Arya Shantideva was born in a place called Saurastra in the South of India. His father was King Kalyanavarnam, and his given name was Shantivarnam. Even in his youngest years he always acted like a Bodhisattva. He had a great faith in the Mahayana teachings, great respect for his teachers, and he was diligent in his studies. He was always helpful to the king’s ministers and to all the subjects, very compassionate to the poor, the sick, and the lowly, giving them aid and protection and he also became very learned and skillful in all the arts and sciences.
During his youth, he met a wandering yogi who gave him the teachings on the Tikshna Manjushri Sadhana, and through this practice he established a strong connection with the bodhisattva Manjushri and attained a high level of realization.
When Shantideva’s father passed away, the ministers of the kingdom wanted to make him the next king, and they prepared a great throne for his enthronement ceremony. But the night before he was to be enthroned, he had a dream in which he saw Manjushri sitting on his throne, and Manjushri said, “My son, this is my seat, and I am your teacher. How can we two sit on the same seat?” Shantideva interpreted the dream as an indication from Manjushri that it is no use to become king. So he fled the kingdom, leaving everything behind.
He went to the monastic university of Nalanda, where he become a monk under Jayadeva, who was the head of the five-hundred panditas (scholar-practitioners) at Nalanda. It was at that time that he was given the name Shantideva.
At Nalanda, Shantideva studied all the teachings of the three pitakas and meditated on their meaning. But he studied and practiced on his own, in private, and within himself, focusing on the meaning of the teachings and practice. He secretly composed two treatises that condensed the meaning of the pitakas: the Compendium of Trainings and the Compendium of Sutras.
Although Shantideva had these great qualities of realization and renunciation, he remained in Nalanda without doing anything outwardly. To the other students, he seemed to be the laziest person there, so they called him Bhusuku. Bhu comes from bhukta, which means eating. And us comes from susta, which means sleeping. And ku comes from kuchiwa, which means just walking. So bhusuku is one who just eats, sleeps, and goes out to the toilet.
The students at Nalanda thought that he was a disgrace to them, because everybody else was studying and debating and giving teachings—everybody was busy doing something, and Shantideva was doing nothing. He was just sleeping in his small room, eating their food, and strolling around. They wanted to expel him, but they couldn’t find an excuse to expel him because he had done nothing wrong. So they tried to find a way to drive him away.
Then somebody had a great idea and said, “We should make a new system that all the students in the university have to give a teaching. When his turn comes, he won’t know how to teach, so he will run away!” They all agreed to this and they asked Shantideva to give a teaching. But Shantideva wouldn’t agree to teach. He just said, “Oh, please don’t ask me. I don’t know anything.” So they asked his teacher to order him to teach. So Shantideva’s teacher ordered him to teach, and then Shantideva agreed to teach.
By now the other students really wanted to embarrass him, so they built a huge throne and put it at the center of a big open field, and then they invited everybody from the whole community around the university to come and listen to Shantideva.
Finally, when the time came for him to give the teaching, Shantideva just appeared on the throne. No one saw him arrive or climb onto the throne, and they couldn’t figure out how he got there. Then Shantideva said, “What kind of teaching should I give? Something that has been given before, or something which has never been given before?” Of course, everybody shouted, “Something that has never been given before!”
Shantideva replied, “I have these three teachings. Compendium of Trainings is too long, and Compendium of Sutras is too short, therefore I will give you the Bodhicharyavatara, which is of middle length.”
Shantideva then recited the Bodhicharyavatara from memory, and it is said that many people saw Manjushri in the sky above his head as he recited the text. Legend has it that when Shantideva reached the thirty–fifth verse of the ninth chapter, which is the most difficult part of the book, he and Manjushri levitated off the ground, and rose up higher and higher into the air until they disappeared. Shantideva’s voice could still be heard until he finished the teaching.
Afterwards, everyone was very impressed! A few panditas with extraordinary memory had written down notes, but when they tried to compare their notes, there were two different opinions on what was said. According to the panditas from Kashmir, the text had nine chapters and seven hundred stanzas. But a group of panditas from central India thought it had ten chapters and one thousand stanzas. In addition, they did not know what Shantideva meant by these two books, Compendium of Trainings and Compendium of Sutras, which were referred to in the teaching.
So they searched for Shantideva all over India, and after quite some time they found him at the stupa of Shridakshina, in the south. The Nalanda scholars went there and invited Shantideva to come back to Nalanda and teach. He would not go with them, but he settled their disagreement about the text, and said that it has ten chapters and one thousand stanzas. Then he told them where to find the two other books that he had written: Shantideva had written the texts on palm leaves and hidden them under the thatched straw roof in his room. He also gave them the reading transmission and explanations of these texts.
The three books written by Shantideva are Compendium of Trainings, which is quite long, Compendium of Sutras, which is very short, and Bodhicharyavatara, which is of medium length. The Bodhicharyavatara was written for all beings generally, but especially for these five hundred panditas of Nalanda University, to show them the genuine path of a Bodhisattva. It is said that there were one hundred and eight commentaries written on the Bodhicharyavatara in India.
— History of Shantideva according to a biography made by Khenpo Kunpal