The Tantric Master Mahasiddha Virupa
An eminent figure in the Buddhist tradition, the Mahasiddhi Virupa, also known as Virupaska and Tutop Wangchuk, was a great yogi, a master of tantric practices, and an accomplished scholar. He was a great exponent of tantric lore that he imparted to the people of Tibet, eventually becoming the definitive guide for the Sakya Buddhist school in Tibet.
Born in a royal family, he embarked on a spiritual odyssey mastering the art of tantric practices, ultimately achieving the status of Mahasiddha, which refers to one who personifies and cultivates the "siddhi of perfection." He is considered one of the 84 Mahasiddhas, or great adepts of Tantric Buddhism, who attained the ultimate goal of enlightenment through their practice.
The life of Mahasiddha Virupa teaches us about the pursuit of inner peace and enlightenment and that the arduous journey towards these goals is worthwhile. So let us look into the inspiring life journey of the great Mahasiddha Virupa.
The Early Years of Mahasiddha Virupa
Historically, the earlier life of Mahasiddha Virupa is much contested due to contradicting records. According to Tibetan sources, Virupa was born in Tripura, East India, and studied at the Somapura Mahavihara as a monk, where he would practice tantra like Cakrasamvara. While according to the Indian sources, like in the Navanathacaritramu, he is believed to have been born in Maharashtra around the region of Konkan to a religious Brahmin family. However, in both Tibetan and Indian sources, Virupa is detailed as having lived in Maharashtra at some point in his lifetime.
But following another account of the Mahasiddha, he is believed to have lived during the 7th-8th century CE and was born to a royal family in the ancient city of Vesasa in India or somewhere in present-day east India. The boy returned to the royal couple and was prophesied to gain spiritual prowess and propagate the teachings of Buddha by court astrologers. This prediction would become a reality several decades later. Before claiming himself as the Mahasiddhi Virupa, he was named Rupyachakra.
Education and Scholarly
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He was educated in the Vedas and other traditional scriptures early on and would initially join the Somapura Mahavihara, a renowned monastery located in North Bengal. He would go on to prove himself an exceptional intellect mastering all five major Buddhist sciences, as well as other religious and philosophical systems, distinguishing himself as an unparalleled scholar. During his stay at Somapure, he constructed a temple with sacred Buddha imageries to accumulate merits and purify the negative karma of his deceased parents.
After completing his studies at Somapura, Rupyachakra proceeded to Nalanda University, renowned for its comprehensive education in all four schools of Buddhist thought. Here, he was fully ordained by Dharmamitri, the abbot of the Mulasarvastivada School, who bestowed him with the name Shri Dharmapala. and was eventually appointed as the abbot of Nalanda. He would master Buddhist and non-Buddhist philosophies and instructions on the Chakrasamvara tantra, delving deeper into knowledge. Shri Dharmapala eventually got appointed as the Great abbot of the University, presiding over the institute's scholars.
Despite his dedicated practice in Chakrasamvara and scholarship, Shri Dharmapala struggled to achieve spiritual realization. This left him distressed, and on a particular night, after experiencing several negative dreams, he took it as a sign of his not possessing the necessary karma to succeed in Vajrayana practice. Hence, in despair, he threw his mala into a toilet, abandoning his spiritual path and renouncing his practice altogether. However, upon the appearance of Nairatmaya, a deity with whom he had a karmic link, in his dream, appealing to him to retrieve the mala and renew his commitment to the Vajrayana path after a heartfelt confession, Dharmapala would resume his practice with more incredible determination than before. To his amazement, he quickly gained signs of spiritual accomplishment and profound realizations of reality's nature.
Claiming the name Virupa Mahasiddhi
Following his spiritual attainment, Dharmapala's integrity as a monk was cast into doubt. Rumors filled the Nalanda University with claims of witnessing numerous women entering his room or of him consuming meat and intoxicants in time, leading to considerable controversy and sparking debates as he was still the Abbott of Nalananda. The females were dakinis partaking in the tsog offerings, which he did as a part of his tantric practice.
To dispel the rumors and false accusations against him and to prevent others from developing a negative view of Buddhadharma, Shri Dharmapala confessed his mistakes in front of the Triple Gem. He removed his robes, put down his begging bowl, and stripped naked, proclaimed, "I am wicked" or "Ame Virupa," taking on the name 'Virupa' meaning "the ugly one." He continued with his peculiar behaviors, such as begging for flowers to make garlands for his head; more appallingly, he visited pubs and brothels, which led to his expulsion from Nalanda.
Spiritual Journey and Acknowledgement
Now called Virupa and expelled from Nalananda, he began his journey towards Varanasi. He wandered around India as a disheveled yogin performing numerous miracles to help people subdue their minds. One account of such a miracle is when he stopped the sun with a simple hand gesture to avoid reimbursing at a tavern for the beer he drank. The sun would remain in the sky for days, resulting in dried crops and shrank rivers and lakes, afflicting significant troubles for the people. Virupa would only release the sun through the king's appeal agreed upon the king compensating the tavern bill instead.
Another account of Virupa's miracles was when he had to cross the river, Ganga, whereupon his request, the river parted to allow him to cross safely. The people who followed him realized their mistake immediately and recognized him as an enlightened being. Multiple accounts and stories of miracles performed by Virupa have been passed down from oral traditions. As he performed such acts of miracles, he started becoming well known all around, with people touched by his miracles becoming his disciples. Slowly, he formed a community around him with disciples bringing many people to the Vajrayan path.
Virupa's Death and his lasting legacy in Vajrayan Buddhism
Like his earlier life, the details of his later years and his eventual passing are shrouded in mystery, with some accounts saying he turned into a stone statue, while others claim he dissolved into one. There are no reliable sources to tell about his final years, but what is evident is his lasting legacy in Vajrayana Buddhism. Through his teachings and accomplishments, Mahasiddha Virupa inspired countless practitioners to follow the path of Buddhadharma and attain spiritual liberation. Through his life story, which is an oral tradition, many devotees are inspired with great faith in the transformative power of the Vajrayana path.
His life is awe-inspiring, from a promising scholar who experienced failure, which he subsequently overcame, to a figure of censure and controversy. From him having to relinquish his high-ranking position to embark on a spiritual journey as a wandering yogi, mastering the art of tantric practices, and attaining the status of a mahasiddha, we can learn the importance of perseverance in the face of obstacles. He has also contributed a lot with his several commentaries on the Buddhist sutras and tantras, founding many monasteries and teaching the Buddhadharma throughout his journey.