Lokanatha and Coomaraswamy:
A Tale of a Divine World Savior and a Mortal Curator
By: Pratapaditya Pal
All conquering is the Savior of the World.
His lotus hand, stretched down in charity,
is ripping streams of nectar to assuage
the thirsty spirits of the dead.
His glorious face is bright with gathered moonlight
and his glance is soft
with that pity that he bears within. 
So exalts the poet Ratnakirti of unknown date in a panegyric of the Bodhisattva known variously as Lokanatha (Savior of the World), Lokeshvara (Lord of the World) or the overarching Avalokiteshvara (The Allseeing Lord). The most popular of the class of Mahayana Buddhist savior divinities, generically referred to as bodhisattva (literally wisdom being), they are considered as persons who have arrived at the threshold of enlightenment or nirvana but have held back out of compassion to help those less fortunate in reaching the goal. As another poet (also of unknown date) Buddhakara prays “May that great saint, his body formed by moonlight…/dispel your grief and grant you/the streaming nectar of his peaceful happiness.”
Thus a bodhisattva could be divine or mortal person and of either gender. The Dalai Lama of Tibet is considered an earthly emanation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.
This preeminent bodhisattva of Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) Buddhism, which developed in India during the early centuries of the Common Era, the Lotus-bearer (Padmapani) has remained an inspiration among the followers of this particular form of the religion. As a result, he has a wide variety of iconographic forms in both India and all other countries of Asia where his cult spread, as is clear from the surviving archaeological and literary evidence. He was especially venerated in the region of present day Bihar, West Bengal and Bangladesh in the Indian subcontinent between the 8th and 12th centuries from where numerous images of the deity have survived but few as monumental as the one that is the principal subject of this essay. Although created nine centuries ago, the afterlife of the object in the west in the 20th century brings us to the second component of our title: the “mortal curator.”
Apart from the art historical and aesthetic significance of the sculpture, to be discussed presently, it has an unusual importance for today’s museums and private collectors for its recent history. As it has now become obligatory for an object to have a pucca, unassailable provenance that was not a desideratum when I first came to work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) in 1967, it would be difficult to find an antiquity with a better pedigree than this sculpture. Besides having been sold at two public auctions in New York in the mid-20th century, its arrival and earlier history in America can be traced back to 1922, which makes its American existence almost a century old .
It was first acquired in the year 1922 for the Boston Museum by none other than Dr. Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) (fig. A). In 1917, when the museum was already world famous for its rich collection of Chinese and Japanese art, it obtained a substantial assemblage of Indian art from Coomaraswamy who had begun amassing the material mostly in India under the British Raj around 1910. At the time there was no restriction in the movement of art among the various nations or from continent to continent. One of the greatest patrons and benefactors of the museum Dr. Denman Ross (1853-1935), a wealthy Bostonian and a professor of art and design at Harvard University (as well as a MFA trustee) had been steadily forming a vast private collection of art of global diversity, including India since the late 19th century . Ross and Coomaraswamy had met in London in the first decade of the 20th century and it was largely due to their cooperation that the museum had secured the famous Goloubew Collection of Indian and Persian paintings in 1914 which Coomaraswamy would publish a few years after joining the museum in 1917 .
It should be noted that the current year represents the centennial of Coomaraswamy’s joining the staff of the MFA. 1917 also marks the beginning of the history of collecting Indian art by American museums. Hence, this publication also serves as a tribute to the man who not only ”introduced” Indian art to America but who toiled indefatigably for the next three decades until his death to become the most celebrated curator of Indian art this country has ever known. One of the outstanding polymathic scholars in humanities, in the first half of the 20th century, Coomaraswamy strode the world of Indian art in America like a colossus.
As Walter Muir Whitehill in his centennial history of the MFA wrote, “Few scholars in any field have thought more profoundly or written more prolifically than Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. He was physically and intellectually a unique ornament to the Museum of Fine Arts for three decades…” . The Coomaraswamy Collection was purchased by the museum with funds provided by Dr. Denman Ross and hence the credit-line for the objects reads, “Ross-Coomaraswamy Collection.”
