It’s well-known that Buddha was at a later phase included into the Hindu pantheon as an avatar of Vishnu. This myth is frequently invoked by the modern Hindus to encompass Buddhism as a part of Hinduism. What is not well known is the status of Vishnu as a deity within Buddhism per se. In the previous article, we had seen the status of Shiva in Buddhism, and now we analyze in detail the status of Vishnu vis-à-vis Buddhism.
Compared to Shiva who has relatively more references in the Mahayana Buddhist sutras and the numerous Vajrayana Tantras (where he appears as Rudra, to be always subdued by the wrathful Buddhist deities at the end), references to Vishnu are quite less. This perhaps may be due to the fact that, the later Buddhists were in a position to directly interact more with the Shaivaites than the Vaishnaivites.
As already referred in the “Shiva in Buddhism” article, Theravada Buddhism is quite orthodox in admitting deities into its fold. Rather than integrating the deities directly into the religion, it tends to keep the deities in the periphery as local deities to be worshipped for favor or as Dharmapālas (Dharma Protectors).
In Sri Lankan Theravada, Vishnu is worshipped as “Upulvan” (Pali. Uppala-Vaṇṇa). The equivalent Sanskrit title is “Utpala-Varṇa” (Blue-Lotus-Colored). Vishnu is frequently depicted as blue colored (Blue being a euphemism for the original Black color of the deity). Vishnu as Upulvan is the Kshetra-Pāla (Protector of the Land) of Sri Lanka. Buddha before his parinirvana seems to have seen the island of Sri Lanka as the future place where his shāsana (law) will flourish. Therefore, he orders Indra for its protection. Indra then entrusts the protection of the island to Vishnu (Incidentally, Vishnu originally seems to have been subordinate to Indra in the Vedas. This seems to preserve the early status of Vishnu as a sub-ordinate deity).
Here Vishnu is seen by the lay Sri Lankan Buddhists as a “Bodhisattva” on his way to Buddhahood, and a firm protecter of the “Buddha Shāsana”.
The incident is established in Dipavamsa (circa 3th century CE) and the later Mahavamsa (circa 5th century CE): It has been also posited that Upulvan is a local deity, who later merged with Vishnu. But, most probably it is more correct to identify “Upulvan” with an early form of Vishnu [before he became a supreme deity in the later puranic Hinduism.]
Though, Thailand is currently a Theravada nation – Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism dominated for a quite a period of time. These influences are still deep and very visible. Perhaps, because of the multi-cultural past, Thailand has no issues in venerating the Hindu deities per se. In fact, Vishnu temples can be still found scattered around in Thailand. There is no specific status of Vishnu through the context of Thai Buddhism. His worship is derived by the nation’s Hinduist past, and is best analyzed as the remnant of Hinduism in Thailand.
The interactions between later day Hinduism and Buddhism are more vividly presented in the context of Mahayana Buddhism. The deities were absorbed to the core of the religion along with its original myths and beliefs but reinterpreted in the context of Buddhism. As a result, Mahayana tends to present the deities in its own unique context but with the original flavor.
In the Karandavyuha Sutra, he is called as “nārāyaṇa pañcamahāsamudranamaskṛta” – Narayana worshipped by the five oceans. But this seems to be a hypercorrection. In a Pāṭha-Bheda (alternate reading) of the Shurangama Dharani, he is referred as “nārāyaṇa pañcamahāmudrānamaskṛta“- Narayana worshipped by the five great mudras. The latter sounds more sensible. It probably refers to the five weapons usually associated with Vishnu.
Vishnu as Emanation of Avalokitesvara
As with Shiva, Vishnu is also seen as an emanation of Avalokitesvara. In this context, one must note the multiple nature of the Devas in Mahayana. Though the deities are generally recognized as distinct entities in their own right, it must be understood that Buddhas & Bodhisattvas may also “assume the form” of these deities to infuse Dharma as a part of Upāya-Kaushalya (Skillful Means). In other cases, the deities themselves may even be presented as emanations of Buddhas & Bodhisattvas.
In the Karandavyuha Sutra, it is said that from Avalokitesvara’s heart Narayana was emanated – “hṛdayānnārāyaṇaḥ” – for the benefit of sentient beings.
[See: Srishtikarta Lokesvara for the detailed account].
