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TANTRISM IN NEPAL :- Ashakiji Vajracharya

The history of tantrism in Nepal is very old. Tantrism was very strong and popular in Nepal. A great deal of Nepal 's art, in paintings and sculptures and wood –crafts, has been inspired by tantrism. Creation of many armed and many-headed deities and other symbolic manifestations owe their origin to tantric thought and principle. It is said that tantrism was introduced into Nepal as early as the 7 th century at the time when Vajrayana Buddhism was also introduced.

After the emergence of Vajrayana, tantrism took a firm hold in Nepal. Buddhism then took a different turn, away from the Bodhisattvayana of Mahayana Buddhism and monastic Buddhism. Vajrayana, it is said, originated from south India. But it became more popular in northern India. The cultural development in Bihar and Bengal with emphasis on tantrism did not spare Nepal. Vajrayana which was them popular in northern India from 7 th to 12 th centuries became popular in Nepal, too.

No one knows how old Tantra is. There are hints of it in India 's oldest literature. The earliest surviving texts are Buddhist and date back to about 600 A.D. But there are many elements of Tantra in order Hindu and Buddhist scriptures.

Since the main requirement of Buddhism is the total extinction of desire-understanding of the Four Holy Truths, meditation the Eight fold Path etc are required. Recent Tibetan Buddhism and espically Nepalese Buddhism influenced by Hindu ideas, do both still retain definite means for controlling the functions o the libidinous urge towards separation, union and bliss in their yantra techniques.

A special adaptation of the graveyard symbolism is found in many Nepalese Tantric diagrams and paintings. Nepal has long occupied a special place in relation to Tantra, for the Muslim invaders who drove the Tantric Buddhists out of Northeastern India in the 12 th century never conquered that kingdom. Tibet and Nepal as well as Bhutan and Sikkim in the Himalayas, welcomed Tantric Buddhists from the plains. But whereas Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim became completely Buddhist, Nepal remained partly Hindu and partly Buddhist. So in Nepal Tantric Buddhism and Hinduism flourished side by side, influencing each other. 1

\Of the five Bodhisattvas the most popular in Nepal were the Vajrapani and the Avalokitesvara. Hayagriva, the god whose head and neck are like that of the horse, is worshipped in Nepal. He seems to be the protector god of the horse and thus a favorite deity of the nomads of Tibet. In Lamaism, Hayagriva occupies an important place. Hevajra like Hayagriva represents the terrific aspects of reality and wears a long garland of skulls. Often he is shown as embracing his Shakti in a deep sexual union.

In and around 11 th century Vajrayana Buddhism seems to have been the dominant religion. On the basis of the fact that the largest volume of Tantric literature was copied between the 10 th and 16 th centuries Nepal seems to have been mostly under Tantric indluence during that period. 2
The Chandramaharoshana tantra, a Buddhist Tantric scripture, claims that Buddha himself asserted that the only sure way to Nirvana is by the union of men and women. The element of sex in Tantric Buddhism is backed by the philosophy of Prajnopaya. Prajna is supreme knowledge and Upaya is universal compassion vajrasattva. 3


Tantrism in Nepal is very strong and popular. This mystic and esoteric ritual belief is associated with both Hinduism and Buddhism. In Buddhism, it was practiced by the Vajrayana sect-the vehicle of the thunderbolt. The cult made its way to Nepal from the Vajrayana centers in Bihar. 4

Tantrism is very much alive in Nepal, and a great deal of Nepalese art has been inspired by its teachings. It is not an open sect like other branches of Buddhism.
In Nepal, Tantrism, both Hindu and Buddhist, gained a strong hold and it is still a very A large proportion of both paintings and sculptures express Tantric thought, through many-armed and many - headed deities, symbolic manifestations of the Tarntric doctrine.

In critical times, the tantrics had tried to end the catastrophes like drought famine or the like for the general welfare by means of their mantra. The emergence of Matsyendranath is also attributed to drought. Hevajratantra contains the mantra of brining rain. Asokachalla, the Khas Malla King, believed in the popular belief that the cultivation and invocation of this tantra could help defeat the enemies. 6


According to John K. Locke, new Buddhism is primarily ritual Buddhism, and any understanding of the living tradition must be based on an understanding of their rituals, not on an understanding of philosophical texts or sutras which they worship but do not read.

