The image of the Buddha in ancient and classical India (3rd century BC - 6th century AD)

October 23 2013 Conference : The image of the Buddha in ancient and classical India (3rd century BC - 6th century AD) by Thierry Zéphir, Engineer at the National Museum of Asian Arts-Guimet.

This lecture completes the previous one because Mr. Zéphir discusses the evolution of Buddhist iconography since the aniconic period, when the Buddha is represented with the help of symbols, until the moment when one will appear the Eveillé in its human form with its main features.
Until around the XNUMXst c. apr. JC the faithful who saw the imprint of feet carrying the wheel of the Law visualized the Awakened one whereas after one appears the Buddha with its main iconographic characteristics: cranial protuberance (ushnisha), magnifying hair between the eyes (urna), feet and hands bearing the representation of a wheel and monastic garment. It is not known why, at the beginning of the development of Buddhist iconography, one could not represent the Buddha in his anthropomorphic traits, both in the Indian subcontinent and in the regions corresponding to present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan.
While Siddhartha Gautama is supposed to have lived in the fifth century. BC. JC, it is only from the Maurya (late 4th century BC) that we can study a Buddhist iconography that will gradually evolve. The Buddha's first evocations of Buddhist monuments, whose decoration had a didactic function and whose primary virtue was linked to the teaching and dissemination of the message of Shakyamuni's religion and history, are to be found in the form of symbols.
The life of the historical Buddha is a kind of "golden legend", a story of almost mythical nature, marked by a series of miracles and fabulous events that are of a symbolic nature to exalt the very person of the Buddha.

 Birth of the Buddha.Bharhut.Is. BC.Mus.Calcutta  3.2.Birth of Buddha.Gandhara.II-III c.  Awakening of the Buddha.Bhârhut. 1st s. BC. JC  5.2.Assault of Mara.Gandhara.II-IIIe s.AD

Evocation of the birth of the Buddha. Bharhut. 1st s. BC Calcutta Museum

Birth of the Buddha.Gandhara.II-III c.

The tree of awakening. Bhârhut. XNUMXst c. av. JC

Assault of Mara. Gandhara. II-IIIth century AD. JC

The first of the four main places where the Buddha's life took place, as was said in the previous conference, is the Lumbini Park where Prince Siddhartha was born. Today, Lumbini is an archaeological park whose ruins date back to a much later time. On a balustrade on the site of Sânchî we see the vase of plenty, which is often related to the birth of Siddhartha in the decoration of Buddhist monuments prior to the first century AD. The same scene, after this period, is represented in an easily identifiable manner as on a bas-relief of the II-III centuries of Gandhara. We see Queen Maya standing there, seizing a branch of a tree, while the young prince miraculously emerges from his right flank. The baby was welcomed at birth by various characters, in this case the gods Indra and Brahma for the North of the Subcontinent, which implies that these important deities of Hinduism are placed in a subordinate position with respect to this child who will become the historical Buddha, while in the South, it is the guardians of the four cardinal points who receive the newborn in a lange.
The second fundamental site, that of Bodh-Gaya, is where Prince Siddhartha acquired enlightenment in the shadow of a pippal (ficus religiosa). Here again, on a pillar of Bhârhut from the first century BC, we see a pippal  in the middle of a colonnade and under the tree an empty seat on which the Buddha is supposed to stand. Later, as on a relief of the Gandhâra of the third-fourth century, the enlightened is figured under the pippal but the relief also illustrates another event: that during which the demon Mâra - the god of death and chaining in the cycle of rebirths -, denying the Buddha his spiritual qualities, sends his army and his daughters to distract him and turn him away from his meditation; but the Buddha then calls the Earth to witness, touching the ground with the tips of his fingers, so that it bears witness to its high moral and spiritual qualities. This movement (bhûmisparsha mudrâ) makes this particular moment without hesitation.