The Ross-Coomaraswamy Collection the museum acquired consisted largely of Indian paintings and a group of small bronzes. Therefore, he began earnestly to add sculptures with gusto for the next decade which can be gauged easily from the numerous articles that he wrote with ferocious frequency in the museum’s bulletin (which were indispensable sources for my own education in the fifties) and from the catalogues and books he published by the end of the third decade of the century. One of his major acquisitions in 1922 was the colossal figure of the World Savior that is the subject of this publication.
There is no doubt that the sculpture was acquired by the museum in 1922 as indicated by the accession number in museum records. Moreover, in an article in the museum bulletin of August 1922, it is mentioned in a note that it was one of several objects that AKC had recently bought in India for the collection . There was no restriction then in taking art into or out of the country. The piece was published again in 1923 in the catalogue of the sculpture collection also by Coomaraswamy . What is clear from the photographs he published is that originally the figure was missing his nose which seems to have been restored subsequently, perhaps by one of the subsequent owners, but with sensitivity .
In the catalogue entry Coomarawamy simply gave a brief physical description of the sculpture, characteristic of all the catalogue entries. In fact, his discussion of the piece in the Bulletin article is not much more fulsome except that he calls the figure Padmapani and characterizes it as the “most important” and “monumental” of the museum’s “medieval” Buddhist sculptures. Otherwise the brief description in the bulletin is repeated verbatim in the catalogue entry. It is interesting that when it came to writing catalogue entries of objects Coomaraswamy was clinical and almost a minimalist even if the representation was luxuriantly carved as is our figure. Even in the bulletin article he did not dilate upon the iconographic concept or the symbology of the figure.
The sculpture is carved from the familiar black stone that occurs in the region of both Bihar and old Bengal: now West Bengal in India and Bangladesh. The material is identified in literature generically as schist but is also known as phylite. The hardness of the stone allows it to be carved confidently into rich surfaces with both exuberant, modish designs and details of extraordinary finesse, as is evident in this impressive work. The back of the sculpture is left largely unfinished thereby revealing that the bodhisattva was meant to be viewed only from the front and sides. In fact, the image could have been the principal focus of worship, as is indicated by its size, or it served as an acolyte flanking a Buddha figure with the Bodhisattva Maitreya on the other side. The three together constitute the holy triad of Pala period Mahayana Buddhism where the Buddha represents the past, Lokanatha/Lokeshvara the present (busy helping other strivers) and Maitreya, the friendly one, symbolizing the Buddha of the future.
There were independent temples dedicated to Lokanatha in both Bihar and Bengal during the Pala period, as is evident from the large number of his forms described in the compendium of the 12th century text called Sadhanamala or the “Garland of Evocations.” The illustrations in the 1043 C.E. Prajnaparamita manuscript now preserved in the University library at Cambridge, U.K. also provide evidence of major temples in Bihar and Bengal dedicated to Lokanatha . While most temples in the region have not survived we illustrate here two sculptures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that provide clear ideas of the forms and designs of shrines in the region during the rule of the Pala dynasty (ca. 750-1150 C.E.) (figs. B & C).
Although one of the two reliefs represents the Hindu deity Vishnu and the other an esoteric mandala of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, stylistically the works are roughly contemporaneous and reveals two different architectural forms. Likely the temple in which our bodhisattva would have been installed, if the principal image, would have looked closer to the Buddhist stele. A noteworthy difference between the two Metropolitan sculptures and the ex-Boston figure is that while those two are clearly solid steles or reliefs, albeit deeply carved, the Lokanatha, viewed from the front, creates a strong illusion of a three dimensional composition. This kind of liberating the volume of the figure from the background to convey three dimensionality, greater linearity, as well as motion, is often encountered in Pala period steles and is visually more compelling than the typical densely carved and crowded reliefs.
Detached from a back support, the figure of the bodhisattva seated elegantly on the “lotus-boat” seems to float in the air. The unencumbered sinuous outline contains an animated body that seems to echo the undulant rhythm of associated vegetation. His seat is a fully open lotus that rises from the waters below represented by swags of thick curling vines around his extended right foot resting on a smaller bloom. The leg stretches forcefully at an angle enhancing the illusion of an active figure. The left leg rests horizontally on the seat (paryanka) which is why the posture is described generally as ardhaparyanka, the prefix ardha meaning half. As a further variation, ardhaparyanka with one leg dangling or extended is known as lalitasana, or the graceful posture, and if the right leg had been raised on the seat with the knee thrust upward, the posture would be called maharajalila (royal pleasure or ease), as we see in the eleventh century example from Bihar acquired in 1963 from Nasli Heeramaneck by the Boston Museum (fig. D) . Stylistically this sculpture is probably earlier than its more monumental counterpart. Noteworthy is that Coomaraswamy had suggested a 11th–12th century date for it in 1922-23 and I would on comparison with dated examples give a date around 1100 for this figure .
