Matthew De Palo
Chakrasamvara In Union With Vajrayogini (excerpt)
Prompt: We were to visit the Rubin museum and select a piece to analyze. After documenting the piece and studying it, our paper needed to describe the piece, our attraction to it, and its perceived significance. I chose to underscore my analysis of the piece with cultural context to further clarify the esoteric meanings of the ritual sculpture.
Chakrasamvara In Union With Vajrayogini is a fourteenth century Tibetan Buddhist sculpture made of pigmented gilt copper alloy with turquoise inlay (1). The Tantric depiction of two deities in sexual embrace is twelve inches tall, twelve inches wide, and six inches in depth (2). Immediately striking is this object’s overt sexual passion within a space of mediative Buddhist art. It is larger than many other historically-adjacent works and incredibly detailed. There is a clear movement and action in the two figures that the viewer is able to track through the movement of fabrics and strands of jewelry that is uncommon in a metal sculpture. I was drawn to the piece’s clear tension and point of view. This work is written in a visual language that other pieces of the time were not speaking, and reflects the culture of the times with an unparalleled and striking clarity. A general plaque above several depictions of figures in embrace reads:
“Tantric deities are the focus of esoteric religious practices (tantras) that aim to radically transform conventional understandings of reality. Numerous forms of these deities, described in religious texts also called tantras, personify various enlightened qualities and can appear peaceful or wrathful. Tantric deities and practices are as diverse as people’s needs and capacities. Female and male deities in sexual embrace represent the unity of wisdom (understanding of reality) and method (compassionate action), two aspects of the enlightened mind. Tantric deities can have multiple heads, arms, and legs, symbolizing their many abilities.” (3)
The specific union of Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini is actually an interfaith depiction, “Hindu deities are often incorporated into Buddhist iconography, sometimes in positive roles and other times as representative of obstacles to be overcome, an expression of both common cultural roots and the tension between the two competing traditions.” (4) What is the statement, then, of a Buddhist and Hindu deity together in a Tantric state? The creation of this piece came at a time when Tibetan Buddhism began to come into it’s own, “Tibetan Buddhism, after centuries of looking to India for religious texts and teachers, develops a flourishing tradition in it’s own right.” (5) The Union of Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini, it appears, was a declaration of modernity for the fourteenth century. Somewhat provocative in the idea that Buddhists and Hindus could even be conceptualized together in this way. Politically, during this time in Tibet, there existed very few rules and little structure. This sculpture was used to explore the emerging ideas of a new wave of Buddhism, and possibly to push boundaries.
1 The Rubin Museum of Art. Chakrasamvara In Union With Vajrayogini. http:// rubinmuseum.org/collection/artwork/chakrasamvara-in-union-with-vajravarahi
3 The Rubin Museum of Art. Tantric Deities
4 The Rubin Museum of Art. Chakrasamvara In Union With Vajrayogini. http://rubinmuseum.org/collection/artwork/chakrasamvara-in-union-with-vajravarahi
5 The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Himalayan Religion. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/09/ssh.html