We flew through the thin, light-suffused mist of a December afternoon in north India before landing among open fields outside the paramount site of Hindu pilgrimage: Varanasi, a temple town that curls around the Ganges, the equivalent of Rome or Jerusalem in the Hindu imagination. It was here, scarcely 15 miles from the airport, among [...]


Depicting the Buddha

His image is so commonplace that you could believe it must always have existed — yet for six centuries after his death, he was never once depicted in human form

Various stone and bronze Buddha heads

We flew through the thin, light-suffused mist of a December afternoon in north India before landing among open fields outside the paramount site of Hindu pilgrimage: Varanasi, a temple town that curls around the Ganges, the equivalent of Rome or Jerusalem in the Hindu imagination. It was here, scarcely 15 miles from the airport, among fields now yellow with mustard flowers, that a renunciant prince had, upon gaining enlightenment some 25 centuries ago, given his first sermon, setting what Buddhists call the Wheel of Dharma into motion.

At a deer park once called Isipatana, now Sarnath, a 35-year-old Gautama Buddha, hardly older than Christ when he climbed the hill of Calvary, revealed the eightfold path to liberation from suffering, his four noble truths and the doctrine of the impermanence of everything, including the Self.

It was to the remains of the monastery and shrine at Sarnath that the pilgrims from East and Southeast Asia came, as pilgrims had for well over 1,500 years, along a subsidiary branch of the Great Silk Road, which ran through the high snowy mountains that girdle the Indian subcontinent into a riverine plain that stretches across what is today Pakistan and north India. The pilgrims took an exit off that highway of goods and ideas that ran from China to Rome in order to honour what may well have been the most influential doctrine to travel along its lines of transmission — the word of the Buddha, and the art made in his name.

For the first six centuries after his death, the Buddha was never depicted in human form. He was only ever represented aniconically by a sacred synecdoche — his footprints, for example; or a parasol, an auspicious mark of kingship and spirituality; or the Wisdom Tree, also known as the Bodhi Tree, under which he gained enlightenment. How did the image of the Buddha enter the world of men? How does one give a human face to god, especially to he who was never meant to be a god nor ever said one word about god? How, in rendering such a man in human form, does one counterintuitively end up creating an object of deification? And what is the power of such an object?

A 14th-century Tibetan painting on cloth of Bhaisajyaguru, or the Medicine Buddha, who is typically depicted with blue skin and holding an apothecary’s gallipot. Medicine Buddha (Thangka), circa 14th century, pigment on cloth, Tibet, Kate S. Buckingham Fund/Bridgeman Images

These were the questions that were uppermost in my mind as I drove to Sarnath. Gautama, believed to have been born in the fifth century B.C., had lived and taught the entire duration of his 80-year life within 200 miles of where I was. His doctrine, partly a reaction to the rigidity of Vedic religion, or Brahmanism — widely seen in India as an early form of Hinduism — had flourished here for more than a thousand years, patronized and disseminated by kings.

India’s oldest stone architecture was Buddhist. There had been viharas, or monasteries, that stretched across the Indian mainland, from Sarnath in the north to Nagapattinam, deep in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. There were the glorious painted caves at Ajanta, in western India, and, most intact and enchanting of all, there was the great stupa at Sanchi, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

The remains of stupas and viharas are scattered all across India, including at Sarnath, but Buddhism, as a religion (though curiously not as a philosophical doctrine) left this land hundreds of years ago. Many explanations have been given for why Buddhism vanished from India. Some say its core teaching was absorbed into a resurgent Hindu faith — in one major branch of modern Hinduism, the Buddha is seen, somewhat controversially, as an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu — while others suggest that Buddhism grew too insulated and doctrinal.

Sarnath was full to overflowing. I picked my way through the low-lying slabs of Buddhist foundations, their red brick now black with time. The fragments of ruins lay all around me. Ahead, set among manicured hedges and neat flower beds, were the eroded remains of the Dhamek stupa.

