Vehicles of peace

BY BENOY K. BEHL, The Hindu, Nov 18, 2008

From stupas, Buddhist art progresses to a point where the human form is used to convey ideas that transcend mortal existence. 

New Delhi, India -- THE story of Buddhist art is a fascinating journey, taking us on the path of true knowledge, away from the illusions of the world. The earliest monuments of the Buddhist and Jaina faiths have a sublime representation of the spiritual quest: moving from the multiplicity of the forms of the world to the simplest form, the stupa. The railings around the stupa symbolically marked the space where we left behind the confusions and attachments of the world. Inside, we were to meditate upon the inner truth.

<< The site of the Vikramashila university, Bihar. The final developments in India of Buddhist philosophy and logic took place in the environs of the university, not very far from present-day Bhagalpur. The many temples and stupas that were constructed here included those built by Tibetan devotees. Atisa, who was to play a pivotal role in the development of Tibetan Buddhism from the 12th century onwards, was at this university.

The gateways of the railings depicted the fertility of the world of forms. These were “birth-gates” through which the “many” emanated from the “One”. They were also the gateways for the reintegration with the One. (The garba-griha, or “womb-chamber”, echoes the same concept of the One from whom everything emanates.) The yakshis sculpted on the gateways presented the vital forces and beauty of the natural order around us, and here we saw all this in its true context. Maya, or mithya, thus became the first personified representation in Indian art, the precursor to deities. Of these early presentations, Lakshmi lustrated by elephants, representing the generous fertility of the world of forms, proved to be among the most endearing and has continued to be depicted to this day.

Scholars such as the American art critic Thomas McEvilley who have studied pre-Socratic Greek philosophy point out similarities between the Greek and Indic traditions. Ananke, the early Greek goddess of bonds, is a similar deity, who creates the chains of our attachments to the multiplicity of the world.

Besides the prolific representations of Maya, the fruitful abundance of nature, other deities gradually came into being in Indic art. Indra and Surya came to be seen in the 2nd century B.C. in the Buddhist caves at Bhaja. A 1st century B.C. Buddha from the Mathura region is among the earliest sculptures of the Enlightened One.

By the 1st century A.D., a large number of deities were created in northern and central India. These included the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, Jaina Tirthankaras, Siva, Vishnu, Kartikeya and Lakshmi. They were the personifications of concepts and qualities. We were to look upon them to awaken the qualities within ourselves and eventually be filled with those and become one with the deity.

By the Gupta period, from the 4th to the 6th century A.D., sublime deities were made in all Indic faiths. Their purpose was to transport us through their grace and beauty to a realm of inner peace and joy. The pain and confusing attachments of the material world were to be left behind as we responded to the tranquil gaze of the figures. The Buddha personified the stillness within us, undisturbed by the desires and pains of the world: a state in which the armies of Mara have been defeated. The true victory is over the restless mind. Behind the half-closed eyes, the look is within, to the endless realm of peace to be found there.

In the Buddhist caves of this period, at Ajanta, we see the reshaping of the path of the philosophic quest. Earlier, the heart of the cave, deep within the hill, presented the grandeur of simplicity. Now it is the beauty and grace of harmonious form t

Chitrasutra, the treatise on art, which was penned during this period, states that the purpose of art is to convey the essence and harmony of the whole of creation. It says that art made with the understanding of this grace, which underlies all that there is, has a deep and transforming influence upon the viewer. It is more valuable, it says, than worldly possessions.

Cave 26 is a grand chaitya-griha, or prayer hall, perhaps the last excavation at Ajanta. The Buddha is made within a stupa and sits, with pendant legs, upon a throne. The Maitreya Buddha, who is yet to incarnate in the world, is often made in this fashion. The circumambulatory path around the shrine is carved elaborately.

On the left wall of the cave is a marvellous depiction of the Buddha’s victory over the armies of Mara. These forces represent the turbulence and confusion of the mind. Mara’s daughters, depicted below, represent our desires that keep us bound to a life of pain in the material world. The Buddha is serene as he rises above all these and is ready for enlightenment.

A profoundly moving scene is that of the Mahaparinirvana of the Buddha, when he finally achieves release from the mortal world. This is one of the grandest, yet most sensitive, depictions in all of Buddhist art. The figure of the reclining Buddha is about 22 feet (6.6 metres) long and is best viewed from near his feet. Ananda, his disciple, sits at his feet, desolate at the loss. To the solemnity and grandeur of the noble achievement of Mahaparinirvana, Ananda adds a human touch, which is unforgettable.

A number of grand viharas (residences of monks) were excavated in this period. These are considerably larger than the earlier viharas and are painted profusely. In fact, practically every inch of the wall and the ceiling space was originally covered with fine paintings. Early literature has many references to such halls of murals. The ones at Ajanta form a priceless collection as they are the only surviving significant body of ancient paintings. These exquisite murals are also among the greatest treasures of the Buddhist heritage.

Earlier, the path to nirvana, the extinguishing of the illusory self, or the ego, was a personal exercise, through self-discipline and constant endeavour. It was a path of renunciation, through which we were to lose gradually our attachment to the attractions of the material world. Many would have found this path difficult to follow and, in time, helpful Bodhisattvas were conceived. These were beings on the way to enlightenment who delayed their own nirvana to help others on the path. They could be prayed to for help. This was a significant change in the practice of Buddhism. The new school, which followed this path, came to be known as Mahayana, or the Great Vehicle.


