Development of Buddha statues
Shakyamuni was revered as a great teacher, and following his death, stupas (reliquary mounds containing a relic of the Buddha or another sacred object) were established to honor him. The abstract form of the stupa symbolized the Buddha’s passage to the pure state of nirvana and served as one of many abstract symbols representing him. Though the form of the stupa was that of a simple. Solid dome, the gateways at its entrance and railing encircling and demarcating the sacred space were often carved with scenes from the Buddha’s life and from his previous lives (jataka tales). In the earliest exant Indian stupa railings and gateways of the second and first centuries BCE, symbols in these scenes, rather than anthromorphic images, represent the Buddha.
There is some controversy among scholoars as to the meaning and purpose of these aniconic images o sumbols, but it is nonetheless clear that they were intended to indicate the Buddha and they sometimes refer to sites important to his life. In some instances, the symbols may have had multivalent meanings, indicating both the Buddha and a pilgrimage site associated with him, or they may have had some other significance no longer clear to us. A few examples of these symbols are the wheel (chakra), indicating his turning of the wheel of the law; a seat or throne, which refers to a place where he once sat; two deer, suggesting his teaching at a Deer Park at Sarnath; and a tree, symbolizing a tirtha (a place of pilgrimage or worship) or the tree under which he, or a previous Buddha, became enlightened.
These symbols were not merely associated with the Buddha; they are believed to have been equated with the Buddha. Early texts suggest the importance of the four pilgrimage sites most closely associated with Shakyamuni - Lumbini, Bodha Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinagara. The continued presence of the Buddha at these locations is stated in the Mahaparinirvana sutra, which asserts that even though the Buddha is dead, he is present at the places where he had been. The stupa, too is equated with the Buddha – “when the relic is seen, the Buddha is seen” – and the Buddha says, in the Sutra on the Merit of Bathing the Buddha, translated into Chinese in 710 by Yijing:
If men, women or the five groups of mendicants would build an image of the Buddha or if those without strength would deposit one as a large grain of barley, or build a stupa- its body the size of a jujube, its mast the size of a needle, its parasol equal to a flake of bran, its relic like a mustard seed – or if someone writes the dharma-verse and installs it inside the stupa, it would be like doing homage by offering up a rare jewel. If in accordance with one’s own strength and ability one can be truly sincere and respectful, it [the image or stupa] would be like my present body, equal without any difference.
Buddhists today continue to use these aniconic symbols alongside the images of the Buddha that were first created in the first century CE, both in Mathura, in north India, and in Greater Gandhara, in modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan. The reasons for the sudden appearance of the Buddha image are not explained in texts and can only be surmised. Interestingly, the images, though consisted in iconography, differ in style, with the Gandhara region reflecting Greco-Roman influence and the Mathura sculptures planted firmly in th preexisting Indian sculptural tradition.
In 327 BCE Alexander, the great Macedonian king, had conquered the regions of Bactria, Gandhara, and Swat and then moved south to the Indus. Although he did not maintain control of the region for long – Chandragupta Maurya (c. 311-287 BCE) established a new Indian empire – Greek rule survived in some areas north of the Hindu Kush into the first century BCE. The Parthians and Shakas then dominated the region until the arrival of the Kushans, a tribe of Yuezhi (later known as the Huns), whi also pushed south into north India and the area around Mathura. With the ascension of King Kanishka (r. 129-155 CE), a possible proponent of Buddhism, came the first firmly dated statues of the Buddha.
What factors during the first century CE led to the creation of Buddha statues? The impact of Greek culture was strong, and some scholars equate the earliest Buddha images with the Greco-Roman impulse to carve anthropomorphic figures. The Gandhara style very much reflects Greco-Roman sculpture, with its heavily robed figures placed within aracaded frameworks. The Kushans seem to have been followers of Zoroastrianism, had images of Iranian gods, and created shrines both in Mathura and in Sirkh Kotal that included large-scale portraits of the kings. Their coinage, which includes gods of various religions, including Buddhism, provides further evidence that they subscribed to traditions that portrayed the human body.
In north India, where the Kushans also held sway, life-sized images of yakshis and yakshas (female and male nature spirits), carved in a bold style, prefigured the early Buddha images from the Mathura region. The Jains may also have played a role; a few small images of tirhtakhara (Jain prophets), in a seated pose akin to that o the Buddha images precede the Buddhist works. Finally, scholars have thought that the broad practice of devotionalism in Buddhism particularly as observed by the Mahayana school, influenced the process to some degree. But active contribution by the monks of Mathura suggests that both the monastic community and the Early Buddhist Schools played a greater role than has been believed.
From the earliest period of the stupas into the Gupta period, members of the Gandhara and Imonastic communities made a surprisingly large proportion of the donations documented in inscriptions. A small group of dated Buddhas carved in Mathura during the reign of Kanishka provides an insight into the practice and its significance for the development of the Buddha image. The ecclesiastic Bala, a trepitaka (one who knows the Three Pitakas, all of the Buddhist canon), set up large cult images of a standing Buddha (referred to in the inscription as a boddhistattva, or enlightenment-being) to honor the Sarvastivadin teachers at Sarnath and Shravasti (two sites associated with the Buddha’s teachings). In an act that parallels Bala’s donations, the nun Buddhamitra, also a tripitaka, set up another large scale image at Kausambi, another site sacred for its associated with the historical Buddha, Shakyauni. All three sculptures were carved in Mathura, hundreds of miles for the m dedications. Taken together, the three donations suggest that Bala and Buddhamitra, who knew each other, according to a later inscription, had a specific program in mind.
