Buddha image, without which the sculptural art
of South Asia would have been deprived not only
of its major bulk but also much of its stylistic
versatility and spiritual fervor, has constantly
been under debate as to its origin and evolution.
Some believe that the first Buddha image had come
into being during the lifetime of the Buddha himself.
These scholars contend that the tradition so begun
continued ever since, but the medium, wood or clay,
generally used for making these images, being of
perishable nature, could not have such images survive
The legend of king Udayana, which appears in the
Chinese version of the Anguttara Nikaya, supports
this view. This text of the Anguttara Nikaya, translated
into Chinese sometime between the first and the
third century A.D. from a Korean translation of
the scripture, obviously a work of an earlier date,
contends that the Buddha, after he was Enlightened,
wished to sermonize his mother Maya who, having
passed away, was in the Trayatrimsa heaven (Realm
of the thirty-three gods). Buddha hence left this
world for three months and went there. To king
Udayana his absence was unbearable. He thus commissioned
his image. After three months, Buddha descended
back from Trayatrimsa. According to the legend,
king Udayana, on his return, showed the image to
the Buddha who thereupon preached the great virtue
of making the Buddha image.
This story of king Udayana commissioning the Buddha
image is said to have been recorded also by Fa-hsien
and later by Hsuan Tsang in their travel accounts.
One of the most sacred Buddha images in Japan is
revered as being the replica of the above-mentioned
king Udayana's Buddha image. This image was acclaimedly
brought from China to Japan in 986 A.D. by a Japanese
Buddhist monk Chonen.
The first Buddha image was
made of sandalwood. Adhering to tradition, the
Japanese replica is
worshipped by offering pouches of sandalwood powder.
This legend of the origin of the Buddha image is
yet prevalent and largely believed in Tibet, China
For most scholars however, logically basing their
opinions on the antiquity of available art objects,
the earliest Buddha images come from around the
first century B.C., some five hundred year after
Buddha's Mahaparinirvana. These occur on Kushana
dynasty coins datable to 150 to 50 B.C. having
human figures on them, which some identify as the
The image proper makes its
appearance only later, around the first century
of the Christian era.
These first Buddha images show an abundance of
Hellenistic elements and thus it is in the images
of the Greek god Apollo that their proto form is
The absence of the Buddha
image in early Buddhist art has been as diversely
interpreted. It is largely
believed that the Buddha had himself prohibited
his images, though this view is little supported
by Buddhist literature. J. C. Huntington, who claims
that the Buddha image had come into being in Buddha's
own lifetime, quotes a passage from the Vinaya
of the Sarvastivadins in his Studies in Buddhist
Art of South Asia under "The Origin of the
Buddha Image". The passage is an indirect
injunction against his image making, but the words
used in it comprise as much a sanction for it.
In the passage, Anathapindika asks the Great Lord," World
honored one, if images of yours are not allowed
to be made, pray, may we not at least make images
of Bodhisattvas in attendance upon you?" The
Buddha gives his assent to it.
In the Buddhist vision, the primary virtue has
necessarily been compassion. Surely, the highest
embodiment of compassion was one who had struggled
through numerous rebirths towards the liberation
that was nirvana, and on reaching the desired threshold,
turned back to regard living beings with an all-embracing
compassion, and then willingly reentered samsara
in order to help the whole world achieve enlightenment.
Such a being was termed a bodhisattva. Siddhartha
Gautama himself had therefore been a bodhisattva
for the thirty-five years prior to his enlightenment,
when he became the Buddha. Indeed, early images
of Siddhartha shortly before his enlightenment
are accordingly often termed 'bodhisattva.'
Nevertheless, the theory that
the Buddha had disallowed his images is more prevalent.
A large group of
scholars supporting it contend that early Buddhist
art, after the image making had been prohibited,
resorted to symbolism for representing the Buddha.
Instead of reproducing the Great Master in iconic
forms, it sought to represent him by a number of
symbols, or material motifs, which had remained
associated with him. These included the empty throne,
Buddha-pada, umbrella or the chatra, stupa, Bodhi-tree,
wheel of Law or the Dharma-chakra Triratna, and
animal motifs like the elephant and horse.
