Buddhist Art and Architecture Before 1200

First Things First...

For many instructors of the art history survey, teaching Asian Art can be intimidating since it falls outside of the parameters of a Western area of expertise. It can be helpful for the instructor as well as the students to find connections between other cultures that have previously been discussed in class. Ask the class to provide examples of religious and/or administrative objects or buildings from the Ancient Near East or from Ancient Egypt to re-visit key issues in the creation of visual culture and the built environment. Introducing similarities between what has already been discussed can provide comfort and familiarity before moving into a discussion of Buddhism and Hinduism, concepts that can be challenging to those new to these traditions.

It is also helpful to explain to the class that although Buddhism is an outgrowth of Hinduism, there is a specific reason to begin the discussion with Buddhism. Since Buddhism attracted a large number of adherents many years after the death of the historical Buddha, a visual culture was introduced to aid the practitioner. Hinduism, which was not originally a faith with statues of deities, was forced to follow suite in order to remain competitive with Buddhism as it spread through India and other parts of the Himalayan region and Southeast Asia. In other words, Buddhism as a faith came second, but its visual culture came first.

The primary focus of the lecture will be on Buddhism, outlining its origins in the historical figure of Siddhartha Guatama (the Buddha) and its two earliest phases: Hinayana, which underscored an aniconic practice, and Mahayana, which introduced a reliance on icons of the Buddha and other newly emerging deities such as the bodhisattva.

A close analysis exercise:

Assign this video on the Great Stupa (Māhā Stupa) before class to ground students in a common Buddhist practice—pilgrimage and ritual circumambulation. Project a slide of the stupa and ask “what qualities does this share with other monuments we have previously discussed?” See how many examples the students can reference. You can then generate a conversation comparing and contrasting the Parthenon and the Great Stupa of Sanchi. Ask the students to look first at the shape of the two structures.

Do they have any thoughts on how the shape of the stupa underscores its very different function from the Parthenon? Ask if they notice any other differences. Who is permitted to enter the Parthenon? Where do the lay people gather? How is that similar or dissimilar to how the stupa is used? To what direction or directions are the Parthenon and the Great Stupa oriented? Is that significant in relation to the practice of the religion? Each monument is dedicated to a specific figure. What is the location of the cult figure in each? How does this affect devotion to this figure? Both the Parthenon and the stupa also contain a large number of reliefs. Why? How do the reliefs play a part? Are there images of the specific figure on each? Why or why not? These are just some examples of questions that the instructor can pose to the class to facilitate a discussion through close looking and through revisiting past lecture materials.

Background Readings

Buddha and Attendants, c.182 BCE, Ghandara, northwest Pakistan.

Instructor resources:

Vidya Dehejia, Indian Art, particularly “Experiencing Art: The Viewer, The Art, and The Artist” (Phaidon, 1997).

Denise Leidy, The Art of Buddhism (Shambala, 2008).

Meher MacArther, Reading Buddhist Art (Thames and Hudson, 2004).

George Mitchell, Hindu Art and Architecture (Thames and Hudson, 2000).

Partha Mitter, Indian Art (Oxford, 2001).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an excellent section devoted to South Asian art and culture, The Buddha, and the Mauryan Empire (c. 323–185 BCE).

PBS provides an overall history of India (PBS: The Story of India), while a history of Buddhism is addressed in The Big View. Additional information can be found in several Smarthistory links, including sections dedicated to stupas, the Ashoka Pillars, the Lion Capital, and Buddhist Monasteries.

Suggested student discussion readings and videos for this lecture:

Read #31 (“Pillar of Ashoka”) in MacGregor’s The History of the World in 100 Objects, which can also be found on the BBC.

The video, “Beliefs Made Visible: Art in South Asia” (Part II) (Buddhism).

Watch “Bamiyan Buddhas: Should They be Rebuilt” for a final in class discussion.

Content Suggestions

Key questions for the lecture: How do the objects from Buddhism illustrate the main tenets from the faith for the practitioner? How and why did Buddhism move from an aniconic based practice to an iconic one? What role did the trade routes play in the dissemination of Buddhism and the subsequent creation of Buddha’s image? How did the visual culture of Buddhism influence Hinduism? Why are there so many deities in Buddhism and Hinduism? Why do they look the way they do?

