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Saturday, 13 February 2010 05:44

-Suresh Bhatia

Dharma practitioners and Historians who have been regularly visiting The Buddhist Heritage website must be wondering why the Portal is not being up-dated regularly. For this I apologies for the inconveniences I have had to face in exploring sites due to the winter fog and the fact that some years ago I met with an accident where I suffered a back injury , which every winter returns with severe pain that practically paralyzes me. However, I still have the zeal to work and a well stocked Library I have gradually built over the years which I intend to use to give you details of the periods where Bihar created not only the very best Buddhist Images and new concepts in Vajrayana iconography. I  trust that as the weather changes to spring and summer, I will once again be on the road – exploring Bihar’s forgotten Heritage.

Bihar, without doubt has been the cradle largely to Esoteric Buddhism, which was conceived with the rise of Mahayana Sect somewhere in the first century CE. As its popularity grew, the Buddhist Pantheon expanded. The images of the Buddha became more imaginative with attending deities also carved along with the Buddha – and the monks created theories – thereby giving these images credibility. By the time Nalanda had become a full-fledged University, the concept of Bodhisattvas were already in existence and rituals were being performed on an elaborate scale.

Before I do go into describing the radical changes that evolved in Buddhism, I think I need to explain how the simple practical theory that the Buddha taught for 45 years began to change immediately after his Maha – Parinirvana. Within a century of the passing away of the Blessed One, the dissemination of Buddhism led to an increase in the number of monks and its diffusion over a broader geographical area. Ample opportunities existed for differences of interpretation to lead to controversies involving the order. The conservative position prevailed at the council, probably because most of the elders favoured a conservative position prevailed at the council, probably because most of the elders favoured a conservative approach. Eventually, a decision was reached to appoint four monks from the west and four from the east to consider the ten radical points that had been proposed by the monks of Magadha (present Bihar) and Vaisali who had been joined by monks from other places too. The elders chosen as representatives ruled that all the ten points should be rejected. Many monks, however, refused to accept their ruling, and their dissatisfaction contributed to a schism in the order.

The schism, often called the basic schism resulted in the formation of two schools: the Mahasanghika, whose monks refused to accept the conservative ruling of the committee of eight monks, and the Sthaviravada (Pali: Theravada), whose monks agreed with the conservative ruling. The name Mahasanghika means “great assembly” and suggests that many monks belonged to the liberal faction. After the initial split in the Sangha, as time went by, further schism occurred in the two Schools, which according to some Scholars by 386 B.C.E. or within three hundred years after the death of the Buddha, the two original Schools had further split to twenty schools. All these factions in the two Schools occurred about 116 years before the coronation of King Asoka. Why these schisms occurred are not clear nor is it known where most of the “eighteen schools” were located. Although Mahayana Buddhism had arisen by the first century B.C.E., many Scholars have argued that Mahayana Buddhism arose from the Mahasanghika School. The Mahasanghika School was not absorbed by Mahayana Buddhism; it continued to exist long after Mahayana Buddhism developed.

As there was no clear schism that created a distinct Mahayana School, the origins of the Mahayana have eluded modern scholars, who tend to look for its roots among the eighteen early schools. The Mahayana that emerged between the first and second centuries C.E. disseminated teachings shared by many of the early schools. For some reason, the early Mahayana teachers chose Nalanda as their center, and the brothers Udbhata and Sankarapati provided for the support at Nalanda for five hundred monks. Here Rahulabhadra and his disciple Nagarjuna served as the monastery’s head preceptors and established a model of educational excellence. Matrceta, whose name is synonymous with elegant prose and poetry, also expanded Nalanda’s educational program. During the fourth century, the masters Asanga and Vasubandhu taught at Nalanda, which became a center for the transmission of the Prajnaparamita, Yogacara, Vijnanavada and Cittamatra lineage.

