Meditating Ascetics

Meditating Monks, Mystics, Sages and Ascetics.  Relief sculptures of monks, mystics, sages and ascetics praying or meditating are an especially delightful aspect of Angkorian art.

Angkorian MysticsThe figures pictured on this page were taken at the temples of Preah Khan and Ta Prohm, both late 12th century constructions belonging to the Bayon architectural style of the Mahayana Buddhist king Jayavarman VII.  The figures themselves are not necessarily Buddhist, however; they are either Buddhist or Shaivite in inspiration.  The following historical factors make it difficult to identify any particular figure with a particular school of theology or meditation:

  • The temples were not built in one throw, and show evidence of having been constructed in stages, perhaps by a series of architects who did not follow one and the same religious conception.
  • The Buddhism of Jayavarman VII was syncretic and incorporated the cult of Shiva.  The king may well have believed that Buddha and Shiva are one and the same.
  • Later Khmer monarchs altered and added to the king’s temples after the empire reverted to Hinduism in the 13th century.
  • Later still, the Cambodian empire turned to Theravada Buddhism, with Shaivism persisting as a minority religion for some time.  When the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan came to Angkor at the end of the 13th century, he observed a distinction between the organized religions of Theravada Buddhism and Shaivism (the latter of which he identified with Taoism).

Some general rules of thumb may be identified for “reading” these figures:

  • In the art of the Bayon, Shiva and his followers are depicted as bearded and as wearing hats; Buddha is depicted as beardless and bare-headed.  Hence, it can be concluded that bearded, hat-wearing praying or meditating figures are Shaivite ascetics.
  • Statues of the Bayon period show the Buddha, or the king himself, seated with his hands folded together in his lap in the gesture (mudra) of meditation.  The Buddha and the king are not depicted with their hands in the position of prayer, that is to say, with the palms placed together in the middle of the chest and the fingertips pointing upward.  Followers of Shiva, however, are frequently shown worshipping the god with their palms placed together in the gesture of prayer.  Shiva and his followers are not depicted making the gesture of meditation.

The captions below are taken from the texts of Hinduism, and serve to illustrate the availability to the Angkorian Khmer of Hindu religious doctrine on the issues of asceticism and meditation. The links below are to source texts at sacred-texts.com.

Asceticism in Hinduism.  In the great Indian epic Mahabharata, the stories of which were familiar to the medieval Khmer, asceticism is a means for attaining spiritual power and merit, and a prerequisite for ultimate insight.  (The links to the stories are to the online version of the Mahabharata at sacred-texts.com.)