Directly above the shrine of kwapadya is another room called the agam. The shrine of the tantric deities where the secret tantrc rites of Vajrayana Buddhism are performed. The agam dya, as the principal deity is called, is most frequently Herukacaktasamvara and his consort Vajravarahi, though it may be another tantric deity such as Hevajra. 7 Locke says “In the present state of Newar Buddhism with its emphasis on ritual, the Vajracharyas have the dominant position in the community due to their exclusive right to perform the principal rituals…. The superior position of the Vajracharyas is due to the fact that they, and they alone, are permitted to act as priests, which means that they may have Jajmans client families for whom they perform religious ceremonies and the life cycle rites. The power to do this is conferred on them in an additional initiation rite, not given to Shakyas, known as the acaluyegu (making of the acarya) in which they are given five tantric consecrations and a mantra of Herukacakrasamvara.” 8

From the viewpoint of the Vajracharyas. The initiated passes through successively higher forms of Buddhism. Starting as a tatally uninitiated boy, he is first initiated as a householder (upasaka), i.e. a Buddhist layman. Then he becomes a Hinayana monk through the pravajya, with the “laying aside of the robes” he embraces the Mahayana stage.

The claim that the Buddhism of the Newars is a mixture of Buddhism and Hinsuism comes mainly from an evaluation of its iconography and its ritual, as if both of these were something peculiar to the valley of Nepal. The criticism is based on the thesis that Buddhism has little or no ritual and that the purity of the Buddhism practiced in a given place is in inverse position to the amount of ritual. The judgment is given from the viewpoint of Theravada Buddhism by modern rationalists.
When Hsuen-tsang visited Amaravati in A.D. 639, the latter had developed from a Mahasanghika community to a Mahasanghika community to a flourishing Mahayana center and the ritualistic worship had become part and parcel of monastic life. Ritual for its own sake was held by the Buddha to be one of the four great hindrances to enlightenment. During his day, there were Brahmins who believed in magical efficacy of rites supposing that a Vedic ritual perfectly performed would have the desired material effect whether or not the minds of the officiants were properly concentrated.


In this regard, the author of Nepal: Art Treasures form the Himalayas says that “In the second half of the first millennium Nepal came under the influence of a strange religious movement that incorporated ideas of sinister spiritual power, magic forces, necromancy, and a great variety of symbols. Named after its holy scriptures, the Tantra or ‘Warps', it is known as Tantrism. Before the Islamic conquest of North India (13 th century) it was to be found above all in Bihar and Behgal, and it was a mixture of Hinduism, especially of Siva worship, and Buddhism beinging about a kind of syncretism between the two religions. This mixture is to be found even today in Nepal, where Buddhists visit Hindu temples and vice versa. In the Buddhist parts of ancient India, the monasteries and religious training college of Nalanda, Vikramsila and Odantapuri in north eastern India were all promoters of Tantrism.” 9
Tantrism maintains that it is possible to make use of the powers of these terrible gods (such as Bhairava, and other guises of Siva) if one is initiated into certain magic practices. The expert is then able to conjure up deities at will and to ally himself to their powers.  


Tantrism is frequently given the name Vajrayana, ‘diamond vehicle' after the Vajra ‘magic dagger' or ‘thunderbolt', which represents indestructibility n the form of a symbolical ‘diamond'. The word Vajra is also used for sunyata which in Vajrayana is regarded as the Absolute. In connection with the sacred enjoyment of love, the symbolism goes still further: various names on at one and the same time a religious and an erotic meaning. For instance, phallus is called Vajra, Thunderbolt or Mani, (Jewel) and the female organ is Padma, i.e. lotus. In this sense, Vajrayana can become a way to salvation by means of the sacred enjoyment of love. 10

As love making thus receives a sanctification. It is scarcely surprising that the conception of the Buddha should also undergo some changes to reflect experiences of love. Like the Hindu gods, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are allowed female complements which act as their shaktis or female powers. The Dhyani Buddha Vajrasattva. ‘He whose essence is the vajra (diamond) is counted as the sixth paradisal Buddha in Vajrayana and is often regarded as the Primordial Buddha.
Nirvana became equated with the orgasm Mahasukha (eternal bliss). Many of the Buddhist protective deities are depicted in a close embrace with their shaktis in a state of extureme excitement. 11


The fact that Bengal. Nepal and Tibet are mentioned side by side shows that Tantrism of Bengal and Nepal is regarded to be of the same nature as that of Tibet. It is concluded that even those Buddhist Tantras which build their symbolism upon the polarity of the male and female principle as sakti, but always as its contrary, namely prajna (wisdom) Uidya (knowledge) or mudra (the spiritual attitude of unification) and the realization of sunyata. They reject the basic idea of Saktism and its world creating eroticism. 12 The main difference is that Buddhist Tantrism is not Saktism, the concept of Sakti, of divine power of the creative female aspect of the highest God (Siva) or his emanations does not play any role in Buddhism. While in the Hindu tantras the concept of power (Sakti) forms the focus of interest, the central idea of Tantric Buddhism is prajna (knowledge, wisdom). 13

