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  • Early Buddhist Art and the Theory of AniconismAuthor(s): Susan L. HuntingtonSource: Art Journal, Vol. 49, No. 4, New Approaches to South Asian Art (Winter, 1990), pp.401-408Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 02:26

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  • Early Buddhist Art and the Theory of Aniconism

    By Susan L. Huntington

    n the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European and Indian scholars

    were puzzled by the absence of anthro- pomorphic representations of the historical Buddha Sakyamuni in the earliest surviv- ing Buddhist art. Early Buddhist art, it was assumed, either avoided Buddha images entirely, or favored the use of symbols to refer to the Buddha or important events in the Buddha's life. For example, the depic- tion of a specific tree in early stone reliefs was interpreted to signify the Buddha's en- lightenment beneath the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya (fig. 5). Similarly, portrayals of the wheel representing Buddhist law were often thought to be symbolic representa- tions of the Buddha's first sermon at Sar- nath (fig. 1). This supposed practice of either avoiding images of the Buddha or using symbols as substitutes for Buddha images became known as "aniconism."

    For nearly a hundred years, the theory of aniconism has been universally accepted in the interpretation of early Buddhist art. The early twentieth-century writer Alfred Foucher was the first to articulate the the- ory. ' He based his ideas on the assumption that the earliest Buddha images were those produced in the Gandhara region of an- cient India during the early centuries of the Christian era-more than half a millen- nium after the Buddha lived. In Gandhara, he surmised, Indian artists were intro- duced to what he considered a superior sculptural heritage-that of the Greek and classical world-which stimulated the creation of anthropomorphic images of the Buddha.2 Indian sentiment was naturally offended at the suggestion that Western influence was required to motivate the pro- duction of the Buddha image. Ananda Coomaraswamy took the case to the Art Bulletin, where he contended in a fre- quently cited article that the impetus for creating the Buddha image was rooted in indigenous beliefs and sculptural tradi- tions.3 At the same time, Coomaraswamy,

    Figure 1 Devotion to a Buddhist Wheel, carving on railing, ca. second or third decade of 1st century A.D., stone. Stupa 2, Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, India.

    like Foucher, accepted the theory of aniconism to explain the art in which por- trayals of the Buddha in human form did not occur.

    Considering some of the underlying principles of Buddhism, it has not been difficult for scholars to suggest explana- tions for the absence of anthropomorphic images of the Buddha in early Buddhist art. One author notes that "the Buddha was not shown at all, to symbolize the fact that he was nibbuta ('extinguished'),"4 thus re- lating the notion of aniconism with the very essence of Buddhism-the cessation of existence in physical form. Another scholar cites a verse from the Suttanipdta, which states, "He who is passionless re- garding all desires, Resorts to nothing- ness,"5 to suggest that the Buddha's tran- scendence of personal, egoistic existence may be linked with the artistic phenome- non. This author further suggests that "As flame . .. blown by the force of wind goes out and is no longer reckoned. . . . Even so the sage, released from name and form, goes out and is no longer reckoned,"6 and

    concludes that the absence of Buddha fig- ures in human form in the early art reflects the Buddha's "true Nirvana essence [which is] inconceivable in visual form and human shape."7 While such concepts are central to Buddhist thinking, they may not be pertinent to the issue of aniconism. Al- though such references recur throughout Buddhist literature, they do not directly address the issue of whether a Buddha should be represented in human form.

    So deeply embedded within a matrix of long-standing views of Buddhist doctrinal, institutional, and sectarian history is the aniconic interpretation of early Buddhist art that any erosion of the theory threatens to crumble the foundations upon which decades of scholarship have been built. Acceptance of a so-called period of aniconism preceding an image-making phase has been so strong that a number of cases may be cited where secure archae- ological, inscriptional, and literary evi- dence to the contrary has been dismissed to accommodate the theory.8

    Nonetheless, a fresh analysis based on archaeological, literary, and inscriptional evidence casts doubt on the practice of deliberate avoidance of Buddha images. For instance, one of the cornerstones of the aniconic theory has been that the early art reflected "Hinayana"9 forms of Buddhism and that "Hinayana" Buddhists had doctrinal proscriptions against the creation of works of art showing Buddhas in their human forms. Proponents of the theory have contended that the practice of creating anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha was initiated only when Mahayana Buddhism began to flourish around the early centuries of the Christian era. How- ever, one respected Buddhologist has re- cently suggested on the basis of textual evidence that "Hinayanists" were probably as receptive to the making of the image as Mahayanists.10 Another distinguished Buddhologist has concluded that the asso-

    Winter 1990 401

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  • Figure 2 Sakyamuni Buddha's First Sermon, from Gandhara region, Pakistan, Kusana period, ca. 2nd or 3rd century A.D., stone. Lahore Museum, Lahore, Pakistan.

    ciation of the Buddha image solely with Mahayana is incorrect and that "almost all the Hinayana schools were actively inter- ested in and concerned with images and the cult of images."" Indeed, in the entire corpus of Buddhist literature, scholars have been able to find only a single, indi- rect reference to a proscription against the creation of Buddha images, and that is limited to the context of a single Buddhist sect. 12

    Archaeological evidence also chal- lenges one of the mainstays of the aniconic theory, namely, the long-held conviction that the Buddha image was first created during the Kusana period around the first or second century A.D. Recently a number of sculpted Buddha images belonging to the pre-Kusana period have been identi- fied.13 The existence of these pre-Kusana sculpted Buddhas undermines the theory that Kusana patronage was responsible for the introduction of anthropomorphic Bud- dha images. The early date of these images confirms that representations of Buddhas were being produced at the same time as the so-called aniconic reliefs, thus sug- gesting that the absence of Buddha images in the reliefs cannot be attributed to wide- spread prohibitions against the creation of Buddha images.