In the initial part of the Sutra, Vishnu is included in the assembly of Devas to which Buddha preached the Sutra. In Eighth chapter of the Sutra – vaineyadharmopadeśa, Buddha expounds :
yena yena rupeṇa vaineyāḥ sattvāḥ, tena tena rupeṇa dharmaṁ deśayati
In whatever forms the beings are to be converted, [Avalokitesvara] instructs dharma in those forms.
nārāyaṇavaineyānāṁ sattvānāṁ nārāyaṇarūpeṇa dharmaṁ deśayati
[Avalokitesvara] instructs Dharma in the form of Narayana , for the beings who are to be converted by Narayana
It is interesting to note that Saddharma Pundarika doesn’t include Vishnu in the list. In fact, the list presented in the Karandavyuha is an expanded version of the list present in the Lotus Sutra. This probably, reflects the growing influence of Avalokitesvara, as more and more deities became associated with Avalokitesvara.
[As a side note, the sutra also presents a Buddhist version of Vamana Avatara along with Bali]
This Stotra praises Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara as follows:
nārāyaṇo’pi bhuvaneśvara eva tasmāt
puṁsāṁ tvameva paramottama eva nānyaḥ
For the Benefit of instructing the Vaishnavites who were to be converted [to the Dharma]
He was put forth from the heart of [the] holder of lotus (Avalokitesvara)
[He is] Narayana indeed, [who is] the Lord of the World too
Therefore [Oh! Avalokiteshvara] you are indeed the greatest of men too, [and] no one else
The last phrase “puṁsāṁ paramottama” directly refers to Vishnu. Vishnu is frequently referred to as “Purushottama” meaning “greatest of men”. The author implies, since Avalokitesvara is the progenitor of Vishnu, he is indeed the worthy of the epithet “greatest” not Vishnu.
brahmā tvameva hi sa viprakulaprasiddho
viṣṇuśca vaiṣṇavamate varadharmaketuḥ
You are indeed Brahma, he [who is] famous among the Brahmins
[You are also] Vishnu in the Vaishnava religion, the leader of noble Dharma
The above verse clearly identifies Arya Avalokitesvara with Vishnu.
Vishnu as a Sub-Ordinate deity
The Dharani requested by Narayana
There is an interesting Dharani Sutra with the title “nārāyaṇaparipṛcchā āryamahāmāyāvijayavāhinī nāma dhāraṇī” – The āryamahāmāyāvijayavāhinī named Dharani requested by Narayana”. As explicitly indicated by the title, in this Dharani sutra Narayana is seen as requesting a Dharani from the Buddha.
The Buddha is residing at the city of Kubera, expounding the Dharma named “Dharma-Aloka-Mukha” [The Bright Faced Dharma]. There Narayana appears, after being defeated by the Asuras. He then circumambulates the Buddha and pays homage to him by placing his head at the Bhagavan’s feet and then requests the Dharani that grants victory in war.
tadevaṁ deśayatu bhagavān sarvajñaḥ sarvadarśī sarvasattvānukampakastaṁ dharmaparyāyaṁ yamete devanāgayakṣarākṣasādayo manuṣyā vā dhārayamāṇāḥ saṁgrāme mahāśūlapātebhyo vā sarvopadravebhyo vā sarvavitarkavicārebhyo vā vijayino bhaviṣyanti
Therefore instruct, Oh Bhagavan Knower-of-all, Observer-of-all and Sympathizer-of-all beings – that dharma-paryaya (Dharma teaching) by which the Devas, Nagas, Yakshas, Rakshas or Men on bearing will become victorious at war from the attack of great-tridents, all calamities and all-doubtful-thoughts.
On the request from Narayana, the Lord Buddha expounds the Dharani.
[See the complete dharani here. The Dharani verses commence with “tadyathā namo’stvadhvānugatapratiṣṭhitebhyaḥ” and conclude with “phaṭ phaṭ svāhā“]
After hearing the Bhagavan’s Dharmopadesha (Dharma-Instruction) –
bodhisattvasaṁvarīyo nārāyanaḥ aho āścaryamiti kṛtvā śaṅkhacakragadāpuṣpamālyayuktaḥ utthāyāsanāt bhagavantaṁ triḥpradakṣiṇīkṛtya praṇamya prahasitavadano bhūtvā bhagavantaṁ gāthayā stauti sma|
aho hyasuradevānāṁ lokānāṁ jyeṣṭhaṁ śreṣṭho hyanuttarīkaḥ|
śivaḥ śānto’thāgrāhya lokātīto namo’stu te||
abhāvaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṁ bhūtadharmaprakāśakaḥ|
dharmādharmavimuktaustau dharma satya namo’stu te||
Surrounded by the Bodhisattvas, Narayana after saying “Oh! Amazing”, having risen up from the seat with the Conch-Discus-Mace-Flower Garland, then having circumambulate the Lord three times, and having bowed down [then] having a smiled-face praised the Lord through a verse (gātha) .
