Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Wheel of Life

སྲིད་པ་འཁོར་ལོ་བྲིས་ཐང་དང་ལྡེབས་རིས། 生死轮绘画和壁画
(item no. 78)
Origin Location Mongolia
Date Range 1800 - 1899
Lineages Buddhist
Material Ground Mineral Pigment, Fine Gold Line on Cotton
Collection Rubin Museum of Art
Catalogue # acc.# P1994.3.6
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Object/Concept

Interpretation / Description

The Wheel of Life (Tibetan: sid pai kor lo. Sanskrit: bhavanachakra).

Held in the tight grasp of Samsara personified (cyclic existence) seen as a fierce wrathful figure, red in colour, with one face and two hands, the circular disc is pressed up against the mouth ready to be swallowed at any moment - the immediacy of impermanence. This wrathful figure is sometimes referred to as Yama, the Lord of Death, and at other times as the red female daemon of death, possibly Yami, the sister of Yama.

First: The inner most of the 4 concentric circles shows a black pig (ignorance), green snake (anger/aversion) and a rooster (desire/attraction) circling on a blue background. They are often shown biting on each others tail.

Second: The next circle, made of a white half and a black half, shows those individuals that have performed meritorious actions (good karma) moving upwards in the circle of existence and those having performed bad actions moving downward, naked, led by red and green attendants of the Lord of Death.

Third: The widest of the circles is that of the six realms of existence; god, asura (anti-gods), human, animal, ghost (preta) and hell. Each segregated by a red dividing line. At the top is the Realm of the Gods highlighted by a heavenly being, the god Shakra (Indra), in a palace playing a stringed instrument. Some traditions explain that the god Indra depicted in this way is an emanation of Shakyamuni Buddha. To the right is the Asura Realm, a lower form of the gods that are always engaged in conflict. To the left is the Human Realm and below that is the Animal Realm. To the lower right is the Realm of ghosts (preta). At the bottom is the Hell Realm with a central blue figure, wrathful, holding a stick in the right hand and a mirror in the left. This is Yama Dharmaraja, the Lord of the Dead, King of Judgment (the Law of Karma). This form of Yama is a not the same entity as the Buddhist Tantric protector Yama Dharmaraja. Yama in the hell realm holds a mirror to reflect those actions (and consequences) performed by each individual that comes before him. In each realm the various beings are portrayed engaged in their respective activities along with the occasional buddha or bodhisattva.

Fourth: The outer circle is composed of 12 scenes which represent the Twelve Links of Dependant Arising starting at the bottom left with three blind figures (#1 ignorance) and then moving clockwise around the Wheel of Existence to meet again at the bottom right where two figures carry bundled corpses to the funeral pyre (#12 old age and death).

The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising:
Ignorance – a blind person with a walking stick (6:30 position)
Dispositions – a potter & a potter's wheel
Consciousness – a man picking fruit
Name and form – two people in a boat
Six senses – a house with six windows
Contact – a couple embracing
Feeling – an arrow in the eye
Thirst – a man receiving drinking cup
Grasping – a monkey with a fruit
Becoming – a couple
Birth – a woman giving birth
Old age and death – corpse being carried

Yama the Lord of Death, although portrayed in the Hell Realms, actually resides in the Realm of Ghosts and is the King of the Pretas. He lives in the city of Pretas, Kapila, 500 miles below the classical north Indian city of Rajgir and is accompanied by thirty-six attendants. His association with the Hell Realms is in the capacity of a judge of karma, good and bad deeds.

This model of Buddhist cosmology, the environment and inhabitants, is based on the Abhidharma literature of the Theravada and Sutrayana vehicles. Within the Vajrayana system various divergent models are presented with the foremost being that of the Kalachakra Tantra.

Jeff Watt 8-98

Annotated Image
A.Ignorance, Desire & Hatred
B. Good Karma
C. Bad Karma

1. God Realm
2. Asura, Demi-god Realm
3. Human Realm
4. Animal Realm
5. Ghost Realm
6. Hell Realm

1 to 12. Twelve links of Dependent Arising

Secondary Images
Related Items
Thematic Sets
Collection of Rubin Museum of Art: Painting Gallery 6
Wheel of Life Main Page
Subject: Didactic Art Main Page
Wheel of Life: Positive & Negative Actions
Wheel of Life: Twelve Links of Dependent Arising
Collection of Rubin Museum of Art: Mongolia
Region: Mongolia, Paintings (Miscellaneous Collections)
Wheel of Life: Six Sections
Subject: Greyscale - Figurative & General Composition
Subject: Diagrammatic Art Main Page