𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐋𝐢𝐟𝐞 𝐨𝐟 𝐌𝐚𝐡𝐚𝐬𝐢𝐝𝐝𝐡𝐚 𝐕𝐢𝐫𝐮𝐩𝐚

By Lama Choedak Rinpoche

𝐕𝐢𝐫𝐮𝐩𝐚 was born a crown prince, the son of King Suvarnacakra (gser-gyi ‘khor-lo) of the city of Vesasa in eastern India. The court astrologers predicted at his birth that he would develop tremendous spiritual powers and would illuminate the teachings. He was given the name Rupyacakra (dngul-gyi ‘khor-lo). As a young child, he entered the famous monastery of Somapura in North Bengal where he received novice ordination from the abbot Vinitadeva and the Acharya Jayakirti. He mastered all the five major sciences and became a great scholar of both Buddhist and non-Buddhist doctrines. It was here that he built a stone temple in which he installed holy images of the Buddha. He established a tradition of making regular offerings to cleanse the misdeeds of his deceased parents. When the temple was complete, he offered a big celebratory feast to the whole monastic community and dedicated the merits.

Having concluded his studies there, he left for Nalanda where the Dharma was firmly established. There he received Bhikhu ordination from the abbot Dharmamitra also known as Jayadeva of Nalanda University. He was given the name Shri Dharmapala. He continued his study under the tutorship of his abbot who was very pleased with him and gave him many private teachings on Vajrayana practices in general and on Chakrasamvara Tantra in particular. The abbot left instructions in his will that Shri Dharmapala should be appointed his successor, and asked the monastic officials to show equal respect and honour to his successor as they had Dharmapala was accordingly appointed abbot of Nalanda. He supervised his predecessor’s grand funeral ceremony and arranged to have the entire remains of the abbot transformed into relics which he carefully distributed amongst the various kings, patrons and monks.

Dharmapala practised Chakrasamvara diligently every night according to the secret instructions he had received from his abbot. His days were devoted to teaching and composition. Although he gave teachings on both Theravadin and Mahayana texts, he devoted most of his own time and energy to the esoteric practices of Vajrayana. He continued to practice Chakrasamvara wholeheartedly year after year. However, at the age of seventy despite so many years of faithful practice, Dharmapala was yet to experience any signs of spiritual attainment. He also had to contend with all his old diseases which plagued his body and his mind. He was saddened and frightened by the constant harm caused by Yakshas and evil-spirits. To add to his general state of discouragement and frustration, he had been having the most frightful nightmares. In one of these dreams he saw huge a fire burning at the lower end of a vallery and a flood rising from the upper end. He saw hail-storms, glaciers, icicles and icebergs failing from the sky. He saw his Guru, Yidam and spiritual friends hanging upside down, or with their faces torn apart, noses cut-off, eyes gouged out and dripping with blood.

Not surprisingly, Dharmapala interpreted these dreams as bad omens. He concluded that he must lack the karmic connection to attain realization through the path of Vajrayana in that lifetime. He decided to give up his Vajrayana practices completely. Accordingly, on the night of the 22nd day of the four lunar month he relinquished his practice of Deity Yoga, and threw his prayer beads into the latrine.

These dreams were actually indications that Dharmapala was about to achieve a major spiritual realization through his Tantric practices. But he had no way of knowing this at the time, so he completely misread the signs. He was unaware that he had already perfected the Path of Accumulation, the Path of Preparation and was about to attain the Path of Seeing. At that time his vital energy and his mind had merged in the ksa and ma syllables below the Navel Cakra. This had caused the symbolism which appeared so terrifying in his dreams. He failed to recognise the signs of what was happening to him because his abbot had died before imparting the complete pith instructions. These would have explained the drastic changes occuring in the subtle energy flows within his psychic body and clarified the dream experience.

Shri Dharmapala decided that from then on he would devote his entire time to teaching, writing and other duties for the Sangha (monastic community) instead of spending many hours a day on Deity Yoga meditation practice. However, on that very night he dreamed that the Goddess Nairatmya appeared before him in the form of a beautiful blue woman wearing heavenly silk garments, and spoke to him thus:

“O noble son, it is not good that you should behave in this manner when you are about to attain the Siddhi. Although all the Buddhas have non-discriminatory compassion, I am the deity with whom you have strong Karmic affinity and I shall bless you to quickly attain Siddhi. Go and retrieve your prayer beads, wash them with scented water, confess your misdeeds and resume your practice properly.”

Then she disappeared. Dharmapala awoke feeling a mixture of regret and joy. He followed her instructions, resuming his practice early that morning. Subsequently the Mandala of the Nirmanakaya aspect of the Fifteen Goddess of Nairatmya appeared before him and gave him the four complete initiations. He thereupon attained the Path of Seeing of the First Bhumi. He now realised the true significance of his dreams. The rough dreams and visions of Yaksas were the interdependent manifestations of his mind and vital energies merging into the ksa and ma syllables below the navel Cakra. This was caused by the untying the vein knots which brought about the First Merging of Elements and signs of the vital energies of Candali heat. The unconventional experiences which appeared to his conceptual mind resulted from the re-adaptation process between the veins and the mind. As a sign of the intermediate Merging of Elements the Candali fire blazes upward and causes the Bodhicitta nectar to flow upward. Such an interdependent manifestation of internal events would be experienced conceptually by the Yogi as a blazing fire from the bottom of the valley and a flood coming from the upper part of the valley. The forceful circulation of subtle droplets in many minor veins was reflected in the dreams about hail-storms, and the icebergs falling from the sky. The Third and Final Merging of the Elements revealed the bare face of flawless transcendental wisdom. This has the effect of dissolving all attachment to ordinary appearances. These interdependent manifestations were reflected in his dreams as the torn faces of his Guru and Yidams. He came to realise that all those signs had been direct meditative experiences related to the three sequential mergings of the subtle elements within his body.