Timeline: c. third century BCE (seals) to c. tenth century CE (early Pala Dynasty)

It is suggested to split the Art and Architecture of Southeast Asia into two lectures or more if there is time, since the lecture addresses early Indic civilization and a major world religion. The lecture notes are lengthy, particularly those on Buddhism. The instructor can pick and choose which objects and content to include in the lecture:

  • The Great Stupa at Sanchi, third century BCE. Added to in first century BCE
  • aniconic images of the Buddha
  • Rock cut monasteries (Ajanta Caves, the Bhava Caves, and the Karle Caves)
  • Coins from the Kushan Empire, first-second century CE
  • King Kanishka, c. 120 CE
  • Gandarhan Buddhas, both standing and seated, c. second–third century CE
  • Mathuran Seated Buddha, c. late first–early second century CE
  • Sarnath Buddha, First Sermon
  • Pala Dynasty, Seated Buddha at Enlightenment, tenth century
  • Pala Dynasty, Seated Buddha Teaching the Dharma (The First Sermon), eleventh century CE
  • Tara, c. ninth century CE
  • Bamiyan Buddha, c. fifth century CE

India is home to several major world religions, three of which were formulated there: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Each of these faiths constructed distinctive objects in honor of their deities. Christianity arrived within years of Christ’s death (first century CE). Islam began in the Arabian Peninsula and reached India in the ninth century, well established by the thirteenth century. Sikhism arose in the sixteenth century as a singular outcome of the Hindu-Islamic encounter. In general, religious temples were constructed of stone and have survived for us today. The great palaces and cities were made from brick and wood and did not survive the heat and humidity of the region.

The Aryas

During the time that the early Indus cities were abandoned, archeological and literary records reveal the presence of Indo-European speaking communities in the northwestern part of the subcontinent. Scholars are still trying to work out the process of migration or assimilation that explains their presence. These people, who called themselves Aryas or Noble Ones, spoke an ancient form of the language known as Sanskrit, one of several Indo-European languages.

The Vedas

The Aryas composed a sacred text known as Veda, or Knowledge, which was transmitted orally for at least a millennium. The first of the four Vedas, the Rigveda, finally written down around 1300 BCE, provides a picture of a nomadic people, the Aryas, who lived along the Indus River and whose primary occupation was stock-breeding. Arya’s superiority over the Indus civilization was due to their possession of the horse and the spoke-wheeled chariot, both apparently unknown to the Indus peoples, and more efficient weapons. The Aryas organized themselves into groups that held regular assemblies, and they had distinctive sacred cults centering on sacrifice. They considered the local dark-skinned Dasas, or Dravidians, to be inferior and described them as “non-sacrificers.”According to some Indian scholars, it was this attitude that set in motion the societal organization known as the caste system noted earlier.

The three later Vedas indicate the movement of the Aryas into the plains of the Ganges River that became their heartland. Agriculture took over from cattle breeding and the earth goddess rose to prominence. We see evidence of these goddesses in the proliferation of yakshi sculptures (discussed below). By the sixth century, northern India was divided into a number of small principalities. Elaborate sacrificial rites had become obligatory and their accurate completion required familiarity with many details, known only to the priestly Brahmins. The Brahmin’s dominant status and the subsequent transformation into a rigid caste system led to considerable discontent. One outcome of this discontent was the rise in alternative belief systems to Hinduism. Sages, philosophers, spiritual leaders, and sects roamed the Ganges Valley, and as many as sixty-six new religions developed. Only two survived to become influential: Jainism, under the direction of Māhāvira, and Buddhism, through the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama, later known as the Buddha.

Some of the core tenets of these early belief systems are the following:

  • samsara: the cycle of birth, death, disease and decay.
  • karma: the universal law of cause and effect.
  • maya: the illusionary nature of the phenomenal world, including skepticism of the physical world and a desire to find the truth beyond it.
  • mokśa: liberation, release from samsara.
  • nirvana: the possibility of release from samsara and release from samsara (suffering) the cycle of birth, death, life, pain, and misery.

Siddhartha and Buddhism

Buddhism is the second ideology that rose to prominence, spreading across southeast Asia in the following centuries, up to the Tibetan plateau, and across into China, Korea, and Japan.

Siddhartha (also known as Shakyamuni referring to the Śakya (lion) clan into which he was born) spent his early life surrounded by the luxuries of palace life sheltered from the ills of the world. After four short and secretive trips outside the palace walls, he observed an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a holy man. Committed then to finding the answer to overcome the suffering of the world as demonstrated in these four encounters, he left the palace at the age of twenty-nine and spent a number of years following the Sramana mendicant movement, an extreme ascetic movement, that was common in his region, but was unable to find a solution to the suffering he witnessed.

Arriving at a small village, Bodh Gaya, is what is now the Bihar district, he sat down under a Pipal tree and meditated, vowing not to stop until he completely understood the illusionary nature of the world (maya). During his meditation, Śakyamuni achieved a means for individuals to understand the meaning of life and the way toward being released from that life as exemplified in samsara, the endless cycle of birth, disease, decay and death. His realization, known as his Enlightenment, was the Four Noble Truths, which is referred to as the dharma (or the Buddhist law).

