Tantric Buddhist Images

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TANTRIC BUDDHIST IMAGES With the introduction of the Bodhisatvayana (commonly known as Mahayana, the "Greater Vehicle"), the monastic form of early Buddhism, Shravakayana (popularly called Hinayana, the "Lesser Vehicle") underwent a radical change in the theological concept of Buddhist doctrine. In place of the wise teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha, who had already attained bodhi (enlightenment) and Nirvāna (literally, "extinction" or "salvation"), emerged various groups of bodhisattvas, both male and female, who had attained bodhi but had postponed Nirvāna to help others reach enlightenment. Five transcendent, or cosmic Buddhas appeared, dominating the heavenly quarters and the whole Buddhist pantheon. These are: Akshobya, Buddha of the eastern direction; Amitabha, Buddha of the western direction; Amoghasiddhi, Buddha of the northern direction; Ratnasambhava, Buddha of the southern direction; and Vairocana, Buddha of the central direction. Of these five, Amitabha played an important role at an early date, while Akshobya was very significant in eastern India, and Vairocana, mostly as the Buddha at the center of a mandala in Nepal. Multiple bodhisattvas were ascribed to each of the cosmic Buddhas, as each of them represented a different kula, or family, and hence were called kulesha, or lord of the family. Each cosmic Buddha shows a different hand gesture (mudrā ), each has a different complexion, a different vehicle (vahana) and a different female companion, Prajna or Shakti. They complete the Tantric form of Buddhism.

The noted Buddhist iconographic text, Sadhanamala (Garland of Meditation) describes the Buddhist divinities, most of them with Tantric affinities. The worship of the Tantric divinities in a diagram in the shape of a circle (mandala) originated a later phase; an important addition, it was very popular with the Tantric Buddhist priests. The Buddhist text Nishpannayogavali of the "great scholar" (mahapandita) Abhayakaragupta (12th century) gives elaborate descriptions of such mandalas dedicated to several Buddhist divinities, the last being Kalacakra. The Nishpannayogavali is basically a Tantric text describing the Tantric divinities Heruka, Sambara, and Yogambara. The dharanis, or esoteric descriptive formulas of each Buddhist divinity, were muttered in a mechanical way. At the time of Bengal's Pala ruler Devapala (9th century) the dharani of the popular Buddhist goddess Tara was well-known in eastern India. Abhayakaragupta selected twelve principal dharanis and deified them with human shapes, colors, and weapons. Of these goddesses, Ushnishavijaya, Parnashabari, Janguli, and Cunda were especially well-known.

In a later develoment, Vajrasatva holding a vajra (masculine principle) and ghanta (female principle) was considered the Adi-Buddha, along with the other five cosmic Buddhas. Another Buddha, Vajradhara, holds two vajras or vajra and ghanta, embracing his Prajna, is sometimes considered the Adi-Buddha, and is confused with Vajrasatva. Together with parts of eastern India, Kashmir and the adjoining areas were imortant sources for Tantric Buddhism, and many manuscripts of important Tantric texts have been recovered from Kashmir. Among the specifically Buddhist Tantric deities represented in Kashmir bronzes are Vajrasatva, Vajrapani, Manjushri, Yamantaka, Sambara, and Kalacakra.

In Tantric Buddhism, the union of upaya (means) and prajna (knowledge), represented by the masculine and feminine personages, leads to bodhicitta (mind of awakening). Many Buddhist deities in Tantric Buddhism are therefore shown in the yab-yum (intercourse) position. The Hevajra-tantra, Kriyasamgraha, Advayavajrasamgraha, and Guhyasamaja-tantra are the special texts for this concept. Another Tantric manuscript of importance, especially in Nepal, is the manuscript describing the five "protectresses," or Pancarakshas: Mahapratisara, Mahasahasrapramardini, Mahamantranusarini, Mahashitavati, and Mahamayuri. The female deities are of different complexions, many-headed and many-armed, and all seated in various sitting positions. Both the Sadhanamala and Nishpannayogavali texts describe the Pancaraksha mandala, in which Mahamantranusarini is in the south, Mahashitavati in the west, and Mahamayuri in the north. These Pancaraksha deities are mostly shown in the manuscripts. Tara, two-armed and of green or dark (shyama) complexion, is the most popular goddess of the Buddhist pantheon, but her four-faced and eight-armed form, called Vajratara, is a Tantric form shown in the mandala. Two other Tantric female deities are Kurukulla (a form of Tara) and the popular deity Cunda. Kurukulla is one-faced but may have two, four, six, or eight arms. Kurukulla is associated with the Tantric rite of vashikarana, which brings success by enchanting men, women, ministers, and even kings. In the Uddiyana form, the goddess is four-armed, red in color, and fierce in appearance, and she sits in ardhaparyanka position (one leg hanging down) on a human corpse.

Goddess Cunda is the embodiment of the Cunda dharani. She has one face but two, four, sixteen, eighteen, or twenty-six arms. As Cunda-vajri she is mentioned in one of the earliest Tantric works, the Gukyasamaja-tantra. That the worship of Cunda was popular in southwest Bengal (Bangladesh) is mentioned in a Prajnaparamita manuscript of the Cambridge University Library of a.d. 1015 as "Cunda in the excellent temple of Cunda at Pattikera" (present-day Mainamati in Comilla).

Mention should be made here of two other Tantric female deities, Ekajata and Bhrkuti, who are often illustrated in sculptures from Bihar-Bengal. Ekajata, fourarmed, wearing a tiger skin and holding an elephant skin above her head, accompanies Tara, a description of whom is not to be found in the Sadhanamala.

