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The appearance of tantric monasticism in Nepal: a history of the public image and fasting ritual of Newar Buddhism, 980-1380

Version 2 2020-12-16, 22:22
Version 1 2017-02-21, 00:41
posted on 2020-12-16, 22:22 authored by Iain SinclairIain Sinclair
At the beginning of the second millennium, Asia’s most venerable organisation, the Buddhist saṅgha, underwent a final and radical change. In the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, the monastic order, long the preserve of celibate renunciants, began to accommodate noncelibate practitioners of tantric yoga and their partners. Today it survives among the Newars as a hereditary institution, the last bastion of the formerly widespread Sanskritic Buddhist tradition. When and in what form does this tantric monasticism begin to appear? The deepest transformations are generally accepted to have taken place between the late tenth and fourteenth centuries—the little-known Transitional Period, mythologised in Nepal’s native histories and rarely studied by historians. Attention is directed here towards the rapid evolution of an ancient monastic ritual, the fast or poṣadha, which is still celebrated in Newar Buddhism as a tantric aṣṭamīvrata. The poṣadha ceremony is shown to have been reshaped to accommodate the tantric ‘beginner practitioner’ (ādikarmika), who should take the eight abstemious poṣadha vows as a first step towards the sensuous praxis of the Buddhist tantras, as recommended in Hevajratantra II.8.9 and in later manuals of initiation (abhiṣeka). In being repurposed as a prelude to carnal tantrism, the poṣadha celebration superseded the old Prātimokṣa recitation that was formerly at its core, adopting in its place theist-oriented vrata ritual, kāvya genre storytelling and a reworked cult of Amoghapāśa Avalokiteśvara. Throughout the period the views of major South Asian authorities on tantric–monastic religiosity — Vāgīśvarakīrti, Bhavabhaṭṭa, Ratnākaraśānti, Puṇḍarīka, Dīpaṃkaraśrījñāna, Advayavajra, Kuladatta, Mañjukīrti, Abhayākaragupta, Tatakaragupta, Jagaddarpaṇa and Vibhūticandra, in particular — are found to be circulating in the bāhāḥ and bahī monasteries of Nepal. A key document of the transition is the previously unstudied Poṣadhavidhāna handbook, preserved in a unique witness at the Royal Asiatic Society, London, which is edited and studied for the first time in the present thesis. Another fruitful source for the period is donor portraiture, which is mined here for new information on the lives of tantric monks. Several paintings portray their donors with both monastic and lay characteristics, and monks are often depicted in the company of worldly gurus, vajrācāryas and female partners. The iconography associated with these portraits — as explained in texts such as the sādhanas of the Saptākṣara form of Cakrasaṃvara — implicates them in erotic tantric practice. The growing trade in art on tantric subjects is also shown to coincide with the growth of tantric monasteries. From the late twelfth century onwards a habit of alternation between monastic and non-monastic behaviour is discerned in written dedications to so-called ‘householder monks’ as well as in contemporaneous tracts on how to go about in public as a tantric monk. These developments are identified as the forerunners of a largely uncodified form of Buddhism that persists in Nepal to the present day.


Principal supervisor

Ian Mabbett

Additional supervisor 1

David Templeman

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Philosophical, Historical & International Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts