Hodgson's Blind Alley ?

On the So-Called Schools of Nepalese Buddhism


By David N. Gellner


The way in which textbooks come to be written perhaps deserves more attention than it generally receives in the history of ides. This short article explores one persistent mistake which has appeared in numerous textbooks on Buddhism down to the present day. In these textbooks it is written that there are four schools of Nepalese Buddhism, each named after the doctrine it expouses. The authority cited for 6this is Brian Houghton Hodgson. In fact this is a mistake twice over: no such schools exist or ever have existed; the idea that Hodgson asserted their existence is based on a misunderstanding of what he wrote.


Nepalese Buddhism, that is, the Buddhism of the Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, ought to have an important place in Buddhist studies. The Newrs are the last surviving South Asians who practice Indian Mahayana Buddhism, whose sacred and liturgical language is Sanskrit, and whose rituals are directly descended from those  evolved in North India during the heyday of Indian Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, Brian Hodgson spent more that twenty years in the Kathmandu Valley between 1821 and 1843, and for most of that time he was the Britsh Resident (representative of the East India Company to the court of Nepal).


Nearly all the Sanskrit manuscripts of Buddhist texts come from Nepal; as is well known, it was the manuscripts that Hodgson sent to Paris which enabled Burnouf to undertake the first modern study oaf Mahayana Buddhism. Hodgson was not a Sanskrit scholar and did not study these texts himself. Through his friend and pandit Amrtananda he did however carry out much that would today could as fieldwork, though under very restrictive circumstances. ( As British resident his movements were limited and closely watched by the Nepalese authorities.) Hodgson;s writings on Buddhism were initially considered as an authoritative source on Buddhism as such. Later, once Buddhist scholarship was established in Europe, hodgson;'s work came to be regarded merely as a guide to Nepalese Buddhism, Furthermore, this form of Buddhism came to be seen as an unimportant oddity. 


Some more historically minded scholars did realize that Nepalese Buddhism was representative of late Suylvain Levi came to the Kathmandu Valley in  1998 and wrote his history of Nepal, originally published in 1905 and recently re-issued, as a prelude to writing the history of the whole of south Asia. Nepal or the Kathmandu Valley (the two terms were, until recently, synonymous) was, Levi wrote, "India in the making "(1905I: 28). One could observe:" as in a laboratory" the relationship of late Buddhism to Hinduism and Hindu kingship, a dynamic process which in India eventually resulted in the absorption of Buddhism by Hinduism. Because of the difficult of gaining access to Nepal before 1951, and subseq1uently because of the complexity6 of Newar culture, scholars have been slow to follow levi's lead. Since the 1970s, however, an increasing amount of work has been done. 


This work seems not to have made much impact to the general world of Buddhist studies. Consequently, one still finds repeated to old idea, for which Hodgson is wrongly cited as authority, that there are different schools of Nepalese Buddhism, the present article is intended there for to alert Buddhologists  tot he fact that not such schools exits, or ever have existed. The idea that they do arise from a misreading of Hodgson's original intention, which was to describe Buddhist schools of thought, not schools of Nepalese Buddhist, The mistaken idea that there are schools of Nepalese Buddhism had been repeated, parrot-like, in one textbook after another, Even where this particular mistake is not made, Nepalese Buddhism is frequently and quite misleadingly treated as an adjunct of Tibetan Buddhism.


Buddhist studies owe a great debt to Hodgson for the manuscripts he sent back to Europe.  At that time very little was known about Buddhism in the West. Not surprisingly, therefore, he wished to establish what the principal Buddhist doctrines were. After working with his Buddhist pandit. Amrtandanda, Hodgson thought he had found the answer. He wrote.


Speculative Buddhism embraces four very distinct systems of opinion respecting the origin of the world, the nature of the world, the nature of a first cause, and the nature and destiny of he soul. These systems are denominated, for the diagnostic tenet of each, Swabhavika, Aiswarika, Yantnika, and Karmika ... (Hodgson 1972 [1874 I: 23)


According to Hodgson, the Svabhavika system explains everything by the power " inherent in matter "(ibid), i.e., svabhave; Buddhahood is achieved by understanding the nature of the universal law. Hodgson identified as a sub-system of Svabhavika the Prajnika school: those who conceived to the ultimate as Prjana or wisdom. Both of theses systems denied "a single, immaterial, self-conscious being, who gave existence and order to matter by volition "(ibid). By contrast. 


The Aiswarikas admit of immaterial essence, and of a supreme, infinite and self-existent Deity (Adi buddhad) whom some of them considered as the sole deity and cause of all things, while others associate with him a coequal and eternal material principle; believing that all things proceeded from the joint operation of these two principles (opcit.: 25)


The final two schools, the Krmika and the Yantnika, Hodgson believed to be more recent that the orders, band he argued that they must have arisen. 


to rectify that extravagant quietism, which, in the other schools, stripped the powers above, (whether considered as of material or immaterial nature) of all personality, providence and dominion; and man of all his act5ive energies and duties. Assuming as just, the more general principles of their predecessors, they seem to have directed their chief attention to the phenomena  of human nature, to have been stuck with its free will, and the distinction between its cogitative and sensitive powers, and to have sought to prove, notwithstanding the necessary moral law of their first teachers, that the felicity of man must be secured, either by the proper culture of his moral sense, which was the sentiment to the Karmikas, or, by the just conduct of his understanding, a conclusion which the Yantnkas preferred (op. cit.: 26)


In one text book after anther scholars have followed Hodgson without applying though or analysis the what he wrote, One after another they have repeated that there are four schools of Buddhism in Nepal, For a long time I was puzzled by these statements, for they have no connecting whatever with the actual state affairs in Nepal .


A careful reading of Hodgson's text makes it clear what the status of these "schools" really was. Hodgson writes in a note, when he first introduces the schools:


My Bauddha pandit assigned these titles [of the schools] to the Extract made for his Sastras, and always used them in his discussions with me. Hence I erroneously presumed them to be derive from the Sastras, and preferable to Madhayamika, & c., which he did not use, and which, though the scriptural denominations, were postponed to those there used don his authority as being less diagnostic. In making these extracts we ought to reach the leading doctrines, and therein I think we succeeded (op. cit.: 23)


This makes it qui6te clear that the schools were invented by Hodgsons Pandit a Amratananda. Furthermore, I think it is possible to understand why he invented them. The Kathmandu Valley had never had sufficient resources to support large monasteries of celibate monks pursuing a curriculum of philosophical study, as had existed in India and grew up in Tibet. Consequently, although Amrtananda was very learned, he had no knowledge of the different philosophical systems of Mahayana Buddhist, Hodgson, his employer, plied him with questions, such as "What is matter, and what is spirit ?," "is mater an independent cause of good and evil ?" Amartananda evidently fell in with his employer's way of thinking and readily systematized the different elements of Buddhist doctrine he knew into separate "schools."


The first two "schools" (the Svabhavika and Aisvarikad) he derived by a misunderstanding of Buddhacarita. These two doct6rines are mentioned in a passage where the minister of the young Buddha-to-be's father is trying to persuade him to return from the forest and, if he must pursue his religious vocation, to do so as king, The religious positions the minister is describing are in fact non-Buddhist doctrines which Sarvarthasidda (the future Buddha) rejects as inadequate.


Having wrong accepted that these two positions were Buddhist, Hodgson supposed that the other schools-which he and Amrtananda derived from qenuinely Buddhist doctrines-arose subsequently and in reaction to them (as quoted above). thus, of the other "Schools" the Prajnika or wisdom school represents the Buddhist view that wisdom is the ultimate, equivalent to Niravana or liberation; the Karmika school represent the Buddhist axiom that within this world everything is determined by one's karma; and the Yatnika school represents the Buddhist belief that karma is determined by the individual's intentions which it is always open to beings to improve upon. These three, fare from being alternatives, are integral parts of the most basic and universal Buddhist teachings.


Evidently, on its initial appearance in  1828, Hodgson's description of Nepalese Buddhist schools excited some scepticism, because eight years later he published" Proofs" in the shape of "quotations from original Sanskrit authorities" (Hodgson 1972 I: 73f). Among the quotation illustrating the Svabhavika system are the three verses of the Buddhacaritta (ix. 61- 3 in Johnston 1972) already referred to. There are also two quotation whose force depends on a misunderstanding of the phrase svabhavasuddha pure essence, and an inversion of its meanings as 'governed by' or 'regulated by' svabhava (op. cit.: 73,75). Similarly, the verses given in support of the Aisvarika doctrine include a mistranslation of a famous Buddhist verse so that Attained One (tathagata) instead of explaining the cause of all things, is the cause of all things.


The other quotation Hodgson give do all seem to represent genuine Buddhist doctrines, although their source is not always correctly identified and their translation is unreliable. These is no need to see them as representing separate "schools." in his quotations Hodgson gives separate space tom the doctrines of Adi Buddha, Adi-Dharma and Adi-Samgha, that is, the first ore ultimate Buddha, Dharma and Samgha. Most of the verses in the Adi-Buddha come from the Namasamgiti, on the Adi-Dharma for the prajnaparamitta and the few on the Adi-Samgha from the Gunakarandavyuha. Hodgson was right to see the first and last of these as late, theistic developments.


Even within Newer Buddhism, however, the doctrine of the Adi-Buddha does not have the importance that many have, on Hodgson's authority, assumed. (The terms 'Adi-Dharma' and 'Adi-Samgha,' evidently Hodgson's and Amratananda's inventions, have ,quite rightly, been forgotten.) One can see how books get written by comparing the following passages describing Newar Buddhism, Oldfield was the British Residency surgeon from 1850 to 1863. His Sketches of Nepal summarizes Hodgson's schools of Buddhism and, true to Hodgson's intentions though without his causation, calls them "various systems of teachers" (Oldfield 1981 [1880] II: 86). Old field describes the history of Buddhism with a certainty and forthrightness uninhibited by any knowledge of his subject; he concludes:


The system of Theology taught in the Buddha scriptures of Nepal [sic] is essentially monotheistic, and is based upon a belief in the Divine Supremacy of Adi Buddha, as the sole and self-existent spirit pervading the universe (op. cit: 111)


Writing fifty years late, Landon defines Newar Buddhist belief in the same way:


According to the later and now dominant school there are five grater manifestation (Dhyani Buddha) of the one Essential Buddha (Adi Buddha).....(Landon 1976 [1928] II: 219).


Finally, in the 1960s, the anthropologist Gopal singh Nepali writes:


At its higher level, Newar Buddhism is essentially monotheistic and is based on the belief in one supreme God, that is Adi Buddha.....(Nepali 1965: 289) 


The case of the four schools discussed above is simple: they do not exit. the question of the Adi-Buddha is more complex. The term is indeed used by Newar Buddhists, usually as an epithet of Svayambhu, the holiest stupa of the Valley. According to the local religious histories derived from the Svayambhu Purana, the Svayambhu stupa was the first thing to appear out of the lake which the valley used to be. More rarely, the term "Adi-Buddha" is used as an epithet of the Buddha Dipankara. In both these cases the prefix "Adi-" is often understood in temporal terms. It is true that in some contexts and in certain moods Newar Buddhists are inclined to a position which sees all divine beings as one; but they do not call this one-ness Adi-Buddha, I doubt very much whether this should be called monotheism; pantheism is probably a better description. It is also true that some of the texts of the Newar Buddhists , notably the Gunakarandavyuha, describe the creation myth onto which other alternative accounts. In any case, no Newar Buddhist would think of introducing his or her religion by saying that they believe in a supreme deity called Adi-Buddha who created the world in such-and-such away. In general they have a proper Buddhist indifference to the question of the creation of the world.


Once again a scholarly tradition ahs been crated by Hodgson's reliance on Western categories. Once again, Hodgson's text has been used as a source but his intentions have been misunderstood. In fact Hodgson nowhere asserts that belief in the Adi-Buddha is ;the most fundamental of Newar Buddhism's tenets; nor does he say that the Aisvarika school is dominant in Nepal. The three authors cited on Nepal have failed to appreciate that Hodgson was attempting to reconstruct "dogmatic" schools of the past on the basis of (mainly liturgical) texts in use at this time, Hodgson would have agreed that certain texts, such as the Namasamgitti, the Gunkarandavyha and the Svayambhu Purana, presuppose the Aisvarika doctrine; but the would never have made the crude and misleading assertions of our three experts on Nepal .


One scholar who comes well out of this is E.J. Thomas, He alone looked closely at Hodgson's text. He wrote:


[Hodgson] set a questionnaire, arranged according to his won ideas of theology, often with leading questions ....It was to wonder that the answers he obtained seemed to him "a sad jumble of cloudy metaphysics, and that Burnouf was surprised that he could not discover; in his manuscripts any thing like the" Buddha system" as describe by Hodgosn. Yet scholars continue to use his terms, some of which, like dhyani-Buddha, have never been found outside his writings (Thomas 1933: 247-8)


Thomas was ac lose to the mark than he knew with the terms dhyani-Buddha. Not only has it no justification in Buddhist scripture, it has no justification in Newari usage either, It has gained wide currency solely through the combination of Hodgson's influence and the inertia of textbook tradition. The questionnarier4 e thomas refers to (see Hodgson 1972 I: 41-53) does indeed contain leading questions. For all that if used with cars, it does contain material of value.


Hodgson was ahead of his time ion understanding that sunayata does not mean "nothingness" (op.cit.: 26). Unfortunately his many correct interpretation on matters of detail are oversahadowed by his having followed hid pandit Amrtandanda in hypostasizing two non-Buddhist schools and three perfectly compatible Buddhist doctrines into five separate, non-existent "schools" of Buddhist doctrine.


