Buddhist art includes sculptures, paintings and other art forms that represent the stories and concepts of Buddhism. The earliest Buddhist art, which originated in India, was mostly symbolic and avoided figurative depictions of the Buddha. Later, as Buddhism developed and spread to a variety of cultures, its religous art came to represent the Buddha, boddhisatvas, and gods in rich figurative imagery. Ritual art, such as the intricate mandalas used in meditation, is also an important aspect of Buddhist art.
Aniconic Phase of Buddhist Art (5th-1st century BCE)
The first clear manifestations of Buddhist art date back to the time of the emperor Ashoka during the Mauryan era (322-180 BCE), through the building of numerous stupas, such as the one at Sanchi, and the erection of pillars. The pillars were surmounted by animal capitals and decorated with Buddhist symbols.
Although Buddhism was born in India, a culture with rich religious iconography, early Buddhist art avoided figurative representations of the Buddha almost entirely. Instead he and his teachings were represented by symbols, including:
- The Wheel of law (dharmacakra), symbol of the Four Noble Truths expressed by the Buddha.
- The Bodhi tree, the tree where the Buddha reached enlightenment. It has some antecedent in fertility cults and representations of the tree of life.
- The Buddha footprint (skt. Buddhapada “Buddha feet”) to represent the impact of the teachings of the Buddha on the world.
- The Empty throne.
- The Lions, symbol of his royalty. The Buddha was known as the “Shakya Lion” during Ashoka’s time, so this symbol was used on the Buddhist pillars he planted throughout India.
- The Columns surmounted by a wheel, symbol of his teaching.
- The Lotus, symbol of pure, unspoiled Buddha Nature, for its beautiful blooming and the impossibility for water to adhere to it, leaving it spotless.
This reluctance towards anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha, and the sophisticated development of aniconic symbols to avoid it (even in narrative scene where other human figures would appear), seems to be connected to one of the Buddha's sayings, reported in the Dighanikaya, that disfavored representations of himself after the extinction of his body. This tendency remained as late as the 2nd century CE in the Southern parts of India, in the art of the Amaravati school (see: Mara's assault on the Buddha). It has been argued that earlier anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha may have been made of wood and may have perished since then. However no related archeological evidence has been found.
Iconic Phase of Buddhist Art (1st century CE – present)
Anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha started to emerge from the 1st century CE in northern India. 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.
The art of Gandhara benefited from centuries of interaction with Greek culture since the conquests of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE and the subsequent establishment of the Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek Kingdoms, leading to the development of Greco-Buddhist art. Gandharan Buddhist sculpture displays Greek artistic influence, and it also 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.
The art of Mathura tends to be based on a strong Indian tradition, such the anthropomorphic representation of divinities such as the Yaksas, although in a style rather archaic compared to the later representations of the Buddha. The Mathuran school contributed clothes covering the left shoulder, thin muslin, the wheel on the palm, the lotus seat, etc.
Mathura and Gandhara also strongly influenced each other. During their artistic florescence, the two regions were even united politically under the Kushans, both being capitals of the empire. It is still a matter of debate whether the anthropomorphic representations of Buddha was essentially a result of a local evolution of Buddhist art at Mathura, or a consequence of Greek cultural influence in Gandhara through the Greco-Buddhist syncretism.
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.
As Buddhism expanded outside of India from the 1st century CE, its original artistic package blended with other artistic influences, leading to a progressive differentiation among the countries adopting the faith.
- A Northern route was established from the 1st century CE through Central Asia, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan, in which Mahayana Buddhism prevailed.
- A Southern route, where Theravada Buddhism dominated, went through Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.