Together with the profuse and diverse body ornaments our figure wears, clearly the bodhisattva’s conceptual model is that of an ideal, youthful handsome prince. He wears a dhoti whose volume is indicated with bold horizontal lines while the torso is diagonally draped with a very fine transparent cotton scarf. The region, especially Bengal, was famous from ancient times for the production of the finest gossamer muslin since Roman times, if not earlier, as much for its Royal Bengal tiger. Noteworthy also is the sacred cord (upavita) that descends in two strands of pearls from his left shoulder; rather an anomaly for a Buddhist deity to vaunt his upper caste. In addition to his princely persona, an ascetic touch is provided by the vertical arrangement of the braids of long hair in a complex and exquisitely carved formation, as if of writhing intertwined snakes. This embellishment is of course called a jatamukuta or crown of matted hair, which makes him a rajarshi or a regal ascetic combing the personas of the regal Vishnu and the ascetic Shiva, both of whom are regarded as a savior deity by their respective followers. “Lokanatha,” the savior of the world, is as well an appropriate epithet for Vishnu, as “Lokeshvara” is for Shiva.
Unfortunately, the two arms of the bodhisattva are damaged but the left hand would have grasped the long stem of the lotus flower prominently carved above the shoulder. The right hand would have exhibited the gesture of blessing or bestowing boon (varahasta). As the poet Ratnakirti in the epigraph states with rhetorical flourish “his lotus hand stretched down in charity/is dripping the streams of nectar to assuage/the thirsty spirits of the dead.” I would say all sentient beings seeking nirvana rather than only the ghosts.
A few words about the importance of the lotus flower will not be out of place here. We encounter this Indian flower par excellence signifying both beauty and grace generally. In particular it serves as a metaphor for the hand, as stated by the poet, and for the foot as well as a footstool. The flower is also his principal attribute in his left hand. It further serves as his seat where, of course, it is a metaphor of the human heart where the deity must be invoked in all three major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.
Normally in this period a Buddhist deity is distinguished from his/her Hindu or Jain counterpart by the presence of a tiny image of a Buddha in the hairdo or crown as is clear from the two examples in the MFA (figs. 4 & 5). However, in this case, the Buddha is placed behind the damaged central conical crest of the tiara as if secreted in a crevice like a hidden treasure. This reticent display of the Buddha is most unusual. The Buddha of course is Amitabha (Eternal Light) whose spiritual son Avalokiteshvara is. Generally, therefore the latter also has the red complexion of the former. However, the Sadhanamala describes the complexion of both Lokanatha and Khasarpana-Lokeshvara as white, which is corroborated by the two poets quoted above, who consistently compare his luster with the moon . Of course, in most of the Pala sculptures surviving today, there is no longer any evidence of coloring. Likely, the stone would have originally been painted the prescribed color, as, indeed, clay images for seasonal worship are polychromed today.
Thus, with insufficient iconographic indicators, Coomaraswamy may have felt that the prominent lotus attribute justified the appellation Padmapani, rather than the alternatives Khasarpana Lokeshvara or Lokanatha. Neither Amitabha, the parental Buddha if the former, nor Vajradharma, if the latter, is present, nor is there a Suchimukha (Needle mouthed) ghost drinking up the nectar that is obligatory for Khasarpana. Moreover, in the Cambridge manuscript labels of the famous shrines of the bodhisattva in eastern India he is consistently addressed as Lokanatha .
The question arises inevitably, as it did to me, when I first heard that the sculpture had been consigned to Christie’s for sale by the current owner, why would Coomaraswamy want to dispose it in 1935 unless he was acquiring something that was even better. The answer was discovered quickly when I realized he acquired another Pala representation of the same bodhisattva (fig. 5). I must admit that I was surprised by the decision and must state firmly that, as a curator myself I find it difficult to justify the substitution. While it is an attractive figure, neither for the obvious contrast in their sizes nor the aesthetic impact, I fail to see why it is a more desirable replacement, especially as the face is damaged. Unfortunately, in his absence, Coomaraswamy cannot be cross-examined. I would consider it as a complementary object as an example of a standing figure but not a substitute.
