The meteoric rise of ma~njushrI in the bauddha realm is not immediately apparently in his hazy beginnings. He appears to have been the focus of the syncretic absorption of several deities which can be seen in course of the evolution of the bauddha literature [foot note 1]:
1) In the earliest bauddha lore he appears as a gandharva pa~nchashikha ma~njughoSha who provides the celestial music during the visit of indra to the tathAgata.
2) By the time of the mahAyAna texts he appears as a bodhisattva receiving nAstika teachings. Soon he rose to being a bodhisattva of level 10 like avalokiteshvara and vajrapANi who were also to rise greatly in stature in the future. But he does not represent the state of the complete buddha. It was in this phase that he absorbed elements of the deity bR^ihaspati or vAchaspati. However, in this stage the seeds of his future rise are seen in a teaching made by the tathAgata to the nAstika brAhmaNa shAriputra, where he states that ma~njushrI is a progenitor of the bodhisattva-s and their guide.
3) In the major kriyA tantra, the Arya-ma~njushrI mUla kalpa he becomes an important deity after absorbing kumAra as has been described earlier. In this text it is mentioned that as kumAra he will perform the deeds of the buddha in the world.
4) In the yoga tantra-s (the ma~njushrI j~nana-sattvasya paramArtha nAma saMgIti or the ma~njushrI nAma saMgIti) and yoginI tantra-s (e.g. kAlachakra tantraM) he rises to be the Adibuddha and he is in the heart of the ShaD-buddha-s.In the yoga tantra phase he starts acquiring elements of the bhairava of the shaiva tantra-s and this absorption was critical for his rise as a major deity. This absorption to a degree enabled him to break free from the limitations of the bodhisattva mold which his earlier evolutionary history had placed him in. Now by imitating the supreme Astika devatA-s he could himself be presented as a supreme devatA by acquiring their attributes for free.
We now consider some aspects of the MNS to appreciate the universal descriptions of ma~njushrI:
avaivartiko hy anAgAmI khaDgaH pratyeka-nAyakaH |
nAnA-niryANa-niryAto mahAbhUtaika-kAraNaH || 51
Some of these names are clearly distinctive features of nAstika tradition, e.g. the rhino (khaDga), which is considered a chief pratyekadbuddha by virtue of its solitary peregrination, named in this shloka. The term mahAbhUtaika-kAraNaH i.e. the single cause amongst the primal elements to me appears to be rather incongruous, if interpreted in its natural sense, with the basic bauddha principle of shUnyavAda. We indeed note that the nAstika AchArya narendrakIrti glosses the term to be “the pure thought of enlightenment (i.e. bodhi) amidst the 4 bhUta-s” [as translated from the surviving Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit original by the American scholar Wyman]. So rather than seeing manju~shrI as the kAraNa he actually see him as the state of bodhi in which one realizes the shUnyatA of the mahAbhUta-s. This does appear like a contrived explanation for a term that would more naturally exist in a praise of a deity under the Astika framework.
The following names again are directly drawn from the brahminical substratum from which the nAstika-s drew their intellectuals:
brahmavid brAhmaNo brahmA brahmanirvANam AptavAn |
muktir mokSho vimokShA~Ngo vimuktiH shAntatA shivaH || 95
The word brahmavid is artificially explained by the nAstika-s as meaning knowing brahmA the deity.
The absorption of shiva:
amoghapAsho vijayI vajrapAsho mahAgrahaH |
vajrA~Nkusho mahApAsho vajrabhairava bhIkaraH || 66
krodharAT ShaNmukho bhImaH ShaDnetraH ShaDbhujo balI |
daMShTrAkarAla ka~NkAlo halAhala shatAnanaH || 67
yamAntako vighnarAjo vajravego bhayaMkaraH |
vighuShTavajro hR^idvajro mAyAvajro mahodaraH || 68
kulishesho vajrayonir vajramaNDo nabhopamaH |
achalaikajaTATopo gajacharmapaTArdradhR^ik || 69
In these series we notice the name ShaNmukha which is an inheritance from his kaumAra syncreticism of the earlier stage. The names vajrabhairava (the “vajrified” bhairava), halAhala, yamAntaka, vighnarAja, gajacharmapaTArdradhR^ik are all indicative of his absorption of shiva’s attributes. The nAstika AchArya chandrabhadrakIrti explains halAhala as the poison that makes the neck blue, making it pretty obvious what prototype he has in mind. Some of these absorptions of shiva, seen first in MNS, emerge as important emanations of ma~njushrI who are prominent in their own right as devatA-s of important tantric rituals and texts in the subsequent layers of nAstika productivity. The main among these is vajrabhairava also known as yamAntaka who is at the center of several sAdhana-s in later texts. The epithet describing the deity as holding a freshly skinned elephant has no mythological foundation in the earlier bauddha lore and is thus clearly a transfer of the image of shiva as the slayer of gajAsura.
