Paramabuddha (Padampa Sangye) is a Buddhist Mahasiddha from South India who lived in the 11th-12th Century CE (AD). He traveled to Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and China and led many disciples to great realization. In praise of his realization, his disciples called him Pha Dampa Sangye or Paramabuddha (Supreme Buddha, who is like a father). Based on the Tibetan hagiographies, his birthplace can be identified to be in Kerala, near Sabarimala hills. One of his main teachers was another Buddhist Mahayogi named Aryadeva (not same as Nagarjuna’s disciple Aryadeva).
It is highly possible that Paramabuddha’s Guru Aryadeva is none other than Ayyappa of Sabarimala. As per Paramabuddha’s biographic sources, Aryadeva’s (Ayyappa’s) gurus were also great Buddhist masters such as Mahasiddha Śarāha and Yogini Sukhasiddhi. Now Ayyappa is worshipped as a god, yogi, guardian deity, etc by the people all over South India. There are various legends about Ayyappa and the unique worship methods of Ayyappa followers that have some striking similarities with our context.
Paramabuddha also has a lineage coming to him from Mahasiddha Śabareesha (Savaripa) through Matripa (Advayavajra). Paramabuddha’s Pacification (zhije) tradition became one of the eight great traditions of Buddhism in Tibet. Chod practice formalized by his disciple Yogini Machig Labdron is very popular in Vajrayana circles around the world, particularly amongst Yogis and Yoginis.
Paramabuddha’s place of birth
In his hagiography ‘ ཕ་དམ་པ་དང་མ་ཅིག་ལབ་སྒྲོན་གྱི་རྣམ་ཐར། ’ by མཁའ་སྤྱོད་དགྱེས་པའི་རྡོ་རྗེ། , the birthplace of Paramabuddha (Padampa Sangye) is described in this way,
““His birthplace is in southern land of བེ་དྷའི་ཡུལ། (be dha’i yul) , the country of charasimha (ཙ་ར་སིང་ང་། ). .. Most people of that land followed Mahayana Buddhism and were open-minded. .. Being not far from the ocean, there were much variety of herbs and other precious substances. Since the place is auspicious for perfecting samadhi, many practitioners gathered there. Since it is near to the glorious mountain of the South, it is blessed by Avalokitesvara and the people took to heart the teachings on virtuous conduct. And, since it is near to the sandalwood forest of Bhishikota in the South, it also flourished with the teachings and blessings of Khadiravani Tara. His (Paramabuddha’s) birth was in a village, a very wondrous place connected to the forest of Sage Arya (drang srong arya), which also a place of many physically strong people.”
As we shall see, all indications regarding the place from the above passage, except the reference to “be-dha’i-yul” points to Sabarimala in Kerala. Often place names of India are translated to Tibetan based on the word meaning. However, be-dha does not become a meaningful word. Hence, many scholars assumed it to be the transliteration of an Indian sound, and thus guessed the place to be in Vidharbha. Alternatively, Dan Martin, a Tibetologist, in his blog article [Ref-1], pointed out that a number of earlier biographical sources on Paramabuddha gives the place name to be བེ་ཏའི་ཡུལ། (be ta’i yul), which means the ‘land of coconuts’. However, he took that phrase as a cover-all term for entire South India and then went on to identify the place to be Andhra Pradesh. The main reason for that identification was the mention of the glorious mountain (which usually is a reference to Sri-Parvata in Andhra Pradesh). In that case, the rest of the indications in the above passage do not match well.
Kerala is well-known as the land of coconut. The entire land of Kerala between mountain and ocean is a narrow strip that is suitable for the natural propagation and growth of coconut and is thickly populated with coconut trees. When this inference is taken along with all other indications in the above quoted passage, the place can be clearly identified to be Kerala, and specifically Sabarimala. Interestingly Dan Martin also noted in his article about the striking parallel between the postures of Paramabuddha and Ayyappa, but he left it open there. We were also curious about this parallel for a long time. Once “be-dha’i-yul” is corrected as “be-ta’i-yul” matching with the earlier sources, we could make the following inferences.
