Anyone unfamiliar with Hindu and Buddhist traditions will surely raise an eyebrow at many of the sacred images that make up "Art of the Himalayas: Treasures From Nepal and Tibet," now on display at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art.
That the divinely serene and demonically fierce are fully integrated in those traditions can be jarring enough for Westerners whose church art largely values halos over hellfire.
But sacred and sexual are also locked, as it were, in passionate embrace, inspiring iconographic choices that remain provocative even to the most knowledgeable observers.
Why, for instance, is sexual congress so often used to depict compassion and wisdom?
"That's the most difficult question," said Pratapaditya Pal, the exhibit's curator and senior curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "It's difficult enough for the Western mind--in the Judeo-Christian ethic, sex is something you hide under the bedspread or under the carpet.
"But the lamas who worshiped these images did not resort to sexual practices of any sort--only a very small minority of esoteric Tantric sects used sex as a means to enlightenment," he said. "While it graphically shows the indivisibility or unity of the two concepts, why the images are so sexually explicit we don't know."
The exhibition of 115 works, all from the private Jack and Muriel Zimmerman Collection in New York and dating to the 7th Century, was organized by the New York -based American Federation of Arts. It includes cast and repousse (hammered) sculptures, brilliantly colored paintings, textiles, and manuscripts, including a "Medico-Astrological Treatise" on how to avoid demons that attack children ("Procedure to Appease Those Who Seize").
"The ferocious and sexual imagery may be off-putting, but there are placid Buddhist goddess forms where all you have to do is put a child in her lap, and she'll have the same maternal, protective aspect of the Virgin Mary," Pal said. "And just as ordinary (Catholics) believe that the image is Mary--the sculpture is the deity in a sense, the Virgin is in it--most Buddhists and Hindus believe the image is God. The fervor is the same."
One common mistake Westerners make in viewing the horrific faces of the Eastern gods it to assume that they represent evil.
"That is the anger of the deity--he's got to be ferocious to protect you," Pal explained. "It's a masquerade to frighten evil spirits. The gods are merely showing their awesome form."
Hinduism is essentially a monotheistic religion, but practically speaking it is pluralistic and polytheistic: A formless supreme being can assume an infinite variety of forms: "Truth is one but called by many names," according to a Sanskrit aphorism.
Buddhism originates with a human teacher, Gautama Buddha (6th to 5th Century B.C.), who advocated a system based on ethical precepts and meditation believed to culminate in a state of absolute blessedness beyond suffering and existence.
Hinduism and Buddhism nevertheless have strong similarities, including Tantras (mystic rites encouraging spontaneous spiritual liberation), mantras (sacred prayers and incantations) and mandalas (designs symbolic of the universe).
Nepal is predominantly Hindu, and Tibet is predominantly Buddhist. Yet, especially in light of shared ideas and styles, Pal said that it is often difficult to differentiate between Hindu and Buddhist objects, and between Nepalese and Tibetan.
"Like Greek and Roman, one influences the other," he said. "Is it Greek or is it a Roman copy of a Greek original? Nepalese artists actually worked in Tibet, and I'm afraid the same iconographic norms--the multiple arms of deity for instance--were used."
According to Pal, such images suggest omnipotence: "It's like a housewife wishing she had 10 arms--one to feed the baby, one to vacuum, and so on," he said. "It shows that the gods can do everything at once."
None of the Himalayan objects had ever served decorative purposes, and only rarely did an artist sign his work.
"Were these people at all concerned with aesthetics? These objects were used, taken out only as part of a particular ritual," Pal said. "Such images would never have been shown in a public context. When we find these objects 'beautiful,' we are imposing on them a very Western art-historical concept.
"What is beauty? Beauty in a Rembrandt is different from (beauty in) a Van Gogh or Frank Stella. When the Nepalese and Tibetan goes to the temple, he goes to worship. When you and I as tourist or art historian go to the same temple, we wax eloquent about the beauty of the piece. Beauty is a very loaded word."
* "Art of the Himalayas: Treasures From Nepal and Tibet" continues through July 31 at Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. $1.50 to $4.50. (714) 567-3600.
The museum also has scheduled a variety of events, beginning at 7:30 p.m. except where noted, in conjunction with the exhibition: "Mystics and Mandalas in Himalayan Art," a lecture by Pal (June 3); "Journey to Lhasa," a lecture by Bowers chief of education Janet Baker (June 24); "Sacred Earth and Healing Arts of Tibet," a program of healing rituals, chants and dances performed by monks from the Gaden monastery in Lhasa (June 29, 7 p.m.); screenings of two films, "Celebrating Tibetan Festivals" and "Medicine Buddha: Opening of the Eyes," (July 8); a children's workshop on making prayer flags, mandalas and prayer wheels (July 17, 2-4 p.m.), and "Tibetan Mythology and Psyche," a lecture by Lopsang Rapgay, a Tibetan doctor and former deputy secretary to the Dalai Lama (July 25, 2 p.m.).