The Lives and Liberation of Princess Mandarava: The Indian Consort of Padmasambhava

The Lives and Liberation of Princess Mandarava: The Indian Consort of Padmasambhava

Trans. Lama Chonam and Sangye Khandro. Intro. Janet Gyatso
Boston, MA: Wisdom, 1998. Paperback, xi + 227 pages.

This is a Tibetan "treasure book" that is claimed to have been buried in the eighth century by Yeshe Tsogyal, the Tibetan consort of Padmasambhava, and then discovered as buried treasure by Samten Lingpa (b. 1871). If this account is to be believed, the story dates from the very founding of Buddhism in Tibet. Skeptics, however, will read this as an important example of hagiography composed in the early twentieth century.

In either case, the work is extraordinarily important, for its chief character is a woman who becomes a Buddha. It is, in fact, a proto-feminist document that reads right back into the very foundations of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism a very anti-patriarchal, liberating feminist dharma.

The work conforms to an archetypal pattern established early in the history of Buddhism in which the protagonist of the story relives the basic pattern established by the life of Siddhartha Gautama. The first several chapters describe Mandarava's previous incarnations, beginning with the "primordial mother," Pandaravasini. Long before she was born as Princess Mandarava into the royal family of Zahor, she had already achieved great spiritual awareness and was filled with tremendous magical power. She was, in fact, a Buddha.

From her birth as Princess Mandarava, she exhibits all the marks of an enlightened being and becomes known for her extraordinary power. Nevertheless, her father treats her often as a weak and innocent girl in need of protection and direction. Unlike Shakyamuni who escaped in the night from the confines of the palace, she is sequestered and in some ways humiliated by her father, who thinks she should be married off to a suitor. Eventually she convinces her parents that she wishes to be wedded only to Dharma. They agree, but send five hundred handmaidens to look after her. She is, after all, a princess.

When word is noised abroad that in her sangha lives also a male guru to whom the Princess has become attached, her father becomes incensed. He tries to kill the guru and imprison his daughter. The guru is, however, the great tantric master, Padmasambhava. He defends himself with his miraculous power, and the couple are eventually completely vindicated. Thereafter, they set out to defeat demons and negative-minded people all over north India and illumine one kingdom after another.

Mandarava enters parinirvana long before Padmasambhava and therefore never actually participates in his conversion of Tibet, but that, in fact, exalts her as a tremendous spiritual force that should be acknowledged and worshipped everywhere.

The story, filled as it is with magic and deeds of unimaginable spiritual power, may not convince the modern reader of its factuality. But that is beside the point, for its real message is that women can be enlightened just as fully as men and char everyone should recognize the potency of feminine spiritual accomplishment. To all those patriarchal Buddhists who denigrate women, this story offers a strident rebuttal. Surely this is a work which many American Buddhists will cherish. Perhaps it is a vision of what Buddhism in the twenty-first century will become.

The work is admirably translated by Sangye Khandro with the assistance of Lama Chonam and is introduced by Janet Gyatso, a well known scholar of Buddhism.


May/June 2001