Saturday, April 15, 2017

Seeing through a King's perspective...


The day before yesterday, I had to get my thesis signed by the
Bhupatindra Malla
Bhupatindra Malla, the most
famous king of Bhaktapur

external examiner. I also had a lecture to give and my college and his home happened to be close by. So with an umbrella, a sling bag and a walking stick as a gift to the old scholar I headed towards Gairidhārā, a modernised section of ancient Kathmandu. I had planned to meet him around two, after my two hour class. On a rainy Saturday with only about half the usual number of students I had to take a "mini-crash-course" on the indigenous technology of fibre extraction and dyeing plants. Had I been informed at the begin of the semester I would have made a better treatment of the subject. But anyway, for the nature of the course and given their capacity it was enough for my dear students.
After my duties as a teacher were over I exited the campus as a student. Within a walking distance of about five minutes I reached the home of the renowned Professor of culture. In a quiet residential part of the town his newly-painted house with arches of bougainvillea and flower pots showed his high lineage. I gently opened the front metal door with iron letters saying "Trailokya Niwās" in Nepālī script. I skipped over the tiny puddles and observing quietly the flower pots opened the second gate. The guard dog got into action and I buzzed the electric bell.
Unlike my previous three visits I received an unexpectedly warm reception from the Missus. On those occasions I had to wait for the Professor outside or simply pass the papers in through the ground floor window grill. This time around she shooed the barking dog to another room and kindly welcomed me. In these visits I have always thought that her face matches quite well with the Professor himself. Half a century of cohabitation does change people, I guess! Anyway the purpose for meeting him was two fold. The first, as I mentioned, was to get the approval signatures on two copies of my thesis. The second was to learn from him. The purpose of the handcrafted wooden walking stick gift was to aid this. So as soon as I sat down beside him I began questioning him on a few topics. He began by recounting his experience teaching in the above college as well.
The Professor recounted the days when he used to take exchange students from renowned liberal arts colleges on city tours. But by the mid-1990s due the insurgency the college administration swapped hands and applied sciences and management was instead taught here.
I then moved into a more serious informal kind of interview. As a curiosity I asked him about why the Navagrantha Sūtra (the Nine Sanskrit philosophical stories) were so much prevalent here and why these texts were placed in a maṇḍala (circular) diagramme, in each of the eight cardinal directions and one in the centre. My intention was to know the deeper significance of the philosophical texts in relation to Buddhist art. However, he wasn't much clear about it. He pointed towards the ritual significance and the transformation of the aniconic to iconic. He then recommended me the collected articles of the great Japanese scholar, Musashi Tachikawa.
He kept sharing his experience regarding his visit to Bhaktapur in his early days. One fascinating account had the people of Bhaktapur producing hundreds of liters of milk at places where there were no buffaloes reared. They had solidified milk with them in stock, which they mixed with warm water and then churned them to have the demanded milk ready overnight, literally.
After a light-hearted conversation, I moved to to a more political issue related to Bhaktapur. I asked him about the presence of many more Buddhist stone sculptures prior to the advent of the city development project. He concurred. So a massive theft must have occurred  in between. He additionally brought to notice the large inscription (dated N.S. 588 or ca 1467 CE) close to our home in which it's mentioned that a life sized gilt sculpture of Rāya Malla (the son of Yakṣa Malla) was installed upon his death. The copy of the same inscription is also displayed in the National Art Gallery of Bhaktapur. He exclaimed that the sculpture is now gone, even though he had seen a photograph of it.
Dhanavajra Vajrācārya and Tulsi Rām Vaidya (two great Nepalese scholars) had published a paper on the list of items that were left in the Bhaktapur palace after Prithvi Narayan Shah exiled the last king, Raṇajita Malla and his wife to Kāśi. When audited, many items were found to be missing. His point was that many precious artefacts were now missing, in spite of many of their written accounts. He also highlighted the presence of two or three nunneries as per the inscription of Cyāmhāsiṅgha area and the reading by Dhanavajra Vajrācārya.
Another interesting point he noted was the difference in the time interval of sati (self immolation upon husband's death) of one of the wives of Yakṣa Malla compared to the others. There was about 7 days difference in the śrāddha (post-funeral rituals) rituals after their death. He concluded that that the later śrāddha and ultimately the later sati was because of the wife undergoing menstruation, a supposedly "impure" happening preventing the "auspicious" suicide!
He then emphasized the presence of Buddhist struts in Cāṅgu Nȧrȧyaṇa area. When I showed my surprise, he quickly resorted to saying that in fact Cāṅgu was a totally Buddhist site. There are still many pieces related to Buddhism and that the Buddhist tradition is still strong there. People still conduct the Aṣṭamī Vrata ("aphsaṁ") with great pomp in the premises of Cāṅgu Nārāyaṇa...and on and on he was filling me with so many new topics to explore...
There were many things of paramount cultural significance that he showed in our nearly hour long conversation. I truly admired his deep knowledge and wisdom.
I felt like he took me through a magnificent tour of the ancient city, my home city. He made me see Bhaktapur through a King's perspective. I hope to be in conference with him again and again. A true living testament to Nepalese history and culture.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Done with MA thesis!

