Dr. R.  Banerjee (Chinese and Central Asian Scholar) Dr. R.  Banerjee

"A shtamahabodhisttva" 

The Eight Great Bodhisattva in Art and Literature

published by Abha Prakashan, New Delhi. 1994.                                                  Rs. 800.00


This book is dedicated to my elder brother Shri. Sekhar Banerjee

This book gives a brief but succinct survey of the main features of the eight great Mahayana Bodhisattvas in literature and art. According to Mahayana belief,  as there are innumerable Buddhas, there are also innumerable Bodhisattvas of which the following eight are the chief ones: Manjusri, Vajrapani, Avalokitesvara, Kshitigarbha, Sarvanivarana-vishkambin, Akasagarbha, Maitrey and Samantabhadra. Most of these bodhisattvas occur singly and also in a group or Mandala.

The Bodhisattvas play a unique role in Mahayana faith and art. The main features of the Bodhisattvas are their boundless compassion for all the sentient beings and their readiness to undergo any suffering for the benefit of others. they do not attain nirvana until all the sentient beings are freed from the cycle of bondage of birth and death. It may be interesting to note that in Mahayana Buddhism Buddha is not the only agent engaged in the work of saving the world. In this great task he is assisted by his followers (Putras, Sutas, Asuras, etc.) who are called Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Sutras. These Bodhisattvas are closer to the common man as their constant guide than Buddha himself. The present study is based on relevant literary, art and archaeological sources.

The Ashtamahabodhisatva or the eight chief Bodhisattvas occupy a very important place in Buddhist art and iconography. This group consists of (1) Majusri, (2) Vajrapani, (3) Avalokitesvara, (4) Kshitigarbha, (5) Sarvanivaranavishkambhin, (6) Akasagarbha, (7) Maitreya and (8) Samantabhadra.

Though there are innumerable Bodhisattvas, these eight are the most important among them. They seem to be the personifications of Buddha’s various virtues or qualitites. Manjusri is the god of wisdom. He was popular all over the Buddhist world in India and outside. He has various forms and attributes. As Arapachana Manjusri he cuts assunder the darkness or ignorance with his sword of knowledge. Vajrapani has both beneficent and firerce forms. Endowed with thuderbolt which is also the attribute of the Hindu god Indra or Sakra, Vajrapani is associated with Buddha as his attendant wherever he went to preach the dharma. It is said that when the Tathagata subdued the gigantic Naga in Udiyana, he charged Vajrapani to guad the other serpents (who surrendered to the Tathgata to save them from the attack of Guruda). He is also the enemy of the demons who held in his possession the powerful poison, halahala. He was present at the time of Buddha’s birth, etc,.

Vajrapani is the Dhyani Bodhisattva corresponding to the five celestial Buddhas or Jinas.

Avalokitesvara is the most popular of all the Bodhisattvas, as an all commpassionate and all-seeing god. He looks down from above upon the humanity with pity and alleviates their suffering. He is the reflex or spiritual son of Amitabha. His worship was introduced into Tibet in the 7th century.

Avalokitesvara is highly composite deity, partaking of some of the features of Buddha and the Hindu gods, Siva, Vishnu, Brahma and Indra. He is exclusively referred to in Indo-China as Lokesvara and the object of veneration in both Champa and Cambodia during the 9th and 10th centureis of the Christian era. In China he is known as Kuan-Yin and in Japan as kwan-non.

Kshitigarbha was widely worshipped in Chinese Turkestan as various literary and pictorial sources would show. He was equally concerned with the suffering humanity as Avalokitesvara was. Kshitigarbha was worshipped in China as early as the fifth century A.D. under the name of Ti-tsang. Chinese art sometimes shows him surrounded by the Ten kings of hell. In Japan he is known as Jizo meaning compassionate Buddhist helper. He is the regent of the hell where he comforts and saves mankind from the punishment of hell.

Kshitigarbha is often represented as a priest in which form he is as mentioned in the Mahavaipulya Sutras, Said to have appeared before the Buddha at the time of his death.

Sarvanivarana-Vishkambhin as mentioned in the Saddharma pundarika, was sent at his request by the Buddha to Benares to see the wornderful form of Avalokitesvara. As his attributes he may hold a Chintamani and an ambrosia cup. He wears a tiger skin around his waist and a garland of heads.

Akasagarbha, whose essence is ether, is usually shown standing with his hands in vitarka and varada mudras. His symbol is the sun supported by a lotus at his right shoulder; at his left is depicted a lotus flower supporting a book. In Japan and China he is represented practically in the same way.

