On the Viṣṇu-Maitreya Image of the Mekong Delta: Evidence of Religious Pluralism or a Fault Restoration

Silpakorn University, Thailand

The object number BTLS.5551 is a statue of a male deity on display at the Ho Chi Minh History Museum. The deity stands in the samābhaṅga pose and possesses four arms: a pustaka (book) on the upper right, a cakra (discus) on the upper left, a padmā (lotus flower) and a gaḍā (mace) are held in the lower right and left hands respectively, and finally, the deity wears a tall headdress. With a glance, the aforesaid attributes would lead one to identify the image as the Hindu god Viṣṇu. But instead of being a plain, cylindrical-shaped mitre, known as the kirīṭamakuṭa as seen on most Viṣṇu images from the Mekong Delta of around the same period, this headdress contains the motifs of the jaṭāmakuṭa (ascetic’s chignon) and a stūpa at the front, which are the important attributes of the Bodhisattva Maitreya - a cult, according to both archaeological and textual evidence, that was also widespread in the region. The unusual combination of attributes belonging to both Hindu and Buddhist deities resulted in some confusion in identifying the image by earlier scholars. Parmentier (1926) identifies it as “Maitreya”, Mallaret (1937) suggests “Bodhisattva” and Dupont (1941) labels the image as “Viṣṇu”. Therefore, apart from attempting to ascertain the identity of the deity in question, this paper also seeks to survey the history of this image; how it was discovered, stored, restored, catalogued and displayed at the museum during different periods. Furthermore, this presentation looks into the confluence of religions in premodern Vietnam, and if authentic, whether this image could be one of the earliest examples of religious pluralism in the Mekong Delta.]