I straightaway present to you the abstract of my thesis. Do enjoy!



Buddhist Elements in Ancient Yakṣa Images of Nepal

Presented by: Suyog Prajapati

Abstract
The Yakṣa has had multiple meanings, ranging from an abstract concept in the Vedic period to a powerful mythological being. Yakṣas have been shown as images and mentioned in various literary sources for well over two thousand years. They have always been an essential part of various folk cultures. Especially in the Buddhist Pāli texts like the Jātaka stories and Saṃyutta Nikāya they have been treated extensively in relation to the Bodhisattva and the Buddha. They became more prominent in the Indic region during and after the Maurya period (ca 4th to 2nd c BCE) as they began to be widely represented in art forms, most importantly those of the expanding Buddhist religion. As Buddhism reached the Northern regions and the Nepal Proper (NP) or Kathmandu valley, it absorbed the local deities including yakṣas and yakṣiṇīs. The concept of Yakṣa was pivotal for the transition of Buddhist art from the symbolic to anthropomorphic. By the time images began to be made, Buddhism had made a paradigm shift from a monastic movement into a cult, a large part of which was fuelled by the Yakṣa in the form of art.
            This thesis is aimed at describing clearly the influence of Yakṣa on ancient images of Nepal from a Buddhist perspective. For this, the Buddhist notion of Yakṣa has been first derived from literary sources. Then, various yakṣa, yakṣiṇī and related Buddha/Bodhisattva images from NP have been studied, comparing them to similar ones from India. Finally, based on history, iconography and aesthetics, the mode of incorporation of these deities in the Buddhist tradition of NP has been defined.
           
The demi-god at the National Museum in Chauni, Kathmandu 
Statement of Problem
The following problems have been stated for the purpose of the study:
1.     What or who is the Yakṣa according to Buddhism?
2.     What are the Yakṣa related ancient images of Kathmandu valley?
3.     How has the Yakṣa concept affected the Buddhist art of Nepal?

Objective of Study
Similarly, this thesis was written with the following objectives:
1.     To review the available Buddhist literature and define the Yakṣa concept.
2.     To identify and study the Yakṣa related stone sculptures of Kathmandu valley dated up to the 6th c CE.
3.     To determine how the concept of supra-natural beings and demi-gods (i.e. yakṣa/yakṣiṇī) were incorporated into the aesthetics of Buddhist images of NP.

Methodology and design
            This work is primarily a documentary and field research. Canonical and non-canonical Pāli texts and selected Sanskrit texts (in the form of translations) served as primary sources while other works served as secondary sources. Information regarding the Yakṣa was collected from these and analysed to give its clear concept in Buddhist light. Various yakṣa, yakṣiṇī and Buddha/Bodhisattva related images from NP were located, identified and studied, comparing them to images from India. Among these the Buddhist elements were identified and finally conclusions were drawn.

Limitations of the study
            Only images from selected sites in Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur and the National Museum were taken as field data. The time period covered is from the 3rd c BCE to 6th c CE. Only selected Pāli and Sanskrit Buddhist texts were studied. Most of the time secondary sources were referred to.

