Death and the Eastern Tradition

Death and the Eastern Tradition..

The spiritual worlds of Hinduism and Buddhism are distinctly different from that of Christianity in their conception of the soul and the afterlife. In Hinduism death is part of a rebirth for the “atma” – the self or soul. “For certain is death for the born, and certain is birth for the dead”. [Bhagavad Gita 2: 27] Buddhist tradition also teaches that the death of the body is simply part of  “samsara”, the eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

The skull serves in both as an emblem of the transitory nature of life. But this means very different things for eastern and Western traditions. In South Asian Hinduism and Buddhism, the skull is a ritual object, in the form of kapala, or “skull cup”, sometimes called “thod pa” in Tibet. When filled with human sense organs – such as eyes or ears – it is used in making offerings to appease vengeful deities, a practise perhaps deriving from ancient sacrificial rites.

This exhibition includes some common images from South Asia, such as Chitipati dancers, who protect against thieves. There are several images of the Mahakala in the Richard harris collection. Mahakala is both a deity in Buddhism, and another form of the Hindu god Shiva, his crown has five skulls that symbolize the transformation of negative emotion into wisdom and awareness. The goddess Kali, the consort of Shiva, is most closely associated with the Kapala and appears in one of the paintings in this show. She is thought to live in the crematiuon ground, and can be identified by a necklace of skulls. She embodies change and destruction, in balance with her consort Shiva, who represent creation.

In Japanese Buddhism, spirit of ancestors are honored and helped to move on from this life during the summer holidays of Odon, similar to the Day of the Dead observance in Mexico. the representation of a snake – which is a symbol of rebirth because it continues to live after shedding its skin – paired with a skull, emphasizes   the cycle of death and rebirth.


Mahakala - Mongolian

Mahakala – Mongolian

Some items in the Eastern Art in the Richard Harris Collection

[Japanese] Okimono and Netsuke  click here..

[Japanese] Frolicking Skeleton painting – by Kawanabe Kyosai  click here..

[Tibetan] Shri Chitipati painting – click here..

[Tibetan]  Chitipati Dancers sculpture click here..

[Tibetan] Ceremonial Skull Cup / Kapala  click here..

[Indian] Headhunter’s Trophy  click here..



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