Receptacle of the Sacred: Illustrated Manuscripts and the Buddhist Book Cult in South Asia

Receptacle of the Sacred: Illustrated Manuscripts and the Buddhist Book Cult in South Asia

Receptacle of the Sacred: Illustrated Manuscripts and the Buddhist Book Cult in South Asia

Receptacle of the Sacred: Illustrated Manuscripts and the Buddhist Book Cult in South Asia

Synopsis

In considering medieval illustrated Buddhist manuscripts as sacred objects of cultic innovation, Receptacle of the Sacred explores how and why the South Asian Buddhist book-cult has survived for almost two millennia to the present. A book "manuscript" should be understood as a form of sacred space: a temple in microcosm, not only imbued with divine presence but also layered with the memories of many generations of users. Jinah Kim argues that illustrating a manuscript with Buddhist imagery not only empowered it as a three-dimensional sacred object, but also made it a suitable tool for the spiritual transformation of medieval Indian practitioners. Through a detailed historical analysis of Sanskrit colophons on patronage, production, and use of illustrated manuscripts, she suggests that while Buddhism's disappearance in eastern India was a slow and gradual process, the Buddhist book-cult played an important role in sustaining its identity. In addition, by examining the physical traces left by later Nepalese users and the contemporary ritual use of the book in Nepal, Kim shows how human agency was critical in perpetuating and intensifying the potency of a manuscript as a sacred object throughout time.

Excerpt

Therefore then, Ānanda, aspirants to awakening [i.e.,
followers of the Mahāyāna], aspirants to what is great
who want to obtain the knowledge of an omniscient
[i.e., a Buddha] must practice in this Perfection of
Wisdom. This Perfection of Wisdom must be heard,
taken up, preserved, recited [or read], mastered,
taught [or displayed], exhibited, declared, repeated,
copied, and after it has been well written in a great
book (mahāpustaka) with very clear letters through the
sustaining power of the Tathāgata [i.e., the Buddha]
it must be honored, treated as Guru, highly esteemed,
worshipped, adored, venerated with flowers, incense,
perfumes, garlands, unguents, aromatic powders,
clothes, music, covers, umbrellas, flags, bells, banners,
and garlands of lamps all around with many forms of
worship. This, Ānanda, is our direct instruction.

—Buddha’s instruction to Ānanda, Prajñāpāramitā
(Perfection of Wisdom) sūtra
, chapter 32

This book is an art historical and material cultural study of the Buddhist book cult in South Asia, whose adherents consider a book not only a text but also a sacred object of worship. The core materials examined in this study are illustrated Buddhist manuscripts prepared during the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries in the ancient regions of Magadha, Aṅga, Varendra (Gauḍa), Vaṇga, and Samataṭa (present-day Bihar, West Bengal, and Bangladesh; see map 3–1). During this period of late Indian Buddhism, books containing important Mahāyāna sūtras, especially the Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) sūtra, were produced in abundance, some with beautiful paintings. The cult of the book (Sanskrit, pustaka), the core idea for which dates to the inception of Mahāyāna Buddhism during the early centuries of our Common Era, witnessed its heyday during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when Tantric or Esoteric strands of Buddhism were in full bloom in the region. At the heart of this age-old cultic practice, which still contin-

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