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MAHĀSIDDHAS . The Buddhist mahāsiddha ("fully perfected one"), or simply siddha ("perfected one"), is the central enlightened ideal of Tantric or Vajrayāna Buddhism, the last major developmental phase of Indian Buddhism and particularly prominent on the subcontinent between the eighth and twelfth centuries ce. Best known are the list of eighty four of the greatest Buddhist siddha s (as enumerated by the twelfth-century Indian author Abhayadatta) and the grouping of siddha s into seven lineages (by the Tibetan author Tāranātha). Like the Buddha for earliest Buddhism, the arhat for the pre-Mahāyāna tradition, and the bodhisattva for the Mahāyāna, the siddha stands as the preeminent model of an accomplished person for the Vajrayāna tradition. And like those earlier ideals for their traditions, the siddha embodies in his person the particular character and ideals of the Vajrayāna, with its emphasis on meditation, personal realization, the master-disciple relationship, and the nonmonastic ways of life of the householder and the wandering yogin.


Our knowledge of the Buddhist siddha s comes from a considerable amount of biographical material that survives chiefly in Tibetan texts, which are either translations of, or are based directly or indirectly on, Indian written and oral tradition. These biographies of the siddha s, which vary in length from a few lines to hundreds of pages, tell the "liberation story" (rnam thar ) of their subjects, recounting their individual journeys from the ordinary human state to one of full awakening.

The biographies of the siddha s are especially characterized by strong mythological, symbolic, and magical overtones. As in the case of the Buddha Śākyamuni in his biographies, but to a much greater degree, the siddha s are depicted as beings whose lives are charged with the transcendent and supernatural. At the same time, the siddha s are shown as real men and women with specific connections to the everyday, historical world. Their stories depict them as coming from particular places, belonging to certain castes, and following this or that occupation. Their teachers, Tantric practices, and lineages are carefully noted. The greatest among them figure as great teachers, lineage founders, monastic officials, and prolific authors of extant Tantric texts. Many siddha s are known historically to have played important roles in the transmission of the Vajrayāna from India to Tibet, China, and Southeast Asia, and are part of the social and political history of those countries. This confluence of the mythological and transcendent on the one hand, and the historically tangible and specific on the other, is one of the particular marks of the siddha s and of the Vajrayāna in general.

Structure of the Siddha Ideal

The siddha s are depicted in their biographies both as particular individuals and as members of a common type: their lives share a certain general structure or pattern, resumed here, that marks them as Buddhist siddha s.

Before enlightenment

The siddha 's life story generally begins with his birth, sometimes in the great Tantric areas of Kāmarūpa (northeast India), Uiyāna (northwest India), or Nāgārjunikoa (southeast India), sometimes in some other region. There typically follow details of caste status. In contrast to earlier Buddhism, where the higher castes are implicitly regarded as preferable, the siddha s come not only from the high castes (brāhmaa and katriya ) but as often from the low; some of the greatest siddha s were originally hunters, fishers, herdsmen, weavers, cobblers, blacksmiths, prostitutes, and even thieves. This diversity of social origins gives particularly vivid expression to the classical Buddhist insistence that caste and social distinctions are not spiritually rooted or inherent in reality, and that enlightenment can occur equally in any conditioned situation, whatever its conventionally stated social value.

The siddha s are typically depicted at the beginning of their careers as ordinary people who possess some often unspecified longing. They are men and women, monks and laypeople, privileged and destitute, but they all share a sense of unavoidable dissatisfaction and circularity in their lives. They reach a critical point in their religious career when they encounter a Tantric teacher who presents them with the possibility of a spiritual pathof meditation, of the shedding of habitual patterns, and of awakening. Their response is often a mixture of attraction and fear, but they share a feeling of connection with the teacher and with the message he articulates. Following this encounter, the future siddha s begin a demanding course of training under their guru s. The importance of the teacher-disciple relationship in each siddha 's biography reflects the Vajrayāna emphasis on the primacy of individual awakening and of the necessity of a realized, personal teacher to that process.