A comparatively more recent theory perceives the
entire phenomenon from an absolutely different
angle. The early Buddhist art, according to this
thesis, depicted the Buddha neither in icons nor
through symbols. The sculptures from Bharhut, Sanchi,
Amaravati and other ancient sites, which comprise
this phase, depict episodes from Buddha's life
but evade his iconic representations. The motifs,
or the so-called symbols, which these panels use
in Buddha's place, do not depict his presence,
as none of them, except the Buddha-pada (Buddha's
feet), is part of his person.
These motifs, the empty throne and stupa in particular,
depicted rather, and with utmost thrust, only Buddha's
absence, as it was in his absence that his devotees
realized the presence of their Master. They further
claim that the non-depiction of the Buddha in icons
was inspired by monotheism and iconoclasm, which
dominated the then world mind, and Buddhism, too,
was influenced by it. They, hence, dismiss the
idea of realizing him even in symbols as this too
amounted to idolatry, which Buddhism did not allow.
In this matter, they equate Buddhism with Zoroastrianism,
Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism.
Amidst these conflicting views a few things are
obvious. Firstly, the tradition of faith and its
legends take the date of the Buddha image back
to Buddha's lifetime, but the actual Buddha images,
which have been recovered so far, date around the
beginning of the Christian era. Secondly, the absence
of the Buddha image in early Buddhist art was due
to some kind of injunction against image making,
but the Buddhist texts little support this assumption.
Thirdly, admittedly, for some centuries after Buddha's
Mahaparinirvana, his images were not made, but
there did prevail a cult of worship in the Buddhist
tradition, or at least Buddhism may not be termed
as iconoclastic. Fourthly, it may hardly be acceptable
that the Buddha image is born only of a particular
sculptural tradition or is an extension of the
other, but, despite, it is obvious that there has
been in India and beyond a long and early tradition
of image making and idol worship and also that
the Buddhist iconography assimilated many of their
Whatever of the Buddhist art survives today is
divisible broadly into two phases, the early (4th
century BC - 1st century AD) and the late (1st
century onwards). The early phase may be identified
as pre-iconic and the late as post iconic. The
sculptural panels at Sanchi stupas, carvings in
a couple of caves at Ajanta and the remains from
Amaravati and other ancient sites define the pre-iconic
phase of the Buddhist art. The art of this early
phase comprises of the renditions, which depict
events and episodes from the life of Buddha, various
stages of his attainment of Enlightenment and preaching
of Dharma, but such narratives do not have any
of his iconic representations.
It is only during the second phase of Buddhist
art that the anthropomorphic images of the Buddha
and Bodhisattvas appear.
As for the claim that Buddha's images were made
even during the early phase, or during Buddha's
lifetime, there are some strong factors that support
this assumption. Buddhist literature, though literalism
has little relevance, does not have a single story
or detail wherein the Buddha is not physically
present. Legends and literary sources speak of
Buddha's images being made in his own lifetime.
A direct injunction against image making is not
on record. Several sculptural panels, mentioned
before, depict devotees engaged in worshipping
a stupa, the Bodhi-tree, an empty throne etceteras,
which suggests that Buddhism did not disallow the
worship of 'form'.
And, finally, the Buddhist sculptor had acquired
by then great skill in casting anatomical dimensions
with utmost accuracy, rendering minute narrative
details, infusing 'bhava', or emotionality into
his figures and in the depiction of a highly sophisticated
symbolism. In any art tradition, these features
define the highest stage of skill and aesthetic
perception. The art of this phase reveals not only
the skill of hands but also the absolute devotion
of a mind. As such, it seems improbable that the
sculptor, who wove around the Master each detail
of his life so devotedly, could check his hands
from depicting the Master himself.
The factual position, as the
surviving sculptures reveal, is, however, different
from this hypothesis.
This early art depicts details of the Buddha's
life but evades using his iconic image in them.
This omission of his personal icon is not casual
but well considered. In each narration, one of
the motifs, which once formed the part of the rendered
episode, occupies the space, which, according to
the theme, Buddha's icon should have occupied.
For example, the sculptural panel depicting Mahabhinishkramana,
or the Great Departure, at Sanchi, has every detail
related to the event except the figure of Gautam,
the would-be Sakyamuni Buddha. In his place the
sculptor has carved a horse without rider, obviously
Buddha's horse Kanthaka. The horse has by its side
an attendant holding an umbrella, or chhatra, which
is suggestive of its links with the Great Lord,
but the same horse, when depicted returning after
Gautam has renounced the world and consequently
the horse also, is without the umbrella. Obviously,
the replacement of Buddha's icon with the motif
of the horse was well considered and not a casualty.
