Zodiac Signs of the Buddhist Maṇḍala

The zodiac signs as we presently know them were devised around the year 500 BCE in Mesopotamia based on an earlier model of eighteen signs. Within a few centuries the Greeks were deeply involved in the study of astronomy and astrology. Hellenistic astrology, which was the foundation for later European and Islamic traditions of astrology, was largely produced in Alexandria in Egypt starting around the second century BCE. Alexander died in 323 and Ptolemy took control of Egypt. The Ptolemaic Kingdom (305–30 BCE) ruled over Egypt until it came under Roman domination after the death of Cleopatra (69–30 BCE). The Romans subsequently took a deep interest in astrology and in the late Republic of the first century BCE it served as an exotic and alternative system of divination in competition with traditional Roman divination (augury and so forth). Although the chronology is somewhat unclear, between the second to fifth centuries CE, Hellenistic astrology was introduced to India and in various ways blended with the native systems of religious lore and astrology based on the twenty-seven or twenty-eight nakṣatra-s (lunar stations). 

The scientific astronomy of the Greeks was likewise introduced in these centuries. The tradition of Indian jyotiṣa produced eminent figures like Āryabhaṭa (b. 476) in the Gupta dynasty, whose work on astronomy entitled Āryabhaṭa-siddhānta circulated throughout even the Iranian Sāsānian dynasty (224–651). It seems, however, that Buddhist institutions did not participate much, if at all, in the development of Indian astronomy. Buddhist Mount Meru cosmology, particularly that outlined in Abhidharma literature, is unscientific and based on authoritative statements in scripture. The world is conceived of as a flat disc with four continents of different shapes surrounding an hourglass-shaped Mount Meru with the sun and moon circuiting around it propelled by winds (for some details on this see here).

Later on around the early eleventh century when the Kālacakra literature was being produced (the Śrī-kālacakra tantra and its commentary the Vimalaprabhā), Buddhist authors demonstrated knowledge of advanced observational astronomy. The Śrī-kālacakra (ninth section of chapter one) discusses astronomy for instance. It describes the corruption of siddhānta-s (astronomical treatises), which the commentary identifies as those of Brahma, Sauram, Yamanakam and Romakam. The former two are Indian, but so far as I know, not Buddhist. It seems in any case there were no notable specifically Buddhist schools of astronomy. The latter two mean Yavana (Ionian or “Greek”, or later meaning other foreign cultures) and Roman, which highlight their foreign origins. The Kālacakra also uses the tropical zodiac rather than sidereal zodiac, which is significant because originally it was only late Hellenistic traditions of astronomy that used the tropical zodiac while Indians continued using the sidereal model (see Edward Henning's article here). This use of the tropical zodiac in the early eleventh century in India could possibly indicate an Islamic source for that element in light of the vibrant tradition of astronomy in Baghdad and other such centers of learning which Indian traditions were aware of. Islamic learning was not at all remote from India in those years.

Although Indian Buddhist institutions had limited interest in astronomy for most of their history, they still took an interest in astrology. There are plenty of early Buddhist texts that display a passive belief in astrological determinism, which is a topic of a paper I recently wrote (it is presently under review for publication). Astrological determinism is the belief that events and qualities of people are somehow influenced or signaled by celestial bodies. The belief that certain days are auspicious and conducive to some favorable outcome is an example of this.

The Buddhist poṣadha (sangha gathering to recite the precepts and carry out business) occurs according to the Indian lunar (nakṣatra) calendar on specific days of the cycle which are deemed favorable (such as the full and new moons). Although one might assume it was merely a convenient way to keep track of time, the Mahāsāṃghika-vinaya (translated into Chinese in the early fifth century) has the Buddha stating that a specific day “agrees with the nakṣatra-s” which is effectively electional astrology (selecting a time to do something based on astrological considerations). The Mahāsāṃghika-vinaya – even in the early fifth century when the Chinese monk Faxian 法顯 picked up a copy in Pāṭaliputra (modern Patna) – was considered in ancient India to be the oldest recension of the vinaya and some modern scholarship agrees that this is likely true. That would mean the early Buddhist sangha believed in astrology or at least a system of electional astrology based on the nakṣatra calendar. Perhaps even the Buddha himself believed in astrology.

