Buddhist Mythology: Two Harrowings, Six Misconceptions, and a Parallel

I found the oddest mythological parallel the other day while doing some reading. In the Avalokiteśvaraguṇakaraṇḍavyūha (“The Seeing of Avalokiteśvara’s Basket of Features,” a Mahāyāna Buddhist scripture), the bodhisatva Avalokiteśvara is depicted in a Buddhist “harrowing of hell” story, much like in the Gospel of Bartholomew.

In the previously-mentioned Gnostic Christian text, while Jesus is on his way down to hell, Hades and the Devil have a humorous (IMO) dialogue that reads like a fairy tale:

[From the Gospel of Bartholomew:] Hades said unto the Devil: “As I perceive, a god cometh hither.” The angels cried unto the archons, saying: “Remove your gates, ye princes, remove the everlasting doors, for behold the King of glory cometh down!” Hades said: “Who is the King of glory, that cometh down from heaven unto us?” and when Jesus had descended five hundred steps, Hades was troubled, saying: “He cometh with great fragrance and I cannot bear it!” But the Devil answered and said: “Submit not thyself, O Hades, but be strong: for God himself hath not descended upon the earth.” But when Jesus had descended yet five hundred more steps, the angels and the archons cried out: “Take hold, remove the doors, for behold the King of glory cometh down!” And Hades said: “O, woe unto me, for I hear the breath of God!” And the Devil said unto Hades: “Look carefully. Who is that? For it is Elias, or Enoch, or one of the prophets that this man seemeth to me to be.” But Hades answered the Devil and said: “Not yet are six thousand years accomplished. And whence are these, O Belial; for the sum of the number is in mine hands!”

(Gospel of Bartholomew, translated M. R. James, “Beliar” changed to “the Devil” and “Belial” throughout, “the powers” changed to “the archons”)

“Oh, what a fragrance you have, Jesus.”

It has all the makings of a good classic story:

“Who’s that trip-tromping down my stairs?” Pluto asks.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” says Belial.
(Repeat ad libitum.)

I had a point when I started this. Ah, yes:

The Avalokiteśvaraguṇakaraṇḍavyūha has a dialogue between the hell wardens and King Yama (the king of hell) which I read in much the same way as the above dialogue between Hades and Belial/Satan, oddly enough:

[From the Karaṇḍavyūha:] The Bhagavān answered him, “Noble son, Bodhisattva Mahāsattva Avalokiteśvara entered the great Avīci hell just as a cakravartin king enters a grove made of divine jewels. Noble son, it had no effect upon his body. As he approached the Avīci hell, it cooled. The beings that were Yama’s guards were in a state of agitation and extremely terrified. They wondered, ‘Why has an inauspicious sign appeared in this Avīci hell?’ When the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara entered the Avīci hell, lotus flowers the size of cartwheels appeared, [hell] burst open, and the inferno of fire transformed into a pool. On seeing these inauspicious signs appear in Avīci hell, Yama’s guardians became dismayed. Then Yama’s guardians gathered their swords, clubs, short spears, long spears, maces, discuses, tridents, and so on, and, taking all their Avīci utensils, went to the Dharmarāja Yamarāja. When they arrived, they told him, ‘Divine One, know first that our place of work is completely destroyed.’ Dharmarāja Yamarāja asked them, ‘Why is your place of work completely destroyed?’ Yama’s guardians answered, ‘Divine One, know first that an inauspicious omen appeared in this Avīci hell, all of which became peaceful and cool. There entered a handsome being, with his hair in a topknot, his body beautified by divine adornments, with an extremely loving mind, and resembling a golden statue. That is the kind of being that arrived. The moment he arrived, lotus flowers the size of cartwheels appeared, [hell] burst open, and the inferno of fire was transformed into a pool.’ Yamarāja wondered, ‘What deity has manifested this power? Is this a special result that has occurred through the blessing of the deity Maheśvara, Nārāyaṇa, or some other deity? Have they descended to this level? Or has a powerful rākṣasa been born who rivals great Rāvaṇa?’ He looked with his divine sight into the heavens, wondering whose blessing this could be. Then he looked back into the Avīci hell and saw Bodhisattva Mahāsattva Avalokiteśvara there.”