Through the timely appearance and guidance of Vajranairatmya, Shri Dharmapala had finally attained realization. From then on, he reached a higher Bhumi each day until in the early morning of the 29th of the same month he attained the Sixth Bhumi. He was now a great Bodhisattva dwelling on the Sixth Bhumi. His receipt of the four complete initiations confirmed that the continuous flow of the empowerment had not ceased. The attainment of the six Bhumis was confirmation that the lineage of the blessings was unbroken. His failure to recognise previous signs of attainment and his misinterpretation of these signs as bad omens confirmed that he had not received certain pith instructions. This enabled him to realise that the order of the instructions was not wrong. In consequence, Dharmapala’s devotion to the teachings was restored and redoubled. He became confident that he would definitely attain the realization of a Fully Enlightened One, as did the Buddha. In this way he was blessed with the Four Whispered Lineages, which came to be known as the ‘Instruction of the Four Whispered Lineages’.

Out of gratitude to his Guru and Yidams, Shri Dharmapala asked his companions to prepare Ganachakra feast offerings. Meat and wine were included amongst the requisite offerings substances. The other monks became apprehensive when they saw the meat and alcohol being taken into their abbot’s quarters. Some of them eavesdropped at his door at night. Depending on the level of purity or impurity of their respective minds, they each saw different things going on in his own room. Some saw the abbot surrounded by fifteen women, others saw only eight. Some saw him surrounded by fifteen lamps, while others could see only eight of them. These nocturnal sightings aroused considerable suspicion within the monastic community. However, the monks dared not speak out for he was their abbot, and his reputation in the wider world was not just untarnished, it was brilliant, like the sun.

In the meantime, Shri Dharmapala had already decided that, in order to avoid any possibility of disparagement to the doctrine which might arise from misunderstandings about his behaviour, he should without delay confess his wickedness. Accordingly he left his room and went before the Buddha image. Removing his Dharma robes and setting down his begging bowl, he declared, “Ame Virupa” which means “I am wicked.” Next he went off and adorned his head with flowers and leaves which he took from florists. He snatched radishes from vegetable shops, stuffing some into his mouth and others beneath his armpits. He began frequenting wine bars and brothels. His behaviour caused a scandal and it was not long before the monastic gong was beaten, signaling his dismissal from the monastery for violation of the monastic code of conduct, Virupa responded by singing joyously.

In order to benefit the Buddhadharma and also to rekindle the faith of those who had lost their faith in him, he had admitted his wickedness. After his dismissal he adopted the name “Virupa”. He became very famous under this new name and his ordination name “Dharmapala” was virtually forgotten. Hence very few scholars and historians, apart from the Lamdre historians of the Sakyapa tradition, realise that it was the famous abbot Dharmapala who later became Virupa.

Virupa set off Varanasi. When he reached the river Ganges, he spoke the following words:

“I am wicked, so let me pass without touching you, as you are believed to be pure. I do not want to pollute you.”

Even as he spoke the waters of the Ganges parted and there appeared before him a dry white path. He walked along the path singing joyously. Some monks had followed him as far as the river. When they saw this amazing feat, they realised that Virupa had already attained the siddhis. They begged their dismissed abbot for forgiveness and requested that he return to the monastery. Virupa forgave them but declined to return.

He wandered through the forests of Varanasi for a long time. Some sources say this went on for six years, other say six months. Because of his nakedness, his complexion turned bluish and he became frightful to behold. Peasants who saw him reported his presence to the king. Some thought he was a Hindu Yogi, while others suspected he was a Buddhist Yogi. The king of Varanasi, Govindachandala was a staunch devotee and patron of Hindu Yogis. He wanted to offer comfort to the wanderer should he prove to be a Hindu, but feared the man might bring harm to his citizens if he turned out to be a Buddhist. Accordingly, he ordered his ministers to investigate the Yogi. However, the ministers could find no clue to his identity. The king then ordered that this mysterious Yogi be brought to the palace so that he could examine him personally. On the way, Virupa indiscriminately devoured many worms, pigeons and butterflies which he then vomited up and resurrected. The king’s men labelled him ‘wicked’. He told them that he had no idea how he should behave since they labelled him ‘wicked’ whether he devoured worms or resurrected them. Virupa was finally brought before the king. The king asked him many questions, but Virupa answered not a single word. Then the king said:

“Since this Yogi has neither any of the qualities of Vishnu nor any noticeable signs of a Hindu Yogi, chain up his limbs and throw him into the river. He must be a Buddhist Yogi.”

