His head is on fire. His right hand brandishes a sword and his left hand is, in the opinion of some of my students, “throwing a gang sign.” He wears a garland of heads, and when my students look closely, they remark that we’re not seeing generic heads, but faces of the dead, each unique. Five skulls are mounted on his crown, and he stares at us head on, laughing. And perhaps dancing.
The Tibetan-Mongolian god Begtse Chen assumes many roles: he is a protector and warrior, wrathful god and warrior god, consort to a goddess who rides a corpse-chewing bear. For my students, Begtse Chen also serves as an ambassador to the arts and to religious interconnections. They can’t take their eyes off his image, when we visit the Rubin Museum. His image generates connections to the material we cover in class, and to their lives.
If they didn’t remember the various stories about Begtse Chen we read in class, my Nature of Religion students will now never forget them. They see Begtse Chen here, standing freely, but they’ll spot him elsewhere in the museum, on thangka paintings with Buddha, and begin to define his role in Tibetan Buddhism. They’ll continue to associate him with Mahakala and other protectors in the Rubin’s collection. They’ll connect his image to that of Kali and Durga, and reconsider the role that gender plays in art.
They will also make connections with other material we cover in class. Always, a student will mention Anat, goddess of ancient Cannan, who wears a necklace of skulls and a girdle of severed hands. Anat wades knee deep in the gore of the battlefield, laughing They may recall Bes, the Egyptian protector deity who also offers a demonic divine image, menacing yet adorable. They will also connect Begtse Chen to the numerous examples of warrior figures in Mesoamerican art, images of grimacing skulls and armored warriors whose role we are still attempting to understand. Looking closely, they’ll see that this particular sculpture has an opening in the back, ready to receive offerings or hold relics. We’ve seen this before: in Africa, in Greece, in Medieval Europe and in the ancient Danube River valley.
Multiple approaches are central to the study of religion at Hunter College, and Begtse Chen offers numerous examples within comparative religious studies. However, he offers greater connections to our students who are not religious studies majors. For the pre-med and nursing major, Begtse Chen’s similarities to the Bardo images bring to mind the transitions from life to death, offering them a broader perspective on approaches to dying. For the political studies and geography major, his Mongolian origin and connection to Tibet and India open a deeper understanding to the connections between Mongolia, China, India and Tibet, connections which resonate strongly today. Psychology majors may consider the role of a menacing image in fear and intimidation, and they may recall the archetypes offered by Carl Jung. Chemistry majors may consider the process in transforming the copper alloy into this sculpture by studying it and the example of Tara in the hollow metal casting display on Gateway to the Himalayas floor, and mathematics majors may find a connection between the proportions and execution of the sculpture, and how this relates to painted dimensions of Begtse Chen.
All of my students, regardless of their backgrounds, will face Begtse Chen and confront themselves. Approaching this one sculpture will open up a greater understanding, not only regarding class material and fields of study, but what requires defending in their lives. And as he stares at each student, tongue pointed and fangs bared, he asks them to find their own approach.
By: Wendy Raver, Lecturer, The Program in Religion, Hunter College