Chapter 21
Buddhist Images and Lord of Tirumalai

Buddhist symbols of worship

Having studied the Vishnu images, we might study some of the Buddhist images, with advantage. As is well known, the Buddhist pantheon is very, it is neither possible to go into detail, nor it is necessary for our purpose.

Before the the image of Buddha came into existence, various symbols were worshipped: These were:

1. White elephant, symbolizing birth of Lord Buddhda - dream of Maya.

2. Lotus denoting walking of Buddha immediately after birth when seven steps were taken by Him and a lotus grew under each step.

3. Horse, denoting Maha-abhi-nishkraman

4. Bodhi Tree, denoting Enlightenment

5. Vajra Asana, denoting Enlightenment

6. Gandha Kuti, denoting His cottage

7. Begging Bowl

8. Ushnisha i.e. Head gear

9. Prabha Mandal

10. Dhamma Chakra

11. Foot Prints

12. Tri Ratna, denoting Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

Demand for Buddhist art was greater

The image of Buddha was made at the beginning of Christian Era. In the third regnal year of Kanishka, a huge Buddha image was installed at Sarnath by Bhikshu Bala, and is labeled as Bodhisattva. [N.P.Joshi:364,marathi]

The controversy whether the first Buddha image was made in Gandhara or Mathura has no relevance to our purpose. Mathura art of Kushana age and the Sarnath art of Gupta age are too well known to merit any discussion.

Discussing the centres of Buddhist art Dr. Vasudeo Upadhyaya observes:

"...The Buddhist rulers selected different centres and got the work done from skilled artists. Therefore various schools of Buddhist art were established. Schools of Gandhara, Mathura, Sarnath denote a definite art form. For the images of Brahmnism there was absence of usual school (definite centre). Brahmnic images were made at different places. It is more likely that compared to Buddhist images, the demand for Brahmnic ones was less. Objects are manufactured only according to demand. Therefore it was not possible for the Brahmnic artists to settle at one place and manufacture images. During the Gupta age, centre of Sarnath was famous for Buddhist images. Art of making of highly beautiful Buddhist images, full of philosophical features, was on zenith. In such a prosperous age there was no centre for Brahmnic images..." [Upadhyaya: 309]

Depiction of Bodhisattvas

Bodhisattvas are the beings who are in the process of obtaining, but have not yet obtained Buddhahood, such as Gautama or Sidhartha before attainment of Nirvana.

The Bodhisattva was also not depicted in human form earlier, but symbols were used. They were a caparisoned horse without a rider, with a parasol held above and a bodhi treen with the vajrasana beneath it. [Banerjea: 394]

Later on the era of Bodhisattva images followed. Earlier local artists, in contrast to Gandhara ones, made no distinction between the terms Buddha and Bodhisattva, and the inscribed standing and seated images of Mathura, representing Gautama dressed as monk, are sometimes described in their pedestal inscriptions either as Bodhisattva or as Buddha. [Ibid:394] In Gandhara art three different Bodhisattvas are depicted, Maitreya and Avalokitesvara and Manjushri. With the emergence of Mahayana, a mahayana pantheon came into being with five Dhyani Buddhas, viz. Vairochana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi who are said to have issued out of Adi Buddha through contemplation. Each of these Buddhas is associated woth a Bodhisattva and a goddess, called Tara. [Dutta:III,379] For the spirit of self abnegation the Bodhisattvas began to rise higher and higher in the estimation of masses till some of them became objects of veneration. The most distinguished of these, who ranked almost as gods, were Avalokitesvara, Manjushri, Vajrapani, Samantabhadra, Akashgarbha, Mahasthanaprapta, Bhaishjyaraja, and Maitreya. [Dutta: III,390]


"Avalokitesvara is the personification of compassion. He is full of mercy, and extends his ever helping hand to all those who seek him in distress. (Saddharmapundarika Ch. XXIV), According to Chinese pilgrims, the worship of Avalokitesvara was prevalent in India form the fourth to seventh century. The images of Avalokitesvara are quite common among the archaeological finds. Usually the images are richly decorated and show the Buddha Amitabha in the head dress. In some of the images, the goddess Tara appears with this Bodhisattva. The goddess Tara is personification of Knowledge (prajna). She is so called because only with her help could people cross the world of misery. She is also known as goddess Prajnaparmita, as it is by the fulfillment of this paramita that a Bodhisattva reaches the goal. The next popular Budhisattva is the ever youn g (Kumarabhuta) Manjushri. He is the personification of wisdom and is sometimes associated with Lakshmi (=Shrimahadevi) [Suvvarnaprabhasa, ch.IX.Her function is to furnish monks with robes, food, and other requisites.]or Saraswati [Suvarnaprabhasa Ch. VIII. The function of Saraswati devi is to give the power of intonation to Dharma - preachers, teaching dharani, etymology, and of reviving memory etc.] or both. He imparts education to the people, teaches the Buddhist dharma, and is the instructor of Maitreya, the future Buddha. His worship was prevalent in India at the same period as that of Avalokitesvara." [Dutta: III,390]