The ministers had Virupa thrown into the river exactly as the king had commanded. However, before the ministers returned, the magical Virupa had already reappeared and was standing before the king. This process was repeated many times until finally the king became convinced that the Yogi knew a magical spell to control the water element. The king then ordered all the butchers of the city to stab the Yogi. But their knives and axes became blunt as if they had been striking rock and failed to inflict even the slightest injury. Next the king’s men dug a deep ditch. They buried Virupa and poured molten iron and bronze over his body. Then they dumped soil on top and let many elephants trample over it. Even after all this, he appeared before the king unharmed. At this point, the king developed great faith in Virupa’s spiritual power and confessed his misdeeds. Subsequently Virupa converted all the citizens of Varanasi to the Vajrayana path.

After that he left for the south to subdue Bhimesara. On his way he asked a boatman to ferry him across the Ganges. The man declined to do so unless he would pay a fee. Virupa told the boatman that he would offer him whatever would make him happy. He asked the boatman, “Do you want this river to be large or small?” “Sometimes I like this river large, at other times I like it small,” the boatman replied. Promising to give him the river itself as payment, Virupa reversed the flow of Ganges by pointing at it with a threatening gesture. The river almost deluged nearby houses and lands. The inhabitants became alarmed that their property would be destroyed. Knowing that this was due to the power of the Yogi, King Calabhadra and the villagers requested Virupa to return the water to its normal channel. They offered him all kinds of inducements, including gold, silver, cattle, grain and flowers. In response, Virupa burst into song. With a snap of fingers he restored the river to its normal channel. He gave all the offerings he received to the boatman. The man refused the gifts. Instead, he touched Virupa’s feet and asked to be accepted as a disciple. The boatman, who later became known as Dombi Heruka, is said to have been a fortunate disciple with ripen Karma suited to liberation by way of the ‘sudden path’. Virupa accepted the boatman as his pupil and the two set of for the south, leaving the villagers to collect the abandoned offerings.

The pair reached Daksinipata near Bhimesara and entered the house of a wine-seller named Kamarupasiddhi. They asked for some wine and the wine-seller responded by asking whether they could pay for it. Virupa replied, “Serve me until I am satisfied, then I will pay whatever you want.” The wine seller, who was highly skeptical, asked, “But when will you pay?” Virupa drew a line on the floor with his dagger and said, “I will settle the bill when the shadow of this house reaches this line.” The wineseller served the two men but Virupa used magical powers to restrain the ‘day star’ from moving along its usual course. He demanded more and more wine and drank until the tavern was dry. Much time passed but the shadow of the house got no closer to the line. The tavern-keeper was obliged to import wine from the taverns of eighteen great cities to fulfill her part of the bargain.

Although to the amazement of all the tavern-keepers, Virupa drank more than five hundred elephant loads of wine, there was no indication that his thirst was quenched. In the meantime, the town of Daksinipata was plagued with continual daylight and everyone lost track of time. All the inhabitants were exhausted, crops withered in the fields, lakes and rivers began to shrink and no one had any idea of the order in which events had occurred. Unaware of Virupa’s magical powers, the king ordered his ministers to investigate what was stopping the sun. When he found out that all this was due to the power of the Yogi, the king requested Virupa to let the sun resume its course. Finally Virupa assented, on condition that the king adree to settle his bill. Then he released the sun. By then it was mid-night of the third day after he had stopped the sun.

Virupa became known as one who had not only parted the waters of the Ganges on two occassions but had also halted the sun in its course for three days. His fame spread far and wide. Meanwhile he continued his journey to subdue Bhimesara in the south and to find Krishnacarin, a future disciple who it is said was a suitable candidate for the ‘gradual path’. Bhimesara was ruled by a Hindu king named Narapati who was a devotee of five hundred Yogis with plaited hair. They worshipped at a massive Shivalinga and at an image of Mahadeva which had been installed by a previous king named Bhayasena. They sacrificed ten of thousands of buffaloes and goats every year. Virupa arrived among them and wrote many eulogies to the Shivalinga in Sanskrit. The king was greatly impressed with his scholarship. He asked him to become the leader of the five hundred Yogis, an offer which Virupa found difficult to refuse.

During the regular worshipping ceremonies the Yogis bowed down to the image of Mahadeva and made flower offerings. While this was going on, Virupa would pull out a volume of the Prajnaparamita text which he kept tucked in his hair, and pay homage to it. He never bowed to the image of Mahadeva. The Yogis became suspicious and reported this behaviour to the king. Instead of paying heed to their allegations, the king accused the Yogis of jealousy. “He is such a great scholar and master of the Vedas. It is impossible that such a man does not pay homage to Mahadeva, the king of the gods. You must be jealous of him,” the king replied. However the Yogis kept on reporting Virupa’s behaviour until at last the king decided he must observe the truth himself by attending one of these ceremonies personally. When he did, Virupa paid his homage to the Prajnaparamita text as usual. The king was amazed. He addressed Virupa, saying, “Why are you not bowing down to the image of Mahadeva?” “Why should I?” replied Virupa. “He cannot bear my homage.” The king then said, “There is no one more powerful than he in the whole desire realm. Why do you say he cannot bear your homage? You must show your respect.” “Since I have no choice but to do what the sinful king demands of me, you must forgive me,” Virupa said to the image. As soon as he placed his hands together to pay homage and said, “Namo Buddhaya” (I pay homage to the Buddha), one third of the gigantic image cracked to pieces. When he said, “Namo Dharmaya” (I pay homage to the Dharma), two thirds of the image cracked and when he said, “Namo Sanghaya” (I pay homage to the Sangha), the entire figure crumbled into pieces and fell to the ground.

