Bodhisattvas are ‘beings destined for Awakening’, preparing, through their merits and their virtues, to become Buddhas.
For most of the followers of Mahayana Buddhism, the Bodhisattvas represent intermediaries between the inaccessible, unimaginable and indescribable Buddha (conceived as a supreme deity, Vairocana or Adi Buddha, and the beings living on this earth of impermanence and imperfection. They are the divine intercessors, the ‘heroes of charity and sacrifice’,’ endowed with all virtues and qualities, possessing all strengths and an unshakable resolution In the accomplishment of their vows. They are perfect models, dear to the hearts of the faithful, because, endowed with tenderness and sensitivity, they are closer to them.
The sects of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet and Nepal usually represent five Bodhisattvas — Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Maitreya, Vajrapani and Bhaishajyaguru.
Devoted to the salvation of the suffering world, they do not enter final Nirvana — which is why they are not normally represented in Samadhi (meditative concentration) with the hands in Dhyana mudra, but in more dynamic postures. They are eminently active beings: they have taken the ‘vow to experience all torments in the place of living beings. Thus their appeal is immense throughout the world of Mahayana Buddhism, and the number of their representations is considerable. They are assigned many names which reflect the qualities or activities attributed to them because a number of these Bodhisattvas are worshipped according to their attributes. Bodhisattvas appear only in imagery from the Esoteric and Mahayana traditions.
Bodhisattvas are usually depicted as less austere or inward than the Buddha. As the deity of compassion, Bodhisattvas are typically represented with precious jewelry, elegant garments and graceful postures. The most common Bodhisattva posture is that of a relaxed seated posture with the legs loose and resting as they may with either the right or left leg pendant. This posture is depicted in art as synonymous with both the Royal Ease and Sattva Posture.
Esoteric sects, found largely in Tibet and Japan, use mudras most extensively, both in practice and in art. Hand gestures are also used by bodhisattvas. The Sanskrit term vara, also known as varada, highlights the Buddha granting the vow. Despite this reference to Shakyamuni, this gesture is more commonly exhibited by bodhisattvas. Varada is also a frequent symbolic gesture for Avalokiteśhvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who is considered as the most popular bodhisattva in the Mahayana tradition.
The Avalokiteshwara is usually shown holding a lotus and or rosary and he is sometimes accompanied by female attendants. In the Kashmiri/ Western Tibetan sculptures of Avalokiteshvara, he is depicted standing in Tribhanga (triple-flexion) posture atop a lotus that rests on a stepped plinth. His right hand is held in the gesture of reassurance (Abhaya mudra) and his left-hand grasps a lotus that rises from his left foot. Other Kashmiri works show Avalokishvara in various tantric forms with multiple arms and attributes. Two other Bodhisattvas, Maitreya and Manjushri are also quite popular.
Maitreya is identified by the stupa adorning his headdress and the flask held in his hand. Manjushri bears a sword with which he pierces the veil of ignorance and a book that symbolises knowledge.
In contrast to the humble Shakyamuni Buddha, bodhisattvas are represented as affluent princes with strong young bodies, royal raiments and elaborate jewelry. This opulent secular attire indicates that a bodhisattva “participates fully in worldly life” to help others progress towards enlightenment. His jewelled ornaments represent spiritual perfections (paramitas) or virtues that he as a bodhisattva has developed and used to fulfil his compassionate mission. The male Bodhisattvas are always represented clothed as princes and adorned with thirteen ornaments including a crown with five gems, earrings, a necklace, armlets, bracelets, anklets, long necklaces, scarves and a belt.
Their crowns may bear the effigy of their ‘spiritual father’, one of the five Dhyani Buddhas. Along with the ornaments are five silken garments: blue silk scarf, five-coloured crown pendants, white upper garment, lower skirt, and sleeves or a long scarf for dancing. Their hair is tied in a high chignon and they have an urna on their forehead. An interesting deviation from the description discussed above can be seen in the Gandhara art of the fourth-fifth century where the head of the sculpture of a bodhisattva can be seen with elaborate turban and cascading locks.
There are several different systems for describing the attire and jewelry of the figures with some changes between male and female. They are usually represented standing when worshipped alone and seated when accompanied by a Dhyani Buddha.
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