Literary references to Avalokitesvara

He further observes:

"The earliest literature which may be called precursor of Tantra was known as Dharanis and formed part of the Mahayana sutras ... Karandakavyuha of about the fourth century a text devoted to glorification of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara who with Tara formed the chief deities of worship in the early tantra literature. ..." [Dutta: IV, 260]

"The only deity invoked in most of the earlier Dharanis is the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvra, who was a devotee of Bouddha Vairochana. The abode of Avalokitesvara is placed at Potalka, a place somewhere in the Sourth, near Shri- Dhanyakataka (Amaravati). In the Karandavyuha (fourth century A.D.) this Bodhisattva is glorified as the first god to issue out of the primordial Buddha (Adi-Buddha = Adinatha = Vajra) and to create the Universe. In this text, Goddess Tara does not appear while there are references to Maheshvara and Uma, as devotees of Avalokitesvara. It seems that in course of time this Uma - Maheshavra conception was superimposed on Mahayana and paved the way for the advent of Tantrayana." [Ibid. p.261]

Vishnu or Avalokitesvara

How does the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara or Padmapani look like? In the later periods many forms of Avalokitesvara are seen, but in early periods he is depicted as 'a well dressed figure who holds a lotus flower in his right hand or bears a lotus on it.' [Banerjea: II,395] Some of the murthis resemble Vishnu and some resemble Shiva and there are some which resemble both at the same time.

Nalinaksha Dutt observes:

"...If a careful analysis is made of the iconographic traits of some of them, there is hardly and difficulty in recognizing on good many of them the mahayanastic adaptation of two of the principal Brahmnical cult icons, viz. Vishnu and Siva. The iconography of the general form of Avalokitesvara and of a few others of his special ones has some analogy to that of a Vishnu, and the ideology underlying both these gods, specially relating to their character as gods of preservation and deliverance, is one and the same..." [Dutta:IV,277]

If the images of Avalokitesvara and those of Vishnu are similar, how do we recognize them? There should be no problem, if the weapons are considered. Mere presence of number of arms is not enough, there are four arms, six arms and more also in both Vishnu as well as in Avalokitesvara. But the weapons are only found in the images of Vishnu. If an image looks like Vishnu, but is without the weapons, it is an Avalokitesvara. If you put the weapons in the hands of an Avalokitesvara it becomes a Vishnu.

In this connection, the views of authorities on iconography are worth observing. Stella Kramrisch observes as follows:

"...Whether the figure is Brahmnic or Buddhist, Vishnu or Avalokitesvara, the treatment is identical; it has Tantrism for the inspiration." [Stella Kramrisch: 224]

She has further to observe:

"...A Vishnu image thus does not differ from the figure of a Bodhisattva in feature or in composition; it can be distinguished by its position, only in attributes, and its accompanying figures..." [Ibid. p.210, emphasis ours] By attributes, she means mainly weapons and mudras and objects held in hand. We have already seen that Lord of Tirumalai has mudras, but no weapons. It has no accompanying figures, which as we have seen should have been there. We have also seen that it is the only "Ek-Devata" temple in whole of India.

Dhyani Buddhas were absent in many Buddhist images

There is another point which needs consideration. A Buddhistic image specially the late one, usually has a depiction of a Dhyani Buddha in the head gear. Almost all the images after 9th or 10th century have got it, except those of Adi Buddha, and almost all the early images e.g. in Mathura and Sarnath school, i.e. during the Gupta period do not have these figures. If it is postulated, that the image is of Gupta period, it could be without the Dhyani Buddha. However even in late stages some of the Buddhist images were made without the Dhyani Buddhas. Vasudeo Upadhyaya observes:

"In Buddhistic art, in some images the Dhyani Buddhas are not present on the crown. Therefore these images are considered as independent ones. By the influence of Hinduism so many such independent Buddhist images were made in the middle ages." [Upadhyaya: 313]

Does Lord of Venkatesvara conform to Buddhist images?