According to Buddhist scholar Bhuban Lal Pradhan, Buddhist tantrics revere Guhyeswari primarily as a Tantric divinity and call her Nairatma (goddess of soullessness) or Hevajra-nairatmadevi (Hevajra being the male partner of Nairatma). The Vajrayanis also worship her as Patan Yogini the of the nether world (Yogini being a Vajrayani equivalent of Mahayani Tara, the female partner of the Buddha). the Vajrayani work Herukachakrasamvara has given a detailed and elaborated account of Goddess Guhyeswari. 14

According to him, the tradition of worshipping female deity came into being in the 8 th century A.D. Around the 8 th century A.D. the influence of Tantrism and Vajrayana became widespread in northern India, mainly Bengal, Orissa and Asham. Nepal was not left untouched by this wind of sweeping influence. 15

Micheal Allen has made much more elebrate study of Tantrism in Nepal. In his book “The cult of Kumari” he writes: Amongst the Newars of Nepal, the numerically dominant ethic group of the Kathmandu valley, the influence of Tantrism on both Hinduism and Buddhism has ensured the importance both of sexuality and the worship of Sakti. In addition to the popularity of such non-Tantric female deities as Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvati, the Newars devote a great deal of their ritual activity to the worship of the Devi in one of her many dangerous, mature and blood lusting forms (Kali, Durga, Ajima, Bhairavi, taleju). But the most notable and perhaps unique feature of their religion is the prominence given to the worship of Kumari, the living virgin goddess. 16

The importance the Lakshmikamadeva attached to the worship of Kumarimay well be related to the growing popularity of Tantrism, both of the Hindu and Buddhist varieties, throughout north India and Nepal during the 11 th century. The fact that he selected a Sakya girl as the living Kumari could be due to the influence of Atisa, the great Indian mystic who is commonly accredited with having introduced Vajrayana Buddhism into Nepal towards the end of his reign.

The Mubaha Kumari is of special interest because for Vajrayana Buddhists she is by far the most important. It means that for any individual or group that wishes to perform a specifically Vajrayana ceremony that includes the worship of a living Kumari the first choice would be the Mubaha gorl. It is she who provides the most perfect representation of such female Tantric divinities as Vajradevi, Vajravarahi or trailyadevi. 17

According to a member of Mubaha which is also called Malasrimahaihara the first Vajracharya settlement in the valley had been in a town called Batisputali near Pashupatinath where they all stayed in a monastery called Pimbaha. At this time that dyapala at Pashupatinath was a Vajracharya who led the community in the performance of powerful Tantric pujas. The Vajracharyas of Mubaha and Tahsibaha have Guhyeswari as their ancestral deity ( digu dya ).

For the Mahayana Buddhism Prajna which cannotes wisdom is worshipped in two forms, as the sacred book Prajnaparamita and as the sexual partner of the Dhyani Buddhas. At this level, the true Kumari is especially identified with Tara, the consort of Amoghsiddhi. For the fully initiated Vajrayanist, or for the one who has gained the right to participate in the secret agama ritual. Kumari is worshipped as Prajna in the form of a yogini or dakini especially Vajradevi. And the beautiful and red-colored partner of Chakra Samvara (Heruka). Vajradevi is often identified with Vajravarahi (the partner of Mahamaya, another of Heruka's many forms. 18
In Vajrayana Buddhism the main aim is to understand what is sex and why it is that in sex we get supreme happiness. Life comes from the clash of opposites as in the meeting of two vital nerves in the play of the sun and the moon, and in the union of male and female. In order to understand the idea of the void (sunyata) which results from this union we need prajna, the highest knowledge. But prajna is itself female, or rather it resides within women. It was Manjushri who first compared Prajna with a virgin girl because he realized that it was pure and untouched creativity. In other words, though Kumari is virgin she is nevertheless potential creative and she will become the mother goddess.

Regarding the emergence of Vajrayana Buddhism. Therefore de Bary says that Mahayana Buddhism was, by the fourth the fifth century A.D. permeated with the ideas which were to lead to fully developed tantrism. 19

