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Who are the Five Buddhas?

It was at Paharpur that intellectuals helped evolve the concept of the Five Dhyani Buddhas, which offers spiritual tools that can be used on the path to enlightenment.

The concept of the Five Dhyani Buddhas is one of the most important philosophies that evolved at the Buddhist monasteries like Paharpur. The idea can seem a bit confusing at first but, at its core, it is a roadmap for spiritual growth.

The Vajrayana philosophy of Buddhism conceived the idea that the world is composed of five cosmic elements and they are symbolised by these Dhyani Buddhas. Unlike historical figures like Gautama Buddha, these are transcendent beings who represent intangible forces and divine principles.

The reason they are important is that they can act as spiritual guides to help people face the negative forces they will cross on the path to enlightenment. Meditating on the Five Dhyani Buddhas and what they represent can be a tool to learn self-restraint, in order to avoid self-indulgence and self-denial.

One of the reasons that this concept of polytheism was developed around Paharpur was because it was needed to compete with the Brahmanical religion that was also being practised in the region at the time. At its core, there are similarities with the Tantrism of the Shaiva and the Shakti cult in Bengal.

Finding a spiritual and intangible way to meditate on self-restraint was also a factor in the development of the Five Dhyani Buddhas. Buddhist monks at the time had a rigorous daily routine and would usually only have one meagre meal a day that they earned by begging in the neighbourhood. The rest of the day was spent studying, teaching, and meditating.

Although the idea of the five elements was metaphysical, there was a desire to be able to represent it in art and architecture. At Somapura Mahavihara at Paharpur, the central temple demonstrated a way to embody the Five Dhyani Buddhas. Four of them would have been placed facing the four cardinal directions and one would have been in the centre of the shrine. Each the Dhyani Buddhas were sitting on a lotus, had one face and two hands, and were wearing an image of their clan on their crown.

The Five Dhyani Buddhas are called Vairochana, Amoghsiddhi, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Akhshobhya. Over the centuries they have been given diverse attributes and are used in various ways by different people. But these are the foundational descriptions of them:

Dhyani Buddha Vairochana symbolises the element of 'rupa', or shape or form. He is represented in a white colour and sits in the centre. He is usually found meditating on a lotus seat, teaching the Dharma (law) and, in this way, combatting ignorance from the world.

Dhyani Buddha Amoghsiddhi is embodied in a green colour and can be found sitting in a meditating pose and showing a gesture of fearlessness in the north direction. He is holding a double thunderbolt (vajra) to eradicate fear, envy, and jealousy. He is further protecting the world and its creation, as well as delivering courage and wisdom to the mortals. He also symbolises summer season.

Dhyani Buddha Ratnasambhava is represented in a gold or yellow colour and stays on earth sitting in a south direction. He is bestowing blessings (Varada mudra) in one hand, providing enrichment, pride, joy, and calmness to the mortal. His symbol is a jewel and he also represents the autumn season.

Dhyani Buddha Amitabha sits in a mediation pose with both hands laid upon his lap. Embodied in red colour, he is placed in the west direction. He provides a defining of one's self, as well as the wisdom of observation. With the quality of overpowering and conquering the mortals, he can be found in fire. His symbol is a lotus.

Dhyani Buddha Akshobhya is sitting in an earth-touching pose in the east direction and is adorned with blue colour. His symbol is a thunderbolt (vajra) and his domain is water. His role is to provide wisdom and knowledge to the mortal, create humility, and reduce aggression. He also symbolises the winter.