Art and religion across the Himalayas Rob Linrothe and Vajrasattva
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Art and religion across the Himalayas
Big mountains have always made strong fortresses separating habitats, species, and civilizations. But even the mighty Himalayas have occasionally been breached by powerful forces, like major world religions and Prof. Rob Linrothe.
A Skidmore art historian, Linrothe spends many a summer trekking the peaks and high plains of India and Tibet to study the art in remote monasteries, temples, and city museums. Much of the art’s imagery and style was carried centuries ago over the same mountain passes (and probably with the same kind of mules and local guides) that he uses as he traces the spread of Asian religious and visual culture. Now Linrothe has received a Getty Foundation grant to study representations of the deity Vajrasattva as they traveled and evolved during the middle ages. Having just returned from summer fieldwork in India, he’s spending this academic year as a residential scholar at
the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.
Linrothe’s project, “Cultural Flows Across Asia: Esoteric Buddhist Representation and Transformation,” may be the most comprehensive scholarship yet on Vajrasattva, an important focus of meditative practice in Esoteric Buddhism. The techniques, which require empowerment and initiations from a teacher, emphasize the removal of obstacles in the spiritual search to identify with absolute truth. In particular, the goal is to dissolve the boundaries between practitioner and enlightened being. In fact, while Indian sculptures of deities often include smaller figures of patrons or teachers at the bottom, Linrothe has located a few Vajrasattva images that repeat small figures of Vajrasattva at the base. “This dual identity as goal and guru collapses the difference between deity and devotee,” he says.
For a time in India, he notes, Vajrasattva was the emblem of the Esoteric Buddhist system and the symbol of enlightenment itself. These Buddhist practices were carried along with other aspects of Indian culture into Tibet and China and as far as Japan and Indonesia. While it was essentially wiped out in India and China several centuries ago, versions of it still continue in Tibet and Japan. For Linrothe, piecing together these geographically and historically disparate traditions, “and seeing how they dialogue with each other, is what I find fascinating.” Esoteric Buddhism, he says, “inspired religious practitioners and artists as it crossed state and cultural boundaries and flowed among people and regions. Monasteries formed flourishing networks of monks, artists, and laity, sharing images and texts of Vajrasattva.” In particular, Linrothe is interested in how these networks fostered religious and artistic transfers and how various cultural tendencies encouraged the adoption and alteration of ideas. “There are many little shafts of light that need to be focused,” he says.
Those lights caught the eye of the Getty Foundation, which was impressed by Linrothe’s distinctively broad, comparative approach. Recently, as he explains it, “tenuous diplomatic alliances have been forged between Indian and Tibetan studies—art historical and religious—and between Chinese and Japanese studies.” Nevertheless, even today “when humanistic studies emphasize interdisciplinarity, it is still unusual for a theme to be traced across several Asian cultures.”
Linrothe is the author of Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art (1994) and co-editor of Demonic Divine: Himaayan Art and Beyond (2004), which consider “fierce” or “angry” deities that may actually represent protection and benevolence. He is also the founding curator at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, and in 2006 curated its Holy Madness: Portraits of Tantric Siddhas, which highlighted
Esoteric Buddhist exchanges between India and Tibet.
In residence at the Getty Research Institute, Linrothe will work with library resources as well as his own copies of eighth- to eleventh-century images and texts from India and China. And he’ll be right in his element as he joins Getty’s thematic program for this year: fostering scholarly links across civilizational, ethnic, religious, and geographic boundaries. —SR