At the same time we also see an absorption of viShNu underway:
samantadarshI prAmodyas tejomAlI sudarshanaH |
shrIvatsaH suprabho dIptir bhA bhAsurakara-dyutiH || 102
The tAthagata smR^iti explains that these names describe ma~njushrI as the unconquerable preserver who holds the blazing chakra in his hand and has the shrIvatsa in the heart. Thus the identification with viShNu is clear though he avoids mentioning viShNu by name.
The absorption of the famous features of viShNu are also apparent in:
trailokyaika-krama-gatir vyoma-paryanta-vikramaH |153ab
One who covers the worlds in a stride and one who covers the sky with a stride.
In this phase of their evolution, the nAstika-s were still trying to accommodate and identify their innovations with the Astika devatA-s rather than depicting the latter as being crushed by the former:
devAtidevo devendraH surendro dAnavAdhipaH |
amarendraH suraguruH pramathaH pramatheshvaraH || 148
In explaining this shloka the famed nAstika mantravAdin and grammarian chandragomin states that devAtideva is viShNu, the dAnava lord is vemachitra and that pramathesvara is mahAdeva. The other epithets are pretty obvious in identifying him with indra and bR^ihaspati. So nAstika tradition was fully alive to this identification with Astika devatA-s.
While the text repeatedly tries to present ma~njushrI as the compassionate Adi-buddha striving against the negativities in the form of the mAra-s, we do get a hint of him as a fierce warrior:
vajra-bANAyudhadharo vajra-khaDgo nikR^intanaH |
vishva-vajradharo vajrI ekavajrI raNaM-jahaH || 72
He is described as holding the adamantine arrow and slashing sword with which he defeats enemy warriors on the battle field as an ekavajrin. The early nAstika commentators like smR^iti explain this shloka metaphorically as showing ma~njushrI battling the defilements coming in the way of the bauddha praxis. But it was the more literal meaning of this imagery that was to inspire one of the greatest warriors in the future [Foot note 2].
Finally it should be noted that the MNS is the first major nAstika contribution in a fairly old Hindu tradition – that of the sahasranAma-s. The earliest of these the 1008 names of viShNu and shiva occur in the bhArata itself. In course of the evolution of the tAntrika mantra-mArga such names started acquiring significance as a notable component of the upAsana of devata-s. It is quite likely the nAstika-s were acutely aware of the need to create similar liturgies like the sahasranAma-s they used in their pUrvAshrama as Astika-s. Hence in creating the MNS it is not surprising that they used some elements from the sahasranAma-s of Astika devata-s. They also have a long uttarabhAga to the MNS which is like phalashruti of the sahasranAma-s. It is also interesting that phalashruti provide a long list of Astika devatA-s who will protect the nAstika if he performs the nAmasaMgIti. These include the invocation of pratya~NgirA amongst others to guard the votary of ma~njushrI:
sarva-vighna-vinAyaka-mArAri-mahApratya~NgirA-mahAparAjitA sa-rAtriM-divaM pratikShaNaM sarveryApatheShu rakShAvaraNa-guptiM kariShyanti |
brahmendropendra-rudra-nArAyaNa-sanatkumAra-maheshvara-kArtikeya-mahAkAla-nandikeshvara-yama-varuNa-kubera-hArItI-dasha-dig-lokapAlAsh cha etc…
[Foot note 2]. In 1583 CE Nurhachi, a Jurchen chief, who was a descendant of the Jurchen-Mongol warlord Moengke Timur, in his early twenties, had a vision while reading the MNS that he was an incarnation of ma~njushrI as the fierce warrior. His father and grandfather had just been killed in attack by a Jurchen chief in the pay of the chIna-s. He apparently had nothing by a few weapons and armor left behind by his ancestors. But inspired by the idea of being ma~njushrI’s incarnation he raised a force and led them to a spectacular string of victories in the steppes, unifying tribe after tribe. Finally in 1616 CE after 33 unbroken military successes he declared himself Khan with the title meaning “The Brilliant Khan Who Benefits All Peoples”, reflective of his identity with ma~njushrI. His unified Jurchen tribes even acquired a new name with a folk etymology in which Manchu was equated with ma~njushrI. Then he led his troops to great victories against the chIna-s, the Koreans and other steppe tribes. He was finally killed by Christian mercenaries employed the chIna-s. But his son was to conquer the chIna-s and found the last great empire of the steppes that ruled chIna – the Qing dynasty.