Atisha Dipankar Srijnan: Eye of Asia

Atisha Dipankar Srijnan has been venerated for nearly 1000 years as an outstanding religious personality in Tibet and Asia countries north of the Himalayas. But the great saint-philosopher of 10th-11th Century was forgotten for centuries in a peculiar twist of history in the land of his birth in Bangladesh as well as in Indian sub-continent till the end of 19th Century.

Scholars in their quest for Bengal's ancient history and heritage as well as its age-old cultural and religious link with Tibet have resurrected an almost forgotten chapter of history of Buddhism. In the last decade of the 19th Century the name of Atisha Dipankar Srijnan as one of the greatest sons of the Bengal and an outstanding religious personality of India was discovered from the rather rusted records of history inscribed in Tibetan Tanjur. A scholar-diplomat Sarat Chandra Das (1849-1917; born in Chittagong, Bangladesh) had visited the forbidden land of Tibet several times in the latter part of the 19th Century as an envoy of the then colonial British Empire. A fearless explorer, he was fascinated by glimpses into Tibetan religion and culture and risked his life several times as a political suspect in the eyes of the Tibetan ruler while he was visiting remote monasteries and gumpas in rather inaccessible regions to collect materials buried in ancient manuscripts. He returned to India with a vast load of historical treasures. The result of his indenting exploration was publication of two remarkable books: "Indian Pundits in the land of the snows" in 1893 by the Asiatic Society of India and "Travel Accounts of Tibet" by British Geographical Society, London. A forgotten chapter about Tibet's glorious history and pioneering work done by Buddhist saints of Bengal particularly Dipankar Srijnan was brought into limelight for the first time.

The life, activities and contribution of Atisha Dipankar Srijnan were reconstructed mainly by Sarat Ch. Das based on his studies of these Tibetan sources.

Like the Buddha having his lay name as Guatama before renunciation, Dipankar Srijnan was Chandragarbha born in a royal family in 980 or 982 AD. in the village Vajrayogini of Vikrampur region, Dhaka in Bangladesh. Sarat Ch. Das in his 'Life of Atisha' writes, Dipankar was born in a royal family of Guada in Vikramapur of Bengal which is east of Bajrasana. His father's name was Kalyansri and mother's name was Prabhavati. His birth place, Vajrayogini reminiscent of a 'Yogi with Vajra', a typical Buddhist name with Mahayana traditions still bears the same name across the long stretch of a thousand years despite many ups and downs in history. Visiting the rather quiet dusty village, a few miles from the shore of mighty river Meghna flowing past Vikrampur, one comes across a mound with a sizable area identified to the generations of people as "Nastik Panditer Bhita" (meaning ancestral home of atheist scholar). People of successive generations particularly after decline of Buddhism in Bangladesh in 13th-14th Century may have forgotten Atisha Dipankar. Yet he had lived in public memory with veneration as a remote anonymous atheist scholar till his birth place was identified by scholars from the life of Atisha preserved in the collections of Tibetan writings.

Tibetan sources about Atisha collected during the last 100 years have brought out the highlights of his life and activities in India and Tibet. In his early years, Chandragarbha renounced family ties and had his early education from contemporary celebrated Tantric teacher Jetari. Proving himself a brilliant disciple, Chandragarbha within a short time acquired knowledge in grammar, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism as well as in some Tantric learning. He acquired proficiency in logic and philosophy and was able to defeat a well-known scholar of another religion in an open debate by strong arguments. Later he studied Tantricism and meditational science under Rahulagupta of Krishna Giri of South India who initiated him into the esoteric system and gave Chandragarbha the name "Guhyajnanavajra" which is evocative of secret Tantric rituals. At the age of 19, he was formally ordained as a monk under the preceptorship teacher of ancient Magadha and Mahasanghika Acharya of famous Odantapuri Vihara of India. During ordination, he was named Dipankar Srijnan. When Dipankar became 30 years old, he was fully ordained and given the Bodhisattva vows by Acharya Shilarakshita with adequate training in the metaphysical aspects of Buddhism. He also attained proficiency in Tripitaka, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Tantrayana and acquired thorough knowledge in logic and philosophy. In ancient time, knowledge was not compartmentalized as in the present-day age of specialization. Like Socrates, Aristotle, Plato and Ibne Sina of old days, Dipankar in the context of his own times pursued the totality of knowledge and sought to master not only all schools of its philosophical thoughts but also astronomy, logic, philosophy, literature and grammar. At 31, he is said to have acquired full mastery of three Pitakas. Yet he felt irresistable urge for further study of classical Buddhism.

