvara, the patron deity of this rite, can be
seen everywhere in Nepalese Bahās and Bahis.

c. Recitation of Namasangiti Text

This has been one of the most favourite devotional practice among Newar
Buddhist. The subject matter of this text basically focuses on the five
wisdoms of the enlightened state of Perfect Buddhahood.

d. Pilgrimage of Svayambhu stupa, Manjusri, Vipashvi stupa,

Namobuddhastupa, Astavitaraga site, Guhyeshvari shrine and so forth

e. Bathing in the Twelve Tirtha site

f. The Cult of Manjusri

Stories of Manjusri are found across the Mahayana Buddhist world.
In Nepal, a distinctive tradition of Manjusri stories is preserved within the
several texts collectively known as the Svayambhu Purana. The legends of
Bodhisattva Manjusri—according to Svayambhu Purana—date back to pre-
historical period, an epoch previous to the present Iron Age. It is
impossible, on the basis of these sources, to write an account of some
historical figure from whom the stories of Manjusri might be derived.

However, according to the Svayambhu Purana the Bodhisattva Manjusri

came from China where he is traditionally said to live on the Five-Peaked
mountain, Wu-ta’i shan i.e Panch sirsa parvat. He came to the Kathmandu
valley during the time of Buddha Krakuchchanda in order to drain the
Nagahrad Lake and thus make the Kathmandu valley a habitable land.

In the same cycle of stories, we encounter the Buddhist pandit

Dharmasrimitra. He was a teacher at the great monastic university
Vikramashila, in India. In order to learn the secret meaning of twelve
letters or mantras within the Manjusrinamasangiti, he set out for Nepal to
ask for Manjusri’s own teaching. We may presume the dates of the 9th
century for Vikramashila Monastery, because it was in the time of King
Dharmapala that Vikramashila monastery was built under the direction of
Master Haribhadra, a great commentator of Prajnaparamita texts. King
Dharmapala appears to have endowed the monastery with support for a
faculty of 108 panditas, one of whom would have been Dharmasrimitra.
Vikramashila closed as a result of political instability in the later 12th and
early 13th centuries, and never reopened.
From this we may deduce that the cult of Manjusri at Svayambhu was
already well established by the time of Dharmasrimitra, sometime
between the 9th and 12th centuries. The growth of Manjushri legends in
Svayambhu Purana from 13th and15th centuries may reflect the fact that
Nepal was cut off from its southern neighbor, India, traditionally the

source of Nepalese Buddhism, and looked instead to northeastern Asia. It
was during this period that the relation between Nepal and China was at
its height.

What, then, can we say about Manjushri as an historical figure?

Manjushri was one of the great eight bodhisattvas renowned for his
wisdom. According to Buddhist tradition these high ranking bodhisattvas
have already attained enlightenment or Buddhahood, yet for the sake of
all sentient beings, they utilize skillful means to manifest as disciples of
Buddha Shakyamuni. Manjusri’s in the Shakyamuni Buddha’s assembly is
mentioned in number of Prajnaparamita Sutras.
High-ranking Bodhisattvas have capacity to manifest in any form or
human or non-human. We might speculate that Manjusri manifested as a
Buddhist master named Manju Deva Acharya in northern India, Central
Asia or China, who came to the Kathmandu valley around 9th or 10th

It would be improper to think that a great bodhisattva such as

Avalokiteshvara or Manjushri was a historical figure who was born in this
earth and passed away in the manner of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Just as
the Dalai Lama of Tibet is considered as emanation of Avalokiteshvara,
there are said to have been many emanations of Bodhisattva Manjusri.
Among the Tibetan schools, Sakya Pandita, Tsong Khapa and Long Chen
Rab jam pa are regarded as emanations of Manjusri. These are all
historical persons who have well defined biographies. Manjudeva of Wutai
Shan may also have been an historical figure regarded as an emanation of

Within the Nepalese (or ‘Newar’) Buddhist lineages, Jamuna Gubhaju (17th
century?) of Patan is traditionally said to have been an incarnation of
Manjushri, and was therefore also called Manjudeva.