Behold ! The foremost, best [and the] unsurpassed of the Asuras and Devas of the Worlds
The Auspicious, Peaceful, un-conceived and the one beyond the world, homage to Him
The Illuminator of the past Dharma of the non-existant All-Dharmas
[The] Dharma [and] Satya [which are] liberated [from] Dharma and Adharma, homage to Him
The Narayana proceeds to bow to the Buddha and utters “tvaṁ mama vibhuḥ bhagavan” (Oh Bhagavan, You are my Lord !) and then disappears. Alternatively, Vibhu also means All-Pervading (Vishnu also means All-Pervading). Again, it seems like vishnu implying, “[They call me the All-pervading one (Vishnu), but really] you are my all-pevading one”.
This is one of the 108 forms of Avalokiteshvara. In this specific form of Avalokitesvara, Vishnu serves as a Vāhana (vehicle) for Avalokitesvara.
[See: Hari Hari Hari Vahana Lokeshvara for more detail]
To summarize the story – The Naga Takshaka was being hunted by Garuda and as a result Takshaka and Garuda were in a battle. As Takshaka gained a upper hand, Garuda invoked Vishnu for protection. Vishnu immediately appeared and was about to use his Chakrayudha at Takshaka. On seeing this, Takshaka as a response invoked Avalokitesvara instead. As Avalokitesvara appeared in a Sihma-Vāhana (Lion-Vehicle), Vishnu instantly threw away his Chakra and paid homage to him. He then worshipped Avalokitesvara, offering himself as a Vāhana to him and Takshaka offered himself as a Vāhana of the Lion. Thus, the composite image of Avalokitesvara-on-Vishnu-on-Garuda-on-Lion-on-Naga Takshaka was formed.
All the three, Garuda, Maha Vishnu, and the Lion, have the epithet of “Hari”. Since, these three Haris serve as the Vāhana (Vehicle) of Avalokiteshvara. Thus this composite image came to be known as Hari Hari Hari Vahana Lokeshvara.
Tantras are quite esoteric and my meta-knowledge about Buddhist tantra doesn’t point to any specific details of a “Buddhist Tantric” Vishnu (much like a “Buddhist” Rudra). As much as my limited knowledge of Buddhist Tantras is concerned, Vishnu appears as a Parivāra Deva (secondary deity) in several Mandalas.
Nishpannayogāvali, a Tantric text describing the various Mandalas and the deities therein, records the icongraphy of Vishnu in the Buddhists mandalas as follows:
garuḍe viṣṇuś-caturbhujaḥ cakraśaṅkhabhṛtsavyavāmābhyāṁ mūrdhni kṛtāñjalir-gadāśārṅgadharaḥ
On a Garuda there is Vishnu with four arms. With the two principal hands carrying the Cakra and the Shankha he displays the Anjali on his head. With the two others he holds the Gada and the bow.
But, given the fact that Buddha being referred to as an Avatar of Vishnu is posited to be one of the reasons for Buddhism’s decline – by causing the ultimate merger of Buddhism with Hinduism – One would probably expect a more visible backlash with greater references to Vishnu as a sub-ordinated deity in the Buddhist pantheon. Syncretism was too common and rampant across the Indic religions and possibly it wasn’t a serious enough a claim for the Buddhists to aggressively retort back. All of the above seems to be more like an organic assimilation of Vishnu into Buddhism (perhaps except for Hari-Hari-Hari-Vahana Lokeshvara).
But whatever it may be, Vishnu is potrayed as a venerable deity within the context of Buddhism. Invoking the verses of the Surangama Dharani,
namo nārāyaṇāya lakṣmī sahāyāya pañca-mahā-mudrā-namaskṛtāya
Homage to the Vishnu, who is accompanied by Lakshmi, and is worshipped by the five great Mudras
1. Upulvan or Uppalavaṇṇa – the Guardian Deity of Sri Lanka, Professor Dhamamvihari Thera
2. The Hindu Buddha and the Buddhist Visnu: Religious Transformations in India and Sri Lanka, John Cliffard Hold
6. The Indian Buddhist Iconography, Benoytosh Bhattachacharyya