The eighteen Arhats or eighteen Luohans are the original followers of Buddha depicted in the Mahayana Buddhism who have followed the Eight fold path of Right View, Right Intention, Right speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration and have attained the four stages of Enlightenment. They are free of worldly cravings and have reached the state of Nirvana. Their main aim is to protect the Buddhist faith and to await the coming of Maitreya Buddha who is predicted to arrive on Earth in the future. In China they are referred to as ‘Luohans’ or ‘Lohans’.
These eighteen Arhats are an important part of any Buddhist temple along with the main image of Buddha. They are akin to guardian angels protecting people and warding off evil. In Japan they are referred to as Rakan and in Tibet as Gnas-Brtan and only 16 of them are worshipped in these two countries.
These eighteen Luohans are said to have appeared in the dreams of a monk Guan Xiu. The Qianlong Emperor was a great admirer of the Luohans and he wrote a Eulogy to each Luohan image.
|Sanskrit name||Chinese Name||
|1.PindolaBharadvaja||Qilu Luohan or Deer Sitting Luohan||Sitting dignified on a deer,
As if in deep thought.
With perfect composure,
Contented with being above worldly pursuits.
|2.Kanakavatsa||Xiqing Luohan or Happy Luohan||Decimating the demons,
The universe now cleared.
Hands raised for jubilation,
Be wild with joy
|Jubo Luohan or Raised Bowl Luohan||In majestic grandeur,
Joy descends from heaven.
Raised the bowl to receive happiness,
Glowing with jubilance and exultation.
|4.Nandimitra||Tuoda Luohan or Raised Pagoda Luohan||A seven-storey pagoda,
Miraculous power of the Buddha.
Forceful without being angry,
With preeminent Buddhist might
|5.Nakula||Jingzuo Luohan or Meditating Luohan||Quietly cultivating the mind,
A countenance calm and composed.
Serene and dignified,
To enter the Western Paradise.
|6.Bodhidharma||Guojiang Luohan or Overseas Luohan||Bearing the sutras,
Sail east to spread the world.
Climbing mountains and fording streams,
For the deliverance of humanity.
|7.Kalika||Qixiang Luohan or Elephant riding Luohan||Riding an elephant with a dignified air,
Chanting aloud the sutras.
With a heart for the humanity,
Eyes scanning the four corners of the universe.
|8. Vajraputra||Xiaoshi Luohan or Laughing Lion Luohan||Playful and free of inhibitions,
The lion cub leaps with joy.
Easily alternating tension with relaxation,
Rejoicing with all living things.
|9. Gobaka||Kaixin Luohan or Open Heart Luohan||Open the heart and there is Buddha,
Each displaying his prowess.
The two should not compete,
For Buddha’s power is boundless
|10.Panthaka(the elder)||Tanshou Luohan or Raised Hand Luohan||Easy and comfortable,
Yawning and stretching.
In a state of omniscience,
Contented with his own lot
|11.Rahula||Chensai Luohan or Thinking Luohan||Pondering and meditating,
Understanding it all.
Above this world and free from conventions,
Compassion conveyed up to the Ninth Heaven
|12.Nagasena||Waer Luohan or Scratch Ear Luohan||Leisurely and contented,
Happy and knowledgeable.
Full of wit and humour,
Exuberant with interest
|13.Angida||Budai Luohan or Calico Bag Luohan||Buddha of infinite life,
Valuable bag containing secrets of heaven and earth.
Happy and contented,
Cheerful and joyful is he.
|14.Vanavasa||Bajiao Luohan or Plantain Luohan
|Carefree and leisurely,
Disdainfully regards the Great Void.
With celestial airs and religious spirit,
Transcending this mortal world.
|15. Asita||Changmei Luohan or Long Eyebrow Luohan||Compassionate elder,
A monk who has attained enlightenment.
Perceptive of the infinite universe,
With tacit understanding.
|16. Pantha(the younger)||Kanmen Luohan or Doorman Luohan||Powerful, husky and tough,
Watching with careful alertness.
With the Buddhist staff in hand.
Valiantly annihilates the evil
|17.Nantimitolo||Xianglong Luohan or Taming Dragon Luohan||In the hands are the spiritual pearl and the holy bowl,
Endowed with power that knows no bounds.
Full of valour, vigour and awe-inspiring dignity,
To succeed in vanquishing the ferocious dragon.
|18.Pindola||Fuhu Luohan or Taming Tiger Luohan||Precious ring with magical powers,
Vigorous and powerful,
Subduing a ferocious tiger.
A brief sketch of each Arhat or Luohan
1.Pindola Bharadvaja or the deer sitting Luohan-He was a powerful Government Official from a high caste Brahmin family who was highly trusted by the King. He decided to become a Buddhist monk and left to the mountains to join a monastery there inspite of entreaties from the King. One day he appeared riding a deer in front of the palace, hence he was named so. The King wished that he take back his original position but Bharadvaja declined and replied that instead he wished that the King would embrace ascetism. Explaining to the King the sins of the flesh and desires he finally convinced him about the goal of his life. The King abdicated the throne to his son and followed Bharadvaja to become a monk.
2.Kanakavatsa or the Happy Luohan-He was a well known debater and public speaker of the Buddhist teachings. He was so named as he always had a smiling countenance during debates and always preached on happiness and bliss. Happiness according to him was that which was experienced by the five senses but bliss was joy not arising from the senses but from deep within like the feeling of Buddha in one’s heart.
3.KanakaBharadvaja or Raised Bowl Luohan-He was a Buddhist monk who always raised his bowl when he asked for alms hence he was named so. Initially the bowl was made of metal but nowadays it is made of finely polished coconut shell halves or red beech wood.
4.Nandimitra or Raised Pagoda Luohan-Nandimitra or the sweet one is said to have been the last disciple of the Buddha. In order to signify that Buddha was always with him forever, he often carried a specially made pagoda with him in memory of his dear beloved Master. In Buddhism, the pagoda symbolizes the Buddhist faith as it is said to be a container for the Buddha’s bones.
5.Nakula or the Meditating Luohan-Originally Nakula is said to have been a warrior with immense strength but he gave it up to become a monk. Through constant meditation he eventually attained enlightenment. Even during meditation he still exuded much physical strength due to his former profession. He was considered to be one of Buddha’s favourite disciples. His image is sometimes portrayed as a teacher holding a string of Buddhist rosary with a small boy beside him.
6.Bodhidharma or Overseas Luohan-He was named so as he was born under a Bodhi tree which was known as the tree of wisdom as Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment under its shade. He was responsible for spreading Buddhism to the East Indies. From India he sailed across the ocean to land on the island of Java hence the name Overseas Luohan.
7.Kalika or Elephant Riding Luohan-Kali means elephant in Sanskrit and Kalika implies a person riding an elephant. Kalika was an elephant trainer who later became a Buddhist monk hence his name Elephant Riding Luohan. Also symbolically the elephant stands for immense power, strength, perseverance and endurance symbolizing the Buddhist might and Kalika is one who rode on it, ie conquered himself with the Buddhist teachings and attained self realisation.
8.Vajraputra or Laughing Lion Luohan-He was a lion hunter before he took up Buddhism, hence it is said that the lions must have been extremely gratified and full of joy due to which he was called laughing lion Luohan. The lion also stands for immense might and strength symbolizing the Buddhist might. Hence the front gate of a Buddhist monastery or temple in China generally has a pair of lions standing guard.
9.Gobaka or Open Heart Luohan-It is said that Gobaka was a prince in a Kingdom of India. When he grew up he was made the Crown Prince. This angered his younger brother who started a rebellion. But Gobaka was highly spiritual and did not wish to continue on the worldly path. He assured his brother that he did not want the Kingdom but only wanted to become a monk as he had only Buddha in his heart. So saying he showed proof by exposing his chest and there indeed was reflected Buddha in his heart. Hence he was called the Open Heart Luohan. His brother was convinced and withdrew the rebellion. Gobaka is said to be the Monk Shan Wu Wei who arrived in the Tang Dynasty in 716 AD at Changan(today’s Xian). The meaning of Gobaka is ‘man of heart’ one who could be weak physically but was strong of spirit.
10.Panthaka(The Elder) or Raised Hand Luohan-Legend states that Panthaka was the Prince of an Indian Kingdom named Kintota. He was the elder brother of Pantha(the younger) or Doorman Luohan. Both the brothers were born when their mother was travelling hence their names mean ’Born on the road’. He embraced ascetism and became a monk. He liked to meditate in the half lotus style. He was named Raised Hand Luohan as he would raise his hand and let out a deep breath upon waking up from his meditation.
