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Dancing Gods, Dynamic Visions
by Fred Stern
"Images of the Divine: South and Southeast Asian Sculpture from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection," July 1, 2005-Jan. 8, 2006, at Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021

They stand here as if forever. Fifty sculptures in stone, schist, copper, silver and gold, from South and Southeast Asia. Their features undergo change from region to region, from country to country, even from workshop to workshop, as craftsmen imprint Buddhist and Hindu gods and goddesses with the features of local inhabitants and the idiosyncrasies of local traditions.

In the early autumn sun their presence casts a solemn peace on the second floor of the Asia Society building at Park Avenue and 70th Street in New York City. "Images of the Divine: South and Southeast Asian Sculpture from the Rockefeller Collection" is a sublime selection from one of the most prestigious assemblages of Asian art ever created.

Here are the divine images of the Buddha in his various guises, displaying his multiplicity of gestures. They are flanked by the "bodhisattvas," individuals who have not yet attained the ultimate eighth circle of enlightenment and must earn their position by helping believers function in Buddha’s shadow. And there are the Hindu gods and goddesses from the great Valhalla of the Orient. All shine in this selection from the Rockefeller Collection, a gift to the Asia Society that has helped anchor the society’s holdings firmly in all the artistic disciplines of the East.

The myths of Asia are among the richest on earth. The story of Prince Gautama -- or "Buddha" as he came to be known -- is central to this presentation. The myth bears repeating. A young nobleman, though wealthy and with wife and child, finds great unhappiness through contemplating unresolved questions about the meaning of life and the constantly changing aspects of fortune. He leaves his home and wanders the vastness of India until he realizes that only by casting off all desires and all personal ambition can he attain the peace that comes through meditation and introspection. His philosophy, later termed Buddhism, though not a religion per se, if practiced wisely can lead a person to his own salvation and free him or her from the endless cycle of death and rebirth.

Representations of the Buddha in the Rockefeller collection take several forms. First, there is the historical Buddha, often referred to as "Shakyamuni." There are seven representations of this Shakyamuni on display at Asia Society, originating from Kashmir, India, Cambodia, Burma and Tibet. In most of these sculptures, a middle-aged man wears a crown, his earlobes elongated because of the heavy earrings that were the standard for his time, his expression benign.

The most impressive of these crowned Buddhas is a copper alloy figure protected by the seven-headed serpent king, Muchilinda, whose imposing head shelters the Buddha, who sits erect on Muchilinda’s coils. The snake represents the waters of Cambodia’s mainland, source of irrigation and healing. The figure is probably of 12th century origin.

The Vajrasattva Buddha is easily identified by the thunderbolt or "vajra" he holds in his right hand, and the bell he holds in his left. An impression of wisdom and compassion is conveyed in his countenance. Vajrasattva Buddhas are found in the northern regions of Buddhism as well as Indonesia and Cambodia. Two of the sculptures on view are traceable to the 12th century, one is of copper alloy, the other of stone. The copper structure appears luxurious, yet immensely powerful.

Through the centuries of evolving Buddhism, the repose and wisdom reflected in the Buddha’s countenance remain a constant. We see this over and over in the life-sized Buddha heads on display. The heads may have been used for temple decoration, or perhaps they are simply missing parts of scattered statues. According to ancient texts, "A Buddha’s face is to have eyes like lotus petals, eyebrows like an archer’s bow, a parrot beak nose and a chin like a mango stone." Other characteristics include a marked depression in the middle of the forehead, or "urna," and a slight bump on top of the head, or "ushnisha."

The Buddha is dressed modestly, in contrast to his disciples who are more likely to sport elaborate garments, crowns and footwear. Orientalists look for each figures’ gestures or "mudras," which establish a Buddha’s attributes. These might be the absence of fear, the turning of the wheel of law, the teaching mudra and more. In fact, scholars have isolated as many as 22 such gestures found in various monuments. Of the Buddhas on exhibition, the earth-touching gesture is seen most frequently -- it indicates enlightened compassion.

Among Buddhist goddesses, the White Tara at Asia Society with her inlays of silver and gold stands out. She is the goddess of infinite compassion. Her eyes are placed in the center of her forehead indicating her concern for the welfare of mortals.

