Thor bu - Curiosia Indo-Tibetica

Textual and visual odds and ends from India, Tibet, and around.

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Location: Kolozsvár/Cluj, Budapest, Oxford, ibi ubi

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Some Notes on Ritual Suicide in India from an Arabic Source, the Kitāb 'ajā'ib al-Hind by Buzurg ibn Shahriyār

Yesterday I came across the first publication of a new and promising Hungarian series (Fontes Orientales) titled "India csudálatosságai" (The Wonders of India), a richly annotated translation by Róbert Simon of a relatively unknown piece of Arabic travel writing. The writer of Kitāb 'ajā'ib al-Hind, Buzurg ibn Shahriyār (obviously a Persian) is otherwise unknown and does not seem to have been a professional writer, nor a great traveller. It was he nevertheless who collected at some point in the second part of the tenth century a series of anecdotes, sailors' stories of the mirabilia encountered on the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Luckily there is also a French translation available by L. Marcel Devic accompanying the edition by P. A. van der Lith (Leiden 1883-1886) from a single codex kept in Istanbul (plus an apograph prepared for M. Schefer and kept in Paris). The editio princeps is presently unavailable for consultation.

One of the most interesting reports is no. 103. Here certain bīkūrs of Sarandīp (~ bhikṣus of Śrī Laṅkā) are mentioned who "[...] smear their bodies with the ashes from the bones of cremated dead Indians, shave their head, pluck out their beard and moustache [...] and keep a skull-bowl from which they eat and drink [...]." Strangely enough the writer does not speak scornfully of these practices, especially that the ascetics are said to have been kind to Muslim traders. It is suggested that they actually emulated the humble lifestyle of 'Umar, the second caliph who - according to ibn Shahriyār - was well known to the people of Laṅkā through a messenger sent to Medina to find out more about Islam (who made it to Arabia only after the departure of the Prophet and Abu Bakr and never made it home but the message got through). Apparently our writer finds it difficult to imagine that there cannot be but a genetic relationship between the famous patched robe worn by 'Umar and the Indian ascetics' loincloth.

Ibn Shahriyār however is not so lenient about those committing ritual suicide, an ubiquitous favourite of early travelers to India. It is known that early Śaiva sources* sanctioned certain types of ritual suicide such as jumping of a cliff, drowning oneself [at a sacred ford], and immolation in fire. And here we find instances of exactly these (although the example for the last-mentioned is difficult to believe as we shall see).

No. 3. was related to our writer by a source he finds most credible, a well-known captain from Sirāf who had visited "the golden countries" (collectively the Western Siamese shores and the Malay archipelago) more times than anyone else. He speaks of a great mercantile city in a gulf of Ceylon "in the region of Abrīr." Here a great river flows in the sea and the place boasts no less than six hundred major shrines (budd). Outside the city there is a mountain on the slope of which there is a great tree 'made out of copper and bronze' with 'huge needles and pales as if they were spikes'. There is also a spring. Everything is centered around a black idol which is honoured with great festivities. Those that want to be close to their lord make obeisance to the idol, drink, sing and then throw themselves off the cliff onto the tree or on a slab near the spring.

Nos. 71. and 72. relate the methods of self-drowning. One of the writer's personal acquaintances met an old woman (again in Sarandīb, i.e. Laṅkā) who sat on the shore of a river near the see where the tide was unusually powerful. Asked what she was doing the old woman replied that she is disgusted with life and sat there waiting for the water to carry her away, to the proximity of her Creator. A somewhat nastier way is reported from Cambay where there seem to have been professional suicide-helpers. These were paid a certain sum to make sure that the resolve to die was fulfilled: no matter how much the person would struggle or even cry out belated second thoughts, they were supposed to keep the head under water until the body was motionless.

Interestingly enough, the least credible story is that of suicide by fire. The only such report (apart from a note of a certain king's closest bodyguards burning themselves on the pyre) is no. 94. There is a lacuna here at the beginning; the text continues describing two men 'in some region of India' digging two ditches in the ground in which they stood, surrounded by cow-dung. They ignited the dried cow-dung and played some kind of board game while singing and drinking, apparently feeling nothing. It is not known for how long they stood there in this way, but they eventually died.

*For example Niśvāsaguhyasūtra in the chapter on utkrānti: [...] kathan dehaṃ samutsṛjet || toyāgnibhṛ{ṃ}gupātena mahāpatha-anāśakaiḥ | yogenāpi [...]. I thank prof. Sanderson for pointing out these passages for me in a tutorial dedicated to "yogic suicide" in Hillary 2007.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Kun bzang bla ma'i zhal lung

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Missing folios anyone?

It wouldn't be a bad idea to start a "manuscript pages - lost and found" service for the NGMCP (with due acknowledgments of course). I've spent the last two days identifying three maverick folios in Bhavabhaṭṭa/Bhavabhadra's commentary to the Catuṣpīṭha (Kaiser 134 = NGMPP C 14/11).

The first one (verso of the title page) was already identified by prof. Harunaga Isaacson (sincere thanks!) as the starting page of Mahāmati's Tattvaviśadā Pañjikā to the Ḍākinīvajrapañjara.

A second runaway train is from the commentary to the seventh chapter of the Buddhakapāla by Abhayākaragupta and in all probability formerly part of NAK 5/21 = NGMPP A 48/2 as there is a lacuna here of several folios. This passage corresponds to ff. 44a4-46b4 of the Calcutta manuscript and contains four nice apabhraṃśa songs to awaken the Heruka.

The third one is a bit more puzzling. The text is from the Laghutantraṭīkā ch. 9., corresponding to Cicuzza 2001:98.4-100.29. and his folio 17a-17ab from Kaiser 225 = NGMPP C 25/6. It escaped my attention if indeed Cicuzza has a note on this. Is it possible that he took it over from the Catuṣpīṭhanibandha? Did he have a manuscript (the format is the same) with text starting and ending at the same place as the Nibandha stray folio? What is going on here? Does anyone have his email?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Risks and Dangers of Translating Tantra in the Modern World

...especially if one uses an automated translation tool (Rangjung Yeshe perhaps?). I don't see how one could end up with such gibberish otherwise.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Digital Library of India

An early Christmas present: