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The Charyapada is a collection of mystical poems, songs of realization in the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism. It was written in an Abahatta that was the common ancestor of Bengali, Assamese, Maithili and Odia between the 8th and 12th centuries and it is said to be the oldest collection of verses written in those languages. A palm-leaf manuscript of the Charyapada was rediscovered in the early 20th century by Haraprasad Shastri at the Nepal Royal Court Library. The Charyapada was also preserved in the Tibetan Buddhist canon.
As songs of realization, the Charyapada were intended to be sung. These songs of realisation were spontaneously composed verses that expressed a practitioner's experience of the enlightened state. Miranda Shaw describes how 'songs of realization were an element of the ritual gathering of practitioners in a ganachakra:
The feast culminates in the performance of tantric dances and music, that must never be disclosed to outsiders. The revellers may also improvise "songs of realization" (caryagiti) to express their heightened clarity and blissful raptures in spontaneous verse.
The credit of discovering Charyapad goes to Haraprasad Shastri who during his third visit to Nepal discovered about 47 verses in 1907, the body of which came to be called Charyapada, which are essentially Buddhist mystical songs. These were discovered from the Royal library of the Nepalese kings. Haraprasad Shastri first went to Nepal in 1897 for collecting Buddhist folklore. He discovered some folklore written in Sanskrit during his second trip in 1898. He undertook his third trip in 1907 in the hope of some more new folklore. He published his collections in a volume which was published in 1916. Although Haraprasad Shastri discovered as many as 47 poems (in fact 46 and a part of one), hints are there that the number would be 51 in total. These were written on narrow section of palm leaves.
The original palm-leaf manuscript of the Charyapada, or Caryācaryāviniścaya, consisting of an anthology of 47 padas (verses) along with a Sanskrit commentary, was discovered by Haraprasad Shastri at the Nepal Royal Court Library in 1907. This manuscript was edited by Shastri and published by the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad as a part of his Hajar Bacharer Purano Bangala Bhasay Bauddhagan O Doha (The Buddhist Songs and Couplets in a thousand years old Bengali Language) in 1916 under the name of Charyacharyavinishchayah. This manuscript is presently located at the National Archives of Nepal. Later Prabodhchandra Bagchi published a manuscript of a Tibetan translation containing 50 verses.
The Tibetan translation of the Charyapada provided additional information. It names the Sanskrit commentary as the Charyagiti-koshavrtti written by Munidatta. It also mentions that the original text was translated by Shilachari and its commentary by Munidatta was translated by Chandrakirti or Kirtichandra.
The manuscript of the Charyapada discovered by Haraprasad Shastri from Nepal consists 47 padas (verses). The title-page, the colophon-page,the pages 36, 37, 38, 39 and 66 containing the padas (verses) 24, 25 and 48 and their commentaries were missing in this manuscript. The 47 verses of this manuscript were written by 22 Mahasiddhas, or Siddhacharyas, whose names are mentioned at the beginning of each pada (except the first Pada). In the Tibetan Buddhist Canon version of the text and its commentary 50 padas are found, which include the padas 24, 25 and 48 and the complete form of the pada 23. Pada 25 was written by the Siddhacharya poet Tantripāda, who work was not found earlier. In his commentary on pada 10, Munidatta mentioned the name of another Siddhacharya poet, Ladidombipāda, but no pada written by him has been discovered so far.
The names of the Siddhacharyas in Sanskrit (or its Tibetan language equivalent) are mentioned prior to each pada. Probably, the Sanskrit names of the Siddhacharya poets were assigned to each pada by the commentator Munidatta. Modern scholars doubt whether these assignments are proper on the basis of the internal evidences and other literary sources. Controversies also exist amongst the scholars as to the original names of the Siddhacharyas.
The poets and their works as mentioned in the text are as follows:
|Kukkuripāda||2, 20, 48|
|Bhusukupāda||6, 21, 23, 27, 30, 41, 43, 49|
|Kānhapāda||7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 18, 19, 24, 36, 40, 42, 45|
|Sarahapāda||22, 32, 38, 39|
The language of Charyapada is rather symbolic in nature. So in many cases the literal meaning of a word does not make any sense. As a result every poem has a descriptive or narrative surface meaning but also encodes tantric Buddhist teachings. Some experts believe this was to conceal sacred knowledge from the uninitiated, while others hold that it was to avoid religious persecution. An attempt was made to decipher the secret tantric inheritance of Charyapada. 
Haraprasad Shastri, who discovered a few Charyapada, considered that it was written during the 10th century. However, according to Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Charyapada was composed between 10th and 12th century. Prabodh Chandra Bagchi upholds this view. Sukumar Sen while supporting this view maintained that Charyapada could have been written between 11th and 14th century. However, Muhammad Shahidullah was of the opinion that Charyapada dates back to earlier time. He maintained that it was likely to have been composed between 7th and 11th century. Rahul Sankrityayan thought that Charyapada was probably written between 8th and 11th century.
There is controversy about meaning of some words. Different linguists have diverse opinion about the real meaning of certain words.
It has been said that Charyapada was written in early form of Bengali and Oriya. Scholars of other languages claimed that it was written in Nepalese, Gujarati, Hindi, Maithili, and Assamese. Some scholars believe its words are more similar to Bishnupriya Manipuri rather than Bengali. It is claimed that Charyapada is the oldest record of Bishnupriya Manipuri literature.
Haraprasad Shastri in his introduction to the Charyacharya-vinishchaya referred to the enigmatic language of its verses as "twilight language" (Sanskrit: Sandhya-bhasha), or Alo-andhari (half expressed and half concealed) based on the Sanskrit commentary of Munidatta. But later Vidhushekhara Shastri on the basis of evidences from a number of Buddhist texts referred to this language as 'Intentional Language' (Sanskrit: Sandha-bhasha).
The Charyapadas were written by poets from different regions, and it is natural that they would display linguistic affinities from these regions. Different scholars claimed the affinities of the language of Charyapada with Assamese, Bengali, Maithili, and Oriya.
Affinities with Assamese
Negatives – the negative particle in Assamese comes ahead of the verb: na jãi (No. 2, 15, 20, 29); na jivami (No. 4); na chadaa, na jani, na disaa (No. 6). Charya 15 has 9 such forms.
Present participles – the suffix -ante is used as in Assamese of the Vaishnava period: jvante (while living, No. 22); sunante (while listening, No. 30) etc.
Incomplete verb forms – suffixes -i and -iya used in modern and old Assamese respectively: kari (3, 38); cumbi (4); maria (11); laia (28) etc.
Present indefinite verb forms – -ai: bhanai (1); tarai (5); pivai (6).
Future – the -iva suffix: haiba (5); kariba (7).
Nominative case ending – case ending in e: kumbhire khaa, core nila (2).
Instrumental case ending – case ending -e and -era: uju bate gela (15); kuthare chijaa (45).
The vocabulary of the Charyapadas includes non-tatsama words which are typically Assamese, such as dala (1), thira kari (3, 38), tai (4), uju (15), caka (14) etc.
Affinities with Oriya
The beginnings of Oriya poetry coincide with the development of Charya Sahitya, the literature thus started by Mahayana Buddhist poets. Jayadeva's Gita Govinda uses the same poetical structures employed by the Charyapada and appears to have employed some of the same ragas.
Affinities with Bengali
A number of Siddhacharyas who wrote the verses of Charyapada were from Bengal. Shabarpa, Kukkuripa and Bhusukupa were born in different parts of Bengal. Some of the affinities with Bengali can be found from Genitive in -era, -ara;
Dative in –re;
Locative in –ta;
Post-positional words like majha, antara, sanga;
Past and future bases in –il-, -ib-;
Present participle in –anta;
Conjunctive indeclinable in –ia;
Conjunctive conditional in –ite;
Passive in –ia-
Substantive roots ach and thak.
From the mention of the name of the Rāga (melody) for the each Pada at the beginning of it in the manuscript, it seems that these Padas were actually sung. All 50 Padas were set to the tunes of different Rāgas. The most common Rāga for Charyapada songs was Patamanjari.
|Patamanjari||1, 6, 7, 9, 11, 17, 20, 29, 31, 33, 36|
|Gabadā or Gaudā||2, 3, 18|
|Gurjari, Gunjari or Kanha-Gunjari||5, 22, 41, 47|
|Kāmod||13, 27, 37, 42|
|Dhanasi or Dhanashri||14|
|Balāddi or Barādi||21, 23, 28, 34|
|Mallāri||30, 35, 44, 45, 49|
|Bhairavi||12, 16, 19, 38|
While, some of these Rāgas are extinct, the names of some of these Rāgas may be actually the variants of the names of the popular Rāgas as we know them today.
Many poems provide a realistic picture of early medieval society in eastern India by describing different occupations of people such as hunters, boatmen, and potters. The geographical locations, namely Banga and Kamarupa, are referred to in the poems. Names of the two rivers that occur are the Ganga and Yamuna. River Padma has been referred to as a canal. No reference to agriculture is available. References to female prostitution occur as well. The boat was the main mode of transport. Some description of wedding ceremony is also available.
Produced below is English translation of the first verse of Charyapada. It was composed by Buddhist Siddhacharya poet Luipa.
The body is like the finest tree, with five branches.
Darkness enters the restless mind.
Strengthen the quantity of Great Bliss, says Luyi.
Learn from asking the Guru.
Why does one meditate?
Surely one dies of happiness or unhappiness.
Set aside binding and fastening in false hope.
Embrace the wings of the Void.
Luyi says : I have seen this in meditation
Inhalation and exhalation are seated on two stools.
This piece has been rendered into English by Hasna Jasimuddin Moudud.
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