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Prajnaparamita in Buddhist Iconography

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With the parinirvana of Sakyamuni Buddha, dissensions crept into the Buddhist camp, and at Vaisali, it was divided sharply into two, that of the Elders and that of the Youngers. Those who stuck to ethics and moral discipline, were called the Theravadins and those who trifled with these two but stuck to metaphysical and altruistic doctrines were called the Mahasanghikas. One of the Theravadin sects, the Vibhajyavadins or the analytical sect was, we are told, much patronised by Asoka, but later on it deteriorated and lost its prestige, owing to the persecuting zeal of Pushyamitra and his successors. Consequently, it fled to the South and made Ceylon its home. The Youngers, i.e., the Mahasanghikas made fast friends with the new settlers of India, the Sakas, the Yavanas, the Pahlavas and the Kushanas. They seem to have made headway particularly at the time of Kanishka, and in the council held in his time made a commentary on the sayings of the Buddha called ‘Vibhasha.’ In that council the Theravadins were feebly represented while the Vibhajyavadins were not in evidence.

At the same council there was also a small but pushing sect called the Ma hayana which did not however count in the council, but made great headway two generations later under Nagarjuna and his disciple Aryadeva, both of whom were Sunyavadins. "All speculations beyond Arhatship, Buddha discouraged as of no use. But bolder spirits after him could not resist the temptation of speculating, and their speculations ended in the time of Nagarjuna in sunyavada." But in a short time Sunyavada was found to be unsatisfactory and Maitreyanatha, one or two generations after Nagarjuna, added vijnana to it and founded the vijnanavada or what developed later on as the Yogachara system. The controversy between the Sunyavadins and the Vijnanavadins raged for several centuries. Vijnanavada was also found unsatisfactory and in the 8th century another element was added on to it which was called Mahasukhavada, so that "after ordinary nirvana there were three elements, Sunya, Vijnana, and Mahasukha." It is from this Mahasukhavada that Vajrayana originated, and Vajrayana is the system rich in iconographical ideas.

In Buddhist philosophy there are four theories or schools that have to be adjusted within the three Yanas or ways. The schools are Vaibhashika, Sautrantika, Yogachara, and Madhyamika, and the Yanas are Sravakayana, Pratyekayana, both being also called Hinayana, and Mahayana. Sravakayana and Pratyekayana are explained by the theory of the Vaibhashikas. Mahayana is of two kinds, Paramitayana and Mantrayana. Paramitas are explained by the theories either of Sautrantika, Yogachara or Madhyamika; Mantranaya is explained by the theories of Yogachara and Madhyamika only1 and begins with the abstruse theories of Sunya and Vijnana.

The Hinayanist is selfish inasmuch as he strives for his own nirvana, while the Mahayanist makes compassion (karuna) his motto and works for the uplift or mankind. We may remember that Mahasukha, from which Vajrayana originated later on, is not possible to attain without the aid of Sakti, the embodiment of compassion (karuna). To the Hinayanist the Buddha is the Progenitor of the Law, a superman with extraordinary intellect, and the order in which he would worship the Buddhist Triad is as Buddha, Dharma and Sangha i.e., the Promulgator of the Law first, the Law second, and the Sangha or the congregation last, while to the Mahayanist the Buddha is an eternal being coming to earth only to liberate the beings tortured by Mara, the Satan of Buddhism, and the order in which he would offer worship to the Triad is as Dharma, Buddha, and Sangha, attributing the highest place to the Law and the next higher place to the Promulgator of the Law. The Mahayanist calls Dharma also as Prajna and speaks of it as eternal and the highest object in Buddhism, while Buddha is to him only the means of obtaining that prajna, which is diffused into the masses through him. And "it took a considerable time, though we cannot definitely say how much, for the idea of prajna and upaya to evolve from Dharma and Buddha".2