There were therefore few ideological or philosophical obstacles in Buddhism to adopting elements from foreign systems of astrology, such as the twelve zodiac signs, from around the sixth century onward. As we discussed earlier in an earlier post (see here), it seems the teacher of Śubhakarasiṃha 善無畏 (637–735), a certain Dharmagupta of Nālandā, was the original human author behind the Mahāvairocana-sūtra, an early text in the tantric tradition. Śubhakarasiṃha's commentary on the text briefly mentions the twelve zodiac signs or houses, but goes into no details. The *Garbhadhātu-maṇḍala associated with the text does however depict these figures around the perimeter and they are understood as deities, albeit minor ones.

The concept of star worship was by no means alien to Buddhism as the aforementioned Mahāsāṃghika-vinaya has an invocation of nakṣatra deities. I tend to think that the practice of astral magic was actually native to Magadha originally. Early Brahmanism on the other hand had a low opinion of astrologers and forbid them from attending sacrifices. The Manusmṛti (chapter three) has the following code:

162. A trainer of elephants, oxen, horses, or camels, he who subsists by astrology, a bird-fancier, and he who teaches the use of arms, ... (all these) must be carefully avoided.

Nevertheless, the importance of observing astrological considerations is highlighted:

277. He who performs it on the even (lunar) days and under the even constellations, gains (the fulfilment of) all his wishes; he who honours the manes on odd (lunar days) and under odd (constellations), obtains distinguished offspring.

Although astrologers might have been disparaged, the validity of astrology itself was not questioned. There are some examples in Buddhist literature of astrology's validity being attacked, but in general most of the texts that I have surveyed indicate a passive belief in astrology despite the monastic prohibitions against practicing astrology.

The zodiac signs as they were depicted in China are preserved in an important document in Japan, the Taizō zuzō 胎藏圖象, which visually represents the deities of the *Garbhadhātu-maṇḍala. These representations are based on those brought to Japan from China by Enchin 圓珍 (814–891). He copied them in 855 in Chang’an at Qinglong-si 青龍寺, a center of learning for esoteric Buddhism. It is believed that these icons were first produced by Śubhakarasiṃha. The icons therefore have been recopied several times by Japanese and Chinese hands, but assuming they were faithful to the originals, we perhaps have a set of zodiac icons as they were generally envisioned by Śubhakarasiṃha, who represents the late seventh century Nālandā tradition of Buddhism, though at the same time we must concede that the icons as we presently have them show Central Asian and Chinese influences. One might even imagine that Śubhakarasiṃha had the icons in some manuscript from India and then asked a local artist to reproduce them. Not being an art historian myself, I will not make any judgments about this and will just present them here.

1. Aries - Meṣa

2. Taurus - Vṛṣabha

3. Gemini - Mithuna

4. Cancer - Karkaṭa

5. Leo - Siṃha

6. Virgo - Kanyā

7. Libra - Tulā

8. Scorpio - Vṛścika

9. Sagittarius - Dhanus

10. Capricorn - Makara

11. Aquarius - Kumbha

12. Pisces - Mīna

The depiction of Capricorn as a Makara is interesting. Monier-Williams defines makara as follows:

m. a kind of sea-monster (sometimes confounded with the crocodile , shark , dolphin &c ; regarded as the emblem of kāma-deva [cf. mokara-ketana &c below] or as a symbol of the 9th arhat of the present avasarpiṇī ; represented as an ornament on gates or on head-dresses).

As I mentioned earlier, the zodiac signs were treated as deities and there are also mantras for addressing them collectively with other astral deities. It should be noted that they were minor figures. However, it is interesting that in Buddhist literature they are regarded as deities alongside the planets because in the Greco-Egyptian tradition of astral magic, so far as I know, only the planets are regarded as gods (this was carried over into Latin which is why we still in English say Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). 

In Hellenistic astrology, the zodiac houses serve as domiciles which planets rule over, but in the associated magical tradition, at least as it is preserved in extant papyri, I am unaware of zodiac signs being treated as sentient gods. The nakṣatra-s had already long been regarded as sentient gods for many centuries in Magadha, so transforming the zodiac signs into such figures was perhaps a natural progression.

