The skull-cup-bearing form of the tutelary deity, Hevajra, stands with his consort Nairatmya in a dancing embrace. Together these figures comprise a fully enlightened being, harnessing the male qualities of skillful means and compassion and the female aspect of transcendent wisdom.
The deities of the Unexcelled Yoga Tantra dance upon a lotus base trampling the bodies of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Indra in their stride. The four-legged, eight-headed, sixteen-armed Hevajra holds skull cups or kapala (Tib: thod-pa) in each hand, supporting a host of beings including an elephant and the earth-goddess Prithvi in his primary hands. The eight animals in his proper-right hands represent a variety of diseases that he can eradicate, while the eight Hindu deities in his proper-left hands indicate his embodiment of each of their divine powers. Nairatmya holds her own blood-filled skull cup around Hevajra’s neck and grips a curved knife (Tib: dri-kug), symbolizing her ability to cut through the ignorance and delusion of our conventional world.
The cycle of teachings surrounding Hevajra and Nairatmya originated during or prior to the tenth century with early Indian masters and progenitors of Tantric Buddhism and was likely formalized in the context of the great monastic university, Vikramashila, in the Pala Kingdom of Northeastern India. The mahasiddha Virupa is said to have received these important teachings directly from the Wisdom Dakini, or Yeshe Kandroma, who received them from the primordial buddha Vajradhara.
The Hevajra Tantra rose to prominence within the Tibetan Sakya tradition by the eleventh century and Hevajra remains the most important yidam or meditational deity for Sakyapas today. Well known Sakya lama and translator Drogmi Lotsawa Shakya Yeshe (993-1074/87) was instrumental in strengthening the Sakya tradition as the codifier of the thirty-nine most important Hevajra commentaries and rituals. The first Sakya throne holder, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092–1158), was equally as important to its development, as he received direct transmissions from Virupa in the form of visions. He was also deeply steeped in the traditions passed on by Drogmi and initiated others to the teachings.
One can surmise that the present artwork was a commission by a Sakya patron and Hevajra initiate. Within the once preeminent Sakya sect, such elaborate commissions were commonplace. One such commission, also the benchmark for dating the present Hevajra sculpture, is an image of an eleven-armed Avalokiteshvara, illustrated by U. von Schroeder in Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, Hong Kong, 1983, p. 453, fig. 124D, attributed by Tibetan art scholar, Jeff Watt by inscription to an artist named Sonam Gyaltsen, who operated out of the Shigatse atelier circa 1430. Shigatse is the city nearest to Sakya monastery and was the most prosperous in fifteenth-century Tibet. The artist likely became known after this important commission for the Sakya institution, Jamchen Chode monastery, which was also close to Shigatse, and his atelier was ostensibly one of the most sophisticated of its time.
Several distinct stylistic traits found in the present sculpture have since been affiliated with characteristics found in a large body of works attributed to the style of the Sonam Gyaltsen atelier, including examples in museums, private collections, and works offered for sale at auction. These distinguishable features include the richest gilding atop a pinkish copper alloy, heavy inlaid-turquoise ornamentation, carefully and softly sculptured lotus petals, and lifelike physical features. Some works from this ever-expanding milieu appear clearly to be by the hand of the master, while others are clearly derivative, yet nearly as exquisite. The subject sculpture is likely from the esteemed Shigatse atelier, as confirmed by Jeff Watt. Though there are notable differences between the present sculpture and the Avalokiteshvara attributed by inscription to the hand of Sonam Gyaltsen, many elements of his style are apparent here. Its relatively large size and outstanding condition make it particularly exceptional.
Shri Hevajra and Vajra Nairatmya: a principal Tantric deity of the Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism, from the tradition of the fifteenth-century artist Sonam Gyaltsen and his atelier.