In the meantime, vast universities came up under the benevolent patronage of the Gupta and Pala kings, who patronised establishments of all faiths. The size and splendour of these, which is discernable from the remains of the Nalanda and Vikramashila Mahaviharas, is amazing. The Nalanda university’s grandeur and rigorous academic atmosphere are also brought alive by the writings of the 7th century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who spent many years studying under the learned Shilabhadra and others there.

<< A section of the Nalanda Mahavihara. The qualities of Buddhahood were personified in the vibrant style of art that was created in the university's intellectual atmosphere.

At these, the first universities known to man, the endeavour was to understand fully the many qualities of Buddhahood, or Enlightenment, and to create logical paths that could be followed by the seekers in order to attain the final knowledge. The qualities of Buddhahood were personified in a pantheon of deities. By meditating upon the personified qualities, a worshipper was to imbibe the virtues presented. Having attained those qualities, one became that deity.


By the 4th century, the method of Yoga or Yogatantra was established in Indic thought. It was a graded path of evolution, through discipline and meditation. In the art of the Buddhist faith, Cave 90 of the early 6th century, at Kanheri, has the earliest surviving mandala, which presents such a graded path. The Buddha at the centre represents the final or universal Truth. The Buddhas and other figures around him are the personifications of wisdom and compassion, which lead us to the ultimate knowledge at the centre.

Again at Kanheri, in Cave 41, belonging to the late 5th or early 6th century, is the first known depiction of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara with 11 heads, presenting a view of the more detailed iconography that was developing. On either side of the veranda of the early Cave 3 are made colossal Buddhas, over 22 feet tall. This was the beginning of the tradition of Brhad, or colossal, Buddhas, which spread near and far.

The Buddhist caves at Ellora were made in the 7th century. These are the largest Buddhist excavations to be carried out in India. They also reflect the developments in iconography. From the simple, ethical message of the original teachings, the doctrine had become much more complex. Sculptural panels with Bodhisattvas were increasingly used to carry the iconographic message.

The 8th century saw the founding of the Pala dynasty, which ruled over most of Bengal and Bihar until the 12th century. It was a period of flourishing trade and prosperity. The Palas were patrons of monasteries and art. Towards the end of the 8th century, Dharmapala founded the Vikramashila university, which was to rival the importance of Nalanda itself, in present-day Bihar. By this time, Buddhism had entered its third major phase: the Vajrayana school.

In the earlier Buddhist thought, liberation was possible only through several lifetimes of effort. The Vajrayana offered the possibility of nirvana in a single lifetime. At the heart of this system was the teacher-initiate relationship, where the seeker was guided by his teacher. Complex rituals, mantras or chants, and mudras or hand movements, of Vajrayana Buddhism were codified in the form of tantras. Tantra literally means to “carry on knowledge”.

Dynamism of the intellect

The emphasis in this period was on the intellectual quest. This is constantly reflected in the art. Art in the previous period was naturalistic. Its focus was on a gentleness that moved us and dissolved our sense of the ego; which transported us through grace and ecstasy. The purpose of art remained the same in this period. However, the dynamism of the intellect, which analyses the processes of the realisation of the truth, came to the fore.

The many qualities of Buddhahood and the steps on the path to enlightenment came to be studied and presented in great detail. The qualities that move us towards a realisation of the Truth were presented in a manner that left no room for ambiguity or doubt. This was Vajrayana Buddhism, the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt, whose logic was “as striking as a clap of thunder”. It was also “as indestructible as a diamond”.

In this period of great intellectual vigour, the deities represented complex paths of realisation. One of the most remarkable qualities of the art and philosophy of this time is the intellectual freedom which it represents. There appears to be no limit to the diverse presentations of the personal visualisations of the deities.

We see from the numberless variations in the mandalas and in the deities that there was great freedom of thought and expression. Great teachers from Nalanda and Vikramashila had different approaches to the path to enlightenment.

As recorded in the surviving traditions of Tibet and the Indian Himalayas, the visit of each teacher from these universities began a new wave of understanding. Each teacher brought fresh nuances to the practice of the faith. Many sects, with different practices, continue their legacies until today. It is a wonderful blend of the continuation of ancient knowledge with the living experience and realisation of each new thinker.

Crowned Buddhas, instead of the earlier bare-headed ascetic figures, began to appear often in Pala times. The crown here denoted the highest spiritual achievement. Wrathful Bodhisattvas also began to appear. These are to awaken the determination and ardent vigour with which the devotee must pursue the search for the Truth and the fearlessness with which one must face the obstacles and confusions on this path. As in the Hindu art of this period, female deities, who are the counterparts of the male ones, become prolific. These were first seen in the caves of western India, in the 6th century.

Metal images were much easier to transport than large stone ones. It is these that travelled to Nepal, Tibet and further northwards, as well as to the countries of South-East Asia. The sculptures transmitted the concepts and styles of Buddhist art far and wide in this period. Advanced forms of Tantric Buddhism were developed and these travelled from here to other countries. The Pala period was one of the greatest ages of vibrant Buddhist thought and humankind’s philosophic quest.

The journey of Buddhist art has brought us to a point where the human form is used to convey ideas that transcend our mortal existence. The subject of the art is the depiction of the essence and not just the optical reality of the world.

As stated in Chitrasutra, the depiction of harmony and beauty has a transforming influence upon the viewer. When we respond to beauty, for that moment we come out of ourselves, our worldly cares and concerns are left behind. In that moment, we are absorbed in the grace that is everywhere in creation.