Himalayan Art Resources

Buddhist Deity: Avalokiteshvara, Padmapani Description

Avalokiteshvara, Padmapani

Description & Definition:
Padmapani (lotus holder) is a Sanskrit term referring to Lokeshvara, the bodhisattva, having one face and two hands. The left hand holds the stem of a blossoming lotus flower. The textual inspiration for the imagery of Lokeshvara in this appearance are the Sutras of the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism. Padmapani is also used as a synonym for Lokeshvara. The term is commonly found as an epithet, as well as a descriptive term, referring to the lotus held in the left hand. It has yet to be shown or proven textually that there is any specific and unique form of Lokeshvara accepted across the Indian Buddhist cultural sphere that is described in early literature as a Padmapani Avalokiteshvara.

Two Texts: Sadhanamala & the One Hundred and Eight Forms of Avalokiteshvara:
The Sadhanamala (edited text) of Benoytosh Bhattacharyya (1925), which relied heavily on Nepalese manuscripts, does not mention a sadhana for a Padmapani Lokeshvara. However, in Nepal we do have the descriptions of the One Hundred and Eight Forms of Avalokiteshvara based on the Machhandar Vahal, Kathmandu, Nepal. Description number #104 names a Padmapani Lokeshvara with one face and two hands in a standing posture. The right hand is in a gesture of generosity and the left holds the stem of a lotus. See reference and excerpt below. The names of the 108 are likely extracted from the text in the Tantra section of the Kagyur titled the 108 Names of Avalokiteshvara. There are other similar texts such as the 108 Names of Manjushri, etc. It is not clear where the Nepali descriptions for the 108 came from and if there are any source texts or a history.

Excerpt from Benoytosh Bhattacharyya, THE INDIAN BUDDHIST ICONOGRAPHY, 1958

#73. Pindapatra Lokesvara. He is one-faced and two-armed and stands on a lotus. He holds the Pindapatra (the bowl) in his two hands near the navel.

#104. Padmapani Lokesvara. He also is similar in form to No. 73, with the difference that here the god displays the Varada pose with his right hand and holds the stem of a lotus in his left."
The Sadhanamala Sanskrit text does mention six included texts related to Khasarpana Lokeshvara. In Western Art History publications Khasarpana is frequently identified in the many art catalogues as Padmapani for both standing and seated figures. No reason or distinction is mentioned in those publications to make clear the differences between the two names or forms of Lokeshvara. It is also interesting to note that in the study of Modern Art History the term Padmapani is almost exclusively used with reference to sculpture, both seated and standing, and not used for paintings. With the figures of Lokeshvara in paintings it is certainly easier to identify the specific form and textual source especially with examples post first millennium.

In the Tibetan language Drub Thab Gyatso translated text of Lotsawa Dragpa Gyaltsen a solitary entry titled 'Padmapani Dharani' gives a long dharani with a short colophon saying that if recited three or five times then even a donkey can learn hundreds of shlokas of text. This recitation practice clearly suggests that it is for learning and memorizing Sanskrit Buddhist texts which is not a typical function or pursuit in the practice of Lokeshvara. This text is not found in the Bhattacharya edited Sanskrit version of the Sadhanamala.

Tibetan Literature:
The Tibetan language translation of the name Padmapani is not easily found in the Tibetan literature. The name is also not commonly, or rarely found, in Vajrayana Buddhism where the forms of Lokeshvara are understood as meditational deities with clear descriptions and meanings taught in the various Tantra source texts. The most common Sanskrit names for the deity in Vajrayana Buddhism are Lokeshvara, Avalokita, Avalokiteshvara, Lokanata and Mahakarunika. Following those general terms, there are scores of names for the many specific forms of Lokeshvara - peaceful, wrathful and in-between. A very big distinction must also be made between narrative based (Sutra) depictions of Lokeshvara and the meditational deity (Tantra) forms of Lokeshvara.

Standing versus Seated:
The modern convention is to refer to standing figures of Lokeshvara in simple form, one face and two hands, as Padmapani. This can also be supported by Nepali Buddhist tradition and their understanding of the descriptions of the One Hundred and Eight Forms of Avalokiteshvara. It must also be recognized that the term Padmapani is commonplace in modern Nepalese Buddhist terminology and not necessarily the result of borrowing from modern Western scholarship. Aside from being a common epithet for simple standing forms of Lokeshvara how can the term Padmapani be applied to seated forms? The various seated forms found, post first millennium, can generally be identified with precise names other than with the general and generic term Padmapani. The real confusion in identification arises with the simple forms of Lokeshvara from the regions of Pala India, Swat and Kashmir, or possibly a few from Early West Tibet or the Western Himalayas, that date to the last half of the first millennium and early second. At this time there does not appear to be any evidence that there is a specific seated form of Lokeshvara that is known textually as Padmapani. Again, Padmapani based on the evidence appears to be a general epithet applied to simple two armed forms of Lokeshvara without any textual basis.