Nalanda, apart from being a place for the study of Buddhist philosophy also became a home for creative art as can be seen from the 6th Century C.E. The Buddhist deities were mostly related to the Mahayana forms of worship of which details of its rituals have been presented in the Sanskrit Buddhist texts. This study is an authentic iconographical study based on the Sadhanamala of the Buddhist deities. Both the Chinese Pilgrims Fa- Hian (399-414 CE) and Huien Tsang (629-646 CE.) have mentioned the existence of Mahayana deities in Nalanda. While Fa-Hian only mentions the existence of deities such as Manjusri, Avalokitesvara and the future Buddha Maitreya. Huien Tsang on the other hand refers to the worship of Avalokitesvara, Maitreya, Manjusri, Padmapani, Vaisravana, Sakya Bodhisattva and Hariti. Itsing (671-695 C.E) another Chinese Scholar who also studied at Nalanda refers to deities such as Avalokitesvara, Amitabha, Maitreya, Manjusri and Yama etc. The evolution of Vajrayana Buddhist images as well as Scriptures grew over the centuries at Nalanda. One such interesting concept is given herewith:


The Dhyani Buddhas are of primary importance in the Buddhist iconography. An account of the origin of the Dhyani Buddhas is found in the Guhyasamaja Tantra which opens with the description of a distinguished assembly of gods, Tathagatas, Bodhisattvas, Saktis and a number of other divine beings. The Tathagatas present in the Assembly requested the Lord Boddhichittavajra to define the Tathagatamandala or the mystic circle of the five Dhyani Buddhas. In response to their request, the Lord sat in a special Samadhi (meditation) known as the Jnanapradipa (lamp of knowledge), and his whole form began resounding with the sacred sound of Vajradrk which is the mantra of the Dvesha family. No sooner had the words been emitted, that the sounds transformed themselves into the concrete shape of Akshobhya with the earth touching sign (mudra). Then Lord Boddhichittavajra sat in another Samadhi known as the Kayavakchittavajra of the Tathagatas, he became vibrant with the sound vighnantktra which soon took the shape of a deity representing the body, speech and mind of the Tathagatas, and was placed on the northern gate. Thus, this account marks the beginning of the theory of the five Dhyani Buddhas, their counterparts, their mantras and the guardians of the gates. The five Dhyani Buddhas are the corner stone’s of the Buddhist iconography in Bihar on which the whole edifice of the Buddhist pantheon of Bihar is erected. The theory of the five Dhyani Buddhas is based on the ideological foundation of the fact that the Universe is composed of five cosmic elements or Skhandas known as Rupa (form), Vedana (sensation), Samjna (name), Samskara (conformation) and Vijnana (consciousness). These elements are the eternal cosmic forces. They have neither beginning nor end. The theory of the five Dhyani Buddhas originated in the Nalanda monastery around the 10th Century C.E.

The Guhyasamaja Tantra mentions that all the five Dhyani Buddhas along with their female consorts and the guardians of the gates were popular in 3rd Century A.D. when the tantric text was introduced. The origins of the five Dhyani Buddhas are borne out by a passage in the Chittavisuddhiprakarana of Aryadeva to emphasize the ideas of the eternity of the five senses are concerned. The concept of the five Dhyani Buddhas may also have emerged out of the five mudras of Buddha Sakyasimha portrayed in the Buddhist Iconography created at Nalanda. The four mudras of the Dhyani Buddhas are important symbols of their character, which were later copied by the artists and sculpturers of Buddhist images in Java.

From the concept of the Dhyani Buddhas, grew a large pantheon of fabulous deities; to mention some of the important ones such as Samantabhadra, Maitreya, Bodhisattva Manjusri, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, Lokanatha, Tara as well as many others. In future I would like to continue a series on these deities and how Buddhism moved from the simple Suttas taught by the Buddha to a complex theory of neo-Brahmanical philosophies.

Image of the Dhyani Buddhas at Swayambunath Stupa, Nepal

References: A.K. Coomaraswamy: History of Indian and Indonesian Art, Devar Publications Inc., New York, 1965; the Evolution of the Buddha Image, An Asia House Gallery Publication, New York, 1963; Debala Mitra, “Iconographic notes” JAS, Vol. 1, 1959; Cultural Heritage of India, Vol. IV, pp. 52-53;
Last Updated on Wednesday, 17 February 2010 11:55