The image of the Buddha as we know it emerged somewhat mysteriously in fifth century India, according to UCLA art historian Robert Brown. He will be delivering a lecture entitled Understanding Buddhist Art: A Spiritual Masterpiece at Stanford’s Cummings Art Building on Saturday, November 20 at 1 PM.
According to Prof. Brown, until 400 or 500 years after his death, the Buddha was represented symbolically as a tree or a wheel. The first human looking figures of the Buddha appeared in the first century BCE. They were based on figures of local gods called yakshas. These first Buddha figures were eight or 9 feet tall, very powerful and masculine. They were usually depicted as dressed in a cloth through which male genitalia could be seen.
In the fifth century, during what is called the Gupta period, a radically different figure appeared. The change was dramatic and quite sudden. Called the Sarnath Buddha, after the place where he first taught, it is much more “feminine” in appearance- slighter, having a certain sway, gazing downward, and with no visible genitalia.
Prof. Brown says that there is no way to be certain what influences produced this striking change, as Buddhist texts of the time contain only metaphorical descriptions of the Buddha. He says that he can only speculate about the answer. “Perhaps the early Buddha images didn’t really fit with Buddhism – they were these huge, aggressive images. The Buddha is full of compassion and love. I like to think that it brought the images into sync with Buddhism itself.”
He emphasizes that his academic colleagues do not approve of such speculation.
What is certain is the amazing and rapid influence of the Sarnath Buddha. Within 50 years of its appearance in India, it had spread to China and southeast Asia. In later centuries it also spread to Korea and Japan. Says Prof. Brown, “It had to speak to this highly diverse Buddhist world containing perhaps 50 major languages.”
He continues, “Something really reverberated and it had to be a spiritual message rather than a doctrinal message. There was no pamphlet that went along with the image- there had to be an instantaneous understanding.”
Though there will likely never be a scholarly explanation based on documentation, it is clear that Buddhist iconography made an evolutionary leap in fifth century India that affected the entire Buddhist world and can still be seen today on every Buddhist altar.
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