Gold in Buddhist Color Symbolism
An important color in Buddhist mysticism is gold. The statues prepared in the Tibetan regions are often painted with gold. Not only the faces but often the complete figure is gilded over with pure gold.
Indeed, the practice of painting statues, particularly faces, with gold paint is exclusively Tibetan. If, therefore, a sculpture looks as if it has been given a face-lift with gold paint, it is likely to have emerged from Tibet, no matter where it was made.
Tibetans have a love for gold that stretches back to ancient times. This love is reflected in their workmanship in gold, which was praised as long ago as the T'ang period in Chinese chronicles and which, therefore, may have been as intrinsic to them as it was to the Scythians in Central Asia.
Gold in Buddhism symbolizes the sun, or fire. The most valuable of metals, it is accorded a sacred status through its association with Surya, the sun god of the Hindu pantheon. The alloying of gold with other alloying elements is therefore thought of as an act of sacrilege, since it dilutes the natural brilliance of the golden radiance. Thus when used in the fine arts, whether sculpture or painting, the gold is always of the purest 24 karat variety.
But though Buddhist aesthetics theorizes colors to be used primarily for their conventional symbolic significance, in practice it recognizes their powerful emotive effect. In application too it is not a simple question of hue, saturation and density. The pigments used are chosen, and adopted as traditional, because their particular color-inflections evokes the required emotive responses. These are not diluted in intensity or 'killed'; their force is always kept at its maximum. Further, such colors, combined as they often are to meet prescribed symbolism, are nevertheless also juxtaposed very skillfully in calculated quantities so as to produce definite but indescribable visual and emotive effects.
The figures represented in Buddhist art have naturally evolved from basic traditional principles. But Buddhist imagery is never concerned with imitating an external world. The objective colored surface is not meant to challenge comparison with any sensuously derived image of external reality. It is meant to stimulate radiant inner icons, whose bodies and features could be quite unrealistic in any ordinary sense of that word. Blue skin or red skin, many arms and heads are commonplace. The density and strength of colors, the vigor of plastic development can life the imagery, so to speak, and at the same time interpose a barrier between the inner icon and any comparable visual object. This is meant to produce a higher key or grade of objectivity than any transient reflection on the retina of the eye, a consistent world of imagination against which visual phenomena seem gray and pale.
- Article by Nitin Kumar of Exotic India. Reprinted by permission.