Who is Avalokiteshvara?

The word Avalokiteshvara has been derived from the Sanskrit language. In Sanskrit, Ishwara means the lord, god, or the almighty and the loka means the world. Ava means to look down and the verb's past participle form is lokita. Thus, one can figure out that the combined meaning of Avalokiteshvara is the god who's looking down at the world. Of course, with compassionate eyes and attitude.

In Hinduism, his name itself reflects the nature of  Lord Shiva. In fact, many believe that the lord Shiva himself is Avalokiteshvara. As the Hindu philosophy views the almighty/Shiva as omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient, nothing is devoid of Avalokiteshvara either.

Avalokiteshvara thangka

The images of Avalokiteshvara are always captivating due to the reflections of calmness, compassion, and generosity.

Click to view Avalokiteshvara thangka prints

He is highly revered in several religious cultures including Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism. Defined as either male or female, he quite reigns among Boddhisattvas because of its essence.

In Tibet, Avalokiteshvara is believed to be a male and called Chenrezig. In China, he is known as a goddess named Guanyin or Guanshiyin. Guanyin, who is also popular in Thai, Vietnamese and Korean communities, is regarded as an embodiment of compassion, just like in other Buddhist cults. As per gender tags, his images differ; slightly to drastically.

Avalokiteshvara iconography

The iconography of 4 armed Avalokiteshvara

Avalokiteshvara is dressed in silken robes, to depict the Indian royal look. He wears various jeweled ornaments, such as bracelets, necklaces, anklets, etc. They symbolize his mastery of the perfections of generosity and morality. As a prince, he wears his black hair long, upper half knotted high on his head, and the rest flowing down to his shoulders. Just as a prince, this bodhisattva is the spiritual son and heir to the king-like buddhas. Upon his head is a five jeweled crown. It represents the five buddha families. He is seated within a transparent aura in a peaceful scene of hills and lakes.

He gazes upon the beings with heartfelt compassion. He wishes that they are separated from all kinds of mental and physical sufferings.

Click to view original Avalokiteshvara Thangka

He is a highly cherished deity in Buddhism. Both Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions celebrate Chenrezig equally. A book called 'Buddhist Fasting Practice', where the writer elaborates on the deity and Nyungne fasting method, introduces him better.


Who is the 1000-armed Avalokiteshavara

He is especially favored in Tibet. Different Buddhist cultures revere many other forms of him. For instance, there are two-armed red Avalokiteshvara, sitting Avalokiteshvara, four-armed red Avalokiteshvara, four-armed white Avalokiteshvara, Standing Avalokiteshvara and among others.

In Tibetan language, Chenrezig means gazing at something with compassion. He is said to have compassion for all the Buddhas in him and when he looks out with that deep concern to others, one is bound to feel moved. We can see that his images are just so calm and compassionate. Among all his forms, the thousand-armed and eleven-faced Chenrezig is considered the central manifestation.

The book beautifully describes that all sentient beings are inherently Chenrezig in nature. Unlike other gods or deities who rather 'stay higher' and shower blessings, the stories of thousand-armed and eleven headed  Avalokiteshvara compels one to feel connected on the personal level. The helplessness and anxiety, when he was unable to fully address sufferings of sentient beings, have been discussed well in many other texts as well. He displays this deep desire to help out the sentient beings, and in the process, he receives those many heads and arms. "While the absolute Chenrezig is the embodiment of all Buddhas' kindness and compassion, Chenrezig is also the inherent potential love and compassion of all sentient beings," the book points out.

Why is 1000 armed Avalokiteshvara loved?

Scholars have defined him in different ways in different texts. There's an interesting Buddhist story about 'Thousand armed Avalokiteshvara'. It is said that the dozens of hands symbolize the commitment of the lord not to take a rest until he has freed all sentient beings from the illusions of the world or the samsara/sansara.

1000 armed Avalokiteshvara

As he's very compassionate and determined, he always notices that there are many unhappy creatures around. And as he struggles to comprehend the requirements of so many creatures, the story says that, his head splits into eleven pieces. Seeing this plight, Amitabha (Avalokiteshvara is also regarded as the manifestation of self-born eternal Buddha Amitabha) offers him eleven heads. Those heads are to hear the cries of the sufferings.

Hedeeply feels the tears and the sufferings that make him go on with aids. But then his two arms get shattered into pieces. Amitabha reappears to help out Avalokiteshvara. This time, Avalokiteshvara is given a thousand arms to ensure that he provides sufficient aid to the needy. Overall, it's a story of sensitivity and compassion.