Inference from other Indications
In the quoted passage above, Charasimha is a reference to the Chera kingdom of Kerala during that time (11th Century CE). The mention about the flourishing of Mahayana Buddhism in that country can also be validated. The records such as Paliyam copper plate inscription and the epic named ‘Mooshikavamsham’ make it evident that a reputed Mahayana monastery named ‘Sreemoolavasam’ was still active in Kerala during that time. Further, an 11th Century manuscript of Prajnāpāramitāsūtra from Nepal (now preserved in Cambridge Museum) contains an image of the much famed Avalokitesvara statue from Sreemoolavasam monastery, revealing its glory in that period. There are also many ancient Buddha and Bodhisattva statues unearthed from various parts of Kerala. The mention of the forests and mountains as not being far from the ocean also matches well for Kerala than any other place.
The glorious mountain of the South, especially connected to Avalokitesvara is Potala, the pure land of Avalokitesvara. It is identified to be Agastyakootam (Potikai in Tamil), deep in the forest at the southern border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. [Ref-2]
Bhishikota is not clearly identified. However, from the caption given for another image in the above-mentioned manuscript of Prajnāpāramitāsūtra, it can be seen that the sacred place of Khadiravani Tara is in Kongumandala. Kongumandala (also known as Kongunadu) was part of the Chola kingdom of Tamil Nadu. Its adjacent mountain terrains in the Kerala – Tamil Nadu border were also part of Chera kingdom during some periods. Since the reference of Bhishikota is to a sandalwood forest in Kongumandala, this could be around Marayoor in present-day Kerala. An ancient Buddha statue was unearthed recently from this place.
A place between Agastyakootam and Kongunadu that is known as the forest of Sage Arya is Sabarimala that comes right in the middle of Agastyakootam and Kongunadu.
Since the names are often translated from their Sanskrit form to the Tibetan language based on the word meaning, the name, drang srong arya (Sage Arya) would need to be translated back to the local form. In Dravidian language (Tamil) this would become ‘Ayyamuni’. This could very well be a reference to the famed Ayyappa of Sabarimala. The reference to ‘a place of many physically strong people’ also matches with this because the Malayaraya tribe living there also had accounts of warefare and victory, including a war led by Ayyappa before he leaving the mundane life. We will come back to the story of Ayyappa down the line for the benefit of those readers who are not familiar with him.
Interestingly, Sreemoolavasam, the most famed Mahayana Buddhist monastery of ancient Kerala, is also located to be near Thrikkunnaapuzha by many historians. Thrikkunnaapuzha is on the coast close to where the river Pampa from Sabarimala flows down to the ocean.
The Story of Paramabuddha’s Birth
According to the biographic sources, Paramabuddha’s mother used to travel in deep forests for collecting medicinal herbs and other substances for making incenses. She belonged to a family that made incenses with such rare substances. Paramabuddha’s father used to travel to far away places to trade these. From this, we can infer that Paramabuddha’s parents were from the Dravidian tribes of that place. In another Tibetan biography, དེབ་ཐེར་སྔོན་པོ། by འགོས་ལོ་རྩཱ་བ་གཞོན་ནུ་དཔལ། it is told that Paramabuddha’s father’s name is Tsondru Goccha. When this is translated back to the local Dravidian language, it could be a name such as Veeran or any other name with similar meaning.
Paramabuddha’s mother used to go to deep forests with other relatives to collect the precious medicinal herb of Haritaki (ཨ་རུ་ར། ) that grows only in certain seasons. In one such trip, when she reached the sandalwood forest, she had a vision of Khadiravani Tara. Later she also had visions of bodhisattvas such as Avalokitesvara, Vajrapani, and Manjushri. Avalokitesvara spoke to her that a seventh ground bodhisattva will be born to her and that she should name him as ‘Ajitanātha’. In fact, Paramabuddha (Pha Dampa Sangye) is a name that he got later in Tibet from his disciples out of their respect. The name he used in his writings is Ajitanatha.