In 1012 AD. at the age of 32, he set out with a party of gem merchants on sea voyage to visit Suvaranadvipa, the most important center of Buddhist studies in those days, now in Java and Sumatra of Indonesia. After fourteen months of perilous journey across the tumultuous sea in a sail-driven wooden ship, Dipankar reached Suvarnadvipa and studied Buddhism for 12 years under Guru Serilingpa Dharmakirti who was considered the greatest scholar of the age in Asia. On way back home from Suvarnadvipa, he visited Tamralipi, present-day Sri Lanka.

He was about 44 years old when he returned to India. He spent about 15 years in India preaching the Dhamma and holding very important responsibilities in a number of monasteries before his departure for Tibet. During the 15 years of his stay in India, Dipankar Srijnan devoted his energy in the dissemination of the Dhamma and knowledge in different monasteries such as Vajrasana, Somapuri, Nalanda, Odantapuri, Pandita and vikramshila Mahaviharas which had developed as seats of learning like Universities inhabited by thousands of monks and scholars for studies and research. Dipankar's dissemination of the Dhamma and scholastic teaching in a new dimension earned him the title "Dhammapala".

When Dipankar dominated the religious scene in the 11th Century, the Buddhist Pala Dynasty was reigning in full glory. The adjoining Magadha kingdom along with eastern India came under the magnetic spell of Buddhism. He was Principal of the Vikramshila Vihara founded by great Pala King Dharmapala in 8th Century. About 8000 students studied in this University under 108 professors who were eminent scholars under the preceptorship of Dipankar Srijnan. The courses of studies included Therevada and Mahayana Buddhism, social sciences, Veda, Vedanta, Upanishad, philosophy, Logic, medicine, science, astronomy etc. Students from all parts of India as well as from China, Tibet, Ujjaini, Turkestan and Nepal came to study in this University. At that time Nalanda was in a declining stage. The Mahayana and Tantric learning which originated in the Nalanda University subsequently developed and enriched in the Vikramshila Vihara and spread to greater parts of Asia with the missionary activities done by Bengal scholars. When Dipankar was the Maha Acharya of Vikramshila Mahavihara, the King of Tibet sent emissaries to invite him to visit Tibet and resurrect Buddhism, then in a decaying condition in Tibet. Dipankar was in dilemma to make his decision. Besides Vikramshila, a number of other big monasteries were being run under his guidance. Yet Dipankar Srijnan despite his pre-occupation in India, advanced age and hazards of journey accepted the invitation to visit Tibet for three years for the cause of the Dhamma and gave this time-frame as condition of his visit so that he could return to Vikramshila Vihara. When Dipankar made his decision, Acharya Ratnakar Shanti, one of the senior Mahanayakas of Vikramshila said: "India will be plunged into darkness without Dipankar. Keys of many Buddhist institutions are lying with him. During his absence these institutions will be vacant. It seems that the shadow of darkness are around with Turkish soldiers seeking to invade India. I am feeling deeply concerned. Yet I bless Dipankar for his visit to Tibet in compassion and happiness of all beings."

