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 Post subject: Bodhisattva cult in early Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Sat Dec 27, 2008 2:56 am 
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Bodhisattva cult in early Sri Lanka

The Bodhisattva figures found in Sri Lanka could be classified into several groups: as standing and seated figures such as free standing stone colossuses, rock-cut figures, medium sized free standing stone figures and bronze figures.

by Udani Hettige
@ June 2007


It was Theravada Buddhism that was introduced to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC. In that early form of Buddhism Bodhisattva worship was not considered significant, because that Theravada form of early Buddhism did not pay higher respect to Bodhisattvas. But in Theravada Buddhism there are references regarding the Bodhisattva concept. He was known as the future Buddha. The identification of the Buddha as Bodhisattva prior to his enlightenment, the enumeration of the past birth stories of the Buddha (jathaka) and the teaching of the doctrine of Paramita provide ample proof for the existence of the Bodhisattva concept in the canonical literature in early Sri Lanka.

However, the way in which the concept of Bodhisattva had been introduced in the early Sri Lankan form of Buddhism had hardly any room to develop a Bodhisattva cult, because Bodhisattva Maitriya was the only Bodhisattva in the Theravada form of Buddhism. He was a future Buddha yet to be born. As such there is no evidence to establish the fact that the early Theravada form of Buddhism, although it had the concept of Bodhisattva, never left any room to be developed into cult worship, which actually created a situation to form Bodhisattva images.

However, the period from 1st century BC to 4th century AD is extremely important in Sri Lanka’s history of Buddhism because it witnessed a series of events leading to remarkable changes in the structure of Buddhism within its missionary agency, the order of monks, These changes resulted in creating a sectarian division in the monastic order at first, without any doctrinal differences. But later it paved the way to the growth of doctrinal differences also among the sects. One such major force injected strongly into the existing structure was the Mahayana form of Buddhism, which was already developed in India. By about the 4th and 5th centuries AD the situation became so bad that Mahayanist elements crept into the Theravada form of Buddhism as a major force.

It appears that by the 5th and 6th centuries Mahayanistic elements have grown on such powerful terms, that it could exert immense influence over the art forms of Sri Lanka. Chutiwong who wrote a book on Bodhisattva images observes that it is quite possible Buddhist monks such as Gunabadra from Madya desa in India and Fa-hien from China who visited the island in the 5th century A.D. who were known to have maintained special veneration for Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara may have promoted the development of the cult of Bodhisattva and induced the Buddhists of early Sri Lanka to make images of the Bodhisattvas, which indicate that there were a considerable number of devotees who worshipped Bodhisattvas. The Mahavamsa, the great chronic of Sri Lanka, states that King Dhatusena who ruled the island in the 5th century AD (455-473) made images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and built shrines for them. Although the Mahavamsa statement is not clear as to the names of the images (which Bodhisattvas) the king made, it shows that the making of Bodhisattva images had already begun during that period. Chutiwong says that the veneration of the Bodhisattva images may have been already in vogue during the 5th century A.D. in Sri Lanka. Nandasena Mudiyanse, who wrote about Mahayana monuments in Sri Lanka carefully studying the events that followed the reign of King Mahasena (277- 304 A.D.) during whose reign Vaitulyavadins, a Mahayanilst sect gained ground in the island, says that it is likely that during this period some Mahayanist doctrines such as Bodhisattva worship were absorbed into the popular religion.

However, the earliest epigraphical reference to Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara occurs in the Tiriyai inscription which may be paleographically dated to the 8th century A.D. Moreover by this time the belief that the kings of Sri Lanka were Bodhisattvas was in vogue.

It is difficult to demarcate the date of the first appearance of the Bodhisattva images in Sri Lanka. The scholars defer in their opinions. Paranavitana, the first Sinhalese archaeological commissioner in Sri Lanka suggests that the Pidurangala Bodhisattva plaque belongs to the 4th or 5th century A.D. Dohanian who wrote on Sri Lankan Bodhisattva images opines that the existence of Bodhisattva images belongs to the 7th - 8th century A.D. where as Chutiwong suggests the 8th century as the date of the first appearance of the Bodhisattva images in Sri Lanka. However it appears that by the 6th to 7th centuries AD Bodhisattva images have already emerged in Sri Lanka because literary and archaeological sources indicate that in the 5th and 6th centuries AD Mahayana influence had been very strongly felt in Sri Lanka, which induced the making of the Bodhisattva images.

In Sri Lanka as in India the initial formation of the Bodhisattva figures would have been an enormously difficult task, for there was no precedent to follow. According to the available evidence the formation of Bodhisattva images would have emerged after the appearance of the Bodhisattva cult. Earlier the devotees venerated and worshipped him as a mediator between Samsara and Nirvana, supreme wisdom, and virtue necessary for Buddhahood and entrance into the perfect state and as the embodiment of the spirit of compassion and self-sacrifice. Seckell in describing the nature and essence of the Bodhisattva says that "One whose nature is understanding (or enlightenment) who in innumerable incarnations has attained Nirvana, but for the time being voluntarily and magnanimously renounces his personal redemption to help redeem all other- living beings..." On the other hand they no longer belong to this world of Samsara, but- on the other hand they have entered Nirvana potentially, not on actual fact, the different task of compromising in one image the intermediate and dual nature of the Bodhisattva was solved in a brilliant fashion. The Bodhisattva appears as a sublime, super human, blessed being elevated above the finite world, yet not entirely divorced from it, as the case with the Buddha. For this reason he is depicted as a more human terrestrial and less abstract. His figure has vitality, suppleness and mobility, kindness and beauty... Bodhisattvas are depicted wearing a richly folded garment covering the lower part of the body, leaving the upper part bare, a long "shawl" and jewellery appropriate for a prince; a towering coiffure with strings of beads threaded into the hair pendants and pectorals armlets and anklets.....