The Buddha, through his teachings, provided the long-hoped-for resolution to the question of a being’s future. Without contradicting existing belief systems, he revealed a path of deliverance that was, for the first time, accessible to all—The Middle Path, neither a wealthy nor a poverty driven extreme was the answer. Individuals who also come to fully understand the Four Noble Truths are able to then achieve Enlightenment. The endless cycle of rebirth ends and the individual attains moksha (liberation from samsara at death) and nirvana (peace of mind).

  • Life is suffering (suffering =rebirth).
  • The cause of suffering is desire.
  • The cause of desire must be overcome.
  • When desire is overcome, there is no more suffering (suffering=rebirth).

Once Shakyamuni arrived at the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths he became an Enlightened Being and is henceforth known as the Buddha, the Enlightened or Awakened One. Bodhi or Enlightenment, is a state of perfect knowledge or wisdom, and is the result of the unification of compassion (karunā) and wisdom (prajñā), aspects that are articulated in much of the visual culture of Buddhism. Male deities embody compassion, particularly Avalokiteshvara (“The One Who Looks Down”) who is known as the Bodhisattva of Compassion, while the female deities embody wisdom. Prajnaparamita (the perfection of wisdom) is actually the personification of a book, the book of Buddhist wisdom. When a male (compassion) and a female (wisdom) deity are joined together in sexual union, they represent the perfection of the Enlightened Mind.

The tree in Bodh Gaya under which he meditated, a Pipal tree, is now known as the Bodhi Tree, or the Tree of Enlightenment. This event is the most commonly depicted story from the Buddha’s life. Prior to the establishment of a human image of the Buddha, an image of the Bodhi Tree was depicted as a focus of devotion. After an image of the Buddha was created in the last century BCE, about five-hundred years after his death, a scene of Buddha in the very act of Enlightenment was typically produced as a reminder for the practitioner of this important and foundational event, In this example, Buddha sits below the Bodhi Tree, which is visible at the apex of the stele. His left hand is palm up, open to receive wisdom and his right hand touches the earth (a gesture called bhumisparsamudra and a symbol of his Enlightenment), calling the earth to witness his new knowledge of the Four Noble Truths.

Another typical scene that soon followed was the Buddha preaching his first sermon (ie. “turning the wheel of the law (the dharma)), shown in this example. The Buddha makes the dharmacakramudra, the turning the wheel of the law (the dharma) gesture, which symbolizes the spreading of the law (the Four Noble Truths) to all directions. He is essentially setting the wheel of the law in motion. More extensive analysis on the image of the Buddha can be found later in the lecture.

The Magadha region in the north of India emerged as the center of the first Indian empire, the Mauryan Dynasty. The empire prospered due to its control of the river trade, forests, and rich deposits of minerals and strategic expansion. The third emperor of this dynasty, Ashoka (Aśoka, pronounced Ashoke), who came to the throne two-hundred and eighteen years after Buddha’s Enlightenment, was the first leader to accept Buddhism and thus the first major patron of Buddhist art. After inheriting the empire, Ashoka made a dramatic conversion to Buddhism after witnessing the carnage of his conquest of Kalinga. He became a Buddhist and a pacifist and instructed his subjects to practice compassion and ethical behavior. The code of behavior (dharma or referred to as dhamma in his edicts) also showed political astuteness and ingrained a social responsibility in an empire where tensions between urban merchants and the Brahmin caste threatened stability. Buddhism did not become the state religion, but through Ashoka’s support, it spread widely and rapidly.

Note: Patronage

Art historians often use royal empires to label or date religious objects, especially architecture. However, this is often a non-productive method since it was the laity who also commissioned these objects or members of the royal family, not the ruler himself. Or, if it was the ruler he often was acting in a personal capacity as a devotee, or sometimes it was to consolidate religion and politics.

One of Ashoka’s first artistic programs was the erection of pillars scattered throughout the empire, some of which had edicts inscribed upon them. The first pillar was discovered in the sixteenth century and the edicts were translated in the 1830s. Since the seventeenth century, one hundred and fifty Ashokan inscriptions have been found carved into the face of rocks and cave walls, which, along with the pillars, served to mark his vast kingdom that stretched across northern India, south to below the central Deccan plateau, and in areas now known as Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. The rocks and pillars were placed along trade routes and in border cities where the edicts could be read by the largest number of people possible. They were also erected at pilgrimage sites such as at Bodh Gaya, the place of Enlightenment, Sarnath, the site of the First Sermon, and Sanchi, the site of an important Buddhist architectural structure.

Some pillars were inscribed with dedicatory inscriptions that give a firm date and names Ashoka as the patron. The script is Brahmi, the language from which all Indic languages have developed. A few of the edicts found in the western part of India are written in a script that is closely related to Sanskrit. One in Afghanistan is inscribed in both Aramaic and Greek, demonstrating Ashoka’s desire to reach the many cultures of his kingdom. The pillars vary from forty to fifty inches in height. Only nineteen of the original pillars survive and many are in fragments.

Some of the inscriptions are secular in nature. Ashoka apologizes for the massacre in Kalinga and assures the people that he now has only their welfare in mind. Some boast of the good works that Ashoka has done to provide for his people or inform them of his reforms. The pillars and edicts that have faith-related inscriptions represent the first physical evidence of Buddhism. The inscriptions assert Ashoka’s Buddhism and support his desire to spread the dharma throughout his kingdom. The edicts, through their strategic placement and couched in the Buddhist dharma, serve to underscore Ashoka’s administrative role as a tolerant leader.

It is this pillar that was adopted as the national emblem of India, here depicted on the onerupee note and the two-rupee coin. The large cakra that used to grace the tops of the four lion’s heads is in the center of the national flag of India.

Suggested comparisons with previous lecture material:

Ashoka’s edicts compared with the codes from the Law Code of Hammurabi and/or the Votive Statue of Gudea. Students can be asked to think about what information does each ruler want to impart about his rule? How? Why?

The Lion Capital of Sarnath, erected at Sarnath where Buddha preached his first sermon, is the most famous pillar. Currently, the pillar remains where it was originally sunk into the ground, but the capital is now on display at the Sarnath Museum. Several Buddhist symbols are present in the capital.

Lotus (padma): The lotus is probably the most recognizable symbol of Buddhism, found at the base of this capital. It is a pervasive symbol of transcendence: the lotus flower rises through the muddy waters of the mundane world and into the pure air where it spectacularly blooms with nary a trace of the mud from which it came. It is the perfect metaphor for the Buddha and his followers as they rise from the mud of desire, avarice, etc., to the purity of Enlightenment. The Buddha, unless he is standing, always sits in what is known as full lotus (padmasana) position, legs crossed with his feet turned up and placed on opposite thighs representing his full achievement of the purity of Enlightenment. He and other deities are also often depicted as seated or standing upon a lotus throne indicating that they exist in a transcendental space. Deities also often hold a lotus, usually blue, but sometimes white.

On top of the lotus in the capital rests the drum on which four animals are carved representing the four directions: a horse (west), an ox (east), an elephant (south), and a lion (north). Each of the animals can also be identified by each of the four perils of samsara (birth, disease, death, decay). The animals follow one another endlessly turning the wheel of existence.

Four lions stand atop the drum. They also face in the four cardinal directions. Their mouths are open roaring to spread the dharma across the land. Again, the lion references the Buddha, a member of the Śakya (lion) clan. The lion is also a symbol of royalty and leadership and may also represent Ashoka himself. A wheel (the dharmacakra—the wheel of the law) was originally mounted atop the lions. Thus, the pillar reads from bottom to top. The lotus represents the mundane world and the four animals remind the practitioner of the unending cycle of samsara as we remain, through our ignorance and fear, stuck in the material world. But the cakras between them offer the promise of the dharma that aids one to the unmoving center at the hub of the wheel. The lions are the Buddha himself from whom the knowledge of release from samsara is possible and the cakra at the apex represents moksa, the release from samsara.

Suggested comparisons with previous lecture material:

Ashoka’s edicts compared with the codes from the Law Code of Hammurabi and/or the Votive Statue of Gudea. Students can be asked to think about what information does each ruler want to impart about his rule? How? Why?

The first visual images of Buddhism did not portray a human likeness of the Buddha. Instead devotees focused on objects to aid their practice. Practitioners revered objects associated with the historical Buddha such as his ashes, the objects he touched, and the places he visited. As a result, stupas, mounds of dirt (the word means ‘heap) that contain the Buddha’s ashes, proliferated throughout northern India, predominantly under the patronage of King Ashoka. Essentially, stupas are reliquaries (review with class previous discussions of reliquaries, pilgrimage, and relics). They are also memorials marking the location of an event in the Buddha’s life and can function as votive offerings when in miniature form. Miniature stupas also function as votive offerings. Practitioners use stupas as a focus for meditation and to help them to understand the dharma. A great video from the Asian Art Museum can be found here.