On the question whether nirvana meant sunya (emptiness) or vijnana (consciousness) the Mahayanists were divided. The exponents of the Yogachara were not prepared to believe that all the efforts of sentient beings should only end in sunya or nothing. They, with their chief Maitreyanatha, held that even in sunya, vijnana or consciousness remained; hence they were also called Vijnanavadins. The Madhyamikas were of opinion that sunya did not mean void or emptiness but only meant "a transcendental state (not annihilation), about which neither existence, nor non-existence, nor a combination of the two, nor a negation of the two, can be predicated." 3

The entire iconography of the Buddhists proceeds from a correct understanding of the doctrine of Sunya. The creation of Vajrayana, viz., the various forms of gods in union with their Saktis, or as the Tibetans describe it, in Yab-yum, was an outcome of the dual conceptions of Sunya and Karuna or compassion, ‘both of which were conceived and represented, but which ultimately proved to be one and the same’. As Buddhism was intended to become a mass religion it was too much for the propounders of the Mahayana to expect the mass to understand the philosophical import of Prajna or Dharma, Upaya or Buddha and Nirvana. To drive home their significance these ideas were reduced to the form of icons of worship. And to Prajna, which was treated as one of the paramitas or perfections that a Bodhisattva must needs practise, the term paramita was tacked on, the whole standing for ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ or ‘Divine Wisdom’ and representing the summum bonum of Buddhist philosophy. And the legend grew that Prajnaparamita is the embodiment of the scripture of Bodhisattvayana, another name for Mahayana, that this scripture was also known as Prajnaparamita, that it was first dictated by the Buddha himself and committed to the care of the Nagas in the nether regions, as in his time men had not attained sufficient wisdom to comprehend the doctrines embodied in it, and, that when the time was ripe, Nagarjuna restored it from the nether regions in the second century A. D. This Book of ‘Transcendental knowledge,’ this Prainaparamita, became an object of worship among the Mahayanists particularly, and became the standard work of the two main sects of the Mahayana, the Sunyavadins and the Vijnanavadins. That of the Sunyavadins was divided into 32 chapters and was called Ashtasahasrika Prainaparamita; and the same work as modified by the ideas of Maitreyanatha became the Panchavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita (divided into 8 chapters) of the Vijnanavadins.

Before describing the iconography of this Prajnaparamita, we shall examine the philosophical and metaphysical significance of the term, as such an examination is apt to lead to a correct understanding of the former (i.e., iconography). The term can be divided into prajna and paramita. A Bodhisattva must practise six or ten paramitas (perfections). The term paramita is derived from parama and as such means ‘highest condition, point or state, perfection,’ complete attainment, transcendental virtue. "The paramitas are so called, because they are acquired during a long period of time (pardmena kalena samudagatah) and are supremely pure in their nature. They also transcend the virtues or qualities of the Sravakas and the Pratyeka-Buddhas and lead to the highest result (paramam cha phalam anuprayachchhanti) 4. The paramitas are extolled to the skies in Buddhist literature as ‘a Bodhisattva's best friends,’ ‘the Teacher, the Way and the Light, ‘the Father and Mother to all,’ even the Buddhas being their children, ‘sublime, disinterested, supremely important and imperishable,’ ‘lead to welfare, happy rebirths–successful concentration and the highest Knowledge.5 Greatest importance is attached to the paramitas because they tend to distinguish the Bodhisattvas from the inferior Arhats and the Pratyeka-Buddhas who are regarded as representing merely negative ethical ideals, while the Bodhisattvas attain a high state of positive moral development with the aid of these paramitas. The paramitas were not new, but the new method of juxtaposition was the work of Mahayana, as it was felt that the 37 bodhi-pakshya-dharmas of Hinayana were ‘too monastic and anti-social in their scope and tendency.’ The practice of these paramitas is of the highest degree when they are acquired by the Bodhisattvas for the liberation of all beings.