Maitreya holds a unique position in Buddhism and Buddhist art, as according to tradition, he is the future Buddha. Maitreya is now in the Tushita heaven where Buddha went to appoint him as his successor. Maitreya is the only Buddha common to both Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism. Maitreya’s distinctive marks are a stupa in the crown, and a jug of ambrosia (amrita ghata). When represented in the group of eight Bodhisattvas, he is shown generally with a vase and wheel.

Maitreya figures are found in India as early as the Kushan period. His worship was well known in Central Asia in the 5th century A.D. In Tibet, Maitrey is represented both as Buddha and Bodhisattva.

Samantabhadra is known for his vow to protect the law. He is the first Dhyani Buddha corresponding with the five celestial Jinas. He is shown with a crown and princely garments of Bodhisattva. He holds Chintamani in his left hand. When in the group of eight Bodhisattvas he holds the stem of lotus folowers and his ahdns exhibit vitarka dn varada mudras. As an accessory he has sometimes vajra.

In Japan Samantabhadra is one of the members int the triad with Sakayamuni and Manjusri.

In writing this book I have received enormous help and encouragement from Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, Academic Director of the Inidra Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, Professor k.K. Mittal of the Department of Buddhist Studies, Delhi, Professor Tan Chung, Professor Consultant, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, and Professor D.C. Bhattacharya Chairman of the Department of Fine Arts, Punjab University, Chandigarh and I am most grateful to them for their kindness.

I am grateful also to my brother Shri Ananda Krishna Banerjee who has kindly seen the book through the press. I am very thankful to Messers Abha Prakashan for publishing my book in an excelleng manner.

R. Banerjee

Beijing, China.


    The concept of ‘Bodhisattva’ is a very important one in Buddhist religion, especially in the Mahayana. Hinayana representas primitive Buddhism centering round the original teaching of Gautama Buddha. He is the centre of all attention in the Hinayana. The Mahayana which is an offshoot of Hinayana Buddhism has a long and varied history. Though it retained the teachings of Buddha as its core, it reinterpreted toa great extent the old Buddhist system and developed asome new ideas giving it almost a new look or dimension. It introduced also the worship of Buddha as a deity in anthropomorphic form and its pantheon includes many other gods and goddesses. Hinayana is ethicaland historical, while Mahayana being a later phase of Buddhism developed mainly as a metaphysical system. The monks of the Hinayana were self-centred and contemplative and consequently became ‘inactive and indolent.’ The main strength of the Mahayana is its bodhisattva ideals.

    Some scholars of Buddhism believe athat the concept of Bodhisattva came into existence only in the Mahayana phase of buddhism. This is due to the belief that the followers of the Mahayana set up the ideals of the Bodhisattva in such clear cut and altruistic terms that it relegated into the background the importance of the Arhathood. The Bodhisattva doctrine was promulgated by the Mahayanists as a protest against the theory of arhatship which was regarded as a doctrine with limited approach....


    Among the Bodhisattvas, Kshitigarbha, because of his active role as a saviousr, especially his concern for those suffering in hell, ranks next in popularity to Avalokitesvara. Though the origins of Kshitigarbha can be traced to an early period, as is evident from various literary sources, he seems to have attained prominence during the sixth-seventh century. Kshitigarbha is known as Di-zang in China and Jizo in Japan. He is mentioned not only individually but also as one of the Eight Mahabodhisattvas as a group.

    Kshitigarbha is an embodiment of Buddha;s comapssion for the fallen souls, specially those creatures who because of their past deeds, suffer punishment at the hell. He is primarily a Bodhisattva of the nether world and like Avalokitesvara he made a vow to help all living creatures and specially those in the hell....


Sarvanivaranaviskambhin is one of the eight great Bodhisattvas. The word sarvanivarana means the effacer of all the obstacles or hindrances.

Nivarana means hindrances. There are five hindrances as follows:

  1. Strong desire (Kamachachhanda).
  2. Hatered (Vyapada)
  3. Slothfulness (Thinamiddha).
  4. Arrogance and suspicions (Uddhachcha-Kukuchcha).
  5. Doubt abouth the triratna (Vichikichah).

Nivarana is completely a Hinyana idea and the concept of Sarvanivaranavishkambhin as a Bodhisattva is indicative of the Hinyana influence over the Mahayana pantheon. However much, Mahayana tried to dissociate itself from the Hinyana, it could not do so. One who goes through Mahayana texts notices the varied influences of the Hinayana system on the Mahayana. This is apparent also from the inclusion of the Hinayana ideas in the person of Sarvanivaranavishkambhin as a Mahayana Bodhisattva….


