Series Four Volume 3

Gifts of the Goddess: Offerings of Dhāraṇī (Memory Enhancement), Mantras, and Tantric Invocation Rituals by Sarasvatī and Śrī in the Sutra of Golden Light

The present study proposes that the goddesses Sarasvatī and Śrī appear in the Sutra of Golden Light (Suvarṇaprabhāsottama sūtra, 金光 明經, ca. early fifth century CE) as exemplars of the relationship of female deities to bodhisattvahood, dhāraṇī bestowal, and developments in deity invocation via mantra-based rituals. The goddesses demonstrate agency as Mahāyāna practitioners (i.e., bodhisattvas) who work on behalf of the Dharma and, specifically, the sutra itself. Nonetheless, Mahāyāna sutras are generally hesitant to name female practitioners as “bodhisattvas” explicitly. This paper therefore compares the level and type of aid that Sarasvatī and Śrī offer to devotees who uphold the text. From there, we can then begin to assess each goddess’s soteriological status as implied bodhisattvas. What emerges is the goddesses’ active participation and presence within a distinct ritual hierarchy, wherein they support and enhance the power of all buddhas and this revered text. Part one problematizes the scholarly assertion that dhāraṇī (zŏnchí 總持) invokes female deities in the sutra. Scholars have often described dhāraṇī as synonymous with mantra, yet in this context dhāraṇī instead likely functions solely as the attainment of the superhuman power of memory for bodhisattva preachers (dharmabhāṇakas). Thus, the development of ritual praxis in Mahāyāna contexts may be a more complex and nuanced process than scholars have previously indicated. Part two then highlights the use of mantra-based rituals in this text as an important node in the burgeoning network of early tantric ritual technologies and female deity reverence in South Asian Buddhism.

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