The first centuries of Buddhism saw very few visual representations of the Buddha, with Buddhist art consisting mainly of symbols. But beginning in the 1st century CE, the Buddha image emerged and went on to become one of the most important ritual items in Buddhism. Images of the Buddha can now be found on altars, in temples, and just about anywhere else around the world.
For the first 600 or so years after his death, the Buddha and his teachings were represented in art by symbols such as the wheel, footprints, or empty thrones.
Human representations of the Buddha started to emerge from the 1st century in northern India. These depict the Buddha wearing monk's robes and a serene facial expression. He is shown standing or seated in a lotus position, and he often cradles a begging bowl or makes the gesture of fearlessness.
The two main centers of creation have been identified as Gandhara in today’s Punjab, in Pakistan, and the region of Mathura, in central northern India. One Buddhist statue from Mathura has been dated to 81 CE. In addition, some of the gold and copper coins of Kanishka, who ruled from 78 CE, have Buddha images on their reverse (the obverse side has figures of Kanishka himself). A sculptured head of a Buddha from Afghanistan (left) has been dated to the 1st or 2nd century.
Gandharan Buddhist sculpture displays Greek artistic influence, and it has been suggested that the concept of the “man-god” was essentially inspired by Greek mythological culture. Artistically, the Gandharan school of sculpture is said to have contributed wavy hair, drapery covering both shoulders, shoes and sandals, acanthus leaf decorations, etc.
This iconic art was characterized from the start by a realistic idealism, combining realistic human features, proportions, attitudes and attributes, together with a sense of perfection and serenity reaching to the divine. This expression of the Buddha as a both a man and a god became the iconographic canon for subsequent Buddhist art.
Buddhist art continued to develop in India for a few more centuries. The pink sandstone sculptures of Mathura evolved during the Gupta period (4th to 6th century) to reach a very high fineness of execution and delicacy in the modeling. The art of the Gupta school was extremely influential almost everywhere in the rest of Asia.
By the 10th century, Buddhist art creation was dying out in India, as Hinduism and Islam ultimately prevailed, but it went on to be developed in new and unique ways in China, Japan, Thailand, and other South and East Asian countries.
Forms and Characteristics of Buddha Images
Sculptures known as "Buddha images" can depict one of many buddhas ("enlightened ones") other than the historical Buddha, such as the Medicine Buddha, Laughing Buddha, or others. The Great Buddha of Kamakura, Japan (right), for instance, depicts Amida Buddha.
But images of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, are especially popular. Images of Shakyamuni Buddha usually depict one of the five key events in his life: his birth; his departure from home; his attainment of enlightenment; his first sermon; and his death. These can be found in the imagery of all Buddhist cultures.
The most common type of image shows the Buddha in a lotus position during meditation, which represents both the importance of meditation in his life and the moment of his Enlightenment. His eyes are closed, the soles of his feet visible, and his hands rest in his lap (the Dhyana Mudra). Sometimes one hand touches the groud in the Earth Witness Mudra. This represents the moment when the Buddha was tempted by an evil deity but resisted; calling the earth to witness his resolve to attain Enlightenment.
Buddha images range in size from small home statue to a giant temple sculpture such as the Daibutsu in Kamakura, and use materials ranging from sandstone to gold.
Buddha images are to be constructed according to fixed measurements, which correspond to ideal physical proportions and represent cosmic harmony.
The canonical rules of Buddhist art also govern the characteristics of a Buddha image that uniquely identify the figure as a Buddha (an enlightened one). These include the eight-spoked wheel on the foot or palm, exaggerated earlobes, and, especially, the so-called "enlightenment-elevation" on the top of the head. This last feature is described in ancient texts as that which emerges out of the head of an enlightened saint and is the visible symbol of the spiritual generative power that strives towards heaven and passes into the immaterial sphere.
- Meher McArthur, Reading Buddhist Art: An Illustrated Guide to Buddhist Signs and Symbols (Thames & Hudson, 2004), 27.
- "The Buddha Image." BuddhaNet. Accessed February 2006.
- "Buddhist Art." Wikipedia. Accessed February 2006.
- "Evolution of the Buddha Image." Nitin Kumar, Exotic India Arts. May 2004.