Note on Vajrapani-Indra

By Sten Konow
Acta Orientalia
1930, pp. 311-317

p. 311 Those who take an interest in Buddhist art are well acquainted with the constant companion of the Buddha, who is pictured in various ways and without any constant type, but who is nevertheless easily recognized by means of his attribute, the vajra or thunderbolt, wherefore it has become customary to speak of him under the name of Vajrapani, "he in whose hand is the vajra." The figure has been explained in various ways. After Cunningham he was usually identified with Devadatta, the Buddha's cousin, because his attitude sometimes seemed to indicate animosity towards the Buddha. Professor Grunwedel(1) justly objected to this explanation, because the figure occurs in scenes where there cannot be any question of Devadatta. He agreed with Burgers,(2) that the thunderbolt-carrier was originally Indra, but thought that he was subsequently in many cases identified with Mara, of whom we read in the Nidanakatha that he approached the Bodhisattva when he left the palace and thence "followed after him, like an ever-present shadow, ever on the watch for some slip." The vajra is, he says, simply the old attribute of Indian gods. The ensuing uncertainty resulted in a now ncutral, denomination, Vajrapani, perhaps taken from some stotra, which led to the conception of a separate being, who later on came to play a considerable role especially in Mahayana. _______________________ 1. Buddhistische Kunst in Indien. 2. ed. Berlin 1900, pp. 84ff. The first edition is not accessible in Oslo. 2. Journal of Indian Art and Industry, No. 62-63, 1898, p.30; not accessible to me. p. 312 M. Foucher, who was at first inclined to accept Professor Grunwedel's explanation, later on(1) identified the figure with Vajrapani, the guhyaka or yaksa chief mentioned in the Lalitavistara,(2) and this same identification was also proposed by M. Senart in his important paper, Vajrapani dans les sculptures du Gandhara.(3) A new explanation was given by Professor Vogel, (4) who explained the figure as a representation of the Buddhist dharma, and, finally, Mrs. Elizabeth Colton Spooner(5) tried to prove that the underlying idea was that of the Avestan fravashi. I am not going to add a new theory to those advocated by these scholars. I think that the explanation of Messrs. Foucher and Senart is right, and my object in writing these lines is mainly to draw attention to an indication contained in a Mahayana sutra which has not, so far as I know, hitherto been noticed. About the existence of a yaksa called Vajrapani in Buddhist tradition there cannot be any doubt. As pointed out by the two French savants, he is mentioned in the Lalitavistara and elsewhere, and in the Mahamayuri(6) we read that he resided on the Grdhrakuta in Rajagrha.(7) In Indian mythology, however, Vajrapani is an epithet of Indra, who is characterized as vajrabahu, vajrahasta, in the Rgveda, the designation vajrapani being met with for the first time in the Sadvimsabrahmana.(8) In Buddhist literature(9) Indra is repeatedly mentioned as a yaksa, and we may therefore reasonably put the question whether the Vajrapani of Gandhara art is not simply a duplicate of Indra. ______________________ 1. L'art greco-bouddhique du Gandhara, I, p.358, II, pp. 48ff. 2. ed. Lefmann, p. 66, cf. p. 219. 3. Actes du XIV Congres international des orientalistes Alger 1905, I, pp.121ff. 4. Bulletin de l'Ecole francaise d'Extreme Orient, IX, 1909, PP. 523ff. 5. JRAS. 1916, pp. 497ff. 6. cf. Sylvain Levi, Le catalogue geographique des Yaksa dans la Mahamayuri, JA. XI. v, 1915, pp. 19ff. 7. Cf. v.3 Vajrapani Rajagrhe Grdhrakute krtalayah. 8. Cf. Weber, Zwei vedische Texte uber Omina und Portonta, Abhandlungen der Kgl. Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin 1888, p. 316. 9. e.g. the Mahamayuri v. 29: Indra's cEndrapure; Digha Nikaya III, p. 204. p. 313 M. Senart(1) and M. Foucher(2) draw attention to the explanation given by Buddhoghosa(3) on the passage in the Ambattha Sutta(4) where we read how the yakkha Vajirapani appears in the air, with a flaming ayokuta in his hand, and frightens the proud Ambattha: vajiram panimhi assati Vajirapani; yakkho ti, na yo va so va yakkho, Sakko devarajati veditabbo, i.e. "he is called Vajirapani, because the vajira is in his hand; as to 'yakkha,' not an indefinite yakkha he should be understood to be Sakka, the king of the gods." Here it is evident that to Buddhaghosa the yaksa Vajrapani was Indra. A similar state of affairs must be inferred from the Samghatasutra, a Mahayana text which is found in Chinese and Tibetan translations, and which was evidently very popular with the Buddhists of Chinese Turkestan, where several fragments of a Saka version have been found. There are two passages in the Samghatasutra which would seem to be of interest in the present connexion.