  • Power: According to the epic, the spiritual power obtained by great ascetics can include the ability to grant boons or to impose curses.  Unchecked ascetic power can express itself in intense heat, sometimes so intense as to threaten the cosmic order itself.  In numerous stories of the Mahabharata, the sky-god Indra becomes alarmed by the ascetic practices of some great sage, and then devises a strategy for interrupting those practices, for example by having a beautiful Apsara distract the sage from his routine, or by bribing the sage with a boon.
    • The story of the birth of the sage Sarasvata:  It seems that a great ascetic named Dadhica was so excessive in his practice of austerity, that Indra became very fearful, especially since no bribe was sufficient to lure Dadhica from his path.  Finally, Indra sent a beautiful Apsara named Alambusa to provide temptation.  Alambusa appeared to Dadhica as he was engaged in religious penance on the banks of the river Sarasvati.  When Dadhica beheld the Apsara, his seed fell into the river, who in turn received it into her womb.  In time, the river gave birth to a son, who was named Sarasvata.  For his part, Dadhica continued to live a life of great ascetic power, until Indra said that he would need the powerful sage’s bones as material from which to fashion weapons for fighting the Asuras.  For this purpose, Dadhica gladly surrendered his life, and Indra used the weapons he fashioned from the sage’s bones to win many a combat.
    • The story of the Apsara Varga illustrates the power of an ascetic to impose a curse.  The hero Arjuna decided to take a swim in a sacred body of water along the banks of which lived many devoted ascetics.  As soon as he entered the water, a great crocodile seized him by the leg and tried to drag him under.  Arjuna, however, wrestled the crocodile onto land, where much to his surprise it metamorphed into the Apsara Varga.  The maiden explained that she had been cursed to live as a crocodile by an ascetic whom she had attempted to distract while he was meditating.  She had begged the ascetic for mercy, and mollified he had commuted the curse to last only for a period of 100 years, at the end of which period she would be liberated by a hero.
  • Merit: Zealous asceticism is a source of merit in the eyes of the highest and most powerful gods, and can be rewarded with the granting of special boons.
    • The story of the boons received from Brahma by Ravana, the ten-headed lord of the Rakshasas, and his brothers Vibhishana and Kumbakarna: The three Rakshasa princes engaged in austerities of the most severe kind.  Ravana, “supporting life by means of air alone and surrounded by the five sacred fires and absorbed in meditation, remained standing on one leg for a thousand years.”  Kumbakarna kept his head downward and restricted his diet; and Vibhishana fasted, ate only dry leaves, and engaged in meditation.  “And at the close of a thousand years, the invincible ten-headed one, cutting off his own heads, offered them as a sacrifice to the sacred fire. And at this act of his, the Lord of the Universe was pleased with him. And then Brahma, personally appearing to them, bade them desist from those austerities and promised to grant boons unto every one of them. And the adorable Brahma said, I am pleased with you, my sons! Cease now from these austerities and ask boons of me!”  Ravana chose invulnerability to all enemies except those of the human race; Vibhishana chose never to waver from the path of righteousness; and Kumbakarna chose long-lasting sleep.
    • The story of the ascetic Trita:  Ascetics one and all, Trita and his two brothers went walking at night, when they encountered a fearsome wolf.  Fleeing from the wolf, Trita tripped and fell into a deep hole on the banks of the Sarasvati River.  His brothers, seizing the opportunity to dispossess Trita of their shared property, left him at the bottom of the hole and went away.  Trita, however, used his ascetic powers to create a virtual sacrifice in his imagination.  He imagined the presence of water and the sacrificial fire.  He imagined a creeper he found in the hole to be the Soma plant.  He mentally converted the imagined water into sacrificial butter.  Mentally drinking the imagined Soma, he completed the virtual sacrifice. In so doing,Trita generated enormous power, and acquired the unprecedented ability to create additional gods.  Alarmed, the existing gods propitiated him by joining in his sacrifice and granting him a boon.  Trita modestly settled for the boon of being released from his captivity in the hole.  At his request, the River Sarasvati entered into the hole, and gently raised him on her waves.  Upon exiting the hole, Trita sought out his brothers, and repaid their treachery by cursing them to range the forest in the shape of fierce wolves.
  • Insight: Ascetism is a means to the end of ultimate insight into the reality of things, in that it mortifies the urge to seek fulfillment through wordly means.

Here is a video about a carved pedestal from Champa, the Indianized kingdom that was Angkor’s neighbor to the East, showing scenes from the lives of Hindu ascetics.

Related pages on this website: 3 Preah Khan; 4 Ta Prohm; 5 Bayon; 6 Apsaras (celestical nymphs sent by the gods to distract meditating sages); 20 Stories from the Mahabharata (the ascetic Vipula protects a lady from Indra).



From the Bhagavad Gita: “Excluding (from his mind) all external objects of sense, directing the visual glance between the brows, mingling (into one) the upward and the downward life-breaths and making them pass through the nostrils, the devotee, who has restrained the senses, the mind, and the understanding, being intent on emancipation, and who is freed from desire, fear, and wrath, is emancipated, indeed.”

(left, center, right) Preah KhanFrom the Mahabharata: “The mind, which constitutes the sixth [sense], when thus restrained, seeks to flash out like the capricious and flighty lightning moving in frolic among the clouds. As a drop of water on a (lotus) leaf is unstable and moves about in all directions, even so becomes the yogin’s mind when first fixed on the path of meditation.”

From the Garuda Purana: “One should meditate in order upon the chakras, at the root of the generative organ; in the region of the pelvis; in the navel; in the heart; in the throat; between the eyebrows; at the top of the head.” “Then he should meditate on the Kundalini, as moving upwards and downwards, as making a tour of the six chakras, placed in three-and-a-half coils.”