The practice of building stupas spread up into Nepal and Tibet (called chorten), Bhutan, Thailand, Burma (chedi), China, and other countries that adopted a Buddhist doctrine. Stupas changed in physical form, but not in function.

Why a stupa? One of the early sutras (stories, threads) records that the Buddha gave directions to honor his remains (the Maha-parinibbāna sutra). They were to be buried in a stupa at the crossing of the four great roads (the four directions of space). The stupa form was already a way in which the ashes of an honored teacher or individual were buried. Prior to his death (parinirvana), the Buddha directed that stupas should be erected in many places other than those associated with historic moments of his life so that “the hearts of many shall be made calm and glad.”

The Great Stupa at Sanchi (the Māhāstūpa), for example, is the oldest stone structure in India and one of the primary destinations of Buddhist pilgrimage. It was commissioned by the Emperor Ashoka in the third century BCE. In the first century BCE, four intricately carved gateways and a balustrade that encircled the entire stupa were added. King Ashoka’s visit to the stupa is commemorated on the East Gate. Although Ashoka did lend his station to the creation of the Great Stupa at Sanchi, a thousand lay individuals also contributed.

Like other ancient structures associated with religion or government, the Great Stupa is located on a hill, high above the laity, built on an important trade route. The stupa is a solid object and so, the practitioner does not enter the stupa but circumambulates it as a meditational practice. The stupa is used as a support for meditation and as a symbolic reminder of the awakened, enlightened, state of the mind. The practitioner can walk around the stupa or move around it through a series of prostrations.

Entrance to the circular path is gained through four gates, each representational of the four great life events of the Buddha: East (Buddha’s birth), South (Enlightenment), West (First Sermon), and North (Nirvana). The gates are turned at right angles to the axis to guide the practioner in the manner of the arms of a svastika, a directional symbol that, in Sanskrit, means “to be good” (“su” means good or auspicious and “asti” means to be).

This movement suggests the endless cycle of samsara and the movement toward the center, which leads the practitioner to the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths and into the center of the unmoving hub of the wheel: Enlightenment (the center of the stupa where the ashes are buried—Buddha—the source of the knowledge). The gateway signals the movement from the secular space outside of the stupa into the spiritual space inside the balustrade. The south gate is believed to be the oldest since it has an Ashokan pillar and is the primary point of entrance. The vertical posts of the gates are covered with various versions of the Ashokan pillars, underscoring Ashoka’s presence here in Sanchi, the message of Buddhism that he wished to spread, and his goal of achieving positive merit.

All of the surfaces of the gates are covered with low reliefs. The horizontal lintels are designed to resemble scrolls that have been unrolled in order to read the stories of the Buddha’s past lives. The reliefs also provided religious instruction in an age of limited literacy. However, the Buddha is not depicted in human form. The Buddha was depicted aniconically through a variety of symbols until roughly the last century BCE, about five-hundred years after his death. References to the Buddha include a cakra, his footprints, an empty throne, the Bodhi Tree, or a stupa. The gates also contain detailed forest scenes and towns, which offer a wealth of information about contemporary life.

Buddhism, the first Indian religion to acquire large communal spaces, inspired three types of architecture: the stupa, the Buddhist monastery (vihara), and a sepulchral monument (the caitya), a stupa that holds no relics. Between the first century BCE and the first century CE, major architectural construction in the creation of numerous stupas, viharas and caityas was undertaken, sponsored by donations raised from the entire community (the samgha).

Why a monastic system? In the early years of Buddhism, following the practices of contemporary religions, monks dedicated themselves to an esthetic life wandering the country with no permanent living quarters. They were fed, clothed, and housed by people wishing to gain merit. Eventually monastic complexes were created for the monks close enough to a town in order to receive alms, but far enough away so as not to disturb meditation. Many were established along trade routes, enabling the monks to receive a constant flow of goods and for traders and travelers to received blessing in return. The monastery quickly became an important aspect of the practice with a three-fold purpose: as a residence for monks, a center for religious work (on behalf of the laity), and a center for Buddhist learning.

An example of this practice is the monastic center at Vaishali. One can see the remains of one of several stupas, an Ashokan pillar, the monks’ cells, and administrative centers. Soon these types of monasteries were replaced by rock-cut accommodations for more durability. 

The rock-cut caves were established in the third century BCE in the western Deccan. The earliest include the Bhaja Caves, the Karle Caves, and the Ajanta Caves. At Bhaja, the site of twenty-two caves, there are no representations of the Buddha since Bhaja was active during the earliest phase of Buddhism (Hinayana) when no images of the Buddha were created. It is the earliest example of this type of rock-cut cave and closely resembles the wooden structures that preceded it. The main chaitya hall at Bhaja contains a solid stone stupa surrounded in the nave flanked by two side aisles. The objects found in the caves suggest a profitable relationship existed between the monks and the wealthy traders. The Bhaja caves were located on a major trade route from the Arabian Sea eastward toward the Deccan region, linking north and south India. In the interior of a chaitya hall at Karle, space for circumambulation of the stupa has been created.

