Thursday, April 2, 2015

Ekadashamukha Avalokitesvara

Most of the big cities in the world have their own museums where collection of artifacts and other objects of historical, scientific, social, cultural and artistic values are displayed for viewing by the general public.  These museums also act as an important knowledge source for students, scholars and scientists for their studies and research.  They periodically conduct festivals and seminars which provide impetus to dedicated studies. Museums in cities like Paris, London, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Montreal, Mumbai, Mysore and Hyderabad are huge and spread over many floors and sections. Some of these cities have museums in multiple locations with division of display items based on diverse themes. Items on display are often invaluable and much effort is required for safeguarding them. There are museums dedicated to a particular aspect of life like the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Canada and Museum of Flight in Seattle, USA. A proper viewing of such museums cannot be completed in a single day. Most of the museums provide maps showing the arrangement of display items so that the visitor can view the galleries systematically without missing any of them. Museums like the one in Washington DC provide brochures which give an indiction of the major attractions for viewing by the visitor in the their available time.  The visitor can decide how much time he wants to spend there and accordingly see the highlights from the most important items to whatever he can. Visiting museums and viewing the rare items and articles is a matter of personal liking and interest.

The city of Seattle, Washington state, USA has three museums; Seattle Art Museum, Asian Art Museum and Olympic Sculpture Park.  On a visit to the Asian Art Museum there three years ago, I chanced to see a bronze statue about 20 inches in height with a caption "Ekadashamukha Avalokitesvara".  The statue had 11 heads, three each in three steps one set above the other, and two heads one each above them. A picture of the statue, downloaded from the internet, is given alongside. This is a rare statue and I had not seen a similar one earlier.  Our mythology refers to "Ekadasha Rudras". Ekadasha vaara (vaara means times - eleven times) Rudrabhisheka is an eloberate form of worshipping the 11 forms of Lord Shiva with the names Mahadeva, Shiva, Maha Rudra, Shankara, Neelalohita, Eshana Rudra, Vijaya Rudra, Bheema Rudra, Devadeva, Bhavodhbhava and Aditya Rudra. But there is no reference to any 11 headed Rudra or Eswara.  This created an interest to further dwell on the subject.

During a visit to Ajanta and Ellora caves last year, the guide there took us from one cave to another cave and explained the importance of each cave.  When he took us to the most popular painting in the Ajanta caves, he showed us the painting shown alongside and mentioned that this is one of the Bodhisatvas. The mural painting on the wall of Cave No. 1 was mentioned as "Padmapani" (Holding a lotus in his hand).  He mentioned that this was a form of Avalokiteswara.  That led to the linking of the statue in Seattle museum to Buddhism and the link to Ekadashamukha Avalokiteswara unfolded.  There is extensive reference to Avalokitesvara in Buddhist literature.  He is a Bodhisatva who embodies compassion of all Buddhas.  Avalokitesvara means "The Lord who looks down from above".  Mahayana sect of Buddhists consider him as one of the most revered Bodhisatva. The mission of Bodhisatva is to free all sentient beings from Samsara, which is the cycle of birth and death.

Tibetan Buddhism recognizes seven forms of Avalokiteswara.  Amoghapasha, the one connected with the net (pasha) is the first.  Sahasrabhuja Lokeswara, the one with thousand heads and eyes is the second. Hayagriva (the one with the head of a horse) is the third. Chundi is the fourth and Chintamani Chakra (Sudarshana) is the fifth.  Ekadashamukha is sixth and Arya Avalokitesvara is the seventh.  It is interesting to note that "Purusha Sukta" in Hinduism refers to the Lord as one with "Thousand heads and Thousand Eyes". (Here thousand means infinite; hence infinite heads have infinite eyes.  It is not merely one thousand as generally understood).  Vishnu is also known in one form as Hayagriva.  He also holds Sudarshana Chakra.  Does it indicate that Buddhism also branched out from Hinduism?

Avalokitesvara is known with different names in various parts of the world. Transalated to Chinese it is said to become "Kaun Shi Yin" or "Quan YIn" meaning looking down upon the worlds. Buddhists believe that if one calls Avalokitesvara, he will appear and help the one who calls him.  Chinese also refer to him as "Guanyin", mening personifiction of perfect compassion. One story explains how Avalokitesvara got thousand hands and eleven heads.  Bodhisatva vowed that "should he ever become disheartened in saving sentient beings (one having power of perception by senses), may his body shatter into thousand pieces".  Once when he cleared the hell by helping all the suffering beings and looked down from a higher realm, he still found many beings flooding the hell.  In that moment of despair, his body shattered into thousand pieces.  His personal Guru, Amitabha Buddha then appeared and using his miraculous powers converted each of the pieces into an arm with an eye of wisdom in each palm. Avalokitesvara then continued his mission with these 1000 hands.  The picture given alongside shows the 1000 arms and 11 heads.

There are many versions of Avalokitesvara in Buddhist texts.  In Sri Lanka he is called "Natha". In Cambodia he is worshipped as Lokeswara. Chinese buddhists believe that there is a female form of Avalokitesvara with 1000 hands, similar to the picture shown here.  What does Ekadashamukha represent? It is believed that the additional ten heads are meant to teach the ten planes; eight in eight directions and two for worlds above and below.  (Something similar to "Dasharatha", the one whose chariot could move in any of the ten directions - East, West, North, South, North--West, North-East, South-East and South-West plus above and below). The stories of Bodhisattva and Ekadashamukha Avalokiteswara are as interesting as his bronze statue displayed in the Seattle museum and the mural painting of Ajanta and Ellora caves.


  1. Thank you sir for new information on hitherto unheard of form of God. And the Buddhist mythology connected thereto.

  2. Excellent information - a research indeed.


  3. A good piece of information excellently presented.


  4. ur unquenchable thirst for uncovering mysteries of Mythology, is incredible ! The connection between the rare statue in the Asian art museum at Seattle and the mural In Ajanta caves is something a tourist would have easily missed, You spotted the link and gave us an insight into the Hindu-Buddhist synergy. The richness of Indian culture never fails to bowl me over !

  5. Beautifully explained.....sir,its very good to know hidden mythological links of indian culture.specially in the form of short articles.Very informative and interesting.

  6. just unheard of thies thanlks for the details

    1. Excellent explanation. Thanks for the valuable information.

      Gopinath Lingappa

  7. Excellent information. when I visited Combodia , In Angkor thom 64 Avalokitheshwara [ 4 on each Gopura was beautiful but this information is very educating in Budhist religion.

  8. It is really informative.Thank you for sharing sir.

  9. Sahastrabhuja Lokeswara means thousand armed lokeswara. This concept is in Vedid thought form also, where the Purusha in Purushasukta is described as having 1000 eyes and thousand feet.