    Manjusri is one of the most important Bodhisattvas of the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon. His popularity is next only to that of Avalokitesvara. Manjusri deserves our special attention as a god of wisdom. In the Buddhist sutras of the second century A.D., his name occurs very widely. As a seeker of wisdom he asks various doctrinal questions to Sakyamuni Buddha.

    Manjusri, as god of learning, bears a sword for destroying ignorance. He holds also the Prajnaparamita book which sybolises transcendental knowledge. These two attributes (viz., the sword and the book) are very appropriate for Manjusri, dispeller of ignorance and disseminator of knowledge. L.A. Waddell observes that Manjusri’s wisdom is deified and he is a purely metaphysical or obstract creation ‘unconnected with any of his later name sakes’ among the Buddhist monks in the fourth or the fifth century....


    Vajrapani has a towfold role. In the Hinayana texts he is an attendant of Gautama Buddha while in the Mahayana iconography he is a Dhyani Bodhisattva and an emanation of Akshobhya and his Sakti is Lochana.

    The word Vajrapani means the wielder of the thunderbolt. It is an epither of the Vedic god Indra whose main weapon was thunderbolt. Some scholars are of the opinion that the Hinayana Vajrapni was none other that Sakka or Sakra (i.e. Indra). As is well known, the Buddhists have absorbed many of such favourite gods, who has been absorbed in Buddhism, under the names of Sakka, Vajrapani, etc., though with modified functions. In this connection the observations of Grunwedel are significant: "Sakka, like Jupiter Fulgurator, is the Brahmanic god of the atmosphere, and the king of the minor gods; and even with the Buddhists he bears the like names, as Vasava, Vajrapani, Devinda, Maghava, Sahasranetta (Sanskrit Sahasranetra), etc., but they change Purindara (destroyer of towns) into the Buddhist ephithet of Purinda (bestower of towns). He rules over the five lowest of the six Kamadevalokas and has his abode in the Tavatimsa (Sanskrit: Trayasrimsa) heaven. As in Brahmanical mythology, his consort is Suja and his palace or car is called Vejayanta, his elephant Eravana ( Sanskrit Airavata) and his Chairoteer Matali….


    Maitrey or the loving one is the future Buddha. He is still in the Tushita heaven leading the life of a Bodhisattva. It is believed that he will be born as a Manushi Buddha some thousand years after the disappearance of Sakyamuni buddha, for deliverence of suffering souls. According to a popular Buddhist tradition Maitreya is to appear in this world after the three divisions of time. The first period of 500 years is known as the turning of the wheel of the first law. The second period of thousand years is the period of deterioration of the law. The next period is one of 3000 years known as ‘the turning of the wheel of the second law’ after which Maitreya willl leave the Tushita heaven.

    It is interesting to note that there are certain striking dissimilarities between Sakyamuni Buddha and Maitreya so far as the details of their lives are concerned. While Sakyamuni was born of Kshatriya parents, Maitreya was born in Brahmin family. This fact may point to the growing influence of Brahmin caste inside the Buddhist church as the time passed. Again, Maitreya’s advent will bring abundant peace and prosperity. Kumarajiva (5th century) translated into Chinses two tracts, viz., ‘a Sutra on Maintreya’s Becoming Buddha’ which indicate that Maitrey will preside over a very long span of time marked by peace....


    Samantabhadra is one of the earliest Bodhisattvas as his name occurs in the Saddharma-Pundarika which is ascribable to 2nd century A.D. The career and achievements of Samantabhadra find an elaborate treatment in the Lotus-Sutra, which occupies a unique position in the history of Mahayana Buddhist literature. "The Lotus-sutra was intended to unify the various laws; and the Sutra presented the eternal Sakyamuni as the unifying Buddha.

