Newari, Buddhist Literature in

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Beginning with Sanskrit inscriptions dating from the fifth century c.e., the large mid-montane Himalayan valley called Nepal has been a vibrant cultural center where both Hindu and Buddhist traditions have flourished. What is called "Nepal" today was formed after 1769 when the modern Shah state expanded across the region, conquering the valley city-states and making Kathmandu its capital. The first cities and religious monuments of this valley were built by the Newars, the earliest attested ethnic group of the region. Newars speak a nontonal Tibeto-Burman language called Newari in the Euro-American world, but referred to by Newars as Nepāl Bhāṣā, using Sanskritic terminology, or Newā: Bhāy in the spoken vernacular. This language has been thoroughly influenced by Sanskrit vocabulary, especially in the technical terms imported from the Indic traditions that shaped Newar culture. Newari texts have similarly been written using north Indian-derived scripts, the earliest on palm leaves (tāra patra), and from the seventeenth century onward on paper made from the daphne plant. In the latter form, the texts were written on stacked rectangular pages, or in the format of a folded book (thyā sāphu). Many such books were illustrated with finely rendered miniature paintings, some with fifty to one hundred images.

Since this valley was from its origins a Himalayan trade and pilgrimage center, and later a refuge for Buddhist monks fleeing the destruction of north Indian monasteries in the wake of the Muslim conquests that ended in 1192 c.e., many monasteries in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan became centers of manuscript veneration, archiving, and copying. From this era onward, Tibetan scholars visited Nepal to obtain Sanskrit manuscripts and, in some cases, to confer with Nepalese paṇḍitas. There have been many Newar Buddhist scholars—especially among the "householder monk" groups calling themselves śākyabhikṣus and vajrācāryas—who could read and utilize Sanskrit, making it an important local language for the indigenous Buddhist elite. Some notable paṇḍitas up through the modern era also composed works in Sanskrit.

The vast holdings of Sanskrit manuscripts in the Kathmandu Valley have remained central to the modern academic study of Buddhism, beginning with the texts sent to Calcutta and Europe by the official British resident in Nepal from 1825 to 1843, Brian Hodgson. Many ancient Sanskrit texts survived only in Nepal. Though one might include these works as a literature used by the Newar Buddhist religious elite and other literati, the remainder of this entry focuses on the religious texts composed in the Newari vernacular.

The Newar saṅgha's widespread familiarity with Sanskrit, and especially the use of Sanskrit mantras and religious terminology, explains the existence of the many hundreds of manuscripts rendered in a bilingual (Sanskrit and Newari) format. While the elite ritualists, adepts, and scholars used Sanskrit texts to guide their ritual practices, tantric meditations, and philosophical studies, they also redacted relevant Indic works into their own language and composed treatises in their own lingua franca. The Newar literati devised over ten calligraphic scripts, especially for manuscripts used for ritual "book pūjā" purposes: Newā Lipi since the ninth century, and Rañjana since the fourteenth century.

Vernacular Buddhist literature in Nepāl Bhāsā mirrors the distinctive cultural traditions of Newar Buddhism, which was centered on a saṅgha of "householder monks" and their focus on intricate ritual and popular narratives more than scholasticism, with vajrayĀna practices important for the elite. Accordingly, no vinaya or early canonical works are extant in the bilingual collections and only fragments of any Buddhist scholastic treatises (śastra) have been identified. More common are MahĀyĀna "classics" such as the Prajñāpāramitā-sūtra (Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra), BodhicaryĀvatĀra(Introduction to the Conduct That Leads to Enlightenment), and the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪka-sŪtra).

Especially numerous are texts devoted to the celestial bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, such as the Kārandavyūha (Description of the Basket). The most locally influential text in this genre is the Guṇakaraṇḍavyūha (Description of the Garlanded Basket), a Sanskrit work originally composed in Nepal that has been widely translated into Newari.

Several other important works were composed by local scholars in Sanskrit and translated into numerous Newari editions. First is the Bhadrakalpa Avadāna (Glorious Stories of This Auspicious Era), a text that recounts the Buddha's return to his hometown Kapilavastu. More important in the indigenous worldview is the Svayambhū Purāṇa (The Sacred Account of Svayembhū, the Self-Existent). It has a curious title for a Buddhist text, indicating the strong influence of Hindu traditions in Nepal. But this text recounts the Buddhist origins of the valley as a hierophany of the Ādi-Buddha as a flaming lotus in a lake, one subsequently visited by buddhas of former ages of the world. In the current era, this lake is finally drained by the Bodhisattva Mañjūśr to form the Kathmandu Valley and opened to settlement by his disciples, making the Svayambhū Purāṇa a work simultaneously of Mahāyāna Buddhology and ethnic origins. This text was later expanded to include the history of tantric teachers entering the domain and to discuss the history of related sacred sites. Most important among these is the sacred hilltop now called SvayambhūMahācaitya.