We have already established that the image of Lord of Tirumalai does not conform with the description of the Vishnu Images. In the light of the description of the Buddhist images we will now try to see whether it conforms to the description of the Buddhist images. We have already discussed the position of arms, the absence of weapons, and presence of crown in Buddhist images. We know that the Buddhist images and Vishnu images do not differ much in the composition of eyes, nose, mouth with its smile, chin, ears, proportion of chest, waist, neck, position of legs and feet. All these points in the description of Lord of Tirumalai agree with the description of Buddhdist images. However, there are some points present in the image of Lord of Tirumalai, which need further verification.

Pedestal has distinctive features

It is well known fact the pedestal of the murthi is very important and essential structure of the image. Some kind of pedestal is a must to bear the weight. The standing murthi requires heavier pedestal than the sitting one, for the weight is distributed in smaller area. There can be no murthi without a pedestal. From ancient times the design and character of this has been changing. For example yaksha images of Shunga times are shown on dwarfs or animals; in Kushana times big images of Buddha and Jina are on unornamental pedestal. Late in 1st century the lion appears and denotes the images of time of Kanishka or Vasudeo. In Gupta age two types are seen. One being simple as an Buddha of Mathura and Sultanganj, and second type where figures of Buddhist origion are engraved. For example Manquar Buddha has a chakra between two lions and Sarnath Buddha depicts panch vargiya bhikshus along with chakra in centre, denoting Dhamma chakra prvartana and also two antelopes denoting the place of it, i.e. Mrigadaya (Sarnath). Pedestal of middle age images is a well known entity of double lotus in Buddhist images. But in Brahmnical images there is the figure of the mount (vahana) of the deity engraved on it. It is noteworthy that both in Boddhist as well as Brahmnical images this principle was strictly followed while sculpturing of the murthis. [Ibid:285]

As per Agamas pedestal for Vishnu images is described as:

"...This figure would be on the top of the pitham or pedestal which as usual is represented as if made up of four planks one above the other. All the four are shown as bound together by three girdles known as 'Trimekhala'. This is mythological pedestal ... four planks represent Dharmam, Gnanam, Aisvaryam and Vairagyam. They appear in a slightly different order in the Vaikhanasa and the Pancharatra Agamas. But they are essential as pedestal in both. On the top of this pedestal would be a Padmam with eight or sixteen petals. In the centre of this, or in place of this, should be six pointed yantram referred to above. In the case of Dhruva Beram, the padmam itself is covered over and could not now be seen even by archakas unless the structure of the pedestal is broken up." [Raghavacharya: I,273 - emphasis ours]

Pedestal of Lord is covered, Why?

We are not concerned with the yantram, but the strange thing is why the pedestal is covered. The circumstances that led to covering the pedestal are not mentioned. Vira Raghavacharya wants us to believe that the Murthi was without pedestal before 900 A.D. He observes:

"But the pedestal itself would have been constructed when the temple was constructed and possibly not before. This statement is based on the practice that the pedestal, the Vedi and the walls of the temple are all proportioned to the height of the standing Murti. There is no evidence that the present temple was built before about 900 A.D...." Ibid:274]

However, this still does not clarify why and when the pedestal got covered. It is just not possible that murthi was without the pedestal at the time of manufacture, as it just cannot stand without some kind of support, the feet of the Lord have to rest on some kind of platform, and not just on ground. In any case the pertinence of covering the lotus pedestal is not understood. Whether it was intentional, we can only guess.

Was there a Buddhdist formula on the pedestal?

It is important not only to see the design and markings on the pedestal, but also to see whenther there is anything engraved on it. As is well known that on some of the Buddhist images usual Buddhist formula is written on pedestal, as:

ye dharma hetu prabhava hetum tesham thatagato hyavadat tesanc ya nirodha eyam vadi maha sramanah

It could be rendered as: For everything to originate, there is a cause. This cause is explained by the Lord. This is the Dhamma of Maha Sramana Buddha.

The scholar who imagined and started the sculpturing of this verse on the pedestal of the Buddhist images deserves all the praise. Because this verse on one side strongly condemns the brahmanical doctrine of existence of eternal God, and on the other warns the Buddhists that they must not consider the Buddha as God.

Therefore, it is necessary not only to examine the structure and figures on the pedestal but also to find out whether any thing is engraved on it. As is well known, this verse is engraved on many Buddhist images. This is seen not only in North India but also in South India, for example image of Padmapani from Guntupalli bears it. [Sarma I.K.: 82]

The presence of this formula is the conclusive evidence of the Buddhist character of any murthi, but the absence does not prove or disprove anything. It has value only when present. Unfortunately for us, the lotus pedestal of Lord of Tirumalai is not possible to be seen, as it is covered.