Guru Aryadeva (Ayyappa)
Ajitanatha went on to learn Buddhist philosophy and the practice of Mahayana and Vajrayana from 54 Gurus. Ten of his Gurus were yoginis. According to him, his principal Guru is a Buddhist Yogi named Aryadeva. (Not same as Nagarjuna’s disciple Aryadeva.) It is also mentioned that Guru Aryadeva was Paramabuddha’s maternal uncle. Aryadeva is a Sanskrit name that transforms into Ayya-appan in Dravidian language. Thus, Aryadeva would be popularly known as Ayyappa / Ayyappan locally.
It may be noted that mahasiddhas are often known by such local names than their formal Sanskrit names. For example, another Buddhist Mahasiddha, Śabareeśa is more popularly known as Śavaripa. Similarly, Mahasiddha Krishnāchārya becomes Kanhappa and Mahasiddha Tillipāda becomes Tilopa. In the same way, Aryadeva or Ayyadeva would be more popularly known as Ayyappa. This could very well be the person whom localities worship as Swami Ayyappa in Sabarimala. He is also said to have lived in the same timeframe (the 11th Century) as Paramabuddha. (There is also a lineage from Mahasiddha Śabareesha to Paramabuddha through Mahasiddha Maitripa (Advayavajra). We will come to that in another post later.)
The information that we could gain from Tibetan sources regarding Paramabuddha’s Guru Aryadeva (Ayyappa) are the following:
- There is a forest known as Ayyamuni’s (Ayyappa’s) forest between Potala (Agasthyakootam) and Sandalwood forest of Khadiravani Tara (Kongunadu)
- Paramabuddha’s principal Guru was his maternal uncle and Buddhist Mahayogi Aryadeva (Ayyappa)
- A short text of Buddhist teaching composed by his Guru Aryadeva (Ayyappa) was translated into Tibetan by Paramabuddha and taught in Tibet. It is named, ཚིགས་བཅད་ཆེན་མོ།
- Aryadeva’s main Gurus were Mahasiddha Śarāha and Yogini Sukhasiddhi
More details on Ayyappa
Sabarimala is an extremely popular pilgrimage place now amongst South Indians. They consider it as the seat of Swami Ayyappa. He is regarded as a great yogi or an avatar who lived around the 11th Century CE. As for who Ayyappa is there are many legends. Some of the most famous legends are:
- He was originally a warrior from amongst the local tribals (Malayarayar). He led a war to protect the Malayarayar clan from the invasion of Cholas. After the victory, he left the mundane life and went up to Sabarimala and stayed there. Thus he became a great yogi, but the type of meditation that he followed is usually not discussed. However, he was then worshiped as the principal guardian by the tribals. There is also a related story of the young Ayyappa learning martial arts from a martial arts family called Cheerappanchira.
- The king of Pandalam found him in the forest as a small baby. The king adopted him as his child. Later, the queen had another son and so the queen conspired to eliminate him during his youth by sending him alone to the forest to fetch leopard’s milk. However, the young man returned with a pack of leopards, mounting himself on one of the leopards. Thus he tamed the king and the queen and then left home and went to the mountain at Sabarimala stayed there in meditation.
- Later, the Brahminical tradition considered Sabarimala to be the shrine of Dharma-Śāstha. According to them, Dharma-Sastha is a God, as the son of Lord Siva and Lord Vishnu.
Connections with These Legends
Of these, the former description matches well with the depiction of Aryadeva as the Guru of Paramabuddha (Pha Dampa Sangye) in the Tibetan biographic sources. As we have seen, Paramabuddha’s family and thus his uncle Aryadeva are from the local Dravidian tribe. The reference to ‘a place of many physically strong people’ in the biographical account regarding the place of birth of Paramabuddha could also be an indication to the martial training that people from this tribe undertook. The name of the tribe, Malayaraya could have its origin as Malaya-rāya, meaning the rulers of Mayala mountain. (The western ghats to the South was known as Malaya earlier.)
It is also interesting to note that Sabara is a common name for tribals in many parts of India who lived in forests and organized as smalls countries of their own within their forest settlements. There are many historical records of warfare where Sabaras either helped other kings in their war or fought against the invasion by neighboring kings. So, it is quite possible that Ayyappa was a warrior in the early part of his life. Later, he would have taken to Buddhism, practiced Vajrayana in Sabarimala and became a Mahasiddha there. Thus, he would have also become the guardian of the people there.
