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Svayambhu Mahacaitya: A survival of Indic Buddhism in Kathmandu valley by Min Bahadur shakya

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Svayambhu Mahacaitya:
A survival of Indic Buddhism in Kathmandu valley

Min Bahadur shakya
Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods, Kathmandu Nepal


Newar Buddhism is to be classified in the tradition of Indian Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism deriving its lineages from Siddha tradition of Nalanda and Vikramashila monastic universities. However, it has developed its peculiar characteristics which are one of a kind in the Buddhist history. One should not forget that Newar Buddhism possesses quite a number of indigenous elements, which are not to be found in Indian Mahayana Buddhism. Now that Mahayana Buddhism has disappeared from India, Newar Buddhism found in Kathmandu valley represents one of the few tradition in the world which has retained features inherited directly from India. At one time all forms of Buddhism were believed to have been found in the Buddhism of Nepal. At present, there are no longer any celibate monks among Newar Buddhist Sangha. The members of community live in Vihara and have retained its designation (Sangha).

II.Svayambhu Mahacaitya and its environs

Listed as world Heritage Site by UNESCO, Svayambhü is one of the world's most glorious Buddhist Caityas and one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in Kathmandu. It is situated 3 km west, in the most pleasant hillock about 77m above the level of Kathmandu and is visible from most parts of the valley. It is said to be more than 2000 years old. According to the legends, the history of the Kathmandu valley begins with Svayambhü, the Self-existent One. The Svayambhü Puräna gives the origin myth of the Kathmandu valley and its self existing divine light (Svayambhü Jyoti Rüpa).

The Kathmandu valley is said to have been a sacred place for practicing Buddhism long before the appearance of the historical Säkyamuni Buddha as legends suggest. In Svayambhu Purana Bodhisattva Maitreya asks the Shäkyamuni Buddha when this Svayambhü Jotirüpa came into existence. The Buddha told him that in the age of Vipasvi Buddha, when people had a life span of 80,000 years, he was born as Satyadharma Bodhisattva, serving as one of the Buddha Vipashvi‘s disciples. At that time the Nepal Valley was a lake called Nägarhad, 14 km in diameter. The water of the lake had eight kinds of good qualities. The lake was surrounded by high mountains with all kinds of trees and scented flowers.

After the light of Svayambhü appeared, it became the focus of Newär Buddhist devotion. The Svayambhü Jyotirüpa is crystal in color, brilliant like jewels, and lies on a pericarp of a lotus flower, about one and half feet in height. It lies in a pleasant area, surrounded by trees, that is well decorated with flowers and fruits of all seasons.

Bodhisattva Manjusri who came from China paid homage to the lotus that emitted brilliant light, when the valley once was a lake. He was the one to drain out all the water by cutting a gorge in the southern hill known as Cobhär, so that he could worship and make the valley, a habitable place.

Later on, Bodhisattva Pracanda Deva alias Shäntikara Äcarya, covered Svayambhü with a stone slab fearing that its jewels would be stolen by people in the coming Kaliyuga, or modern times. Then Shäntikara Äcarya, the king who turned into a Bhiksu, a monk, raised the first stupa on the holy site.


The stupa of Svayambhü is a hemispherical mound of compacted earth, and is built to specific rules, and is replete with symbols. The mound represents the garbha griha i.e Tathägata garbha, the embodiment of Buddha nature.

The 13 gilded rings (skt: cakravali) of the spire symbolize the 13 stages of the Bodhisattva leading to Buddhahood. The shrine is bedecked in colorful prayer flags.

The statues of Five Jinas or Buddhas and Four Taras are on the four cardinal and intermediate directions of the Stupa.

The soaring central stupa is topped by a gold-colored square block (Harmikä) from which the watchful eyes of the Buddha gaze out across the valley in each direction. The question mark-like nose is actually the Nepali numeral one and is a symbol of unity of wisdom and compassion i.e. advaya or non-duality.

Set around the base of the central stupa is a continuous series of prayer wheels which pilgrims, circumambulating the stupa spin as they pass by. The pilgrim's progress to Svayambhü Caitya's holy premises is actually through a sylvan path of 365 steps. The entrance is graced by a huge Vajra on a large Dharmadhätu Mandala[1].

Around the stupa you may find a beautiful Häriti temple, Karmaräja Gompa, a Tibetan Monastery and numerous small caityas and deities. The balconies of Svayambhü are ideal for seeing the bird's eye view of the Kathmandu valley. You may also find many Tibetan monasteries with large Buddha images, huge prayer wheels, fine Buddhist paintings, and innumerable butter lamps, within and around the beautiful hill.

