Sunday, March 1, 2009

Arhat Outline Pages Updated

The subject of Arhats is actually the foundation of Himalayan Buddhist iconography, painting and sculpture. Temples and shrines invariably have an image of Shakyamuni Buddha. Where you have an image of the Buddha then there should follow the Sixteen Great Arhats, the Four Guardian Kings and then Dharmatala, later to be joined by Hvashang. (The liturgies from India and Kashmir do not include Hvashang although they do include Dharmatala).

When describing subjects in art, or the group of religious figures, Western art historians commonly use the phrase 'sixteen arhats' as do native Tibetan speakers in their own language 'ne ten chu drug' when talking about the important students of the Buddha. This is actually a curious phenomenon because the Sixteen Arhats are almost never depicted on their own. They are always created as retinue figures surrounding or placed at either side of Shakyamuni Buddha. Any set of arhat paintings, or sculpture, automatically implies that Shakyamuni is at the center. This central Shakyamuni is generally painted or created larger than the accompanying arhats. So, what this really means when looking at individual paintings or sculpture of arhats is that for every sixteen arhats there is going to be one Shakyamuni Buddha. In Himalayan art many of the Shakyamuni Buddha paintings thought to be simply a painting of Shakyamuni are actually not simply that. What they are is more precisely the centerpiece of a set of paintings that also includes the Sixteen Arhats, Four Guardian Kings and Two Attendants. The Sixteen Arhats are always a larger package of figures. See a numbered schematic of Shakyamuni Buddha and the Arhats with all attendant figures.

In modern times it seems that it is the sixteen that get all of the attention. Based on the Western art publications of the last number of decades Shakyamuni seems to have been relegated to a minor position in any Sixteen Arhat discussion. Rarely if ever is it mentioned in publications or exhibition signage that a significant or impressive Buddha is a centerpiece, or might be a centerpiece, of a much larger artistic and religious composition. Whenever looking at Himalayan art, paintings and sculpture, it should always be the first or second question that comes to mind "does this belong to a set or was it created as a single object"? When this question is asked then the answer should be, at least fifty percent of the time, "yes, it belongs to a set."

If we can agree that Shakyamuni Buddha has been marginalized in his own depictions, compositions and within his own visual Himalayan contextual framework then what about the two Arhats that stand apart from and are superior to the sixteen. These two are so important that they are not even referred to as belonging to the sixteen, but literally stand apart. They are referred to directly by name as a sign of their importance. In all of the liturgies their names follow immediately after that of the Buddha and before those of the sixteen. They are Shariputra and Maudgalyayana the two principal students of Shakyamuni Buddha. In paintings that present the Buddha and Arhats then these two seemingly forgotten figures are always depicted as standing immediately to the right and left of Shakyamuni. Not only are they regarded as the two principal students of the Buddha but they are likely historical figures. They are further counted as the first two patriarchs of Buddhism after the passing of the Buddha. In comparison, historical evidence by Western standards for the existence of the other Sixteen Great Arhats is dubious at best.

When depicted in sculpture Shariputra and Maudgalyayana are cast individually. The standing sculptural arhat figures in Himalayan art are rarely discussed and generally remain ignored in museum and private collections. Part of the reason for this can likely be explained by a lack of individual characteristics for the standing Shariputra and Maudgalyayana. In comparison it is always nice to look at different depictions of the Arhat Bakula, almost always with facial characteristics, wizened and aged, and then to take note of how the jewel disgorging mongoose is portrayed.

Shakyamuni Buddha and the Sixteen Arhats, in painting and sculpture sets, are plentiful in Himalayan art. They alone make up a significant percentage of all art found in temples, museums and private collections. Knowing that and knowing that sets are a unique and distinguishing feature of Himalayan art, then, the Arhats can no longer be looked at in isolation. Shakyamuni Buddha cannot be looked at in isolation, neither can the Guardian Kings, Two Attendants, or especially the two principal students of the Buddha. Commissioned by an individual/s or community and created by an artist or atelier, it is all of these twenty-five figures that make up the composition and they together form the complete religious and artistic work.

Arhat Outline Page
Arhat Art Topics
Arhat Painting Sets
Arhat Sets Linear List

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