There are some Tantric Buddhist deities who are antagonistic to some Hindu gods and goddesses. Aparajita, one such deity, tramples upon Ganesha and slaps him. Similarly, the four-faced, eight-armed male deity Trailokyavijaya, displaying anger, tramples upon the head of Shiva with his left leg and with his right leg presses upon the bosom of Gauri. Heruka, the wellknown Buddhist Tantric deity of the Heruka-tantra, is known as Hevajra when two-armed and embracing his Prajna, Nairatma, but when four-armed he embraces Vajravarahi. The union of Vajravarahi with Heruka is the cult of the celebrated Cakrasambara-tantra. Vajravarahi is a dakini. Vajravarahi resembles Marici, who has a sow-like face, but she has a natural sowlike excrescence just near the right ear and she dances in the ardhaparyanka pose. Marici is more well-known as a Buddhist goddess. Marici is invoked by the lamas of Tibet at sunrise. Like the Hindu Sun god, she rides on a chariot (drawn by seven pigs, not seven horses). Recent scholars have identified her with the bodhi of Shakyamuni. Marici is the principal deity in the Marici mandala of the Nishpannayogavali. She has different forms, but her main symbols are needle and string. As three-faced and eight-armed Maricipicuva, she is attended by four sow-faced goddesses called Varttali, Vadali, Varali, and Varihamukhi. The cosmic Buddha, Vairocana, is her mate. With six faces and twelve arms she is called Vajradhatvishvari marici. The three-faced goddess, of which two are sow faces, is called Ubhayavarahanana. In this form she tramples under her feet the Hindu gods Hari, Hara, Hiranyagarbha (Brahmā), and others. With six faces and twelve arms she is called Vajradhatvishvarimarici and is the Prajna of Vairocana.

Vajrayogini, in eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh), near Vikrampur, was a seat of Vajrayana (Tantrayana) Buddhism, and many images of Tantric deities were found there, including that of the strange goddess Parnashabari. The worship of this deity was believed to prevent outbreaks of epidemics. The pot-bellied, three-faced, sixarmed deity wearing leaves (hence Parna-shabari) tramples in pratyalidha attitude upon a couple, the elephant-headed ram below, accompanied by an animalheaded male figure and the smallpox goddess Shitala riding on a donkey. In her six hands she holds, clockwise, an elephant goad, an arrow, a vajra, a branch, tarjani-mudrā (warning gesture), and a bow.

The prominent Buddhist male deity Kalacakra is the principal deity of the Kalacakra mandala and of the famous Kalacakra-tantra. With four faces and twelve eyes and twenty-four arms, he dances on the bodies of the Hindu god of love Amanga (Kama) and Rudra, who are lying on their backs. In one of his hands he holds the severed head of Brahmā. He holds various weapons, including a vajra, in other hands of different colors.

Avalokiteshvara was a sublime bodhisattva in the early Buddhist pantheon, but with the influence of the Hindu god Shiva he assumed a form called Simhanada-Lokeshvara, seated on a lion, wearing a crown of matted hair, a tiger skin, and having three eyes. In his right hand he has a white trident, entwined by a white snake, and in the left hand a sword burning like fire.

Another important (especially in Tibet) manifestation of Avalokiteshvara is his Shadakshari, or six-syllabic form. In this form he is four-armed and is attended upon by the male deity Manidhara and the female deity Shadakshari-Mahavidya. In this four-armed form Avalokiteshvara is seated, showing sarvarajendra-mudrā (actually namaskara-mudrā) with the main two hands, while the back right hand holds the rosary (akshamala) and the back left hand a full-blown lotus (padma). The six syllables are the famous mantra, om manipadme hum, which is uttered daily by the Nepalese and Tibetan Buddhists and which is engraved on the votive stones, popularly called Manistones. Unfortunately the mantra is often incorrectly translated and is therefore commonly misunderstood. This mantra invokes the female form of Avalokiteshvara as Manipadma.

The other well-known bodhisattva is Manjushri, the god of learning. He is shown brandishing a sword, which removes ignorance, and holding a blue water lily (nilotpala) or a manuscript (Prajnaparamita text) on it. In an esoteric form he is shown riding a tiger and showing with two hands the vyakhyana-mudrā (gesture of explanation). An extremely important Tantric form of Manjushri is Manjuvajra, with three faces and six arms. With the principal arms he makes the gesture of embracing his Prajna, and he holds a sword (khadga) and an arrow in the right hands and the stalk of a blue water lily (nilotpala) and a bow (capa) in the left hands. The deity is sometimes shown with other similar images in a mandala.

Southeast Bengal (vanga-samatata), now Bangladesh, was the home of learned Tantric Buddhist pandits, one of whom, the famous Atisha Shrijnana Dipankara (11th century), went to Tibet to preach Tantric Buddhism there.

Gourishwar Bhattacharya

See alsoBuddhism in Ancient India ; Buddhist Art in Andhra up to the Fourth Century ; Sculpture: Buddhist


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Bhattacharyya, Benoytosh, ed. Sadhanamala, I and II. Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1968.

——. Nispannayogavati of Mahapandita Abhayakaragupta. 1949. Reprint, Baroda, 1972.

Mevissen, Gerd J. R. "Studies in Pancaraksa Manuscript Painting." Berliner Indologische Studien 4–5 (1989): 339–374.

Saraswati, S. K. Tantrayana Art: An Album. Kolkata: Asiatic Society, 1977.