IV.Historical Background:

Though no one is sure how old the stupa is, lichchavi King Vrishadeva (400-412 AD), the great grandfather of Mänadeva I, was well known for his devotion to the stupa. A stone inscription from about that century points out that Svayambhü had been built by that time.

In the following years the stupa went through a number of repairs after suffering from lightning, earthquakes, war, and neglect for its upkeep.

Reported restorations were done on the stupa during the Licchavi period (400-879), however, the first dated repair is known to have occurred in 1129.

Svayambhü was completely destroyed in 1349 when Muslims raided Kathmandu and left most of the Holy shrines in ruins.

During the time of King Arjunadeva and his successor, Sthiti Malla, around 1372, the stupa was reconstructed. This time, major modifications to the original structure's form were made to envelop Lord Buddha's power and gave it the basic structure of Svayambhü as we see today, a dome shape achieved with a central beam. Further restorations followed and each project added to the changes of its appearance.

Pratap Malla (1641-1674) repaired the whole stupa, and placed a huge vajra mandala, a bronze vajra on a stone mandala, at the top of the stair at the East side. Most of the sculptures at the vicinity of Svayambhü are from the Malla period as the earlier images must have been destroyed during the Muslim raid in the fourteenth century.

Along with the renovation of the Svayambhü, other smaller stupas, caityas, temples, and rest houses were built around the hilltop.

Around the platform are dharmasäläs, secular houses, gompas, monasteries, and five special shrines which are likely to have been made during the transitional period (879-1300).

Pratap Malla created a colorful sculpture of Aksobhya at the foot of the eastern slope of the hill and Prithvi Bir Bikram Shah established three similar images on the slope. Pratap Malla also established two tall çikharas dedicating to Vajrayana deities.

V.Svayambhu Purana as the source of Nepalese Buddhist practice and tradition

The Svayambhū Purāna[2] 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.[3] 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, Gunakarandavyuha, Vrihat Jatakamala and so on,[4] were written to consolidate the vanishing tradition.

The SvP gives the origin myth of the Kathmandu Valley and its selfexisting 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).

The shortest version of the SvP, containing 280 verses,[5] 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: MaitreyaBhikshu UpaguptaKing AśokaBhikshu JayaśrīJinaśrī Raj Bodhisattva.

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 originthe 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.

===VI.Triple Refuge in Newar Buddhism 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 Newar Buddhists, like Buddhists everywhere, take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana context, the Buddha is of course, Sakyamuni Buddha. But in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, the Five Tathagatas [6] (Panch Buddhas are:

1. Vairochana,
2. Akshobhya,
3. Ratnasambhava,
4. Amitabha and
5. Amoghasiddhi

They are well known in ritual than the historical Buddha.

The Dharma is realization of Prajnopaya namely unity of wisdom and skilful means. These nine texts are:

1. Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita[7], :2. Gandavyuha,
3. Dasabhumikasutra,
4. Saddharmapundarika,
5. Suvarnaprabhasa,
6. Lankavatara,
7. Samadhiraja,
8. Lalitavistara and
9. Tathagataguhyaka Sutra.

These texts are recognized as the official texts. They are recited at various times, and the books are worshipped. In fact, worship is favored than scholarly study.

The Sangha is of course the Bodhisttva Sangha. Much of the devotional life of the people revolve around the worship of eight Bodhisattvas, especially Avalokiteshvara and Manjushree. Avalokiteshvara is recognized as the head of eight Bodhisattvas. He is the representative of Sangha of Bodhisattvas. Just as in Theravada Buddhist tradition the Bodhisattva Sangha is excluded, similarly in Newar Buddhist tradition Shravaka Sangha is excluded. Since the emphasis is laid on Mahayana/Vajrayana tradition of Buddhist Sangha it would be unwise to expect Buddhist Sangha of Newar Buddhists in Theravada context.

VII.Newar Buddhism as a Lay Bodhisattva Practice

It seems that there had been a provision for lay Buddhist monkhood which became very popular in the valley of Kathmandu. The validity of this tradition was also corroborated by the text "Siksasamuccaya" of Acharya Shanti Deva. It runs thus:

Punara aparma kulaputra bhavisyanti anagata
adhavani grahstha pravajita adikarmika bodhisattva.

The meaning of the text is as follows:

"Again, oh, Sons of the family, there will be the householder beginner (Skt: adikarmika) and ordained bodhisattvas in the future".