We know from two highly detailed accounts by the Chinese monks Faxian and Xuanzang, who visited Sarnath in the beginning of the fifth century A.D. and the middle of the seventh, respectively, that this had once been a vast monastery complex composed of hundreds of sacred monuments, where, according to Xuanzang, no fewer than 3,000 monks lived and taught. Opposite the stupa, he had seen a mighty column “of blue colour, bright as a mirror.” The base of the stupa today, 93 feet in diameter, still conveyed solidity and strength, but its top half was worn down to a brick drum, hardly more impressive than the kilns that dotted the countryside in these parts.

To gaze up at the empty niches in its eight projecting faces, which scholars believe once held statues of the Buddha, long since destroyed or plundered, was to be reminded of how powerful an absence this figure could leave. The image of the Buddha, with all its iterations, from India to Japan, variant yet somehow changeless, is so literally iconic that we forget that the business of giving a face, let alone a human face, to divinity is fraught with anxiety.

The history of religious art, from Byzantine iconoclasm to Islam’s horror at representing any aspect of God’s creation, is replete with examples of how provocative such an act was. In the case of Buddhism, the provocation was twofold: Early Buddhists did not regard the Buddha as a divine being but a great teacher. He could not be deified for the simple reason that although Buddhism, unlike Jainism — another doctrine, which emerged at the time of Buddhism, as a reaction to Brahmanic orthodoxy — is not actively nontheistic, it is so reticent on the subject of god as to virtually eschew him. The other problem with representing the Buddha in human form, as the great Sri Lankan art historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy points out in his 1918 essay “Buddhist Primitives,” is that early Buddhism was disdainful of art itself. He writes: “The arts were looked upon as physical luxuries and loveliness a snare.” Quoting the Dasa Dhamma Sutta, an early Buddhist text, Coomaraswamy adds: “Beauty is nothing to me, neither the beauty of the body nor that that comes of dress.” The relationship between religious and artistic expression is profound, but the evolution of one does not always coincide with the other. Before the early Buddhists found an aesthetic language of their own, they had to rely on a pre-Buddhist lexicon, no less than early Christianity had to borrow from Greece and Rome. In the case of the early Buddhists, the austerity of their doctrine stood in marked contrast to existing forms of non-Buddhist art in India, which were an expression of what Coomaraswamy calls “the Indian lyric spirit.”

The story of how the image of Buddha finally broke forth into the world after 600 years of symbolism is one of the most intriguing in the history of art — one that is inextricably tied up with the advent of a new dynasty in India that, unconstrained by the conventions of the past, was able to set the image of the Buddha free into the world of men.

It begins with the Kushans, descendants of pastoral nomads who emerged like a wind out of the Eastern steppe around the second century B.C. They were heirs to a dazzling hybridity, which included the first ever confluence of Greece, China, Persia and India. Evidence suggests that it was under their reign that a reconstituted form of Buddhism, known as Mahayana (Great Vehicle) Buddhism, flourished and was transmitted along Kushan-controlled trade routes, deep into the East, through China, and eventually Korea and Japan. It was this rare meeting of politics and faith that led to the discovery, Coomaraswamy felt, “that the two worlds of spiritual purity and sensuous delight need not, and perhaps ultimately cannot, be divided.”

The Kushans had come into a world that was already in flux. The rise of the Achaemenids in Persia around the time of the Buddha had produced the first truly global empire. Gautama’s own semi-independent tribal state of the Shakyas, on the border of India and Nepal, with its capital at Kapilavastu, was less remote than we imagine.

Everywhere, across what was not yet the Silk Road, old enclosed societies were being changed by a new awareness of the world beyond. The Achaemenids had waged war with Greece, inadvertently exciting the future ambitions of Alexander the Great. In the wake of Alexander came the first centralized Indian state, the Maurya Empire, their founder known as Sandrocottus to the Greeks, Chandragupta Maurya to the Indians. The support shown by Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, of Buddhism in the third century B.C. had an electrifying effect on the fortunes of the new religion, not unlike that of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. It was Ashoka who is said to have erected the column of dazzling blue that Xuanzang saw at Sarnath in the seventh century A.D., and to have spread Buddhism in both India and Sri Lanka. But it was the Kushans who turned Buddhism from a local Indian cult into a world religion.