There has been an assumption that the earliest Buddhist images resulted from the increased influence of Mahayana practice. Yet the wording of the inscriptions, as pointed out by Gregory Schopen, differs from that found in Mahayanist donative texts beginning in the fifth century; Schopen interprets the donations made by Bala and Buddhamitra as related to the Early Schools of Buddhism. Hence it appears that images of the Buddha in north India, at least, arose from the concerted efforts of a few members of the ocal moastic community to establish large cult images at the sites most closely associated with the Buddha.
Another scholarly debate concerns the primacy of Gandhara and Mathura in the development of the Buddha image. Some scholars argue that the preexisting anthropomorphic tradition from the Hellenistic kingdoms of Pakistan and Afghanistan resulted in the creation of the Buddha image. This author, following Johanna van Lohuizen – de Leeuw, Chantal Fabregues, and others believes that certain factors favor an Indian subcontinent, or Mathura, inception. One of the primary arguments for this attribution is the existence of earlier Mathura Jain images (c. 5 CE) with an inconography similar to the Buddha’s. These would seem to serve as a precedent for the Buddha image. Furthermore, a group of Swat Buddhas assigned to the first century CE appears to rely on Mathura-style imagees.
The earliest Buddha images portrayed Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. As mentioned above, while the style of the Mathura and the Gandhara Buddha statues differed radically, the iconography was relatively consistent. The Buddha wore a monk’s robes. His carlobes were distended, indicating his renunciation of the pricely life, a time when he had worn heavy earrings. The ushnisha (cranial protuberance) and the urna (the small dot between his eyebrows) arelakshanas (symbols) that the seer Asita had identified as the marks of a mahapurusha (great man). Buddhaghosa, a later Buddhist teacher and author of commentaries on the Buddhist Pali tets, explains the ushnisha as the well-developed head of a mahapurusha; others believe the bump may merely be the chignon of a prince, and still others think it is evidence of an elightened mind.
The Buddha’s gestures (Mudras) can be identified with various events in his life. For instance the Bhumisparsha mudra, with the right hand pointing downward (calling the earth to witness), refers to the moment when he asked the goddess Prithvi (the earth) to be wintess to his accumulation of merit. The Dharmachakra mudra, with the hands intertwined before the chest (literally turning the wheel of the law), indicates the first sermon at Sarnath. Other gestures such as the Abhaya mudra (reassurance), when used for Shakyamuni Buddha, refer not to a specific event or moment in time but to specific characteristics. The Abhaya mudra laso illustrates how the significance of gestures has changed over time, for that particular gesture was used as a teaching gesture in early Buddhist art.
Buddha images of the early Kushan period in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan usually represent Shakyamuni Buddha, who is often described in donative inscriptions as a Boddhisattva. By the third century Maitreya, who now is a Bodhisattva and who in a future incarnation will be a Buddha, gained popularity. We can trace the course of Buddhism as it made its way to the Far East, the Himalayan countries, and Southeast Asia, but the weakening and destruction of Buddhist monasteries in India in the eleventh and twelfth centuries saw not only the demise of Buddhism in the region but also the concomitant loss of Indian versions of the texts and their implicit explanations of the Buddhism practiced during the centuries following the Kushan period. Inscriptions tell us a certain amount regarding Buddhism in India, as does the evidence of the extant sculpture from this period. Additional information can be found in Chinese monks’ journals and the texts they (and traveling Indian monks) preserved in China, Japan, Tibet and Sri Lanka. Those texts reflect back on their country of origin, so that we get a sense of developing thought in India, but a more definitive look at Buddhist development is probably best obtained along the paths laid in foreign lands.
Still a brief look at the art of three periods of Buddhist florescence in India – the Gupta period of central India (fourth-sixth century); the period when the cave temples of the Deccan were created (fifth-seventh century); and the Pala-Sena period of the northeast (eighth-twelfth century) – gives a sense of the shift that occurred in practice, with increasing numbers of devotees of Mahayana and then tantric Buddhism. Sculptors of the Gupta period created sublime images of an inward-looking Buddha, which are widely considered the high point of Indian sculpture and are notable for their stylistic influence throughout the Buddhist world. According to the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuan Zang, who traveled in India in the seventh century, and subsequent Gupta kings were responsible for various additions to the site.
Donative inscriptions sometimes mention specific Buddhist schools, as in the earlier periods. Some inscriptions include portions of Buddhist texts, although only one Mahayana text is quoted in an inscription in India proper. As previously noted, the wording of inscriptions gives insight into the pracive of the period, and by the fifth century there was an increasing number of inscriptions in which the donor expressed the wish that the merit accrued by the gift should benefit all sentient beings, a concept that indicates a Mahayana practitioner. Carving of the fifth and sixth centuries – both in central India, where the Guptas ruled, and in the Deccan where the cave temples of Ajanta and Aurangabad excavated- reflect this shift. While practitioners of the earlier period had focused their attention on aniconic imagery and the relics and life scenes of Shakyamuni Buddha, by the fifth and sixth centuries the Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism appeared in increasing numbers.
A further development occurred in the seventh century as indicated at the twelve Buddhist caves of Ellora, whose walls exhibit an expanded pantheon of Bodhisattvas, both male and female. Early tantric texts had clearly madre an impact, as some of the caves include three-dimensional mandalas described in texts such as the Manjusrimulakalpa, a kriyatantra. By the Pala-Sena period in the northeast India, home to the great Buddhist Universities of Vikramsila and Nalanda, the patheon of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas had further expanded, certain evidence of the importance of both Mahayana worship and tantric texts. But it was a long before this that Buddhist thought and practices had moved beyond India’s borders to influence the rest of Asia.