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The Gods of Mahyna Buddhism

Author(s): Ananda Coomaraswamy

Source: The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 27, No. 148 (Jul., 1915), pp. 138-141
Published by: The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/859881 .
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HE distinction between Hinaydtna (or
Theravada) and Mahayana Buddhism
is to a great extent the distinction
between rationalism and mysticism.
Theravada Buddhism is a doctrine
perfectly adapted to the needs of intellectual minds
of the ascetic temperament. It would devote the
whole energy of man directly to the attainment of
Release (Nirvana) from this world of Eternal
Becoming (Samsdra). Its genius is essentially
monastic; its view of art is hedonistic and consequently puritanical. It felt no internal compulsion to a lyrical expression: and hence, when it
was first developed as a state religion under Asoka,
and it was desired to decorate its great memorials,
and to set forth plastic representations of its edifying legends, it was simply the popular Hindaf art
of the day which was adapted to these ends. Such
art as that of Sanchi is only essentially Buddhist in
its application and in its constant omission of any
icon of the Buddha himself, who is represented
only by symbols.
In course of time growth of devotion (bhakti) in
extra-monastic, or at any rate in unorthodox circles
led to the creation of a Buddha image; mere
symbols could not satisfy such ardent worshippers
as we see represented in the Amaravati reliefs. We
do not know yet exactly when the first such image
was made; probably, as Mr. Havell has recently
suggested, images were used privately for a long
time before they took their place in public shrines.
The whole of Buddhist art properly so-called-"Early Buddhist" art, as we have indicated, is
popular HindQ art adapted to the purposes of
Buddhist edification - is Mahaymna art : and the

greatest achievement of this art is the figure of

the Buddha himself. The Buddha is rightly
regarded as one of the "gods" of Mahayana
Buddhism; whose true being is in Nirvana, the
great Void, or the Body of the Law; and of whom
the man Gautama was a projection or mirage seen
on our earth, as the Nirminakaya, or Body of
Manifestation. The figures of the Bodhisattvas,
the Buddhas-designate, almost surpass in importance those of the Buddha; personal prayers are
addressed to both. The Bodhisattvas abstain from
entering Nirvana in order that in birth after birth
they may enlighten others. To become a Bodhisattva, and to attain ultimate Buddhahood is a
goal that lies before everything living. This aspect
of the saviour-ideal also inspires some of the most
moving passages in the Buddhist art, as at Ajanta.
With the Bodhisattvas are associated their saktis,
or powers, represented as feminine goddesses, of
whom the Tari of Avalokitesvara (or it may be
Avalokitesvara himself) becomes the Kwanyin of
Chinese and Japanese Buddhism.
Buddhism in this Mahayana phase is no longer
purely monastic; it affords not merely an ascetic
discipline for those who leave the world, but an
interpretation of the world itself. It knows, like
the karmayoga of the Hindis, a salvation attained,
not by deeds, but as the indirect fulfilment of deeds
of purely disinterested love and duty. The culmination of this mystic development is found in the
exquisite tenderness of the Zen (Dhyan) Buddhism
of China and Japan, with its beautiful interpretation of Nature, and in the passionate and no less
tender art of mediaeval Indian Vaishnavism, the
inheritor of Mahayana tradition in Bengal, with


