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CAKRASAMVARA . The term Cakrasamvara, "the binding of the wheels," designates both a Buddhist scripture and also the maala that it describes, which is the abode of a host of deities centering around the divine couple Śrīheruka and Vajravārāhi. The text, the Cakrasamvara Tantra, is also known as the Śriheruka-abhidhāna (The discourse of Śrīheruka) and the Laghusamvara (Samvara light), a name it earned because it is a short text of approximately seven hundred Sanskrit stanzas. It was composed in India during the mid-to-late eighth century, and it quickly became one of the most important Indian Buddhist Tantras, as evidenced by the large number of commentaries and associated ritual literature that it inspired. Like most Tantras, it is primarily a ritual text, dedicating most of its fifty-one chapters to the description of rites such as the production of the maala and the consecration ceremonies performed within it, as well as various other ritual actions such as homa fire sacrifices, enchantment with mantras, and so forth. It is a rather cryptic text, one which never gives sufficient information for the performance of these rituals and that often obscures crucial elements, particularly the mantras, which the text typically present in reverse order or in codes via an elaborate scheme in which both the vowels and consonants are coded by number.

The Cakrasamvara Tantra is classified by Buddhists as a Yoginī or Mother Tantra, a designation that reflects the focus of the text upon female deities, who constitute a significant majority of the deities in the tradition's main maala. It also reflects a focus on practices that, in a Buddhist monastic context at least, were deemed transgressive, such as sexual yogic practices as well as animal sacrifice and apparently even anthropophagy. Another characteristic of texts of this genre is an influence from non-Buddhist, particularly Śaiva, sources, as is most notable in the appearances of the deities themselves, who are quite similar to fierce Hindu deities such as Bhairava and Kālī. This reflects the complex origins of the text, which probably was inspired by teachings and practices of the loosely organized groups of "accomplished ones" (siddha ), male and female practitioners of yoga who, generally speaking, do not seem to have had strongly defined religious identities. Their teachings, and the texts derived from them, seem to have been an important influence on the development of both Buddhist and Hindu Tantric traditions. The Cakrasamvara Tantra was particularly influenced by quasi-heretical Śaiva groups such as the Kāpālikas, who were infamous for their transgressive practices, that is, their employment of violence, meat eating, intoxicants, and sexuality as key elements of their spiritual practice.

According to the myths constructed to account for the origin of the Cakrasamvara tradition, the undeniable similarity between the Cakrasamvara deities and practices and those of their Śaiva competitors is not accidental, but a direct result of the "historical" revelation of the tradition. While there are several versions of the myth, all agree that this revelation was triggered by the takeover by Śaiva deities of twenty-four sacred sites scattered across the Indian subcontinent. There, they engaged in transgressive practices such as wanton sexuality and sacrifice of living beings. In order to put an end to their "misbehavior," the cosmic Buddha Mahāvajradhara, along with his retinue, assumed the appearance of these Śaiva deities and then subdued them, in the process transforming the Indian subcontinent into the Cakrasamvara maala. This myth reflects the mixed origins of the tradition and expresses a Buddhist awareness that one of their more important textual and ritual traditions shared more than superficial similarity with those upheld by rival Hindu groups.

By far the most important ritual element of the Cakrasamvara tradition is its maala. It is called the Three Wheeled, or tricakra, because its primary structural element is three wheels or concentric circles that are correlated both to the Triple World, or trailokya, of ancient Indian cosmology (that is, the heavens, earth, and underworlds) and to the three Buddhist psychophysical realms of body, speech, and mind. At the center of maala, in a palace atop the cosmic mountain, is Śrīheruka and Vajravārāhī in sexual embrace, surrounded by the Four Essence Yoginīs, Dākinī, Lāmā, Khaarohā and Rūpiī. They are in turn surrounded by the Three Wheels, three concentric Mind, Speech, and Body wheels, each of which has eight pairs of deities in sexual embrace, for a total of twenty-four couples, corresponding to the sacred sites. At the periphery of the wheels are eight fierce goddesses, who guard the maala 's gates and corners. This brings the total number of deities to sixty-two, thirty-seven of which are female. Lastly, artistic depictions of the maala usually show it as surrounded by the "eight great charnel grounds," inhabited by fearsome beasts and evil spirits.

This maala has been deployed in several important ways. It has been remapped across the Kathmandu Valley and Tibet, where many of the sites associated with the maala continue to be important pilgrimage places. Additionally, it is also mapped onto the human body, with the pilgrimage sites and associated deities linked to various parts of of the body. In the contemplative "body maala " practice, the adept visualizes the maala within her or his body, which is seen as a microcosmic version of the universe in its ideal form, as the pure abode of the maala deities. These practices helped ensure the successful transmission of the Cakrasamvara tradition to Nepal, Tibet, and Mongolia, where it is still practiced today.


Davidson, Ronald. "Reflections on the Maheśvara Subjugation Myth: Indic Materials, Sa-skya-pa Apologetics, and the Birth of Heruka." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14, no. 2 (1991): 197235. An analysis of Buddhist myths of the conversion of Hindu deities.

Davidson, Ronald. Indian Esoteric Buddhism. New York, 2002. An overview of the history of esoteric Buddhism in India, with a useful discussion of the Cakrasamvara sacred sites and their relation to rival Hindu groups.

Dawa-Samdup, Kazi, ed. Śri-Cakraśamvara-Tantra: A Buddhist Tantra. Calcutta, 1919; reprint, New Delhi, 1987. Not a translation of the Cakrasamvara Tantra itself, but of several related ritual texts.

Huber, Toni. The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain: Popular Pilgrimage and Visionary Landscape in Southeast Tibet. Oxford, 1999. A detailed study of an important Tibetan Cakrasamvara pilgrimage place.

Huntington, John, and Dina Bangdel. The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art. Chicago, 2003. A detailed study of Cakrasamvara art and iconography.

Mullin, Glenn. Tsongkhapa's Six Yogas of Naropa. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996. A translation of Tsongkhapa's commentary on a tradition of yoga closely associated with the Cakrasamvara.

Shaw, Miranda. Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism. Princeton, N.J., 1994. A study of the role of women in Buddhist Yoginī Tantra traditions.

David B. Gray (2005)

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