Naropa (1016-1100) is one of the 84 mahasiddhas in India. He was born to a noble family in Bengal, India. Acutely sensitive to the transient and unsatisfactory character of the world, he began to study at age eleven, and soon excelled in Buddhist scholarship. At twenty-five, he became a monk, and eventually joined the faculty of the great University of Nalanda, where he became one of the four principal abbots.
While he was absorbed in study one day, a hideous old woman appeared at his side and asked if he knew the words or the meaning. When Naropa replied that he knew the words, the old woman laughed and danced with delight. Hoping to please her further, Naropa added that he also understood the meaning. Abruptly, the old woman burst into tears. When Naropa inquired into the reason for her distress, she replied, "You spoke the truth when you said you knew only the words, but you lied when you said that you know their meaning." Accordingly, Naropa asked who might know the meaning. "Seek my brother, Tilopa," the old woman advised, "and beg him to teach you the meaning!" So saying, she vanished like a rainbow.
Naropa left the university, and set off with a begging bowl and staff in search of Tilopa. One day he wandered into a river gorge, and found himself maneuvering down a narrow path with rapids on one side and a sheer cliff on the other. There, he encountered a leper woman who had neither hands nor feet. "Go around," she cried, "or leap over me!" Seeing no other choice, Naropa leapt over her. In that instant, the leper rose into the sky. Surrounded by a halo of light, she exclaimed, "How will you ever find the teacher if you cling to appearances through the power of habit?" The scene abruptly vanished, and Naropa fainted.
Such fearsome apparitions repeatedly arose as Naropa searched ever more desperately for his teacher. Only after Naropa finally gave in to despair and was about to take his own life did Tilopa appear. "Why have you avoided me?" Naropa implored. "I have been with you the whole time," Tilopa replied, "but because of your obscured mind, you were tormented by visions and couldn't see me."
Naropa attended his master with intense devotion. One day, Tilopa led him to the top of a high tower, saying, "A disciple of mine would jump from here." Without hesitation, Naropa jumped and landed at the base of the tower, all his bones broken, unable to move. Tilopa came down and asked, "What's wrong, Naropa? Belief in a self is a body which deserves to be broken. Look instead at the secret of your own mind." With a touch of his hand, Tilopa healed Naropa's broken body, and bestowed profound instructions, which Naropa practiced wholeheartedly.
Over a period of twelve years, Naropa endured twelve great ordeals which gradually purified the obscurations of his mind, and awakened the four kayas, the ultimate enlightenment of a Buddha. After receiving the complete transmissions from Tilopa, he wandered in desolate places, absorbed in the limitless freedom of awareness devoid of clinging, and worked miracles to benefit beings. At last, he settled at the hermitage of Phullahari, and guided many disciples on the path to liberation.