(left, center) Preah Khan; (right) Ta ProhmFrom the Mahabharata: “If the good man succeeds in concentrating the mind on the soul, he then, habituated to exclusive meditation, beholds the Supreme soul in his own soul. Self-restrained, and always concentrated, and with all his senses completely conquered, the man of cleansed soul, in consequence of such complete concentration of mind, succeeds in beholding the soul by the soul.”

From the Mahabharata: “Devoid of desire and possessed of a tranquil mind, the person in Yoga is never shaken by pain and sorrow and fear, the terrible effects that flow from attachment and affection. Weapons never pierce him; death does not exist for him. Nowhere in the world can be seen any one that is happier than he. Having adequately concentrated his soul, he lives steadily on himself. Turning off decrepitude and pain and pleasure, he sleeps in comfort.”

From the Mahabharata: “By penances he attains to purity of soul, and self-restraint, and cessation of aversion and desire. Freed from attachment and delusion, above the influence of all pairs of opposites (such as heat and cold, joy and sorrow, etc.), he never grieves and never suffers himself to be drawn towards worldly objects. He does not regard himself as the actor nor as the enjoyer or sufferer of the consequences of his acts. He never, through selfishness, fixes his mind on anything.”

From the Vishnu Purana: “The mind of man is the cause both of his bondage and his liberation: its addiction to the objects of sense is the means of his bondage; its separation from objects of sense is the means of his freedom. The sage who is capable of discriminative knowledge must therefore restrain his mind from all the objects of sense, and therewith meditate upon the supreme being, who is one with spirit, in order to attain liberation; for that supreme spirit attracts to itself him who meditates upon it, and who is of the same nature, as the loadstone attracts the iron by the virtue which is common to itself and to its products.”

From the Vishnu Purana: “The sage who would bring his mind into a fit state for the performance of devout contemplation must be devoid of desire, and observe invariably continence, compassion, truth, honesty, and disinterestedness: he must fix his mind intently on the supreme Brahma, practising holy study, purification, contentment, penance, and self-control.”

(left, center, right, below) Ta ProhmFrom the Vishnu Purana: “The expression ‘mine,’ which I have been accustomed to use, is untruth, and cannot be otherwise declared by those who know what is to be known. The words ‘I’ and ‘mine’ constitute ignorance; but practice is influenced by ignorance. Supreme truth cannot be defined, for it is not to be explained by words.”

The Questions of King Milinda (the link is to the English translation by T.W. Rhys Davids at sacred-texts.com) is a work of Buddhist literature that originated in northern India shortly after the year 0.  Though disregarded in the land of its origin, the work became influential in the Buddhism of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.  The Questions is structured as a series of dialogues between the skeptical Indian-Greek monarch Milinda (the historical Menander) and the Indian Buddhist sage Nagasena.  Milinda raises questions about Buddhist doctrine and points out apparent inconsistencies in the Budhhist tradition, and Nagasena answers with arguments, explanations, and similes.  In the end, Milinda’s doubts and objections are overcome, and he declares himself satisfied with Nagasena’s responses.

According to Nagasena, the purposes of meditation include the following: Meditation preserves the one who meditates and gives him long life, power, and freedom from faults; it destroys discontent, fear, sloth, lust, ill-will, dullness, pride, and doubt; it gives peace, joy, delight, happiness and gravity; it makes the one meditating worthy of reverence; it shows him the transitory nature of compounded things; it puts an end to rebirth and culminates in renunication.  “Just as the tortoise swimming on the water, when he raises his head and catches sight of someone, immediately sinks and dives into the depths, lest he should be seen again; so the earnest monk, when evil inclinations fall upon him, must sink and dive down into the waters of meditation, lest those evil inclinations should catch sight of him again.”

The topics of meditation, says Nagasena, include the following: “The idea of the impermanence (of every thing and of every being), the idea of the absence of any abiding principle (any soul in any thing or any being), the idea of the impurity and the idea of the danger connected with the body, the idea of getting rid of evil dispositions, the idea of freedom from passion, the idea of peace, the idea of dissatisfaction with the things of the world, the idea of the transitory nature of all conditions, the idea of ecstatic trance, the ideas of a corpse in the various stages of decay, the ideas of a place of execution in all its various horrors, the idea of love to all beings, the idea of pity for all beings, the idea of sympathy with all beings, the idea of equanimity in all the changing circumstances of life, the idea of death, and the idea of the body.”