 10.1.Stupa.Torana.Stupa 3.Ier sBCSanchi  Parinirvana.Gandhara.III-IVe s.AD.Dahlem Museum  12.Buddha ascetic.Gandhara.II-IIIth century.Museum of lahore

Stupa. Torana. Stupa 3. 1st s. BC. JC Sânchî

Parinirvana. Gandhara. 3rd-4th century AD. JC.
Dahlem Museum. Berlin

Ascetic Buddha. Gandhara.
2nd-3rd century. AD. JC Lahore Museum

The third major place is the site of Sârnâth where the Buddha delivered his first sermon in the gazelle park. This episode can be represented in an anonymous way by a wheel that was enough for the faithful to visualize the enlightened explaining his doctrine. From the 1st century on, the Buddha is represented with his hands in front of his chest holding a virtual wheel which he turns (Dharamachakra mudrâ) as the famous Gupta statue from the 5th century shows at the Sarnath Museum. This figuration and the presence of the wheel and / or gazelles always refers to this event.
The last site is Kushinagara where the Buddha will decide to cease to exist and reach nirvana. The aniconic form is the representation of a stupa, a type of funerary monument where the ashes were deposited after the cremation while the figuration of the Parinirvana, from the 1st century. of our era, represents the reclining Buddha on the right flank dying out in all serenity, surrounded by his disciples who lament.

The image of the Buddha, once created, does not evolve much in time and is transmitted throughout the Buddhist world.

The different postures (asana) have also been fixed:
- the standing posture (samapada), sometimes with a slightly bent knee which gives more flexibility to the attitude
- the sitting posture (Virasana ; vajraparyanka), very often attested and which is generally associated with the Buddha's meditation or teaching, may know some variations according to the times and regions
- the attitude of walking, frequent in certain countries of South-East Asia (Thailand, Laos), presents the Blessed One in a dynamic position. This type of representation could allude to a precise event in the life of the Buddha: Queen Mâyâ having died seven days after the birth of her son and residing in the heaven of the thirty-three gods, she was unable to benefit from the teaching his son. Out of love and compassion for his mother, he will go to the heaven of the thirty-three gods and preach the doctrine for the queen and the other deities there. It is the episode of his return to earth that the representations showing him in the attitude of walking would evoke.
- the lying position on the right side is, for its part, associated with Parinirvana. In this attitude which could be perceived as dramatic, the Buddha is always imbued with extreme tranquility and serenity because his disappearance prefigures his liberation from the cycle of samsara.

Gestures (mudra) are also part of a codified repertoire that explains the message that is supposed to convey the representation of the Awakened.
- the gesture of the absence of fear, the gesture that reassures (abhaya mudrâ), can be seen in the sitting posture as well as standing or walking: the palm of the hand is turned towards the viewer, fingers raised upwards
- the gesture of donation (varada mudrâ) is associated with the idea of ​​transmitting the teaching to the devotee: standing or seated, the Buddha presents the palm of the right hand to the viewer, but this time the fingers are directed downwards as if he were virtually handing over the faith in her doctrine to the one she will lead to salvation
- the gesture of teaching (dharmachakra mudrâ) is most often associated with the first sermon: the two hands are placed in front of the chest, the left hand holds a virtual wheel between the thumb and forefinger, passed in the axis, while the right outlines the gesture of doing it turn
- the gesture of taking to witness the earth (bhûmisparsha mudrâ) is associated with awakening: the right hand is pressed on the knee and touches the earth with the fingertips
- the gesture of meditation (dhyana mudra) is the most frequently represented: usually seated, the Buddha has his hands resting one on top of the other on the two crossed legs, the palm facing up.

 12.3.Buddha varada mudra.Sarnath.Ve s  Walking Buddha.Sukhothai.XVe s.Wat Trapang Ngoen, Sukhothai  12.2.Buddha seated.Abhaya mudra.Mathurâ.IIe s.AD  090.

Buddha standing in varada mudrâ. Sarnath. Ve s.
Sarnath Museum

Buddha walking in abhaya mudrâ. Sukhothai. 15th century
Wat Trapang Ngoen, Sukhothai

