In This Article Sugata Saurabha

  • Introduction
  • History of Newar Civilization and Buddhism in the Kathmandu Valley
  • Classical Biographies of the Buddha
  • Modern Biographies of the Buddha
  • Scholarly Studies on the Life of the Buddha
  • Sources for the Epic
  • The Epic’s Cultural References
  • Newar Buddhist Literature in English Translation
  • The Historical Context of Sugata Saurabha
  • The Context of Newar Literary Traditions, Readership of Sugata Saurabha
  • Works by and about Chittadhar Hridaya in Translation

Buddhism Sugata Saurabha
by
Todd Lewis
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0261

Introduction

A work covering the Buddha’s life titled Sugata Saurabha (The Sweet Fragrance of the Buddha) was written by Chittadhar Hridaya (b. 1906–d. 1982), 20th-century Nepal’s most famous and accomplished writer in the Tibeto-Burman language, Nepal Bhasa (Newari in Western sources; Newa in now preferred contemporary use). This long work in nineteen chapters (spanning 354 printed pages) was originally published in 1948 and reissued after the poet’s death in 1982. During the early 1940s, Hridaya was arrested by the Rana government for publishing a poem regarded as subversive; while jailed for this, he wrote this poetic masterpiece, which he had to smuggle out of prison, at times using gaps in the metal storage boxes that families provided to supply provisions for the imprisoned. Features of the text convey the richness of intention and poetic ambition in Sugata Saurabha, and the genius of Hridaya is evident in the blending of both traditional and modern-Western influences. The work is an epic in kāvya style, yet written in Newari—albeit with a vast Sanskrit vocabulary. The kāvya center of Sugata Saurabha is clear in its other core features: stanzas composed in over twenty-five classical Sanskrit meters, the elaborate forms of ornamentation in verse and word choices (alamkāra), the constant reliance on similes and tropes from the Sanskrit tradition (e.g., “lotus-like feet”), and the use of puns (śleṣa) conveying dual meanings. The poet, through many traditional conventions, also seeks to convey a deep feeling for the subject matter by evoking basic aesthetic ideals or rasas. And yet while varying the number of syllables placed in each line, according to Sanskrit rhythmic forms, Hridaya followed the Western poetic tradition of ending each couplet with rhyming suffixes, a possibility that the vowel endings of Newari and Sanskrit words facilitated. The other mark of Western influence in Sugata Saurabha is the use of punctuation and indentation to mark quotations and the ends of couplets, mixed with more traditional devanāgari forms. Hridaya’s Sugata Saurabha conveys major events in the great teacher’s life, yet simultaneously, through his treatment of characters, the description of natural spaces, and by filling in the place and ethnic details that remain unmentioned or underdeveloped in the canonical accounts, the narrative also celebrates his own Newar cultural traditions. In places, the author expresses his own views on political issues, ethical principles, literary life, gender discrimination, economic policy, and social reform. Sugata Saurabha reflects the breadth and wealth of Buddhist ideas in circulation among Newar Buddhists in the first half of the 20th century—a contending realm of Newar Mahayana incorporating tantric practices; a reformist and missionary Theravadin faction in touch with advocates in Sri Lanka and India; a more subdued presence of Tibetan Buddhism mediated by Newar Lhasa traders; and the intellectual, modernist scholarly presence of Indian scholars, particularly Rahul Sankrityayan, who mediated the Pali and Tibetan canonical sources through Hindi translations. Hridaya’s reformist influences are woven through Sugata Saurabha. First, Buddhism is about social reform, intended to reform caste prejudice and uplift the entire society. Second, meditation is at the center of Buddhist spirituality and is for everyone. And third, Buddhism is compatible with rationality; that is, behind historical legends lies a demythologized empirical truth. So Sugata Saurabha has no miracles. Among a two-millennium-long lineage of Buddha biographies, we can place Chittadhar Hridaya’s Sugata Saurabha. He, too, draws upon classical sources, but as mediated by their rendering in two vernacular languages of South Asia (Newari and Hindi). An extraordinary poetic biography of the Buddha, Sugata Saurabha blends a rich awareness of Indic textual culture, Brahmanical and Buddhist, composed masterfully using a host of rhythmic patterns and end rhymes. It is a work that—where the classical sources are silent—creatively inserts details of the Buddha’s material life and urban culture drawn from the author’s own Newar context. It is an epic that eruditely describes the Shakya sage’s life and teachings, inflected through a prism of modernism. Making this work even more extraordinary is that it was composed in prison, smuggled out, and, with yet another more subtle purpose of defending the integrity of the author’s own cultural traditions, offers a positive vision of Newar life and for Nepal as well. Sugata Saurabha deserves a place among the great literary accomplishments of Buddhist history and modern world literature.

History of Newar Civilization and Buddhism in the Kathmandu Valley

An ethnic group unique for its urban culture and a remarkable level of artistic achievement, the Newars have been the majority population that has shaped life in the Kathmandu Valley for at least the last millennium and a half. Protected by the lowland malarial zone from colonization by states to the south (Indic, Muslim, British), and by the high Himalayan range from Tibet and China to the north, the Newars created their own civilization, adapted predominantly from the cultures of North India. Living traditions of art, architecture, texts, rituals, and festival celebration that originated in ancient and medieval India endure in great multiplicity in a valley roughly sixty square miles in extent. Buddhism is perhaps the most notable Indic cultural survival, as it has remained a separate tradition followed by distinct Newar castes, primarily in the largest cities and towns. Newar Buddhists have long lived alongside other Newars practicing many other Indic religious traditions, from those derived from very ancient Vedic practices to those associated with modern Hindu teachers. Devotional practices focused on the great gods extolled in the Puranas (Shiva, Vishnu and his incarnations, the goddesses) and many traditions of tantra (Hindu, Buddhist, mixed) have predominated for the last thousand years. In the Kathmandu Valley, Hindus and Buddhists are roughly equal in number, unlike Nepal as a whole, where Hindus are a large majority. So rich are these myriad Indic cultural traditions that scholars of both Hinduism and Buddhism have found Sanskrit manuscripts, surviving cultural practices, and Newar art and architecture to be notable resources for reconstructing the traditions of pre-Islamic South Asian culture.

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    DOI: 10.1080/00856407308730672E-mail Citation »

    A classic general overview of the Newar Buddhist tradition.

  • Gellner, David N. Monk, Householder and Tantric Priest: Newar Buddhism and Its Hierarchy of Ritual. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    The finest study of Newar Buddhist tradition, focusing on the Shakya and Vajracarya castes and their traditions in Patan.

  • Gellner, David, and Declan Quigley, eds. Contested Hierarchies: A Collaborative Ethnography of Caste among the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    An edited volume that covers Newar society across the major castes that define its social fabric, including the Urāy merchant class of Hridaya, the Tulādhars.

  • Lewis, Todd T., and Naresh Man Bajracharya. “Vajrayāna Traditions in Nepal.” In Tantric Traditions in Transmission and Translation. Edited by David B. Gray and Ryan Richard Overbey, 87–198. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199763689.003.0004E-mail Citation »

    Recent collaborative chapter sketching what is known about the history of Buddhist traditions in the Kathmandu Valley, drawing upon textual, epigraphic, and art-historical records. Attention is also focused on the nature of the Buddhist traditions up to contemporary times, including efforts to revitalize ritual and spiritual practices.

  • Lienhard, Siegfried. “Nepal: The Survival of Indian Buddhism in a Himalayan Kingdom.” In The World of Buddhism: Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture. Edited by Heinz Bechert and Richard Gombrich, 108–114. New York: Facts on File, 1984.

    E-mail Citation »

    Another very concise overview of the Newar Buddhist traditions, emphasizing the continuities between later traditions in the Gangetic Plain and their continuity in the Kathmandu Valley.

  • Locke, John K. “The Vajrayāna Buddhism in the Kathmandu Valley.” In The Buddhist Heritage of Nepal. 1–36. Kathmandu, Nepal: Dharmodaya Sabba, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    An insightful descriptive overview of the tantric traditions in Newar society, by one of the great scholars of this tradition.

  • Slusser, Mary. Nepal Mandala. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

    E-mail Citation »

    A monumental study of the history of the art and architectural monuments of the Kathmandu Valley, with a separate volume dedicated to photographic documentation.

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