A reformation in Buddhism at the beginning of our era led to the formation of a new branch known as Mahayana Buddhism. It distinguished itself from the ego-oriented Theravada Buddhism (the original Buddhism), with its arhats (someone who attains salvation) and Pratyeka Buddha (someone who became an arhat without anyone’s help or guidance). The fellow-human oriented Mahayana Buddhism introduced the divine helpers or bodhisattvas who appear on the path to liberation.
A bodhisattva is a being (sattva) who has reached enlightenment (bodhi), or nirvana, but who delays entry into parinirvana out of compassion for muddle-headed humanity. Bodhisattvas help people and guide the deceased to heaven. The concept of Bodhisattva was founded upon a significant event in Gautama Buddha’s life. When Siddharta left his home, he had wanted to take his son Rahula with him. But he couldn't do it as the mother’s hand lay protectively over the child. After many years of the inward storm, he won his reconciliation with life when he rediscovered the depth of humanity in that protecting gesture of the mother’s hand even in sleep. And so he said, “As a mother protects her only son, so let every one cultivate a boundless compassion towards all that has life.” It is this great and enduring compassion that shifts the emphasis from the Hinayana (Theravada Buddhism) ideal of Arhat who seeks enlightenment for himself to that of the Bodhisattva who does not cease striving till the whole world is guided by him towards enlightenment. As long as there is suffering, the bodhisattvas will remain. Here let us look at some of the important bodhisattvas and their depiction in various cultures.
As we know, bodhisattva rejected nirvana and accepted rebirth again and again so that he could serve the world and redeem it. He was reborn not only as human beings in various walks of life but also as a swan, a deer, an elephant etc. The Jataka tales narrated these legends and produced great literature. Ajanta retold them in line and colour and produced art that was ahead of its time. Painting and sculpture are integrated in Ajanta.
Mainly the figures of two bodhisattvas flank the statue of Buddha. The one on the left is named Padmapani, and the one to the right is named Vajrapani.
He is one of the earliest appearing Bodhisattva and holds a lightning bolt sceptre in his left hand. Vajrapani is associated with the Hindu god Indra, thereby being represented as the thunder deity in India. He is considered the protector of the Buddha and represents the power of all Buddhas.
Padmapani, The Bodhisattva of Compassion holds a lotus in his right hand. He is considered one of the 108 avatars of Avalokiteshwara.
Standing Contemplative Padmapani Avalokiteshwara
He embodies the daily appreciation and practice of wisdom and is often paired with Manjushri. He is also associated with meditation.
The generic name of the most popular bodhisattva is Avalokiteshwara, the “Merciful Lord who looks on Humanity filled with Compassion”. He has many different forms, both pacific and terrific. In Nepal, 108 forms of Avalokiteshwara occur which are amalgamations of other Buddhist and Hindu deities. Another common form of Avalokiteshvara is Padmapani.
Eleven-headed Thousand-armed Avalokiteshwara
Manjushri, who frequently appears to followers in their dreams, is a sweet-voiced youth associated with spiritual wisdom and elegance. He bears a sword with which he pierces the veil of ignorance and a book that symbolises knowledge. His left hand is in vitarka mudra, the gesture of giving instructions. Manjushri is the Buddhist counterpart of the Hindu God Brahma, who is also depicted with a book (the Vedas). He is eternally young and muscular and has some twenty variations.
Tibetan Buddhist Deity Manjushri
Maitreya is destined to be reborn as a Buddha in the distant future. He is identified by the stupa that adorns his headdress and the flask held in his hand.
The Future Buddha Maitreyi
He is classically depicted as a hairy, muscular athlete, exercising a short "diamond" club. In Tibet, Vajrapani assumes ferocious forms to combat demons and to guard the mystical teaching of Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhist Deity Vajrapani
Bhaisajyaguru means “Supreme Healer”, or “the Lord who has a Healing Effect”. The Buddha can be seen as a physician because he diagnosed suffering and developed his teachings on liberation to escape from the cycle of rebirth. This idea was expanded to create the eight medicine buddhas out of whom Bhaisajyaguru is the most important. He is traditionally depicted in his characteristic blue colour, his left hand resting on his lap. His upwardly opened palm holds a beggar's bowl in which lies a fruit from the healing herb he is holding in his right hand. He is the only medicine buddha who is depicted by himself without the other seven.
Bhaisajyaguru- The Medicine Buddha
In China, Avalokiteshwara appears in female form, as Kuanyin. Kuanyin is often portrayed as a Chinese Madonna and Child. The reason for the female form is that from an Eastern Asian perspective, compassion and sympathy are none too marital characteristics and befit women more than men. Padmapani’s pale colour and relatively feminine appearance, in comparison to the muscular body of Manjushri, gave him a gentle and understanding look.
The Bodhisattva Manjushri is known as Wenshu in China. He is generally shown holding a text in the form of either a Chinese-style handscroll or an Indian-style palm-leaf manuscript. Shanshi Province in China was dedicated to him in the 8th century and has many of his monasteries.
The Bodhisattva known as Monju in Japan is the Buddhist deity Manjushri in Sanskrit, who represents wisdom. Paintings of Monju often show him riding a lion and holding a sacred scripture (sutra) in the form of a book or scroll. Sometimes he is shown as holding a lotus in his left hand, a symbol of purity, which is surmounted by a book. In his right hand is a weapon to protect against ignorance and evil. Monju is often depicted with the bodhisattva Fugen, who rides an elephant and represents the teaching, meditation, and practice of the Buddha.
Some of the other Bodhisattvas in Japanese culture includes Miroku (Maitreya in Sanskrit), Kannon (Japanese translation of the bodhisattva known as Avalokitesvara) and Fugen (Known as Samantabhadra in India). There is also another Bodhisattva called Kongo-Haramitsu who belongs to the Esoteric Buddhism tradition of Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism)
The laughing Buddha is a highly common and famous figure. He is an accumulator of positive vibes and a symbol of happiness and abundance. He is believed to bring good luck, contentment and relieve you of your financial worries to lead a stress-free life. He is usually represented as standing in a carefree posture adorned in loosely fitted robes. The big fat belly of Laughing Buddha is symbolic of the prosperity and wealth that can be acquired together with wisdom. It is said that if you rub the potbelly of this Buddha, it will bring good fortune, wealth and balance in life. He is embellished in a long beaded necklace having a stylized pendant etched with sacred Buddhist symbols. He holds a wo lu in the left hand as a sign to curb all bad energies and bring prosperity and longevity. The right hand carry a pot full of gold coins symbolic of him being a wealth giver.
The Laughing Buddha
The more helpless beings are, the more it is your true nature to love them.
-His Holiness Dalai Lama
It is said that when a person becomes a bodhisattva, he exhibits four Buddhist virtues, also known as Brahmaviharas. These are:
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