July 04, 2013

Himalayan Buddhist Art 101: Controversial Art, Part 4 - The Female Nude

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
Part 3: Ithyphallic Deities

Controversial Art, Part 4: The Female Nude

Himalayan style erotic art, or obvious depictions of a sexual nature, are generally of three types: there are the embracing couples found in the highest level of Buddhist tantra, ithyphallic deities, and nude female figures. As for the couples, they are not very revealing in their embrace, with their anatomy is mostly concealed. The ithyphallic deities are certainly more provocative, though there are very few of them found in the pantheon of deities. The Mahadeva and Ganapati forms are certainly the more shocking from this group. 

The nude female figure is easily the most pervasive of these types in painting and sculpture. She appears as a central figure in painted compositions, and as a repeated retinue figure in the mandala arrangements of many other deities. When the nude female is a central figure, she is almost always identified as a form, or related form, of Vajrayogini—a very prominent meditational deity in tantric Buddhist practice. 

Yoginis, as a class of deities, are depicted as nude female figures wearing a crown of jewel or bone ornaments, along with earrings, bracelets, anklets, girdles, and so forth. They may also have a scarf or shawl over their shoulders, as well as ribbons attached to the crown or looped around their earrings. The term dakini is commonly employed in reference to yoginis. There are, of course, technical definitions and textual distinctions as to which term should be used for a given deity. 

The first example is of Vajrayogini in a form known as Vajravarahi. The term varahi relates to the long-snouted boar's head attached to the right side of her own. The second example is a white-colored Vajrayogini known in Tibetan as Kachod Karmo. Here the imagery is very revealing, with legs raised and vulva fully exposed. Kachod Karmo is probably the most animated and graphic example of the female nude in Himalayan art. 

The last example is a Nepalese depiction of the Hindu goddess Kali seated atop the prone form of Bhairava, the wrathful form of the god Shiva. Under Bhairava is the quiescent Shiva, white in color, with four arms, and wearing a tiger skin. The imagery of this painting symbolizes the dominance of the female principle over that of the male. Sexually explicit iconography and art is actually far more common in the many different forms of Hinduism, such as Shaiva and Shakta, than it is in tantric Buddhism and the art of the Buddhist Himalayas.

Image 1: Vajrayogini
Image 2: Kachod Karmo
Image 3: Kali seated atop Bhairava

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Triptych Journey's picture

How does art aid and support meditation? How do the feminine and masculine come together in enlightenment? We will be exploring these and other questions with monks, historians, artists and lay people during our journey through sacred Himalayan landscapes. You can follow our journey at www.triptychjourney.org/about/.


gernot66's picture

good question, shocking to whom?
to a untrained eye?
Sir (Gomez) your answer is (again) quite comprehensible :)
i guess for a painter* like me not much can be shocking, but i can speak only for myself.
imagination is running wild and i guess ppl like me need a good guidance not to get caught (or misled) by their own imagination.

*don't expect to much of me. i do not paint often (forcing myself usually leads to nothing) it all depends on the right moment.

rinchen_wangmo's picture

Why "provocative"? Why "shocking"? Shocking to whom? I don't believe these religious pictures were made to provoke, shock or titillate anyone. They are depictions of the Sacred Feminine.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

The images referred to here as "provocative" and "shocking" are exclusively the ithyphallic (obviously male) deities of the previous post, such as Ganapati, whom Watt mentions specifically.

That aside, these are powerful tantric images, and if you don't find them the least bit shocking (especially the last one which depicts a graphic threesome involving tiger skins, scores of severed heads and arms, many swords, and lots of blood - all in a pit of fire) you might want to take a closer look.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Some of the most psychologically impactful art in Western culture contain provocative and shocking imagery. They function to expose the yucky underbelly of an otherwise hypocritically polite society.