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Early Buddhist art and the theory of aniconism

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by S. L. Huntington

Art Journal

Vol. 49 No. 4 Winter.1990


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European and Indian scholars were puzzled by the absence of anthropomorphic representations of the historical Buddha Sakyamuni in the earliest surviving 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 depiction of a specific tree in early stone reliefs was interpreted to signify the Buddha's enlightenment beneath the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya (fig. 5). Similarly, portrayals of the wheel representing Buddhist law were often thought to be symbolic representations of the Buddha's first sermon at Sarnath (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 theory.[1] He based his ideas on the assumption that the earliest Buddha images were those produced in the Gandhara region of ancient India during the early centuries of the Christian era--more than half a millennium after the Buddha lived. In Gandhara, he surmised, Indian artists were introduced 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 production of the Buddha image. Ananda Coomaraswamy took the case to the Art Bulletin, where he contended in a frequently cited article that the impetus for creating the Buddha image was rooted in indigenous beliefs and sculptural traditions.[3] At the same time, Coomaraswamy, like Foucher, accepted the theory of aniconism to explain the art in which portrayals 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 explanations 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 relating the notion of aniconism with the very essence of Buddhism--the cessation of existence in physical form. Another scholar cites a verse from the Suttanipata, which states, "He who is passionless regarding all desires, Resorts to nothingness,"[5] to suggest that the Buddha's transcendence of personal, egoistic existence may be linked with the artistic phenomenon. 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 figures 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. Although 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 archaeological, inscriptional, and literary evidence 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 "Hmayana"[9] forms of Buddhism and that "Hmayana" 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. However, one respected Buddhologist has recently 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 association of the Buddha image solely with Mahayana is incorrect and that "almost all the Hinayana schools were actively interested in and concerned with images and the cult of images."[11] Indeed, in the entire corpus of Buddhist literature, scholars have been able to find only a single, indirect 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 challenges 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 identified.[13] The existence of these pre-Kusana sculpted Buddhas undermines the theory that Kusana patronage was responsible for the introduction of anthropomorphic Buddha 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 suggesting that the absence of Buddha images in the reliefs cannot be attributed to widespread prohibitions against the creation of Buddha images.

The widening gap between recent historical, 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 depict 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 references 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 Buddhist India with these questions in mind and offers new interpretations of the content of these carvings. The corpus of socalled 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 depictions of jataka stories relating his previous lives.[14]


This article presents some of my findings in a preliminary fashion by focusing on one type of representation.[15] Specifically, I will examine a type of relief that is among those that are usually said to illustrate 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 intended 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 "portraits" 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 aniconic version of the same scene demonstrates 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 depictions 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 region of Pakistan, is of the "iconic" type and bears a figure of a Buddha seated upon a throne (fig. 2). Like most images showing 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, distinguished by their costumes, are also in attendance, 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 composition 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 compositions 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 indicate that another activity is occurring. Without accounting for the counterevidence, they have concluded that such compositions represent Buddha life scenes with the Buddha absent. Place and time, which are explicitly indicated 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 nonfigurative subject nor a Buddha. Instead, it shows what is clearly a Buddha image 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 rounder bearing a figure of a seated Buddha 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 damaged). 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 represents a certain place. The setting of the relief is strikingly suggested by the building 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 Iife 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 throughout the Buddhist world. The Buddha in the rounder is not in the earth touching gesture that characterizes representations of his imminent enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, thus providing further evidence that the site is not Bodh Gaya. One can only say that the scene represents a Buddhist sacred spot, or pitha. Regarding the time of the event, the presence of the image suggests that the scene probably occurred after the lifetime of the Buddha.[17]