    The dramatic meeting between Samatabhadra and Buddha is described in the chapter 26 of the Saddharma-Pundarika. It is stated there that this glorious Bodhisattva, followed by Devas, Nagas, Gandharvas, Demons, Garudas, Kinnaras, great serpents (Mahoragas), men and others came to Gridhrakuta where the Budha was staying. He saluted the lord’s feet and made seven circumumbulations from left to right and said to the Buddha. "I have come here to hear from your mouth the exposition of the Lotus of the True law. I will protect the monk who will keep this Sutranta. I will take care of their safety and save them from various dangers whenever a preacher recites the Lotus of the True Law, I will come mounted on a white elephant with six tusks alongwith a train of Bodhisattvas to guard the preacher engaged in the exposition of the Law." Thus, Samantabhadra ssured the Buddha that he would take care of the preachers of the law and avert blows and destroy poison, so that no one laying snares for those preachers may surprise them. This reminds us of the services that Buddha rendered in protecting the preachers from various evils and obstacles as stated in Chapter X of Saddharma-Pundarika. In Chapter X of the Saddharma Pundarika Buddha tells Bhaishajyaraja that hose who hear the expositions of Dharma (Dharma-Paryaya) from his mouth are destined to attain supreme and perfect enlightenment. This will also be the case with those who will hear any Dharma-Pryaya after his dealth. A Bodhisattva should set forth his Dharma-Paryaya with an unshrinking mind. Again, the Buddha assures the Bodhisattva Bhaishajyaraja that he (Buddha) would protect the preacher in every way in case there should be any one to attack him with clods, sticks, injurious words, threats, taunts and also when he will be alone in his study. Buddha will also show his luminious body to him and enable him to remember any lesson he might forget. So it is clear that Samantabhadra merely followed what Buddha did to save th preachers from various obstacles....


    Avalokitesvara is the most popular and important of all the Mahayana Bodhisattvas because of his many unique virtues, especially his compassion for al the sentient beings and his deep involvement in their welfare. He took a vow that he would not attain nirvana until all the sentient beings are delivered from the suffering, i.e., the cycle of birth and death. According to Mahayana tradition he is to look after the benefit of mankind during the Bhadrakalpa (i.e. the period between the passing away of Guatama Buddha and the advent of the future Buddha Maitreya).

    In spite of the paramount importance and popularity of Avalokitesvara it is difficult to trace his origin, even though he receives an elaborate treatment in the Saddharma Pundarika ascribable to the second century A.D....


    Akasagarbha, who is regarded as the essence of ether, belongs to the group of eight great Bodhisattvas. He belongs to Ratnesa family. He is also calle dthe Khagarbha. ‘Akasa’ and ‘Kha’ mean the sky or boundless space. The reason why the Bodhisattva is called Akasagarbha is explained thus in the Ta-fang-teng-ta-chi-ching" Suppose there is a millionaire who has limitless riches, an immeasurable store of large donations to people, specially to the poor and bereaved. Suppose that he opens his store to make offerings to those people as much as they want, and that he is thereby immensely satisfied. Like that rich man, does Akasagarbha Bodhisattva practice his meritoriaus acts".

    According to Su-yao-I-Kuei, the man who wants to get happiness and wisdom, should devote himself to this Bodhisattva. The reason is that Sun, Moon and the stars are ll the incarnations of akasagarbha (Taisho, XXI, 422b). Again, the akasagarbha-bodhisattva sutra (Hsu-kung yun-P’u-sa’ching) explains thus the devotion of his followers. "The devotees take bath in scented water, put on clean clothes, burn incense of aloe and turns his face to the east late at night. He brings before his mind the reddish Aruna (the dawn) and recite to him: "Thou great merciful one, dost appear and illuminate this world. Have mercy on me out of compassion and protect me (Taisho, XIII, 672c). It goes on to say that the dawn Aruna appears in the east; the Bodhisattva Akasagarbha appears". Aruna is a Sanskrit word meaning the dawn. It can, therefore, be siad that the origin of the Bodhisattva lies in the world of celestial bodies….


The Sanskrit word ‘Mandala’ means a circle. It is translated into Tibetan as Kyil Khor (dykil-khor), i.e., a circle round a cnetral point. It may however be defined ‘as a hierarchically ordered configuration of religious images following certain rules.

A Mandala is a cosmogram based on the plan of a walled city having gates of the four sides within a round or square external zone which is divided into fields of round or square outline surrounding the centre. The main deity depicted in the Mandala is enthroned in the central field and the remaining figures are regarded as his emanations or family (Parivara). Mandala is thus a geometrical diagram encompassing in it the concentration of universal power and spiritual energy. As already indicated above, the main deity is shown in the centre of the Mandala with the ancillary deities around. In the group picture the hierarchical status of figures declines as we proceed outward from the centre and those in the outermost ring generally function only as guard....


Copyright :  R. Banerjee

ISBN 81-85704-22-8

Published by Abha Prakashan, 209-B Pocket F, GTB Enclave, Opp. GTB Hospital, Delhi - 110 093, INDIA.

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