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Early Buddhist Art Reflects Buddhism's Inclusive Nature as Well as Its Need to Recruit Disciples

Updated on January 17, 2013

Buddhist Diplomacy in Art

Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the person destined to become the Buddha, was a product of his culture and of his era. As such, he was indoctrinated into the prevailing religious conventions of that particular culture and of that particular era. That is to say, Siddhartha practiced Yoga, and it was through these practices that he transcended mortal bonds and attained Buddhahood. Once enlightened, Shakyamuni Buddha initiated his disciples into the same disciplines that had proved so fruitful for himself. While The Enlightened One placed particular emphasis on moderation and compassion, his teachings were, for the most part, well aligned with many of the already-established religious customs and beliefs of his day. It is no wonder, then, that germinal Buddhist art in India was characteristically syncretic and absorbent since, essentially, Buddhism was a natural extension and elaboration of the preexisting belief system.

Examine, for example, the 2nd-3rd Century AD Fasting Buddha of Sikri. This work is an archetypal depiction of an emaciated yogi practicing severe austerities in his quest for Nirvana. In the revered Vedic text, Bhagavad-Gītā, Lord Śrī Kŗşņa describes to his disciple Arjuna the proper technique for meditation as follows:

Fasting Buddha of Sikri


To practice yoga, one should go to a secluded place and should lay kuśa grass on the ground and then cover it with a deerskin and a soft cloth. The seat should be neither too high nor too low and should be situated in a sacred place. The yogi should then sit on it very firmly and practice yoga to purify the heart by controlling his mind, senses and activities and fixing the mind on one point. One should hold one’s body, neck and head erect in a straight line and stare steadily at the tip of the nose. Thus, with an unagitated, subdued mind, devoid of fear, completely free from sex life, one should meditate upon Me within the heart and make Me the ultimate goal of life.

The posture described here by Kŗşņa is precisely the posture the Fasting Buddha is executing. Nirvana had been the supreme goal many centuries before the establishment of Buddhism, and the meditating ascetic in the classic lotus posture is a yogic icon, associated for aeons with Buddhism’s predecessor. In this particular case, however, the ascetic is none other than the former prince. The Fasting Buddha is a perfect example of Buddhist art adopting established Indian lore to serve its own ends.

Birth of Buddha of Gandhara, on the other hand, is a perfect example of the appropriation of the general Indian artistic milieu by Buddhist artists. In this piece, Maya is shown clutching the branch of a sala tree as she delivers the Bodhisattva.

Birth of Buddha


The theme of a woman and a tree had served previous Indian art as a symbol of fertility and auspiciousness, and Buddhist artists obviously perceived no conflict in grafting the motif onto their own body of work. In fact, the subject was directly transplanted and beautifully rendered in the 1st Century BC on the east gate of the Great Stupa at Sanchi. Here, a Buddhist artist has depicted a voluptuous Yakshi with her arms entwined around the branches of a tree. Her opulence is in full display, and she is clearly unabashed. It is evident that Buddhists considered the Yakshi to be a relevant and worthy subject, and they adopted it according to their needs.

Yakshi on the East Gate


It is important to remember, when discussing Buddhism’s tendency to incorporate the preexisting pantheon and its attendant mythologies, that it behooves a fledgling religion to be inclusive. Like all large nations, India is comprised of diverse ethnicities, and much of what we have discussed so far can be at least partially explained by Buddhists' desire to make their doctrine accessible to everyone and exclusive of no one. With this in mind, it is certainly arguable that at its inception, Buddhism often chose to portray its progenitor symbolically rather than anthropomorphically precisely because it wanted to exclude no one. While it may be true that representing the Buddha symbolically was in part due to respect and veneration, I believe that, with India’s diverse population, it made perfect sense to put forth an ethnic-neutral representation, as this would facilitate the process of association for everyone, regardless of their ethnicity.

Consider the great departure scene depicted on the East gate of the Great Stupa at Sanchi. This notable event is represented as a series of discreet moments superimposed upon a single framework. Prince Siddhartha is shown leaving his home on horseback with his faithful servant, then leaving the city. The horse and the servant are then seen returning, seemingly without their master. Siddhartha, now the Buddha, is depicted only symbolically with a parasol, but the manner in which the episode is illustrated leaves no doubt in the viewer’s mind as to the subject of the allegory, and anyone with an open mind would be able to relate to it. Had the now-enlightened former prince been portrayed anthropomorphically, with all of the accompanying physical characteristics and traits peculiar to any given individual, it may have limited the appeal. Simply put, if Siddhartha had been portrayed with Asian features, non-Asians may have been unresponsive; if Siddhartha had been portrayed with African features, non-Africans may have been unable to relate. Etceteras.

A point that must be considered when discussing the use by early Buddhists of the local lore, idioms and cults is the fact that most (if not all) of the original Buddhist artisans and artists had themselves been immersed throughout their lives in the local lore, idioms and cults. With that in mind, it seems reasonable to assume that, until their conversion, these artisans and artists had faithfully observed the local conventions, just as prince Siddhartha had. Any devotional works they may have encountered or executed themselves until that point would have formed the only reservoir of influences from which they could model their own projects and draw inspiration. Of course, it is also highly possible that at least some of these artisans and artists were not converts at all and executed their work simply as a means to earning a living. In that case it would also seem reasonable to conclude that they would turn to their own faith for inspiration when discharging their assignments. None of this bothered the early Buddhists, even if, at times, the infusion of the prevailing lore, idioms and cults into their own idiom may have appeared to create contradictions. To them, the Godhead communicates with each individual in terms that are relevant and comprehensible to that individual.

It is natural to conclude, then, that early Buddhist self-expression in India syncretized and absorbed the preexisting art not only because of Buddhism’s very nature, but also because of necessity. Buddhism did not necessarily consider itself mutually exclusive with other faiths, so it was perfectly content to incorporate those other faiths (or parts thereof) into its practice, and as a struggling fledgling it could ill-afford to alienate itself. Consequently, we have the amalgamation of beliefs that comprise Buddhism and the fused body of art that is its articulation.


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