Siddha of Kayikara: Vajrayana in Kerala
// January 12th, 2013 // Cultural Politics
In the Oxford Illustrated Cultural History of India edited by A L Basham (New Delhi: 2007) Bhikhu Sangharakshita has sensitively traced the rise and fall of Buddhism and its various schools in India, the birthplace of the light of Asia. According to Sangharakshita at least three schools were prominent. Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana also formed the three stages of evolution and the most prominent schools of enlightenment in India that tried to resist caste and gender hierarchies in India.
The Hinayana or Teravada which is often called the little cart projected the image of the Arhat as a desirable ethical stature. The Mahayana or great cart was centred on the image of the Boddhisatva. The last school of Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism projected the image of the Siddha. Arhat is a sage who has attained enlightenment following the path of the buddha. Boddhisatva is a saintly and celestial mystical being akin to the buddha. Siddha is a Buddhist yogi or a holy man with instant potentials and greater agency.
In Kerala the early Chera kings adopted the surname Athan which is a form of the Arhat. Boddhisatva has become Chathan in Kerala. Another synonym of the buddha, ‘Sastha’ is also associated with this word. Siddha of Vajrayana has become ‘Chithan” in Kerala. C V Kunjiraman the worldly disciple of Narayana Guru, a contemporary of Asan, a leading renaissance writer and anti caste activist has observed that Ezhava people in south Kerala had two deities traditionally: Chithan and Arathan. Chithan is Siddha of Vajrayana and Arathan is none other than Arhathan/Athan a localized form of the Arhat. In mid and north Kerala Ezhava and other Avarna people, especially the dalits still worship the Chathan. Chathan is also connected to Sastha and Ayyappa by the Bahujans.
On 26 Dec 2012 I visited Kayikara, five km south of Varkala by the Arabian Sea which is renowned as the birth place of poet laureate Kumaran Asan. His ancient household called Thomman Plackal is no more. There is a library, a memorial statue, a sculptural complex and a Governemnt School at the place. The in-charge of the library Mr Soman a senior citizen from the region informed me that there was an ancient pond at the place and a granite idol was recovered from the pond which is now installed on the right of the gateway close to the compound wall facing west by the roadside.
The local people designate this life size granite idol as the buddha, as I talked to many. A broad shouldered man with a head dress or rounded hair tuft (in place of the Jwala of the buddha) and a peculiar loin cloth stand with the palms joined together before the chest in the Pranama posture has some resemblance to the buddha. The person has a round face, broad shoulders and thick lips and is in a spiritual melancholy. The phase looks south Indian. There is a deep sorrow and yearning in the whole mood and look. It has resemblance and some similitude to the figure of the Chakyar in Koodiyattam which is often associated with the Sakya artistes and early Buddhism in Kerala by many researchers.
The statue is a unique one in its figuration and chiseling style. The stone type and stylization are also different from other buddhas at Mavelikara, Kayamkulam, Kottapuram or Pattanam. The other buddha idols recovered so far from Kerala belong to the Theravada early period and are dated to 7 th or 8th century by experts like Ilamkulam. Most of them fall under the influence of the great Anuradhapura style of Srilanka. But the Kayikara idol looks a lot recent and could be dated to 15th or 16th century. Researchers like Dr Aju Narayanan also endorse this observation.
Buddhas generally appear in Padmasana, Bhumisparsa and Abhaya postures. It is extremely unusual for a buddha to assume the Pranama posture that is a product of the Hindu hierarchical worldview. But there are place names scattered all over Kerala connected to this posture of Pranama or “Thozhal” in current Malayalam. Thozhuvan Kode, Thozhuvan Konam, Thozhuvan Uru etc. are place names found all over Kerala. Even in Malabar there are place names associated with the Thozhuvan or one who is in the Pranama posture. Thazhampally and Mampally are regions just south of Kayikara. The Chamana antiquity of the place is evident.
In my inquiry through books and the internet a bodhisatva idol in the same posture was found in the Temple of Nara in Japan that belongs to the 8th century AD. Mr Soman had also told me that when Mr Humayun Kabir the M P visited Kayikara he made a statement that it was not buddha as buddhas never assumed the Pranama posture. It is true that the original buddhas in Hinayana and Mahayana never assumed this posture which is often related to Brahmanical Hindu cults. But if you look at the history of the development of Tantric Buddhism or Vajrayana and its appropriation by Tantric Brahmanism in the 15th and 16th centuries this Pranama posture becomes meaningful. it provides the vital clue and the missing link in the history of Buddhism in India.
Mahayana itself was a greater and diversified movement that diluted the original Hinavada or Sunyavada of the buddha. Nagarjuna and other sages who basically came from Brahmanism itself digressed a lot from the original teaching of the buddha in their contestable attempts at popularizing and liberalizing Buddhism in India through their greater vehicle. As a result of this large scale liberalization there was extensive hybridity and ambivalence in the context. The ambiguous figure of the Siddha or Chithan emerged from this chaos.
This hybridity and later easy apropriation by Brahmanism could also be read as a strategic tactics by the hegemonic forces to take over the heterodox Buddhism from within. They infiltrated into the Sangha, liberalized it, hybridized it and smoothly converted it into Hindu Brahmanism. Diluting, dividing and deviating is a key strategy used by imperialisms everywhere.
Thus the suspicious stone idol at Kayikara could be aptly identified as Chithan or the Siddha of Tantric Buddhism. The Yogic Siddha stands in self engrossing Pranama by the Arabian Sea at Kayikara. The undercurrent of Buddism in Asan’s poetry at least in its political unconscious could also be explained in the light of this Siddha of Kayikara. It represents the gradual blurring of the boundaries between Tantric Buddhism and Tantric Brahmanism. The icon provides the missing link in the socio cultural evolution of Kerala and India at large and the gobal history of Buddhism in general.