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date: 26 September 2022

Prajñāpāramitā and Khmer Esoteric Buddhism in the 10th to 13th Centurieslocked

Prajñāpāramitā and Khmer Esoteric Buddhism in the 10th to 13th Centurieslocked

  • Swati ChemburkarSwati ChemburkarBenaras Hindu University and Jnanapravaha


Prajñāpāramitā, the Perfection of Insight or Wisdom, designates the vast and complex corpus of texts in Mahāyāna Buddhism, which is commonly called Prajñāpāramitā literature. The earliest known text is the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 verses), which was assembled during the first two centuries of the Common Era and became the focus of study of Mahāyāna Buddhism. During the next two centuries, the Aṣṭasāhasrikā was expanded in varying lengths, up to one hundred thousand verses that scholars call the “Larger Prajñāpāramitā” texts. Crystallization of ideas made shorter Prajñāpāramitā texts possible during the subsequent two hundred years lasting up to the 5th century. The final development took place from 600 to 1200 ce and coincided with the emergence of Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism that emphasized the ritual use of Prajñāpāramitā texts. This final phase also saw the representation of the Perfection of Wisdom in anthropomorphic form as a goddess with various colors and ritual gestures, holding various attributes in statuary, manuscript illuminations, and in literary sources.

By the 8th century, Prajñāpāramitā visualization practices developed in deity yoga stimulated image production and various epiphanies. Texts, such as the Prajñāpāramitā-nāma-aṣṭaśataka, describe achieving epiphanies of the goddess and cite the mantras that invoke her presence. Manuals, such as the 11th- to 12th-century Sādhanamāla and Niṣpannayogāvalī, include instructions on the ways of achieving visualization practices.

The earliest surviving identifiable image of Prajñāpāramitā is an early-7th-century bronze from Gilgit, Kashmir. Her cult became very important during the Pāla period (8th to 12th century) in the area of modern Bihar and West Bengal. She was accorded a significant place in Pāla-period Buddhism. Many illustrated manuscripts were prepared during this time and have survived in Nepal and Tibet, carried by monks who visited the north Indian monasteries.

The literature, ritual, and visualization practices associated with Prajñāpāramitā reached China and influenced the development of Buddhist thought. Her cult was popular in Java from the 10th to the 14th century. In Japan, Prajñāpāramitā texts were ceremoniously recited under royal patronage to avert calamities. Ritual and meditational practices that focus on Prajñāpāramitā continue today at Kwā Bāhā in Nepal, and further, all Tibetan schools and orders study Prajñāpāramitā along with cultivating the visualization practices in some form.

In Cambodia, Prajñāpāramitā as a goddess achieved exceptional prominence in the 12th through 13th centuries, especially under the king Jayavarman VII. Some of her Khmer iconographic forms had no Indian prototypes and are not recorded in ritual manuals anywhere in the Buddhist world. The emergence of distinct Khmer forms of Prajñāpāramitā in Cambodia under the Esoteric Buddhism of Jayavarman VII necessitates re-evaluating scholars’ understanding of the goddess.


  • Buddhism

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