Deities and Bodhisattvas
The Sixteen Arhats or Arahants are ‘saints’ or sages who have fully realized for themselves the Buddhist Doctrine, and have attained freedom from the cycle of suffering and rebirth. In some texts the Buddha is described as being accompanied by 50 arahants, sometimes by 500 or other multiples of this number (the figure is taken by some simply to mean a large crowd). Only 16 Arahants are actually worshipped, and these are perhaps symbolic of the four Arahants that tradition assigns to each of the four cardinal points (materialized as a region of India or of China and as a special ‘paradise’). Thus, for example, the first of them, Pindola Bharadvaja, is said to reside with 1,000 of his disciples in Aparagodani, to the west; the second, Kanakavatsa, with 500 disciples, in Kashmir in the north; the tenth, Panthaka, with 1,300 disciples, in the Heaven of the 33 Gods. It appears that Pindola, the only one with Mahakasyapa who did not enter Nirvana, became the Arhats par excellence after the disappearance of Mahakasyapa, and that the others are merely replicas.
These 16 Arhats, distinguished by the Buddha, formed part of the 500 claimed by tradition to have attended the First Council in Rajagrha: there they vowed to renounce Nirvana in order to devote themselves more effectively to the relief of human misery, like the Bodhisattvas. They are considered in Northern Buddhism in general and in Japan in particular as Sravakas or auditors of the Good Word, all disciples of the Small Vehicle and, as very wise human beings, destined to become Bodhisattvas.
They are quite often represented, especially in China and Japan, in sculpture and painting, in poses and with attributes that are often rather different, and this sometimes makes them difficult to identify. They may be shown as young or old men (depending on the style of the painter and the period), usually clothed as monks, heads shaved (except for Rahula). These 16 Arhats, depicted here in the Tibetan style, are the only ones described briefly here, since the others do not obey any particular rule of representation.