Gaṇeśa and Avalokitēśvara

The deity Gaṇeśa is ubiquitous in Hindu culture. In modern India and Nepal one can easily find shrines to him and his portrait is readily seen in shops and in homes. He is generally understood as a bringer of fortune. In more technical theological terms, he is the creator of obstacles (vighna-kartā) and their remover (vighna-hartā), though my impression is that modern Hindu traditions see him as entirely benevolent. He is normally depicted as fat and dwarf-like with his rat mount at his feet or nearby. His history in Hinduism is quite colorful and interesting, but less known is his presence in Buddhism. He is seen in East Asian, Tibetan and SE Asian Buddhist cultures. 

In the materials I’ve surveyed so far, I have not seen the elephant-headed deity referred to as Gaṇeśa in Buddhist literature, which is likely because that name was a fairly late development in classical Indian history. In Buddhist literature he is normally referred to by his historically older appellations of Gaṇapati or Vināyaka.

In Buddhist India it seems there were mixed and conflicting interpretations of Vināyaka, which is demonstrated both in the archaeological record of India and in the relevant literature translated into Chinese during the Tang (618–907) and early Northern Song (960–1127) periods.

I remember a few years ago when I was visiting the museum at Nālandā in India I saw a statue on display in which Gaṇeśa was being trampled upon by a Buddhist deity.

It was surprising at the time, but later I read Giovanni Verardi’s Hardship and Downfall of Buddhism in India in which he explains how the representation of violence in Buddhist artwork, which started in the ninth century, actually reflected real violent struggles between two competing socio-political models: Buddhism and Brahmanism. He argues that the violence one sees in Vajrayāna iconography emerged in an atmosphere of interreligious war and bloodshed, though many scholars – particularly in India which is often ideologically committed to the notion of India always having enjoyed interreligious harmony – are unwilling to accept this.

A few years later I had the opportunity to sit down and have tea with the famous Indian scholar Lokesh Chandra (b. 1927) in New Delhi. I asked him what he thought of Verardi’s thesis and he commented that there is no evidence of violent conflict between Brahmins and Buddhists. I imagine many Indian scholars would also disagree with Verardi’s conclusions.

Returning to the images in question, we might look at the following specimen from Bihar, dating to the tenth century. It shows Aparājitā subjugating an elephant-headed god, which could be the Purāṇic Gaṇeśa or a general vināyaka (a class of malignant being associated with obstacles) rather than the Vināyaka who appears in Buddhist Tantric literature as a single deity. In either case, it does demonstrate that such an elephant-headed figure was to be subjugated by a Buddhist deity and presumably treated as a tīrthika god.

Here is another specimen:

Despite these representations, Buddhist literature translated into Chinese speaks of a Vināyaka that is regarded either as a malignant being (or beings) or as a deity who is sympathetic to Buddhism and associated with Avalokitēśvara Bodhisattva.

One early example of the former understanding is presented in the Mahāvairocana-sūtra 大日經 (T 848), which dates to sometime in the early to mid-seventh century (see here for details). It mentions vināyakas 毘那夜迦 alongside other evil beings who are to be dispersed through the power of mantra. The text’s commentary by Śubhakarasiṃha 善無畏 (637–735) and Yixing 一行 (683–727) defines vināyaka 毘那也迦 as hindrances which are produced from a deluded mind (從妄想心生). This indicates that vināyaka was originally regarded as negative in early Tantra. The deity appears in the accompanying Garbhadhātu-maṇḍala 胎藏界曼荼羅. He is represented with an elephant head, holding a hatchet and radish:

There is another common depiction of Vināyaka in East Asia, which is a pair of elephant-headed figures embracing one another. They are understood to be male and female. The female is an emanation of Avalokitēśvara Bodhisattva. 

I am presently unaware of any precedent for this in Indian archaeology (though I would be happy if someone pointed it out). This depiction became quite common in Japan and anyone involved in Shingon or Tendai will immediately recognize the figure as Kangiten 歡喜天.

There is a story behind this image which is preserved in the Japanese Tendai Asaba shō 阿娑縛抄, which is a compendium of Buddhist iconography compiled by Shōchō 承澄 (1205–1281). It is entitled the “Secret Legend of Vināyaka” 毗那夜迦密傳 (see Taishō zuzō 大正圖像, vol. 9: 486a). It reads as follows.