Eventually, the rock-cut monasteries became quite complex. They consisted of several stories with inner courtyards and verandas. During the second phase of Buddhism, Mahayana, where images of the Buddha and other deities were introduced, some facades had relief images of the Buddha and other the deities. This is noted at Ajanta where, in the chaitya hall, an image of the Buddha has been added to the stupa. Reliefs carved into the side aisles of the chaitya hall depict scenes from the Buddha’s life.

There are three phases of Buddhism: Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana (the diamond or indestructible path also known as tantrayana, the tantric vehicle). All three developed in India, but Vajrayana was, and still is primarily a Tibetan Buddhist practice and is usually discussed later in Survey II—Art and Architecture of India after 1200. In each phase, changes to the Buddhist catechism were made and the images of the faith were adapted accordingly. However, each phase does not necessary supplant the others. Hinayana (in the form of Theraveda (“doctrine of the elders) since the term Hinayana is no longer used) is still practiced in portions of southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos and Burma in particular. Mahayana, or versions of it, is still practiced in China, Viet Nam, and Japan. The historical stages go by different names as the Buddhist practice blended with the indigenous one of each country.

Hinayana (shravakayana)

Generally, Hinayana is based on the original teachings of the Buddha. Release from suffering can only be achieved through personal effort and learning, and the goal is individual salvation. The Buddha is regarded as a historical person, an earthly man, and teacher and not as a transcendent being. There is a clear monastic tradition associated with Hinayana (as noted in the numerous rock-cut monasteries that were created during this period at Bhaja and Karle, for example). Understanding the Buddha’s journey and the knowledge is primary; worship of deities is secondary. The dharma is revered; the Buddha himself is not. The simple concept is release from samsara.

During the historical period of Hinayana, no images of the Buddha were made. He was often depicted by his absence (an empty throne, the empty space under the Bodhi Tree). He is also depicted by various symbols (the Bodhi Tree, feet, a cakra, etc.).

Mahayana (the greater vehicle)

Mahayana is rooted in the teachings of the historical Buddha, but seeks salvation for all beings. This attitude is embodied in the idea of the bodhisattva whose outstanding quality is compassion. The Mahayana places less emphasis on the monastery because through direct worship and assistance from the bodhisattva an individual can attain release. A bodhisattva is an enlightened being who has achieved Buddhahood (moksha: release from samsara), but chooses to remain in the temporal world to assist others.

Vajrayana (the diamond or indestructible path)

Vajrayana, the form practiced in Tibet, promotes that the means to Enlightenment is available to all and the way is expedited through elaborate rituals.

Images of the Buddha

In the late first and early second century BCE, during the Mahayana phase, a standard the image of the Buddha was established in Mathura, Madhya Pradesh, India. Artists were already familiar with sculpting the human image in stone (kings and attendants as well as some early Hindu images), but for the images of the Buddha they referred to the canonical literature that described what the Buddha looked like:

  • a religious leader and thus in religious garb,
  • always frontal, and
  • always on a throne with usually lions in support beneath.

(The two-tiered formation is standard for the seated Buddha. He exists in the transcendental world as indicated by the upper tier and the larger figures that inhabit this space. The lower tier is the mundane world usually inhabited by lions, deer and/or devotees.)

From surviving seals, such as the so-called ‘yogic’ seal, there is evidence that the seated posture utilized for Mahavira, and later Buddha, may have originated during the proto-historical period. This seal depicts a deity seated in what is now referred to as the meditation or lotus position (padmasana).

The Stele of Buddha and Attendants is a good object with which to detail all of the visual aspects of the iconography associated with images of the Buddha. The most common characteristics included on the Buddha are the urna (the “third” eye), which symbolizes an ability to see past our mundane universe of suffering, the ushnisha (the cranial bump—a symbol of Buddha’s omniscience, which was transformed through the centuries into a topknot), elongated and empty earlobes (recalling his princely past of wearing heavy, expensive jewelry), and cakras on the soles of his feet and hands. If he is seated, he is always depicted in full lotus. Buddha, and other Buddhist deities, are also depicted with halos. This symbol may have originated during the Kushan Empire under King Kunishka later spreading into the west to be adopted and utilized in Christian visual culture.