The king was shocked. With a mixture of fear and faith, he requested Virupa to restore the statue. Thereupon Virupa instantly restored it and placed upon a black stone image of the Great Compassionate One, Avalokiteshvara. He then said to the king, “The statue will remain intact so long as no one removes the image of Mahakarunika. Should anyone remove this, this statue will instantly crumble to bits.” Then he left. Amongst the five hundred Yogis was one who was dissatisfied with the behaviour of Tirthikas (heretics). Having witnessed Virupa’s wondrous qualities he developed deep devotion to him and became his disciple. This was Krishnacharin of the East who, although never previously a follower of the Buddhadharma, now decided to enter the path.

Virupa and his two disciples, Dombi Heruka and Krishnacharin, wandered further into the south to a district ruled by devout Brahmins. They reached a place where there was a huge image of Shiva, which stood one hundred and twenty feet high. It had been built by King Jomgi. It was known as ‘Tambrapratima’. It had three faces, six hands and was made of bronze. This shrine attracted hundreds of devotees who sacrificed thousands of animals in order to offer meat and blood. As the trio pushed their way into the crowded gathering at the worshipping ceremony, someone was heard to say, “There is no room for you inside. Wait outside and we will give you your share of the feast.” Ignoring this, Virupa entered forcibly and commanded, “If there is no room, it is you who should get out of this place.” So saying, he kicked the statue. The figure followed him, taking seven wobbly steps outside the shrine before crashing down on its face. The terrible devotees then requested Virupa not to take the image away but to leave it behind. Virupa threatened to remove it unless they gave up animal sacrifices. He said that he would leave it behind on condition that they agree to make only vegetarian offerings in future, and vow never to sacrifice any more animals. The devotees agreed, and vowed as Virupa had commanded.

In this way, all who had heard the name of Virupa placed a Buddhist image on top of their Hindu images, for fear that Virupa might come and destroy them. The very name of Virupa, Baleshvara, the Lord of Power or Yogeshvara, the Lord of Yogis, brought great benefit to limitless living beings. When Virupa saw an image of Goddess Tara placed on top of a Hindu image, he circumambulated the image which turned her face towards him as he walked. This became known as the ‘Turning Face [Image of] of Tara’.

Subjugation of the Goddess Chandika

Virupa and his companions continued traveling south. They arrived at a place where there was a self-arisen image of Goddess Chandika, named Sahajadevi which was worshipped by many Hindu Yoginis. This shrine had a Trishula (a three pointed ritual knife) which of its own accord without any human intervention would pierce through the neck of pilgrims killing them as soon as they entered the shrine. The Yoginis would then make offerings of flesh and blood to the image. Virupa knew about this and had come purposely to subdue it. He instructed his two companions to remain outside and perform special breathing meditation. The Yoginis were delighted to see Virupa and asked him to bring his two companions inside with him. Virupa said that they could invite in themselves, if they wished. The Yoginis went and asked the pair to enter. But neither of them replied. The Yoginis felt the stomachs of the two meditating disciples. Excrement emerged from wherever they touched. The Yoginis concluded that the two were already dead and rotten, so left them undisturbed. Virupa had seen the Trishula knives ready for slaughter and moved very fast as he entered the shrine. He clapped his hands and the knives were instantly pulverised. Immediately the image started jumping towards onto its shoulders. All the Yoginis began vomiting blood and fainting as they saw this unexpected tragedy befall their god. “Aren’t you Buddhists meant to be kind and compassionate to other living beings? Please do not do this to us,” said the Yoginis when they recovered. “It is due to compassion that I am doing this,” replied Virupa.

He placed a small votive stupa on top of the image and admitted all the Yoginis to the practice of Buddhadharma. At this time, the boatman Dombi Heruka, who had been with Virupa since the second parting of the Ganges was blessed to attain the realization of a Bodhisattva at the level of the Sixth Bhumi. Virupa then sent him to Rada province in eastern India to subdue an evil Hindu king named Dehara, who had a palace named Kangkana. Mounted on a pregnant tiger and brandishing a deadly snake bridle and whip, Mahasiddha Dombi Heruka subdued the king and his subjects. They were all admitted into the path of Vajrayana.

Meanwhile, Viruapa and Krishnacharin traveled to Devikota in south eastern India where an Upasaka named ‘Iron-legged’, sometimes also identified as the teacher of Acharya Maitreyagupta, had an image of Khasarpani which he had imported from the Potala realm. Virupa paid homage to Khasarpani and made an offering of all the activities in which he had been involved from the time of his ordination up to the defeat of Sahajadevi. The Great Compassionate One said:

“O! Noble son! You have the magical power to pulverise even Mount Sumeru. Nevertheless there are varieties of sentient beings whose karmic propensities are inconceivable, so you should cultivate great compassion to the Tirthikas instead of frightening them.”

