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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

04/2012 manuscript  of the month

Hevajratantraṭīkā - The Way to Complete Enlightenment

Anyone with an interest, scholarly or other, in Indian tantric Buddhism will almost certainly come across one of the most influential scriptures of this form of religion, the Hevajratantra. But without detailed commentary, the Hevajratantra can neither be understood nor interpreted. As is the case with most tantras, a commentary is practically indispensable, even for experienced scholars, for interpreting the text correctly. Such a commentary is essential for practitioners, as otherwise tantric practice cannot be carried out properly so that enlightenment cannot be achieved. For the commentator, the achievement of enlightenment on the part of practitioners is one of the main goals. But who wrote the commentary, if not an ordinary scholar? And how does he know what the right interpretation and the correct way of performance is?

Hevajratantraṭīkā Kathmandu, Kaiser Library, MS 128 = NGMCP MS C 14/6, fol. 48r

The copy of the Hevajratantraṭīkā, ‘Commentary on the Hevajratantra’, presented here is a palm-leaf manuscript that was probably produced around the end of the 12th century. It is written in an Eastern Indian script (sometimes called Māgadhī) and originally consisted of 58 folios. Unfortunately, a number of folios have not been preserved or discovered yet. Today, those which have been found are kept in the Kaiser Library, Kathmandu.

This manuscript is of special interest because the last folio (f. 58r, shown below) tells us that it was copied in Vikramaśīla, one of the greatest Buddhist monastic universities in Eastern India. Furthermore, it was an official copy for the monastic library which was completely destroyed. It reflects the nature of this library and its collection of which very little was known until now. Thanks to this manuscript as well as to some others which have recently been identified as originating from Vikramaśīla, we are at least able to gain a picture of the treasures of this renowned Buddhist library.

Hevajratantraṭīkā, fol. 58r

But this manuscript is very important in another respect too, namely its content. The tantric tradition is characterized by complex mystical formulae and secrets regarding performance, for instance of the consecration, which should only be taught to faithful disciples by Masters or Gurus. Thus the complexities and secrets of the Hevajratantra directly related to the performance of the rituals, which aim at complete enlightenment, are not always easy to understand either, not even for scholars or practitioners. Hence, commentaries on such texts are necessary for both a better understanding of the text itself and the performance of the tantric rituals. The introductory verses of this commentary tell us that it explains the secrets of the Hevajratantra, which is a relatively short tantra, comprising 750 stanzas. We also learn that the commentated tantra is a small part of the root-tantra (mūlatantra), a comprehensive work consisting of 500,000 stanzas.

The commentary continues with an extensive section in which other commentators are criticised sharply for attempting to explain the Hevajratantra without having either supernatural powers or access to the root-tantra of the work. The author Vajragarbha however claims to possess both, and in fact to be a Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is an enlightened being whose essence is perfect knowledge and who helps sentient beings in the process of achieving enlightenment. Vajragarbha claims to be the Bodhisattva who attended the original teaching of the tantra and who was one of the main interlocutors of the Buddha. By means of this commentary, he facilitates the use of the Hevajratantra, correcting the wrong interpretations of others, and thus helps sentient beings to achieve enlightenment in this life.

Hevajratantraṭīkā, fol. 58r, fourth line (enlarged)

The symbols in this manuscript are used to visually demarcate the text, but they also have a more specific significance. In this context, the first symbol by which the copyist’s statement at the end of the volume is demarcated (fourth line) is of particular importance. It is probably intended as a florally stylized vajra, a key ritual implement that was at the same time, amongst others, a symbol of the self-identity of this form of Buddhism (which called itself Vajrayāna) and the non-conceptual, non-dual, gnosis of awakening or enlightenment.

To put the creation of the Hevajratantraṭīkā in context, it is important to be aware of the social environment and especially the predominant religious ideas during the 9th-12th century CE. Tantric Buddhism, similar to other religious traditions, comprises various aspects and components of other schools of thoughts, including other forms of Buddhism. The contemporary milieu of India was highly dynamic and many new groups formed, competing with each other to attract new followers. Vajrayāna Buddhism appears to have outcompeted many other forms due to its attractive claim to offer Buddhahood without having to overcome severe adversities and face harsh and enduring ways of life. Enlightenment within their current life and assorted magical powers must have fascinated and convinced many people.

This commentary is one of the earliest texts of the Kālacakra system of Indian tantric Buddhism that established this new tradition and has kept it alive to date. This system is well known today mainly because it is commonly regarded as the highest of tantric traditions within Tibetan Buddhism; and even the Dalai Lama, for instance, often refers to it and initiates practitioners into this tradition.

DASGUPTA, S.B. (1958): An Introduction to Tāntric Buddhism. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.
FARROW, G.W. and I. Menon (2001): The Concealed Essence of the Hevajra Tantra. With the Commentrary Yogaratnamala. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
ISAACSON, Harunaga (1998): “Tantric Buddhism in India (from c. A.D. 800 to c. A.D. 1200)”. In: Buddhismus in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Band II. Hamburg: University of Hamburg, pp. 23‒49.
SFERRA, Francesco (2005): “Constructing the Wheel of Time. Strategies for Establishing a Tradition”. In: Squarcini, Federico (ed.) Boundaries, Dynamics and Construction of Tradition in South Asia. Firenze: University Press, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, pp. 253‒285.
SFERRA, Francesco (2009): “The Laud of the Chosen Deity, the First Chapter of the Hevajratantrapiṇdārthaṭīkā by Vajragarbha”. In: Einoo, Shingo (ed.): Genesis and Development of Tantrism. Tokyo: University of Tokyo, pp. 435‒468.
SHENDGE, Malati J. (2004): Ṣaṭ-Sāhasrikā-Hevajraṭīkā. A Critical Edition. Delhi: Pratibha Prakashan.
SNELLGROVE, D.L. (1959): The Hevajra Tantra. A Critical Study. Part I. Introduction and Translation; Part II. Sanskrit and Tibetan Texts. London: Oxford University Press.

Kathmandu, Kaiser Library, MS 128
Microfilm availiable at the Nepalese-German Manuscript Cataloguing Project (NGMCP) MS C 14/6
Palm-leaf, 29,5 × 5 cm
33 Folios (missing: 2, 6, 8-18,32-39, 42-46)
East India, end of the 12th century

Hevajratantraṭīkā, wooden covers and folios.
Palm-leaf manuscript folios are held together with a piece of string
which was thread through pre-bored holes. Wooden front and back
covers provide protection.

Text by Bidur Bhattarai