Naropa is one of the most prominent and authoritative Indian mahasiddhas and masters of mahahudra and tantra. He received the mahamudra and tantra lineage teachings from his guru Tilopa and transmitted them to his disciple, Marpa, the Great Translator of Tibet.
Naropa was born into a Brahmin Royal family, but he later became instead the most learned pandita in the Buddha-dharma. He was honored for this accomplishment by being made the "Northern Gatekeeper" of Nalanda and Vikramashila universities. He taught at the universities and became one of the most well-known abbots of the time. During this time, he practiced the vajrayana tantric meditation of Cakrasamvara every evening and had many sacred visions of the dakinis. At some point, one dakini encouraged him to leave by saying, "In the east is Tilopa. Go before him and you will attain great siddhi!"
Naropa requested leave from the Abbot of Nalanda University, and with an intolerable yearning, he went in search of his master. He experienced extreme hunger and thirst and overexposure to the elements, but he didn’t allow any of these unbearable conditions to deter him in his search for Tilopa. He encountered ferocious dogs, wild animals, poisonous snakes, and other adverse situations that hindered him on his path to meet his teacher. Each was a manifestation of his teacher Tilopa. After suffering all the pain and hardships, Naropa found himself in a village. From out of the sky sounded the words, "Not far from this village is the master whom you seek. You must have faith and confidence in him." Filled with excitement, Naropa went to the outskirts of the village and asked everyone he saw if they knew a master called Tilopa. They all replied that they did not know a master called Tilopa, but there was a fisherman down by the river drying fish that was called by that name.
Naropa was surprised to hear that Tilopa was a fisherman but he realized that if he had to meet his teacher in the form of a fisherman, it must be because of his impure mind. So without any doubt or hesitation, and with devotion and trust, he went down to the river to meet Tilopa. As he got closer, he could see Tilopa was transferring the consciousness of each fish to a pure realm with a snap of his fingers. Afterwards he would pick up each fish and bite off its head, discarding the head to one side, and placing the body to dry on the sand in preparation for taking it to market.
Naropa prostrated to Tilopa as a gesture of respect and asked to be accepted as his student. Tilopa scrutinized Naropa from head to toe three times and said, "No matter from what angle I look at you, you seem to be from a royal family. You look like royalty and speak like royalty, and yet you come here to be a student of a fisherman, one of a lowly caste. This is not at all proper."
Tilopa was about to take his leave, but Naropa, out of desperation and devotion, clung to Tilopa without any shame or embarrassment and again requested him to be his teacher. Saying neither yes nor no to Naropa's request, Tilopa walked away. Naropa tried to follow Tilopa, but although Tilopa appeared to be walking normally, and although Naropa was running, he was unable to catch up, no matter how fast he ran. Naropa could see the form of Tilopa in front of him, but he was unable to get closer. As this area in India was particularly hot and arid, it became very difficult for Naropa to keep running after Tilopa, and although he subjected himself to thirst, hunger, and fatigue, he was not able to catch up.
Eventually, Naropa saw Tilopa sitting on a very high cliff. He went over to him and prostrated, again requesting Tilopa to be his teacher. Tilopa responded by saying, "If you were really desperate and determined to learn the teachings, you would obey my order to jump off this cliff without any hesitation because you would be able to understand how important it is to follow the commands of your master." Naropa jumped off the high cliff and fell to the ground. All his bones and joints were broken into many, many pieces. Tilopa went down to Naropa and inquired, "Are you experiencing any pain?" Naropa replied, "The pain is killing me!" This is how Naropa got his name. ("Na" in Tibetan means "pain," "ro" means "killing" and "pa" makes the word a noun.) Tilopa gently touched Naropa's body and all his broken bones joined together and were healed.
Those and many similar deeds were done in order to develop Naropa's faith. During all of these events that Naropa went through, his devotion and faith remained firm and was not shaken even slightly. Not only did it not diminish; in fact his faith and devotion expanded. In this way, Naropa served his guru Tilopa for twelve years and although he went through numerous hardships, Tilopa never even spoke a single good word to him. After undergoing much suffering, Naropa once again asked Tilopa to give him the profound teachings. Tilopa said, "You are not yet pure enough to be introduced to the nature of mind!" With a wrathful expression, Tilopa removed his slipper and slapped the face of Naropa so hard that Naropa fainted. When he regained consciousness, Naropa's mental state of realization was equal to that of his teacher.
Becoming very peaceful, Tilopa lovingly explained to Naropa why he had to be so very wrathful and subject him to so much suffering. He explained, "The fact that I led you into so many painful circumstances does not mean that I am a cruel person. Your negative karma could not be purified by your own effort alone. Only by your actually experiencing hardship could you purify the negative karma that prevented you from realizing the ultimate nature of Buddhahood. Throughout all your experiences of hardship, you did not develop any doubts, hesitation, or wrong views, and you diligently obeyed all commands. In this way you were able finally to overcome the conflicting emotions and experience realization."