Tantric deities are not real. They are not gods, per se, such as those found in the various Hindu religions of India. Buddhist deities are either borrowed from classical Indian religious traditions, or they are created in order to represent certain Buddhist principals and usually encapsulate a metaphor of some kind. In the present case, the name of the male figure, Hevajra, means 'Hail to the Vajra' and the female figure, who is held in embrace, means 'The Egoless One.' The general metaphor for Hevajra is war, and as such he is modelled after the Vedic god Indra, the deity of thunder, weather and war. The principal symbolic attribute of Hevajra is the vajra scepter, which he invariably holds in his hand. Inherited from the Indo-European religious traditions, the vajra is understood at its most basic level as a lightning bolt. A cognate in the Greek tradition is the thunderbolt wielded by the god Zeus. In India, there are many ways to explain the meaning of the word vajra based on various literature, but it is generally understood as a weapon. In Tantric Buddhism the vajra is conceived as a weapon but also as the supreme symbol that visually represents this unique form of Indian Buddhism. An alternate name for the tantric branch of Buddhism is Vajrayana, meaning the 'Vajra Vehicle' or the 'Path of the Vajra.' As such, Hevajra is not unique for holding the vajra symbol; many other Buddhist deities such as Vajrapani and Vajradhara are associated with this ubiquitous symbol.
Popular in India from approximately the eighth century CE, Hevajra’s form is based on a specific text called the Two Part Hevajra King of Tantras – also referred to as the root text. There are other tantras that are included under the principal text, forming a cycle of tantras and creating a larger system of philosophical and meditational practices. The most common form or appearance of Hevajra and Nairatmya depicts the male deity with eight faces, sixteen arms, and four legs. This form is called the 'Essence Hevajra'. From the root text, three other forms represent body, speech and mind, which are important aspects of tantric theory. The secondary tantras under the canopy of the Hevajra Tantra describe further forms of the deity with predominantly minor changes in appearance, color, and the objects held in the many hands.
Orthodoxy and accuracy in appearance for meditational figures is important but not always uniform. The primary and secondary characteristics of the form have several levels of meaning which are based on general Buddhist principles and concepts along with more nuanced meanings belonging to Tantric theory. Accuracy is determined by orthodoxy first, oral explanation based on a recognised lineage of teachers second, and regional aesthetics and the passage of time third. The present figure of Hevajra, belonging to the tradition of sculpture associated with the fifteenth-century artist Sonam Gyaltsen, is identified based on all three criteria.
The form of the present figure of Hevajra follows the original Sanskrit textual description. An important observation is the placement of the animals and figures in the sixteen skull bowls held in his outstretched hands. The animals on the proper right side must face inward in an established order. The figures in the bowls on the left side must face outward. If the artist is accurate with this detail of the hand attributes, then they are likely well-familiar with the correct iconography and the orthodox literature. However, the placement of the legs does not follow the early interpretations of the original text. The stance of the present sculpture depicts the two right legs standing atop four prone figures and the two left legs drawn up in a dancing posture. This differentiated iconographic interpretation, according to the Sakya tradition, is based on the oral instructions of the ninth-century Indian teacher, Virupa. Oral instructions are often not without some controversy. The dance posture with respect to Hevajra is not used by other Tibetan Buddhist traditions such as the Gelug and Kagyu sects. It does however follow accepted Sakya practices for depictions of Hevajra from approximately the fourteenth century onward. Even so, some Sakya-derived traditions prefer to use the earlier traditional posture rather than the orally explained dance posture.
The present sculpture can be further identifed by region based on its style. Proper understanding of a sculptural style requires a sufficient number of similar objects, and a relationship to a specific region or artist. Comparison with known comparable images identifies this Hevajra as belonging to the Sonam Gyaltsen tradition of sculpture. Sonam Gyaltsen has already been shown to work in the Shigatse area of Tsang province, Tibet, in the early to mid-fifteenth century. The existence of the artist Sonam Gyaltsen only came to light thanks to the rediscovery of a written Tibetan inscription found on the base of a large gilt-bronze figure of Avalokiteshvara that was studied in January 2018 (Himalayan Art Resources, item no. 61516). The inscription provides the names of two donors, the artist's name - Sonam Gyaltsen, and the person for whom the object was respectfully made and gifted to. The main characteristics of the Sonam Gyaltsen tradition are rich gilding, an array of turqoise inlay, delicate incising on the garments, and flat broad lotus petals surrounding the base. Since the publication of the inscription and the subsequent identification of the historical figures, more than a hundred sculptures in the very same, or closely related style, have been identified as belonging to the tradition of Sonam Gyaltsen – a golden era of Tibetan sculpture.