In Search of the Historical Acharya Shantideva

by Ven. J.M. Dharmakara Boda, The Buddhist Channel, APril 27, 2009

Los Angeles, CA (USA) -- Although there has been quite a bit of confusion in regard to the historical Acharya Shantideva, including questions about the original number of chapters and various dates assigned to the Bodhicaryavatara, this appears to be more related to a politically motivated preference for the Tibetan tradition and a failure within Buddhist scholarship to examine the history of southeastern Bangladesh, the region which has always been associated with Acharya Shantideva.

<< Shantideva (AD 687-763) was a famous Indian Buddhist master who composed the Buddhist classic Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life

Offering not only a documented history, but also an anchoring point in the development of Mahayana Buddhism, there were two different individuals in the Samatata territory of southeastern Bangladesh named "Shantideva" and both would leave their mark on Buddhism as it was practiced in the region.

The first to appear within Bengal history is the Acharya Shantideva of the Indian Madhyamika tradition, the founder of the Avaivartika Sangha in the 6th century, and he should be considered the author of the Bodhicaryavatara in it's original composition of nine chapters, while his namesake, the later Shantideva who is identified within the Tibetan tradition as a student at the university of Nalanda in the 8th century, could only have expounded on the Bodhisattva ideal from within the understanding of his predecessor and should be considered the author of the post-dedication which would become the tenth chapter of the Bodhicaryavatara.

The Bodhicaryavatara actually offers evidence of the tenth chapter as a post-dedication in the opening verse of the chapter itself: "May all sentient beings be graced with the Bodhisattva way of life by the virtue I have obtained while reflecting on the Bodhicaryavatara", which refers to an existing composition at the time that the tenth chapter was added, but this verse, as well as others, suffered in the Tibetan translation due to linguistic limitations and is only apparent in the Sanskrit original.

Any questions in regard to the historical Acharya Shantideva and the veracity of the Tibetan tradition were answered through a series of archaeological discoveries, beginning with the Gunaighar Grant Copperplate in 1925, which records not only the donation of land to the Avaivartika Sangha, but also mentions Acharya Shantideva by name in the 188th Year of the Gupta Era (506 CE).

Although the first published report on the copperplate contained several errors --- with the most obvious one being "Va [ya] vartika", designating the difference between Buddhist Non-Duality and that of the Brahmic (to not fall back in illusion) --- it appears that the author of the report was aware of the tradition of an independent Madhyamika school, but he was clearly more familiar with the Tibetan pseudo-biographies, the historical value of which would be later challenged by academia in general:

The plate records a gift of land from the camp of victory at Kripura by Maharaja Vainyagupta made at the instance of his vassal Maharaja Rudradatta in favour of a Buddhist congregation of monks belonging to the Vaivarttika sect of the Mahayana, which was established by a Buddhist monk, Acaryya Santideva in a Vihara dedicated to Avalokitesvara.

The name seems to have reference to the doctrine of Vivarta (Illusion), which found so much currency in post-Sankara Vedantism, but the term is never used in Buddhist philosophy as far as we know.

Nevertheless, it is an interesting fact that in the far Eastern corner of India, Mahayana Buddhism flourished under the broad patronage of both Buddhist and Brahmanic kings fully a century before the time of Yuan Chwang and allowed one of its teachers to found a new and distinct school of monks. It is tempting to identify Acaryya Santideva of our plate with the famous Mahayana teacher of the same name who wrote the Siksasamuccaya and the Bodhicaryavatara. There is nothing however to show that they are identical.

Excerpted from:
The Indian Historical Quarterly
Vol 6:1 /1930/ pp. 45-60

The keyword within the above excerpt is "identical" because the author of the report was not aware of, nor looking for, two different Shantidevas who would not only leave distinctive marks, but who were clearly related to the same ancestral family, with their lives and histories interwoven in ways which otherwise would have been impossible, as they occured within the environs of the same lands donated to the Avaivartika Sangha.

Contrary to the Tibetan tradition, the later Shantideva who is claimed to have studied at Nalanda did in fact become a king within the Samatata territory, having been shown through archaeological discoveries which record him as the first king of the Deva dynasty, a line of Buddhist rulers (approx. 750 - 850 CE) who considered the Bodhisattva ideal to be the highest Dharma and made the welfare of all sentient beings the law of their lands.

Although it cannot be said with certainty whether the tenth chapter was added before or after he became the ruler of the Samatata territory, the same cannot be said about the dynamics that would bring the Deva dynasty into existence, as their family lands were instrumental in maintaining the independence of the region because of their location on the Mainamati Ridge. The Deva dynasty was a kingship of necessity, during a time when lawlessness ruled over Bangladesh and the country had been overwhelmed by repeated foreign invasions, which included both the Tibetan and Mongolian armies in the North.

Spanning over four generations and establishing a culture of peace and prosperity in the Samatata territory, the succession of the Deva dynasty can be traced through several copperplates in the possession of the Asiatic Society at Calcutta, the respected publishers of the National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh: beginning with Shantideva; then his son and successor, Viradeva; followed by the latter's son and successor, Anandadeva; and finally the latter's son and successor, Bhavadeva, the last known king of the dynasty.

Of the Deva dynasty, it would be Anandadeva, the grandson of Shri Shantideva, who would leave the most extensive legacy behind, including a monastic university that would not only cast it's shadow over the university of Nalanda, but more than likely became a contributing factor in the older institution's fall into disrepair, as the newer university continued to thrive during the same time period.

In comparison with the life-spans of other ruling families, the Deva dynasty was short-lived, but the very culture and society they gave birth to would survive for years after them, shown not only through the peaceful transfer from one ruling dynasty to another, but also through the reports of travelers of the time who continued to comment on the region's unique expression of the Dharma, ending only when the region ceased to be a seat of authority in the 11th century, followed later by the eventual fall of Bangladesh to the conquering armies of Islam.

We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: