Buddha their god
Bloom has seen a Burmese statue of a reclining Buddha in
Dublin's National Museum.
This lovely marble carving appears to have made a powerful
impression on him, and he has taken Molly to see it, lecturing
her on how popular Buddhism is in Asia. But his knowledge of
east Asian culture is very slight, and the iconographic
significance of the statue is lost on him.
At the beginning of Lotus Eaters Bloom thinks about "Those Cinghalese lobbing about in the sun in dolce far niente, not doing a hand's turn all day." Inside St. Andrew's church he returns to his fanciful speculations about life in the languid Far East, thinking first of Chinese people blissfully stoned on opium and then of the statue: "Buddha their god lying on his side in the museum. Taking it easy with hand under his cheek. Josssticks burning. Not like Ecce Homo. Crown of thorns and cross." He seems to make little differentiation between Ceylon, China, and Burma, and Buddhism, which does have deep roots in each of those countries, impresses him mostly as a spiritual practice that values relaxation instead of the agonizing tortures that inspire Catholic devotions like the Stations of the Cross.The contrast has some validity, as far as it goes. But the Buddha is not a "god," and the statue certainly does not depict him "Taking it easy." He was a human being who attained insight into the causes of suffering, and how to overcome it, by dint of nearly superhuman mental concentration. The reclining posture of the statue is entirely consistent with this practice of spiritual discipline. According to tradition, the Buddha ate some tainted pork, knew he was dying, and lay down to await the parinirvana or final release from suffering that death brings to someone who has attained nirvana during life. The pose, then, conveys the spiritual focus of someone leaving the body behind. It is common in the Theravada cultures of countries like Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia, with their transcendental emphasis on achieving liberation from the karmic cycle of birth and death, and less so in Mahayana cultures. A proper Christian comparison might be to Jesus' resurrection from death.
After seeing this marble sculpture in the National Museum,
Bloom was so impressed that he came back with Molly in tow. In
Penelope she thinks, "look at the way hes sleeping at
the foot of the bed how can he without a hard bolster its well
he doesnt kick or he might knock out all my teeth breathing
with his hand on his nose like that Indian god he took me to
show one wet Sunday in the museum in Kildare street all
yellow in a pinafore lying on his side on his hand with his
ten toes sticking out that he said was a bigger religion
than the jews and Our Lords both put together all over Asia
imitating him as hes always imitating everybody I suppose he
used to sleep at the foot of the bed too with his big
square feet up in his wifes mouth." Molly perpetuates the
fallacy of the Buddha as a "god," manages to inject yet
another country, India, into Bloom's geographical jumble, and
reduces the spiritual transport conveyed by the gilded statue
into an impression of a man dressed in a yellow "pinafore" who
might kick out his wife's teeth because he doesn't have enough
sense to cover his "big square feet" with a blanket.
The sculpture came to Dublin in 1891 as a result of imperial
conquest and pillage. According to John Smurthwaite in "That
Indian God," James Joyce Broadsheet 61 (2002): 3, Sir
Charles Fitzgerald, an Anglo-Irish colonel in the Indian Army
who led a regiment in the campaign to seize and subdue
northern Burma starting in 1885, gave the National Museum this
marble statue robbed from a Burmese temple. The figure is 1.4
meters long (about 55 inches), and exquisitely executed. Today
it is held in the Decorative Arts and History division of the
Collins Barracks on Benburb
Street, run by the National Museum. Ireland should consider
giving it back.