The Great Buddha of Kotoku-in, a Buddhist temple in Kamakura, Japan. The bronze statue, just over 43 feet tall, was likely erected in A.D. 1252, in the Kamakura period.Daibutsu, Kotoku-In Temple, Kamakura, Japan, Thomas Kierok/LAIF/Redux

The greatest of all Kushan kings was Kanishka, great-grandson of Kujula Kadphises, and to look upon his headless statue from the first centuries A.D., now in terribly reduced circumstances at the shabby Government Museum in Mathura, 115 miles southeast of New Delhi, is to feel as profound a sense of cultural dislocation as I have ever known. He is made of red Mathura sandstone but dressed in nomadic riding boots, redolent of the steppe. He holds a sword and mace, and across his long cloak, the inscription in middle Brahmi, an ancient Indian script, now extinct, reads: “The Great King, King of Kings, Son of a God, Kanishka.”

It was on coins issued by this museum-quality narcissist that we see some of the earliest images of the Buddha in human form. Was the depiction of the Buddha as a human being the legacy of Greek influence in Bactria, or was there, as Coomaraswamy believes, a now lost origin story of the first Buddha in India, which was then adapted by Greek-trained craftsmen? These are the questions that swirl around this enigmatic moment in the history of art.

The clearest answers lie in the fact that the Kushans would go on to establish two great centres of statuary. One was Gandhara, a region that stretches across modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, and where the statues are of ashen schist and bear the unmistakable mark of Hellenism. The other school — one I like more, for being less derivative — was Mathura, where craftsmen worked with a white-speckled russet stone. These Buddhas, unlike those of Gandhara, are of fuller body, with soft Indian bellies. They look less vain and haughty than the Gandhara Buddhas, and their faces possess a deep sympathy — that hint of a smile, as sorrowful and knowing an emotion as has ever been expressed in stone.

From these two great workshops some of the earliest Buddhas burst forth into the world. “This new physical representation,” writes Craig Benjamin, “helped the ideology of Buddhism transform itself into a religion and spread along the trade routes as far south as Sri Lanka and as far east as Korea and Japan.” It was an image that adjusted itself to the places it travelled to, from Cambodia and Korea to Indonesia and Nepal. In addition to the mass production of Buddha’s self, historical Asian texts indicate that Kanishka’s reign also saw the widespread construction of monasteries and stupas, the convening of a major Buddhist conference in Kashmir and the large-scale translation of Buddhist texts into Sanskrit, which served the newly reconstituted religion as a major lingua franca.

At Sarnath standing at the base of the Dhamek stupa, a giant embroidered band of sculpture, geometric designs and verdure wrapped around its midriff, I was reminded of the power of the image of the Buddha. Sacred images in ancient India were not made primarily as objects of beauty but rather as the expression of a philosophical thought, which is why the same image was made again and again. The Swiss artist and scholar Alice Boner, who lived in Varanasi from the 1930s until just before her death in 1981, cautioned against treating these images as mere objects of “aesthetic enjoyment.” They were visual aids, “born in meditation and inner realization.” Their ultimate aim, as “focusing points for the spirit,” was to lead us “back to meditation and to the comprehension of that transcendent reality from which they were born.”

Aatish Taseer’s latest book, “The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges” (2019), was recently released in paperback. His documentary, “In Search of India’s Soul,” produced by Al Jazeera, is streaming now. He is based in New York City.

(Courtesy New York Times Magazine)

For full article please  see www.sundaytimes.lk

When it’s safe to travel …
There are many reasons to travel to northern India, including visiting the holy city of Varanasi. For the purposes of exploring early Buddhist history, the great Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath is a must-see, as is the Government Museum in Mathura, home to some of the best sculptural works made during the Kushan Empire. For a more extended trip through the country, the rock-cut Buddhist caves of Ajanta, in Maharashtra, are also a sight to behold.



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