Saraha: One of the earliest, wisest Buddhist Tantra mahasiddha-sages

© Copyright 2012 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.

[An excerpt from the forthcoming book, India's Sages:]

As a principal figure among the fabled “84 Mahāsiddhas” or “Great Adepts” of early Tantric Buddhism in northeast India (8th-9th century?), Saraha has some colorful hagiographical anecdotes circulating about him.

He is depicted as a brāhmaṇ of eastern India, probably Beṅgal; one account has him as “Paṇḍit Rāhul Badra” of Bhagalpūr, another puts him at Roli, in the city-state of “Rajnī.” After studying ancestral traditions, he went on to become a Buddhist monk and scholar. It is said that he resided for a time at the great Nālandā and Vikramaśīla monastic universities. Influenced by Tantrism, he left monastic life to roam as a yogi in simple white cotton garb. In one story he is expelled from the monastery for his (tantric) drinking of alcohol; he preserves his good name despite the charges by showing off various supernormal powers in proof of his claim, “I don’t drink.” Saraha then takes up with a very young woman of a lower-caste arrowsmith family and joins her as a maker of arrows. In most accounts, her counsel is what helps him realize the intrinsically pure nature of Awareness, the Mahāmudrā “Great Gesture/Seal” of Enlightenment.

His name Saraha means “pierce-arrow,” and he is usually shown in Tibetan art holding an arrow, suggesting the penetrating clarity of one fully awake to Source-Awareness who now lucidly dreams the dream of life.

Interestingly, this metaphor of the “piercing arrow” of Realization frequently occurs in the autobiographical verses of later Sants like Kabīr, Nānak, Dādū, et al., who are clearly influenced by the Siddha legacy of Saraha. And note the famous instance of Teresa of Àvila in 16th-century Spain, who experienced the “piercing” of her heart by a lance-wielding angel—suggesting that all this talk of “piercing” may not be mere metaphor, but describes the actual penetrating and opening of the innermost knots of the heart, releasing immense energy and interdimensional, supernormal forms of knowing, doing and being.

A commentary on the Buddhakapāla Tantra and over 110 dohā/couplets are credited to Saraha. Some dohās survive in an eastern Apabhraṃśa dialect, a kind of proto-Beṅgalī, and are still popular among Newaris, Beṅgalis and others who hear or read them. Tibetans have a cherished collection of his songs in their tongue. Saraha is said to be the first poet of the Hindī and Angikā vernacular languages.

He is also first in a list of Buddhist poet-sages to teach what some have called a fourth Buddhist “vehicle” or “way” of enlightenment beyond Vajra- or Tantrayāna, namely the Sahajiyā or Sahajayāna “Inborn/natural Way.” This can be viewed as a prompt response to early excesses of Tantrism, either in the direction of immorality or else toward needless complication of views/practices and getting stuck on the mind-level instead of living free from Reality. One hears the “let go, drop it” Sahajiyā ideal of naturalism running as a refrain through the works of many of the most respected Indo-Tibetan sages and texts after Saraha.

Saraha’s unique voice rings out as that of a deeply enlightened sage, albeit a bit cranky in those verses wherein he searingly criticizes all affectation, hypocrisy and superficiality in the diverse forms of religiosity in his era. It is noteworthy that Marpa the Translator, the great Tibetan Vajrayāna lama/guru who came down to India and became a disciple of sage Nāropa and others (see below), had his first major “decisive experience” of enlightenment in a spectacular dream of Saraha. In this dream, Saraha appeared in celestial splendor, blessed Marpa’s faculties of body, speech and mind, and sang a song of profound instruction. If true (such empowering “initiation dreams” never need be ruled out as mere legend by scholars), it is likely that something of Saraha’s spirit directly or indirectly passed down several centuries to another great spiritual master, that formidable iconoclast and deeply spiritual but anti-religious nirguṇi-bhakti Sant leader of the early 15th century, the poet-sage Kabīr.

We listen here to Saraha’s Dohākośa, which, dripping with irony, opens with a roasting of all the religious paths of his day. Let us beware that when he says (verse 24) “eat, drink, indulge the senses,” the wise and compassionate Saraha is not advocating mere hedonism, but as a tantric yogin is pointing into and beyond the body-mind personality to the profoundest, purest intuition of This Infinite, Unborn, Undying Awareness—Innate Buddhahood:


