Taranatha, Lama

Taranatha, Lama a Tibetan monk, famous for his History of Buddhism in India (rGya-gar-chos-'byun). He is mentioned in Tibetan writings as 'Jo-nan Taranatha' or 'rje-btsun' (bhattaraka) Taranatha of the Jo-nan sect. Jo-nan is the name of a place about a hundred miles to the northwest of the Tashi-lhun-po, and was the stronghold of the Tibetan Buddhist sect (Jo-nan-pa) having pronounced enthusiasm for the Kalachakra Tantra. Taranatha was a leader of the sect and authored several guidebooks on the Kalachakra doctrine.

Born in 1575 AD, his original name was Kun-dga'-snin-po, which meant Anandagarbha. He wrote his History in 1608 at the age of 34. Taranatha himself chose a brief title for his work, 'dgos-'dod-kun-'byun', which literally meant 'that which fulfils all desires'. The corrupt Indian form in which the name occurs on the title page of its edition published in 1946, Karya-kama-sarva-pravrtti-nama, conveys the same idea. Thus the work was for Taranatha something more than mere history, it was also the mahatmya of Buddhism, so much so that it led to the fulfilment of all desires.

Taranatha's History of Buddhism in India (in 143 folios), written in the Tibetan language, is in the sixteenth volume of his collected works, the first of which contains an autobiography in 331 folios and the second a history of the Kalachakra system in 22 folios. The twelfth volume contains a history of the cult of Tara in 20 folios.

Taranatha's account of Buddhism, in spite of being overwhelmingly legendary, is found useful by modern scholars working on diverse aspects of ancient and medieval Indian history and culture. Along with all sorts of quaint stories Taranatha managed to squeeze into his work a tremendous amount of historical data and interesting Indian folklore, which are not easy to trace in other sources. The purpose of writing this history was mainly to give an account of how the True Doctrine was spread in the arya-desha. The narratives start with the reign of Ajatashatru and go down to the Turuska invasion in the thirteenth century. The account is neither chronological nor does it follow any scientific method. His account of the rise of the Palas of Bengal and the lives of a few Pala kings is scattered among the mass of legendary materials. He also provides information about the Chandra rulers of eastern Bengal, though their chronology and names differ from the information gathered from epigraphic sources. Nevertheless he is found, in many cases, to provide confirmatory materials in support of events known from other authentic sources. His account of the Vikramasila monastery (vikramashila mahavihara) and its teachers are interesting. However, Taranatha's work is not to be taken as a finished history, but rather as a draft demanding a great deal of further investigation. Its importance lies more particularly in the chapters covering the period intervening the visit of hiuen-tsang and the virtual extinction of Buddhism in India.

Most interesting are his observations on the decline of Buddhism in the country of its birth. Taranatha described vividly the state of Buddhism in its latest phase when it had almost completely surrendered precisely to those beliefs and practices that the Buddha himself had rejected when he preached his original creed and became practically indistinguishable from popular Hinduism. It assumed the form of being an elaborate worship of all sorts of gods and goddesses of the popular pantheon, often under new names, and indulging in all sorts of ritual practices for which the Buddha himself had expressed his repulsion. Thus Taranatha mentions that the Vikramasila-vihara had even the provision for a Bali-acharya or that Buddhajnanapada persuaded king dharmapala to perform a homa spending about nine lakh and two thousand tolas of silver to make his dynasty last longer. Taranatha, himself a devout Buddhist, shared fully the creed in its latest phase and to him the loss of patronage was an important factor.

Taranatha's History of Buddhism in India was translated into German (A Schiefner) and Russian (VP Vasil'ev) as early as 1869 and was published from St Petersburg. A complete English translation was done by Lama Chimpa and Alaka Chattopadhyaya and published in 1970 under the editorship of Deviprasad Chattopadhyaya. [AM Chowdhury]