Concerning Adikarmika Bodhisattva Acharya Anupamavajra stands prominent. His work had a great influence on Nepalese Buddhist tradition. It is surprising and interesting to note that Adikarmapradipa which was composed in 1098 A.D. by Anupamavajra had profound impact on the daily practice of Newar Buddhist society even till today. In this context it is befitting to cite the verses of Adikarmapradipa.

To state briefly, it deals with the following practices of Newar Buddhists.

1. Taking Refuge in Triple Gems
2. Reciting Namasangiti
3. To recite Bhadracarya Pranidhan:
4. To offer Preta bali
5. To circumambulate Caitya, Buddha statues etc. : 6. To perform Gurumandala rite
7. To meditate on tutelary deity
8. To recite Prajnaparamita and other Mahayana Sutras
9. To recite danagatha (stories of Dana)
10. To perform Bodhisattva practices joyfully
11. To study Buddhist scriptures
12. Offering food to Triple Gems and tutelary deity before eating
13. Offer fivefold prostration to Buddha of ten directions
14. Sleeping in a lion's posture after meditating on Deity Yoga

According to Newar Buddhist tradition, even after disrobing ceremony of Cudakarma, the Shakyas and Vajracharyas do not cease to be bhikshu or Buddhist monks, but passing from the state of celibate bhikshu to that of grihasthi bhikshu, a fact underlined by the term Sakyabhikshu used to refer to them down ages.

In disrobing ceremony the following lines are met with about the status of bhikshu.

"You have gone through Sravakayana and now come to Mahayana, the greatest of the Buddhist Yanas. You have participated in some Vajrayana rituals and after going through some higher ordinations you will know what Cakrasamvara is[8].

VIII.Uposadhavrata practice of Avalokiteshvara[9]

Amoghapasa Lokeshvara is a multi-armed form of Avalokiteshvara that seems to have been popular in Nepal since the middle ages.

The name suggests that he is the lord of the world with infallible noose which leads suffering sentient beings to enlightenment.

In Nepal as much as 360 forms of Avalokiteshvara are found in hymns or stavas but only 108 forms of Lokesvara can be found in pictures with iconographic details.

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.

IX. Recitation of Namasangiti Text

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

X.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, Wuta’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.

XI. Integration of Saiva and Buddhist tradition in Newar Buddhism

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 Brahmamandira [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).[10]

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.

Mr. Decleer, on the other hand, suggests an alternative cause of this inclusivism. He says that this integrative style was adopted as autodefensive 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.”

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.”


Here we have presented briefly how Indic Buddhism was transformed in Nepal especially in Kathmandu valley.

As we have described, the very concept of triple refuge has been changed. It regards Adi-buddha as Buddha jewel, dharma as nine scriptures and Sangha as eight bodhisattvas.

Among them Aryavalokiteshvara became the chief of all the bodhisattvas. That‘s why he was called Jewel of Sangha. In Newari terms Sangha Ratna Karunamaya.

Concerning Hindu-buddhist syncretism 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.


  1. Recently Golden Vajra was renovated by Ven. Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche through Ye she de Project-2009
  2. Alexander Von Rospatt suggests that Svayambhu Myth ws developed and popularized in the wake of the raid of Nepal by Shamsuddin in 1349 C.E. when the situation for introducing new elements into Buddhism may have particularly favourble.
  3. See William B. Douglas, ‘Literary sources of the Gun_ākarandavyuha’, paper presented at Nepal Mandal Seminar, Kathmandu, 1998.
  4. 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.
  5. According to Hubert Decleer, this shortest rescension is believed to be the most authentic text. He has also completed an English translation of the Tibetan version. This Tibetan is in close agreement with a Sanskrit manuscript in the collection of Pandit Badri ratna Vajracharya.
  6. Tantric origin of these five Buddhas are described in Guhyasamaja tantra ( 8-9th century) .But the images of Amitabha and Aksobhya seemed to have appeared in early centuries of Christian era.
  7. According to the findings of Prof. Lewis Lancaster, this is the oldest Mahayana sutra.
  8. Allen, f.n. no. 3, pp. 1-10.
  9. For details see John Locke on "Uposadhavrata of Amoghpasa Lokeshvara in Nepal, in l'ethnographie ,publiee par la Society d'ethnographie,Paris 1987.
  10. (H.Decleer, in History of the Naturally formed Great stupa in Nepal, unpublished monograph -p.183)