There follows in each siddha 's life a period of study with a teacher, whom the pupil sometimes attends for many years, and sometimes meets only periodically for new instructions. Formless meditation and liturgical Tantric practice (sādhana ) are unremitting parts of the student's training, but so is activity "in the world"; many of these later-to-be-siddha s are instructed to carry out caste occupations and to marry. Some are instructed to perform tasks that are anathema to their former identities, such as the brahmans Bhadrapa and Lūyipa, who are told to make their living cleaning latrines and serving a prostitute, respectively. In general, hard tasks and humiliation of previous ego ideals marks the testing and training of the siddha s during their student days and their journey toward classic Buddhist realization of egolessness.

Siddhas as enlightened figures

After many years of arduous training, the siddha s emerge as fully enlightened people. In contrast to the Buddha, who was regarded as one of a kind thus far in our world age, to the arhat, whose enlightenment was seen as less than the Buddha's, and to the bodhisattva, who is enjoined to postpone his full awakening, the siddha s are depicted as having attained full awakening, thus fulfilling the Vajrayāna intention to make possible "enlightenment in this very lifetime."

As enlightened figures, the siddha s manifest a lively individuality as householders, yogins, or monks. Although the siddha s represent a basically nonmonastic ideal, they not infrequently turn up as followers of monastic discipline outwardly, but realized siddha s within.

The classical Vajrayāna understands itself as a development of the Mahāyāna; the siddha s are depicted as bodhisattva s whose primary motivation is to work for the benefit of others. Thus, the realized siddha s are all primarily teachers of others. Later Tibetan tradition explains the great diversity of origins, training, and teaching methodologies of the siddha s as a fulfillment of the Mahāyāna bodhisattva vow to help sentient beings in all stations and conditions by adopting their way of life.

This compassionate motivation is also given in explanation of the siddha s' undeniable unconventionality. As already noted, teachers sometimes send their students into situations conventionally forbidden to their caste. The siddha s themselves often break social and religious taboos as part of their teaching. The depiction of such unconventional activity is intended to reinforce the Tantric insistence that genuine spirituality cannot be identified with any particular external social form. Here, the siddha s give characteristic expression to the ancient dictum of the Buddha: awakening is a matter of seeing the conditioned structure of the world as such, not of slavishly identifying with a particular way of life or religious norm.

Magical elements

Magic also plays an important role in the lives of the realized siddha s. On one level, the siddha biographies articulate the traditional Buddhist (and pan-Indian) belief that spiritual awakening puts one in possession of miraculous powers. In this sense, the siddha carries on a motif present in the depiction of the Buddha, of some of the arhat s, and of the bodhisattva s of higher attainment. But in the siddha s' lives, magic plays a more prominent role than it does in the earlier hagiographical traditions. This greater prominence is probably due to a combination of (1) the great emphasis in the Vajrayāna on practice and realization; (2) its alignment with nonmonastic, and thus yogic and lay, life; and (3) its bent toward breaking what it sees as the conservatism and stolid fixations of earlier Buddhism.

Some accounts of magic appear to be metaphorical, such as when siddha s turn others into stone, "petrifying" them with their unconventional teaching. Other feats, such as the production of jewels from a worthless substance, are perhaps psychological, indicating the way in which the siddha s can, through their insight, transform apparently worthless passions of the personality into the highest prize of enlightenment. Other examples of magic, such as Saraha's walking on water, may illustrate the siddha s' freedom from cause and effect. In all these examples the siddha s' use of magic points to the basic Vajrayāna (and classical Buddhist) teaching that the commonsense world is not as definite and fixed as it appears, but in fact contains unlimited freedom, power, and sacredness.

A final characteristic of the realized siddha is his passing away, which is understood not as a death in the ordinary sense but as a passing into a state that is invisible, but nevertheless real and potentially available. The siddha s, we are told, do not die, but rather go to a celestial realm from which they may appear at any time.

