The Benevolent Beings of Buddhism and Hinduism

By Ilana Maymind PhD, originally published by Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

In both Buddhist and Hindu traditions, devotional objects seek to bring the viewer and worshiper into tranquil and compassionate states, aimed at getting the mind into concentration, samadhi, and closer to the sublime. In The Benevolent Beings: Buddhas and Bodhisattvas from South and Southeast Asia, currently being exhibited at Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum until February 19, 2024, the interplay between the objects of these two religions is on full display. Inspired by assistant curator Lakshika Senarath Gamage’s personal experiences growing up in Sri Lanka, Gamage organized the show to “speak to the continuity of devotional engagement with objects that remain essential to healing and tranquility” in these two traditions.

In contrast to the monumental deities that make up part of Norton Simon’s permanent collection, many of the objects exhibited in Benevolent Beings reflect small-scale everyday devotional objects, whether previously installed in temples or possibly kept in people’s homes—some still bearing traces of their original intended use. The exhibition’s design evokes South Asia’s 13th- to 18th-century Buddhist temples, and the three galleries are organized to guide visitors to increasingly sacred objects as they progress through the exhibition, encouraging slow and deliberate contemplation and the feeling of interaction and interconnection between the object and the viewer. As a visitor, I felt encouraged to slow down and look closely to immerse myself in the values shared across these two dharmas. The challenge of this exhibition is to keep in mind that these are devotional, votive objects and not just art items. With thoughtful and meaningful curation, the exhibition aims to be accessible to both religious practitioners as well as the lay art-appreciating public. 

Visiting this exhibition as a scholar of comparative religions, I am reminded that Buddhism has always existed in the context of other traditions. We recall that it was first introduced into the region in the 4th century CE in conjunction with several types of pre-Hindu religions, Vedic beliefs, and local indigenous animistic cults. The Buddhas and bodhisattvas in this exhibition highlight the syncretic nature of the artistic exchanges between pre-Hindu and Buddhist and, in some cases, Islamic, or Persian, art and culture. Ostensibly, the art exhibited in these galleries transcends religious and cultural boundaries and, instead, creates a sense of a shared cultural symbolism yet retains regional distinctions and simultaneously a sense of cosmopolitan artistic interplay.

The first gallery features a selection of mythical bird-shaped incense burners from South India, including Censer in the Form of a Mythical Bird, designed to either venerate the Buddha or to please the senses of the Hindu gods. It also includes a Buddhist Manuscript with Covers, from northern Thailand or Myanmar (present day Burma), and Hanging with Nepali Stupas, a cotton scroll, which most likely originated in India. Most of the objects in this gallery were commissioned by either laypeople or religious patrons who aimed to accumulate merit. By commissioning works of art, patrons believe that they acquired an abundance of blessings and protection, a practice that continues to this day. The gallery also includes a selection of bodhisattvas and merciful gods, including Ganesha with the Hindu Triad, a 10th-century sculpture of Ganesha, a beloved Hindu “remover of obstacles,” as well as the god Vishnu.

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This article was originally published by Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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