(Toh 116, Degé Kangyur, vol. 51 mdo sde, pa, folios 200.a–247.b., translated by Peter Alan Roberts & Tulku Yeshi)

When King Yama witnesses the brilliance of Avalokiteśvara descending into the Avīci hell, he wonders if it is on account of the blessings of the presence of Maheśvara (Śiva) or Nārāyaṇa (Viṣṇu) or the birth of one like Rāvaṇa that hell is ennobled. King Yama referencing these Hindu figures reminds me of when it is suggested in the Gospel of Bartholomew that the incoming glory is a god (presumably Zeus or Poseidon?), after which the Devil speculates it must be Elias or Enoch. Maybe this is an overstated similarity.

The Avalokiteśvaraguṇakaraṇḍavyūhasūtra is here online: https://read.84000.co/translation/toh116.html.

I think it makes for a good read as top-notch human religious mythology. If the above doesn’t sell it to you, I can highlight what comes next, which is my favourite part of the sūtra by far (if you’ll forgive me a spoiler)!. It is the address of King Yama to Avalokiteśvara. The text described it as a “particularly sacred praise,” which IMO means it is likely some sort of ancient Hindu way to address a deity or lord, repurposed here for Avalokiteśvara. Note how the material conflates Avalokiteśvara and Maheśvara/Śiva. I think this was originally some sort of praise for Maheśvara appearing here in Buddhist form, but that’s just my speculation:

“Yamarāja went to Bodhisattva Mahāsattva Avalokiteśvara, bowed down his head to his feet, and made this special praise: ‘I pay homage to Avalokiteśvara, Maheśvara, lover of lotuses, giver of the supreme boon, who has power; who illuminates the world; who brings relief; who has a hundred thousand arms; who has a hundred thousand times ten million eyes; who has eleven heads; who reaches Vaḍavāmukha; who delights in the Dharma; who completely frees all beings; who brings relief to turtles, crocodiles, and fish; who creates the greatest mass of wisdom; who brings joy; who is a splendor of jewels; who is sublime; who extinguishes Avīci; who is adorned by the splendor of wisdom; who delights in wisdom; who is the one to whom all devas make offerings, pay homage, and show reverence; who brings freedom from fear; who teaches the six perfections; who illuminates like the sun; who creates the lamp of Dharma; whose perfectly supreme form is whatever form is pleasing; who has the form of a gandharva; who has a form like a mountain of gold; who is deep like the vast ocean; who has attained the ultimate yoga; who shows his own face; who has many hundreds of thousands of samādhis; who brings true pleasure; who has a beautified body; who manifests as the supreme rishi; who brings freedom from the terrors of bondage in stocks and manacles; who is free from all existences; who has many retinues; who creates abundance; who is a precious wish-fulfilling jewel; who teaches the path to nirvāṇa; who brings the city of the pretas to an end; who is a parasol for beings; who liberates beings from illness; who has a sacred thread made of the nāga kings Nanda and Upananda; who reveals the beneficial lasso; who has hundreds of mantras; who terrifies Vajrapāṇi; who terrifies the three worlds; who frightens yakṣas, rākṣasas, bhūtas, pretas, and piśācas, vetālas, ḍākinīs, kūṣmāṇḍas, and apasmāras; who has eyes like blue lotuses; who has profound wisdom; who is the lord of knowledge; who brings freedom from all afflictions; who accumulates various paths to enlightenment; who has entered sacred liberation; who has paths to enlightenment accumulated within his body; who completely liberates pretas; and who has hundreds of thousands of samādhis as numerous as atoms.’”

…who brings relief to turtles, crocodiles, and fish…

Goodness! Brings relief to me is more like! I was worried about their blood pressures. If that doesn’t get you reading a piece of medieval Indian literature, I don’t know what will.


By the way, for those who wondered at the title of this thread, the “harrowings” are that of 1) Jesus and 2) Avalokiteśvara, the “misconceptions” are 1) a God, 2) Elias, 3) Enoch, 4) Śiva, 5) Viṣṇu, and 6) Rāvaṇa, and the parallel is these two texts/textual traditions (the Harrowing of Hell is a textual tradition not limited to the Gospel of Bartholomew). I’m going to tag @Javier for possible inclusion in the Buddhist mythology wikipedia page.

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