On the way to Tibet, Dipankar Srijnan wanted to visit Vajrasana in Buddha Gaya and pay his homage to the Buddha. From Vikramshila he went to Buddha Gaya and other sacred places. He spent a year in Nepal on the way to Tibet. From here, he wrote his famous letter to Nayapal, King of Magadha named 'Vimala Ratna Lekhanama' which is considered a classic in his message to King for compassion to all beings, renunciation of evils in thoughts and deeds, conduct of a King in humility, kindness and love to all, cultivation of Budhicitta and renunciation of force in relations with high or low. This was in essence Buddhist message for peace and harmony within oneself and outside which is so relevant even in the present day context of the contemporary world situation. While in Nepal he composed his work Carya Samgra Pradipa'. The King of Nepal gave him rousing reception.

His journey on foot to Tibet across the snowy mountainous terrains of the Himalayas amidst hazards makes an exciting story. His biographer gave a vivid description of the journey and entrance to Western Tibet. The main rout was from Palpa in Nepal to Manassarover (Manas Lake). Through a lot of Hazards including attack by dacoits, he reached Western Tibet in 1042 AD. The Prime Minister of Tibet gave him a rousing reception along with a large number of followers on his entrance to Tibet. In his welcoming words, the Prime Minister said: "You are the wisest and most meritorious savant. You have come from the land of Acharyas in the incarnation of divinity in response to the prayers of the people of Tibet. In this age, you are the representative of Lord Buddha and paragon of Buddhism. All living beings and gods worship you for your purity."

Dipankar Srijnan was offered the first celestial drink which is tea and was presented with a valuable tapestry inscribed with the image of Budhisattva Avalokiteswar.

Dipankar has since then been venerated in Tibet as Atisha (the greatest one) for the singular role he had played in resurgence of Buddhism. Dipankar's coming to Tibet is the culmination of a series of events connected with spread of Buddhism there.

The first three years of his stay proved crucial for his reform of religion in Tibet. He devoted his time for dissemination of the true Doctrine and built up the foundation of pure Mahayana Buddhism. The main activities in the first three years may be summed up as follows:

(1) Great ovation and loyalty shown to him by the ruler of Western Tibet and devotion shown by Byan chub-od or Budhiprabha,

(2) Conversion of 85 years old Rin-chen-bzan-po or Ratnabhadra, the greatest scholar of Tibet to his views,

(3) Composition of his famous book 'Bodhi Patha Pradip' through which he succeeded in elevating morality of the people in accordance with Buddha's Doctrine and

(4) Atisha's meeting with Brom-ston-pa-rgyal-bai-byun-gna who became the foremost of his Tibetan disciples and helped him in successfully organizing the Buddhist religious reformation movement throughout Tibet.

With significant success achieved during three years, Atisha was keen to return to his homeland to take responsibility of Vikramshila Vihara and other Mahaviharas as he had promised to his Indian disciples. But his preoccupation with the task of dissemination of Dhamma in Tibet coupled with obstacles in journey because of serious political troubles in Nepal en route to India.

At this stage Atisha's principal disciple 'Brom' persuaded him to visit Central Tibet and meet hundreds of monks in monasteries of Lasha and other places. A relentless preacher, Atisha fought against prevailing practices of sacrifices, esoteric rituals and many other debased notions passing in the name of religion and preached the doctrine of good ethical lives, morality and compassion to liberate the masses of the people from superstitious practices. The whole of central Tibet witnessed resurgence of Buddhism under the spell of Atisha's preaching and his magnetic personality. He imbued the people with basic principles of morality in the teachings of the Buddha and essence of Mahayana Buddhism. Preaching the impermanence (anicca) of the world, he had advocated that real practice of Tantra lay not in rituals but in concentrating mind in meditation. He fought against the degenerated practices of Tantra to propagate moral purity and meditation for emancipation from the shackles of sufferings. His book 'Bodhi Patha Pradip' comprising the essence of Buddha's teachings advocated higher moral life, humility and purity of existence, universal love, non-violence and amity and need for meditation to achieve Bodhicitta, the common name for enlightenment and compassion. This rather small book of only sixty six stanzas (slokas) communicated in simple lucid language the basic principles of Buddhism thoughts. Following the lessons of the Mahayana system, he emerged as the preacher of mankind's salvation from the shackles of endless sufferings. He exercised the most profound influence in the religious history of Tibet to awaken the entire masses of people on the path of the Dhamma.

