Recent Research in Newar Buddhist Studies

Fri., Aug. 22nd, 09:00-12:30

Reading Indian Buddhist Iconography through a Newar Lens: Issues of Continuities and Particularities

Bangdel, Dina (Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, Doha, QAT)

Nepal’s entry into Western scholarship can best summed up in the 19th century French Sanskritist Sylvain Levy’s quote “Nepal is India in the making,” — as the last remaining vestige of medieval India unscathed by the vicissitudes of Islamic and colonial hegemonies. I argue that for the scholars of Buddhist art, Nepal and more specifically Newar Buddhism, continues to occupy a particular, often uneasy space between the legacy of the original Sanskrit Buddhist tradition, and a regionalized periphery that is simply derivative of Indian Buddhism. In this context, it would be useful to consider the framing of Newar Buddhist iconography within the broader historiography and scholarship on Indian Buddhist art, and within the local construction of knowledge.

Broadly, the paper focuses on the methodology of constructing the past through the present, in contextualizing how contemporary Newar Buddhist ritual practices and art serves as a framework to explore the issues of cultural production and authority. The paper will examine the ways in which these expressions offer a space for the construction of paradoxical definition of authenticity, faithful to the “original” textual tradition of Indian Buddhism. To this end, the paper will consider the continuities and particularities that are at once celebrated or contested in the contemporary context. In short, how does scholarship play a role in the construction and revival of Newar Buddhism and its visual and material expression, in this search for authority and authenticity?


The Goddess Vāruṇī or Surā in Newar Buddhism

Bühnemann, Gudrun (University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA)

This paper presents research on Tantric forms of Vāruṇī, goddess of spirituous liquor. Also known as Surā(devī) and identified with Māmakī, the goddess is invoked by Tantric practitioners into spirituous liquor or rice beer which has previously been filled in a skull-cup and is then consecrated as part of ritual worship. The paper analyses descriptions of the goddess extracted from Tantric texts and discusses representations in Newar art. The textual sources include chapter 26 of the Samvarodayatantra together with ritual texts and Newar Buddhist Tantric songs. The paper explores the link between iconography and ritual and shows the interconnectedness of Tantric traditions in Nepal.


Prescription, Description, and Memory in Buddhist Newar Menarche Ritual Manuals

Emmrich, Christoph (University of Toronto, Toronto, CAN)

This paper will analyze liturgies pertaining to a religious practice called bārhā pikayagu that ends a period of seclusion undergone by Newar girl children mostly before menarche. Looking at manuals currently used by Buddhist priests in Lalitpur, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur (all Nepal) respectively, the paper will try to place these manuals at the conjunction of other ritual textual genres such as prescriptions for domestic rituals for women that include cosmological, demonological and pregnancy-related aspects and attempts to explore their composition, their intention and their place within the textual history of this kind of manual and within Buddhist domestic ritual literature more generally. The paper will point at the opportunity these manuals offer in reconstructing past precursors of current practice in the mode of their prescription and at the limitations posed by specialization, participation, and gender. At the same time it will try to explore the methodological difficulties in determining whether past manuals indeed still pertain to the kind of ritual practice that seemingly similar manuals currently attempt to regulate. By confronting material pertaining to early manuals with first-hand accounts of rituals in chronicles, the paper will try to contribute to our understanding of what kind of texts ritual manuals are, how they are deployed, and how the historical memory they contain may differ or overlap with that of other textual genres.


The Concept of Vasundharā and Vasudhārā: Focusing on the Newari Buddhist Literatures

Shakya, Sudan (Shuchiin University, Kyoto, JPN)

Vasundharā is often confused with Vasudhārā, though they possess different origins. Firstly, Vasundharā is regarded as the deity of earth. The literal meaning of ‘vasundharā’ is earth, kingdom, soil, ground etc. The word ‘vasundharā’ or ‘asuṃdharā’ first appeared in Hindu texts and was adopted in the Buddhist pantheon as an earth deity in a later period. Again, the word ‘vasundharā’ is composed of ‘vasu’ (earth, wealth) and ‘dharā’ (holding), derived from the verbal root ‘dhṛ’ (to hold; tib. ḥdsin pa). This supports the understanding that Vasundharā is the holder of the earth or wealth. In Tibetan texts, it is translated as Nor ḥdsin ma or Saḥi lha mo, which have the same meaning.

Secondly, Vasudhārā is popularly known as the deity of wealth. In this context, the word ‘vasudhārā’ literally means ‘the flow of wealth’ as the word ‘dhārā’ is derived from the verbal root ‘dhan’ (to flow; tib. ḥdsin pa). It is noteworthy that ‘dhan’ does not have the meaning ‘to hold’, which ‘dhṛ’ has. Interestingly, the Tibetan texts also translate Vasudhārā as ‘Nor rgyun ma’ (the flow of wealth). This shows that Vasudhārā cannot be regarded as an earth deity, and that she is none other than the deity of wealth who eradicates poverty and provides prosperity. This interpretation can be seen in most of the Buddhist Literatures as well.

There are several individual texts related to the sādhanas, dhāraṇīs and avadānas of Vasudhārā. In some sādhanas, she appears as the consort of Jambhala, the deity of wealth. The Ācāryakriyāsamuccaya of Jagaddarpaṇa (12th-13th c. CE) gives the details of a Vasudhārā-maṇḍala, where the one-faced, six-armed Vasudhārā presides as a central deity. Again, there are some texts of Nepalese origin related to Vasudhārā, which are very influential texts in Newar Buddhism. On the contrary, there is no single individual text that deals with Vasundharā.

In some manuscripts we find Vasundharā in the title, whereas the content is on Vasudhārā. In this way, Vasundharā and Vasudhārā are mistakenly used interchangeably. This kind of mix up can be especially seen in manuscripts of Nepalese origin. Focusing on Sanskrit and Sanskrit-Newari manuscripts, this paper will distinguish the origins of these two deities, and also discuss their roles as well as their appearances in Buddhist literature.


Between Ritual Prescription, Historical Record and Literary Production. Newar Buddhist Ritual Chronicles

von Rospatt, Alexander (UC Berkeley, Berkeley, USA)

Besides guarding the literary heritage of Indian Mahayana Buddhism the Newar Buddhist tradition has also produced its own works, both in Sanskrit and in the local vernacular, Newari. This includes a sizable body of manuscripts that chronicle the performance of particular rituals and related events. They range from carefully structured and elaborate records to simple notebook jottings by individual priests. Among this hitherto hardly explored corpus, the talk focusses on the production of ritual chronicles recording the performance of renovations of the Svayambhu-caitya of Kathmandu. Written by participating Newar Buddhist vajracarya masters, these chronicles are both descriptive records of historic ritual events and prescriptive, serving as guidelines for future renovations (an argument I have made before in an article dedicated to this theme). I will examine how such chronicles were produced, and—drawing on the chronicle documenting the renovation of Svayambhu concluded in 1758—I will show how they could also assume features of literary productions, drawing on other accounts and on ritual compendia (sometimes as a substitute for missing records of actual events), and incorporating mythological narratives.


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