Chapter contents
Chapter I: Introduction
Chapter II: Buddhist Concept of Yakṣa
Chapter III: Yakṣa and Buddha/Bodhisattva in Art
Chapter IV: Buddhist Elements in Yakṣa Images
Chapter V: Conclusions and Suggestions

Results of the study
            Pāli sources present Yakkhas in ambiguous ways. Some are morally opposed to the Buddha Dharma, some are supportive and some are neutral but later become inclined. The Buddha or Bodhisattva is always presented as superior to the afflicted yakkhas and yakkhinīs. The Sanskrit sūtras also show the Buddha in an exalted position but the animosity of yakṣas towards the Buddha is seen to have largely seceded. Yakṣas mentioned in these later texts are almost always audiences or ardent followers of the Buddha. In some texts, the Buddha/Boddhisattva is also addressed as yakṣa. Primeval deities like Indra and Vaiśravaṇa (among the four great kings, Caturmahārāja) are mentioned as yakṣas as well. So in a Buddhist context Yakṣa gives a range of connotations. Specifically though, any powerful and non-human being is considered Yakṣa.
            The above trend is clearly seen in art. Beginning with narrative arts and then various steles, yakṣas and yakṣiṇīs assume a variety of roles that can be linked to the principles of welfare propounded by Buddhism. Yakṣas in art are of free standing, seated or crouching types, guardian or attendant types and of beautiful voluptuous female types. They were models for humanly representation of the Buddha and Bodhisattva as well as deities related to protection and prosperity that are till today part of the larger Buddhist culture. Examples of the freestanding type include the Jaya Varma idol from Māligāon, the headless torso from Hāḍigāon and their offshoots like the Bāṅgemuḍhā Buddha and attendant Bodhisattvas. Seated and crouching types are represented by the Kuvera from Satyanārāyaṇa temple in Hāḍigāon and various caryatids. Attendants are seen in different steles and plinths. Female figures include Hārītī images from various places. These examples from NP have been compared to those from India, such as the Parkham yakṣa, architectural components from Sāñcī and Bharhut and other sculptures from the Kuṣāṇa and Gupta periods. The use of Yakṣa in Buddhism through these images in a social context served three functions—to bestow wealth, progeny and protection.
            The notion of Yakṣa has always been held in high esteem across all social strata. As Mahāyāna gained prominence in the early centuries of the common era, its devotional aspects and the innate wish of the people to attain benefits therefore most probably allowed for the incorporation of the timeless concept of Yakṣa into the ancient Buddhist art of NP. The core philosophy of Yakṣa lies in the water cosmology and due to its fluid nature it served as a multifarious lexicon to illustrate and spread the liberating principles of the Buddha’s Dharma. The stone images studied here show the variety with which this abstract concept has been treated to meet this purpose. Over the centuries such traits manifested in numerous ways and ultimately gave rise to the ideal pictures of the Buddha, Bodhisattva and their acolytes that have prevailed in Nepal and the world till today.

Suyog Prajapati
(Supervisor: Dr. Milan Ratna Shakya)
MA Semester IV
Roll no. 5/TU reg. no. 5-1-20-6-2005
Academic year: 2070/71 (semester system 1st batch)
Central Department of Buddhist Studies,
Tribhuvan University,
Kirtipur, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Date: April 11, 2017 (Tuesday)




Thank you for your presence!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Five aggregates and the universality of sufferings

Let’s assume that you possess everything you ever wanted. You have the best home, family, relationships and material objects available in this world. All of your physical, mental and emotional needs are taken care of. You grew up in a well-to-do family, got your education in the best of schools and have a caring and understanding surrounding. Are you not supposed to be the happiest person alive? Think about it!

While you do that let me explain something from the teachings of the Buddha. He expounded that we cannot find anywhere, within, or on us any eternal, everlasting entity called soul. The eye is not the soul, the heart is not the soul, the neurons in our brain do not constitute the soul, nor do the atoms or waves within us constitute the soul. The breath we take and give also does not constitute the soul. None of them form a soul because they are always changing, always in a state of flux. What then are we made of?

