Author Topic: Prosperity Comes in Many Forms  (Read 7421 times)


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Prosperity Comes in Many Forms
« on: November 09, 2019, 08:55:13 AM »
Prosperity Comes in Many Forms

By Lee Lawrence
Oct. 18, 2019 3:26 pm ET

The focus of a small exhibition at the Asia Society Museum, on view through Jan. 5, 2020, is a roughly 4-foot-tall painting of a haloed woman dripping with jewels. Red and green gems dangle from her headdress and hang from tassels as she stands on a giant lotus, afloat in space, unseen winds gently ruffling her silks. Cloud motifs adorn her skirt, whose hem curls and rolls like waves. Her right hand extends, open-palmed, as though she had just released a gift; her left holds aloft a round stone topped by a bright red flame, the hallmark of a wish-fulfilling jewel.

The iconography is clear: She is Kichijoten, Japanese Buddhists’ conception of Lakshmi, a popular Hindu goddess whose annual five-day festival of Diwali kicks off Oct. 25. Across the globe, Hindus, Sikhs and Jains will line windowsills and doors with lights, inviting the goddess to grace their homes and businesses with wealth and prosperity.

One gauge of Kichijoten’s popularity is how few ancient paintings survive. Starting in the eighth century, paintings presided over more and more rites invoking Kichijoten’s help in safeguarding the nation, bringing plentiful harvests, ensuring peace, prosperity and rulers’ political success. By the Kamakura period (1185-1333), most paintings had suffered such irreparable damage that temples replaced them with statues. Though probably painted in the late 19th to early 20th century, this Kichijoten exhibits the style of much earlier paintings and appears to be a near perfect match to a Kamakura-period statue at Joruri-ji temple near Kyoto: same dress, same adornment, almost exactly the same pose. I say “appears to be” because the statue belongs to a class of Buddhist statuary that is kept out of view, her image circulated primarily through copies and photographs.

Thankfully, this is not the case for other such statues, one of which the Minneapolis Institute of Art is installing in its Japanese galleries in time for Diwali. The painted patterns on the statue’s dress and the pale skin tones have long worn off. But she sports the same multilayered sleeves as the painting, same plump body, and same scalloped edges of the shawl that drapes across her shoulders and crosses over her chest. And, of course, the goddess’s hallmark: the grant-fulfilling jewel and the gift-giving gesture. The medium dictates some differences. In the painting, the jewel is round, topped by delicately rendered flames, which sculptors seemed to have alluded to by giving the stone a pointed onion shape. Similarly, sculptors could only hint at the sway in the goddess’s garment, while the painter unleashed heaven’s winds.

By the time this iconography took shape in Japan, Lakshmi had traveled far from her birthplace in India, accruing a multiplicity of names, stories and powers as people of different cultures embraced her, credited her with miracles, and fit her into pre-existing pantheons.

We can find clues to that journey and evolution in the painting. The goddess was first written about between 1000 and 700 B.C., yet much of the poet’s description still applies: “divinely resplendent....the embodiment of the fulfillment of all wishes....radiant with ornaments.…being blessed by whom I shall win wealth in plenty.” Her dress, for its part, replicates a fashion from China’s Tang dynasty (618-907). Its cloud motifs bring to mind her role in assuring plentiful harvests. And its wave-like hem recalls the story of an imperial envoy who, in 804, was on a ship during a terrible storm. He prayed to Kichijoten and, abruptly, the tempest ceased—and the goddess added safety at sea to her growing portfolio.

The fact that Kichijoten is not holding a lotus, Lakshmi’s hallmark, also signals the distance she’s covered. Yet the shape of Kichijoten’s hallmark—the wish-fulfilling gem—echoes the round fruit Lakshmi is often shown holding, a reminder of their shared identity as a deity.

There is yet another significant parallel in their depictions. Around the fourth century, believers linked Lakshmi to Vishnu as his wife, described thus in the Mahabharata epic: “Orderly social relations and traditional virtues attract Sri Lakshmi, herself a model of social decorum as Vishnu’s wife.” This translates into imagery in which Lakshmi is shown embracing her husband, perching on his lap or accompanying him as one of two diminutive figures flanking the tall god.

The role of deities is historically as fluid in Japan as it is in India, and a similar dynamic plays out in the imagery of Kichijoten. By the late 11th century she, too, is paired with a powerful god, the guardian deity Bishamonten, who tends to tower over her. She also occasionally shows up as one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune, one member of a larger ensemble.

Not so here. She rises before us, expecting veneration, her expression benign but distant. Any kindness she bestows upon us is from a position of absolute power. And there is no doubt that she can shower us with wealth. But the associations she has accumulated over the centuries should remind us this Diwali that prosperity isn’t just about money.


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Re: Prosperity Comes in Many Forms
« Reply #1 on: November 11, 2019, 07:53:10 AM »
Thank you for sharing this article. Buddhas manifest in many different ways to suit different people in different places. For example, the Buddha of Compassion. In Tibet, the Buddha of Compassion is in male form. In Tang dynasty in China, the Buddha of Compassion is called Guan Yin and he is in male form. Later, Guan Yin is depicted in female form. How the Buddha manifests does not affect the power of the Buddha, it is merely to suit the preference of the believers.