Buddha. Nepalese; copper gilt, c. 9th cent. A.D. Height
[D] Avalokitesvara (Padmapini).
Ceylonese; copper, c. 9th
31 in. The hands in dharma-cakra-mudra (rather than
cent. A.D. Height 31 in. Seated with right foot extended
", p. I5). (A. K.
(lalitasana), the right hand in vara mudra, the left holding
the rose-lotus (padma) stalk. Pedestal inscribed "Sangha
dattah " in characters of the early 9th century. Getty,
(Griinwedel, Mythologie des Buddhismus in Tibet, fig. 99).
PP. 54, 59. (British Museum.)
Ioth cent. A.D.
Nepalese, copper gilt
[E] Manjusri. Javanese; bronze, c. 9th-Ioth cent. A.D. Height
incomplete figure 48
type identical with
51in. Seated in maharaja lild pose, on a cushion on a
that of "VisvakarmA ", Plate xI. Trivanka stance, the
lion throne (simhasana), a blue lotus (utpala) bud in the
in vara mudra (charity), the left holding
right hand and an expanded flower of the same in the
the stalk of an expanded rose lotus (padma). (A. K.
left. Getty, p. 96, and cf. also Plate xxi, d. (British
NOTE.-The two figures above described, with the
Ceylonese ; 9th cent. A.D., copper. Height 4. in.
original of "Visvakarm ", xI, and a Vishnu in the same
Seated with right foot extended (lalitasana), right hand
style also in my own collection, belong to the early phase
holding vajra, left on thigh. Getty, p. 48. (A. K. Coomaraof Nepalese art, most nearly related to that of Ajantd and
Elephanta. The nose is wide and the lips full, the ex[G] Vajra Tara (not Ushnishavijaya as identified " Visvakarmd"
pression of the utmost dignity, the gesture compassionate.
vI). Stone sculpture of the Pala period. Sarnath ; c. 12th
A later type [H] has a sharp, sometimes hooked nose, and
cent. A.D. Height of part shown, about 16 in. Getty, p. Iio.
thinner lips, such as we find in Jaina and Rijput paintings
(Sarndth Museum, B(f)8.)
from the 15th century (or earlier), and as described in
Persian and Hindi poetry.
[H] Vajra Tdrd. Nepalese ; copper gilt and jewelled, c. 16th
cent. A.D. Height 4j in. With four faces and eight arms.
[c] Buddha. Badulla, Ceylon ; bronze, c. 6th cent. A.D. Height
21 in. Right hand in vitarka mudrd, left hand holding
Getty, p. Iio. (A. K. Coomaraswamy.)
end of robe. (Colombo Museum.)
[J] Kurukulld. Nepalese ; copper, c. 15th cent. A.D. Getty, p. 112.
NOTE.-The features, as above, of Dravidian type. The
(Calcutta School of Art.)
three- or five-forked flame which in many Ceylonese
NoTE.-Other reproductions of figures of Mahdyvna divinities
Buddhas rises from the ushn~sha (Getty, Plate vI, b) is a
will be found in The Burlington Magazine for May 1910o and
much later development.
January 1913.


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The Gods of Maayadna Buddhism

its frank acceptance of human affection. Throughout this evolution we find an unceasing impulse
to lyrical expression.
Where the Hinaydnists had been interested in
psychology, the Mahdymna Buddhists were great
theologians, and they evolved, side by side with
the development of Hindfi theology, a vast cosmology peopled with a numerous pantheon. At
least five hundred deities have been recognized-" a most ancient shoreless sea of forms incomprehensibly changing and intermingling, but symbolizing the protean magic of that infinite Unknown
that shapes and reshapes for ever all cosmic being".'
The student of this theology-from whatever standpoint, whether of religion or art-must be grateful
to anyone who provides him with a clearly systematized and well illustrated guide to its iconography.
Such a work has lately been published by Miss
Alice Getty, under the title of "The Gods of
Northern Buddhism ".2 This work is preceded
by a summary account of Buddhism translated
from the pen of Dr. J. Deniker. This affords a
not inaccurate summary of the principal events
in the history of Buddhism, but from a very
" outside " point of view, as is evidenced by the
curious statement that the proceedings of the first
Buddhist Council, "as in the case of other halfcivilized races, consisted of chanting and reciting
by heart the words of the wisest among the wise
men" (italics mine). Dr. Deniker repeats the
commonly accepted statement that the Buddhist
community differed from all contemporary religious communities in opening its doors to members
of every caste; but in point of fact, as pointed out
by Oldenberg, the order of the Samands or wandering ascetics-sannyaisis as we should now call
them-had always been open to men of all castes,
as it is now. Buddhism was not essentially a democratic, but rather an aristocratic movement (in this
age the principal contributions to philosophy were
made by Kshattriyas, such as Janaka, Buddha and
Mahavira), and the majority of the Buddha's
immediate followers were, like himself, of noble
Some curious criticisms on Buddhist art are
also introduced, as that the GandhZra sculptures
are remarkable for their "correctness of proportion, for the absence of stiffness in their draperies,
and for delicacy of features "; not untrue, but not
very penetrating observations. Of Ajantd we are
told only that "This style is characterized by
realism in the treatment of human figures and,
still more, of animals ". It is certainly not true
that "In Ceylon Greco-Buddhist art had penetrated along with the religion in the 2nd and
3rd centuries " (B.C.), for Greco-Buddhist art did
1 Lafcadio Hearn.
The Gods of Northern Buddhism, by Alice Getty, with an
introduction on Buddhism by J. Deniker, and illustrations from
the collection of Henry H. Getty. Clarendon Press, 1914,
?3 3s. net.