“Brāhmaṇs who do not know the truth vainly recite the Vedas four. // With earth and water and kusha grass, they make preparations, and seated at home they kindle fire, and from the senseless offerings that they make, they burn their eyes with the pungent smoke. // In lordly garb with one staff or three, they think themselves wise with their brāhmaṇic lore. Vainly is the world enslaved by their vanity. They do not know that dharma’s the same as non-dharma. // [Next, the yogis:] With ashes these masters smear their bodies, and on their heads they wear matted hair. Seated within the house they kindle lamps. Seated in a corner they tinkle bells. // They adopt a posture and fix their eyes, whispering in ears and deceiving folk, teaching widows and bald-headed nuns and such like, initiating them as they take their fee. // The Jain monks mock the Way with their [ascetic] appearance, with their long nails and their filthy clothes, or else naked and with disheveled hair, enslaving themselves with their doctrine of release. // If by nakedness one is released, then dogs and jackals must be so. If from absence of hair there comes perfection, then the hips of maidens must be so. // … For these Jain monks there is no release, Saraha says. Deprived of the truth of happiness, they do but afflict their own bodies. // Then there are the [Buddhist] novices and bhikṣus [monks] with the teaching of the Old School, who renounce the world to be monks. Some are seen sitting and reading the scriptures, some wither away in their concentration on thought. // Others have recourse to the Great Vehicle [Mahāyāna Buddhism]. This is the doctrine which expounds the original texts (they say). Others just meditate on maṇḍala circles, others strive to define the fourth stage of bliss [“mere bliss, extreme bliss, bliss of cessation, and bliss of Innate Truth”]. // With such investigating they [the tāntrikas] fall from the Way; some would envisage it as space, others endow it with the nature of voidness, and thus they are generally in disagreement.” (1-7, 9-12)

“Whoever, deprived of the Innate [Sahaja], seeks nirvāṇa, can in no wise realize absolute truth. // Whoever is intent on anything else, how may he gain release? Will one gain release, abiding in meditation? What’s the use of lamps? What’s the use of offerings? What’s to be done by reliance on mantras? // What is the use of austerities? What is the use of going on pilgrimage? Is release achieved by bathing in water? // Abandon such false attachments and renounce such illusion! Than knowledge of This there is nothing else. Other than This no one can know. // It is This that’s read and This that’s meditated, it’s This that’s discussed in treatises and old legends. There is no school of thought that doesn’t have This as its aim, but one sees it only at the feet of one’s master. // If the word of one’s master but enters the heart, it seems like a treasure in the palm of one’s hand. The world is enslaved by falsehood, says Saraha, and the fool doesn’t perceive his true nature. // Without meditating, without renouncing the world, one may stay at home in the company of one’s wife. Can that be called perfect knowledge, Saraha says, if one is not released while enjoying the pleasures of sense? // If it’s already manifest, what’s the use of meditation? And if it is hidden, one is just measuring darkness. Saraha cries: The nature of the Innate is neither existent [as a thing] nor non-existent. // By means of that same Essence by which one is born and lives and dies, by means of That one gains the highest bliss. But although Saraha speaks these profound and mysterious words, this stupid world seems not to understand. // … The whole world is enslaved by the appearance of things, and no one understands his true nature.” (13-22)

“Mantras and tantras, meditation and concentration, they are all a cause of self-deception. Do not defile in contemplation [the Awareness] that is pure in its own nature, but abide in the bliss of yourself and cease those torments. // … Where vital breath [prāṇa] and mind no longer roam about, where Sun and Moon [i.e., subtle yogic channels on the left and right side of the energy body] do not appear, there, O man, put thy thought to rest, this is the precept taught by Saraha. // Do not discriminate, but see things as one…. Let the whole of the threefold world become one in the state of Great Passion [the tantra rite of union]. // Here there is no beginning, no middle, no end, neither saṃsāra [delusion] nor nirvāṇa [release]. In this state of highest bliss, there is neither self nor other. // Whatever you see, that is It, in front, behind, in all the ten directions. Even today let your master make an end of delusion! There is no need to ask of anyone else. // The faculties of sense subside, and the notion of self is destroyed. O friend, such is the Body Innate. Ask for it clearly of your master.” (23, 25-9)

“Now it is a matter of self-experience, so do not err with regard to it. To call it existence or non-existence or even a stage of bliss would impose a limitation. // Know your own awareness completely, O yogin! Like water meeting with water. // … The nature of the sky is originally clear, but by gazing and gazing the sight becomes obscured. Then when the sky appears deformed in this way, the fool does not know that the fault’s in his own mind. // …They do not perceive the true basis of mind, for upon the Innate they impose a threefold falsification. Where thought arises and where it dissolves, There you should abide, O my son.” (31-2, 34, 36)

“O fool, surely know, the diversity of existence is but a form of thought. // One’s own true nature cannot be explained by another, but it is revealed by one’s master’s instruction. There exists in it not an atom of evil, both dharma [virtue] and non-dharma are cleansed and consumed. // …It is in knowledge of this that Saraha sings, paying no regard to tantra or mantra.” (37-9)

“Men are bound by karma [selfish action] and by release from karma the mind is released. And by this release of the mind they gain for a certainty this highest nirvāṇa. // Mind is the universal seed. Both saṃsāra and nirvāṇa spring forth from it. Pay honor to this that like a wish-granting gem gives all desirable ends. // Thought bound brings bondage, and released brings release. Of that there is no doubt. By that with which fools are bound, the wise are quickly released. // When so bound, it dashes in all directions, but released, it stays still…. // Don’t concentrate on yourself, restricting your breath. No, yogin, don’t squint at the end of your nose. O fool, hold fast to the Innate, and abandon the clinging bonds of existence.... // Know the true nature of the Innate… then the one flavor of the Innate pours forth and there is neither outcaste nor brāhmaṇ.” (40-46)

