Potala(ka) etc

Geoffrey Samuel sogbs at CC.NEWCASTLE.EDU.AU
Wed Feb 24 08:01:18 UTC 1999

This may be a little outdated now - I've had some trouble posting to
INDOLOGY, now resolved - but I'm sending it in case still of interest:

N. Ganesan referred to my earlier postings in relation to Potala(ka),
Tirupati etc. I have stayed out of the discussion since 1997 mainly because
of lack of time, but also because the issues are both political and
emotionally loaded for many participants, and intrinsically difficult to
decide. However, since 1997 I have been able to look at the book by D.C.
Ahir which was the source of the Crystal Mirror reference to Venkatesvar as
Potala, and also at some of the other authors (Jamanadas, Kulkarni) who
make strong claims for previous Buddhist identities of major South Indian
Hindu shrines (see list at end), and perhaps I can make some points at this

(1) It seems clear that Tamil Nadu and Kerala (and for that matter most of
present day South and East India) were not in any real sense "Hindu" before
around C4-C5 CE. By "Hindu" (I would really prefer a less loaded label such
as "Vedic-Brahmanical") I mean that a major ritual role in the community is
performed by Brahmin priests, and that Brahmanical values have a dominant
presence within the society as a whole. The extensive settlements of
Brahmins in South and East India from C4-C5 onwards is a dividing line
here. Before this time, the Vedic-Brahmanical complex was restricted mainly
to parts of present-day North India and Pakistan. The date may be arguable
- it was certainly earlier in e.g. parts of Andhra, and some individual
temples further south may have acquired Brahmin priests well before C4 -
but the process is not. It took place under the patronage of local rulers
and it was associated with the adoption of a Brahmanical ideology of
kingship and, I assume, with the installation of Brahmin priests at major
shrines of deities who were thereby progressively assimilated to
Brahmanical deities.

(2) There was a previous period during which South and East Indian rulers
patronised Buddhists and Jains. Presumably some at least of the major deity
shrines which go back to this period were for a while under Buddhist and
Jain management (this seems to have been the case at Kanchipuram, for
example) and the deities were given Buddhist or Jain identities during that
time. Some of these places may have been specifically Buddhist or Jain
foundations. But given the extent to which the deities of major temples
still today have local identities which are only partially assimilated to
Brahmanical mythology (a few S Indian examples are Minaksi at Madurai;
Cidambaram; Sucindram; the major Murugan temples etc etc etc), my guess is
that many of them pre-existed Buddhist and Jain influence in the region.
Their origins are presumably in local and regional cults for which we no
longer have direct evidence, scattered references in early Tamil literature
aside. As is probably clear from (1), I see no reason to call these cults

(3) From say C4 to C12 (later in some areas) the situation was pluralistic.
Courts patronised Brahmins, Buddhist and Jains (and for that matter Saivas,
Vaisnavas, Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists, etc etc) and were rarely
exclusive about it, though one or another religious party might gain a
temporary ascendancy. Major temples and shrines - particularly, perhaps,
major centres of pilgrimage - were objects of multiple interpretation. They
still are today in places like Sri Lanka (Kataragama, Adam's Peak). the
Kathmandu Valley (Bungadhya = Avalokitesvara and Matsyendranatha) or Lahul
(Triloknath = Siva and Avalokitesvara). As Jacob Kinnard notes in a recent
article on Hindu and Buddhist readings of Bodh-Gaya, Indian images are
characterised by "multivalent fluidity" (JAAR 66) - in some cases extending
to Islamic and Christian interpretations as well. We can still see traces
of this overall situation in the relics of earlier identities of
Venkatesvar at Tirumala  - especially the well-known story of Ramanuja's
identifying the Venkatesvar image as Visnu - and for that matter at many
other places (Jagannath at Puri and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sindh are two
other interesting examples).