not then exist. It is, moreover, in Ceylon and

southern India that Mahiyina Buddhist art develops with the minimum of traceable Hellenistic
peculiarities. Dr. Deniker also says of Ceylon
that only a few monuments survive, whereas this
area is one of the richest. However, as aesthetic
considerations have no place in the work, and no
attempt is made either by Dr. Deniker or Miss
Getty to indicate even the approximate date of
any of the pieces represented, we need not push
such objections too far.
It is a remarkable fact that over sixty metal
images and other metal objects illustrated are
described as Tibetan: a considerable proportion
of these may be Nepalese, as, for example, in the
case of Plates xx, XXII, xxxvIII and XLI b; the
original of Plate xxI d, may be Indian, or at any
rate Nepalese, and fairly early (cf. Figure E on
the accompanying Plate). I must also call attention to the description of Plate xI a, as "Buddha"
(in the list of illustrations, a "Jain Buddha"). It
is true that the term Buddha is used by the Jainas;
but it is not appropriate to speak of one of the
twenty-four Tirthakaras as if a member of the
pantheon. The figure in this case repreMah~ymna
sents Parsvanatha, and has no place in a work on
divinities. One other point: in speaking
of feminine divinities, Miss Getty says, "Until the
female principle was glorified by Krishna, the
Aryans had exclusively worshipped Agni, the male
principle in the universe ". Here there is some
misapprehension; for the recognition of the saktis
precedes by at least a millennium the admission of
Rtdh~ to be considered an incarnation of Lakshmi.
Krishna has no special connexion with the cults of
feminine divinities: nor is Radha a goddess, but
typifies the human soul. Agni, moreover, is not
the most prominent of Vedic deities, nor specially
symbolic of the male principle (Purusha).
In confining the illustrations to material drawn
from Mr. H. Getty's collection, it was unavoidable
that many important areas and types should be
left entirely unrepresented. On this account, and
because, in Miss Getty's own words, the study of
Maha-yana iconography is still in its infancy, there
yet remains to be written an exhaustive work on
the gods of Mahtyana Buddhism, illustrated from
a wider range of material.
Meanwhile the author of the present work deserves our most sincere thanks, for in spite of the
foregoing observations, which apply chiefly to the
contribution of Dr. Deniker, it is due to say that
Miss Getty's work has been compiled with the
utmost care, and is of quite remarkable accuracy.
It is a work of true scholarship, not, indeed, setting
forth new theories or throwing light on questions
of aesthetic, but of such value as to remain for
many years an indispensable handbook for every
worker in the field. It is well provided with
references, indices and glossary.


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TAe Godsof Mahdyana Buddhism

Mr. H. Getty's collection, which is alone drawn
upon for illustration, contains important examples ;
as well as many of inferior value, regarded as works
of art. It is, moreover, lacking in southern and
Javanese types. The stone sculpture of Magadha,
where Mahayana Buddhism was first largely developed, is not represented and scarcely mentioned.
Considering, however, the imperfect state of our
knowledge, Miss Getty's volume is likely to remain

a standard authority for some time to come. In

order to supply an avoidable deficiency I have
reproduced here a few examples of
divinities chosen from the areas least fully
represented in Mr. H. Getty's collection, and I have
taken the opportunity of correcting in the
Description of the Plate certain statements in
my text to my selection of reproductions,
" Visvakarma ".