The legend associated with Pandalam king also has striking parallels with the legends of Guru Padmasambhava – such as miraculous birth, adoption by a king, taming beings by appearing on a tiger, etc. Though Guru Padmasambhava and Ayyappa are not the same, the similarity in the legend could be due to the Vajrayana connection and the Mahasiddha appearance of both of them. In Vajrayana systems, such hagiographical accounts have a special purpose for the disciples in their practice.
As for the Brahminical legend of Dharma-Śāstha, it is already a well-known fact that Śāstha is an epithet of the Buddha. Amarakośa, the Sanskrit dictionary gives Sastha as one of the eighteen synonyms of the Buddha. In Pali Suttas, there are a number of places (including Mahaparinibbana-sutta, ) where the Buddha refers to himself as Sattha (the Pali equivalent of Sastha). In fact, the literal meaning of Sastha (སྟོན་པ་) is the one who holds the teaching or śāsana. Dharma-Śāstha means the one who holds the authentic teaching of the Dharma, in other words, a lineage master of Buddhism. According to the Theravada, only the Buddha is considered as Sattha, and not other teachers of Dhamma. However, according to Mahayana and Vajrayana, Bodhisattvas who attained the grounds are also considered as Sastha.
Etymology of Ayyappa
Many other similarities between Buddhism and Ayyappa practice are well known to Keralites, and that led to the belief in some of them that Ayyappa’s origin is in Buddhism. The connection through the name Sastha, as explained earlier, is the foremost amongst those. The Buddhist root of the name Ayyappa is also well known. It derives from Ayya (Arya) + Appa (respected). Ayya (Arya) refers to a person who reached the path of seeing or beyond in the Buddhist path.
Legend about Ayyappa’s Parents
The legends say that Ayyappan’s parents performed a meditation retreat on the neighboring mountain of Ponnambalamedu before the birth of Ayyappa, as per the instruction of another yogi. It is possible that there was a shrine of Avalokitesvara there earlier. It is also possible that Mahasiddha Sabareesha (Savaripa) was that yogi who instructed them, because Sabareesha is known as the lord of the Sabara clan, and lived possibly in 10th-11th Century. (We will cover this in a separate article later.) However, Ponnambalamedu falls in a reserved forest with no permission for pilgrims to enter. There are rumors of remains of an ancient shrine there, but it is unconfirmed. There is an annual function associated with Sabarimala temple, where traditionally an approved person from the Malayaraya tribe goes up to Ponnambalamedu and lights up a fire there.
Many people in Kerala already consider that the statue of Ayyappa at Sabarimala is that of the Buddha, because of the many commonalities they see between Buddhism and the Ayyappa practice. Though Dharma-Sastha is included as a deity of Hinduism in South India now, there is no such deity in Hinduism in North India. Even in South India, such a practice started only within the last millennium. So, it is widely assumed that Dharma-Sastha was a Brahminized deity with its origins in the vestiges of Buddhism after its decline in South India.
However, it is unlikely that the Ayyappa statue of Sabarimala is that of Sakyamuni Buddha (Gautama Buddha). It is not typical for Buddha to be depicted in this specific posture. Further, the Buddha would be always depicted with monastic robes. Kesari Balakrishna Pillai, a historian considered this statue to be that of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and Dr. Ayyappan, another historian considered it to be Bodhisattva Samantabhadra [Ref-3]. (Could not get access yet to the direct works of these historians to see their reasoning). It is true that there are many statues of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and Samantabhadra in South India, particularly with postures involving meditation belt. (We will cover that in another post later.) However, the posture of Ayyappa statue at Sabarimala is atypical for the depiction of Avalokitesvara or Samantabhadra though the meditation belt is in common. We can see that there are striking parallels between the posture of Ayyappa statue and that of the pacification posture of Paramabuddha (Padampa Sangye). Thus, it is very likely that Ayyappa is indeed Aryadeva / Ayyadeva, the Buddhist Mahasiddha, the Guru of Paramabuddha.