Function & Ritual Use:
A sculpture figure of Lokeshvara can be made as a single object for personal or public use. The three principal bodhisattvas, Manjushri, Lokeshvara and Vajrapni are commonly created as a set of three, known as the Three Lords of the World. Lokeshvara can be found as a retinue figure standing to the right or left of a larger image of Shakyamuni or Amitabha Buddha. It is very common to see sets of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas flanking a central Buddha image. The smaller sculpture are generally created for personal use and the larger sculpture found in public temples and shared ritual spaces.

Form & Style:
The general form is apparent, a standing figure. There are a great many aesthetic varieties in greater India. Some regions prefer a 'tribanga' pose, while others a 'dvibanga' pose. The 'tribanga' posture depicts the head slightly crooked to one side and the hips slightly jutting out on the other side of the body. The resulting appearance is of the body having three distinct angles. The 'dvibanga' depicts two angles with the head remaining straight and upright. In locations such as Khurkihar an erect posture with the legs together is preferred. There is no correct or orthodox posture for the standing form. The aesthetics of the body are determined regionally. This is also the case for Swat, Kashmir, Nepal and Tibet. The forms of the body are the same for Manjushri, Vajrapani and Maitreya, in the standing two armed posture. The only differences that can recognized are the special attributes of each deity such as the sword, vajra scepter, wheel, stupa or water flask. If an attribute is missing or lost then the figure is typically identified as a Padmapani by many modern scholars and researchers.

Principal Standing Bodhisattva Forms:
Lokeshvara | Manjushri | Vajrapani | Maitreya | Unidentified Forms

The general descriptions given for Padmapani are of a peaceful male deity, standing or seated, wearing a crown, jewels and heavenly garments, holding a flower, or stem of a flower in the left hand that blossoms at the level of the shoulder. This type of appearance can also be called simple bodhisattva appearance. Likewise, peaceful deity appearance and bodhisattva appearance are synonyms. Any figure that fits this description could, descriptively, also be called a 'lotus holder' without drawing a connection to Lokeshvara.

Turn of the millennium Khasarpana and Amoghapasha Lokeshvara sculpture, iconographically both in a seated posture, are commonly identified as Padmapani. This should be understood as a basic imprecise identification and not textually founded.

In the study of the Art History of Asia it is common practice to identify any possible Buddhist figure, peaceful, male, one face and two hands, holding a flower blossom, as a Padmapani even if it is not. There are many examples of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas appearing in this same way when they are created as a set of sculpture, both seated and standing. If the artist and the patron are very particular then the Lokeshvara form will also have a deerskin over the left shoulder and Amitabha Buddha on the crown of the head. Manjushri will have a sword or book. Vajrapani will have a vajra scepter in hand or placed atop a flower blossom. Maitreya will have a water flask, stupa or wheel. The remaining four of the Eight Bodhisattvas will appear in a generic way as simply a peaceful deity holding a flower blossom in the left hand. The Sixteen Great Bodhisattvas are treated in a similar way, with the most well known of the figures having a recognizable attribute, while those remaining are in a generic form. This also holds for paintings where the bodhisattvas are commonly depicted such as when accompanying Amitabha Buddha in the pureland of Sukhavati.

Based on the current evidence, it can be said that Padmapani is a general term referring to Lokeshvara. According to Nepalese sources he should be a standing figure with one face and two arms, holding a lotus. No seated forms of Padmapani have yet been identified by iconography or textual tradition, however in modern times the term Padmapani is applied generously to many different iconographic forms of the one faced, two armed deity.

Jeff Watt [updated 8-2013, 5-2017, 9-2018]

Bibliography & References:

Arya Avalokiteshvara Ekadashamukha Nama Dharani. (Peking Kagyur, vol.8. brgyud 18, #373).

Arya Mahakaruna Dharani Sutra. (Peking Kagyur, vol.8. brgyud 18, #368).

“The Tibetan Avalokitesvara Cult in the Tenth Century: Evidence from the Dunhuang Manuscripts,” in Tibetan Buddhist Literature and Praxis. Sam van Schaik (Proceedings of the Tenth Seminar of the IATS, 2003, Volume 4), ed. Ronald M. Davidson and Christian Wedemeyer (Leiden: Brill, 2006): 55-72.

“Remarks on the Mani bKa'-'bum and the Cult of Avalokiteshvara in Tibet” by Matthew Kapstein, pages 79-93.Tibetan Buddhism, Reason and Revelation edited by Steven D. Goodman and Ronald M. Davidson. SUNY, 1992. #5.

Sadhanamala (edited text) of Benoytosh Bhattacharyya (Baroda, 1925)

The Thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara by Lokesh Chandra. Abhinav Publications, 1988. ISBN 81-7017-247-0.

"The Origin of Avalokitesvara" (PDF). Lokesh Chandra. Indologica Taurinenaia (International Association of Sanskrit Studies). XIII (1985-1986): 189–190.

The Clear Mirror: A traditional account of Tibet's Golden Age. Sakyapa Sonam Gyaltsen (1996). Snow Lion Publications.

The Blue Annals by George N. Roerich. Motilal Banarsidass, 1976. (First edition 1949).
(The images below are only a selection of examples from the links above).