“I have visited in my wanderings shrines and other places of pilgrimage. But I have not seen another shrine blissful like my own body. // …As objects of desire, mantras and treatises go to destruction… [Hindu deities] Brahmā and Viṣṇu and all the three worlds return Here to their Source. // Know the taste of this flavor which consists in absence of knowledge…. // … It is free from conceits, a state of perfect bliss in which existence has its origin…. // Where intellect is destroyed, where mind dies and self-centeredness is lost. Why encumber yourself there with meditation? // … Look and listen, touch and eat, smell, wander, sit and stand, renounce the vanity of [contentious] discussion, abandon thought and be not moved from singleness. // … Abandon thought and thinking and be just as a child. Be devoted to your master’s teaching, and the Innate will become manifest.” (48, 50-3, 55, 57)

“When the mind abides motionless, one is released from the toils of existence. // When you do not recognize the Supreme One in yourself, how should you gain this incomparable form [of the Supreme Lord]? I have taught that when error ceases, you know yourself for what you are. // …It is this supreme bliss that pours forth unceasingly as existence…. Know but the pure and perfect state! // He is at home, but she goes outside and looks…. Saraha says, O fool, know yourself. It is not a matter of meditation, or concentration, or the reciting of mantras. // … Enjoying the world of sense, one is undefiled by the world of sense. One plucks the lotus without touching the water. So the yogin who has gone to the root of things is not enslaved by the senses although he enjoys them. // (59-62, 64)

“All these paṇḍits expound the treatises, but the Buddha who resides within the body is not known…. // … At one’s master’s word the mind is cleared. What treasure is there other than this?” (68-9)

“He who does not enjoy the senses purified, and practices only the Void [and neglects Compassion], is like a bird that flies up from a ship and then wheels round and lands back there again. // But do not be caught by attachment to the senses, Saraha says…. // Whatever pours forth from the mind, possesses the nature of the owner. Are waves different from water? Their nature, like that of space, is one and the same.” (70-2)

“He who clings to the Void and neglects Compassion, does not reach the highest stage. But he who practices only Compassion [with the fixed idea of other sentient beings] does not gain release from the toils of existence. He, however, who is strong in practice of both, remains neither in saṃsāra nor nirvāṇa.” (Extra verse:) “Do not cling to the notion of voidness, but consider all things alike.” (75)

“In self-experience consists this great bliss. // In it all forms are endowed with the sameness of space, and the mind is held steady with the nature of this same sameness. When the mind ceases thus to be mind, the true nature of the Innate shines forth.” (76-7) “The world is enslaved by thought, Saraha says, and no one has known this non-thought.” (78)

“There is one Lord revealed in many scriptures, who becomes clearly manifest at your wish. // …But she goes outside and looks for her master. // He is not seen to come, nor known to stay or go; as signless and motionless the supreme Lord is known. // If you do not abandon coming and going, how may you gain this rare one, this splendor? // … When there is no distinction between Body, Speech and Mind [the three elements of tantric practice], then the true nature of the Innate shines forth.” (79-83)

“The whole world is tormented by words… But insofar as one is free from words does one really understand words.” (88) “See thought as thought, O fool, and leave all false views. Gain purification in bliss supreme, for here lies final perfection.” (99)

“That which I have heard by the word of my master, why should I speak of it secretly? // …It is profound, it is vast. It is neither self nor other. O know this self-experience of the Innate…” (93, 96)

“Do not sit at home, do not go to the forest, but recognize mind wherever you are. When one abides in complete and perfect enlightenment, where is saṃsāra and where is nirvāṇa?” (103) “Do not err in this matter of self and other. Everything is Buddha without exception. Here is that immaculate and final stage, where Consciousness is pure in its true nature. // The fair tree of Consciousness that knows no duality spread through the triple world. It bears the flower and fruit of compassion, and its name is service of others. // The fair tree of the Void abounds with flowers, acts of compassion of many kinds, and fruit for others appearing spontaneously, for this joy has no actual thought of another. // So the fair tree of the Void also lacks compassion, without shoots or flowers or foliage, and whoever imagines them there, falls down, for branches there are none. // The two trees spring from one seed, and for that reason there is but one fruit. He who thinks of them thus indistinguishable, is released from nirvāṇa and saṃsāra. // … Not to be helpful to others, not to give to those in need, this is the fruit of saṃsāra. Better than this is to renounce the idea of a self [and serve].” (106-110, 112)



The entirety of Saraha’s Dohākośa was translated into English in E. Conze, D. Snellgrove, et al. (Eds.), Buddhist Texts Through the Ages, NY: Harper Torchbook ed., 1964 (first publ. in 1954 by Bruno Casirer), pp. 224-39.

Note: in verses 106-7, I substitute “Consciousness” for the lame translation of citta as “thought,” since Citta here stands in complementary relationship to Śūnya and refers to the Ultimate or Absolute as Loving Service, with Śūnya referring to Penetrating Emptiness.