While preaching the Doctrine, he visited all parts of Tibet extensively with Brom who acted as his interpreter (Lochava). A saint, philosopher and scholar with versatility in all branches of knowledge Atisha Dipankara while establishing the pure Mahayana Buddhism succeeded in reforming the entire Tibetan society by steering them out of superstitious beliefs in ghosts and exorcism, murder, adultery and many other anti society activities. He indoctrinated them to new moral values emphasized in the teachings of the Buddha.

For the well-being of the people, he employed his engineering skill for construction of a dam for prevention of floods in a place named Thol. He helped in organizing irrigation system by digging canals which led to boosting of agricultural productivity. He also wrote a few treatises on medicine for the people. A new era ushered in the life and society of Tibet.

Atisha captured the heart of the masses like those saints in his homeland Bengal preaching in the wide expanse of rural areas with songs and lyrics. Atisha's composition of lyrical books like 'Vajrasana Vajragiti', 'Charyagiti' and Vajrayogini Stotra' dedicated to memory of his beloved place of birth were all spiritual songs in original Bengali language which have been lost over the centuries except in Tibetan translations contained in Tanjur. These lyrics containing the message of Buddhism were recited or sung while he had been preaching to the masses of people who must have heard them with rapt attention and devotion. A German scholar named Koppen for the first time in 1859 revealed the myriad-minded greatness of Atisha Dipankara who had elevated the Tibetan people with his moral preaching as well as with songs and lyrics used as the vehicle of his philosophical thoughts.

His preaching electrified the people of Tibet imbuing them with a new concept of morality and religion emanating from Buddhism. Thousands of monks irrespective of sects accepted the teachings of Atisha. It is said that even a shepherd in the plateau of Tibetan landscape used to carry a copy of his books containing the message of Buddhism in simple lucid Tibetan language. To quote a scholar: "To the monks as well as to the common people, the scholar as well as the crowd, in short the whole people of Tibet, Atisha had brought the message of moral purity and selfless sacrifice for others, of the virtuous life and to the adherence to pure Mahayana teachings." People found in his a saint with an exemplary nobility in character whose teachings never contradicted with deeds.

In the midst of his tireless preaching, he found time in immersing himself in deep meditation and also devoting himself to literary activities. His works were counted by some as 79 included in the collection of Tibetan Tanjur and as 175 by still others as their author, translator and revisor bearing eloquent testimony to his versatile genius. His original Tibetan works are divided into four groups: Tantra, Prajnaparamita, Madhayamika and cometary. Through Atisha's religious reformation and philosophical works, the Tibetans found themselves in the midst of a unique religious renaissance.

Atisha provided the religious and cultural link of Bangladesh and ancient India with Tibet, China and northern Asian countries. In a historical evaluation of his remarkable contribution in India and Tibet, Nihar Ranjan Roy in his voluminous book 'History of the Bangles' writes: "Dipankara is among the brightest luminaries of Bengal and India by virtue of his character, scholarship, erudition and spiritual eminence. Among those who had established bridge of amity and fraternity between Eastern India and Tibet, Dipankara's name deserves to be remembered as the first and foremost. Looking at the contemporary situation, Ratnakara said: "India will be in darkness without Dipankara". There is no exaggeration in this statement. In the midst of thickening darkness, Dipankara was the only ray of hope.

About Dipankara's visit to Tibet, a scholar writes: "In the 11th century AD. Atisha may be said to have brought the lost spiritual impetus from India with the result that Buddhism struck deep roots in Tibetan soil and thence forward flourished as an indigenous mode of religious and philosophical thought." Buddhism became the national religion of Tibet, success of Atisha's mission has demonstrated how with crucial intervention of morality and idealism, the religious, social and cultural lives of the people of Tibet was revolutionized by releasing their innate creativity.