Buddha sitting in abhaya mudrâ. Mathura. 2nd century. AD. JC Mathura Museum

Buddha sitting in dhyana mudra. Gandhara. Ve s. AD. JC.
Kabul Museum

The image of the Buddha can not be understood without referring to all that preceded his ultimate existence. It must be remembered that the historical Buddha is part of Indian time, which is essentially cyclical. Like all beings, Shakyâmuni has experienced many previous lives (jataka) during which he acquired and accumulated the spiritual and moral qualities that will enable him to become the Awakened during his ultimate rebirth. These jataka are also moral tales with a didactic character in order to show the faithful what are the essential qualities to achieve salvation. During his previous lives the Buddha was able to be reborn in animal forms: this is the case of the Mahakapi jataka where the future Buddha was born in the guise of the monkey king; even in this form, the future Buddha shows exceptional qualities and will sacrifice himself to save his people from a hunt (pillar of the balustrade of the stupa of Bhârhut); this story teaches that all beings, even the most stupid ones, are included in the prospect of salvation that Buddhism offers. In the Vessantara Jataka, which recounts his penultimate earthly life, the future Buddha was born under the guise of a prince who, in his generosity, had given all his possessions but who, at the end of history, retrieves them, demonstrating that he held exceptional qualities of generosity. The gift is, indeed, considered in Buddhism as one of the cardinal virtues and the monks or communities lived only donations made essentially by the merchants. These jataka have been the subject of representations in both sculpture and painting and will continue to be used throughout the Buddhist world as a source of instruction.
Other scenes are frequently given to see in the arts of ancient and classical India.
The representation of the future Buddha as a princely figure evokes his stay in the sky of the thirty-three gods before he decides to be reborn as Siddhartha.
The dream of Mâyâ has been the subject of many representations where we see a small elephant (sometimes six tusks) float above a female figure lying on a layer.
The consultation of the diviners by the royal couple, the birth and the taking of spiritual possession of the world were also the subject of representations. Sometimes, as in a relief of Amarâvatî, several episodes can be represented: the dream of Mâyâ (although the elephant is not represented), the consultation of the diviners and the birth.
The four meetings and the big start are also the subject of performances. For this episode we can find an aniconic form, in which a horse emerges from a palace escorted by a servant holding a parasol (relief of Amarâvatî), or, according to a later iconography, the representation of the prince mounted on his horse whose hooves are supported by geniuses. But this scene of the great departure can also be evoked by the representation of the prince leaving the family room.

 2.3.Song of Maya.Bharhut.Iers. BC.Mus.Calcutta  4.1.Gd Start.Stupa-Amaravati.Ier s.BC.British Museum-  039.Guimet MG17478.The great miracle.  Stupa.Fin the Second S.apr.JCBritish Museum
Dream of Maya.Bhârhut
XNUMXst c. av. JC Calcutta Museum

The Grand Départ. Stupa. Amaravati
I s.av. JC British Museum

Miracle of Srasvati Gandhara. Ve s.
Guimet Museum

Stupa. Amaravati. 2nd century. AD. JC British Museum

As we saw in the previous lecture, Siddhartha will experiment with various paths, including that of extreme asceticism, and the figure of the ascetic Buddha is well known in the art of Gandhara.
After enlightenment, the Buddha will wander through northern India to preach the faith and convert his contemporaries, sometimes using miracles, such as that of Shrāvasti, where, at first, flames spring from his shoulders while that water flows from his feet, whereas in the second phase of the miracle, the Buddha multiplies his own image in the sky.
Another of these miracles is the appeasement of a terrible cobra which haunted the hut of the sacrificial fire of the Brahmans; by this miracle, the Buddha manages to convince this group of religious of the superiority of his doctrine.
The descent from the sky of the thirty-three gods can be represented in an anonymous manner as on a relief of Sanchi where a scale alone is figured, whereas on a relief of Gandhara, the Buddha is figured surrounded by the gods at the top of a staircase.
An episode depicted on a torana of Sanchi showing a monkey offering a bowl of honey in front of the empty seat where the Buddha is supposed to be held shows that the doctrine is addressed to all beings. Another event reminds us that the Wake-up has quieted the elephant Nalagiri, made furious by Devadatta, a jealous cousin.
All these representations demonstrate the virtues of the Buddhist faith that are exercised on all beings, from the gods to the humblest animals, from a perspective of teaching and proselytism.
As we have already seen, the disappearance of the Buddha is symbolized by the stupa, such as the famous grand stupa N ° 1 of Sânchî which, like any monument of this type, symbolizes the Parinirvana of the Blessed One and conveys the idea of ​​access to salvation for all the faithful.


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