Virupa replied, saying, “There is a place called Sovanatha in the west where thousands of animals are sacrificed every year. I must first of all go there to subdue it. After that I shall do as the Great Compassionate One has order.” The Great Compassionate One advised Virupa to subdue them without force using skillful means. As Virupa and Krishnacharin journeyed towards the west to subdue Sovanatha, the god had discovered Virupa’s intention by means of his contaminated clairvoyance. Sovanatha disguised himself as a pure Brahmin and when he met the two travelers on the road, he asked them knowingly, “Where are you two Yogis going?” “We are going to subdue Sovanatha,” Virupa replied, also knowingly. “If you are a kind an compassionate Buddhist, why do you have to subdue him?” asked the disguised Sovanatha. “That is the very reason why I need to subdue him,” replied Virupa. “He is not there now. He has gone to Purvavideha, the eastern continent,” Sovanatha advised. “I will also go there as I must subdue him come what may. Wherever he has gone, whether to one of the four continents or to the realms of the Brahmas, I must go there and subdue him,” said Virupa. Hearing this Sovanatha became very afraid and admitted, “I am Sovanatha.” He revealed his ordinary manifestation and requested Virupa not to subdue him forcefully. Virupa replied, “In that case you must establish Sangha communities and build Buddhist monasteries. On top of their doors, draw my image and make regular offerings. You can first make rice flour and vegetarian food offerings to the Triple Gem, then to me and finally to yourself if there is any left over. If you abandon the sacrifice of animals and replace that practice with the offerings I have described, I will let you remain there. If you fail to do this, I will reduce everything to dust.”

Sovanatha happily vowed to do all of these things. He requested Virupa to remain in the world until the sun and moon ceased to exist and Virupa agreed. In a dream Sovanatha revealed to King Candradeva of Tishala in western India that the king must see to the accomplishment of all the promises he had made to Virupa. If the king should fail to fulfill all of Sovanatha’s vows within three months, his kingdom would be conquered. Seeing this in the dream, the frightened king hurriedly arranged to give effect to all the promises. Accordingly, the king built a monastery about a half day’s journey from Sovanatha in the region of Gujarat, in beautiful surroundings with luxuriant shrubs, waterfalls and flower-filled meadows. About a hundred monks were settled there. He forbade the slaughter of goats and buffaloes, and made it illegal to kill or harm any animal. With mixed feelings of excitement and curiosity, the king offered a grand reception to Virupa whose power could frighten even Mahadeva.

By this time, Virupa had give the ‘Vajra Verses’ to his disciple Krishnacharin, who had not yet gained realization equal to that attained by Virupa, and blessed him with this level of realization. He then asked Krishnacharin to fulfill three main tasks:

1. To subdue an evil Hindu king in eastern India;

2. To accept Acharya Damarupa as his disciple and to pass on the whispered lineage knowledge to him; and

3. To bring out the five scriptures of ‘Vajra Verses’ from Uddiyana in the west.

Mysterious Passing Away

There are two versions of Virupa’s passing away. Some say he dissolved into a stone image, other says he became a stone image. The image’s right hand was in the gesture of holding the sun while the left, in the gesture of granting supreme realization, was holding a container of gold paint capable to transmuting all base metals into gold. The gold paint was said to be the size of a medium sized arura fruit. There are several legends about this stone statue. It is said that:

1. One who approaches the image respectfully, even a small child, can reach high enough to place flower garlands around its neck;

2. One who approaches disrespectfully, even the tallest person, cannot reach high enough to place anything on the image;

3. In front of the image is a stone skull-cup which never overfills even if one pours hundreds and thousands of jars of wine into it;

4. There is a dumb boy believed to be an emanation of Vajrapani in front of the image;

5. There is a manifestation of Vajra Varahi in front of the image which appears alternately as a leperess or a dumb girl.

It is said that, at the request of a Brahmin, Virupa (who had transformed into a stone image) gave the stone paint to a Brahmin, who subsequently made a lot of gold. When the local king, heard the news, he tried to rob the Brahmin. The Brahmin hurriedly returned the gold paint stone to the hand of the image and said to the king, “Since it is not mine, I cannot give it to you. I have returned it to the hand of the owner. You can go and get it from his hand if you want it.” The statue closed its fist and did not give the stone to the king. The king, frustrated in his greedy endeavour, ordered his men to cut off the hand of the image. However, the man who attempted to do so vomited blood and died immediately. Following this incident the local people became afraid that the stone image might bring them harm. They consequently enshrined the statue in gold which they obtained by pushing wires through the fingers. This became a most sacred shrine where both non-Buddhists and Buddhists would come to worship. It became known as Punyahara, the robber of merits to the non-Buddhists and Shri Balanatha, the glorious master of Power to the Buddhists. The Hindu god Kumara Karttika was bound by oath to maintain the offerings to the sacred image. This shrine of Sovanatha is said to be situated in the Saurastra district of the modern Gujarat state in western India.