Thus, whatever the legends or arguments, Buddhist
art, in its first phase, is marked by the absence
of Buddha's anthropomorphic representations.
But the theory of Buddha's symbolic, instead of
the anthropomorphic, representation is as little
convincing. If the Buddha could be represented
through symbols, he could as well be represented
in icons. When his symbolic manifestation could
be installed and worshipped, there could be nothing
objectionable in worshipping his personified manifestation.
Besides, the motifs used in his place - horse,
umbrella, empty throne, Triratna, stupa etceteras,
may not be treated as representing him symbolically,
because each one has been used to communicate itself
and not for symbolizing any other thing. For example,
the horse Kanthaka, depicted in the Mahabhinishkramana
panel, does not symbolize Buddha. It is only Buddha's
horse Kanthaka. It, at the most, reminds of one
of the cardinal events of his life, namely his
renunciation of material life. Similarly, the stupa
celebrates the specific event of Buddha's Parinirvana,
and the tri-ratna signify the three jewels of Buddhism,
the Buddha, Sangha, and the Dharma.
A theory discovering Buddha's presence in the
depiction of his absence is a psychology based
assumption. It has been argued that absence, when
depicted powerfully, as powerfully reminds of the
absent one and thus the absence itself becomes
his presence. This dimension of the absence is
quite valid in context to the personally known
persons. The Buddha, after he was Enlightened,
moved from one place to the other and taught the
Dharma for long forty years. Thousands of his devotees
had the divine experience of seeing the Great Master.
Truly, such ones could realise him even in his
absence. But, this is a psychological perception,
not the vision of a sculptor working with stone
as his medium. The sculptor does not convert a
materially present phenomenon into a non-presence.
He, on the contrary, discovers the non-present
into the visual medium and material forms. Besides,
such stylistic excellence or innovation could not
be a unanimous or universal feature to prevail
for over five hundred years.
The theory that the Buddha, in tune with the monotheistic
and iconoclastic trends, which dominated the concurrent
world, forbade making of his image, has hardly
any substance. Buddha's concurrent world, as becomes
evident from various 5th-4th century B.C. Yaksha
images, recovered from Bihar, and of a little later
period from Mathura, tended more towards idol worship.
The cult of worshipping Nagas and Yaksha seems
to have prevailed in China, Ceylon and other countries
also. Jain, and Buddhist literature and the Great
Epics repeatedly refer to various Nagas and Yakshas
and the Yaksha-chaityas. The Ramayana talks of
Yakshattva, a virtue which even gods aspired to
attain. Upala was one of the Yaksha related epithets
of high honor. Buddha's devotees, out of reverence,
called him Upala. Four Lokapalas, the guardian
deities of four directions, were Yakshas, Kuber
being one of them. Sakyas, Buddha's own clan, had
its Yaksha deity, Yaksha Sakya-Vardhana.
Baby Buddha, soon after his birth, was first offered
to this same Yaksha deity.
Yakshas and Nagas seem to have so much dominated
the scene that all sects, including Buddhism, Jainism
and Upanishadas, which initially practised idol-less
worship, thought it better to conciliate with them.
Each in its own way accommodated Yakshas and Nagas
in its system, though invariably by subordinating
them to it. Significantly, Parshvanatha, Jains'
twenty-third Tirthankara, born some two hundred
years before the Buddha, had a Naga, represented
as serpent in iconography, to guard him during
In Buddhist sculptures Naga Erapata is seen worshipping
and Yakha Vajrapani attending upon the Buddha.
Shiva, Vishnu, Vasudeo Krishna,
all had Nagas and Yakshas associated with them.
The Bhagavata depicts Krishna subduing Naga Kaliya
, The Jatakas describe the Buddha converting many
Yakshas to Buddhism.
Now these events stand reduced into mere myths,
but are, nonetheless, suggestive of the massive
dominance of the Naga and Yaksha cults.
Significantly Buddhism, Jainism or the Upanishadas,
did not attempt at dismissing this earlier worship
cult, as did other religions around the globe.
It is, thus, obvious that the early Buddhism, even
when it did not believe in idolatry, was not iconoclastic.
