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Indian Buddhist Art - A Case Study

Updated on October 24, 2011

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The Introduction of Buddhism, and Other Influences, to Ancient Indian Art

“Early Buddhist art from India displays Buddhist features in conjunction with other influences.” – A Case Study

Early Indian art, which is centred upon religion and philosophy, upon ideas as opposed to decoration, will be considered in terms of, firstly, the introduction of Buddhism, and, secondly, in terms of other influences. I will focus on the particular claim that Greek “Hellenistic culture radiated into the Indian subcontinent with the establishment of the Indo-Greek kingdom (180 B.C.E.-10 B.C.E.)” (Wikipedia, 2010). Using the example of the Standing Buddha, a sculpture dating to the first to second century C.E., and further research, I will support the argument that early Buddhist art from India displays Buddhist features in conjunction with other influences.

Buddhism’s popularity in Indian culture, religion and philosophy, and art, grew because Buddhism lifted religious burdens from the Hindu or Jain people of the time, promising liberation to anyone willing to follow Buddha’s Middle Way where the ultimate goal lay in attaining Nirvana, the state of perfect peace and enlightenment. Buddhism avoided two religious extremes of the time. Self-indulgence along with the burdensome caste system was promoted by Hinduism, and self-denial and austerity was promoted by the Jains and other mystic cults of the time. Buddhist founder Siddhartha Buddha lived in Northern India in the sixth century B.C.E. In the third century B.C.E., about 200 years after his death, Emperor Asoka brought most of India under his rule and embraced Buddhism, giving it state support and sending Buddhist missionaries to all parts of India (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 1990). Thus spread Buddhism to India, Asia and the world.

Approximately a century later, in 180 B.C.E., Greece invaded India to form the Indo-Greek kingdom (Wikipedia, 2010). Greek culture had spread through a steady process of colonisation by means of Alexander’s conquests. This resulted in an explosion of Hellenism throughout all of western Asia extending too the Indus River (Hartt, 1985).

A fusion of Hellenistic and Buddhist elements started to appear in early Indian art and architecture in the centuries to follow, fuelled by the benevolence of the Greek kings towards Buddhism which flourished from the first century C.E. Sculptural examples of this artistic fusion can be found in Hadda where Hellenistic deities such as Atlas are found, wind gods are depicted and stupa scenes in typical Hellenistic fashion represent people drinking wine from amphoras and playing instruments (Wikipedia, 2010).

Further fusion of Hellenistic and Buddhist features will be extracted and analysed in terms of the sculptural example of Standing Buddha, one of the first representations of the Buddha, dating from the first to second century C.E. in Gandhara.

Before this period in history, Buddha had been artistically represented by symbols such as the stupa, the Bodhi tree, the empty seat, the wheel and the footprints. However, this sculptural image of Buddha is inspired by the sculptural styles of Hellenistic Greece in its sophistication and stylistic elements. (See Image 1 above.) In this image, Buddha is represented in a Greek himation, which is a light toga-like robe covering both shoulders. In the typical Hellenistic style Buddha here has a halo behind his head, and is standing in the contrapposto stance. His hair is depicted in the stylised Mediterranean curly hair and his face is measured and rendered with strong artistic realism. (Wikipedia, 2010.) Further research has unearthed the claim that the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius I (205-171 B.C.E.) himself may have been the prototype for the image of the Buddha, as Buddhism flourished under his reign (Wikipedia, 2010). In terms of the Standing Buddha from first to second century Gandhara, the Hellenistic influences are clearly seen. Buddha here has a presence, he is a sophisticated being, graceful.

One can appreciate, firstly, why Buddhism was popular amongst the Indian people of the Indo-Greek kingdom in view of its approach to life as something like a relief/respite to the people of the time. In turn, one can appreciate why Greek culture, in its benevolence and its support of Buddhism, was both popular and influential in India after centuries of either being shackled by other religious burdens. The rise of Buddhism influenced early Indian art particularly between the fourth century B.C.E. and the fourth century C.E. in that it introduced new philosophical and religious concepts that led to new art expressions. Furthermore, the introduction of Hellenistic Greek culture further influenced early Buddhist Art of India when the cultural fusion of Classical Greek culture and Buddhism took place.


Hartt, F. 1985. Art – A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. New York; Harry N.

Abrams, Incorporated.

Various Authors and Sources. 2010.

Greco-Buddhist art. (accessed August 31, 2010)

Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. 1990. Mankind’s Search for God.

Brooklyn, New York, USA; Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.


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