(5) Fol. 357ff. we read about an encounter between the Buddha and numerous nirgranthas, who had gathered in the hope of defeating him in argument. The Buddha rebukes them, but they only get angry. Then we read: dehi. tshe. dehi. dus. na. lhahi. dban. po. Brgya. byin. gyis. rdo. rje. gsor. ba. dan | de. nas. gcer. bu. pa bye. ba. phrag. bco. brgyad. po. de. dag. dnans. bskrag. nas. sdug. bsnal. chen. pos. nam. thag . ste. nu. mchi. ma. zag. pa. dan | de. bzin gsegs. pas. kyan. sku. mi. snan. bar. mdzad. do | " at that time, at that epoch, the ruler of the gods, Satakratu, flourished the thunderbolt, and forthwith the eighteen ten-million nirgranthas, in fear and terror, tormented with great misery, crying, shed tears, and the Tathagata made his body invisible." Here accordingly Brgya-byin, i.e. Satakratu or Indra, plays exactly the same role as the yakkha Vajirapani in the Digha Nikaya. ______________________ 1. P. 123. 2. II, p. 52. 3. Sumangala Vilasini I, p. 264. 4. Digha Nikaya I, 95. 5. I quote from the Kanjur, Mdo na fol. 346ff. p. 314 Again on fol. 382 we read how various beings come together in Rajagrha, where the Buddha is going to preach the law. We hear how the town was agitated how divine sandal-dust and divine flowers fell down from the air as rain, and further: dehi. tshe. de bzin. gsegs. pahi. spyan. snar. lhahi. dban. po. Brgya. byin. gyis. rdo. rje. gsor. ba. dan | de. nas. dehi. tshe. phyogs. bzi. nas rlun. gi. rgyal. po. bzi. hkhrugs. te. lans. nas. gan. Rgyal. pohi khab. kyi. gron. khyer. chen. pohi. nal. nil. dan | phyag. dar dan | bye. ma. de. rnams. gron. khyer. gyi. phi. rol. tu. bor. nas | phyogs. bcuhi. hjig. rten. gyi. khams. rnams. su. spos. chuhi char rab. tu. phab | " at that time the ruler of the gods, Satakratu, flourished the thunderbolt before the Tathagata, and forthwith, at that time, four wind-kings, tumultuously rising from the four quarters, swept out of the town what dust and sweepings and sand there was in the great town of Rajagrha, and in the regions of the four quarters perfumed water rained down." We are involuntarily reminded of the Vajrapani of the sculptures, who accompanies the Buddha, sometimes terrifying his adversaries, sometimes serving him in other ways. But to the author of the sutra it was Indra, the king of the gods, who acted in this way. Now it might be urged that these passages in the Samghatasutra, as also Buddhaghosa's remark quoted above, bear witness to the conception originally underlying the Gandhara representation of Vajrapani: we have to do with Indra, and the yaksa is only a secondary development, evolved out of the multiform notions connected with him, perhaps in consequence of the use of the term vajrapani about Indra. This is, as will be seen, the same trend of argument which was adduced by Professor Grunwedel. Methodically, however, it would hardly be admissible to draw such far-reaching conclusions from the above texts. They are both too young. Buddhaghosa came to Ceylon during the reign of king Mahanama (458-480 A.D.), i.e. his time coincides with the flourishing of Brahmanism and brahmanized literature under the Guptas. And the Samghatasutra cannot be an old work. The fragments of the p. 315 Saka version are written in the upright form of Central Asian Gupta which cannot be older than the fourth or fifth century A.D. According to Professor Leumann(1) there are two Chinese translations of the text. The oldest is due to Urdhvasunya, and Professor O. Franke has been good enough to let me know that, according to Bunyiu Nanjio's Catalogue, which is not accessible to me, it was completed in 538 A.D. The work is further mentioned in the Mahavyutpatti 65. 