Buddha in Arts and Culture

The Buddha figure has been a part of popular imagination, and thus, has been portrayed in paintings, sculptures and various other forms of arts and culture. The earliest representation of Buddha was madethrough the Stupas (mounds erected on the relics of Buddha) and the external decorations on them tracing the lives and events of Buddha's life namely his leaving home, gaining of Enlightenment, his first preaching, last journey and finally the attainment of Nirvana.

The aniconic symbols like foot, sacred tree, umbrella and holy seat or altar were widely used to represent Buddha.

The production of the first anthropomorphic images of the Buddha must be referred to the reign of Kaniska, the emperor of the Kusanas. About the beginning of the Christian era, certain factions within the Buddhist community felt the need for an anthropomorphic representation of their lord. It is in and around Mathura that the greatest number of Buddha images have been found and based on this evidence it is assumed that this was one of the first creative centers of the Buddha image in human form. The artisans of this area drew largely from main traditional sources: firstly, their own artistic experiences in the making of superhuman figures, and secondly, upon the indication given in Brass literary tradition concerning Sakyamuni's special characteristics (laksana) as Buddha, the superman (Mahapurusha).

The humanoid Buddha image embodies a complex of ideas in the world of art and culture. The Buddha came to be thought of having three bodies. There was his actual body or ‘nirmanakaya', which is rarely represented in arts. Since Buddha had achieved enlightenment, he was completely identified with the ‘absolute'. Therefore, his absolute body or ‘dharmakaya' is un-representable. But there exists a third body between the two – the body of glory or ‘sambhogakaya' that was capable of representing the Buddha nature symbolically. Icons carved in stone, casted in metal, painted or sculpted from any other material represents this ‘sambhogakaya' in various forms.

The physical attributes of the sambhogakaya are noteworthy. It is smooth and rounded, golden in color. As a religious leader, he is portrayed in a religious garb that clings closely to his body and leaves the right arm free.

It has, among other characteristics, a bump on the top of the skull, called ‘usnisa' although in very early images he is seen as having a shaved head as befits a monk; long arms; webbed fingers; lotus marks on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet; a twist of hairs or ‘urna' between eyebrows and breasts. Even when gesturing or walking, its total calm is conveyed by physical symmetry. The figure is represented either free in the round or in very high relief, always frontal.

The Sambhogakaya is represented in a limited number of canonical postures, performing symbolic gestures. The general postures include walking, standing, sitting cross-legged (Padmasana), erect, lying down to die, etc. In early images, he was seen as seated on a lion-throne (or simhasana), or when he was standing there was sometimes a lion between his feet. This motif related to his well-established title of ‘Sakyasimha' or the ‘Lion of the Sakyas'. A special motif is the ‘wheel of Dharma' or the Dharma Chakra that is associated with the Buddha image. It is the symbol of a ‘Chakravarti' or the just ruler of the world. The gestures include preaching, offering blessings and protection. The seated body also represents the meditation during which the Buddha had gained his wisdom and enlightenment and had become identical with the dharmakaya.

  • Gautama Buddha: Gautama Buddha was one of the greatest religious teachers that the world has seen. Learn more about his life and attainment of Bodhi.
  • Buddhist Scriptures and Teachings: Buddhist scriptures carry the noble teachings of the Buddha. They explore and teach ways to lead a blissful life.
  • Buddha in Arts and Culture: Spread of Buddhism influenced the world of art in a remarkable way. Starting from sculptures to paintings, Buddhism gave rise to distinct Schools of art.
  • Buddha Mudras: Buddha mudras are specific gestures of the Buddha that have symbolic meanings.
  • Buddhist Pantheon: The various deities of the Buddhist pantheon are represented through sculptures and other artistic medium to convey different spiritual messages.

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