Bodhisattvas as objects of separate cults emerge relatively late in comparison to their appearances in texts. So for instance Mañjuśrī appears in early texts like the Viṃalakirtinirdeśa Sūtra (1st or 2nd century CE) but there are no representations of Mañjuśrī in Indian Buddhist art until the 6th century. Although I can't confirm this, it seems to me that the appearance of (large scale) iconographic representations of Bodhisattvas other than Maitreya appear to coincide with the early period of Tantric Buddhism. It also seems likely to me that individual Bodhisattvas were not worshipped widely in India until that time. In China a cult of Mañjuśrī appears a century or two earlier, but it takes a different form to that in India and is centred around Mount Wu Tai.
The earliest representations of Mañjuśrī, whether Indian or Chinese, do not show him with a sword. The earliest Indian iconography shows him with right hand in the varada mūdra, left hand holding an utpala lotus; his hair is braided, and he wears a tiger's class necklace. (see image left) The last item is a protective amulet worn by children. In early Chinese images however he is shown teaching and holding an iron staff. This staff, which broadens at the top, is a Confucian implement symbolising religious discourse. The Viṃalakirtinirdeśa, which features Mañjuśrī in a discussion with Vimalakirti, was a key influence on Chinese iconography.
Rob Linrothe's study of wrathful images, Ruthless Compassion, provides a clue to what might have happened. Although Mañjuśrī himself is not shown with a sword, he and other Bodhisattvas such as Vajrapaṇi are frequently accompanied a smaller companion figure who does. The dwarf-like figures seem to derive from Śaiva images of the dwarf Vamana. In particular Mañjuśrī is accompanied by a figure called Yamāntaka. Yamāntaka, of course, goes on to become a distinct figure and plays a very important role in Tibetan Buddhism. However at first he is very much linked to the peaceful form of the Bodhisattva and seems to represent the "power" of the Bodhisattva. Importantly Yamāntaka is depicted as wielding a sword in these images.
In Linrothe's account of the development of Tantric iconography, this kind of Bodhisattva plus attendant image persisted even when new developments occurred, so that the various layers all co-existed. This mirrors the situation for the development of texts which Buddhists were loath to repudiate completely even when a new text proclaimed, as they inevitably do, that what has come before was merely provisional or meant for people of lesser ability. The next phase after the Bodhisattva/Dwarf companions is that the wrathful figures become independent. So for instance in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra (ca mid 7th century) Trailokyavijaya, Acala, and Hayagrīva are independent wrathful figures whose function is the protection of sacred spaces (i.e. mandalas) and the destruction of obstacles. Images of Yamāntaka
In the case of Mañjuśrī I suggest that he got his sword from Yamāntaka, but only after they had gone their separate ways which was evident by about the 10th century. But why would a peaceful Bodhisattva take up a sword, even a so-called sword of wisdom? The sword culturally speaking represents the polar opposite of Buddhist values - it is an implement of killing, designed in fact for the single purpose of killing humans.
A possible answer is provided by Adalbert Gail in his paper "Mañjuśrī and his sword" (see below). He suggests that the cult of Mañjuśrī began in China, which explains why images of Mañjuśrī appeared there centuries before they did in India. We know that in some cases, the Heart Sūtra being a classic example, that Chinese Buddhism had an influence on Indian Buddhism. In ths case Gail surmises that the iron discussion staff was an implement unfamiliar to Indian Buddhists, and so when they met it, probably via Chinese pilgrims in India, they may have assumed that it was a sword. By this time wrathful images, such as Yamāntaka had already appeared so a Buddhist figure holding a sword may not have seemed so unusual. Later images of Mañjuśrī holding a sword were taken to China where they became popular.
Much of this argument is speculative and will likely remain so, but it seems a plausible account given what we do know. The story of Mañjuśrī's sword is a good example of how iconographic, non-textual information, all too often overlooked by Buddhists and Buddhologists, contributes to our understanding of Buddhist history.
- Gail, Adalbert. "Mañjuśrī and his sword," in Kooij, K.R. Van and Veere, H. van der (eds.) Function and meaning in Buddhist art : proceedings of a seminar held at Leiden University 21-24 October 1991. Groningen: Egbert Forstan, 1995
- Linrothe, Rob. Ruthless compassion : wrathful deities in early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist art. London : Serindia Publications, 1996.
16 June 2008
NOTE: In writing this essay I missed an obvious reference to Mañjuśrī's sword in a Mahāratnakūṭa Sūtra called the Suṣṭhitamati-paripṛcchā. A little more research would be required to see if the date of the text has been established - the Ratnakūṭa (or Jewel Heap) texts are a collection which span a period time but begin to be translated into Chinese about the 2nd century. In this text Mañjuśrī moves as if to kill the Buddha with his sword! He is stopped by a discourse on the emptiness of beings.
If I were to rewrite this essay in light of that passage it would probably look entirely different. I wonder why neither Linrothe nor Gail mention it as it has direct bearing on what they write about, perhaps like me they simply over looked it?
A translation of the passage can be found in Chang, G. C. C. 1983. A treasury of Mahāyāna Sūtras : selections from the Mahāratnakūṭa Sūtras. Pennsylvania : Buddhist Association of the US, p.68. See Also Sangharakshita. 1985. The Eternal Legacy : an introduction to the Canonical Literature of Buddhism. London : Tharpa. p.186.