61, but none of these sources points to a high age for the Samghatasutra. The probable explanation of the role played by Indra-Vajrapani in the Samghatasutra as well as of Buddhaghosa's remark about the yakkha Vajirapani of the Digha Nikaya is therefore that they are not the result of a vague recollection of the conceptions originally underlying the Vajrapani figure of Gandhara art, but rather that they are due to the reaction of orthodox Brahmanism which is noticeable during and after the Gupta period: Buddhist traditions and Buddhist art were then liable to be interpreted in the light of Brahmanic lore, and to the Brahmins the real Vajrapani could only be Indra. In other words, we here have before as a secondary interpretation, or rather, misinterpretation, belonging to a time when, as M. Foucher aptly remarks,(2) the tradition about Vajrapani had been lost. And it is quite possible that the author of the Samghatasutra had in his mind scenes which he knew from Buddhist art. And, as pointed out by Messrs. Senart and Foucher, there are strong reasons for not identifying Vajrapani with Indra, even if we abstract from the fact that both are sometimes pictured side by side. Indra was evidently well known to the artists of Gandhara, and he is pictured with certain characteristic features, evidently borrowed from national Indian art, which make the identification of his figure certain. These features are missing in the case of Vajrapani, and his representation in Gandhara art shows so much variety that we must evidently accept M. Senart's conclusion:(3) "que nous ______________________ 1. ZDMG, 61, p. 655; 62, p. 105. 2. l.c. II, 52. 3. p. 125. p. 316 sommes en presence d'une creation nouvelle, propre a 1'ecole du Gandhara, que, dans l'art au moins, le personnage est de date recente." That does not imply that Vajrapani himself, as separate from Indra, is not older than the art of Gandhara. On the contrary, M. Senart is of opinion that the figure occupies an intermediate position between a pre-Gandhara yaksa chief and the Vajrapani of Mahayana, in a terrific form, as the guardian of Buddhist dharma. And in art itself, the figure may be connected with older Indian representations. of yaksas.(1) It is even conceivable that the yaksa Vajrapani should be traced back to conceptions which are as old as, or even older than, Indra. It has often been pointed out that new deities may develop out of some epithet of an older god, and Professor Grunwedel, as we have seen, is inclined to adapt this explanation to our case. I feel convinced that exactly the opposite is just as often the case, and I think that most scholars hold a similar view, e.g. when we find long lists of thousand or more names of gods such as Siva. In the pantheon of the Rgveda we have, in my opinion, an evident instance of this syncretism, in the case of Indra himself, who absorbed such vague representatives of force and power as Vrtrahan in the days when he became the supreme god of the Indian Aryans. It seems to me that Indra's association with the vajra is of a similar kind. The vajra is the Indian representative of the thunderbolt, and a comparison of corresponding ideas with other Indo-European peoples leads to the conclusion that even in the Indo-European period there was some idea of a vaguely personified independent wielder of the thunderbolt. With the Germanic tribes he became the "Thunderer," the porr of Old Norse mythology, in Hellas and Rome he was associated with Zeus-Juppiter, and in India he became Indra. But a vague recollection of his original independence had left its impression on the religious mind of the Aryans, and he was never quite absorbed ________________________ 1. cf. the interesting monography by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections. Vol.80, No.6. Washington 1928. p. 317 by Indra. Even in the Rgveda, our chief document for the period when Indra, rose to the rank of supreme god, we also find Rudra designated as vajrabahu (II, 33. 3); in the Atharvaveda Bhava and Sarva are asked to use their Vajra against evil-doers (IV.28.6), and Soma smites with the vajra (VI. 6. 2), &c.; in the Bhagavatapurana (X. 159. 20) Visnu wields the thunderbolt, and so forth. It seems to me that it is necessary to explain the yaksa Vajrapani from such subconscious or semi-conscious reminiscences of an older conception, and to assume that he had developed long before he was introduced into Buddhist art by the artists of Gandhara. His association with Indra, the Indian vajradhara xxs is secondary and due to the increasing influence which Brahmanic notions come to exercise in India.