The consort of the Mahasiddha Saraha
The Mahasiddha Saraha probably lived in 8th century India. Although the Buddha’s teachings were widely spread at the time, society was still shaped by the Hindu caste system. In spite the fact that Buddhism rejects differences based on origin, this aspect of the Buddha’s teachings never caught on in India. Society at the time expected people to maintain contacts only within their own caste. Such was the case with a girl who grew up in a lower caste, the daughter of a fletcher.
Saraha’s real name was Rahulabadra and he was born into a Brahmin family. He should have become a monk and a scholar, as befitted his and his family’s status. He even advanced to become the head of the famous Nalanda University, the very first university of the world in the state of Bihar/India. However, he was more interested in the practical approach of tantric Buddhism and violated the rules of purity by drinking wine and otherwise violating monastic rules. Therefore, he had to give up his position and leave the monastery.
When Rahulabadra was once again drunk on beer, a bodhisattva appeared to him and ordered him to see a mystical arrow maker who lived in the city. This would benefit a great many people. Convinced of the truth of this message, he went to the marketplace. There he found amongst the arrow makers a 15 year old girl who made arrows with utter grace, dexterity and perfect focus. She was untouched by the hustle and bustle of the market, but cut the shaft of the arrow, adjusted the arrowhead, attached the feathers, and checked the arrow for straightness as if nothing else existed in the whole world. He saw that this young woman was a very special person and tried to engage her in a conversation about Buddhist teachings. However, she replied to his theoretical explanations: “It is possible to recognize the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings through symbols and actions, but not through words and books.” This exchange of words was enough for Rahulabadra to recognize that he was dealing with a high teacher. He immediately committed himself to this guru-yogini and the arrow maker accepted him as a disciple and tantric companion. This partnership was an incredible misstep for both of them within their caste. Therefore, it grew into a real scandal when their relationship became known. They earned only blame and contempt from the population for their behavior.
Nevertheless, they stayed together, ignored social conventions and could not be separated from each other. However, in order not to be a constant stumbling block, they left their familiar surroundings, led a nomadic existence and temporarily settled in nature in solitary places to practice the Diamond Way unification practice and to live a tantric partnership without the usual attachment of other couples. He learned the arrow-making trade from her, which was how they earned their living. Therefore, Rahulabhadra got the name Saraha, which means arrow maker – or more precisely: “the one who shot the arrow”.
Saraha’s favorite dish was radish curry. One day he asked his partner to prepare this meal for him. She did not hesitate and lovingly cooked his desired food with yoghurt made from buffalo milk. When she went to bring it to him, he was deep in meditation, unresponsive to her words or touch. Not wanting to disturb him, she decided to wait until his meditation was over. But this could have taken a long time. He meditated all night, the following day and the day after that too. After some time, she went back to taking care of her home as usual, working for a living, and practicing meditation.
After 12 long years, Saraha finally rose from his deep contemplation. He was apparently unaware of how long he had been sitting in meditation. So he asked his companion, “Is my radish curry finally ready?” The arrow maker was flabbergasted and replied: “You’ve been sitting in samadhi non-stop for twelve years and the first thing that comes to mind is the curry I cooked for you twelve years ago?! You’re crazy! In what state do you think your radish curry is in now? What is this meditation that makes you still cling to your last thought after twelve years? Did you sit there for twelve years like a radish clinging to a clod of earth?!”
Saraha was appalled by her words. He decided to move to the mountains to continue his spiritual practice in solitude. When he shared this with the arrow maker, she said: “What do you intend to achieve with this? If after 12 years of uninterrupted, deepest meditation you still have an undiminished craving for radish curry, what difference does the solitude of the mountains make? The purest solitude is that which enables you to escape from the preconceived notions and prejudices, the categorizations and pigeonholes of your narrow and rigid mind. The nature of the mind is not revealed more easily with external stillness and solitude. By didling away in flight from external sensory stimuli you only waste more time. This project is just an adherence to your dualistic concepts. Stop looking for excuses!” The Arrow Maker’s words blazed with glowing wisdom. They caused an awakening in Saraha. He recognized her as his Dakini Master and freed his mind from the notion and assumption that there is an objective reality. He experienced the inseparability of space and joy and the realization of the nature of his mind. Eventually he reached the Mahamudra, the highest attainment.
With her direct and passionate approach, the arrow maker tore Saraha’s veil of illusion. Through them he recognized the true nature of things and was able to perceive reality directly. His admiration for her knew no bounds and he composed many songs inspired by her enlightened presence:
“The actions of this yogini are unparalleled.
She destroys the householder
and enlightened spontaneity transpires.
Beyond passion and non-passion,
she sits in ecstasy, destroying the spirit –
this is how I saw the Yogini.
You eat and drink and think
what comes to mind.
It’s beyond reason and unbelievable
this miracle of a yogini.
Here sun and moon are no longer distinguishable,
in it the threefold world arises.
She perfects thinking
and is the unity of enlightened spontaneity –
O know this yogini!”
“Don’t sit around, neither at home nor in the woods.
Wherever you are, recognize the spirit.”
The couple continued to live as always. They continued to pursue the craft of arrow making and assisted others on the Buddhist path. Saraha even took his consort’s caste name and led a tantric life that included celebrations at the cremation grounds. When reprimanded for this inappropriate behavior, he sang songs in his defense and demonstrated his siddhis (magical powers), which were popular means of countering public criticism in medieval India. At a gathering attended by the royal family, Saraha sang three circles of songs, one for the queen, one for the king and one for the people. These chanted teachings became famous as the “Three Circles of Dohas”. Having thus transmitted the Buddha’s teaching, he soared in unification with the arrow maker in the sky, imparting the Mahamudra. Many of those present attained Buddhahood as a result. The Arrow Maker and Saraha then dissolved. They had undoubtedly manifested a very high realization.
This shows once again that tradition mostly names the men, but the question is whether the women, whom patriarchy pushed into the background, were often the real masters. The Sanskrit word Ishukari remains an honored name among tantric women. It means arrow maker.
Retold by Johannes Ganesh Bönig, Leipzig, May 2022
Proofread and audio spoken by Lipika
- Michaela Fritzges, occupational therapist, Diamond Way Buddhist with Lama Ole Nydahl, Buddhism Today No. 41, (Summer 2006)
- Miranda Shaw, Women, Tantra and Buddhism, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt/Main, July 2000
- Keith Dowman, Masters of Tantra, Sphinx, Basel, 1988
“Yes I like it. However, the question is why women were often the actual masters, which traditions are associated with this, which were apparently not patriarchal, to what extent did the patriarchal traditions hinder or prevent this mastery and why. What has been lost as a result?”
Claudia von Werlhof
political scientist and sociologist