From the middle of the 5 th century onwards with the decline of the Gupta empire, Indians began to take more and more interest in the cults of feminine divinities and in the practice of magico-religious rites, which often contained licentious or repulsive features. The new magical Buddhism, like the magical Buddhism, like the magical Hinduism, which arose at about the same time, is often known as Tantrism from the tantras, or scriptures of the sects, describing the spells, formulas and rites which the systems advocated. Tantrism did not appear in organized form until the 7 th century. 20
The Tantras consist of separate treatises which inculcate the cult of the deities, male and female, usually of terrible and hideous forms and often by bloody, obscene or cruel rites. The real principle underlying the whole teachings of the Tantras is that while the lesser and great Yanas (vehicles) prescribe long and tedious ceremonies and a succession of re-births for the attainment of the divine state, this can be more readily and quickly arrived at by the practice of magic and attainment of Siddhi. The worshipper takes a seity as his guide and by certain formulas makes his own body, soul, and mind, the reflection of the body, soul and mind of the deity, and he himself eventually becomes the deity with all his power and thus arrives at the accomplishment of his wishes. 21
The Suvarnaprabhasa, a Tantric work, which is included amongst the nine Dharmas highly valued in Nepal, calls Buddha by the name Bhagwan and invokes Saraswati and honours Mahadevi. The Mahakala Tantra shows the union between Saivism and Buddhism even more completely.
The Buddhist Tantras exhibit traces of every successive stage in the development of Buddhism. For primitive Buddhism we have the occasional use of Buddha's name and the worship of his image. Anitabha represents the Dhyani Buddha and Avalokiteswara the Bodhisattva. But mixed with these we are shreds and fragments of all from of religious belief indigenous and foreign and scraps form the teachings of every school blended together in a more or less coherent nihilism. The female energies were borrowed from the Saivas en bloc and with them came the necessity for giving female counterparts to the Buddhistic deities and the acceptance of the entire Tantric ritual. 22
The Buddhists saw that the Pashupatas were gaining ground with the people and that the Saivas has a adopted the Pashupatas and their doctrines as part of their system, and in turn the Buddhists declared these foreign elements of Saivism to be merely forms of their own.
Talking about the development of Vajrayana, guiseppe Tucci says “some of the Vajracharyas kept alive the ancient Buddhist culture…But in general they fell increasingly under the influence of Tantric thought, and thus promoted the diffusion of a peculiarly esoteric and magical cast and the predominance of an empty and ritualistic ceremonial”.
Tucci adds that in the iconography of all these schools both Buddhist and Hindu, the gods are frequently depicted in company with, or coupled with, their own Sakti. The consort or ‘mother' figure of Tantric Buddhism, and thhe Sakti of the Hindu schools exemplify the development of the concept of woman as ‘power, and the omnipresence of the god's inexhaustible creative or liberating force. Tucci went deeper into the mysteries of Vajrayanan saying “The Buddhist Tantras in which this erotic symbolism is most apparent are divided into four groups. The latest, and most esoteric, prescribe ceremonies in the course of which there tare references to sexual union with a female consort. As example of this we may take certain Buddhist Tantras which recommend a diet of human flesh, excrement and urine, menstrual blood and semen.” 23
At the time of the early Mallas and as the three Malla kingdoms, the increasing acceptance of esoteric Vajrayana Buddhism, with its concepts and practices taken from Saiva tantrism, began to erode the core of Buddhist doctrine. The decay of the old monasteries in Nepal and their transformation into living quarters for whole families must be attributed less to the deteriorating financial position of the monasteries than to the development of the schools of tantric Vajrayana which flourished in the Middle Ages. 24

  1. Rawson, Philip, 1973. The Art of Tantra.
  2. Ray, Amita, 1973. The Art of Nepal. New Delhi : Indian Council for Cultural Relations.
  3. Malla, K.P., & Rana, P.S. (Eds), 1973. Nepal in Perspective. Kirtipur: CEDA. TU.
  4. Ridley, Michael, 1978.
  5. Ibid
  6. Vajracharya, Dhanavayra, 1968. Licchavi settlements. Kathmandu : Purnima. Vol. no. 18.
  7. Locke, Jhon K., 1980. Karunamaya: the cult of Avalokitesvara. Kathmandu : Sahayogi Prakashan.
  8. ibid.
  9. Waltschmidt, Ernst, 1967. Nepal : Art Treasures from the Himalayas. New Delhi : Oxford & IBH Publication.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Govinda, Lama Anagarika, 1960. Foundations of Timetan Mysticism. Delhi : B.I. Publications. Ltd.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Pradhan, Bhuvan Lal, 1983. Nepal Scope (a magazine published from Lalitpur). Vol. VI. No. 9.
  15. Ibid
  16. Allen, Michael, 1975. The Cult of Kumari. Kathmandu : Institute of Nepal and Asian Studies.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Bary, Theodore de, 1958. Sources of Indian Tradition.
  20. Ibid
  21. Atkinson, Edwin T., 1974. Religion in the Himalayas. New Delhi : Cosmo Publicationa.
  22. Ibid
  23. Tucci, Guiseppe, 1969. Rati Lila. Geneva : Nagel Publishers.
  24. Bechert, Heinz & Gombrich, Richard (Eds), 1984. The World of Buddhism.

The Himalayan Voice
Feb/Mar 1999

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