Over the course of a millennium in India, the conception of what it meant to be a Buddha, literally an “awakened one,” grew and expanded. At first, “Buddha” simply referred to the historical figure Shakyamuni. Then, as others practiced the dharma and experienced enlightenment (nirvana), they concluded that, given the infinite temporal scope of the Buddhist cosmos, Shakyamuni could not be a unique being. Other beings must have discovered and realized enlightenment—so there must be other Buddhas in other places or times, however distant they might be. Thus, even in the early Pali texts, the first known Buddhist scriptures, a series of seven human Buddhas was posited. Under the influence of Mahayana (Great Vehicle) texts, these other Buddhas then began to proliferate into a large number of “cosmic” Buddhas. Each cosmic Buddha was thought to oversee his own universe, each with its own particular characteristics. At this point, Buddhist thinkers began to ask themselves a basic but crucial question: where did all these multifarious “cosmic” Buddhas come from? One answer to this question was that there was a primordial Buddha from whom all others had emanated. Vajradhara, the “holder of the thunderbolt,” is one form of the original, primordial Buddha.
In this sculpture, Vajradhara can be identified by his crossed forearms, which make the power-projecting posture called vajra-hum-kara (a term that refers to the thunderbolt-like syllable “hum” that Vajradhara embodies). Two lotuses on Vajradhara’s shoulders support a thunderbolt and a bell. The thunderbolt on his right shoulder represents the male principle of strategic spiritual action (upaya), as well as the compassion with which such actions must be applied. The bell on his left shoulder symbolizes the female principle of emptiness (shunyata) realized by wisdom. The artist who created this fine bronze sculpture decorated it with tiny pieces of turquoise from Tibet, coral from Italy, and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Note the precise bilateral symmetry according to which these semiprecious stones have been applied to Vajradhara’s gilded body; the turquoise at his third eye occupies the central axis, while lapis and coral symmetrically flank the turquoise. The finely incised patterns around Vajradhara’s neck and below his lotus seat further reveal the manifold skills of the artist.