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Thursday, September 30, 2010

The martyrdom of Karuṇāśrīmitra

Roughly one thousand years ago a roughly similar sight greeted a marauding army from Bengal. For reasons best known to themselves they came here - the great monastery of Somapura - to set it on fire. We know of this because four academic generations later a monk called Vipulaśrīmitra commissioned an inscription describing how the fountainhead of his lineage met his end in this sad event.
"For example, we find construction in honor of the martyrdom of the eminent monk Karuṇāśrīmitra, who went to the Buddha's heaven after having been burned to death by a Baṅgāla army while he was trying to save his monastery of Somapura. A disciple in his line constructed statues and monasteries in several locales around North India, including a monastery specifically dedicated to his Vinaya lineage, the Mitras. The interesting part, though, is the inscription celebrating this in the proximity of the Nālandā grounds, where it was set up so that its message might gain greater response and achieve the public appreciation that was its due."
Ronald Davidson, Indian Esoteric Buddhism (p. 110)

There are several problems with these statements. It seems that the inscription was not commissioned to commemorate Karuṇāśrīmitra's martyrdom, but rather the collective achievements of Vipulaśrīmitra himself and possibly his masters beginning with Karuṇāśrīmitra. That an army should burn monks is not unusual, attrocities are committed everywhere and against everyone. But here it seems that Karuṇāśrīmitra simply refused to leave the hall which was burning around him. Instead he clutched the feet of the Buddha (most likely an image) and died, presumably consumed by the fire. He did not go to "the Buddha's heaven", this somewhat odd collocation is the result of miscontruing a genitive. The text simply says in a polite manner that 'he died', lit. 'went to heaven'. Whether he was trying to save the monastery or not is unclear. I do not see any strong evidence for this in the verse. There are more problems with the paragraph, but I'll leave it here for the moment. Instead, here is the stanza in question:

śrīmatSomapure babhūva Karuṇāśrīmitranāmā yatiḥ
kāruṇyād guṇasaṃpado hitasukhādhānād api prāṇināṃ[|]
yo Vaṅgālabalair upetya dahanakṣepāj jvalaty ālaye
saṃlagnaś caraṇāravindayugale Buddhasya yāto divam|| [2]

"There was in majestic Somapura an ascetic/a devotee called Karuṇāśrīmitra, who - because of his compassion, abundance of virtues, as well as his dedication to act for the welfare and happiness of beings - when the armies of Bengal arrived and started a conflagration, passed away in a burning hall clutching the lotus-feet of the Buddha."

UPDATE: for a high-resolution b/w image of the inscription click here.

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Anonymous I. S. said...

So Ron Davidson's paragraph on a Buddhist source has almost nothing that is accurate. I can't believe that this could happen in Buddhist Studies (or Indology)!

(By the way: I don't follow your claim that atrocities are committed everywhere and against everyone. They aren't, not in my neck of the woods. Even if they were, how would this normalize violence against Buddhists?)

4:42 pm  
Blogger PDSz said...

What I wanted to say was that I would not have been surprised by an account that armies burned monks (in the manner of, say, Jan Hus, on a pyre - ok, that wasn't an army...). But that's not what the inscription says. In my reading it was the building that was set on fire, and Karuṇāśrīmitra was presumably reluctant to leave. There was no question of `normalization' whatsoever.

Ironically, it seems that while I was trying to point out an inaccurate account I became a perpetrator of inaccuracy myself.

I found the account of the inscription unique and, to be honest, quite moving. No axes to grind, just setting the record straight for this old monk.

9:09 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post, thank you! However, I would suggest that because the reason for his passing away in a burning hall is not stated, any presumption is just speculation. He might also have been shut in there, or been otherwise unable to leave.

7:44 pm  

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