- Art History
- Religious Context
Three Important Topics: (see Mahasiddha Definition)
1. The term mahasiddha has three basic meanings.
2. In art there are three functions of mahasiddha depictions.
3. Mahasiddhas have three types of appearance.
Mahasiddha: great (maha) accomplished one (siddha), or great [spiritually] accomplished one, also known as Indian adepts. They are the principal Indian teachers of Hindu and Buddhist Tantra, or any great religious teacher that is credited with having special attainments and powers. In Tantric Buddhism they are primarily associated with Anuttarayoga Tantra - the highest of the four classification system. Although most of the famous mahasiddha are from India, there are a number from bordering countries such as Luipa and Aryadeva from Sri Lanka, and Suvarnadvipapa from the Golden Land (Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia).
It is very important to know the difference between an individual that is classified in the various Buddhist Tantric systems as a mahasiddha and an individual that has siddha (or mahasiddha) appearance. The majority of mahasiddhas do not have Siddha Appearance - which is one of the Eleven Figurative Forms. The majority of the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas are depicted in layperson attire, along with a few monks, several kings and mendicant yogis.
The Adepts, kings, monks, scholars, yogis, boatmen, cobblers, men and woman, were the source of the rich Tantric tradtion known as Vajrayana Buddhism. There are many systems enumerating who they were and to what occupation they belonged. The earliest known system is that of  Abhayadatta Shri, also know as Abhayakara Gupta, followed by the  Vajrasana and several other Indian and Nepalese lists such as the  Palde (Shrisena). In Tibet the oldest lists are those of the Drigung Tradition, Jonang, and the teachers Buton Rinchen Drub followed by Jamgon Ameshab. Each of these lists maintains a core group of universally excepted scholars and adepts such as Nagarjuna, Virupa, Tilopa and Naropa, however the lists differ on many of the lesser known individuals. (See the Mahasiddha Technical Glossary).
In painted depictions the Mahasiddhas are generally found in three different compositions. The first is together as a group of (1) eighty-four siddhas surrounding Vajradhara Buddha following one of the two or three popular systems of Eighty-four Mahasiddhas. The second composition depicts (2) Eight Mahasiddhas either surrounding a central figure such as Vajradhara or Padmasambhava. These eight siddhas can sometimes be found occupying the eight cemeteries of a wrathful or semi-wrathful mandala of the Anuttarayoga Tantric System. The third composition style is that of (3) lineage depictions where the first few or more figures in a lineage (after the Buddha or celestial figure such as Vajrapani or Manjushri) are mahasiddhas either in appearance or by hierarchical standing.
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Jeff Watt 4-2006 [updated 6-2017, 4-2019, 12-2019]
(The images below are only a selection of examples from the painting and sculpture links above).