This should be a cautionary tale for all museum curators who rush to sell objects from the collection thinking their new acquisitions would be an improvement. It should further be pointed out that at the time the price of either object could not have been that different from one another and it should not have been difficult for Coomaraswamy to raise the funds to purchase the standing figure, (which incidentally is without forearms and feet). Even with a restored nose, the face of the seated bodhisattva is not only better preserved but better reflects Ratnakirti’s rhetorical excess when he wrote, “His glorious face bright with gathered moonlight/and his glance is soft/ with that pity that he bears within,” as quoted in the epigraph.
Moreover, because of their sheer difference in size – the standing figure being 35 inches whereas the seated at 58, Lokanatha is life size – the latter is one of the most imposing Pala period sculptures to appear in the market in this century – it would have been prudent to keep both examples in the collection. When complete with its surround and aureole the seated image may have been as much as 70 inches high. In fact, other comparable Pala period sculpture of such monumental proportions outside the subcontinent is the over life-size image of Vishnu now in the National Gallery in Canberra, Australia . I am sure in 1935 the towering personality of Ananda Coomaraswamy would have commanded such respect at the board meeting of the Boston Museum that everyone present would have agreed to the deaccession of the object without a murmur . When Coomaraswamy talks everyone listens. But, as we know, from our recent political experience in this country, even the loudest voice is not always right. When it comes to deaccessioning a work of art from a museum collection discretion is often the better part of valor.
We may live today in a world vitiated by nationalist jingoism, extreme self-righteousness as well as warped vision when it comes to politics, but when it comes to our appreciation of art in any form we should believe in what Disney optimistically characterized as “One World” in the New York World Fair when I first stepped down on American soil in the summer of 1964. On my initial visit to the Boston Museum I was proud to view the Indian collection handsomely re-installed in attractive galleries by my esteemed colleague Dr. Milo Beach who was then simultaneously working on his PhD at Harvard University and as a part time curator in the “Asiatic Art” department as it was then known. Among the sculptures displayed were some lively narrative reliefs from the site of Amaravati acquired by Dr. Coomaraswamy as gifts – yes as gifts – from the Government Museum, Madras and about which he wrote in the museum Bulletin in 1922 . I have no doubt that the gift was largely due to the great esteem in which Coomaraswamy was held by his fellow Tamils.
How different the times are now when we are constrained by the currently prevalent attitude among some overzealous “preservers” of heritage in both India and the United States. For centuries Indian art objects traveled without passports or permits from the subcontinent as far as China and beyond in Asia and Scandinavia in Europe. Now, regrettably it is a different story: The only type of art that is discriminated against is the visual form.
Thanks to Coomaraswamy, this svelte, languorously graceful, richly embellished, and meticulously detailed and yet monumental Savior of the World set out from his destroyed and desecrated home on the subcontinent on its afterlife journey in 1922 and found its new temporary home in the prestigious Boston Museum. That shelter, however, also proved to be temporary and, after some brief appearances in New York, he disappeared into obscurity for almost eight decades. Now, perhaps, it will find a worthy and permanent home, somewhere in the new or the old world and will be at last accessible to us all to lend a helping hand as we falter on the path to enlightenment.
This also reminds me of a comment by Jacques de Marquette in a posthumous appreciation he wrote about Coomaraswamy which I think is appropriate to close this essay: “While completely aware of the illusory character of the world of objectivity, his [Coomaraswamy’s] was the attitude of the Buddha of compassion who refuses to enter Nirvana before the last blade of grass has been redeemed…” [italics mine], which, apparently “was one of his favorite references to the teachings” of the Buddha .
©Pratapaditya Pal – English version, 2017.
1. Ingalls 1965: 64 and 65 for the following quote.
2. Bibliographical references in the catalogue entry.
3. Coomaraswamy 1929.
4. See Weatherhill 1970 for an account of Dr. Ross’s largesse to the museum and for the quote below. My own account of the Ross-Coomaraswamy bond awaits publication sometime this year in the Ratan Parimoo Felicitation Volume.