The Iconography of Paramabuddha and Ayyappa
Paramabuddha (Padampa Sangye) is depicted in various postures. Amongst those, there are two postures that are very popular for Paramabuddha.
The first and foremost is with both feet on the lotus seat with both the knees up and closer to the chest, firmed up with a meditation belt. This posture is important in the Pacification (zhije) practice that Paramabuddha taught in Tibet. While depicting Paramabuddha in this posture, most often both the hands will be held in vitarka mudra (the symbol of giving teaching) or triratna mudra (the symbol of triple jewels – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha). The statue of Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala also has striking parallels with this posture of Paramabuddha. Since we know that Paramabuddha’s Guru Aryadeva / Ayyadeva also gave a teaching on Pacification, this posture of Ayyappa statue is an additional proof that Ayyappa also practiced and taught this teaching. This is a further proof for Ayyappa being same as Paramabuddha’s Guru Aryadeva / Ayyadeva.
http://www.wayofbodhi.org/padampa-sangye-paramabuddha-quote1/The other popular posture of Paramabuddha, is that of rajaleela-asana (the posture of a king’s play), with one leg folded down on the lotus seat as in lotus posture, but with the other leg folded and raised up in a manner of ease, often with meditation belt used to firm up in that position. This depiction of him is usually related to Chod (severance) practice. This posture is also common for the general depiction of bodhisattvas.
Other Buddhist influences on the present Ayyappa practice
Unlike typical Hindu temples, Ayyappa followers mainly chant sharanam (refuge) to Ayyappa. Many people consider this custom also to be originating from its Buddhist roots. However, they chant “Sharanam Ayyappa”, instead of the typical Buddhist trisharanam of “Buddham śaranam gacchami, Dharmam śaranam gacchami, Sangham śaranam gacchami”. It is possible that “Sharanam Ayyappa” is based on its Vajrayana roots of considering Guru as the condensed essence of all the three jewels.
As another similarity, unlike the present golden statue, the statue that was used before 1950 (given in picture) is depicted to be in meditation. Also, unlike traditional Hindu temples, Ayyappa shrine in Sabarimala never had a history of prohibiting people of any caste or varna from entering and praying there. Many people consider this also to be due to the Buddhist origin of the temple.
Another striking connection is the Mandala-puja which is an uncommon practice at Sabarimala. Traditionally people used to visit Sabarimala only in a specific period of the year, and that too after observing strict vows of renunciation for forty-one days. (Nowadays people also go with a much shorter period of observance or even without such observance.) During this period, their main training is to consider themselves equal to Lord Ayyappa. They are also supposed to train in seeing others who have taken similar vows as Ayyappa. After such individual observance of vows, they travel together to Sabarimala in the deep forest, to the shrine of Ayyappa. Currently, their practice at the temple ends with praying and making offerings, while the temple rituals are done by a Brahmin priest. Then they formally end the strict vows upon returning to home.
It is very likely that this custom was a partial continuity of an earlier Vajrayana practice at that place. The forty-one day period of the observance of the vow would have been earlier meant for strict individual retreat ( སྙེན་པ། ) as per Vajrayana practice, and training in pure view. Later, all those who had been initiated and completed such retreats would have assembled together in the deep forest for the final stage ( སྒྲུབ་ཆེན། ) of practice in a single mandala, as is typical of Vajrayana practice. The annual pilgrimage season of forty-one days in Sabarimala is known as Mandala-puja. This name would have originally come up in relation to the great assembly of the practitioners in one mandala as taught in Vajrayana. It is possible that in the olden days, the practitioners would have done a group practice ( སྒྲུབ་ཆེན། ) there for many days, instead of just praying and returning immediately. This custom could have started while Mahayogi Aryadeva (Ayyappa) was residing and teaching there, and would have over time lost the meaning.