HESE recollections were set down
by Thomas Gosse, mezzotint engraver
and miniaturist, towards the end of
1799. He was a believer in visions,
and having learned by a dream that
the end of the world would arrive at the beginning
of 18oo, he hastened to preserve a record of his
life. This was characteristic of a mind in which
reverence rather than logic was predominant.
Thomas Gosse, who was born in 1765, was
the eleventh of the twelve children of William
Gosse (1714-84), of Ringwood in Hampshire.
Mr. William Gosse, who had served, by virtue of
some Welsh estates, as high sheriff of Radnorshire,
was a cloth manufacturer on a considerable scale,
but he was ruined by the introduction of machinery
into the woollen trade. In the days of his prosperity he was a patron of the fine arts in the quiet
mode of those days. He had an interesting collection of family portraits, which were unfortunately
dispersed after his death, with the exception of one
of himself in oils, believed to be painted by John
Downman, A.R.A., which I possess [PLATEI, B]. In
addition to his mezzotint engraving and his miniature painting, by which he made a precarious living,
my grandfather pursued with much assiduity the art
of poetry. In this he was even less successful, but
not less persistent. My grandmother, who had
great firmness of character, regarded the writing
of verse as waste of time, and when her husband
heard her footstep approaching his painting-room
along the passage, he would hastily whip his
manuscript under his little green baize desk, and
be found ardently at work on the ivory. He was,
as will be gathered from his recollections, a man
of unusual serenity of character. With very little
ambition, and a great deal of simplicity, he contrived to pass through his long life without any
sense of failure or expression of impatience. He
enjoyed, in large measure, the blessing of the pure
in heart. What has made the Editors of THE
believe that their readers
may like to have these modest notes preserved is
that they give personal touches faintly illuminating
the lives of a considerable number of artists about
many of whom hardly anything but their works
has hitherto been known to exist.
E. G.


I had always an inclination for drawing; when
a child at Hestor Burden's preparatory school I
used to tear the rushes of the chairs to pieces for
the making of horses, dogs and other things out
of the pith; but the modelling of such imitations
pertains rather to statuary than to painting or
drawing. It is, however, to be remarked that I
would often take a piece of chalk and draw the
outlines of various common and familiar objects
on the wall or on the kitchen door. My parents,
witnessing my propensity as described, thought it
would be useless to bring me up to a common
trade, and therefore were resolved at length to
give it encouragement. Accordingly, early in 1777
my school education was resigned for the practice
of drawing at home; and here my sister Susan,
afterwards Mrs. Bell,' became my tutoress. A
drawing-book was bought for me, and another
borrowed, with other necessary items. Thus I
went on learning by degrees the art of drawing, in
order that I might subsequently become a painter
This domestic instruction and
by profession.
practice in drawing was continued for about threequarters of a year, until I was aged twelve years.
At length, near Christmas, 1777-just upon the
death of Uncle Marten, one of the most unwieldy,
corpulent men that ever I saw-it was determined
on that I should go to Honiton, in Devonshire, in
order farther to improve in drawing. There I was
to reside at Mr. Lamport's, a Socinian preacher,
who was my paternal cousin.
While I was at Honiton I copied on paper with
a black-lead pencil the likeness of Mr. Willis; and
his relative, Mr. Compton, the Bistern squire, being
greatly pleased with this and other specimens of
my drawing, he advised father to send me to the
Royal Academy at London for further improvement, and to make painting my future profession.
But before my departure thither Mr. Willis very
unexpectedly committed suicide by stabbing himself. It was in the summer of 1779, and when I
was now nearly fourteen, that we arrived. How
was I first struck with the appearance of London,
so different from the country look of Ringwood
1 Mrs. Susan Bell, born in 1749, was the first person to preserve invertebrate animals alive in aquaria of sea-water. She
became the mother of the zoologist, Thomas Bell, F.R.S.


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