Alexandria Digital Research Library

Vimalamitra : The Legend of an Indian Saint and His Tibetan Emanations

Gruber, Joel Stephen
Degree Supervisor:
Jose I. Cabezon and Vesna A. Wallace
Place of Publication:
[Santa Barbara, Calif.]
University of California, Santa Barbara
Creation Date:
Issued Date:
Asian literature, Asian studies, and Religious history
Tibetan Buddhism
Tibetan History
Religious Studies
Online resources and Dissertations, Academic
Degree Grantor:
University of California, Santa Barbara. Religious Studies
Ph.D.--University of California, Santa Barbara, 2016

One of the oldest narratives detailing the birth of the Indian saint Vimalamitra claims he was the son of an unwed virgin, Dharmabodhi, who was so ashamed that her son had no father and that she had no husband, she buried her newborn under a mound of sand. As she prepared to leave the child to die, she wept until she could no longer bear the pain. Fleeing the burial mound in a grief-stricken state, she looked back one last time and noticed that her child's eyes were glowing so brightly they shone straight through the sand. Startled, she ran back to uncover the young Vimalamitra and raised him to become a Buddhist master. Though Vimalamitra's bright eyes motivated his mother to disinter the buried child, the reasons that Tibetans unearthed the name of an eighth-century Indian scholar to rewrite his legacy and attribute texts en masse to him over three hundred years after he departed Tibet are more difficult to adduce.

There are good reasons this is the first comprehensive study of one of the most important saints in Tibetan history. Along with being an important figure, Vimalamitra is one of the most confounding saints from the imperial era. Decade after decade, Tibetan Buddhists wrote, re-wrote, and then re-wrote again the life story of the eighth-century Buddhist saint. Century after century, they constructed namtars (rnam thar), a genre in Tibetan literature that is akin to hagiography. Because a Western conception of historical accuracy was not of chief concern to these authors, as the number of Vimalamitra-related namtars increased, so did the conflicting presentations of the biographical details of the Indian saint's life. As a result, there is little that can be said with any degree of certainty regarding the life and teachings of the "historical" Vimalamitra.

This study elucidates a previously untold textual history of a millennium-long exchange between a quasi-mythical Indian saint and the Tibetan communities who continuously wrote the tantric (esoteric) texts that bore his name. It details the socio-religious history of the Tibetans who imagined and then re-imagined the persona of Vimalamitra to indigenize Buddhist traditions, establish lineal legitimacy, preserve tantric traditions, create community identities, and perhaps even manufacture the miraculous.

The broader purpose of the study is to illuminate the role that an ever-changing Vimalamitra-related mythos played in fomenting, legitimating, and solidifying several developments in Tibetan Buddhist doctrine, practice, and politics, which, when analyzed as a collective, provide a previously untold micro-history of the Nyingma lineage (Rnying ma'i brgyud pa). To accomplish these goals, there are five chief questions addressed throughout the five chapters. (1) What can be said, with some degree of certainty, about the historical Vimalamitra? (2) Why was the historical Vimalamitra transformed into a legendary tantrika capable of performing miraculous deeds comparable to those of the Indian mahasiddhas? (3) How did the legend of Vimalamitra become central to Nyingma history, evolving with the Nyingma tantric tradition over the course of more than a millennium? (4) Why did accounts of Tibetans claiming to witness emanations of Vimalamitra mutate to claims that living Tibetan masters were embodied emanations of the saint? (5) Is it possible to critically re-examine the claims made by the dozens of meditators who recorded experiencing a vision of Vimalamitra?

To answer these questions, I pieced together the contributions made by previous scholars, while comparing over one hundred and twenty distinct documents and manuscript fragments linked to Vimalamitra from China, India, and Tibet, spanning fourteen hundred years, from multiple genres of literature on topics as diverse as history, biography, refuge vows, sutras, Vinaya, Abhidharma, Madhyamaka, Yogacara, Yoga Tantra, Mahayoga Tantra, and Dzokchen Tantra. To make sense of this vast amount of data, I created a broad theoretical framework, drawing from numerous disciplines, including religious studies, anthropology, political science, sociology, literary studies, and comic books.

Physical Description:
1 online resource (262 pages)
UCSB electronic theses and dissertations
Catalog System Number:
Inc.icon only.dark In Copyright
Copyright Holder:
Joel Gruber
Access: At the request of the author, this item is currently restricted via delayed access (embargo), and may become available at a later date. Please check our FAQs for more information.