Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Vajrasana Mahasiddha System

Systems of Mahasiddhas

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Description (below)
- Outline
- List of Names
- Single Composition
- Sculpture Sets
- Masterworks
- Confusions
- Others...

Sets: Painting & Blockprints
- American Museum of Natural History set
- Basel/Boston Set (Four Siddha Composition)
- Dzaya Pandita Mahasiddha Set
- Khazi Lhazo: Eighty-four Mahasiddha Set 1 (single siddha)
- Khazi Lhazo: Eighty-four Mahasiddha Set 2 (two siddhas)
- Khazi Lhazo: Eighty-four Mahasiddha Set 3 (multiple siddhas)
- Khyenri Style Siddha Sets (Miscellaneous)
- Panchen Lama set (Three Compositions)
- Prajnaparamita Blockprint set (Single Images)
- Tibet House, New Delhi, India (Single Images)
- 3 Painting Set
- Miscellaneous Paintings
- Others...

- Konchog Ling Cave, Mustang
- Lhukang Temple, Lhasa
- Lhukang Temple (copy), Bhutan

The paintings and sculpture of Indian adepts (siddhas) derived from the text attributed to Vajrasana (11th century) and his enumeration of the eighty-four great mahasiddhas. (grub thab brgyad cu rtsa bzhi’i gsol ‘debs bzhugs so). The text, Praise of the Eighty-four Great Accomplished Ones, was translated into Tibetan by Pandita Vairochana and the Tibetan Lotsawa Shri Chokyi Dragpa.

Vajrasana is not a proper name, it is a title usually given to the abbots of Bodhgaya temple/monastery in Bihar, India. There were three famous abbots with this epithet, Vajrasana the Elder, Middling and Junior. It is argued by some that the Elder Vajrasana refers to Abhayadatta, also known as Abhayakara Gupta, renowned as the author of the Vajravali text, a compendium of tantric mandala practices. He was also the author of another text enumerating a different list of the eighty-four siddhas accompanied by short hagiographies for each. That list of siddhas is known as the Abhayadatta system of the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas.

The text can be dated comfortably to the end of the 11th century or beginning of the 12th century, possibly even up to mid century because of the inclusion in the list of Atisha (siddha #22) whose dates are 982-1054(?). He appears to be the latest historical figure that can be dated somewhat accurately. Although the traditional and textual convention is to name these large sets of figures ‘The Eighty-four Great Mahasiddhas,’ in the Vajrasana system, based on the written text, there are eighty-five named siddhas. The reason for this is not currently known, but it is not unusual to use numbers as a general reference rather than as a numerically accurate record of contents. This can clearly be seen with the various collection of sadhanas known as ‘gyatsa,’ one-hundred, such as the Bari Gyatsa, Mitra Gyatsa and Nartang Gyatsa which actually contain 94, 108 and 26 sadhanas respectively. It is also possible that an extra name and four line praise was added later and not original to the work of the author Vajrasana.

It is curious for the Vajrasana and other systems of eighty-four siddhas that little or no attention is given to the chronological order of the names listed. There also does not appear to be any Tantric Cycle or sectarian agenda applied to the ordering of the names. The systems seem to be random in the ordering of the names. This itself is very unusual and not necessarily typical of Indian or Tibetan Buddhist literature. Listed chronologically, Suvarnadvipa, Naropa and Atisha should be found in the last ten names of the list. The name Saraha appears twice in the list. The first mention is identical to the Brahmin Saraha typically holding an arrow and the teacher of Shavaripa. The second mention (V81), he is described as reaching enlightenment at the site of Vajrasana and depicted in art in Siddha Appearance.

A unique and important iconographic difference between the Vajrasana system and that of Abhayadatta is the Vajrasana system has only male siddhas while the Abhaya system has four female siddhas. This distinction is important for being able to quickly survey a painting or mural and identify the iconographic program as Vajrasana or Abhaya. Another important distinction is the presence of Atisha who is usually readily identifiable by his iconographic attributes and included in the Vajrasana system but not included in the Abhayadatta system. So, these are the two main iconographic clues in distinguishing the Vajrasana from the Abhayadatta systems.

The Vajrasana system is popular with but not exclusive to the Sakya, Jonang, Drugpa Kagyu and Gelug traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Most compositions and painting sets belong to these religious traditions. The Karma Kagyu generally prefer to create depictions of the Abhayadatta siddha system. At least one modern scholar, based on text references, states that Jonang Taranata did not favour the Vajrasana system.

- Author: Vajrasana (proper name unknown)
- Number: Eighty-five siddhas listed
- Gender: Male siddhas (no females)
- Date: Atisha (last dated figure)
- Others...

Jeff Watt [updated 4-2019]

(The images below are only a selection of examples from the links above).