It is, hence, difficult to accept the proposition
that the prevalent worship cult in Buddha's concurrent
world tended towards iconoclasm. It is also too
far to go that Buddhist artists, when they subsequently
went for Buddha's iconic representations, had to
seek their proto-type in Greek images, because
concurrent India did not have any of her own tradition
of image making.
There is no denying the fact that early Buddhist
art did not have Buddha's anthropomorphic images.
There seems to operate behind it some kind of injunction,
but such injunction could not be a one-time taboo-like
thing made expressly. In all likelihood, the artists,
working as per the Buddhist tradition itself, saw
Buddha more in the Dharma rather than in a human
form. This tradition begins with Buddha's attainment
of Enlightenment. It is a moment of transcendence.
The Sakyamuni leaves and the Buddha emerges. With
the Light emerges the Buddha and with the Light
emerges the Law, the Dharma. Thus, the Buddha is
the Dharma and the Dharma is the Buddha, and there
is nothing that divides them. The Buddha, before
he merged into Dharma, was a living organism, the
jeeva-kaya, whatever its name, Gautam, Bodhisattva
or Sakyamuni. After he was the Enlightened One,
the Buddha, an entity beyond death and birth, beyond
time and space, he was the pure existence, the
imperishable Dharma-kaya. The anthropometry could
span and the art could depict the jeeva-kaya but
not the Dharma-kaya, which was beyond both.
This also explains why
the Buddha allows Anathapindika (in the Vinaya
of Sarvastivadins) for making the
images of Bodhisattvas, as the Bodhisattvas represented
but the jeeva-kaya. The Dharma-kaya, the fragrance
of the Law, could not be translated into a form.
In Samyutta Nikaya (iii, 120), the Buddha says," who
sees Dharma, sees me, who sees me sees Dharma".
The Buddha thus equated the Dharma with the Buddha.
The Buddha probably wished to be seen in the Dharma,
and not individually. Thus, after the Buddha and
the Dharma were one, an image, a thing perishable
and with little expanse, could not represent him,
for the image could capture his anatomy but not
him who as Dharma was a reality beyond time and
space. The ocean could not be contained in a bowl.
Even during the subsequent late phase, when Buddha's
anthropomorphic images were made in abundance,
this perception of seeing Buddha in the Dharma
and the Dharma in the Buddha, pervades the Buddhist
art scenario. Not a single Buddha image, not even
one of his votive statues, has so far come to light,
which does not depict one aspect or the other of
the Dharma. Each one is seen imbued with the spiritual
fervor of the Dharma. It does not so much portray
the Buddha as it does the Dharma, The later treatises
formulate definite rules in this regard. For example,
images for the sanctum sanctorum were required
to depict primarily one of the Four Cardinal Stages
in the attainment of Buddhahood. These are:
1). Buddha in the Bhumisparsha Mudra: Signifying
the Buddha on the verge of enlightenment.
2). Buddha in the Dhyana Mudra: Buddha's realization
of Dharma in which meditation played a significant
3). Dharmachakra Mudra: Buddha's first sermon
at Sarnath and the initiation of Dharma.
4). Walking Buddha: Buddha's energetic and dynamic
propagation of the Dharma, by traversing the length
and breadth of the land.
The Lankavatara Sutra commands the artist to paint
beyond the aesthetic surfaces 'the picture that
is not in color's, that is, Buddha's right iconography
shall evolve only when the sculptor portrayed the
spiritual dimensions of his being which was the
This Buddhist art vision repeatedly
appears in texts. The Divyavadana puts it in the
form of a
legend. Rudrayana, one of Buddha's royal disciples,
desires to have Buddha's portrait, or image. He
summons his court artists to make Buddha's portrait.
They attempt at making it but are not able to 'grasp'
his likeness. Afterwards, the Buddha projects on
the canvas his outline or shadow, and instructs
to fill it in with colors. It appears, in a yet
different manner, in the Uttaratantra of Maitreya
(Obermiller's version of it in Acta Orientalia,
volume 9, pages 208-209). The text proclaims that
none else but only such ones as have imbibed into
their beings the charity, morals, patience and
the rest, and the highest point of excellence can
grasp Buddha's likeness, that is, for grasping
his likeness the quality of soul was more important
than the skill of hands.
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