September 20, 2021RupaMaker

Buddhist art and Iconography

Buddhist art has been here for more than 2000 years and it has developed over the centuries through various mediums and techniques. From huge monuments, to sculptures and paintings, Buddhist art has certainly developed in every medium. We see paintings and sculptures depicting the life of Buddha and also come across various Buddhist Deities in the Monasteries and Shrine rooms. While it certainly captures the attention of many viewers, its purpose of creation has much more to do than just aesthetics. One of the main purposes of Buddhist art is to aid a practitioner in the practice of Dharma. In the fields of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, Practitioners will across numerous Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, each having a different representation.

The practice of specific Deities has created a wide range of artistic figures that makes this art even more interesting. One of ways through which one can identify a Deity is through their Iconography. It is the symbolic representation that specifies one Deity from another. For instance, when one sees a statue of a Buddha, one may simply jump into the conclusion that the Buddha statue depicts the Historical Buddha. But this is not true. There are numerous Buddhas that are represented differently from one another through their hand gestures. The Historical Buddha is the one who’s right hand is extended forward touching the lotus throne and is known by the name ‘Shakyamuni Buddha’. Hence, Iconography becomes one of the important aspects of Buddhist art, and artists must certainly follow the iconography when creating it for the Dharma practice.

While Iconography helps us in identifying the Deity, its implications are much more. It generally comprises of elements, such as Facial expressions, Body Postures, Mudras, Ritual Items,

1) Facial expressions

In Buddhist art, there are usually three facial expression one may come across in regards to the Deity. There are Peaceful expressions, Wrathful expressions, and Semi-wrathful expressions. Those Deities depicted in peaceful expressions are seen with eyes that are half closed along with a slight smile. Wrathful Deities such as Mahakala has a scary looking facial expression with eyes wide open along with open mouths with sharp teeth. Semi-wrathful expressions have a balance between wrathful and peaceful expression. The depiction of Guru Padhmasambhava shows a semi wrathful expression, where the eyes are wide open along with a slight smile.

2) Body postures

While there could be a handful of body postures, Deities are either sitting or standing. In sitting body postures, the Deity is either crossed legged (Padma asana), or with one leg forward (Lalita asana), or a posture sitting on a throne with feet touching the ground (Bhadra asana). For standing body postures, we have deities standing in normal posture (Samapada), standing in one leg (Chapastana), standing with a slight pressure on one leg (Tribhanga), and standing with full pressure on one leg bent to one side while the other is straight (Alidha).

3) Mudras (Hand-gestures)

Mudras are symbolic hand gestures that attributed to specific qualities of Buddha nature. There are numerous Mudras that one can come across such as the Bhoomisparsa mudra, Varada Mudra, Abhaya Mudra, etc.

4) Ritual Items

Ritual items are those items held by the Deity. Vajra, bell, Long-life vase, etc. are some of the common ritual items you may see.

The combination of these elements along with some of the other elements contribute to the Iconography of the Deity. Each of these elements is symbolisation of various aspects of spirituality and helps evoke these aspects within the practitioner. You may have also noticed that most of the Deities are sitting on lotus thrones. Lotus grows from the muddy areas under the water, and it rises up towards the surface of the water and blooms. When the Lotus blooms, despite coming out from the muddy areas, it does not contain a single dirt. Hence, Lotus is symbolised as purity and an awakened nature. This is why we see Deities Sitting on Lotus thrones. Likewise, each and every element has such symbolization. Because these art serves more than just aesthetics and decorations, having the correct depiction becomes vital in Buddhist art.

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