June 13, 2013

Himalayan Buddhist Art 101: Controversial Art, Part 3 - Ithyphallic Deities

Jeff Watt

Buddhist practice and Buddhist art have been inseparable in the Himalayas ever since Buddhism arrived to the region in the eighth century. But for the casual observer it can be difficult to make sense of the complex iconography. Not to worry—Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt is here to help. In this "Himalayan Buddhist Art 101" series, Jeff is making sense of this rich artistic tradition by presenting weekly images from the Himalayan Art Resources archives and explaining their roles in the Buddhist tradition.

Part 1: Dorje Shugden
Part 2: The Svastika

Controversial Art, Part 3: Ithyphallic Deities

To the layman, "tantra" and "tantric" connote sex, and "tantric art" evokes sexual imagery. Most sexual imagery in Himalayan Buddhist art, however, is actually quite tame, with only the suggestion of sexual activity given by either seated or standing couples in warm embraces. (Granted, the couples are naked except for wisps of clothing or bone ornaments designed to conceal nothing.) But embracing couples, one of the most common imageries, are far less controversial compared with the ithyphallic [having an erect penis] depictions of solitary male deities and dancing Vajrayogini figures.

There are five main examples of ithyphallic deities: Vajrabhairava, Yama Dharmaraja, Black Jambhala, Ganapati, and Mahadeva (Shiva). Each is generally depicted alone, though Mahadeva is often flanked by the consort Uma Devi; some paintings depict the deity holding his erect member in his left hand. Ganapati, a deity of peculiar persuasion, is occasionally befriended by a female monkey while in the aroused state.

These five examples of ithyphallic deities can be catalogued by figurative appearance as either wrathful or semi-peaceful/semi-wrathful. According to function and the classification of the Four Tantric Activities of Vajrayana Buddhism, these deities all perform either "powerful" or "wrathful" activities. The aroused state depicts both literally and symbolically an intense desire and passion to accomplish a specific task. In the case of Black Jambhala and Ganapati, the focus is on gaining wealth; for the red forms of Ganapati and Mahadeva, it is wealth and power; and for the meditational deity Vajrabhairava and the special protector Yama Dharmaraja, the symbolism relates to the intensity of their wrathfulness in overcoming ego and obstacles to reaching enlightenment.

One form of Ganapati known as Ragavajra, introduced to Tibet by Atisha in the 11th century, would likely be classified x-rated by most Western standards. In this example Ganapati is depicted dallying with a monkey, which is performing fellatio on him. The symbolism here is harder to explain and involves some understanding of tantric physiology and theory…

The idea of deity couples in sexual embrace is certainly alluring—and, to the prudish layman, possibly objectionable—but the reality of the imagery is surely disappointing compared to the exaggerated depictions of ithyphallic deities.


Continue to Part 4: The Female Nude


Image 1: Mahadeva
Image 2: Rakta Ganapati

Image 3: Ragavajra Ganapati



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mahakala's picture

The term Bhairava means "Terrifying". He is often depicted with frowning, angry eyes and sharp, tiger's teeth and flaming hair, stark naked except for garlands of skulls and a coiled snake about his neck. In his four hands he carries a noose, trident, drum, and skull. He is often shown accompanied by a dog.

Bhairava himself has eight manifestations: Kala Bhairava, Asitanga Bhairava, Samhara Bhairava, Ruru Bhairava, Krodha Bhairava, Kapala Bhairava, Rudra Bhirava and Unmatta Bhairava.

The origin of Bhairava can be traced to the conversation between Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu recounted in "Shiv Maha-Purana" where Lord Vishnu asks Lord Brahma who is the supreme creator of the Universe. Arrogantly, Brahma tells Vishnu to worship him because he (Brahma) is the supreme creator. This angered Shiva who in reality is the creator of all. Shiva then incarnated in the form of Bhairava to punish Brahma. Bhairava beheaded one of Brahma's five heads and since then Brahma has only four heads. When depicted as Kala Bhairava, Bhairava is shown carrying the decapitated head of Brahma. Cutting off Brahma's fifth head made him guilty of having slain Brahma, and as a result, he was forced to carry around the head for years until he had been absolved of the sin.

Another story of the origin of Bhairava is the tale of Shakti, wife of Shiva. Shakti, the daughter of the king of gods, Daksha, had chosen to marry Shiva. Her father disapproved the alliance because he perceived Shiva as an ascetic associated with a frugal lifestyle, forest animals and ghosts. Eventually, Daksha held a yagna (a ritualistic sacrifice) and invited all the gods, but not Shakti and Shiva. Shakti came to the yagna alone, where Daksha publicly spoke in a belittling manner about Shiva. Shakti could not bear to hear her husband insulted and offered herself to the sacrificial fire.

When Shiva learned of this, he destroyed the yagna and killed Daksha by beheading him. Shiva carried Shakti's corpse on his shoulders and ran uncontrollably all around the world for days. Since this would eventually destroy all creation, Vishnu used his Sudarshan Chakra (divine discus) to cut Shakti's body into pieces, which then fell all around. These spots where Shakti's body parts fell are now known as Shakti Peethas. In the form of the frightful Bhairava, Shiva is said to be guarding each of these Shaktipeeths. Each Shaktipeeth temple is accompanied by a temple dedicated to Bhairava.

Sarah11.11's picture

I know that in art from other religions, the symbols of gods and goddesses in physical union can refer to the mystical belief that there are two separate energies in the human body that must be united to experience lasting ecstasy/enlightenment.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Yin and yang, seemingly two things but actually a union of halves of one thing. Separateness of their energies is an optical illusion.

jkarlins's picture

How about offering some interpretations as far as meaning? I'm a little surprised that you haven't in this extremely short article. You told us that various deities are used for different purposes, but beyond that, really nothing. Why do some deities have "ithyphallic" depictions? Why would a shocking image be used for practice? You mentioned tantric physiology, but then offer nothing to back up this intriguing suggestion. Please add a little more. (This is especially important in light of the fact that, to outsiders or people not familiar with this tradition, it could just seem gross, pornographic, or bizarrely foreign and confusing. Why don't you help clear this up?)