Historicity and the Siddha Biographies

The historical concreteness of the siddha biographies, the existence of texts, songs, and lineages they created, their social and political impact, and the existence of the Vajrayāna itself leave little doubt that the siddha s were historical individuals. But to what extent are their stories simple historical accounts and to what extent do they represent a gathering of originally disparate elements around a particular figure?

Study of the Vajrayāna biographies themselves shows that it would be a mistake to take them simply as accounts of single individuals, at least in the ordinary sense. Many sometimes different, sometimes apparently contradictory accounts are given in the same and different texts about a single siddha. In addition, one finds the same motifs and even entire stories appearing in the lives of several different siddha s. In light of these factors, one perhaps best understands the siddha s' lives as sacred biographies, some elements of which undoubtedly emerged originally in the lives of those individuals, and others of which originated from elsewhere. These became the general property of the tradition, to be used and reused to clarify the nature of the siddha ideal itself through the medium of specific biographies.

Does this rather flexible approach to writing history reflect a lack of historical awareness on the part of Vajrayāna biographers? The temptation to answer this question in the affirmative must be resisted, at least until the particular Vajrayāna attitude toward history is clearly understood. The lives of the siddha s do not restrict themselves to what we in the West have typically understood as the legitimate domain of a person's "life," beginning with birth and ending with death. The "life" of a siddha may include "events" that precede birth and postdate death, and may also include dreams, visions, and supranormal experiences other respected persons may have had of those siddha s before, during, and after their human lives. This more inclusive attitude taken by the Vajrayāna toward a siddha 's life is due not so much to its lack of historical awareness, but rather to the particular understanding of history that it possesses. The siddha s are real people who are significant precisely because they embody cosmic, timeless, and universal dimensions of human reality. They may express themselves equally from their ordinary human as well as their transhuman aspects. For the tradition itself, contradictory stories about a siddha may simply indicate multiple manifestations of that person, while the repetition of the same stories in several lives may just mean a later siddha is teaching according to an earlier, typical pattern. Such elements are considered in the Vajrayāna not only a legitimate but a necessary part of proper historical writing about the siddha s.

Finally, it is necessary to mention the important impact of liturgy and of certain later Tibetan Tantric masters' lives on the understanding of the siddha s' biographies. What is understood as the universal and timeless essence of the siddha s makes it possible to invoke the living and tangible presence of the siddha s through liturgy. Moreover, many of the most famous siddha s are understood to be present, in later incarnations, in the persons of Tibetan tulku s (incarnate lamas). The living example of the tulku s and the invocation of the presence of the siddha s in ritual contribute significantly to the making present and interpreting of the siddha s whose lives and teachings can be read in the texts.

Historical Role of the Siddhas

The major historical legacy of the siddha s is the tradition they represented and the Vajrayāna lineages they helped build, many of which are alive today. On a more restricted front, the siddha s were the authors of a great many Tantric works, hundreds of which survive in Tibetan translation. The most characteristic compositions of the siddha s are perhaps their dohā s ("enlightenment songs"), which survive in independent collections, in biographies, and in the Tantras themselves. These songs are supposed usually to have been composed in liturgical situations to express the individuality and sacredness of that moment of awakened experience. The siddha s also composed other varieties of texts, including commentaries on the tantra s, biographies of great masters, liturgical texts, and so on. A list of some six hundred works by Indian siddha s is given in the Tantric section of the Tibetan Bstan ʾgyur (Tanjur); works of the siddha s are also included in other parts of the Tanjur and in Tibetan collections of Indian Buddhist texts.

The siddha s also played an important part in the history of Indian and Asian Buddhism. In India, the siddha s were the prime carriers of the Vajrayāna for a millennium, in its early formative period (pre-eighth century ce), during the time of its prominence (eighth to twelfth century ce), in the several centuries following the Islamic decimation of monastic Buddhism at the end of the twelfth century, through the sixteenth century, when contemporary Tibetan accounts give a first hand picture of a strong and vital Vajrayāna tradition in India. In the history of Tibetan Buddhism, it was the siddha s who carried the Vajrayāna to that land. All four of the major surviving schools, and many that did not survive, ultimately derive from Indian siddha s: the Bkaʾ brgyud pa from Ti lo pa (9881069) and Nā ro pa (10161100); the Rnying ma pa from Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra (both eighth century); the Sa skya pa from ʾBrog mi (9221022); and the Dge lugs pa from Atisa (9821054), who, while not himself a siddha, inherited some of their traditions.

