Re Potala(ka), etc

Geoffrey Samuel sogbs at CC.NEWCASTLE.EDU.AU
Fri Feb 26 06:12:38 UTC 1999

Re Potala(ka) as Venkata: I don't have any particular attachment to
Potalaka = Venkata, and as I said I am not impressed by D.C. Ahir's
arguments. But I find it strange that such an apparently important place
should diappear off the map entirely. But perhaps the anecdote of
Buddhaguhya and Buddhasanti in Taranatha reflects a stage where this
process was already under way:

"Then the two together went to the Potala hill. At the foot of the hill,
Arya Tara sat preaching the Doctrine to the Nagas. But they saw only an old
woman tending a big herd of cows. When they reached the middle of the hill,
the goddess Bhrkuti was preaching the Doctrine to a group of Asuras and
Yaksas. But they saw a girl tending a big herd of goats and sheep. When
they reached the top of the hill, there was nothing but a stone image of
Avalokitesvara. Thus it is said.

"But Buddhasanti thought, 'Why should this place be full of such trivial
objects? So all these are due to the defects of my vision. They must be
Tara and others.' With this deep conviction, he earnesdtly prayed to them.
Thus he acquired as the general quality the miraculous power of
transforming anything at will and also the extraordinary quality of
boundless abhijnana and with this he learnt all the sastr-s that he never
studied before. He realised the nature as everything as but void
(literally, like the akasa).

"But Buddhaguhya prayed with no such conviction and he attained only the
miraculous power of moving without his feet touching the earth. Then the
old woman instructed him, 'Go to the Ti-se [Kailasa] of the Himalayas and
meditate there.'" (Chimpa and Chattopadhyaya, pp.281-2)

AT Kailasa and other major Tibetan mountain-shrines, there is no temple on
the top of the mountain (which is not normally visited), and the deities
are not visible except to those of pure vision - the anecdote seems to
assume that Potalaka was a similar kind of place. The linking of Kailasa
and Potalaka is interesting in view of S. Paliniappan's point about the
Kailasa-Potiyil linkage. On the whole, if Avalokitesvara had an alternate
identity, Siva would be more likely than Visnu. All in all, the Malaya
mountains seems our best guess so far, given that there seems to be some
ambiguity about exactly where that refers to. But nothing seems to be

On S. Palianappan's description of the Venkata deity from Cilappatikaram
(and much else in this discussion) - I wish I could read Tamil. It is clear
that the identification of the Venkata deity as Visnu goes back before
Ramanuja, but I don't think this is in contest - the question is whether
there were other interpretations as well. The passage S. Palianappan cites
from the Cilappatikaram is spoken by a Vaishnava Brahmin who is a devotee
of Vishnu and attached to the Pandya king (I assume this corresponds to
Canto 11 in Danielou's translation  Incidentally, is it generally accepted
that the CilappatikAram is "not later than 5th century AD"? E.g. A.
Veluppillai in an article on Manimekalai in the J. of the Institute of
Asian Studies (Madras) 9, 1 cites dates up to the eighth century, and it
all sounds rather inconclusive. Presumably, too, our surviving manuscripts
are considerably later?

I don't think we can conclude (on the basis of this passage at any rate)
that "Cilappatikaram states unequivocally that Tirupati belongs to
TirumAl/Vishnu." (V. Iyer) - at most it establishes that a (fictional)
Pandyan Vaishnavite Brahmin at a somewhat indeterminate time might have
seen it that way. This isn't a quibble. For example, there are at the
present time four major competing versions of the identity of the deities
at Kailasa, for example (Hindu, Tibetan Buddhist, Tibetan Bonpo and Jain),
all of them held sincerely to be the truth by the respective parties. If I
were to write a poem with a Hindu yogi visiting Kailasa, I would of course
have him describe it as the abode of Siva. A Tibetan pilgrim would describe
it as the abode of Cakrasamvara. There are very many such places. Rewalsar
(mTsho Padma) in Himachal Pradesh has competing Hindu, Tibetan Buddhist and
Sikh myths. The Kulu Valley is the place where Bhima encountered Hidimba
and his sister, and also the place where the Tibetan epic hero Ge-sar met
kLu-btsan and his sister. Kataragama in Sri Lanka is dedicated to Murugan
and also to the Islamic mystical guide Khidr. Etc etc.

BTW, I notice some contributors still seem attached to the interpretation
of Avalokitesvara's six-syllable mantra (OM MANIPADME HUM) as being about
jewels and lotuses, lingams and yonis, etc. This is basically Western
fantasy (see e.g. Don Lopez's Prisoners of Shangri-La), and best forgotten.

Geoffrey Samuel

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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
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