Jata Jutas etc. not againse Buddhist character

Presence of Jata, Jutas, and Naga bhushanams was one of the points raised by the Saivites against Ramanuja's claim , and as we have seen Ramanuja had agreed that the jata jutas were present on the murti, but argued that Bhagwata mentions Jata Jutas for Vishnu image. The presence of jata Jutas may be argued as a point against murthi being a Vishnu, but certainly it cannot be argued against it being a Bodhisattva.

Yadnopavitam was also on Buddhist murthis

The presence of yadnopavitam on Lord of Tirumalai may cause some confusion because it denotes recongnition of supremacy of higher castes, which Buddhism never believed in. Therfore one would expect that there should be no yadnopavitam was also installed. [Upadhyaya: 72]

Unexplained features

There are cetain points which are not properly explained by the historians. It is sure that worship of Lakshmi was started not before the days of Alvander, in South Indian Vaishnavism. In North it was much later. In such conditions, how do we find presence of Lakshmi on the Lord's chest? Was it there since the beginning of manufacture of the murthi or was it carved later on?

Was the srivatsa mark on the chest present on the murthi since beginning?

Nagbhushanams are mentioned by Saivites in their claim and it was accepted by Ramanuja, as per Venkatachala Itihasmala as we have already seen. Are they still there? P.Sitapati, writing in 1972, mentions them to be present as we have already seen [Sitapati: 19] but T.T.K.Veera Raghavacharya avers with equal force, in 1951, that they are not there. [Raghavacharya: I,294] Both these authors are intimately connected with the temple.

Silappadhikaram describes a bow. Was it there? If it was, why was it removed? It cannot be argued that bow was against Vaishnavism and hence it was not necesary to remove it. Was it really a bow that was described or was it a long lotus stalk whose flower is broken? Stella Kramerisch has described an image of Avalokitesvara as:

"...It (image of Avalokitesvara) is complemented by the bow shaped lotus stalk, from which the flower is broken off..." [Stella: 194]

Third eye

Venkatachal Itihas Mala mentions that there was a crescent moon mark on the crown or the forehead. But none of the present day scholars make any mention of it. How did it disappear? How do we account for its disappearance? Is it possible that there could have been a 'dhyani buddha' which was later removed and hence it resembled a crescent moon mark. We saw a story in Chapter 8 about the wound caused on the forehead of the Lord by a stick thrown by a cow herd. Describing this episode in detail, R. C. Dhere, while discussing the Shaivite charecter of the image, suggests that the practice of putting thick camphor mark on foreshead to nostrils, which was started by Ramanuja, was meant for hiding some distinctive feature of the Lord. He says such a doubt is justifiable, and that one can be easily convinced that the legendary 'wound' was actually the 'third eye' of Shiva. [R.C.Dhere: 93]

This 'justifiable doubt' of hiding some vital distinctive sign and this 'easily convinsing' cavity need not only suggest the Third Eye of Siva; it can also be explained by removal of Dhyani Buddha from the forehead, and the observation of Dhere is equally applicable to Buddhist claim.

All such points require an explanation.

Presumption of Vajra-lepa is essential to explain certain points

It appears that Sri V.N. Srinivasa Rao, had published a book, refuting the Vaishnava creed of the Lord, and T.T.K. Veera Raghavacharya has criticized some of Rao's arguments.

He observes:

"...Mr. Rao writes that the makings of the Srivatsam on the right chest, near the shoulder (instead of on the middle of the left chest as is usual with Vishnu images) betrays hasty and imperfect execution by later artist. He displays here not only his ignorance but the audacity in starting that some later artist interfered with the Murti and executed the work. ...(as peer) Bhrigu Samhita, Lakshmi kalpam... The markings of the Srivatsam depend on the rupam or form of the particular Murti and is not identical for all ..." [Raghavacharya: I,297].

Thus the idea of somebody tampering with the murti was repulsive to him and would be still be repulsive to many like him, because of their devotion, which is quite natural. But this ignores the fact that the murti at one stage was without the weapons but now has the weapons, this is itself is a great interference.

There is a rite known as 'vajralepa', Which is performed for making changes, if it becomes necessary. About the Ambabai murti at Kolhapur, which is considered as one of the consorts of Lord of Tirumalai, such a procedure is reported to have been performed, and out of the lower two arms the weapons are interchanged. [bharatiya sanskriti kosha, Marathi, II,110]. Whether any such procedure was carried out on the murti of Lord of Tirumalai is not known. But unless it is presumed to have been performed, many of the contradictory findings can not be explained.

Chapter 20          Chapter 22