The Dating of Virupa

Aryadeva is said to have been a disciple of Nagarjuna in the latter part of Nagarjuna’s life. Virupa said to be have been a disciple of Aryadeva. The Chinese Buddhist Canon holds that it was an oral tradition among the Lamas that prior to his expulsion from Nalanda, Virupa wrote a commentary on Aryadeva’s “Catusataka”. It is also stated in numerous historical Lamdre texts that Virupa was a disciple of Asanga. Asanga lived 900 years after the Mahaparinirvana of the Buddha to one hundred and fifty years of age. Shantaraksita, who came in the 8th century, is said to have been a disciple of Virupa.

According to Lamdre sources, Virupa came to the world approximately 1020 years after the Mahaparinirvana, which is about 476 AD. This is 80 to 100 years too early to be accurate since he was in his late seventies when he left Nalanda and met Dombi Heruka. Notwithstanding the difficulty in determining the exact lifespan of Virupa (who made at least three appearances in this world) it is important to attempt to date his first appearance with the relatively limited data available. It is estimated that the meeting between Virupa and Dombi Heruka occurred between 630 and 635 AD soon after Virupa left Nalanda. This suggests that Virupa was born around 565-570 AD. He would have lived until early in the 8th century, as he was also a teacher of Shantaraksita. This was his first appearance.

He came for the second time as the Yogi Siropa. In that life, he subdued Nyimacharka, a wild elephant which destroyed trees, villages and cities in central India. According to Taranatha in the work attributed to him entitled the “Seven Instruction Lineages”, Virupa’s third appearance took place in the bed room of an Iranian king:

‘At a later time, in the eastern land of Gora, a king of Iran awoke to find a Yogin beside his bed-head. The Yogin was thrown into the river time after time only to return on each occasion. He was thrown into fire but he did not burn. When he was struck by various weapons, they shattered into pieces instead of hurting him. He was forced to drink six khals of poisons and was guarded by many people a whole day and night. Having witnessed that the Acharya’s health and complexion became even more splendid, they knew he had attained the Siddhi, and they asked him who he was. “I am Virupa,” he said. There also he gave instructions to some fortunate people, whose mere utterance of oath out of their reverence to him, caused many of them to attain the ordinary siddhis. During his stay of approximately four months in Bhangala, he made himself available to all, personally seeing anyone who wished to approach him. Thereafter (I) do not know where he disappeared to, although it is about this time he went to China. Virupa is reputed to have appeared on earth on three occassions and all three have been discussed.’

The Lamdre sources are not clear about his third appearance. Some say he came specifically to re-subdue Bhimesara in the south, while others believe that he is yet to come. It is said that Acharya Dharmakirti, King Ashoka and Yogisvara Virupa are the three most remarkable beings who propagated the teachings respectively through debate, military power and magical power. As H. E. Chogay Trichen Rinpoche concludes in his book:

In summary, just as no-one has paralleled logician Dharmakirti’s ability to uphold the teaching through skill in debate, nor King Ashoka’s ability to uphold the teachings through power, Virupa’s ability to uphold the Dharma through magical power is unequaled.

The Identity of Virupa

A large part of Virupa’s story concerns his demonstration of magical powers after he attained Siddhi. The Lamdre hagiography lists all Virupa’s names, whereas other texts such as “Caturasiti-siddha-pravrtti” fail to do so. The problem of the historical identification of Dharmapala has resulted from this inconsistency in the sources. Since he had more than two or three names, it is difficult to solve the problem unless we know when his childhood and ordination names ceased to be used and when he became a siddha, and adopted different names. Merely counting him as one of the eighty-four Mahasiddhas and narrating a few magical and legendary accounts is insufficient for a full historical understanding of his life. One must bear in mind that he was not known as Virupa until his late seventies, at which time he was expelled from Nalanda monastery. We must ask who expelled him and who succeeded him.

Dharmapala was originally a Pandita of the Yogacara Cittamtrin School, a viewpoint which is reflected in his commentary on Aryadeva’s “Catursataka”. However, when he attained the Path of Seeing (the First Bhumi of enlightenment), it is argued by Lamdre scholars that he must already have gone beyond this earlier view and realised the Prasanghika Madhyamika view of emptiness. Virupa himself wrote about this realization in the following Doha:

Having uprooted oneself from self-grasping,

One is victorious over the troops of evil;

Owning to the self-disintegration of the grasping onto objects,

One is entirely liberated from Samsara and Nirvana.

Unaware that Shri Dharmapala had become the siddha known as Virupa late in life, many scholars dealing with his life have failed to identify him with the Mahasiddha. Dharmapala’s family background is referred to in the records of Chinese travellers and he appears as the abbot of Nalanda in Vidyabhusana’s work (although the author claims to have based his version of the story on the Chinese traveler’s records). What is important, however, is that Hsuan Tsang refers to ‘a mountain monastery’ where Dharmapala was admitted after he left home.