As a scientist I can tell that the ultimate nature of our being comes down to the DNA and the information it encodes. But grossly speaking, the Buddha would say that we are all made up of “heaps” or skandhas of matter and intangible qualities. These includes rupa (or form), vedanā (or sensation), sajñā (or cognition), saṃskāra (or habituation) and vijñāna (or consciousness). By form he meant all kinds of vision, sound, smell, taste, touch, thoughts etc. These are immediately accompanied by their corresponding sensations and the state of recognition, which then are habitually recorded in our consciousness. Whatever our situation we can never get rid of these five aggregates.

The ever on-going cycle of the five aggregates.
Now, coming back to the imaginary state of complete hedonistic fulfilment. Even if we have everything we desire, because of the above five aggregates being always actively involved we are never satisfied. The saṃskāra that have built up will always force us to look for new, novel ways of enjoying bodily, emotional or mental forms. It is a vicious cycle – good form causes a gratifying sensation which is longed for by our consciousness as more and more is needed to keep the habituation going. This urge, this need, this desire called triṣṇā that builds up due to the five aggregates is the root cause for our unease, our sufferings, our dissatisfaction.


Whatever our situation, however rich or poor we are, unless we have the proper knowledge and experiential understanding about the workings of the aggregates, desire and the necessary mindfulness of all these, we are bound to suffer. We must understand that everything is changing, everyone changes and that all will end ultimately. So those material possessions, mental gratifications or those emotional fulfilments will all come to their inevitable demise, sooner or later. What then are we to feel? It will be hard but once we realise and remain mindful of the impermanence of things, our sufferings will be kept at bay. This knowledge will help to make our inevitable journey of life more fruitful and happy.
The nature of our being.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Rare Confession

It is a very strange thing that has been going on in my life now. These bursts of creativity last only for a while. May be it’s because of a busy schedule or may be simply I am procrastinating. There is another explanation for my prolonged absence from blogging – I tend to be a perfectionist. I also don’t post on topics that are mundane, at least those that I think are mundane. I started this blog after having completed my chemistry masters and having joined the Buddhist studies course and feeling that Buddhism and science have a lot in common. Since the Buddhist studies at our university is taught by the humanities (or “arts”) faculty  I decided to name this blog ‘Science and Art, the perfect blend for the Mind and Heart.’

Ever since the age of seventeen I have been drawn towards both the hardest topics in modern sciences and the softest inquiries in the humanities. My love for molecules equals my delight for art-history. Since long before, Leonardo da Vinci has been my idol and the notion of being a jack-of-all-trades has always fascinated me. This is also one of the reasons my mind is in an eternal dialectic struggle to balance the life of a science educator and an art enthusiast. These periods of struggle are interspersed with productive and non-productive phases. That is why I remain away from writing for the public for months on end.

Now that I have shared something really personal I will also tell you about my almost year-long social-media break. First of all I am not a very extroverted person and my social-media presence is an exact reflection of this. Spontaneity and witty remarks are a little hard to come by for me. I do tend to be less self-centred when posting on all forms of social-media. However, last year around this time an album about the renovation being done in our family home got a lot of attention. It gave me a short exposure among a select group of engineers. So much so that I was invited for a talk and a team from UNDP even visited our site. But it was also an overwhelming time for me, since I was still teaching to high-school students and was attending university in the morning. The monsoon was also wrecking my health. Since we lost our home in the earthquake we had to make do with our living arrangements in the next building we had. This was all too much for me.

Next thing I did was I quit my job and stopped going outside for a few weeks. I even stopped attending the lectures at university. I was beginning to cocoon when my parents and teachers encouraged me to continue with my works which were all going on so great. So I decided to finish my second masters and to help me with it I disabled nearly all of my social media accounts. I used only twitter for most of the year. That too I shut down later.

After I finished my final semester exam I began missing my friends. So I have opened new accounts on facebook, instagram and linkedin. I also got a new twitter handle. The year-long hiatus has taught me but one thing – I love writing and I love writing only after thinking out well and careful planning.

So now here I promise my audience out there that I will keep on writing on varied topics as frequently as possible and try to bring delight to both your mind and heart!