In honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month our Pic of the Week features Lee Lawrie’s sculptural relief of the Hindu God Brahma on the bronze doors of the John Adams Building. When we first launched Inside Adams, Donna Scanlon wrote about Our Bronze Doors, which symbolize the history of written word.
During my college years, I learned a great deal about the Hindu religion from coursework and working at a store called Eclectix, which sold art, jewelry and clothing from India. So when I first saw Lawrie’s representation of Brahma, I thought it to be anomalous. In Hindu tradition, Brahma is normally represented with four heads. He is characteristically associated with holding a number of objects: rosary, kusha grass, ladle, spoon, water pot, or book. He either rides a swan, which represents wisdom, or stands/sits on a lotus. Brahma’s mudras (hand gestures) are the adhaya (fearlessness/protector) and varada (charity/compassion). Lawrie’s Brahma uses only two customary attributes: a book and the varada mudra.
For me, Lawrie’s Brahma is stylized after early renditions of the Buddha from Southeast Asia. You can see some of these early Buddha images from the Sackler Museum’s A Closer Look: Art of Buddhism. The most striking similarity between Lawrie’s Brahma and the early Buddha images is the transparent robe, bare feet, and the ushnisha (cranial bump) which symbolizes wisdom.
I can understand why Lawrie selected Brahma to represent the history of the written word. Brahma is known as the creator and the maker of all things. It is said that the first stage of an individual’s life is represented by Brahma. During this stage one is a student and knowledge is a constant companion. I can also understand why Lawrie stylized Brahma like Buddha. Both of these traditions come from India and have influenced each other.