Six paramitas alone were considered to be the chief ones as being the primary factors in a Bodhisattva's discipline, while four more were occasionally added to them as being merely supplementary in nature. While six of these alone are mentioned and discussed in almost all works on Buddhism in Sanskrit, the four additional ones are mentioned only in a few passages without being explained in detail. The six paramitas are:

1. Dana-paramita, (liberality, generosity),
2. Sila-paramita (morality),
3. Kshanti-paramita (patience, forbearance),
4. Virya-paramita (energy),
5. Dhyana-paramita (rapt musing),
6. Prajna-paramita (the perfection of Wisdom). The four supplementary paramitas are:
7. Upaya or Upaya-kausalya (skill in the choice or adaptation of means for succour),
8.Pranidhana (aspiration or resolution),
9. Bala (strength),
10. Jnana (knowledge).

The Madhyamikas declare that the Prajna-paramita ‘is the mother of all the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas,’ ‘is greater than all the other paramitas as the moon is greater than the stars’ and that all other paramitas should be transmuted into it as it includes them all. In short, they declare that ‘the other paramitas, without prajna, lead to the lower stage of the Hinayana, while this prajna-paramita is the essence of the Mahayana and is even sufficient by itself without the other Perfections’ and that it ‘produces, maintains and promotes them all.6 It is equated with Sunyata (void), a term which they explain in two ways, as ‘Conditioned Existence’ and as ‘Non-existence’. They invoke it as if it were a substitute for the Triratna, the Dharma, the Buddha and the Sangha, and reply to it the epithets, arya (noble) and bhagavati (worshipful). The Vijnanavadins on the other hand explain it in a positive manner as ‘the knowledge of the supreme Good or the supreme Truth’ or simply as ‘Knowledge’ and identify praina with perfect knowledge, regarding it as ‘insight into Reality (tathata).7 Both are agreed in saying that prajna is the source of a Bodhisattva's moral strength, who after acquiring it, is not attached to anything and is perfect and flawless in character. "He loves rapt Musing, and cannot be shaken or conquered by the hosts of Mara. . . He is animated by deep and great Love and Mercy (adhimatra-karuna). He acquires all the dhyanas, samadhis (modes of concentration) and samapattis (Attainments) of a Buddha".8

The crowning achievement of Indian art is indeed the spiritual creation of SarasvatiDivine Wisdom–or Prajnaparamita, her Buddhist counterpart, as a concrete expression or material manifestation of the power of the Spirit–its virtue or Sakti. This Sakti is more often contemplated as the consort of the Adi-Buddha and as the Mother of the Universe who acts in unison with Adi-Buddha and becomes an abstraction of nature's manifestations "as well as the progenitor of all the Tathagatas and the mother of all the Bodhisattvas, Pratyeka-Buddhas and Disciples."

Who is Adi-Buddha? He is a creation of Vajrayana, the Primordial Buddha from whom even the five Dhyani Buddhas 9 are said to have taken their origin. When represented in human form Adi-Buddha is called Vajradhara and is conceived in two forms single and yab-yum. When represented in yab-yum, he should be embraced in yab-yum by his Sakti, whose name is Prajnaparamita 10 and who besides being richly decorated with all ornaments should hold the kartri in the right hand and the kapala in the left. The conception of Adi-Buddha originated at the Nalanda monastery in the beginning of the 10th century A. D., while there is no mention of the five Dhyani Buddhas in the Mahayana literature prior to the time of Indrabhuti (700-750 A.D.). But however, as Havell has pointed out, the conception of Prajnaparamita, as the Logos or "Divine Wisdom" is much older.

The worship of Prajnaparamita was so popular that Asanga of the sixth century composed a sadhana for her worship that could confer on her devotees wisdom. Owing to her antiquity, she could not be assigned to any particular Dhyani Buddha like the other deities, as the conception of the Dhyani Buddhas itself was not in existence when Nagarjuna brought the Prajnaparamita scripture from the nether regions. The Sadhanamala contains nine sadhanas relating to her worship, two of which assign her to the cult of Akshobhya, one of the Dhyani Buddhas. As an emanation from a combination of the five Dhyani Buddhas, she is ranked with Kuru-kulla, Sitatara and Vajratara. She is of golden colour and bears the images of the five Dhyani Buddhas on her crown. Her hands exhibit the Dharmachakra mudra while from under her right and left armpits issue two lotuses bearing the Prajnaparamita book. A stone image in the Indian Museum11 answers this variety.