11.Rahula or Thinking Luohan-He was so named as he was born during a lunar eclipse by the constellation that caused this phenomenon. He was well known for his meditative powers and was one of Buddha’s favourite disciples. During meditation he could become omniscient and omnipotent. As he was ruminating wisdom and action when deep in thought he was named the Thinking Luohan.
12. Nagasena or Scratch Ear Luohan-His name means army of snakes(or dragons) and symbolizes strong supernatural power. He was an eloquent debater and speaker. A practitioner of Buddhism should avoid hearing evil to succeed on the spiritual path and it was this maxim that he preached everywhere. He was referred to as Scratch Ear Luohan as this gesture of his portrayed or symbolized the purification of the sense of hearing as an essential prerequisite on the spiritual path.
13.Angida or Calico Bag Luohan-Angida was a snake catcher in India who would catch snakes and remove their poisonous fangs and then release them in the mountains. This prevented them from biting passersby and being killed. This kindness of heart led to his eventual enlightenment. To put the snakes in he usually carried a bag due to which he was referred to as the Calico Bag Luohan. He was seen for the first time in Zhejiang province in 907 AD in Fenghua as a monk carrying a bag and for the second time in China in 917AD next to the Yuelin Temple preaching on a rock.
14.Vanavasa or Plaintain Luohan-He is said to have been born in a heavy downpour and he became a Buddhist monk ultimately attaining enlightenment. He was referred to as Plaintain Luohan as he liked to meditate under a plaintain tree. Sometimes he is shown meditating with hands folded over his knees and eyes closed. According to legend, he is supposed to be stationed on the Ko-Chu mountain with 1400 lesser Luohans.
15.Asita or Long Eyebrow Luohan-Accoring to legend Asita (meaning one of correct proportions)was born with two long white eyebrows. It is said that in his earlier birth he was a monk who inspite of undergoing deep spiritual practices was unable to attain enlightenment even at a ripe old age when he had only two long white eyebrows left. He reincarnated again as a human being with long eyebrows and was referred to as the Long eyebrow Luohan. His father was told, after his birth that the child had the look of Buddha in him as Buddha too had two long eyebrows. As a result he was sent to a monastery to become a monk where he ultimately attained enlightenment.
16.Pantha(the younger) or Doorman Luohan-Pantha was one of Buddha’s favourite disciples. He and his elder brother(Raised Hand Luohan or Pantha the elder) were both disciples of Buddha. Legend states that whenever he went begging for alms he would bang on people’s doors(hence the name doorman luohan). Once a door was so rotten and old that when he banged it, it fell apart and he had to apologize to the owner of the house. Buddha then gave him a tin staff with several rings on it which made a light noise when tapped and asked him to tap the staff instead of banging on doors so that people who wished to give alms would hear it and come out.
17.Nantimitolo or Taming Dragon Luohan-Nanti means happy and Mitolo means friend hence his name signified Happy Friend. Legend states that after being incited by a demon, people of a small kingdom in India went on a rampage against the Buddhists and their monasteries stealing the Buddhist Sutras. The King of the dragons rescued the Sutras and Nantimitolo subdued him and restored the Sutras back to earth. Hence he was referred to as Taming Dragon Luohan.
18.Pindola or Taming Tiger Luohan-It is said that Pindola was a General and being devoted to Buddhism the King ordered him to become a monk. He joined a monastery in the mountains where everyday he could hear a tiger howling. He felt that this was due to the hunger of the tiger and decided to feed it vegetarian food to prevent it from becoming a man eater. Everyday he would collect food from the monks in a bucket which he placed outside the monastery. Every night the tiger would partake the food with the result that after a period of time, it was tamed. Hence he was referred to as Taming Tiger Luohan.
The eighteen Arhats or Luohans were known for their courage, supernatural power and wisdom. They were key attendants of the Buddha’s teachings and later came to be seen as guardians. Those who have attained ‘Arhatship’ are those who have slain their anger, greed and delusions and destroyed their Karmic residue from earlier lives. They have learned the teachings of Buddha and have achieved the highest state attainable by Buddha’s disciples. Thus they are no longer bound by the cycles of birth and death nor reborn into the world of suffering.