Sanskrit words clutter the American pop-culture vocabulary.
Aging hipsters may recall Steely Dan’s snarky Bodhisattva from the band’s 1973 album Countdown to Paradise, or rock a faded Nirvana tee shirt. We chatter about “mindfulness” while flipping off fellow drivers in the Whole Foods parking lot, vying for a prime spot and hoping to invoke our parking “karma.”
We use the term “mantra” interchangeably with the Roman “motto” and Scottish “slogan” although the meanings differ significantly — a “slogan” being a challenging battle-cry shouted from hilltops, along the lines of “The Campbell men are such poor hunters that their children eat the bark off the trees!” — that kind of thing.
No international vocabulary skills are needed, however, to enter the calming realm of Benevolent Beings: Buddhas and Bodhisattvas from South and Southeast Asia, on view at the Norton Simon Museum now through February 19, 2024. This exhibit of 44 rarely seen protective deities from the Norton Simon’s collection was curated by Lakshika Senarath Gamage, PhD, Assistant Curator at the Norton Simon, a post she accepted two years ago after earning her doctorate at UCLA.
As a scholar of art forms sacred to Hindu and Buddhist traditions, Dr. Gamage devoted much of the COVID lockdown to teaching online, an experience which left a singular impression. “My students resonated with the feelings of peace and compassion that these works exude,” she remarked during a recent walk-through of the installation. “These days, there’s a lot of talk about mental health, anxiety, depression, and that was the beginning of this idea.”
Benevolent Beings: Buddhas and Bodhisattvas from South and Southeast Asia offers the experience of moving toward a state of awakened enlightenment via objects arranged in three galleries representing release from samsara, the process of continual rebirth. Without waxing too academic, ending the cycle of rebirth is the desired goal among centuries of Buddhist and Hindu practitioners.
What makes a bodhisattva remarkable is the individual’s decision to return to the sphere of human suffering to offer comfort to others, even though the bodhisattva has personally earned release from the trials of samsara.
“The art from the Norton Simon Museum collection would offer visitors some much-needed peace and solace as we collectively emerge from a pandemic-ridden, turbulent time.”Lakshika Senarath Gamage, PhD, Assistant Curator
Gamage comments, “My goal is to offer visitors a curative and harmonious space and to create a visual path from the mundane to the sacred, mimicking the ambulatory path of a Buddhist or Hindu temple. The art from the Norton Simon Museum collection would offer visitors some much-needed peace and solace as we collectively emerge from a pandemic-ridden, turbulent time.”
One enters the space in a wash of warm gold tones. A bronze censer in the form of a stylized bird roosts by the doorway, evoking the clouds of incense that would greet visitors to a temple. The objects that Gamage has chosen are often diminutive, suggesting that some of them may have been used in private homes. Most perch on shelves at eye-level, sans vitrine — not behind glass, and not distanced by a velvet rope.
What’s inevitably striking about sacred objects from South and Southeast Asia is the naturalistic treatment of the human body. Female deities, especially those from India, possess frankly voluptuous curves and often pose with what appears to Western eyes as languid, almost casual sensuality. They are rarely static, with swaying hips suggesting the clink of necklaces and the tinkle of anklets.
A classic stance, seated with one knee up, is called “royal ease.” This relaxed, soothing physical attitude, presented in a setting without the usual institutional barriers, instantly creates an encounter of intimacy.
Many of the figures in this initiatory room are female, grounding the visitor in the material and maternal world. A case in point is the piece called “Lotus Mandala with Eight Mothers.” This 18th century CE Nepalese bronze opens into a lotus form nestling a nurturing feminine persona in the curve of each petal.
Figures from the Hindu pantheon, including a seated Ganesha with an endearingly broken trunk, are present among Buddhist votive pieces. Of the seemingly effortless crossover, Gamage comments, “For my dissertation, I studied the syncretic nature of three Hindu and Buddhist temples in central Sri Lanka from the 13th to 18th CE centuries and their artistic exchanges between South India, particularly with Tamil Nadu and Kerala. During this time, migrant artisans traveled within the Indian subcontinent, transcending religious and linguistic boundaries to create a sense of shared iconography while maintaining regional distinctions.”
“While early artisans catered to royal patrons by building monumental Buddhist and Hindu temples, Buddhist art was also commissioned as a tool for merit-making by lay patrons,” she continues. “Additionally, there are motifs that are neither Hindu nor Buddhist, and that conjures up secular and cosmopolitan imagery such as planetary deities, and various zoomorphic and vegetal designs, used to decorate architecture.”
Of Ganesha’s broken trunk (hey, this 10th-century CE Remover of Obstacles, probably from Rajasthan, has done some hard travelin’), Gamage notes that she included many damaged pieces in her selection, citing signs of wear — a fractured stone, an oil-stain on a fabric — as evidence of the central Buddhist precept of impermanence, with compassionate detachment being the only path out of suffering.
Moving from the golden glow of the entry into the second chamber, we are cooled by deep teal walls surrounding an X-shaped fabric representation of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha became aware.
A Buddha is seated in each of the four wedge-shaped sections, and here it’s worth noting that benevolence in this cultural context doesn’t mean non-stop sunshine and lollipops. A feature of both Hindu and Buddhist representational art that baffles many Westerners is the fact that these gods and demigods possess a wrathful side as well as a blissful countenance, easily morphing from radiant teachers, mothers and dancers into disemboweling destroyers.
The wrathful side may be called upon symbolically to vanquish spiritual enemies like anger, ignorance and greed, or may come into play as fearsome protectors of good. The traditional iconography of Catholic saints – Archangel Michael casting Satan from Paradise, George slaying the dragon, or James, Son of Thunder, appearing as an apparition on his white charger to the Crusaders – sometimes exhibit similar duality, a martial aspect suppressed in modern-day Christian practice.
The third and final room gently releases the viewer from worldly matters. This is not a trumpeting victory but rather a graceful, cat-like exit or arrival.
A semi-sheer veil of golden gossamer glints in the stillness of a graphite-gray chamber containing only two low benches and a single seated figure from Sri Lanka. Carved in the 5th-6th century CE of sparkling white dolomite, the crystalline Buddha awakens alone, in silence.