We have now to deal with Prajnaparamita as an emanation of Akshobhya from whom eleven goddesses, most of them fierce in nature, emanate. Prajnaparamita is however one of his peaceful forms, and two sadhanas relate to two of her varieties, one white (sita) and the other yellow (pita), the former called Sitaprajnaparamita and the latter Pitaprainaparamita. Sitaprajnaparamita is two-armed, bears the effigy of Akshobhya on the crown, sits in the vajraparyanka pose (asana) on a white lotus, with a red lotus in her right hand and the Prainaparamita scripture in her left. She is white in colour, should be decorated with all sorts of ornaments and should have a beautiful appearance. Much similar to this variety is the other, Pitaprajnaparamita, who is, however, yellow in colour and displays the vyakhyana pose (exposition) in her two hands while on a lotus to her left rests the scripture Prajnaparamita.

Of all the images of Prajnaparamita we have singled out one, easily the best (frontispiece), for reproduction here as it is the most exquisite specimen of the Indo-Javanese school of sculpture answering well the description of Pitaprajnaparamita given above.12 This statuette which has gone down as ‘the masterpiece of Buddhistic sculpture from Java’ was found in a wood near Malang and in the neighbourhood of Singasari, East Java, as early as 1819 A. D. and is now exhibited, we are told, in the Leiden Museum. Seated in a state of complete abstraction on a lotus flower, the symbol of purity and divine birth, in the fixed pose of a yogini, the goddess performs with her hands the divine mudra or sign of spiritual instruction, while her charming face has "that ineffable expression of heavenly grace which Giovanni Bellini, above all other Italian masters, gave to his Madonnas. 13 The head-dress, ornaments and dress, with which the goddess is provided are exquisitely and elaborately worked. The scripture is placed on a lotus flower to her left, the stalk of which is twined round her left arm. Judged from any standard, we have no hesitation in acclaiming with Havell that this wonderful specimen is "worthy to rank as one of the most spiritual creations of any art, Eastern or Western," 14 though Gangoly and Coomaraswamy dismiss it as ‘somewhat weak and superficially attractive’ 15 and superficially lovely and exquisitely ornamented but without vitality.’ 16

As regards the date of this sculpture Havell had conjectured rightly in 1908, judging from the style of its execution, that it must, belong to the later period of Buddhist art in Java, for it follows in the main the classic ‘Indian style of Central Java’. Today we have so much research done on the history of Java by Dutch scholars and Indian scholars such as Dr. B. R. Chatterji and Mr. Gangoly that we are able to date this statuette almost precisely. The history of Java is gleaned from two Kavi chronicles, the Nagara Kretagama and the Pararaton which cover the Singasari (1280-1292 A.D.) and the Majapahit (1294-1478 A.D.) periods in the history of East Java.

The former stops with 1365 A.D. while the later goes on till 1478 A.D., up to the end of the Hindu period of Javanese history. According to the Pararaton, Ken Arok, the ancestor of the Singasari and Majapahit lines, was a son of Brahma, an avatar of Vishnu and a relation of Siva, and was guilty of heinous crimes, such as theft murder, etc. A Brahmin from India came to know from supernatural sources that Vishnu had incarnated himself in Java in the person of Ken Arok. He came to Java and entered the service of Ken Arok whom he helped easily to get into the service of the Singasari prince who was himself a feudal of Kediri. "Then he (Ken Arok) falls in love with the wife of the prince, Dedes, the most beautiful woman in Java, of whom had been foretold that her husband would be a Chakravarti (monarch). After a series of disreputable adventures, the Kediri prince is disposed of by means of a dagger which is destined to prove fatal to Ken Arok and his descendants down to the 7th generation. Ken Arok ascended the throne of Singasari in 1220, and married Queen Dedes. He assumed the title of Rajasa Sang Amurvabhumi and had succeeded in consolidating his conquests before he was murdered in 1227." 17 Our image is ascribed to his reign (1220-27 A.D.) and is believed to represent the features of his queen Dedes who furnished the model.