Book Review – Image Problems: The Origin and Development of the Buddha’s Image in Early South Asia


Review by Jon Ciliberto

Image Problems: The Origin and Development of the Buddha’s Image in Early South Asia
Robert DeCaroli
March 2015
280 pp., 44 b and w illus., 1 map, 1 chart, 7 x 10 in.

One of the earliest questions Western scholars of Buddhist art asked was: why were there no images of Shakyamuni Buddha for hundreds of years following his death? This question brings up another: what caused such images to begin to appear, and become so pervasive throughout Buddhist culture?

Robert DeCaroli‘s Image Problems revisits these questions and offers that the sudden emergence of images in the 1st century A.D. in South Asia was due to a general, cultural shift in attitudes toward anthropomorphic visual representation rather than to the development of specifically Buddhist approaches to images.

At least since Coomaraswamy’s “Elements of Buddhist Iconography” (1935), the transition from symbolic, or stand-in images of the Buddha to anthropomorphic ones has been placed in the much deeper historical context of Indian art. That is, it is an error to see the shift from an aniconic to a representational image use as one that occurred strictly in the Buddhist traditions, and thus that one ought to look in Buddhist texts or practices exclusively for explanations for the change. Similar changes occurred in Brahmanical and Jainism at the time.

More to the point, early Buddhists’ responses to images in religious settings were framed and developed as a result of cultural positions with respect to images that had developed over many centuries in India, and through its interaction with neighboring (often invading) cultures.

The nature of the Buddha to those living after his exit from the world is a theme threaded through the book, often revealing itself as an explanation for the variety of responses Buddhist in South Asia reacted to Buddhist images. The myriad manifestations and existentially complex nature of the Buddha serves both to justify, and undercut, the devotional use of images.

A frequently-cited and quite specific theoretical basis for excluding images of the enlightened Buddha is that once enlightened, the Buddha was entirely absent. If absent, what is there to represent visually? This underpinning raises a question addressed initially by DeCaroli: did images of the Buddha follow doctrinal changes, or did the appearance of images lead to shifts in doctrine? No clear answer exists, for the historical is irregular, inconstant, or nonexistent. Instead, the author looks to changes in cultural understanding of images that developed independently of Buddhism.

The author devotes significant space to the use of images in South Asian art generally, both upon the inherent “power, agency, and authority” of images (8), and upon the use of such images by foreign powers who entered the region to bolster their political authority over a native population. Images in ancient South Asia were considered powerful, even magical, in ways that it is difficult for our image-saturated culture to grasp. They were often utilized in rites aimed toward specific worldly goals: for gaining wealth or health, for causing illness in another, for inflaming romantic desire, to influence the weather, and so on. Meanwhile, rites whose goals were non-secular (as practiced, for instance, by Brahmans and Sramana) were generally less image-oriented. DeCaroli therefore speculates that early the lack of early Buddhist figural images was based on the understanding that Buddhist practice was meant to pursue transcendental rather than worldly goals.

In parsing the views of other scholars on the philosophical justification for image-prohibition, the author takes the position that the motive is based on the inherent potency of anthropomorphic images, rather than either the idea that symbols in aniconic are substitutions for the Buddha (Foucher/Cunningham), or that the symbol represents, or is a reminder, of the Buddha (Rhys David/Anderson). DeCaroli’s view is thus connected with his thesis that early Buddhist thought on images was highly influenced by pre-Buddhist ideas regarding the magical power of images.

Image Problems recognizes that the Buddhism of any era is not a monolithic belief-system, and that sects made differing responses to the proliferation of images in the 1st century. The volume offers an selection of Buddhist texts speaking against image use, although none are explicitly prohibitory. (One exception is the prohibition found in all vinayas (and in Brahmanic literature) against images of living things.)

It is refreshing to read a scholar who presents the authors of ancient texts not simply as authority figures, or even as persons locked into a specific school or tradition, but rather as individuals grappling with the startling fact of images suddenly coming into vogue, and seeking philosophical justification or proscriptive.

Beyond philosophical prohibitions of image use, one finds a “you couldn’t do it even if you tried” approach, in texts that posit the impossibility of creating an image of the Buddha’s body due to its “elusive and inexpressible nature.” In a similarly deflective rather than prohibitory way, some texts claim that images are simply less effective than other means.

A fascinating section of the book describes non-Buddhist prohibitions against image-making, including one based on the premise that image-makers are thereby taking money away from the gods depicted. (This seems almost an ancient version of modern celebrities’ legal recourse against unlicensed use of their images.) The reaction illustrates the sense of potency and life early Buddhist ascribed to images, as do many examples of the active agency of images: driving off apsaras by painting a picture of a prettier apsara, learning archery from the clay image of a teacher of archery, resurrecting a dead person by means an image of the person. All of these ideas around the power and agency of images made it imperative that the Buddha, whose parinirvana brought up utter cessation, be absent in images.

Image Problems includes a survey of the history of figural representation in Southeast Asia, to place the appearance of figural images in Buddhist art in context. Gradually, figural images became more specific, such that individuals rather than generalized figures were portrayed. Portraiture is of course closely connection with royal images. The author contends that royal portraiture was not an innovation of the foreign Kusana kings, but that they “introduced the new social customs that allowed for this type of artwork to be used in a wider range of contexts.” (93) The Kusanas, from Central Asia, had a relationship to figural imagery different from South Asians. In general, the Kusanas used specific physiological styles, “representing gods and other religious figures anthropomorphically, even if those deities had little or no prior history of being represented in such a fashion.” (97) Further, Kusanas, by placing images of themselves in close proximity to images of religious figures, further enhanced political figures’ prestige and legitimization.

While DeCaroli notes that this usage must have shocked locals, he does not explore significantly reverse legitimization resulting from the sudden appearance of images of the Buddha and other figures, including their usurping the place of other deities. That is, once anthropomorphic images of political figures began to appear on statues, reliefs, and coins, Buddhist artists by crafting anthropomorphic images of the Buddha and other figures co-opted the “image power” of such secular images.

The overlap between images of foreign kings and religious figures is summarized: “the centuries in which reigning kings began to display their own images are the same periods in which new modes of representing religious figures was also pioneered.” (112) Thus, the innovation of figural images appearing in Buddhist art is posited to a general trend in figural imagery at the time. Rather than a causal connection between royal portraiture and Buddha images, the author points to the emergence of “a specific attitude toward the use of figural art as a means of establishing authority.” (112)

Later chapters in Image Problems examine the reactions of Buddhists to “validate or justify” Buddha images, which generally speaking are tied to the power or efficacy of such images, and thus to their ability to help practitioners. Such justifications are also undercut by stories in which devotion to images is chastised as inferior to or a distraction from the dharma. This back-and-forth is a pattern that is repeated with respect to various stories concerning Buddha images: “In each instance, when a renowned member of the saṃgha […] demonstrates the value to be found in devotion to the embodied Buddha, a response is drawn from those who feel the need to amend, alter, or undermine their successes.” (126) Thus, the varied expressions of understanding regarding image use persists, even as image use proliferated. Too, these responses indicate the underlying tension that South Asians felt toward figural images’ power.

Image Problems thoroughly surveys image use, devotion, the merit of making and donating to images, miracle images, and the problem of copies of images. The book extends consideration of image use to meditative practices, linguistics, and parallel reactions in Jain and Brahmanical traditions.


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