Avalokitesvara is the most popular Mahayana Bodhisattva
and his cult has played an important role in the growth of Mahayana Buddhism and
art. The Mahayanists worship Avalokitesvara as a merciful and with fulfilling
god. He is the god of Universal Compassion.
Avalokitesvara is referred to
as a Bodhisattva mahasattva (great being) because he is a guide to other aspiring
Bodhisattvas. He is said to possess great compassion (mahakaruna), loving-kindness
(mahamaitri), and is endowed with the 32 marks of the cosmic person (mahapurusha).
He preaches the truth of the dharma, and selflessly takes on the suffering of
Avalokitesvara is an emanation of Amitabha. Amitabha is a Buddha of boundless
light and infinite qualities. Amitabha introduced an easy way of salvation - he
advocated that the recitation of his name could save the devotees from the bondage
of birth and death. One who recites his name even once before his death goes to
his paradise called the Sukhavati where there are no mental or physical afflictions.
Avalokitesvara is the best exponent of Amitabha's doctrine of grace.
Avalokitesvara is a combination of two words: Avalokita and Isvara. Avalokita
in Sanskrit means: seen, viewed, observed, etc. It can be used in all genders,
masculine, feminine and neuter. Isvara means lord or master. So the word Avalokitesvara
should mean the lord of all that is seen, comparable to Siva's epithet drishtiguru.
Avalokitesvara is generally regarded as the god who, like Buddha surveys the distress
of all beings.
Tibetan Buddhists look upon Avalokitesvara as one with "glancing
eyes of sympathy". In China Avalokitesvara is known as Guan-yin (yin means
voice). Therefore the last part of the name of the deity may be Svara and not
Isvara. So Guanyin should be rendered into Sanskrit as Avalokitesvara, meaning
one who hears or listens to the cries of the sufferers. The early Buddhist monk
Sanghavaraman translated the name Avalokitesvara as Kuan-shi-yin, i.e., the one
who heeds cries (for help). Sanghavarman's translation is corroborated by a fragment
of manuscript of the Saddharma Pundarika discovered in Central Asia by Count Otani.
The learned Buddhist monk Kumarajiva (400 A.D.) has also treated Avalokitesvara
as Guan-shi-yin. However, the name of Avalokitesvara is also used in China as
indicated by the Chinese term "Kuan-tzu-tsai". "Tzu-tsai"
or "Isvara" is the habitual Buddhist way of referring to the self-existent
However peculiar or intriguing the name, `Avalokitesvara' may be,
his functions are well defined. There are three distinct stages in his growth.
At first or originally, he was a member of trinity, consisting of Amitayus, Avalokitesvara
and Mahasthmaprapta. As Edward Conze has stated, this trinity has many counterparts
in Iranian religion, i.e. in the Mithra cult, and in Zervanism, a Persian religion
which recognized Infinite Time (Zervan Akarana-Amita-Ayus) as the fundamental
of this, Avalokitesvara gained and image as one who had great miraculous powers
to help devotees overcome dangers and difficulties. This shows the second stage
of development in the character of Avalokitesvara. In the third or final stage
he attained the status of an independent deity with many cosmic features and functions.
He is said to hold the world in his hand. In each pore of his skin is concealed
a world system. His essence pervades the whole world.
The earliest conception
of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is to be found in the Mahavastu Avadana (2nd
century B.C.) where the deity is described as the `Bhagavan' who takes the form
of Bodhisattva. Avalokitesvara took concrete shape in the 24th chapter of the
Saddharma Pundarika (c. 2nd century A.D.), the nucleus of which goes back to the
first century A.D. This is supported also by the fact that Nagarjuna, a contemporary
of Kanishka (2nd century) and the author of Madhyamika aphorisms, in one of his
works, mentions Amitabha and Avalokita. Thus it appears that the worship of Avalokitesvara
was in vogue in 2nd - 3rd century A.D. This is corroborated by the Kushan art
showing Avalokitesvara from Gandhara. The Saddharma Pundarika is a unique text,
which was popular in India, Tibet, Central Asia, China and Japan. The work is
said to have been first translated into Chinese in 223 A.D.
Tibetan Buddhist scholar (16th century), assigns comparatively high antiquity
to Avalokitesvara. He records that Panini (who on no account can be placed later
than the 6th century (B.C.) got a vision of Avalokitesvara and the god helped
him in writing his grammar. This seems to be incredible in view of the fact that
Avalokitesvara is a Mahayana deity and this form of Buddhism did not come into
existence earlier that the 1st century. Taranath was perhaps led to believe in
the high antiquity of Avalokitesvara as he is described in certain Mahayana texts
as eternally existent.
The Karandavyuha (4th century A.D.) while not ignoring,
the gracious aspects of Avalokitesvara, mentions his other attributes and qualities.
The apotheosis of Avalokitesvara culminates in identifying him as the spirit of
the universe. His description in Karandavyuha indicates the profound Vedic influence.
The Sukhavativyuha throws considerable light on the character and characteristics
of Avalokitesvara. It describes him as being brilliant purple gold in colour with
a turban at the back of which is a halo. The circumference of his hallo is a hundred
Short references to Avalokitesvara occur in several texts
including the Kavindravachana-Samuchchaya, which contains some verses in his honour.
He is praised also in the Lokesvarasataka of Vajradatta who flourished during
the reign of Devapala of Bengal (9th century). In the Harsha Charita of Bana the
world `Avalokitesvara' occurs as an adjuctive to the Buddhist monk Divakaramitra.
It may mean that, though a Buddhist, Divakaramitra saw the vision of Isvara, i.e.
Siva. This clearly shows that there took place a synthesis of Buddhism and Saivism
during the seventh century.
Apart from Avalokitesvara's affinities with Buddha.
Avalokitesvara absorbed the traits of many other Hindu gods. From the name `Avalokitesvara'
it appears that the Mahayanists wanted to assign him also the role of a creator,
`Isvara' in the context of Avalokitesvara may signify that he was not only the
lord of the visible world, but also its creator. It has been noticed earlier that
the creation of the world and the direction of its affairs were left, according
to Nepalese Buddhism to his charge, by the Dhyani Buddhas.
have conceived Avalokitesvara in various forms corresponding to his diverse activities.
In iconography he is endowed with two arms, four arms, six arms, eight arms, even
a thousand arms and eyes representing various ideas and forms associated with
The earliest figures of Avalokitesvara seen to occur in Buddhist art of
Gandhara and Mathura as early as the 2nd century A.D. Subsequently during the
Gupta, post Gupta and pala periods, Buddhism and Buddhist art found enormous development
in India. Many beautiful Avalokitesvara figures were executed with various attributes
during these periods. Most common attributes of Avalokitesvara are the lotus,
nectar vase and the occurrence of Amitabha (his spiritual father) on his crest.
In fact the occurrence of Amitabha on the headdress of Avalokitesvara helps one
to distinguish him from other Bodhisattvas, because the lotus and nectar vase
very often occur as attributes of other deities also.
Different centres of
Eastern India, Nalanda and Kurkihar from Bihar, Lalitagiri and Ratnagiri from
Orissa, Mahoba from central India and Kanheri and Ajanta from Maharashtra and
also Alchi from Ladakh have yielded some very unique images of Avalokitesvara.
Avalokitesvara from Ajanta is full of grace and beauty. From Kanheri the eleven-headed
Avalokitesvara is very important from the standpoint of the development of Avalokitesvara
The image of eleven-headed Avalokitesvara at Kanheri is the singular
sculpture of its kind, which shows the superb illustration of the imagination
of learned Buddhist philosophers and the exquisite skill of the artists.
is interesting to note that Avalokitesvara has been described as Ekadasasira (eleven-headed),
in the Gunakaranadavyuha. It may be a conversion of the eleven violent gods of
the Vedic age, the Ekadasa Rudra of Brahmanism. This literary evidence is well
corroborated by artistic testimony also. South India too has produced some interesting
Avalokitesvara figures, especially from Nagapattinam.
The cult of Avalokitesvara
spread also to various Buddhist countries outside in India. China deserves a special
mention. Apart from Buddha, no other Indian deity has perhaps such a great appeal
as Avalokitesvara. No other deity in the world shows such a vast visual variation.