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Color Symbolism In Buddhist Art
Article of the Month - February 2002 by Nitin Kumar Email the author

NirvanaEsoteric Buddhism is unique in presenting through visual images, the most abstract of concepts, which then acquire an intuitive simplicity, graspable by all. Thus there exists in Buddhism the concept of a rainbow body. The 'rainbow body" is the penultimate transitional state of meditation in which matter begins to be transformed into pure light. It is said to be the highest state attainable in the realm of 'samsara' before the 'clear light' of Nirvana. Indeed as much as the spectrum contains within itself all possible manifestations of light, and thus of color, the rainbow body signifies the awakening of the inner self to the complete reservoir of terrestrial knowledge that it is possible to access before stepping over the threshold to the state of Nirvana. Understandably, when depicted in the visual arts, due to the profusion of colors, the result is spectacularly unique.

Further, one often comes across references to five colors (pancha-varna). These colors are white, yellow, red, blue and green. That these colors were canonized as rich in symbolism is borne by the following quotation from the Chandamaharosana Tantra:

- Black symbolizes killing and anger
- White denotes rest and thinking
- Yellow stands for restraining and nourishing
- Red for subjugation and summoning and
- Green means exorcism

The enumeration of the colors may change but the number remains five. Thus the five transcendental Buddhas, personification of the abstract aspects of Buddhahood, are each endowed with a different color in their sadhanas:

1. Vairochana - White bodied
2. Ratnasambhava - Yellow bodied
3. Akshobhya - Blue bodied
4. Amitabha - Red bodied
5. Amoghasiddhi - Green bodied

Here it is relevant to note that each of these five Buddhas and their associated colors are said to further the transformative process whereby specific human delusions are changed to positive qualities. Specifically it is believed that by meditating on the individual colors, which contain their respective essences, the following metamorphosis can be achieved:

- White transforms the delusion of ignorance into the wisdom of reality
- Yellow transforms pride into wisdom of sameness
- Blue transforms anger into mirror like wisdom
- Red transforms the delusion of attachment into the wisdom of discernment
- Green transforms jealousy into the wisdom of accomplishment

Chakrasambhara-tantraHence we find that ancient Buddhism thought placed much emphasis on the spiritual significance of colors, which naturally influenced the development and practice of Buddhist aesthetics.

A further investigation into the five colors takes us to the Mahavairochana-Sutra, which states that a mandala, the quintessential symbol of Tibetan Buddhism should be painted in five colors. It further prescribes that one should start at the interior of the mandala with white and to be followed by red, yellow, blue and black.

The Chakrasambhara-tantra prescribes that the walls of a mandala should be painted in five colors and should maintain the order of black in the interior followed by white, yellow, red and green. In certain mandalas, the four directions within the palace are indicated by different colors. The east is indicated by white, west by red, north by green and the south by yellow while the center is painted blue. The Kalachakra-tantra, however, prescribes a completely different color scheme to indicate different directions: the color black indicates east, yellow west, white north, and red stands for the south. Whatever the color association with directions, the protecting circle of a mandala is usually always drawn in red.

The reference to the five colors has been made also in an altogether different context, namely the process of the purification and empowering of sense organs. This occurs during meditation on goddess Tara:

- White for eyes
- Blue for ears
- Yellow for the nose
- Red for the tongue
- Green for the head.

--------- (Sadhana of Goddess Tara)

hum

 

 

 

 

In a spectacular visualization, the Tibetan tradition states that the syllable hum (part of Om Mani Padme Hum) although blue in color radiates five different colors. The dot (drop) on the crescent should be blue, the crescent is white, the head is yellow, the syllable 'ha' is red and the vowel 'u' is of green color.

Kalachakra-tantra

 

 

 

 

The four elements air, fire, water and earth are also identified in the Kalachakra-tantra with four different colors: blue (or black), red, white and yellow, respectively. These four elements are further depicted as semi-circular, triangular, circular, and square respectively. This is a precursor to Tantric imagery where color and geometry (not mutually exclusive) are the basic building blocks making up the whole edifice of Tantric symbolism.

 

 

 

Thus even though the context may vary, Buddhism identifies the significance of a few principal colors with their import being propounded in a variety of circumstances. These Colors are:

1. White
2. Black
3. Blue
4. Red
5. Yellow
6. Green

Saraswati

 

 

White

White is not necessarily thought of as a color. It occurs when the whole spectrum of light is seen together or when red, yellow and blue colors are mixed. Everything is present in white; nothing is hidden, secret or undifferentiated. Thus too Saraswati the goddess of learning and knowledge is shown white in color. Indeed knowledge and learning should not be hidden, but be open and available to all.