Siddha s such as Śubhākarasiha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra, all of whom journeyed to Tang China in the eighth century, were responsible for bringing the Vajrayāna to that land. Although their unconventional and wonderworking activity proved ultimately discordant with the Chinese outlook, and although the Vajrayāna they brought did not long survive in China, their activity provided the foundation for the transmission of the Vajrayāna to Japan by Kūkai (774835), who founded the Shingon school there. The siddha ideal played an indirect role in the religious history of the Mongols as well, following Mongol appropriation of Tibetan Buddhism in the thirteenth century.

Finally, the siddha s carried the Vajrayāna to Southeast Asia, where there is evidence of their activity in Java, Sumatra and Kamboja from the early ninth century onward. The Vajrayāna continued there until the sixteenth century at least, when the Indian Vajrayānist Buddhaguptanātha visited that area and gave firsthand accounts of the Tantric tradition there.

See Also

Amoghavajra; Arhat; Atīśa; Bodhisattva Path; Dge lugs pa; Mar pa; Mi la ras pa; Nā ro pa; Padmasambhava; Shingonshū; Śubhākarasiha; Tsong kha pa; Vajrabodhi; Zhenyan.


Abhayadatta's Caturśīti-siddha-pravtti (History of the Eighty-four Siddhas), the most important extant Indian text on the siddha s, has been translated from the Tibetan by James B. Robinson as Buddha's Lions (Berkeley, 1979). The extended Tibetan biographies of two of the most important Indian siddha s, Padmasambhava and Nā ro pa, are given respectively in W. Y. Evans-Wentz's The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation (Oxford, 1954) and The Life and Teachings of Naropa, translated by Herbert Guenther (Oxford, 1963). Per Kvaerne's An Anthology of Buddhist Tantric Songs (Oslo and New York, 1977) analyzes an important collection of the Indian siddha s' songs. Shashibhusan Dasgupta's Obscure Religious Cults, 3d ed. (Calcutta, 1969), attempts to see the Indian siddha s in their larger religious context; my "Accomplished Women in Tantric Buddhism of Medieval India and Tibet," in Unspoken Worlds, edited by Nancy A. Falk and Rita M. Gross (New York, 1980), pp. 227242, discusses Indian women siddha s. Several works provide useful summaries of the role of the Indian siddha s and of the Vajrayāna outside of India. For Tibet, see David L. Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson's A Cultural History of Tibet, (New York, 1968; reprint, Boulder, 1980), pp. 95110 and 118ff.; for China, see Kenneth Ch'en's Buddhism in China (1964; reprint, Princeton, 1972), pp. 325337; for Japan, see Daigan and Alicia Matsunaga's Foundation of Japanese Buddhism (Los Angeles, 1974), vol. 1, pp. 171200; and for Southeast Asia, see Nihar-Ranjan Ray's Sanskrit Buddhism in Burma, (Calcutta, 1936), pp. 1214 and 6299.

New Sources

Davidson, Ronald M. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York, 2002.

Katz, N. Buddhist Images of Human Perfection: The Arahant of the Sutta Pitaka Compared with the Bodhisattva and the Mahasiddha. Delhi, 1989.

Mar pa, et al. The Life of the Mahasiddha Tilopa. Dharamsala, 1995.

Ray, Reginald. "The Mahasiddha." In Buddhism and Asian History, edited by Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa and Mark D. Cummings. See pages 389394. New York, 1989.

Urban, Hugh B. The Economics of Ecstasy: Tantra, Secrecy, and Power in Colonial Bengal. New York, 2001.

White, David G. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago, 1996.

White, David G. Kiss of the Yogini: "Tantric Sex" in its South Asian Contexts. Chicago, 2003.

Reginald Ray (1987)

Revised Bibliography