About the Book
The rich cultural and spiritual heritage of Buddhism has recently been commanding serious attention among a wide public in the West. Lamaism, the Tibetan offshoot of Buddhism, has itself fascinated not only the specialists but also an expanding number of artists, students, and collectors who have been impressed by the subtlety of Tibetan religious thought and the quality of its art. And Tibetan art, with its brilliant colouring, decorative design, and subtle iconography, has come to be recognized as one the outstanding achievements of religious art in the Orient. Tibetan art, however, perhaps more so than nay other religious art, is permeated with the tenets of the highly developed religious tradition and body of theological dogma to which it give concrete expression. The colourful thangkas, although aesthetically appealing in themselves, cannot be fully understood or appreciated without at least a rudimentary knowledge of the religious precepts of Lamaism and the profuse symbols used in giving these tenets visual form. For the number of gods in the Tibetan pantheon seems to be limited only by the bonds of human imagination, and every image and detail is given symbolic meaning.
The Iconography of Tibetan Lamaism was first published in 1939, for the express purpose of "giving the student interested in Tibetan Iconography a general idea of the development of Buddhism into Lamaism, and making easier the identification of the various deities of the Tibetan pantheon." Although interest in the field has grown over the years, the books has remained the only authoritative work of its kind.
The book gives a descriptive outline of the principal gods in the Tibetan pantheon, tracing the main features and symbols that are used to denote each one. A comprehensive illustrated list of the various ritual objects, talismans, symbols, Mudras (symbolic hand poses), and asanas and vahanas (position of the lower limbs) that are used in he images of gods is accompanied with a word list of the Sanskrit terms most commonly encountered in a study of Lamaism.
A set of thirty-one thangkas from the famous collection of Baron A. von Stael-Holstein, formerly of Peking, China, which came to America after the publication of the original edition of the book, has been included in this new and revised edition.
About the Author
Antoinette L. Gordon, was the research associate in anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History. She made the study of Tibetan art and religion her life-work. Her other works are:Tibetan Religious Art and Tibetan Tales: Stories from the Dsangs Blun.
THE STUDY of Lamaism and its iconography is both fascinating and baffling.
The number of the Gods in the Tibetan pantheon seems to be limited only
by the bounds of the human imagination, which, indeed, is here lavishly
displayed. Every image is symbolic of something, and every part of an image
has a meaning, which doubtless cannot fully be known even to those deeply
initiated into the mysteries of Lamaism.
Some of these divinities are in human form and have their origins in history,
legend, or pure imagination. The elements, forces of nature, mountains and rivers,
and even doctrinal systems, have been deified in human or tantric forms, and
spirits and genii, beneficent and malicious, have been imagined and given form.
Not only are the classes of divinities thus created numerous-both major and
minor, some widely known and worshiped and others existing only locally-but
also certain individuals in many of the classes are represented in a variety of
forms to indicate their supposedly manifold powers and activities.
In addition there is a formidable array of disciples, apostles, sorcerers, teach-
ers, and translators, Indian and Tibetan, through whom the teachings of the
Buddha have been spread, transformed, augmented, and handed down; and in
Tibet, there are also the founders and successive heads of the different sects of
Lamaism and of the various monasteries belonging to each.
All arc represented by images. However, while two images which are exact
counterparts of each other are seldom seen, each image is made according to
definite specifications, or a fixed formula; and when the cavity therein has been
filled with paper rolls bearing mystic inscriptions, food seeds, relics, and what
not and ceremonially sealed under priestly supervision, the image becomes sacred
and so continues as long as the seal remains unbroken.
I suppose that the names and ritual descriptions of all of these divinities are
to be found somewhere in the Lamaist scriptures at Lhasa and elsewhere, almost
wholly untranslated, or in books or manuscripts in the repositories of the mon-
a teries scattered throughout Tibet. There are such descriptions, in Sanskrit, of
those which belong to the Indian Buddhist Pantheon, and they have been trans-
lated and published, with illustrations from images in the museums and mon-
asteries. There are also a few sets of drawings, each several hundred in number
and giving the names of divinities of the Lamaist Pantheon, and there exist
occasional books on special phases of Lamaism, with figures of the divinities
concerned, On this material most of the present books on the subject are largely
based. But there are many images which are neither illustrated nor described in
any of these works, and there would appear to be no means for their identification
until the Tibetan texts referred to are made available for the purpose.
The identification of the images is not unlike the analysis of plants and min-
erals-in fact, I was strongly reminded of my botanizing days when I first read
the manuscript of Mrs. Gordon's book and saw the plan on which it was laid out.
Thus, as with a flower one determines in order its division, family, and species,
so with an image one first takes a look and from its general appearance-pose,
expression, and dress-can generally determine the class to which it belongs and
then by a detailed examination of the mount, posture, number of faces, arms,
and legs and the mystic gestures exhibited by it and the symbols, if any, carried
in the hands, seeks to identify and name both the individual in the class and the
particular form of such individual. Color is always important for, and frequently
decisive of, a correct identification. The images, however, are seldom colored,
and hence a study of the thang-kas in connection with that of the images is highly
to be recommended, since not only do these painted banners present the divinities
in their distinctive colors, but also through the subsidiary figures by which the
principal figure is usually accompanied or surrounded they may either aid in the
identification of that figure, or, if the figure is known, give a clue to the identity
of one or more of the subsidiary figures. Moreover, it is not uncommon to find
inscribed on a thang-ka the Tibetan names of the various divinities or brief
descriptions of the scenes pictured thereon.
This being the scheme of this book, from the data given and by following its
charts and referring to the illustrations I feel sure that the beginner will soon be
enabled to identify and call by name many of the divinities represented by the
images most commonly encountered. I am equally satisfied that for all readers
Mrs. Gordon has in this book amply fulfilled her expressed object, namely, that
of making easier the identification of the various deities of the Tibetan pantheon
-at least a large number of them. And there is some satisfaction in the knowledge
that the identity of an indefinitely large number, including some personified by
images which may be picked up occasionally in almost any shop or auction room,
must remain "undetermined" after the most persistent and scholarly research in
the material now available.
The only danger is that, once started on the path here so attractively opened
up, one can never foresee to what lengths he, or she, may be led. Everybody,
however, must at times take some risks.
TIBETAN iconography is a most interesting subject from the standpoint of
both religion and art. The few books which have been written on the sub-
ject are for the learned scholar who has knowledge of Buddhism and its
symbolism. For the student the identification of the images is very difficult, since
the Tibetan religious works which have been translated and which usually
contain accurate descriptions of the deities are not accessible to the general public.
The only sources of information are the museums and books such as those by
Pander, Grunwedel and Waddell, which are not easy to obtain. The purpose of
this book is to give the student interested in Tibetan iconography a general idea
of the development of Buddhism into Lamaism, and to make easier the identifica-
tion of the various deities of the Tibetan pantheon. The Sanskrit terminology,
which is the customary medium for the description of Buddhist deities and
symbols, has been used throughout, except in those instances where the deities
or ritual objects are indigenous or purely local and only the Tibetan names
In the charts which follow, the object is to give a descriptive outline of the
principal Gods of the Tibetan pantheon, those which are commonly encountered
in sculpture and in painting. There are probably many inconsistencies, for some
deities have many forms and variations, depending on the specific purposes for
which they are invoked.
By making these charts, it is hoped that identification has been simplified
considerably for the student and that he will be sufficiently interested to continue
his studies and researches in this fascinating and comparatively unexplored
Language & Literature (437)
Sacred Sites (103)
Tantric Buddhism (85)
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