The Bodhisattva figures in Sri Lanka although they adhere to the general description given by Seckell still pose the serious problem in ascertaining their specific identity. One has to note that the atmosphere that prevailed in Sri Lanka for the growth of the Bodhisattva cult and the Bodhisattva nature is a peculiar one. It was into a state of a deep-rooted Theravada form of Buddhism that Mahayana elements were later introduced, absorbing the existing form as the base of its growth. This could be one major factor why Bodhisattva figures are so complex in nature and character and could not be easily recognised. One has to note that the figures of kings made during this period show a great affinity to that of the figures of the Bodhisattva, and very often are erroneously identified. For instance the Bodhisattva figures found in the Ruvanvelisaya in Anuradhapura and Silacetiya in Mihintale were erroneously identified as King Dutugemunu and Devanampiyatissa respectively. Their dress, ornaments and postures are more appropriate to kings than Bodhisattvas. Perhaps it is reasonable to assume that the belief that prevailed during the period that the kings of Sri Lanka were Bodhisattvas must have persuaded the artist to create figures of kings in that fashion. However, it could be said that these figures embody both the mundane and spiritual characteristics. So far as the problem of identification of Bodhisattva figures in Sri Lanka is concerned it is important to note that the iconographical marks and attributes assigned to various Bodhisattva figures in Mahayana literary sources are absent in Sri Lankan Bodhisattva figures. For instance the figure of the Dyani Buddha on the forehead, one of the most exclusive features of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, was not always present and his conventional attribute, the lotus flower, is sometimes absent in Sri Lankan examples. Instead, Katakahasta is displayed to indicate the presence of the lotus flower.

The Bodhisattva figures found in Sri Lanka could be classified into several groups: as standing and seated figures such as free standing stone colossuses, rock-cut figures, medium sized free standing stone figures and bronze figures. So far as specific identifications are concerned four Bodhisattva figures in Sri Lanka can be recognised. They are Bodhisattva Maitriya, Avalokitesvara, Vajrapani and Manjusri. As stated earlier Bodhisattva Maitriya belongs to both Theravada and Mahayana forms of Buddhism. Maitriya was the only Bodhisattva in the Sri Lankan Theravada form of Buddhism for whom no cult seems to have existed. Among the several figures of Bodhisattvas found in Sri Lanka one discovered near the Thuparama in Anuradhapura and another from Giridara will be taken here as examples to discuss the complexity of these figures. The figure found near the Thuparama now deposited in the Colombo museum is in Tribanga pose bedecked with all the ornaments and made of bronze. The left hand is in Varada Mudra right while the right depicts Katakahasta, holding a Nagakesari flower. The attributes in this figure are not in keeping with the description of the Bodhisattva Maitriya given in the Nishpannayogavali, a Mahayana text containing information of iconographical marks and attributes of the Buddhist pantheon. It says that in depicting the Bodhisattva Maitriya the image should have four hands of which two should be in Dharmachakra Mudra while the other right hand should be in Varada Mudra, and the other left hand should hold the Nagakesari flower. Alice Getty in discussing the figures of Bodhisattva Maitriya says that all the examples are not always made with Dharmachakra Mudra, but sometimes they are made with Katakahasta. In Mongolian examples we see the Varada Mudra in one hand and Nagakesari flower in the other. Even the Sadhanamala, a Mahayana text giving details of the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon, clearly shows that the Maitriya Bodhisattva should have Varada Mudra in one hand and the Nagakesari flower in the other. The Thuparama example is closer to the Mongolian figures and agrees with the Sadhanamala in displaying attributes. Moreover the head of the Thuparama figure is adorned with the Karanda makuta whereas some other figures in Sri Lanka depict Jatamakuta as the head-dress. The stupa symbol is depicted in a niche in the Makuta. In some examples Makuta is not shown. In such cases the stupa is shown on the hair. In the head-dress of the Thuparama example the niche contains nothing. It is presumed that it contained a stupa. Sitha Gunarathne identified this figure as Maitri. She bases this not only on the symbol appearing on the head-dress but taking the entire figure as a whole and considering its dress and posture. This clearly shows the problematic nature of identifying the Sri Lankan Bodhisattva figures.

The same problem applies to the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva as well. The Buddha effigy, the exclusive cognizance of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is sometimes absent in the head-dress of the figure, eg. the bronze figure in the Neville collection in the British museum depicts neither the Buddha figure in the head-dress nor the lotus flower in the hand. But the depiction of Katakahasta may quite possibly imply the lotus flower.

The distinctive characteristic of the Bodhisattva images in Sri Lanka is in the manner of conception of a prince and ascetic. In intention this appears to be that the sculptor deliberately combined these two forms in order to embody the mundane and spiritual qualities in the figure. The majestic posture of a prince with princely head-dress and all the ornaments necessary for a prince as at Kustarajagala definitely demonstrate on the one hand that the Bodhisattva is always descendant of a royal line and on the other hand it is to manifest his potency and capabilities in redeeming others. The inclusion of the Asiatic features into this princely figure as depicted at Situlpauwa is to convey the qualities of simplicity, tranquillity, and sublimity.

Finally it could be said that the Bodhisattva images of Sri Lanka are a result of a combination of two concepts, one based on the Mahayana form of Buddhism and other on the Theravada form.
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