Integration of Saiva and Buddhist tradition in the Svayambhu Purana

Whether this integrated system appeared as a systematic Hinduization

process or Newar Buddhist's strategy for survival of their tradition
is open for discussion.
The development of the SvP text shows how Hinduization took place.
In the sixth chapter of the present text we read: The mind of those who offer
prayers to the Eight Vitaragas while bathing in the Vāgmatī will be pure. They will be
prosperous. They will be fit for entering Śivaloka [the realm of Śiva] after enjoying
worldly pleasures. Those who wash the vitaraga of Svayambhū with ghee will be
entitled to Śivaloka. Those who wash it with honey will have access to Brahma-
mandira [the temple of Brahma]. Those who wash it with curds will have access
to Vaishnavaloka [the realm of Vishnu]. Those who anoint it with scent, milk, and cool
liquids will attain Gandharvaloka [the realm of heavenly musicians] and Candraloka
[the realm of Moon]. (Decleer, p.183)*

Mr. Hubert Decleer adds: “in this instance, a Buddhist text has clearly been
tampered with, bowdlerized beyond recognition, so that however ancient the
earliest dated manuscript may be, this version just cannot be the original.


As such, the text can be used to understand how Newars have conceived
their own form of Buddhism.“On this point, Horst Brinkhaus speaks of a
systematic ‘inclusivism’ by means of which the forces of Hindu orthodoxy
tried to absorb and appropriate, with the necessary twists, any

Mr. Decleer, on the other hand, suggests an alternative cause of this

inclusivism. He says that this integrative style was adopted as auto-defensive
measure from within the Buddhist camp. It is said that when Śankar
Ācārya, in the course of pillaging Buddhist scriptures, confronted a
Buddhist text containing the name of Ganesh or Mahādeva, that text was
spared from destruction.”*

My own humble opinion is that Newar Buddhists must have prepared a

series of survival strategies or policies of amalgamation – technically
speaking, skill in means (upāyakausalya) – for the survival of their own form
of Buddhism.
The solution was quite different from those chosen in other Buddhist
countries. The veneration of Svayambhū, Mañjuśrī/Sarasvati,
Guhyeśvari/Parvati, and the eight vitaragas/eight sites of lingeśvaras was
a powerful syncretic strategy on the part of Newar Buddhists. Besides,
they never abandoned such basic Buddhist practices as the triple refuge
and the various vrātas (namely, the uposadha vrāta as well as the
Bodhivrāta), as the text relates. The lifestyle of an “Adikarmic
Bodhisattva” (who performs basic rituals such as vrāta) provides a
strong basis for the retention of Vajrayānic traditions in a situation where
monasticism is declining. Mr. Decleer observes that “eventually, the
Vajrayāna became a closed system, accessible only to high caste
Buddhists.” Vajrācāryas became the parallel of Brahmanic priests.

However, Dr. John K. Locke points out that caste-based Vajrayāna

practices, although untenable from a strictly Buddhist viewpoint, worked well
for centuries in a Hindu setting, preventing them from vanishing altogether.
Whereas in India and other countries, the rejection of syncretic approaches to
Hinduism, along with the pressure of Hindu or Afghan fundamentalism, led to
the complete disappearance of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

“In Southeast Asia, the Śiva-Buddhist syncretism, as witnessed in Java and
Bali, resulted in only Śaivism surviving, with only a few Buddhist names and
symbols remaining. On the other hand, Southeast Asian countries such as Sri
Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar abandoned the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna
altogether in favor of an exclusively Theravāda tradition, which places major
emphasis on the Vinaya. By contrast, Newar Buddhism survived relatively
intact, preserving secret Mantra, even maintaining the language and the
styles of the Sanskritic world.”*

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