The Lamdre sources confirm that it was the Somapura monastery in the south where Dharmapala was first admitted before he went to Nalanda. Scholars who rely entirely on the Chinese sources do not seem to understand the significance of who it was who ordained Dharmapala and gave him that name. This is an instance where we should not undervalue the traditional oral histories of Lamdre which were passed down from generation to generation. According to Taranatha, Shri Dharmapala took ordination from Acharya Dharmadasa, a name which might easily be a mistranslation of Dharmamitra, who ordained Dharmapala according to the Lamdre sources. Since Taranatha has little to say about Dharmadasa it is not clear whether he was a Pandita of Nalanda or not and his identity remains in doubt. It is plausible that there might have been more than one Pandita of Nalanda with the name Dharmapala. However, the much talked about Dharmapala of the Chinese travellers and the Dharmapala referred to by Taranatha was in fact Shri Dharmapala, who later became known as Virupa.

What became of abbot Dharmapala if he did not become siddha Virupa? There is an important and often overlooked reason for contemporary silence on this subject. At the time, the monks who had regarded Dharmapala as one of the great luminaries of Nalanda would have been reluctant to advertise the fact that he had become Virupa, particularly to students in the cloistered atmosphere of the monastery. We should remember that Virupa’s reputation as a Mahasiddha was not yet established. Attitudes towards his transformation were, to say the least, ambivalent and this is particularly so within the monastic community. It is clear that the monks of Nalanda disapproved of his Carya practices of Tantric realization and this was the reason they expelled him when he adopted the name ‘Virupa’. Virupa’s refusal to return to the monastery later on when requested to do so by the monks who witnessed the parting of the river, may well have contributed to their reticence on the subject of his eventual whereabouts.

There appears to be no record in the Lamdre histories about who assumed the abbotship of Nalanda after him. Neither is there information about his main disciples in Nalanda. This is curious, considering that he taught there until he reached the age of seventy. It is not plausible that such a renowned scholar and abbot of prestigious Nalanda had no successors. Praises to Virupa by Sachen and Sakya Pandita indicate that he had hundreds and thousands of Sthavira disciples. Historically his behavioural change and the vast differences between his activities as abbot and as a Siddha may have created a divisions amongst his followers which widened the gap of misunderstanding.

Virupa’s two main Tantric disciples, Dombi Heruka and Krishnacharin appear not to have known who succeeded their teacher at Nalanda. We know, of course, that neither Dombi Heruka nor Krishnacharin became Pandita of Nalanda. Lamdre histories lack details of Virupa’s earlier life and his Sutra and philosophical disciples. It is possible that Shilabhadra, who was Hsuan Tsang’s preceptor, may have been Dharmapala’s successor. Vidyabhusana places him at Nalanda in 635 AD. However, Sarat Candra Das, who lists the names of several teachers of Hsuan Tsang, does not mention Shilabhadra.

Vinitadeva and Dharmamitra are described in the Lamdre histories as Dharmapala’s teachers at Nalanda. Jayadeva is said to be another name for Dharmamitra, a name he may possibly have received after defeating Tirthikas. It is likely that it was Dharmamitra who gave Virupa the name ‘Dharmapala’ since the abbot traditionally gives part of his name to the disciple during Bhiksu ordination. Taranatha argues that although Virupa is also known as Shri Dharmapala, he is not be confused with the Sthavira Dharmapala, who was the abbot of Nalanda. Hence Taranatha not only identifies two separate individuals, but also regards them as contemporaneous. Taranatha shows no indication of knowing about the Lamdre records on Virupa, nor does he appear to remember that he had elsewhere mentioned the expulsion of Virupa from Nalanda by the monks. He states, “While studying in the monastery of Nalanda, he once went to Devikotta.” Taranatha’s assumption that Virupa traveled back and forth between Devikotta and Nalanda proves that he was unaware of Acharya Dharmapala’s dismissal from Nalanda. Since there is no record to prove that he returned to Nalanda after the dismissal, Virupa’s trips between Devikotta and Nalanda are unlikely to have occurred after his expulsion. If, as is claimed, the “Seven Instruction Lineage” was in fact written by Taranatha ten years before he wrote the “History of Buddhism”, he would not have contradicted what he had written in his earlier work. Could it be that the author of the “Seven Instruction Lineage” was a later Jonangpa scholar passing his or her work off as being that of Taranatha himself?

The absence of any reference to Dharmapala’s dismissal in either the Chinese sources or Taranatha’s “History of Buddhism” leads support to the view that Dharmapala and Virupa were two separate entities. The author of the “Seven Instruction Lineage” must have learned about Dharmapala’s dismissal somehow, probably from the Lamdre sources. There is no indication in his “History of Buddhism”, that Taranatha had even heard of Virupa’s ordination name Dharmapala. There is no reason, of course, to suspect deliberate suppression on the part of Taranatha, as might be the case with Shilabhadra and his followers. It appears that Taranatha simply knew nothing about it. Taranatha does not omit mention of Shilabhadra as a scholar of Nalanda, but he does not bame him as successor to Acharya Dharmapala. It is interesting that Taranatha makes mention of the short duration of Dharmapala’s period as abbot. However, he fails to offer any reason for this. According to him, Jayadeva became the Upadhyaya of Nalanda after Dharmapala. Since he mentions Jayadeva as Shantideva’s and Virupa’s teacher, Taranatha’s Dharmapala is not Shilabhadra’s teacher. Although Taranatha deserves some credit for identifying Jayadeva, I personally believe it is a mistake to say that “Jayadeva became the Upadhyaya of Nalanda afer Dharmapala.” It is apparent that the name ‘Dharmapala’ was more popular than the name ‘Virupa’ in the annals of non-Tantric Buddhist masters.

