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Acharya Santideva: From a prince to an adept
New Delhi Aug 13 - Santideva was an 8th century Indian philosopher, Buddhist monk, poet and scholar in the erstwhile Nalanda University.
The Tibetan historians Buton and Taranatha tell us that Santideva was a Brahmin prince, the son of the King Kalyanavarman and Queen Vajrayogini from Saurashtra, a western coastal region that now forms part of Gujarat.
He went by the name Shantivarman. He renounced the princely life and became a monastic. He was an adherent of the Madhyamaka philosophy and is also considered to be one of the 84 mahasiddhas.
Legends say that at the age of six, he met with a yogi from whom he received his first initiation and teachings on the practice of Manjushri. It is said that on the eve of his enthronement, Manjushri and Arya Tara appeared in his dreams. When he woke up, he saw his impending kingship as a poisonous tree and hastily fled the kingdom.
He is believed to have received teachings directly from Arya Manjushri and also carried a wooden sword which symbolised the wisdom sword of Manjushri. He travelled to the Kingdom of Pancamasimha and was appointed by the king as a minister. During his tenure, he introduced the skill of various crafts and urged the king to rule his kingdom always in accordance with Dharma and suggested 20 Dharma foundations be established.
Then Santideva left for the great Nalanda University. At Nalanda, he received ordination of a monk from Abbot Jayadeva and was given the name Santideva. Though there, he came to be known as a Bhu-Su-Ku, a kind of Sanskrit acronym derived from words meaning "eat", "sleep", and "defecate" as that was all anyone had seen him do.
None knew he was receiving teachings from Manjushri and realised all important points of both Sutra and Tantra. In an attempt to encourage their apparently lazy student to return to his proper path, some of the monks in authority at Nalanda decided to assign him to recite a text at an upcoming religious festival; and, just to humiliate him even more, built him an elaborate throne from which to speak.
On the day of the festival, Santideva ascended the throne and asked the audience whether they would like to hear something old or something new; or in other words, whether he should recite something he had memorised, or an original composition of his own Bodhicaryavatara.
During the recitation, while seated in meditation posture, the master began to levitate above the throne. At the recitation of verse 34 of chapter 9, he levitated in the air and vanished. Later those who possessed clairaudience noted down the remaining chapters of which two versions came up -- one had 700 stanzas (Pandits of Kashmir) while some had a thousand (Magadha, Central India) or more.
Later Acharya Santideva confirmed that the correct version corresponded to what the scholars of Magadha had produced.
Works of Santideva
Two major works are unanimously attributed to Santideva: Bodhicaryavatara (A Guide to a Bodhisattva Way of Life) written in 700 AD in Sanskrit, the most widely-read philosophical poem, and Siksa-Samuccaya, valuable and intellectually rich anthology of quotations from the Mahayana sutras with commentary by Santideva.
Two major versions of Bodhicaryavatara exist, one comprising thousand verses that was regarded as canonical in Tibet (see Buton 2013: 259). The Bodhicaryavatara has been translated into several modern languages, including Chinese, Danish, Dutch, English, German, Hindi, Newari, and Spanish, for a total of at least 27 contemporary translations (as surveyed by Gomez 1999: 4-5).
It has 10 chapters dedicated to the development of bodhicitta (the mind of enlightenment) through the practice of the six perfections (Skt Paramitas). Chapters 1-3 comprises the practice of Perfection of Generosity; Chapters 4-5 is on Perfection of Ethical Discipline; Chapter 6 is on Perfection of Patience; Chapter 7 is on Perfection of Enthusiasm; Chapter 8 is on Perfection of Meditative Concentration; and Chapter 9 is on Perfection of Wisdom.
Siksa-Samuccaya contains a number of passages of ethical and philosophical interest in Santideva's own voice, as well as numerous beautiful and moving poems and a wide variety of scriptural materials drawn from over a hundred sutras. Textual scholars have often relied on Siksa-Samuccaya as a crucial source, as it preserves passages in Sanskrit from dozens of sutras that have been lost in their original language. It also contains 27 "root verses" that express important themes of the book.
Bodhicaryavatara is a widely-taught and studied by South Asian Buddhists community. The 14th Dalai Lama has been teaching this text to a wide audience of all Buddhist communities on their request. It is one of the treasures of the Indian wisdom that is pertinent in today's modern world.
Acharya Santideva is one of the greatest masters of the Indian sub-continent whose work is still influencing millions of Buddhist across the globe.
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