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A new book looks at the art of Tantric Buddhism

‘Buddhism: A Journey Through Art’ looks at Asia’s Buddhist visual art traditions, especially that of tantric Buddhist painting and sculpture

Detail from Vajradhara, Nairatmya, Mahasiddhas Virupa and Kanha, ‘thangka’ painting, c. 1450 CE, Central Tibet.

By Bibek Bhattacharya

LAST PUBLISHED 04.12.2023  |  04:00 PM IST

Over its long, 2,500 year old history, the art of Buddhism has undergone many changes, while staying true, in essence, to the Buddha’s tenets of liberation and compassion. The ways that these changes have manifested themselves are entirely dependent on the ways that different cultures have received and adapted Buddhism over the years. R.M. Woodward’s Buddhism: A Journey Through Art is an excellent visual representation of this process.

Woodward is an artist who is also interested in theological art and especially in Eastern philosophical systems. So, while it isn’t surprising that she should combine these interests in this book, it must be said that trying to band together so many disparate eras of Buddhism and Buddhist art into one package is a daunting task. Woodward manages do so, just about, by dividing the material into six sections: Tantric Buddhism, Gandharan art, depictions of the Buddha, of the Bodhisattvas, of religious officials like bhikshus and arhats, and of religious artefacts.


The photographs of the objects themselves are sourced from 12 museum collections from around the world, with the largest number coming from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The lay reader of Buddhist art would be hard pressed to otherwise come across the gorgeous objects depicted here, so in that regard, the book represents an excellent introduction to this vast subject. Hopefully, this will usher them towards immersing themselves more deeply in the various eras of Buddhist art, as well as specific cultural depictions, be they from Bengal, or the Kathmandu Valley, or Japan.

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'Buddhism: A Journey Through Art: By R.M. Woodward, Roli Books, 351 pages, 2,995.

The most fascinating collection of art objects in the book are the ones that relate to Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism. It is sometimes called the third yana or vehicle of Buddhism—after Theravada and Mahayana—but in reality it is much more complex.

On one hand it includes a vast body of consecration and meditation (sadhana) practices that arose out of a need to formally ritualise the philosophical tenets of the Mahayana.

At another level, it represents the reality of medieval Asia (especially India), where dominant religions, like Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Buddhism, was adopted by kings and kingdoms to legitimise and further their rule. On a completely different level, Vajrayana represented the most egalitarian and mass-based version of Buddhism yet, making a huge political claim against upper caste hegemony and empowering ordinary people (upasaka), who are given as much importance as religious specialists like monks.

To that end, the rich tapestry of objects here, be they the 12th century miniature painting from Bengal of the tantric goddess Kurukulla, or the 18th century gilt and copper alloy crown worn by a Vajracharya (tantric priest) from Nepal, tell a fascinating story.


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The final phase of Indian Buddhism, from the 8-13th centuries CE, which birthed the majority of Asian Buddhist art styles that we still see today, was vigorously internationalist in nature, with new philosophies and art styles travelling from India to other parts of Asia by maritime and land-based trade routes.

Also read: A window to India's stunning Buddhist past

This is how a fierce Indian tantric meditation and protector deity like Achala could transform into Fudo Myoo, the state protector deity of 14th century imperial Japan. It’s something of a pity that Woodward doesn’t make these connections explicit, but then again, this isn’t a book of art history.

'Kurukulla dancing in her mountain grotto', folio from a manuscript of the Ashtasahasrika Prjnaparamita, early 12th century CE, Pala Period, West Bengal or Bangladesh.

Equally fascinating are the painted depictions of various famous Indian Buddhist monks and siddhas in the book. A 15th century Tibetan painting, for example, depicts two of most important Indian siddhas from eastern India (who have been entirely forgotten in this country): Virupa and Kanha. In this painting, they are depicted as yogis who are a part of the transmission lineage of specific tantric traditions.

What goes unsaid is that they were seminal writers of Buddhist tantras themselves, or the composers of mystical dohas and charjya geetis in the apabhramsa language of eastern India. These songs not only are the foundational texts of modern languages like Bengali, but also mark the beginning of a tradition that includes both Kabir as well as modern-day Bauls of Bengal.

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Similarly, a 12th century Tibetan painting of the Bengali monk Atisha Dipankara is fascinating not only because of the fact that the painting was made a mere century or so after his death, but also because the life and career of Atisha encompasses a huge chunk of final centuries of Vajrayana Buddhism in India.

Buddhism: A Journey Through Art is brimming with such echoes and epiphanies, and, given its design and the resplendent works of art it contains, is gorgeous to boot.