Why this scholar's English translation of 'Kalacakra Tantra' is strategically important

With China laying claim on Buddhism, this is an attempt at reclaiming it back


This is a made in India original. The last major Buddhist text to be written in India—The Kalacakra—has remained locked, lost in translation. Till now.

Niraj Kumar—a scholar based in Delhi—has spent the past few years grappling to translate all the 1,047 verses of the Kalacakra Tantra into English. The Kalacakra Tantra: Translation, Annotation and Commentary is the first of its kind. “Several attempts were made by Western scholars in the early 19th century to translate the full text,’’ says Kumar. “This is yet to be achieved.”

It is a massive enterprise. Kumar's first volume of this text—that is very much an amalgamation of complex mathematics, philosophy—makes Vikram Seth's The Suitable Boy look skinny. And this is only the first volume. The first Indian translation of Kalacakra was the Vimalaprabha, which was made in 11th century. It is this version of the text that Kumar has chosen for the translation. But it has not been easy. Like all tantra texts, it is not just a simple translation of text. “Tantra is a corpus of systemic knowledge,’’ says Kumar. There are other realms—complex mathematical formulas, algorithms, planetary philosophy, cosmology as well as astrology. For Kumar, the text was more than an academic exercise and it became not only an obsession—but also a calling. It was a path littered with mystical experiences.

More than just a spiritual text, this translation of Kalacakra—which refers to three realms, the outer world; the inner world and the other world—is also essential for strategic reasons. Ask Kumar, why translate Kalacakra? “This Tantra was the last major work in Buddhist philosophy,’’ he says. “There has not been any other such work after this, especially in Sanskrit.” It is the text that travelled across Mongolia and Tibet. And with China laying claim on Buddhism, this is Kumar's attempt at reclaiming it back.

In 2016, China facilitated a Kalacakra ceremony in Tibet under the Panchen Lama. So, Kumar's translation provides the perfect weapon—of thought—to fight this war.

Excerpts of interview with Kumar:

Why is Kalacakra Tantra significant today?

The Kalacakra Tantra was the last major Buddhist tantric text written in India during the early 11th century. Tantra is a corpus of systemic knowledge. This text was monumental and combined Indian knowledge traditions of its time in a structured way.

It is very complicated; it delves into astronomy, Eurasian geography, alchemy, aromatics, midwifery, armament technology, dramaturgy, aesthetics, the erotic, contemplative subtle neuroscience, medicine, mathematics, linguistics, coding, science of respiration, and so on. This encapsulates the Nalanda tradition. It has been rightly termed the King of Tantras. It created a philosophical basis for tantric rituals and practices too.

Unlike majority of the world religions that claim monopoly over truth, Kalacakra philosophy though steeped deeply into Buddhist philosophy, propagates grand synthesis of divergent world-views and celebrated “Evam” i.e. ‘similarity”, “thusness”, “fusion”, as its leitmotif.

In a world where there is increasing violence, instability and scarcity of resources. The Kalacakra Tantra envisions a planetary Shambhala—a place of abundance.

Buddhist philosophy being in geostrategy by China.

China is pursuing its dream of Chinese Buddhism- Zhongguo Fójiào by bringing in Chinese characteristics. For China, Buddhism is the soft power to bring together hearts and minds of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.

India is the birthplace of Buddhist philosophy. Indian Buddhism spread India’s influence across the world.

India was central to Buddhism. Chinese emperors would erect a memorial for forefathers at Bodhgaya. When the Forbidden City in Central Beijing , the imperial palace of China was built by the Ming Emperor Yongle, the abbot of Bodhgaya, Sariputra was present during the ceremony. Sariputra blessed the enthronement of the fourth Ming Emperor, Hongshi in 1425 and again the Fifth Ming Emperor Zhu Zhanji in 1426 AD.

Today, China has more than 300 million Buddhist followers. Thailand, Myanmar, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Mongolia, Singapore and Bhutan have a more substantial Buddhist population. There are Buddhist republics like Buryatia and Kalmykia in the Russian Federation. Buddhism can be the glue to bind these countries.

How do you see China using Buddhism?

China has the largest Buddhist population. During the 19th century, when the Taiping rebellion was finally crushed in Nanjing in 1864 AD, China pursued a policy of revival of Buddhism. For the last few years, there has been a shift. China is pursuing the wider policy of Sinicization—transforming religious beliefs and faith in accordance with Chinese culture and society—of religions. In 2016, it became part of the State’s official policy.

Buddhism's Sinicization focuses on Chinese characteristics like the ancient court system and unity with Chinese socialism. The Chinese claim that during the Tang and Sui dynasty, Chinese Buddhism decoupled from Indian Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhism is treated as part of wider Buddhism with Chinese characteristics. China wants to use Buddhism to serve as the bridge between people’s hearts and minds to promote economic and trade exchanges and regional economic development. As Confucius Institutes failed to take off, China believes Buddhism can be glue instead.

One of the aspects of the book has been that you have found the location of Shamala, the spiritual kingdom. As well, as you have discovered the author of the Kalacakra?

I have authoritatively established Naropa, who was an Indian Buddhist master of the author of the Kalacakra Tantra. This is a big discovery. I have established using calculations that Oddiyana where Padmasambhava (the eighth-century Buddhist master who is credited to have spread Buddhism to Tibet) was not in Swat, Pakistan. I have also deduced the location of Shambhala in Southeast Asia near the border of India.

I have separated each word of the Sanskrit text to provide an explanation, which is very helpful for scholars. It is a first. Great explorers and thinkers like Hungarian Csoma de Koros, Helena Blavatsky, Helmut Hoffman, Nicholas Roerich, Rahul Sankrityayan had wished to decipher this text. It could be done by me. This is a small contribution in reowning Buddhism, that, too, Sanskrit tradition of Buddhism which does not fit into the Chinese narrative.


📣 The Week is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@TheWeekmagazine) and stay updated with the latest headlines