(4) What went on at the village and household level (as opposed to court
and urban elite groups) between C4 to C12 is another question. This side of
Indian religion is still far from completely Brahmanised even today, though
bhakti-style devotionalism and other later developments have certainly had
a pervasive effect over the centuries, helping to produce the mix we now
call "Hindu". With the exception of groups (e.g. Brahmins and affiliated
sub-castes) with a strong commitment to Brahmanical interpretations, I
imagine most people were more interested in major regional shrines as
sources of spiritual power that could be tapped for pragmatic purposes than
as places that were specifically Buddhist, Hindu etc.

(5) Major pilgrimage sites - particularly the Sakta pithas - were places
used by sadhus and renunciates of all traditions. E.g. the
Srisailam-Sriparvata area in Andhra was a major centre for both Saiva and
Buddhist tantrics and alchemists, and there was plenty of mutual borrowing
between them. The Kadri area near Mangalore in Karnataka may have been
similar. Again, such sites throughout South Asia were part of a wider
system of interactions which also included Muslims, Taoists etc. (See e.g.
David White's *The Alchemical Body* and Mike Walter's articles on the
Hindu-Muslim-Buddhist alchemist Jabir.)

(6) However, the specific arguments given for previous Buddhist identities
of Tirupati, Sabarimala etc by Ahir, Kulkarni et al. seem to me to be at
most suggestive and far from conclusive. Shaving the head *may* be a
Buddhist survival, but then again it may not be. Equally, the celebration
of Balaji's birthday on the same date as the birth of the Buddha (in Hindu
tradition) is hardly decisive. Other arguments are equally weak.

It is all too clear that Ahir, Jamanadas et al. very much *want*
Venkatesvara and other major South Indian shrines to have been formerly
Buddhist, and that any argument will do if it serves this purpose. There is
very little solid evidence. For example, we do not even have a proper
iconographical description of the Venkatesvara cult-image in its unadorned
state - Jamanadas is reduced to citing somebody else's opinion that it
resembles a Padmapani image at Ajanta. In any case, for the reasons given
above, I think we should be wary of treating any major South Indian shrine
as having been *exclusively* Buddhist  - or exclusively anything else -
prior to the 11th or 12th centuries. Venkatesvara probably had multiple
identities for many centuries.

(7) Finally, as for Potalaka - given that the evidence still seems to point
to a "real" location of Potalaka at a major mountain shrine in South India
as well as a more visionary location - I think we have to accept that we
are still a long way from any conclusive identification of where it might
have been. I don't think (see point 3) that we have to assume that it would
be somewhere which we regard today as "primarily a Buddhist centre".
Kanchipuram, which we know was a major Buddhist centre for many centuries,
has relatively little surviving Buddhist material. Unfortunately, the
descriptions we have all seem to be too vague to be much help, and many of
them (as with Taranatha) date from a period when Potalaka was a place of
legend rather than reality.

Potalaka certainly *could* have been Tirupati, on our present (lack of)
evidence - certainly the fact that Venkatesvar's identity was eventually
fixed as Visnu rather than Siva isn't enough to eliminate it.
Experientially, Venkatesvara seems to me to be much the same kind of
compassionate saviour deity as Avalokitesvara in the older textual
material, and it would be nice to think that this most important of
Buddhist shrines in South India was continuing its activity under a new
name and management. But we just don't know, and I don't find the
alternative identifications which have been advanced particularly
persuasive either, unless someone can come up with major new epigraphic or
textual evidence.

Geoffrey Samuel
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Some authors arguing for the Buddhist identities of South Indian shrines:
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Ahir, D.C. (1989) Heritage of Buddhism. Delhi: B.R. Publishing.
Ahir, D.C. (1992) Buddhism in South India. Delhi: Sri Satguru.
Jamanadas, K. (1991) Tirupati Balaji was a Buddhist Shrine. Chandrapur:
Kulkarni, A.L. (1980) Buddha, the Trimurti and Modern Hinduism.
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Geoffrey Samuel, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of
Newcastle, NSW 2308, AUSTRALIA
Telephone: Work (02) 4921 5698; Home (02) 4957 0244; Fax +61-2-4921 6902
Email sogbs at cc.newcastle.edu.au
WWW: http://www.newcastle.edu.au/department/so/samuel.htm
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