Paramabuddha’s Journey to Tibet
After receiving teachings from many Gurus, Paramabuddha (Padampa Sangye) engaged in meditation retreats in many parts of India. He also wandered in many places as an Avadhoota (careless yogi). Once when he was meditating at Potala (Agasthyakootam), he had a vision of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. He was instructed by Avalokitesvara to travel to the snow mountains and turn the Wheel of Dharma there. Later, he received similar instructions also from his root Guru Aryadeva. Thus he traveled to Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, China, etc. They received him with great reverence and felt that his realization is like that of the Buddha himself. Thus they called him Pha Dampa Sangye ( Parama Buddha, who is like a father). That is how Ajitanatha received the name Paramabuddha.
Paramabuddha (Padampa Sangye) had many disciples in Tibet. The most well-known amongst them was Machig Labdron, the great yogini of Tibet. Paramabuddha summarized the essence of the teachings of his Guru Aryadeva (Ayyappa) in this way to Yogini Machig Labdron:
The Essence of the Teaching
“Turn away from all non-virtuous aims.
Dispel all resistance.
Cultivate what seems impossible.
Severe all bondages.
Recognize your emotions.
Wander through fearsome and isolated places.
Understand that all beings are empty like the sky.
Discover the Buddha in you while you wander in the wilderness.
Then, your teachings will be radiant
Like the Sun in a cloudless sky.”
Here we have discussed about Paramabuddha (Padampa Sangye), his birthplace, and his Guru. There are some established facts and some possibilities. They are:
- Between Avalokitesvara’s Potala and Khadiravani Tara’s holy place in Kongunadu, there is a place known as the forest of Sage Arya (Ayyamuni)
- Mahayana was flourishing in that place during that period.
- Mahasiddha Paramabuddha (Pha Dampa Sangye) was born in Kerala near that forest.
- He is from a Dravidian family there
- His uncle and principal Guru was Aryadeva, another Buddhist Mahayogi (not same as Nagarjuna’s disciple Acharya Aryadeva who also comes in the list of 84)
- Aryadeva’s Gurus where Mahasiddha Śarāha and Yogini Sukhasiddhi
- The mention regarding the forest of Sage Arya (Ayyamuni), could be about Sabarimala, the forest of Ayyappa
- Aryadeva (Ayyadeva), uncle and Guru of Paramabuddha, could be Ayyappa of Sabarimala, a Buddhist yogi.
From the five circumstances of place of birth (forest between Agastyakootam and Kongunadu), period of living (11th Century CE), the style of teaching (Buddhism, Vajrayana, sitting posture of Pacification), name (Ayyadeva / Ayyappa), family background (and related legends), the above possibilities can be inferred.
These facts and possibilities need to be seen only as a part of a quest to understand history. Making claims for places or statues is not at all relevant to Buddhism. Buddhism is not about religious clinging and the Buddha always taught to go beyond such attachments. Further, we do not gain by sticking to our past. Rather, we should move forward in discovering the Buddha in our own being. As Bodhidharma said, “Whoever denies entry to the three poisons (attachment, hatred and ignorance) and keep the doorways of senses pure, body and mind calm, has one’s own body as a great Sangharama (vihara). The sublime form of the Tathagata cannot be cast in stone or metal as they are subject to decay. The practitioners can cast a Buddha within their body by … smelting and refining their own true nature (Buddha-nature) and pouring it into the mold of paramitas …”
However, it is beneficial to understand such historic connections as it removes the obstacles that the wrong history imparts to our minds. It is highly beneficial localites to understand that Kerala flourished with all vehicles of the Buddhist teachings such as Sravakayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana and that its effects in culture and traditions are still visible. Further, it greatly helps a practitioner of Buddhism in Kerala to know that Kerala too was blessed by so many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas such as Avalokitesvara, Khadiravani Tara, Sabareesha, Ayyappa, Paramabuddha, Bhavaviveka, Vajrabodhi, etc. Appreciating history can thus generate more auspicious circumstances for practice.
- Ref-1: Yerushalmi, Dan (2010), South India in Tibetan Geography, WEB https://tibeto-logic.blogspot.com/2010/10/south-india-in-tibetan-geography.html (extracted on 2018)
- Ref-2: Hikosaka, Shu (1989), Buddhism in Tamil Nadu: A New Perspective, Madras, Institute of Asian Studies
- Ref-3: Sadasivan, S.N. (2000), A Social History of India, APH Publications