The mudras, hand gestures of the Buddha, were fixed at the origin of the first human image of the Buddha. They were then transferred to the variety of other deities introduced into Buddhism during Mahayana Buddhism.

The common mudras:

  • Abhayamudra: fear not
  • Varadamudra: gift bestowing gesture
  • Bhumisparsamudra: the earth touching gesture
  • Dharmacakramudra: the First Sermon
  • Dhyanimudra: meditation or balance
  • Namaskaramudra: greeting, prayer, or adoration (hands folded at the chest)

A rapidly developing Roman influence on the art of Gandhara, at the northwest frontier of the Kushan empire, may have stimulated development of Buddha images in human form throughout the large Kushan empire, from Afghanistan to Madhya Pradesh. Some thought the classical influence was Hellenistic, but it is clear that the main influence on Gandharan art is that of Rome at the time of Trajan and later. Other influences include Persian and local Indian styles. This is noted in the Seated Gandharan Buddha, circa 182. Here we see the formula of the Gandharan seated Buddha image. He is seated on a lotus throne making the turning-the-wheel-of the-law mudra (dharmacakramudra) beneath the Bodhi Tree. Attendant figures flank him. The ushnisha and urna are visible. Because of his toga-like dress and Roman features, this Buddha is clearly a product of a cultural exchange with the Greco-Roman world. A good comparison would be between the Seated Mathuran Buddha and the Seated Gandharan Buddha.

Compared to the standard seating type, the standing image of the Buddha, seen in the Standing Gandharan Buddha, was not as popular. The treatment of the robe is particularly characteristic of the Gandharan style: the folds are tight and rib-like clinging to the body, emphasizing the Buddha’s belly and the bend of his left knee. This complex folding pattern, including the asymmetrical U shape, is also found on togas on Roman statues. Since the fourth century, pockets of Hellenistic culture thrived in present-day Afghanistan and southern Uzbekistan when the Greeks, under Alexander the Great, reached the borders of India. In addition, Gandhara’s position near the east/west trade routes also seems to have stimulated contact with Roman culture.

The International Gupta Style

In 320 CE, after the breakup of the Kushan Empire, northern India was divided into a number of petty kingdoms. The king of one small principality, last name of Gupta, established the Gupta dynasty by continuously subduing the neighboring states. A succession of able warriors with long reigns brought peace and prosperity to a vital area in north India extending from coast to coast. Although the Guptas were Hindus, they contributed to the support of both Buddhism and Jainism. In fact, one of the last great rulers built a monastery at the famous Buddhist center of Nalanda in Bihar.

It was a time of cultural expansion and colonialism, which saw the influence of Indian art and ideas extending into Central Asia, China, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia. These were, with the exception of the Pala and Sena schools of Bihar, the last great days of Buddhist art. As Hinduism displaced Buddhism in India, the future of the art, like that of the faith, moved eastward.

Because of its dominance, Gupta sculpture established the standard type of the Buddha image. This was exported into two main directions: to Southeast Asia and Indonesia, and through Central Asia to East Asia. There are two major regional styles in Gupta sculpture, with many secondary styles and regional variations of minor importance.

The Mathura style, found in Uttar Pradesh, represents a softened continuation of the harsh Kushan style, typically made of the red Mathuran sandstone into which details can be worked but with little refinement. The Sarnath, seen here in the First Sermon, is the second style and utilizes the cream-colored sandstone that can be worked to a high degree of finish and detail.

The Pala Dynasty in northern India was the last great Buddhist Dynasty. It was supported by a large and thriving monastic community from 750–1174 CE. It was destroyed by the Mongols in the twelfth century. Two examples from the Pala Dynasty are the Seated Buddha at Enlightenment, tenth century, and the Seated Buddha Teaching the Dharma (The First Sermon), eleventh century. The focus on these two stele is on the Buddha, but the two attendant figures, the bodhisattvas, indicate that the Pala Dynasty followed a Mahayana practice.

Since the bodhisattvas remain connected to the mundane world, they still wear clothing and ornament that indicates this attachment such as earrings, arm and leg bands, and decorative dhotis. They rarely sit in full lotus position like the Buddha, who sits with his legs crossed in a position of permanent enlightenment unable to directly aid the Buddhist practitioner. The bodhisattvas sit in half lotus with the foot of their unbent leg resting on a lotus footstool. When called upon they are able to quickly rise to a standing position coming to help a practitioner in distress.

