’Art & Soul

Of uncommon appearances

From wrathful deities to dangerous protectors, ‘Himalayan’ art depicts gods in frightening avatars

Of uncommon appearances

Mahakala: detail Tibet, 18th century

BN Goswamy

The sun may at times be hidden from us behind the clouds, but that makes no difference to the sun itself. Its own brilliance can never be obscured. Likewise, primordial wisdom and compassion are always present within every sentient being, even when hidden by clouds of hatred, obsession, pride, jealousy, and first and foremost, ignorance. — Matthhieu Ricard

Fearful am I to fear itself, with my necklace made of a string of heads, and dancing furiously on a solar disk. Black am I and terrible, a crossed vajra on my head, my body smeared with ashes, and my mouths sending forth the sound HUM. But my inner nature is tranquil, and holding Nairatmya in loving embrace. I am possessed of tranquil bliss. — From the Hevajra Tantra

Shiva’s Vishvarupa with consort

Nepal, 19th century

The piece that I write here has at its base — I need to state this — sheer ignorance, an inability to reach those levels of thought that lie clearly beyond our, at least my, understanding.

To be certain, mysteries abound, and one finds oneself, almost all the time, at the very periphery, the outermost edge, of comprehension, when it comes to things that are come upon sometimes in our myths or art or philosophy, as in life itself. I, for instance, never cease to be puzzled when it comes to the world of gods and demons as it is treated in our texts. I have lectured sometimes upon the theme, at least as far as represented in our art, but never without confessing that I understand remarkably little of what I am speaking on.

 Detail from a painted image of Vyaghra Vahana. Tibet, late 18th century

Take the case, as an example, of the ‘birth’, those primordial happenings, of beings of all description as detailed in a section of one of the Puranas, the Bhagavata. The great sage, Kashyapa, we read, had many wives and from each of them he fathered many, many children. From the womb of Aditi were born adityas, the shining ones: gods like Surya, Vishnu, Varuna, Agni, among others; Diti, on the other hand, gave birth to daityas, demons, like Hiranyaksha, Hiranyakashipu, Kalanemi; Danu, another wife, gave birth to danavas, demons of a different order; to Muni were born apsaras or female angels; Vinata gave birth to the divine bird called Garuda, while of Kadru were born nagas or snakes. Thus it goes on. One registers from this that gods and demons, birds and snakes, were all step-siblings. Stories then keep unfolding in the texts; rivalries develop; enmities between them surface; accommodations are made; demons meditate upon gods and appease them to gain boons of power or immortality and, having gained those, turn upon them.

Symbol Mandala of Yama
Dharmaraja and Chamunda.

Tibet, 18th century

To take a couple of random examples. Hiranyakashipu, one reads, performs great tapas, meditating upon the god Brahma and receives, at the end of it, the boon of virtual immortality, for he, the god decrees, will never perish either in the day or in the night; on the earth or in the sky; at the hands neither of man nor of beast. This fills the demon with a sense of unbridled power, leading to his unleashing untold terrors upon his subjects, subduing them, including his own son, the devout Prahlada, completely to his demonic will. Till of course, as the absorbing tale goes, the great god, Vishnu, incarnates himself as Narasimha who is neither man nor beast, who appears at the time of dusk which is neither day nor night, and who seizes the demon and tears him apart, laying him flat on his knees which are neither the earth nor the sky.

Ravana, the mighty lord of Lanka, similarly performs intense tapas and goes through unheard-of austerities, in the worship of the great god Shiva, to seek his blessings.

However, when Shiva, greatly pleased by the demon king’s devotion, blesses him and confers upon him the boon of immeasurable strength, he sets out to test his own powers by shaking, with his bare hands, the great mountain, Kailasha, which is the lofty abode of Shiva. It is another matter that Shiva brings everything under control by simply pressing the shaking mountain down with his toe, thus restoring things back to stability. The tales, as told in the texts, are delightful in themselves, but can easily lead to great puzzlement, for natural questions occur: why, for instance, could the all-knowing gods not have anticipated the evil intent of the demons and denied them the blessings they were seeking? Just one of a myriad questions, born of our avidya, of our inability to penetrate, even peer through, mysteries?

Yama Dharmaraja image, seen from
the back. Metal with encrusted jewels.
Tibet, 17th/18th century

Rubin’s personal collection, New York

There are times when one reads of the gods themselves taking on frightening aspects. Nowhere does one see this more than in ‘Himalayan’ art or thought that had its base in regions like Tibet or Nepal or Bhutan. Those infinitely gentle, serene images of the Buddha, or Bodhisattvas, which one so adores, mingle there with images of what have often been called ‘demonic divines’ that people the world of Vajrayana Buddhism. With their roots in tantra, and their extension to Bon, the indigenous religion of Tibet, one moves into the world of ‘wrathful deities’ and ‘dangerous protectors’: Mahakala and Rakta Yama, Ekjati and Vaishravana, Hevajra and Vajrabhairava. When one sees the thang-kas — those paintings on cloth or silk, with their roots going back to a thousand years or more and which are still being made — one knows that they serve as aids to meditational practices, and more often than not one gets drawn into their ‘fantastic naturalism’, their agitated line and dramatic colour. Psychedelic colour contrasts — ‘deep reds glimmering out of a black background, or a black figure silhouetted by an orange backdrop of flames’ — are everywhere. Exaggerated, bulging eyes, gaping mouths, protruding fangs and pointed tongues, crowd the surfaces. Knives and swords, clubs and fetters, lie about, or whirl around in agitated fashion.

There is, in these images, and these practices, a central paradox: that of wrathful compassion. No outsider can really come to terms with this world, but again and again we are reassured in these words which come from the Tibetan Book of the Dead: “They (these images) rise manifestly before you, having emerged from within your own brain! Do not fear them! Do not be terrified! Do not hate them! Recognise them as an image of your own awareness. He is your own Archetype Deity, so do not panic! In fact, they are really Lord Vairochana (Buddha) Father and Mother, so do not be afraid! The very moment you recognise them, you will be liberated!”

As I said at the beginning: mysteries abound.

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