5. Coomaraswamy 1922: 45. However, the records indicate that it was bought from the Swiss dealer F.W. Bickel of Zurich. No information about the dealer is now available.
6. Coomaraswamy 1923: 78 & Pl. XXXVI.
7. Curiously the MFA sold the sculpture directly to a private collector rather than at an auction. It was then sold twice at public auctions in New York. As of writing this essay I have not seen a technical report on the object nor have I had the opportunity to personally examine it.
8. For detailed identifications see Foucher 1900. More accessible may be two illustrations in Pal and Meech-Pekarik 1988: 87, fig. 32; 103, figs. 20-21.
9. This object was brought in 1963 under the curatorship of Robert Treat Paine Jr. when the deal to buy the Heeramaneck Collection by MFA was sealed (but abandoned in 1969). The mate to this sculpture is now in the Heeramaneck Collection in Los Angeles (see Pal 1988: 178-179).
10. For a close stylistic mate, compare the complete image of Simhanada Lokeshvara in the Museum for Indische Kunst in Berlin. It was recovered from Lakhisarai in eastern Bihar before 1905 and is part of the Waddell Collection. Bautze–Picron (1998: 41-42; 173, cat. #72) dates the piece to 11th-12th century, which seems accurate both on stylistic and epigraphical evidence of the dedication inscription on the pedestal.
11. See Bhattacharya 1958: 128-132. Khasarpana is a curious name, which according to Monier Monier Williams, A Sanskrit English Dictionary [Oxford at Clarendon Press, 1979 reprint; p. 334, column 3] is the name of a Buddha. The original meaning of kha in the Rigveda is a cave but in later Brahmananical literature it also came to denote space, air, or heaven. Since neither the Buddha nor the Suchinukha is present here, I have avoided a precise identification as did Coomaraswamy. Lokanatha is a generic moniker like Lokeshvara or Avalokiteshvara.
12. The preferred name in the Cambridge manuscript labels seem to be Lokanatha such as “Haladi Lokanatha of Varendra” (in Bengal), or “Lokanatha of Potalaka” or again “Lokanatha of Radha” (also in Bengal), etc. See Foucher 1900: 203-204.
13. It is the image from Shialdi in Bangladesh. Unfortunately this cannot be viewed on the National Gallery’s website, which is strange since it is the Gallery’s most important work from the subcontinent.
14. Coomaraswamy’s inability to find the modest funds in early 1935 seems curious as Denman Ross was still alive. He died of a stroke later that year on September 12 in London in search of more art to collect. Coomaraswamy would die on September 9, 1947.
15. Coomaraswamy 1922 and 1923.
16. Singam 1974: 14.
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Bautze-Picron, Claudine 1998. The Art of Eastern India in the Collection of the Museum für Indische Kunst, Berlin. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag.
Coomaraswamy, Ananda Kentish 1922. “Buddhist Sculpture” in Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin XX, 120: 45-53.
–––––––––––––––––––. 1923. Catalogue of the Indian Collections in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Part II Sculpture. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts.
Fointein, Jan and Pratapaditya Pal 1969. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Oriental Art. Japan: Kodansha and Greenwich, Conn: New York Graphic Society.
Foucher, Alfred 1900 and 1905. Étude sur l'iconographie bouddhique de l'Inde. 2 vols. Paris: Ernest Leroux.
Ingalls, Daniel H.H. 1965. An Anthology of Sanskrit Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mallmann, Marie-Thérèse de 1948. Introduction à l'Étude d'Avalokitéçara. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Pal, Pratapaditya 1988. Indian Sculpture A Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, vol. 2. Los Angeles: LACMA and Berkeley. Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.
Pal, Pratapaditya and Julia Meech-Pekarik 1988. Buddhist Book Illuminations. New York, Paris, Hong Kong, New Delhi: Ravi Kumar Publishers and Hursterpoint (UK): Richard Lyon.
Singam, Durai Raja 1974. Ananda Coomaraswamy Remembering and Remembering. Kuala Lumpur: Privately Published by author.
Whitehill, Walter Muir 1970. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: A Centennial History. Cambridge, Mass: The Berklap Press of Harvard University Press).