The Origin of Thousand Armed Avalokiteshvara 

In one sutra, Shakyamuni himself declared that Avalokiteshvara had a special relationship with the snowy land of Tibet. He prophesied that in the future he would subdue its barbarous inhabitants and lead them along the path to enlightenment. In a vow by Avalokiteshvara, he stated his compassionate intention:

“May I be able to establish in emancipation all the living beings in the barbaric Land of Snow, where beings are so hard to discipline and none of the buddhas of the three times has stepped... May I be able to mature and emancipate them, each according to his way? May that gloomy, barbaric country become bright, like an island of precious jewels."

Shakyamuni related how Avalokiteshvara took miraculous birth. A shaft of light emanated from the heart of Amitabha Buddha and transformed into a radiant lotus. Within this lotus, the four-armed Avalokiteshvara rose. Amitabha predicted that this aspect will subdue the Tibetans.

In front of Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara repeated his vow to work tirelessly for the welfare of all beings. With the compassionate motivation that he declared,

"Until I relieve all living beings, may I never, even for a moment, feel like giving up the purpose of others for my own peace and happiness. If I should ever think about my own happiness, may my head be cracked into ten pieces...and may my body be split into a thousand pieces, like the petals of a lotus"

Thereafter he entered a profound state of meditative absorption. He remained uninterrupted for a very long time. He recited the six-syllable mantra, directing his compassionate intention to all sentient beings. He wished that all of them would be free of their suffering. 

Finally, he arose from his deep absorption and surveyed the Land of Snow. He was bitterly disappointed to realize that he had helped only a small number of beings. The vast majority remained still trapped within their delusions.

In desperation, he called out, "What is the use? I can do nothing for them. It is better for me to be happy and peaceful myself."

As soon as he uttered these words, by the power of his previous vow, his head split into ten pieces. His body split into a thousand, causing him unbearable pain.

He cried out to Amitabha, who immediately appeared before him. The Buddha of the West looked at him and told him not to despair.

"All circumstances come from cooperative causes

Conditioned at the moment of intent.

Every fortune which arises to anyone

Results from his own former wish.

Your powerful expression of supplication

Was praised by all the buddhas;

In a moment of  time,

The truth will certainly appear."

Amitabha restored his broken body. He figured his torn flesh into a thousand hands, each with its own wisdom eye. He transformed the shattered pieces of his head into ten faces. Among these faces, 9 were peaceful and one wrathful. Now, he could look in all directions. Finally, to show how pleased he was with his Avalokiteshvara, he crowned the bodhisattva's ten faces with a replica of his own.

Thus, the eleven-faced and the one-thousand armed aspect of Avalokiteshvara formed.

Avalokiteshvara as a Bodhisattva

Bodhisattva is a common term in Buddhism. Bodhisattva basically means a person who's on the path to spiritual awakening or being enlightened who then seeks to help out others realize the same energy. Shedding light on thousand-armed and eleven-head Avalokiteshvara, the book says that he 'had the incredible enlightened aspiration to liberate all sentient beings' just like a Bodhisattva wants to. This led him to vow that he'd keep on helping out others and not attain enlightenment before all are really saved or rescued from the vile of samsara. This implies that a true Bodhisattva always puts others first or others' sufferings first. Unless others are on the path of purification or awakening, a true Bodhisattva is not going to feel relaxed. Thus, he leads one to believe that compassion is the real or the core essence of all values felt and understood by living beings.

In order to meet his goal, Avalokiteshvara worked hard. He had made a statement public that he would not break his vow to save all fellow sentient beings. And he is said to have taken the matter so deeply that he also said 'may my body fall into a thousand pieces if I break the vow'.

Avalokiteshvara 'drops' the Sun and Moon

Yet another interesting story talks about the mystery of the sun, moon, and Avalokiteshvara. Karandavyuha Sutra of the Mahayana account says that the sun and moon were born from his eyes. Lord Shiva, Brahma, and Narayana are also said to have taken birth from his body parts. While Shiva came from his brow, Bhrama came from the shoulders and Narayana came from his heart.

'All those powerful lords' simply coming out from his body speaks sufficiently about the unmatched grandeur. What's remarkable is the separate domains of the three lords as believed by Hindus. While Bhrama is considered the creator of the world, lord Bishnu is described as the provider. Similarly, Shiva is believed to be the destroyer. The Hindu faith hands over the major tasks of creating, sustaining and destroying the worldly entities to those three, and they themselves turning 'small' in front of Avalokiteshvara does give room for followers of the respective lords to debate endlessly.

Even otherwise, we can see the followers of Lord Shiva and Lord Bishnu locking horns to prove their 'masters' as the greater one. While the seekers of Bishnu are called Vaishnavs, those of Shiva is called Shaiva. Both of them prefer typical attire and put tika on their forehead differently. Interestingly, Bharama does not seem to compete in the row.

Likewise, the goddess of knowledge Saraswati came from his teeth and winds came out from his mouth. The earth came to existence from his feet while the sky came from his stomach. Thus, the text suggests that the supreme creator is none other than Avalokiteshvara.