The uncertainty as to whether Dharmapala was dead or had merely retired when Hsuan Tsang arrived, suggests the possibility of a ‘conspiracy of silence’ by the monastic community, and particularly by his orthodox disciple, Shilabhadra. Why would Shilabhadra not tell Hsuan Tsang what had happened to his teacher, Dharmapala, if he had succeeded him? It is unlikely that Hsuan Tsang would have failed to describe the passing away of his grand-teacher if he had known the details, when he went to such great pains to describe every single monument he encountered and even made notes of the number of families he saw in a town as he traveled. On the other hand, why would Shilabhadra not mention the details of his teacher’s death or retirement?

We should recall that the Nalanda monks, Shilabhadra mong them, had failed to persuade Dharmapala to return to their monastery. Shilabhadra was an elderly and some might say ambitious Pandita by the time he met Hsuan Tsang. It would be logical for him to have kept silent on the subject of his teacher’s later life. To reveal what happened may brought discredit not only to Nalanda but to himself by possibly impugning the reputation of the man who had been his teacher. At the very least, such a story would have formented controversy and possibly doubt amongst foreign students. If Shilabhadra lived up to his name, it seems likely that he was a monk of upright moral conduct. It is likely that he was amongst those who failed to understand Dharmapala’s unorthodox behaviour or realise that he had attained Siddhi. He may well have been foremost of those who expelled Dharmapala. He had little to gain from either side by drawing attention to his earlier relationship with Dharmapala. To those who disapproved of the former abbot’s transformation, he might appear somehow tainted by his close acquaintance. To those who were supporters of the Tantric master Virupa he would have appeared as disloyal, if not personally at least by association. He would also appear to have lacked discernment for not understanding that Virupa had realised Siddhi. The word “retired” has a better connotation than “expelled” and is thus a more skilful choice of words. But there is no evidence that the concept of retirement existed in those days. It appears more likely that Dharmapala’s tenure as abbot was expunged from the records, so to speak.

Since the Chinese travelers failed to report anything about Jayadeva in their travel records, Sankalia (a contemporary Indian scholar) appears puzzled to find Taranatha’s reference to him. Taranatha appears to be correct in mentioning the existence of a teacher named Jayadeva. This is corroborated in the Lamdre sources. However, one would have thought it unlikely that Jayadeva was Dharmapala’s successor because he was in fact one of his teachers. There is the possibility that, if Jayadeva was still alive, he assumed some of Dharmapala’s teaching duties after the latter was expelled. In which case Taranatha may have been correct in his assertion that Jayadeva succeeded Dharmapala. This would indicate that Jayadeva was not another name for Dharmamitra as stated in the Lamdre sources, but that they were two different teachers of Dharmapala. Taranatha adds further confusion hen he writes, ‘He preached the doctrine at Vajrasana for over forty years and succeeded Shri Candrakirti as the Upadhyaya of Shri Nalanda.’

It is clear that Dharmapala was one of the most influential abbots of Nalanda. The disagreement about who succeeded him may have derived from a narrow assumption that there was only one abbot or upadhyaya in a great monastic institution like Nalanda. Judging from the number of Panditas responsible for teaching in other institutions like Vikramalasila, it stands to reason that Nalanda would have had many assistant abbots or Panditas under one main abbot. If this were so, all of the suggested successors may have held similar positions.

Perhaps there are several reasons why the Lamdre sources have remained silent regarding Dharmapala’s successor in Nalanda. Firstly, Lamdre was an exclusively esoteric lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism. This being the case, there would have been little interest in discussing non-esoteric matters within the literature. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the enlightened Virupa would have had any interest in recounting mundane details of his earlier life to his Tantric successors. Secondly, Dharmapala never returned to Nalanda after his eviction. The assistant abbots probably tried to magnify their own importance after the expulsion of their abbot, rather than focusing attention on him. Thirdly, the successors at Nalanda had to keep the matter secret, since they had failed to recognise the sings of his enlightenment until after the expulsion, and then failed to persuade him to return. They had the added motivation of avoiding scandal, confusion and misunderstanding amongst new students, particularly foreigners like Hsuan Tsang. They would not have foreseen the problem of future historical confusion. In the same way, the Lamdre hagiographiers have recounted the barest details which have come down to us through the centuries. Ngorchen sums up the story in these words:

‘Formerly, when he was the abbot of Nalanda, he had countless disciples who were mainly ripened though the Paramitayana. After his attainment of Siddhi he only had two disciples who were ripen through Mantrayana: (1) The boatman who followed him, Mahasiddha Dombi Heruka and (2) One Yogin, from Bimehasa [Bhimesara] country, one of the five hundred hair-plaited [Yogins], Acharya Krishnapa. (This is said since there was no one else who held the lineage of teaching and meditation beside these two. In addition there was an inconceivable number of people within both Buddhist and non-Buddhist circle who made spiritual contact [with him] due to his immense spiritual power.


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