Tuesday, April 18, 2017

I am back!

So for months on end I have been very busy with my schedule. With a well-functioning job as a University lecturer and good responsibilities with business and all I have been very engaged since the last quarter of last year. Add to that the constant prodding by my supervisor to complete my MA thesis in the given academic year (2073! Yes, to all my non-Nepali readers, we are living in the future!!) my mind and my daily routines were all like a locomotive. Anyway, after teaching four courses to three different semesters in the space of about four months and lots of writing, rewriting, few days of leg cramps and lots and lots of walking plus a sprained ankle I did it. April 11, 2017 Tuesday would be one of my most memorable days to talk about. I will not go into detail about my (initially nervous) presentation and all the important people who were among the audience. I straightaway present to you the abstract of my thesis. Do enjoy!

Buddhist Elements in Ancient Yakṣa Images of Nepal

Presented by: Suyog Prajapati

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!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Birth of Thought and Conviction

Often, as I meditate to give continuity to the habit of Vipassanā and the techniques that I learned just over two months back, I contemplate also on the physical nature of my body. I not only try to remain focused on the “spiritual” aspects of the ever changing aggregative state of the whole of existence but also draw inferences based on my knowledge of biology (however rudimentary), more specifically physiology and neurology. Here is one of those propositions based on a quiet sitting involving the inquiry into the origin of conditioning after a person descends down to this world.

When a baby is in the womb, within the warm and isolated environs of the mother’s protective world, s/he is in most part unaffected, un-afflicted by the disturbances of the social realm outside. From almost the third month after conception, after the development of the neuronal elements and the ability to make sensations, up to the day of birth, s/he is nearly a blank slate with virtually no serious convictions. Elsewhere I have remarked that it is from within the womb itself that the actual journey begins. True that many of the hereditary physical elements arising from the decoding of DNA and the synthesis of proteins etc. decide the future “potential” of the child while still in utero. But I think the decisive role of whether s/he will be on the right path (or not-so-right path) is largely determined in the initial phases after birth.

Now, let us look at the physical make-up of the nervous system, the bodily aspect that is responsible for what we sense and feel and that which ultimately leads to our cognition and habituations. These habituations in the long run are in fact what cause our frustration over things that are different than what our volitions predicate.

The brain is an organ made up of tiny unit-cells called neurons. Broadly speaking, there are three main sections – the cerebrum, the cerebellum and the medulla oblongata. Developmental biologists will tell you that the medulla represents the most “primitive” portion of the brain, one that is remnant of “lower” animals like fish or reptiles. The cerebellum controls involuntary activities like heartbeat and digestion while the cerebrum is the biggest development in humans, distinguishing us through its ability to store a lot of information and also to reason and judge. The medulla passes through the back of the neck and extends down within the spine from whose various sections arise nerve fibres that end into every organ in our body.

Talking more about the neuron, it is a very specialised little system consisting of basically three parts. The main “body” has all the bio-chemical and biological constituents, including the nucleus responsible for the overall somatic expression of characteristics based on “molecular hereditary” i.e. the information encoded by nucleotide bases of the DNA. The dendrite (“branches”) input electro-chemical signals into the body while the axon takes signals away from it. Overall, there is much plasticity in the way “information is processed” by this basic tangible constituent of our consciousness. Chemicals called neurotransmitters along with the various interconnections between many many neurons (at least 80 billion in an adult human) work together for creating perceptions and finally “storing” them as memories. These further provide tinder for passion and the cycle of craving, attachment and volitions.
The "material cause" for our "immaterial thoughts"

Now, let’s go even deeper and try and understand the chemical process behind the formation of “thoughts”. The first thing to happen once a child is born is that s/he is going to cry. The sudden drop in the temperature outside of the usual motherly abode creates electrical signals from all round the tiny body. They get translated to chemical signals through the receptor neurons and then transmitted through the axon (that form nerve) fibres to the spine and then finally into the various parts of the brain. That reaction to the external environment is probably the first defilement to the otherwise pure mind of the child. Next comes sight. The first images seen through the (set of healthy) eyes create photo-chemical reactions at the nerve-endings in the eye-ball that again give way to nerve signals which stimulate the first attachment to visual objects. Likewise the sound, smell and taste experienced by the child in the first few hours of her/his coming immediately start creating unconsciously the factors responsible for blemishes in her/his consciousness. The child starts having definite craving and clinging attitude. If the physical and ultimately the intangible emotional desires of the child go unfulfilled there is bound to be exhibitions of anguish and affliction. As mutual bonds between the newly born and her/his family members get stronger more chemical messengers like the “love-hormone” oxytocin and the “pleasure chemicals” dopamine and endorphins work in an elaborate way, thus psychologically rooting the emerging person to the inevitable ground of heaped unease and afflictions. All these are “remembered” in various layers of the physical mind as chemical compounds or electrical signals and intuitively guide all of the child’s future actions.

Here we may deduce that there is nothing in it for immaterial “emotions” or “feelings” since all of them are simply results of quantifiable matter. Of course there is also no place for a well-defined “self” or “soul” that remains unchanged throughout. Then we may say that thoughts and convictions arise only as responses to our habitat made through the contact between our sense organs and their sensory functions. This contact, albeit quite physical and chemical at the grosser level, in fact is quite intangible. One may equate the potential energy developed through electronic repulsion between two objects to sensory functions or directly to material reactions. But from a more practical standpoint we can say that the perceptible objective world around and within us gradually lead to a wholly immaterial niche. Therein our ability to quantify things becomes a mere ploy of our aggregated convictions. Numbers, mathematics, labels, identity, name etc. are nothing but conventional devices created by the habituated, “defiled” mental entity housed within the corporeal body of ours. Right from the moment of birth one is almost “brain-washed” into believing all such conventions as the actual “laws of nature and society”. One is “taught the truth” when actually one is being deposited with afflictive made-up knowledge.

I guess this is one of the sad realities of this world – we have to first sucker-up all delusions, realise the ensuing vicissitudes and only then seek for clearer “correct ways”. One good aspect however is that this realisation may come at any stage in life. One can take off from there and still manage to reach quite far ahead into removing those delusions and remain in balance for the rest of the time. It is never too late to give birth to a universally beneficial thought and to foster truly altruistic convictions. The past has passed and immediately the present instance is prodding us into a future of undefined consequences. Being in sync with this fundamental reality does and always will aid to the well being of us individuals and those around.