Like Buddha, bodhisattvas are exempt from the rebirth cycle. Their primary task is to provide salvation and guidance to the average person. In contrast to representations of the Buddha, statues of bodhisattvas are often elaborately styled with crowns, armbands, necklaces and jewelry studded with semi-precious stones. Many do not have the Buddha’s characteristic urna or ushnisha, and their earlobes are seldom elongated. They are not usually represented as performing the Buddha’s mudras. When presented with the Buddha, bodhisattvas are shorter than the deity, although as individual statues bodhisattvas can equal the height of a Buddha.

The Rockefeller selection includes several statues of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. An exquisite example rendered in a gilt copper alloy is from the estate of Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller. He is standing in a relaxed pose with his right hand, appropriately, in a gift-giving gesture. Another exceptionally crafted example is traceable to the early Malla period in Nepal (13th century). Here Avalokiteshvara, richly encrusted with semi-precious stones, displays two gestures: that of reassurance with his right hand and that of teaching with his left.

Maitreya, a bodhisattva of the future who must still be born in human shape, is presented in an astonishingly fine 8th century figure. Copper alloys with inlays of silver and black stone accentuate the youthful figure. The sculpture was unearthed in 1964 from the ruins of a temple in northeast Thailand.

Manjushri, the boddhisattva of wisdom, frequently accompanies the Buddha. The sacred texts speak of him as "The light. . . shining on the torch of knowledge that is the lamp of the world, the great brilliance. . . the clear light." The Rockefeller Collection has several examples of this important figure. A western Tibetan 13th century copper alloy rendering with turquoise inlays holds a book, but lacks the sword usually present. This symbol is meant to show an intolerance for ignorance -- a standard theme in most Manjushri depictions.

The dancing gods of the Hindu pantheon have their own pavilion at the Asia Society. Familiarity with Hinduism is not essential to appreciating this portion of the Asia Society exhibition, but a few facts are helpful. Hinduism evolved over more than 4,000 years, so it’s not surprising that innumerable sects have developed, all living side-by-side and practicing their own interpretive take on the Veda, the sacred scripture. However, central tenets of the Veda and beliefs common to all Hindu sects are that all living things have a soul; that there is an essential equality among all creatures; and that there is rebirth. One’s station in life and the nature of one’s rebirth, which is most likely to take place in an entirely different form, are determined by the experience of previous existences and merits earned in these former lives.

It may be difficult to separate the characteristics of Hindu art and religion from that of Buddhism. For one thing, the names of the god or goddess represented are not always clear. Hinduism had no human founder and the Hindu gods have no traditional image, leaving the craftsman or artist wider latitude in fashioning their appearance. The prime Hindu deities are Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer.

The Asia Society exhibit’s Brahma has four heads. These are variously said to represent the four cosmic cycles, the four great classes, or the four directions. His arms hold a lotus stem, a bundle of grass and a book, all said to represent knowledge and religious ritual. We assume that this particular presentation is part of a much larger monument, now lost.

Vishnu can be recognized by both a conch shell or "shankha" and by a discus or "chakra" held in his upper arms. These round objects act as reminders of the cyclical nature of Vishnu’s mission. A sacred thread, an element in all Hindu deity sculptures, runs across his chest. The Vishnus in the Rockefeller Collection are from India, Kashmir and Thailand.

Shiva Nataraja is "Shiva as Lord of the Dance." Here he celebrates on the one hand the destruction of our universe, and on the other hand, the creation of an entirely new cosmos as it passes through an eternal circle of flames. This statue is Indian from the 10th century, in copper alloy. With his eyes half-closed and his four arms extended, the god dances rhythmically on the fiery wheel of creation.

Sculptural representations of Shiva and his consort Parvati were made to invite worship. The two figures demonstrate the attributes of masculinity and femininity. Five examples are featured in the Rockefeller Collection. The manifestation of Parvati in these groupings is benign. She is here as Uma, daughter of the mountains, or Devi goddess of light. Parvati also has an alarming aspect, that of Durga, the slayer of the Buffalo-demon who held the world in thrall. This fearsome representation is personified in a sandstone sculpture from Cambodia, thought to be from the 7th century.

What of Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati? Legend has it that after Parvati was pregnant with their child against the will of Shiva, he decapitated the child in his rage. Inconsolable, Parvati railed against Shiva until he could no longer tolerate her anger and grief. In desperation he sent his minions to bring back the head of the first animal they encountered, which, as it happens, was an elephant. Ganesha is worshipped as the god of good fortune as well as the god of war. In representations, his tusk is broken, since myth has it that it was lost in battle. Ganesha is usually the lead god presented in any Hindu festival procession.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.