How Avalokiteshvara's tears created Tara

In Tibetan Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara is a very important deity. In Vajrayana teachings, he's called a Buddha. According to the stories, powerful goddess Tara actually came into existence by a single drop of tear shed by Avalokiteshvara.

The story unfolds like this – The tear fell to the ground creating a lake. A lotus opened in the lake revealing Tara.

There's yet another version of the story. It is said that Tara's birthplace is nowhere but the heart of Avalokiteshvara. She emerged from the heart only.

Click to view original Tara thangka.

Avalokiteshvara's influence in Tibet

According to some texts, he 'entered' Tibet in the 7th century. The land since then believed that the force reincarnates in each Dalai Lama. No wonder, this has made the people of Tibet relate to Avalokiteshvara very deeply. Let's say, it is in the soil of Tibet. The people define him as the manifestation of immense compassion and selflessness and vow to follow the same foot step. 'Om Mane Padme Hung' resonates in Tibet so overwhelmingly that can be regarded as the song of Tibet.

Avalokiteshvara thangka

Avalokiteshvara Mantra

According to Mahayana Buddhism, the six-syllable mantra or chanting:

Om Mane Padme Hum

The mantra has a lot to do with Avalokiteshvara.  And the popularity and craze of this very mantra is not limited to Buddhists alone. Anyone who listens to this soothing sound is found to be quite addicted to it. Buddhist temples and Gumbas often play this music just to draw huge numbers of admirers around. Many people chant this mantra with prayer beads in their hand. Reciting it with full concentration and faith is believed to transform a person. Basically the Tibetan Buddhism quite emphasizes it.

According to 'Karandavyushsutra', 'Om Mane Padme Hum' is so powerful mantra that reciting it with full concentration on the sound can help one attain eight hundred shamadhis.  

Similarly, there is another mantra related to Avalokiteshvara – 'Om Arolik Svaha'. This mantra is quite common in East Asia or East Asian Buddhism and is pronounced differently in different countries.

Avalokiteshvara's struggles

The story is very interesting. Avalokiteshvara works round the clock to free sentient beings from suffering and delusions. He goes on and on to achieve the goal. Then a time comes when he feels that he might have succeeded. He says to himself – 'Now the numbers of sentient beings must have gone down drastically'. He then uses his special power, looks at things with his wise eyes. It is seen that the collective karma in the world was not impressive. There were conflicting emotions and irritations all around. Confusion, suffering had rocked the world. He realizes that the number of sentient beings on earth had not gone down. This disappoints him. It seems to him that the vows he took were too challenging. Saving everyone from the delusions and sorrows was not easy. He feels bad and demoralized. He feels hopeless. At this point, as he doubts his own commitment, and develops the sense that he broke his vow, his body falls and it turns into pieces.

Now appears his guru Amitabha Buddha in the scene. To pull him out of the tragedy, Amitabha Buddha starts motivating him. Terming the giving up by Chenrezig as 'a very unfortunate thing' Amitabha Buddha asks/orders him to develop an even greater will to help out sentient beings. According to the book, Amitabha Buddha says, "It is unfortunate that you gave up your vow like that. Now I must ask you to make an even greater commitment to liberate all sentient beings."

The guru's advice or order is accepted by Chenrezig. Upon this, Amitabha Buddha blesses him with a healthier body with eleven faces and one thousand arms. The greater power or stronger will is meant to help out sentient beings with a heightened level of compassion. Worshippers believe that eleven-faced and thousand armed Avalokiteshvara is since then doing it for the benefit of all beings. And more so, when someone seeks his blessings. He also has one thousand eyes which represent one thousand Buddhas.

The story behind those many faces and arms of Avalokiteshvara is likely to make one humble. A direct relation has been shown between one's strength and the responsibility one is supposed to undertake. If someone in society is enjoying greater power or possessing greater wealth, which obviously comes from nowhere but the same universe, that person should be reminded that he or she has to pay back to the world at the same level. The stronger are expected to help the weaker ones around them reasonably. And this, not for the sake of the weaker lots; but for the sake of justice. Hence, the story of Amitabh Buddha and Chenrezig is all inspiring and promotes the sense of justice.

Buddhist texts say that the one thousand arms of Avalokiteshvara symbolize how he performs his enlightened activity as a universal monarch in thousand different ways. Many other texts portray him as the supreme master only. There are stories that say that the lords like Bhrama, Bishnu, and Maheshwar came from him. The three lords are otherwise regarded as the creator, provider, and destroyer in order to keep life going in the universe. Similarly, his eleven faces symbolize his journey in the path of the eleven bhumis.



1 comment

Samyak Halder

Samyak Halder

It’s interesting how the 1000 armed Avalokiteshwara looks very similar to the iconography or Lord Mahasadashiva (A form of the supreme lord, Sadashiva)

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