In This Article Vidyādhara (weikza/weizzā)

  • Introduction
  • Thailand/Laos

Buddhism Vidyādhara (weikza/weizzā)
by
Niklas Foxeus
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0232

Introduction

In various Indian traditions, the vidyādhara, “bearer of wisdom/practical knowledge/ritual lore,” was known as semi-divine, youthful, beautiful, and amorous being flying about in the atmosphere between heaven and earth, possessing supernormal powers, usually holding a sword and being proficient in the art of mantras. These beings appeared in the religious texts of the Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain traditions in India. Originally belonging to a category of semi-divine beings, the vidyādharas later came to be regarded as a soteriological state possible for humans to achieve in their present life through their own effort. In the Pali canonical texts of the so-called Theravada tradition the vidyādhara (Pali vijjādhara) is not in general depicted as a soteriological figure and an ideal that the practitioners should emulate and seek to realize themselves. The goal of becoming a vidyādhara was especially linked to later Mahayana texts and tantric Buddhism, Vajrayāna, and it was also evident in tantric Hindu traditions and in Jainism. Although the vidyā in which the vidyādhara excels is usually understood to consist of spells or mantras, the state of vidyādhara could also be attained by cremation ground practices, external alchemy, asceticism, ritualized sexual practices, yoga, or hatha yoga. In the later texts, vidyādharas refer both to humans and to semi-divine beings. Being a kind of semi-divine or superhuman figure that had transcended the human limitations, the vidyādharas could acquire almost immortal life and acquire supernormal powers (Sanskrit siddhi or ṛddhi), especially the ability to fly. Moreover, the vidyādhara often appeared as a heroic figure in Indian narrative literature, in which a human attained the state of a vidyādhara and/or sought to become a lord of these beings. The path of the vidyādhara was apparently quite widespread within a variety of Indian traditions in the course of the first millennium CE, and was later replaced by other figures, for example, the siddha. The notion of the vidyādhara spread with Buddhism and texts belonging to other Indian religions (especially Hinduism and Jainism) to other parts of South Asia, such as Tibet; East Asia; and to Southeast Asia, where the concept became localized and vernacularized. The significance of the concept of a vidyādhara as a soteriological ideal for humans to realize in their present life has especially been emphasized in Indian, Tibetan, and Burmese traditions, and a considerable space in this article has therefore been devoted to these countries, in particular Burma/Myanmar since the colonial period onward.

India

Throughout the first millennium CE in India, and especially within the evolving so-called tantric traditions around 7–8th century onward, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain traditions to a large extent shared a common stock of rituals, notions, and goals, and they also borrowed rather freely—in a “ritual eclecticism” (see Granoff 2000 cited under India: Buddhist Traditions)—from one another. To some degree the religious boundaries seemed to be fleeting and the original religious identity of certain notions and practices could therefore be difficult to determine. Such indeterminacy was particularly the case with the practices that are often referred to as “tantric” in Western scholarship, as well as the view of a vidyādhara as a soteriological figure. The section on Indian traditions in this article is therefore not limited to Buddhism. As for the notion of the vidyādhara, the Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain traditions were all linked and shared some basic presuppositions regarding the nature of this figure.

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