Following Atisha's teachings, his main disciple, Brom helped in molding a new form of Buddhism in Tibet and founded the Kadampa sect based on the essence of Mahayana Buddhism. According to scholars, the religious tradition of old and new Kadampa sect embraces three vows: vows of individual liberation, Bodhisattva vows and Tantric vows-all harmonized into one.

The Kadampa sect gradually developed into famous Gelugpa sect (Yellow sect) which became in course of time the dominant Buddhist religion of Tibet, China, Mongolia and Siberian regions of Soviet Union. The religious ideals of this sect based on teachings of Atisha ultimately led to the temporal and spiritual institution of Dalai Lama prevalent in Tibet since 14th century.

Atisha's overall ideal is one of spiritual enlightenment for well-being of mankind. He advocated that self-cherishing should be relinquished and be replaced by empathy (maitricitta). The following words of Acharya Shantideva, the 7th century saint scholar in his work, Bodhi Caryavatara constituted the model of Atisha's ideal as propounded in his "Bodhi-Patha-Pradip":

"All the happiness that exist , Arises from wishing joy for others, And all the miseries that exist, Arises from wishing happiness for oneself only. What more need be said? The spiritually immature think of themselves only, The Buddha think only of others, Look at the difference between the two."

A Western scholar in his book 'Buddhism in Tibet' writes: "Atisha is held to be an incarnation of Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom which is only way of stating that he was the greatest embodiment of wisdom that ever visited Tibet."

After 13 years of continuous preaching from 1042 AD. in Tibet, Atisha passed away at the age of 73 in 1054 AD. On his death, his principal disciple Brom stonpa in his 'Stotra' or hymn dedicated to his Guru expressed his deep sentiment in moving words: "I offer prayer to thy feet thou who art the eternal life savior and renowned as Nagarjuna the second, 'Nagaroga' were introduced by the and people were healed by thee... ... ... Thou gave them the right teaching. To thy feet offer prayer."

The moral remains and other personal effects are still preserved in Nethang Monastery not far from Lasha. Rahula Sankrityana, an eminent scholar monk of India who spent a number of years studying development of Buddhism in Tibet writes: 'On my return from Lasha during April 1930 visited this very sacred place. There have been very few changes in this monastery since the time of Atisha. The massive red sandal pillar of those days is its proof. Till today Atisha's begging bowl, 'Dhammakarika' and wooden stick are still enshrined with veneration in a casket with royal seals as if to inform the world of the indomitable courage and abilities of the elderly Indian saint."

Atisha was elevated to the status of the second Buddha with his image worshiped in the high altar of the monasteries of Tibet and countries north of the Himalayas. A painting reportedly done by Atisha himself with the blood flowing out of his nostril and preserved in the Rs-Sgreb Monastery of Tibet shows him seated in a meditative posture holding a book in his left hand and gesticulating offer of protection in the right hand. His icons and paintings were executed by artistes hailing from Tibet where gods are always young. And it is thus no wonder that Atisha is represented in icons and images in Tibetan physiognomy though he was from Bangladesh of Indian Subcontinent, truly a Bengali born in the village Vajrajogini of Vikrampur region of Dhaka, not far from the capital city.

Atisha Dipankara described as the 'Eye of Asia' is a shining symbol of mankind's glorious heritage for peace, compassion, humanism and wisdom throughout the ages. His timeless message can inspire mankind in the work for peace, harmony and amity in a contemporary world heading towards the 21st century to liberate mankind from fears and dangers of war and mutual animosities as well as attainment of a harmonious world order.

(This article was written by Mr. Deba Priya Barua, Ex. Chief Ed. of Bangladesh National News Agency & Secretary General of ABCP Bangladesh National Center)