Golda Philip Ritual, Narrative, and Religious Indian Art

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Golda Philip

Ritual, Narrative, and Religious Indian Art


Prompt: Do you agree with the dominant view in this course that images do embody religious ideals and belief systems in eloquent and successful ways? Use specific instances from the sites that we have been considering to either refute or support this claim.

The Artistry of Religion: Learning Buddhism through Early Buddhist Art

Most texts on Buddhism begin by describing the life events of the Buddha. They talk about his princely but sheltered youth in which the young Siddharta’s every desire and wish was met and exceeded. These accounts then describe Siddharta’s exposure to the reality of life—his encounters with the well-known sick man, corpse, old man and the alms-seeking monk. Confronted with a reality so starkly different from his own, the young prince leaves his kingdom, renounces his worldly treasures, and seeks the solution to the suffering he has just been exposed to. His search leads him to Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, after which he becomes Buddha, the “enlightened one.” The last part of his life offers him experiences to spread his teachings to all types of people: kings and peasants, holy men and thieves, men and women. Buddhism, today, at its most fundamental level, consists of these same teachings of the Buddha—an extraordinary man and teacher, but not the deity associated with many of the world’s ancient religions. In looking at early Buddhist art, specifically in the sites of Gandhara and Ajanta, this story of the Buddha and his worldly teachings come alive. The images embody these daily teachings through the detailed narratives they engage and represent the Buddha and his impact during his earthly life.

Sculpture-based narratives of the Buddha’s life teachings characterize Gandhara art, the first school of art to be devoted entirely to Buddhism. This new art form made a distinct move away from the previous focus on karmic appeal evident in earlier Buddhist art. Arising from what is now northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan between the 1st century BC and the 7th century AD, Gandhara art was also singled out by its strict adherence to basic Indian iconographic details. Gandhara art, like much of early Buddhist art, was able to incorporate local elements into these images of the Buddha’s life—giving the art a distinctly local flavor.

A piece that is perhaps most closely associated with the zenith of the Gandhara period is the image of the Fasting Buddha. The Buddha sits, cross-legged on a block mount. His entire body is pulled downward with its extreme emaciation. The legs and ribcage bones grotesquely protrude from underneath the image’s slight suggestion of skin. The skin on the Buddha’s throat hangs from his neck like pieces of worn cloth. The face of the figure alone shows the extent of the Buddha’s condition. The Buddha’s cheeks hollow inwards and his eyes are deeply set and almost vanish into the sockets. The narrowness and angularity of the face form an austere expression—perhaps not austere from condition, but from something deeper. The marked vacancy in the expression of the face also leads to such a conclusion. The Buddha’s lips are pursed in commitment—perhaps to the notion of asceticism often linked to a time in the life of the Buddha. The artist may have intended the image to carry the story of that period—the time when young prince Siddharta who left his palace in search of enlightenment and practiced such severe austerities and intense mental concentration that his body—previously so protected and cared for—withered away to skin and bones. This polyvocal image, however, can also be seen to demonstrate the artist’s distinct strategy of explaining a Buddhist teaching through his creation. The artist may also be expressing, through the depiction of such an extreme, the rejection of that same extreme. When looking at the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, the Fasting Buddha brings to light the teaching of Magga, or the Middle path. The Buddha, through his life experiences searched for happiness through the type of self-mortification depicted through the Fasting Buddha. Referring back to his life story, the Buddha also “searched” for happiness in his youth through the other extreme—through pleasure of the senses. In this way, a solitary image of a strikingly gaunt Buddha eloquently expresses the need and pertinence of a middle path, a central idea in Buddhist teachings.1

The continuation of depicting the teachings of the Buddha through images spilled over into another main center of Buddhist artistic culture—the caves of Ajanta. Ajanta, like Ghandara, was an exclusively Buddhist site. The history of Indian painting, in fact, begins in these caves. Also like Gandhara, the art of Ajanta takes on the flavor of its specific locality. The local flavor in Ajanta is one of sumptuousness and luxury, a far cry from the ecclesiastical nature of Gandhara. Despite these local variations, the teachings of the Buddha remain constant; they are simply cloaked with the local finery. Returning to the idea of rejecting extremes, at Ajanta we have a striking image of the Buddha in his begging monk form, returning to his wife and child, alms bowl in hand. The painting shows a complete renunciation of the sensual pleasures that filled the life his wife and child represent. The painting, then, relates the message of complete renunciation of that extreme. The painting also shows the utter humanity of the Buddha. He has completely surrendered his ego in this act of humility. The meek tilt of his head and the gentleness with which he holds the alms bowl all highlight his basic human, but humbled, state.