有山名毗那夜迦山,此云象頭山,又名障礙山,其中多有毗那夜迦,其聖名歡喜,與其眷屬無量眾,俱受大自在天敕,欲往世界奪眾生氣,而作障難,是摩醯首羅來歸佛法體也。爾時,觀自在菩薩大悲薰心,以慈善根力,化為毗那夜迦婦女身,往彼歡喜王所。于時彼王見此婦女,慾心熾盛,欲觸彼毗那夜迦女,與抱其身。于時障女形不肯受之,彼王即作愛敬,於是,彼女言,我雖似障女,從昔以來,能受佛教,得袈裟衣服,汝若實欲觸我身者,可隨我教,即如我至于盡未來世能為護法不? 又從我護諸行人,莫作障礙不? 又依我已後,莫作毒不耶 ? 汝受如此教者,為親友。時毗那夜迦言,我依緣今汝等,從今已後,隨汝等語,修護佛法。時毗那夜迦女含笑而相抱。

There was a mountain named Vināyaka Mountain. This was called ‘Elephant Head Mountain” or otherwise called ‘Obstacle Mountain’. There were many vināyaka-s there. Their sage was called *Nandi, who together with an immeasurable retinue received the commands of Mahēśvaradeva. He wanted to go into the world and steal the *prāṇa of beings and create obstacles. Mahēśvara took refuge in the Buddhadharma. At that time, Avalokitēśvara Bodhisattva [possessed] a mind perfumed with great compassion. He transformed into a vināyaka maiden with the power of compassionate and virtuous roots before going to *King Nandi. Then the king saw this maiden and became engulfed in passionate desire. He wanted to touch the vināyaka maiden and embrace her body. Then [Avalokitēśvara] in the form of a vināyaka maiden would not allow it. The king fell in love with her. The maiden thus said, “Although I appear to be a vināyaka maiden, long ago I received the Buddha’s teachings and acquired the kāṣāya garments. If you truly want to touch my body, you should follow my instructions. Will you be able to protect the Dharma as I have for all time to come? Furthermore, will you not create obstacles for practitioners whom I protect? Furthermore, will you not make poisons after you follow me? If you accept these instructions, we will be friends.” Vināyaka then said, “I have now met you in accordance with conditions. From now on I will follow your words, practicing and protecting the Buddhadharma.” The vināyaka maiden smiled and the two embraced.

I feel the Chinese here to be quite unorthodox and I suspect it is Chinese composed by a Japanese hand. This does not necessarily negate the possibility of it having an earlier Chinese precedent, but given that it is a ‘secret legend’ it might have been orally transmitted. 

There is another account in one of the sādhana texts specifically related to Vināyaka, which is attributed to Śubhakarasiṃha (大聖歡喜雙身大自在天毘那夜迦王歸依念誦供養法; T 1270). It states that Mahēśvara and his wife Umā produced 3000 children. King Vināyaka was the first of 1500 “on the left”. He carried out evil deeds, leading 107,000 vināyaka-s. His sibling (sister?), whose name appears to be something like *Śanayaka 扇那夜迦 is virtuous and an emanation of Avalokitēśvara. In order to tame Vināyaka they become “siblings, man and wife” 兄弟夫婦 (an incestuous union?), expressed in the form of an embracing pair. Again the Chinese is quite strange and I suspect it was composed by a Japanese author and not Śubhakarasiṃha. However, it does refer to another text and state the story behind this union is related there. I am unable to identify this text, but my tentative conclusion would be that these two accounts were based on an earlier Indian text translated into Chinese at some point. The Gaṇapati Strotra (translated into Tibetan as Tshogs kyi bDag po la bsTod pa) addresses Gaṇapati as an emanation of Avalokitēśvara, so this association between the two deities definitely has an Indian precedent.

All of the material mentioned above indicates that Buddhists in India throughout the centuries had disparate and conflicting interpretations of the deity. Gaṇapati was originally neither Vedic nor Buddhist. His origins are a debated topic (some even suggest an Egyptian inspiration). Regardless of his origins, he clearly became a popular deity after the fifth century and thereafter authors of Purāṇas and Buddhist sūtras made efforts to accommodate and incorporate him into their pantheons. He even came to have a place in Jainism.