Mahasiddhas (Tibetan: grub thob chen po; tul shug or tulshug; Sanskrit: maha - great, siddhas - achievers or adepts, who embody and cultivate siddhi) are a type of eccentric yogis or tantrikas important in Tantric Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. A Siddha or adept is an individual who, through the practice of sadhana attains the realization of siddhis or psychic and spiritual abilities and powers. It was the Mahasiddhas who instituted the practices that birthed the Inner Tantras. Their historical influence throughout the Indic and Himalayan region was vast and they reached mythic porportions which is codified in their hagiography. The Mahasiddha are acknowledged as the founders of many Indian and Buddhist traditions and lineages.
Series editor Robert A.F. Thurman, in the preface to Gray (2007: ix-x), contrasts the Tantric communities which subsumed the coteries of Mahasidda with universities such as Nalanda and mentions saiñnyãsin (Sanskrit) and sadhu (Sanskrit):
The Tantric communities of India in the latter half of the first Common Era millennium (and perhaps even earlier) were something like “Institutes of Advanced Studies” in relation to the great Buddhist monastic “Universities.” They were research centers for highly cultivated, successfully graduated experts in various branches of Inner Science (adhyatmavidya), some of whom were still monastics and could move back and forth from university (vidyalaya) to “site” (pitha), and many of whom had resigned vows of poverty, celibacy, and so forth, and were living in the classical Indian saiñnyãsin or sãdhu style. I call them the "psychonauts" of the tradition, in parallel with our “astronauts,” the materialist scientist-adventurers whom we admire for their courageous explorations of the “outer space” which we consider the matrix of material reality. Inverse astronauts, the psychonauts voyaged deep into “inner space,” encountering and conquering angels and demons in the depths of their subconscious minds.
Dowman holds that the eighty-four Mahasiddha are spiritual "archetypes":
The number eighty-four is a "whole" or "perfect" number. Thus the eighty-four siddhas can be seen as archetypes representing the thousands of exemplars and adepts of the tantric way. The siddhas were remarkable for the diversity of their family backgrounds and the dissimilarity of their social roles. They were found in every reach of the social structure: kings and ministers, priests and yogins, poets and musicians, craftsmen and farmers, housewives and whores.
The non-monastic Mahasiddha Dharma comprises: artists, business people, healers, family people, politicians, nobility, prostitutes and outcasts; the Mahasiddhas were a diverse group of people who were practical, committed, creative and engaged with their world. As a collective, their spirituality may be viewed as key and essential to their lives; simple, in concert and accord with all aspects of their lived experience. The basic elements of the lives of the Mahasiddas included their diet, physical posture, career, relationships; indeed 'ordinary' life and lived experience were held as the principal foundation and fodder for realization. As Siddhas, their main emphasis in spirituality and spiritual discipline was direct experience of the sacred and spiritual pragmatism.
Reynolds (2007) states that the Mahasiddha Tradition:
"...evolved in North India in the early Medieval Period (3-13 cen. CE). Philosophically this movement was based on the insights revealed in the Mahayana Sutras and as systematized in the Madhyamaka and Chittamatrin schools of philosophy, but the methods of meditation and practice were radically different than anything seen in the monasteries."
Mahasiddhas are a form of bodhisattva, meaning they not only have the spiritual abilities to enter nirvana whenever they please, but they are so compassionate they resolve to remain in samsara instead to help others. Mahasiddhas are often associated with historic persons, but nonetheless typically have magical powers or siddhi which they achieve by the efficacy of their spiritual practice.
Reynolds (2007) proffers that the Mahasiddha Tradition:
"...broke with the conventions of Buddhist monastic life of the time, and abandoning the monastery they practiced in the caves, the forests, and the country villages of Northern India. In complete contrast to the settled monastic establishment of their day, which concentrated the Buddhist intelligenzia [sic.] in a limited number of large monastic universities, they adopted the life-style of itinerant mendicants, much the wandering Sadhus of modern India."
The Mahasiddha Tradition may be conceived and considered as a cohesive body due to their spiritual style which was distinctively non-sectarian, non-elitist, non-dual, non-elaborate, non-sexist, non-institutional, unconventional, unorthodox and non-renunciate. The Mahasiddha Tradition arose in dialogue with the dominant religious practices and institutions of the time which often foregrounded practices and disciplines that were over-ritualized, politicized, exoticized, excluded women and whose lived meaning and application were largely inaccessible and opaque to non-monastic peoples.
Each Mahasiddha has come to be known for certain characteristics and teachings, which facilitates their pedagogical use. One of the most beloved Mahasiddhas is Virupa, who may be taken as the patron saint of the Sakyapa sect and instituted the Lam Dre (Tibetan: lam 'bras) teachings. Virupa (alternate orthographies: Birwapa/Birupa) lived in 9th century India and was known for his great attainments.
Other Mahasiddhas include Marpa, the Indian translator who brought Buddhist texts to Tibet, and Milarepa, Marpa's student and the first native-born Vajrayana guru or lama of Tibet. In Buddhist iconography, Milarepa is always represented with his right hand cupped against his ear, to listen to the needs of all beings. Another interpretation of the imagery is that the teacher is engaged in a secret yogic exercise (e.g. see Lukhang). (Note: Marpa and Milarepa are not mahasiddhas in the historical sense, meaning they are not 2 of the 84 traditional mahasiddhas. However, this says nothing about their realization.)
Some of the methods and practices of the Mahasiddha were codified in Buddhist scriptures known as Tantras. Traditionally the ultimate source of these methods and practices is held to be the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, but often it is a transhistorical aspect of the Buddha or deity Vajradhara or Samantabhadra who reveals the Tantra in question directly to the Mahasiddha in a vision or whilst they dream or are in a trance. This form of the deity is known as a sambhogakaya manifestation. The sadhana of Dream Yoga as practiced in Dzogchen traditions such as the Kham, entered the Himalayan tantric tradition from the Mahasiddha, Ngagpa and Bonpo. Dream Yoga or "Milam" (T:rmi-lam; S:svapnadarśana), is one of the Six Yogas of Naropa.
Four of the 84 Mahasiddhas are women. They are Kanakhala, the younger of the two Headless (Severed-Headed) Sisters, Lakshmincara The Mad Princess, Manibhadra, the Model Wife (the Happy Housewife) and Mekhala (c. 900) the elder of the two Headless (Severed-Headed) Sisters. .