The most common manuscript genres in Newar Buddhist literature are popular narratives (jĀtakas and avadĀnas) and ritual texts. "Folklorists" in the Newar saṅgha collected, redacted, and "trans-created" (to use Kamal Prakash Malla's term) the classical tales from the JĀtakamĀlĀ (Garland of Jatakas), AvadĀnaŚataka (A Hundred Glorious Deeds), and MahĀvastu (Great Story). Some stand alone due to their popularity. These include the Simhalasarthabāhu Avadāna, the Maṇicūḍa Avadāna, the Vīrakūsa Avadāna, the Kavirakumār Avadāna, and the Viśvantara Jātaka; such texts have been used up to the present day by paṇḍit-storytellers who attract audiences for evening performances during the Newar Buddhist monsoon holy month, Gunla. Interestingly, several of these Newar Avadāna anthologies, such as the Vicitrakarṇika Avadāna, have no known classical source.

Given the embedding of story recitations into many ritual texts, it is difficult to separate the genres. Newar panditas have typically labeled their ritual guides as vidhi (directive) or kriyā (performance), and these span a vast repertoire from life-cycle rites and building construction rites to festival practices, temple observances, and tantric initiations. Special Mahāyāna rites called vratas have their own textual guides, including those dedicated to the beneficent Tārā, the fierce protector Mahākāla, the Buddhist earth mother Vasundhārā, and many others. By far the most common text in this category is that outlining the AṣṭamīVrata and dedicated to Avalokiteśvara. Of special prominence in this Newar literature are guidebooks for making 100,000 clay stūpas, the Lakṣacaitya Vidhi, and for the old-age ritual (bhīmaratha kriya) for elders reaching seventy-seven years and seven months, which includes making a stŪpa and reciting the Uṣnīṣavijayā dhārāṇi. Also important are after-death guidebooks for utilizing the Durgatipariśodhana Tantra's salvific mantra and a sand maṆḌala made by a vajrācārya ritualist.

Even more numerous, and variable, are the mantradhāraṇī collections. The most widespread single text is the Pañcarakṣā (Five Protectors), which provides recitations and visualizations of five protectors, each with stories testifying to their pragmatic efficacies. Other works, many reflecting the compiler's own fields of ritual expertise, are simply lists of recitations for specific purposes. These span all spheres of human experience: worshiping, memorizing, singing, healing, attracting love, rainmaking, injuring. Related to this are collections of devotional songs that can be sung by priests or by worshipers playing drums and other instruments.

Modern published literature

The printing press expanded the possibilities of Newar Buddhist piety, as devotees continue to make books for merit, memorialize the dead, pen new translations, and create hundreds of new magazines that disseminate works of scholarly interpretation and Buddhist revivalism. In these forums, partisans of traditional Newar Buddhism, as well as advocates of the TheravĀda movement, have sought to promote their traditions. Leading vajrācārya priests have continued their tradition of composing ritual guide pamphlets and anthologies for their colleagues, with such publications numbering over a thousand since 1950. Since about 1960, Theravādin scholars have published Newari translations of nearly the entire Pāli canon. Traditional paṇḍitas and private scholars have likewise published their own new complete Newari translations of the Mahāyāna classics, including the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajnāpāramitā by Jog Muni Vajrācārya (Kathmandu, 1968), the Lalitavistara by Nisthananda Vajrācārya (1978), the BodhicaryĀvatĀra by Dibyabajra Bajrācārya (1986), and the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-vaipulyasūtra by Saddharmarāja Vajrācārya (1989). Special mention should be made of Sugata Saurabha (The Sweet Fragrance of the Buddha), a book-length life of the Buddha that was written in Newari by Nepal's greatest twentieth-century poet, Chittadhar Hridaya. Newar poets have also composed songs for bhajan singing that have been widely published and used.

Finally, since 1950, a vast library of Newari scholarly publications has come into being. These works concern local epigraphy, texts, temples, and cultural traditions. Most notable among indigenous scholars is Hem Rāj Shākya, whose monographs on the Svayambhū stūpa (1977), the Samyak festival (1980), and other monuments testify to the Newars' vigorous love of their own culture and the continuing high regard in Newar society for literary works on Buddhism. The views of a medieval copyist are still discernible at the beginning of the twenty-first century: "I have written this manuscript painstakingly. Try your best to protect and preserve this MSS from oil stains, fire, and thieves. Look after it as you would your own offspring because while writing this mss my backbone, my head, and my eyesight have all bent downward" (Vaidya and Kamsakar, p. iv).

See also:Nepal


Lewis, Todd T. "Mahāyāna Vratas in Newar Buddhism." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 12, no. 1 (1989): 109–138.

Lewis, Todd T. "The Nepāl Jana Jīvan Kriyā Paddhati: A Modern Newar Guide for Vajrayâna Life-Cycle Rites." Indo-Iranian Journal 37 (1994): 1–46.

Lienhard, Siegfried, ed. The Songs of Nepal: An Anthology of Nevar Folksongs and Hymns. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984.

Locke, John. "The Uposadha Vrata of Amoghapāsha Lokeshvara." L'Ethnographie 83, nos. 100–101 (1989): 109–138.

Malla, Kamal Prakash. Classical Newari Literature. Kathmandu: Nepal Study Centre, 1981.

Tatelman, Joel. "'The Trials of Yashodharā': The Legend of the Buddha's Wife in the Bhadrakalpāvadāna." Buddhist Literature 1 (1999): 176–261.

Vaidya, Janak Lal, and Kamsakar, Prem Bahadur. A Descriptive Catalogue of Selected Manuscripts Preserved at the Aśā Saphū Kuthi. Kathmandu: Cvasāpāsā, 1990.

Todd T. Lewis

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