 

 

 

 

Tara

 

 

 

White color is thought to have a very cold quality, as in snow, or an extremely hot quality, such as a burning metal. Either can be life threatening and can remind us of death and the end of things. Fittingly thus the goddess Tara in her form which grants longevity to worshippers is depicted as white hued (White Tara). She also denotes purity, holiness and cleanliness and is 'the one who leads out beyond the darkness of bondage'.

 

 

Queen Maya - mother of Gautam Buddha

 

 

White is a color that both incorporates, and set things apart from the rainbow spectrum of everyday life.

The color white appears in numerous Buddhist episodes one of the well known being the birth of Buddha. Legend states that Queen Maya, mother of Buddha dreamt of a white elephant that flew through the air and touched her right side with its trunk. Now elephants are well known for their strength and intelligence, and are also associated with gray rain clouds and fertility. Indeed rainwater means that the seeds will be able to germinate and vegetative life will be able to spring forth. The white color of the majestic animal adds to this narrative an element of purity and immaculacy. In his former lives the Buddha had been an elephant several times, as mentioned in the Jatakas, or tales of his previous births. The white elephant is believed to have been the future Buddha himself who descended from heaven so that he could be born. It thus also represents for queen Maya a chaste birth, or the element of the triumph of spirit over the flesh.

 

Black

Black Tibetan Thangka Painting

 

Black signifies the primordial darkness. In the realm where it is dark, because there is no light reflected, there is also a sound which we cannot hear as it is so high on the scale of harmonics that it is inaccessible to the hearing capacity of any physical being. The wonders of creation may be manifested through the gradual slowing down of vibrations. The darkness becomes light, the shadows colors, the colors sound, and sound creates form.

One of the most interesting examples is represented by the so-called black paintings. The special genre of the black thangkas, the potent, highly mystical paintings portraying shimmering, brilliant forms appearing out of a translucent darkness, came to full fruition in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Black Tibetan Thangka Painting

 

 

 

 

Their aesthetic power derives from the contrast of powerful lines against a black background, making them one of the most effective means to appreciate the Tibetan mastery of line work.

 

 

Black Tibetan Thangka Painting

 

 

 

 

There is a range of variations in the technique, beyond the boldness of gold lines over a black background, to large figures and settings and a variety of colors, and orange, flamed haloes.

 

 

Black Tibetan Thangka Painting

 

 

 

 

Black paintings, a relatively late appearance in Buddhist art, have added yet another means by which artists can conjure up visions of mysterious transcendent worlds. Like the fierce deities who are often the subject matter of these thangkas, the blackness signifies the darkness of hate and ignorance as well as the role these qualities have to play in the awakening of clarity and truth.

 

 

Black Tibetan Thangka Painting

 

 

Thangkas with black background form a special category of contemplative paintings. They are a highly mystical and esoteric type, usually reserved for advanced practice. Black is the color of hate, transmuted by the alchemy of wisdom into compassion. Darkness represents the imminence of the absolute, the threshold of the experience. It is used for terrific ritual actions, the radical conquest of evil in all its forms - conquest not by annihilating, but by turning even evil into good. Thus, in the black paintings (T. nagtang) the black ground casts forth deities in luminous visions of translucent colors.

 

 

 

Hindu God Krishna

Blue

Eternity, truth, devotion, faith, purity, chastity, peace, spiritual and intellectual life, these are some of the associations that appear in many different cultures and express a general feeling that blue is the coolest, most detached and least "material" of all hues. The Virgin Mary and Christ are often shown wearing blue, and it is the attribute of many sky gods including Amun in Egypt, the Sumerian Great Mother, the Greek Zeus (Jupiter to the Romans), the Hindu Indra, Vishnu and his blue-skinned incarnation, Krishna.

 

Turquoise Pendant

 

 

 

 

In Buddhism both light (sky blue) and dark aspects of this mysterious color are important. The significance of the light shade is reflected in the supremacy of the semi-precious stone turquoise in the daily spiritual and religious life of the devout Buddhist, who holds various beliefs about this stone. In general terms turquoise is a symbol of the blue of the sea and the sky. Infinity in the sky speaks of the limitless heights of ascension. The stone is opaque as the earth, yet it lifts the spirit high, laying bare to us the wisdom of both the earth and the sky.

 

 

Continued in Page 2

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Article Reviews

  • This article is wonderful, and it was the only GOOD article I could find on the symbolism iof color in Buddhist Art. I thank you because it helped me to add some great finishing touches on my Art History paper...and dont worry, i did cite your work!
    - K.W.
    11th Nov 2004
  • I am an author who also runs an art site and I very much enjoyed this article. Nice job. Thank you.
    - LK Hunsaker
    6th Dec 2003
  • This article is excellent and contains precise information to understand the culture to which it refers. It is a very good job by Nitin Kumar and a very intersting policy of Exotic India Company to publish this kind of articles. Thank you.
    - Alda Saüde
    25th Mar 2003
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