By Geeti Sen | January 07, 2016
The growing appeal of Buddhism in the west and across the world today lies in its ethical code of human conduct. It has been almost forgotten that its early popularity grew because of its inclusive approach of earlier religious cults. And can we overlook the beautiful images made in wood, stone, bronze, stucco, terracotta and ivory, palm leaf, pigments with fresco paintings on walls? Wherever Buddhism spread its wings in Asia, it took its art, a sensibility fashioned from a deep-rooted humanism.
From India, the foundations of this particular sensibility travelled to Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Afghanistan, Central Asia, Cambodia, China and Japan. In retrospect in the 21st century, could we think of a more peaceful way by which to influence our neighbouring countries.
The exhibition at the National Museum, Delhi, brought this into focus, with 91 objects loaned from the Indian Museum in Kolkatta which had already travelled to major venues in Asia. Since this was perhaps the first major museum in the country (indeed in Asia) the exhibits included earliest low relief carvings from the Buddhist stupa at Bharhut of the 2nd century BC. The railing posts enclosing the sacred stupa are carved with reliefs of devotees worshipping the Buddha. As the Master had expressly forbidden such worship, he is represented not in human form but through popular symbols.
These symbols indicate his moment of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, and his first teachings in the deer park at Sarnath where he spoke about turning the “wheel of the law”. In this way, earlier cults of tree worship and the royal Mauryan emblem of the chakra (which becomes the dharma chakra) were incorporated into Buddhist worship. The most emblematic image is the worship of the Buddha’s feet, seen also in a separate gigantic stone carving. Size plays a major part when it comes to representing power.
That controversy as to whether the Buddha in human form had evolved due to Western influence (i.e. Graeco-Roman art, as argued mainly by Western scholars) or if it evolved from indigenous sources was resolved with an image from Mathura dated to 78 AD. Here an early iconic image of Buddha seated from Mathura displays the signs which attribute him to be a ‘Mahapurusha’—with the ushnisa or topknot tied on his head, the urna on his forehead and the chakra inscribed on his palms and soles of feet. His powerful hand is almost in a salute, his physique robust. By comparison the Buddhas from Gandhara with toga-like robes thrown over both shoulders are sophisticated and the heads achieve a mastery unsurpassed except at Sarnath.
How does one convey the genial humanism which was introduced by the Buddhist faith? That the Buddha was no ordinary human being had to be demonstrated in early iconic images through physical power. Gradually it was realised that images of him had to demonstrate not physical strength but inner powers of compassion and joy, the idea of ‘bodhi’, leading to transcendence of human frailties. Perhaps this could only be initiated where the Buddha gave his first teachings.
At the entrance to the exhibition at the National Museum, we behold the Buddha of Sarnath. He stands poised and serene, very gentle with the body swaying in a slight curve. The buff sandstone sits lightly on him, transcending the material quality of stone. The curves of his robe around his shoulders fall softly like ripples of water. His eyes melt into compassion, his hands offer benediction and are gentle as flowers. In this form the Buddha conveys the idea of ‘bodhi’ or true wisdom. As Dr Niharranjan Ray suggests in his brilliant essay on Bodhi written years ago, this could only happen with the experience of yoga which was practised, it is believed, by the Buddha.
Later images in the show cannot replicate this moment of inner tranquility. Images from the Pala dynasty with multiple arms flailing the air, exuding power but not peace. Bronzes from Nagapattinam possess the sensibility of the Buddhist spirit which finds fulfilment again in the exquisite art of Cambodia and Thailand. A few exhibits from Myanmar are included, but the spread of the Buddhist ethos is not seen. One shortcoming of our museums is the focus on India alone without the spread of its influence across Asia.