Arhat Main Page | Eleven Figurative Appearances
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Arhat Principal Subjects & Related Topics:
- Definition & Name Confusions (below)
- List of Arhats & Related Figures
- Arhat Resource Page
- Arhats Outline Page
- Arhat Art Topics Outline
- Related Teachers
- Sets, Composition, Medium & Subjects
- Tibetan Iconography
- Chinese Iconography
Arhat (Tibetan: ne tan): a Sanskrit term for Buddhist saints popularized in the late 19th century by Western scholars. The correct term for these sixteen Buddhist figures is 'sthavira', meaning 'elder' in Sanskrit. The sixteen represent what are believed to be, within the tradition, the earliest followers of the Buddha.
The group of sixteen are based on an early text possibly dating to the 4th century titled the Arya Nanda Mitra Avadana Nama (Tibetan: 'phags pa dga' ba'i bshes gnyen gyi rtogs pa brjod pa [TBRC W1PD95844, pp.1407-1419]), always found in a group of sixteen, they are painted on cloth, wall murals, and fashioned of metal, stone, clay, or wood. An early iconographic source for the individual descriptions of the elders is the verse text Praise to the Sixteen Elders attributed to the Kashmiri teacher Shakyashri Bhadra of the 12th/13th century. The earliest known paintings in Tibet are found as wall murals in Dratang Monastery in Central Tibet. However, the Dratang arhat paintings do not appear to depict the group of sixteen which gained popularity some time later. Aside from Rahula, the son of Shakyamuni Buddha, there appears to be little evidence to support the existence of these sixteen elders individually or as a group.
There are several different explanations concerning the origins of the Sixteen Arhats. The most widely known narratives come from the following Tibetan teachers:
- Lume Tsultrim Sherab
- Dromton Gyalwai Jungne
- Lhatsun Ngagwang Rinchen
- bald or shaved head
- middle aged or elderly in facial appearance
- monastic in attire with multi-coloured robes in a Chinese style
- sometimes wearing Chinese style shoes
- seated with the legs either folded or extended down
- almost always a lack of any Vajrayana attributes, ornamentation or decoration
Shakyamuni Buddha is the central figure, the first painting or sculpture, for all sets of the Sixteen Great Arhats. The full group of arhats always has twenty-five figures: the Buddha Shakyamuni, together with the two foremost disciples - Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, the sixteen Arhats, the attendant Dharmata, the patron Hvashang and the Four Guardians of the Directions; Vaishravana, Virupaksha, Dhritarashtra and Virudhaka. In all an extensive set of paintings would comprise twenty-three individual paintings. The two foremost disciples are almost always portrayed in the same painted composition with Buddha Shakyamuni. In sculpture sets the total number of pieces is twenty-five. In the Tibetan system there are only sixteen arhats.
The images below are single paintings not yet matched with sets:
The images below are paintings that currently remain as singles, the only known survivors of larger sets. As new art collections are catalogued into the HAR database it is hoped that many more of these paintings will be re-united with others from their original sets.
Jeff Watt 3-2000 [updated 6-2015, 4-2017]
16 Arhats, Murals at the Vajra Vidya Institute (Sarnath, India). Gene Kudirka. Publisher? date? (ISBN: 8189017101).
Arhat: An entry from Macmillan Reference USA's Encyclopedia of Buddhism by George D. Bond. (2004).
Arhat Parsva and Dharanendra Nexus (B.L. series) by M.A. Dhaky. (December 1997).
The Arhats of Buddhism (The Adepts in the eastern esoteric tradition) by Manly Palmer Hall. (1953).
Crystal Mirror, Volume VI. Dharma Publishing, 1984. Pages 193-259.
Great Disciples of the Buddha, Their Lives, Their Work, Their Legacy. Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker. Edited with an Introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Wisdom Publications, 1997.
Paradise and Plumage: Chinese Connections in Tibetan Arhat Painting by Robert N. Linrothe. (January 2004).
The Path of Arhat: A Religious Democracy (Parsvanatha sodhapitha granthamala) by T. U Mehta. (1993).
Tibetan Religious Art (two volumes). Loden Sherab Dagyab. Otto Harrassowitz (1978).