    The widening gap between recent his- torical, art-historical, and textual evidence and the traditional aniconic theory raises many questions. Can it still be assumed that the pre-Kusana reliefs that do not de- pict the Buddha in human form reflect a deliberate avoidance of his portrayal? Might there be other explanations for the apparent absence of Buddha figures in the early reliefs? Can the recently identified Buddha images from pre-Kusana times be reconciled with the other artistic remains of those periods? And, most importantly, if the subjects of the hundreds of pre- Kusana reliefs do not contained veiled ref- erences to a being who is never shown, what might they have been intended to communicate?

    At present, I am engaged in a detailed

    study that explores the early art of Bud- dhist India with these questions in mind and offers new interpretations of the con- tent of these carvings. The corpus of so- called aniconic reliefs displays a variety of subjects, including abstract, animal, and foliate motifs, nature spirits, and narrative scenes. Among these, the narrative scenes are of the greatest importance to the study of the problem of aniconism, for the vast majority are generally identified either as events in the life of the historical Buddha Sakyamuni (ca. 560-480 B.C.) or as depic- tions of jdtaka stories relating his previous lives. 14

    This article presents some of my find- ings in a preliminary fashion by focusing on one type of representation.15 Specifi- cally, I will examine a type of relief that is among those that are usually said to illus- trate scenes from the life of the Buddha, with the Buddha, however, not depicted. It is possible that most, if not all, of these compositions do not represent events in the life of the Buddha at all, but rather portray worship and adoration at sacred Buddhist sites. Although some of these reliefs may depict devotions made at sacred sites even while the Buddha was still alive, most of them probably show the sites as they were worshiped after the lifetime of the Buddha. Further, I hope to show that the so-called aniconic symbols, such as empty thrones, trees, wheels, and stupas (hemispherical structures containing relics), were not in- tended by the makers of the reliefs to serve as surrogates for Buddha images, but were the sacred nuclei of worship at these sites. The reliefs, then, are essentially "por- traits" of the sites and show the practices of pilgrimage and devotion associated with them. 16

    A comparison between an iconic image of the Buddha's first sermon and an

    image that has been identified as an an- iconic version of the same scene demon- strates the visual and thematic differences between the two types. In the so-called aniconic type, seen in a first-century A.D. relief at Sanchi, a large wheel is the central object in the composition (fig. 1). The wheel-the Buddhist wheel of law (righteousness)-is invariably associated with the Buddha's first sermon, during which he is said to have set the wheel of law in motion. Therefore, compositions like this are generally identified as depic- tions of the Buddha's first sermon with the Buddha not shown in anthropomorphic form. The other image, a second- or third- century A.D. relief from the Gandhara re- gion of Pakistan, is of the "iconic" type and bears a figure of a Budda seated upon a throne (fig. 2). Like most images show- ing a Buddha, this carving is later in date than most of the "aniconic" images. In the Gandharan relief, the Buddha is portrayed

    along with five ascetics and a pair of deer flanking a wheel below. These elements typify illustrations of the Buddha's first sermon, which he delivered to an audience of five heretics at the Deer Park and at Benares. Three additional figures, distin- guished by their costumes, are also in at- tendance, although their presence is not requisite in the scene.

    Two observations may be made about reliefs that actually portray Buddha's life events: (1) the place being shown is the place where the event occurred, and (2) the time of the activity depicted in the compo- sition is the time of the event itself. These two conditions generally are not present or even implicit in reliefs of the "aniconic" type, such as the scene showing the wheel. Earlier scholars have assumed that compo- sitions like this record events during the lifetime of the Buddha, in spite of both the absence of the Buddha and the presence of other elements in the composition that in- dicate that another activity is occurring. Without accounting for the counterevi- dence, they have concluded that such com- positions represent Buddha life scenes with the Buddha absent.

    Place and time, which are explicitly in- dicated in iconic images of Buddha's life events, are key issues in the interpretation of the aniconic reliefs, as may be clarified by examining a recently discovered image from Amaravati (fig. 3). This second- century A.D. carving depicts neither a non- figurative subject nor a Buddha. Instead, it shows what is clearly a Buddha image

    Figure 3 Devotion to an Image of a Buddha, from the Amaresvara Temple, Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh, India, ca. late 2nd century A.D., stone. Amaravati Site Museum, Amaravati, India.

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  • Figure 4 The Bodhi Tree of Visvabhu Buddha, from Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh, India, Suiga period, ca. 100-80 B.C., stone. Indian Museum, Calcutta.

    placed upon a throne. The focus of the relief is a rectangular throne, behind which is an asvattha tree, as identified by the shape of its leaves. Upon the throne rests a roundel bearing a figure of a seated Bud- dha displaying the gesture of reassurance with his right hand. A pair of footprints appears below. To the far right and rear of the pictorial space, a portion of a roofed building or pavilion is visible. Flanking the central throne and tree is a pair of figures (that on the viewer's left being badly dam- aged). These figures are seated with one leg pendant on platforms that flank the central altar, and the figure at the right holds a fly whisk over his right shoulder.

    There is no doubt that this relief repre- sents a certain place. The setting of the relief is strikingly suggested by the build- ing at the right rear, which apparently is included as part of the portrayal of the site. It seems clear that the scene is not an event in the life of Buddha, since the Buddha is not present and he (or another Buddha) is specifically depicted in an image. Because the scene does not represent a life event of the Buddha, one cannot even be certain that the place being depicted is one where an event in the Buddha's life occurred. The presence of the asvattha tree might imply that the site was Bodh Gaya, but, as is well known, specimens of the asvattha tree, the enlightenment or bodhi tree of Sakyamuni Buddha, are sacred and are enshrined throu...


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