Those who followed and made use of Hodgson's writings were, if anything, guilty of a worse error. They assumed, although evidence to the contrary was there before them, that Hodgson was describing school of Nepalese Buddhism he had observed in operation. In fact he was trying to reconstruct schools of Buddhist philosophical but devotional in intention. probably the writers of the textbooks on Buddhism mentioned above simply followed one another. Since none of them had ever been to Nepal and few made use of Levi's work (which tactfully ignores Hodgson's schools)' they had no reason to doubt what they saw in previous test books. Since Hodgson's schools bore no relation to what had by them been discovered to be the true state of affairs where Buddhist doctrinal disputes were concerned, it was naturally assumed that Hodgson must have been describing Nepalese schools of Buddhist, a pseudo-fact which was taken as further evidence of the supposed degeneracy of Nepalese Buddhism.


Hodgson says that the titles of these "schools" were his pandit's invention. But did Hdogson perhaps suggest o Amrtananda ;the concepts he got back  for  him, by his insistent question of doctrine? the answer, if it can be found so long after the vent, lies buried in Hodgson's voluminous papers in the India Office Library. For those interested in Nepalese Buddhism, there is undoubtedly much else to be discovered there as well.


1.       I would like to thank R.F. Gombrich and D.P. Martinez for comments on an earlier draft of this article. My own research in Nepal,. 1982-4, could not have been undertaken without the support of a Leverhulme Study Abroad Studentship.


2.       SEe Monier-Williams (1890: 204), kern (1896:134)La Vallee Poussin (1908: 93), Keith (1923: 301), Getty (1928: 2-3) Glasenapp (1936: 110), Dasgupta (1962: 340-1; 1974: 97-8), Bareau (1966: 210), pal (1974: 13) and snelling (1987: 218). Surprisingly, Hodgson's schools are even recorded by the NEpale3se historian D.R.Regmi (1965 I: 569) who, whiler he doe not endorse their existnhce, expresses no overt skepticism about them either.


3.       On Hodgson's life see Hunter (1896) and Philip Denwood's introduction to Hodgson (1972). Hodgson was assistant Resident from 1825 to 1833 and Resident from 1833 to 1843.


4.       Hunter (1896: 276) describes how "Hodgson's first essays [on Buddhism] produced and extraordinary sensation in Europe.


5.       In the colourful language of vincent Smith (1924: 382): "the chief interest which [Nepal} offers to some students is the opportunity presented by it for watching the manner in which the octopus of Hinduism is slowly strangling its Buddhist victim. " Fortunately, the frequent announcements of the death of Newar Buddhism have been premature.


6.       The single most important source is Locke (1980). His other works (1975, 1985, 1987) should also be consulted. The best introduction to the cultural history of the Valley, although disappointing on Buddhism, is Sluser (1982). Anthropological work has been done by M. Allen (1973, 1975, 1983), Green wold (1974a, 1974b) and recently by Lienhard (1978, 1984, 1985, 1986) and myself (Gellner 1986, 11987b, 1988a, 1988b, 1989c). Greater detail can be found in unpublished ph. D. s by Riley-Smith (1982), Lewis (1984) and Gellner (1987a). An important historical source is kolver and sakya (1985). Riccardi (1980) summarized what is known from inscription about the early history of Buddhism in Nepal.  


7.       Thus Robinson and Johnson (1977: 186) write that " Buddhism finally became syncretized with Tantric Hinduism and today no longer exists as a separate religion in Nepal, except for small minorities who still consider themselves Buddhists, Its vestiges (prayer wheels and flags, stupa) are found today in the country's popular religion." This is quite untrue. Buddhism among the Newars had a separate organizational existence. It is not correct to describer it as marely popular. Prayer wheels and prayer flags, far part, usually erected by those who have spent time in Tibet.


8.       See Hodgson (1972I: 41-52a0, for Hodgson's question and Amritananda's answer. The sketch of Buddhism contained therein is, as Hodgson thought, valuable, but the persistent focus on doctrine enabled Hodgson to project his imaginary schools onto the answers. 


9.       Cf. Hunter (1896: 270-80) for mention of two controversies Hodgson became involved in.


10.   Ye dharma hetuprabhava hetum tesam tathagato hy avadat tesamca yo niradha evamvadi mahasr amana. Hodgson (op. cit .: 111f) was aware of the other, correct translation Apparently it was Amritananda who insisted, in certain moods, on the theistic interpretation.


11.   Thus Hodgson;'s quotations, 6,7,12,13,14,15 and 16 documenting the Adi-Buddha doctine correspond to verse 46,47,43-4, 44-5, 59, 60 and 61 respectively of the Ndamasamgiti (see Davidson 1981).


12.   On the Adi-Dharma Hodgson's quotations 4 through 11 correspond to verses 2,3,4,7,9,13,`7, and 19 respectively of Rahulabhadra's prajnaparamita-stotra (Conze 1959; 169-71). Hodgson gives the Astasahasrika Prajnaparamitasthe source; the verses are indeed usually cited before the beginning of that work. (see Vaidya ed. 1960A: 1-2, where they are ascribed to Nagarjuna).


13.   See Hodgson (1972I: 43-4) foe some of them.




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