Tara is the female manifestation of the bodhisattva of compassion. Her name means “star,” or “guide.” She is also known as the saviouress as she saves the practitioner from the obstacles in daily life as well as obstacles the practitioner may face in their journey to enlightenment. For example, her popular form is the Tara of the Eight Great Perils, each with a mundane as well as a transcendental facet. Here, lions represent a threat someone may face that Tara can save him or her from. But lions can also represent pride, which can stand in the way of a practitioner’s goal of enlightenment. In the same manner, by calling out Tara’s mantra, she appears in a metaphysical sense and guides the individual through the obstacle of pride.

Here Tara makes two mudras—fear not (abhayamudra) and the gift bestowing mudra (varadamudra). The stele follows the stylistic precepts established by the fifth century: She occupies the central space existing in the transcendental realm. Beneath her exists the mundane world, which in this particular stele, contains two lions and a small human devotee. She sits on a lotus throne and holds a blue lotus in her left hand. She is fully frontal and seated on a lion throne (two lions flank her). Her head is surrounded by a halo of light (the prabhamandala).

At the End of Class...

Standing Buddha, Gandhara, c. second–third century CE.

At the conclusion of the lecture, questions can be posed to the students that include:

  • How was a visual language of Buddhism developed that underscored specific tenets of the faith?
  • Once Ashoka embraced Buddhism, how was it spread?
  • What was an aniconic Buddhist practice and why and how did that change to one that now emphasizes the icon of the Buddha and the bodhisattvas?
  • How was Buddhism and its imagery spread throughout India?

With this last question, the class can explore the Silk Road and the construction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in what is now Afghanistan. Students can be asked to consider “Why would colossal Buddhas be created in this region in what is now Afghanistan?” The area contained numerous Buddhist monasteries and sanctuaries. As noted prior, monasteries were built along the trade routes and became significant sites of pilgrimage.

These two colossal Buddhas were placed along the Silk Road. Travelers could ascend a staircase to the level of the shoulders of the smaller of the two and follow a ledge allowing for circumambulation of the Buddha’s head. Inside the niche that enclosed the head was a painting of a sun.

Q: Looking at the figures closely, what style are they reminiscent of?

They were built by the Kushans and represent the Gandharan school of art. They demonstrate the interchange of Indian, Hellenistic, Roman and Sasanian influences. The main bodies were carved from the sandstone cliffs. The details of the faces, hands, robes, etc. were additions made from mud and straw and coated with stucco, which were then painted. The arms were made from the same mixture plastered onto wooden supports.

Q: Why were they destroyed?

(Information on the Buddhas can be found here.)

A Taliban commander, Abdul Wahed, announced his intention to blow up the Buddhas in 1997 prior to taking control of the valley. Once he was in control of Bamiyan, he drilled holes in the Buddhas’s head for explosives. He was prevented from moving his plan along, however, by a direct order from Mullah Omar. In 1999, Mullah Mohammed Omar issued a decree in favor of preserving the Buddhas. He recognized that although the Afghans were no longer Buddhist, the statues could be a potential source of income from international visitors.

However, the radical clerics began a campaign to crack down on “un-Islamic” segments in society and soon banned all form of imagery, music, etc. in accordance with their strict interpretation of Sharia. Four-hundred clerics from across Afghanistan declared the statues to be against the tenets of Islam (they are idols after all). The organization of the Islamic Conference, which included Pakistan, Saudia Arabia and the United Arab emirates, the three Islamic nations that recognized the Taliban government, joined the protest against destroying the statues. India and Japan offered to transfer them to their own countries or to help cover them—but these overtures were rejected by the Taliban.

The statues were destroyed by artillery fire, guns, and dynamite over a series of several weeks staring on March 2, 2001. Some reported that the statues were destroyed in retaliation for the economic sanctions imposed upon Afghanistan when the Taliban took control. After years of impoverishment from Russian rule, the new government asked for monetary support, but was denied due to the reactionary tenets of the new regime. The Taliban were angered when offers of money came in in support of these statues as opposed to requests for support for the Afghan people in the initial months after the expulsion of the Russians. The Afghan foreign minister stated that the destruction was anything but retaliation against the international community for economic sanctions stating, “We are destroying the statues in accordance with Islamic law and it is purely a religious issue.” See here for more information.

Q: Should they be rebuilt?

Further Resources

Smarthistory on Buddhist Art

Karen Shelby (author) is the co-founder of Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR) and an Assistant Professor of Art History at Baruch College. She specializes in nineteenth-century European art, early twentieth-century European and American art and teaches courses in nineteenth-century art, twentieth-century art, the art market, women and art, and Asian art.

Amy Raffel (editor) is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has a Master’s degree in Contemporary Art history from the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU) and has taught Introduction to Modern Art as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Lehman College since 2010. Currently, Amy is a genome contributor for Artsy and editor and contributor of Art History Teaching Resources.