Creating the Universe

Depictions of the Cosmos in Himalayan Buddhism

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Eric Huntington
Global South Asia
  • Seattle, WA: 
    University of Washington Press
    , January
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


At its core, Eric Huntington’s monograph, Creating the Universe, provides an in-depth analysis of various visual depictions of the Buddhist universe in Himalayan Buddhism in Tibet, Nepal, and India. With engaging narratives, insightful comparisons, and informative diagrams, this award-winning book skillfully weaves textual and visual representations of the Buddhist cosmos into a story of how the cosmos has been imagined, expressed, and utilized by Himalayan Buddhists throughout the last two millennia.

The first chapter, “Cosmos in Texts,” sets the scene for the rest of the book and mainly focuses on how the Buddhist loka (cosmos) is depicted in classical texts and how to build visual abstractions from the texts. The discussion anchors itself to chapter 3 of Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, which has been accepted as the normative model for the Buddhist imaginaire of the cosmos. Comparisons between the mainstream loka and other competing models, such as the Purāṇa model, the Jain model, and the Kālacakra model are also drawn and explained.

By exploring “mountaintop abodes” such as the Vajradhātu Maṇḍala, the Newar caitya, and Padmasambhava’s Copper Mountain paradise, the second chapter deals with how the structure of the cosmos relates to tantric soteriology. The so-called “mesocosmos” that these constructions represent helps localize the Buddhas in the larger cosmos for the practitioners. Through a reinterpretation of early tantric materials, the author provides a refreshing account of how Buddhism made a tantric turn and how cosmic thinking intersects with tantric ideas of liberation in this lifetime.

The third chapter delves into how the representation of the Buddhist cosmos is used as a ritual instrument in the “mandala offering.” During this specialized offering-making ritual, one offers the entire cosmos to a recipient—the Buddha, a guru, or a host of gurus—with an object termed “treasure mandala” that resembles or symbolizes the cosmos. The author classifies the portrayals of the cosmos in different forms of treasure mandalas and makes sense of them through the lens of ritual and material culture.

The fourth chapter locates the cosmos within Buddhist monasteries by examining ground plans, alters, and murals. In each case, cosmological design finds its way back into the sacred space: the ground plan reflects a cosmic scheme, the surface decoration of a building invokes cosmological imagery, the shrine reiterates the structure of the cosmos, and the mural illustrates the cosmos. Taking a visitor’s movement through a monastery seriously, the author discusses the placement and function of these cosmological images in their respective contexts. The author also provides a useful comparison between the murals of the wheel of existence and the murals of the Cakravāla.

One of the many contributions that this book makes is the navigational aids, with which one might begin to chart other materials concerning cosmology. The attention paid to Newar Buddhism—an important yet relatively neglected form of Buddhism—is applause worthy. Even though the topic involves a multitude of interconnected yet diverse regional traditions, the author still manages to deliver a well-organized, lucidly narrated, and meticulously researched monograph that demonstrates the fascinating interplay among texts, visual arts, and practices. In this sense, the book creates a sense of order for the natural order of things in Buddhism. The only reservation I have is that the book seems to be coy about possible criticisms of the structuralist approach that it sometimes relies on, but it might amount to asking a well-prepared dish to be both delicious and medicinal. In sum, as a major milestone in the study of religious cosmology, this volume will be of great interest to scholars in religious studies and art historians and useful for various kinds of survey courses as well as topical upper-level courses.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yi Ding is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University.

Date of Review: 
September 21, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eric Huntington is Postdoctoral Scholar in Religious Studies at the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford University.


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