The traditions of literature and practice associated with the siddhas, the “accomplished ones” or great masters (mahāsiddha), played a central role in the development of both Buddhist and Hindu tantric traditions. Active from about the 8th through the 12th centuries, these legendary figures are widely believed to have revealed new scriptural collections and practice traditions. They are characterized by unconventional but heroic behavior, their dedication to their spiritual pursuits, and their achievement of magical powers (siddhi), such as flight. Both Buddhists and Hindus compiled lists of eighty-four mahāsiddhas and attribute many of their traditions of tantric yogic practice to them. Although little is known about these figures in a historically verifiable sense, rich collections of hagiographies, practice texts, and song collections attributed to them have been preserved, and they thus constitute an extremely important facet of the early history of tantric Buddhist traditions. They have also inspired a considerable amount of artistic production. Additionally they have been emulated by later practitioners, most notably in Tibet, including a number of famous saints who followed directly in their footsteps.
One of the most valuable contributions to the study of Buddhist siddha traditions is Linrothe 2006, which contains an anthology of essays dealing with the history of Buddhist siddha traditions and follows the portrayals of siddhas in South Asian and Himalayan art. Davidson 2003, a groundbreaking study of the development of tantric Buddhism in South Asia, sheds considerable light on the siddha movement and the very significant role it played in the development of tantric Buddhist traditions. Samuel 2008 also explores the development of the yogic and tantric traditions with which the siddhas were strongly associated. Katz 1982 explores the development of Buddhist ideals of spiritual perfection. Powers 2009 focuses on the construction of masculinity in Indian Buddhism, which plays a major role in the traditional portrayals of the siddhas. Lorenzen 1991 focuses on two early medieval Saiva traditions that apparently were important influences on the development of the siddha traditions. White 2003 explores the yoginī cult and sexual practices associated with these traditions. Yoginīs, literally female yoga practitioners, were awesome figures invested with considerable supernatural associations, much like the witches of medieval Europe. Dasgupta 1995 explores the legacy of the siddha traditions in medieval India.
Dasgupta, Shashi Bhushan. Obscure Religious Cults as Background of Bangali Literature. Calcutta: Firma KLM Private, 1995.
This was, at its time, a groundbreaking work on medieval Indian religions. It contains abundant information on the later developments of the siddha-related traditions in South Asia. It was originally published by the University of Calcutta in 1946.
Davidson, Ronald M. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Davidson dedicates a significant portion of this work to the siddhas and the traditions attributed to them. He explores in depth the relationship between Buddhist and Hindu traditions, and he also makes a major contribution in deromanticizing the siddhas and thoroughly contextualizing them within the contentious world of early medieval South Asia.
Katz, Nathan. Buddhist Images of Human Perfection: The Arahant of the Sutta Piṭaka Compared with the Bodhisattva and the Mahāsiddha. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982.
This work explores Buddhist ideals of spiritual perfection and demonstrates the continuity of the siddha ideal with earlier Buddhist ideals.
Linrothe, Rob, ed. Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas. Chicago, Serindia, 2006.
This work is a catalogue of an exhibition held at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, accompanied by a series of essays written by experts in the fields of South Asian and Tibetan siddha-related art. It provides an excellent introduction to Buddhist siddha traditions.
Lorenzen, David N. The Kāpālikas and the Kālāmukhas: Two Lost Śaivite Sects. 1972. 2d rev. ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1991.
This work was a groundbreaking introduction to two Saiva traditions that were previously poorly understood. While this work has in many ways been superseded by works such as Davidson 2003, it still provides a useful introduction to these early protosiddha traditions.
Powers, John. A Bull of a Man: Images of Masculinity, Sex, and the Body in Indian Buddhism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
This work focuses on Indian Buddhist constructions of masculinity and the impact of these on disciplines involving the body and sexuality. The text ranges from the figure of the Buddha to the siddhas and thus sheds light on the heroic, masculine portrayal that characterizes much of the literature relating to the siddhas.
Samuel, Geoffrey. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
This is a broad survey that explores the development of yogic and tantric systems in South Asia from the first millennium BCE to the medieval period. While it does not focus specifically on the siddha traditions, it provides a useful survey of the history of their development.
White, David Gordon. Kiss of the Yoginī: “Tantric Sex” in South Asian Contexts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
This work explores another facet of the siddha traditions, the sexual rites advocated by both Hindu and Buddhist siddha traditions as a means of achieving the siddhi magical powers. While primarily focused on Hindu texts and traditions, the work also sheds light on the closely related Buddhist traditions.
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