Cave 1 of Ajanta also holds many of the symbolic images used to describe the different aspects of the Buddha’s teachings. In the caves at Ajanta, separate rooms for a shrine of the Buddha is present. In Cave 1 this shrine is flanked on the outside by paintings of two bodhisattvas: the compassion bodhi and the wisdom bodhi. The compassion bodhi is shown carrying a lotus turned towards his heart. This gesture expresses a marked fragility, gentleness and sensitivity of manner. Compassion, in Buddhist terms, and as represented by this bodhi shows “love, charity, kindness, tolerance, and such noble qualities on the emotional side, or qualities of the heart.” (Rahula pg. 46) Flanking the other side is the bodhi of wisdom. This bodhi holds a thunderbolt, a symbol of wisdom, which in Buddhist ideology, would “stand for the intellectual side or the qualities of the mind.” (Rahula pg. 46) Both wisdom (panna) and compassion (karuna) are two essential characteristics which must be developed equally to go on to nirvana. (Rahula pg. 46) Cleverly, the artists of Cave 1 placed these two symbolic bodhi images spatially in front of the image of the Buddha, with the Buddha image being exactly centered between. This kind of narrative placement makes the statement that the Buddha is the perfect combination, or the embodiment, of the perfect fusion of these two ideals.

The flawless combination of wisdom and compassion allowed the Buddha to be sensitive to the equality of all life, another foundational Buddhist tenet. The depiction of this overarching value for all human life, regardless of kind or caste, surfaces in many of the images in early Buddhist art. In Ajanta this ideal is shown through the painting of the Buddha giving a sermon which is attended by beings of all types—both human and non-human. At one side of the Buddha the artist presents the ornately dressed and highly ornamented figures of a royal couple—perhaps a princess and her lover. The finery of their garments, and sheer quantity of jewelry on their bodies, identify the pair as wealthy and privileged. Situated above the Buddha, however, is the figure of a half man half bird—a figure representing an almost subhuman context. The proximity of this “birdman” to the royal couple, and their equidistance from the Buddha showcase the inclusiveness of the Buddhist teachings as he taught “all classes of men and women—kings and peasants, Brahmins and outcasts, bankers and beggars, holy men and robbers—without making the slightest distinction between them. He recognized no differences of caste or social groupings, and the Way he preached was open to all men and women who were ready to understand and to follow it.” ( Rahula, pg. xv)

Although the Buddha’s way is open to all those willing to listen and to follow, examples in early Buddhist art also show that followers may attain varying levels of understanding on that path. In another striking scene from Ajanta, the Buddha is portrayed as a monk, coming back to his palace, begging for alms. People of all kinds, from palace servants to the royal members of the family clutter this scene. Two women, in particular, demonstrate markedly different reactions to the sight of their master-turned-beggar. One of these women peeks out from behind a pillar, and stares at the monk. Only her head and upper torso can be seen. Her facial expression, alone, sets her apart from all the other individuals in this busy scene. Her eyebrows are drawn up sharply. A look of sheer surprise is evident in her reaction. Her face is taut with tension. Clearly, this woman is surprised by the sight of the beggar; she simply cannot understand why the master has come back in such form. In contrast, a woman who may be the Buddha’s wife is seen sitting on a bed inside the palace. Her eyes, unlike the large, curiousity-striken eyes of the previous women, are downcast. Her head is also tilted downwards in an expression of sadness but also of knowing. The juxtaposition of this woman and the difference in her expression tell of her own human struggle; she is seemingly torn between the memories of her life with her prince and the knowledge of who he has become in her present reality. Not a trace of anger is evident in her expression—she knows that her husband has chosen a path, a path that is true to himself and his life’s purpose. Though all of this is a clearly painful realization, the gentleness in which the artist draws the lines and curves of her body and the fluidity of her expression and garments, all demonstrate that this woman has attained a deeper level of understanding than her pillar-peeking counterpart.

In all of these sites—from the sculptured details of Gandhara to the elaborate narrative paintings of Ajanta—the artists manage to successfully and eloquently depict basic teachings of Buddhism and even the value system the Buddhist path creates. Though the images in these early sites do not represent an exhaustive compilation of every Buddhist principle, the essence of Buddhism—the values and practices the Buddha himself sought and lived by—appear in these images. Art, in each of these instances, beautifully and remarkably takes on the spirit of each of these very different sites, while at the same time preserving the spirit of Buddhist philosophy.

1 Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught, Unwin Brothers Ltd, Great Britain, 1959.

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