Scholars have assumed that all the early reliefs of the type under discussion--both the "iconic" and "aniconic" examples--were meant to indicate an event during the lifetime of the Buddha, but it is clear that another alternative exists: I contend that at least some of the so-called aniconic scenes depict sacred locations of Buddhism being visited by laypersons, most likely some time after the Buddha had lived. A number of features in the "aniconic" carvings of this type, such as the devout worshipers in the Sanchi scene (fig. 1), clearly indicate this type of practice. The strongest and perhaps most unequivocal evidence that the scene showing the veneration of the wheel of law (fig. 1) and numerous other so-called aniconic reliefs are depictions of sacred places, with lay practitioners worshiping at them (and not events in the life of the Buddha), is the body of inscriptions associated with some of the "aniconic" reliefs from Bharhut dating from the first century B.C. One critic of my theory has accused me of being "blissfully unaware of the plethora of inscriptions at Bharhut that specifically identify these representations as events in the Buddha's life." [18] On the contrary, a closer examination of the inscriptions reveals that they argue strongly for my case, because many of the epigraphs clearly indicate places, not events.


Indeed, it is precisely the confusion of location and event that is at the root of what I believe to be the misperception about many of the early reliefs. Several examples from Bharhut clarify the issues relating to this confusion. One of the most incontrovertible illustrations is a cat first-century B.C. rounder showing a tree with an altar in front of it being venerated by a male and female couple and a pair of children (fig. 4). The inscription accompanying this relief says bhagavato Vesabhuna bodhi salo, that is, "The Bodhi tree of the holy Vesabhu (Visvabhu), a Sala tree."[19] The inscription clearly identifies the scene as a representation of the tree of enlightenment (bodhi tree) of the Buddha Visvabhu, one of the mortal Buddhas who preceded Sakyumuni in time. In other words, the relief depicts the tree under which the enlightenment took place, but not the event of Buddha Visvabhu's enlightenment itself. The inscription implies the location--the place where the tree was rooted--while the human figures and other elements in the rounder indicate the activity that is taking place.

The rounder features the tree, an altar for offerings, and the human devotees who are worshiping the tree by draping it with garlands, making offerings, and kneeling in respect. It is clear that the relief illustrates activities that are taking place at the holy site some time after Visvabhu's enlightenment. Further, the scene is clearly an exaltation of Buddhist devotion, specifically lay devotion, since the figures are lay worshipers, as indicated by their secular garb. Several other reliefs from the Bharhut railing show the trees of other mortal Buddhas and are accompanied by inscriptions indicating that the scenes represent the sacred trees at their sacred sites, rather than enlightenment events. The most detailed of these compositions shows an elaborate temple enshrining an asvattha tree, the bodhi tree of Sakyamuni (fig. 5).

This first century B.C. panel is commonly said to represent the enlightenment of the Buddha, with the Buddha absent due to aniconic interdictions. However, the inscription that accompanies this carving says bhagavato Sakamunino bodho,[20] that is, the bodhi (tree) of holy Sakyamuni, and thus parallels the inscription identifying the tree of Buddha Visvabhu.[21] The composition includes a depiction of a platform with the tree, a building, and worshipers. There is no evidence from surviving literary or archaeological sources that any kind of temple existed at the site when the Buddha meditated under his sacred tree. Indeed, Emperor ASoka (r. cat 272-231 B.C. ) is credited with having built the first important temple at Bodh Gaya, and therefore the presence of the temple suggests that the depiction shows the site in the Asokan period or later. Furthermore, an examination of the activity in the relief reveals that it is a representation of human devotees, specifically lay devotees, worshiping the sacred spot. Therefore, though it is certain that the relief portrays the tree under which the Buddha became enlightened at Bodh Gaya, there is every evidence that the event portrayed is not the enlightenment itself.

A comprehensive study of the other inscriptions at Bharhut confirms that many of the compositions commonly identified as Buddha life events with the Buddha lacking are instead depictions of sacred sites, including devotional activities at these sites. The major scholars who have studied the inscriptions during the past century have read the pertinent epigraphs in the manner I describe here.[22] Nonetheless, those discussing the art have invariably misconstrued the contents of the inscriptions--if they have consulted them at all--to refer to Buddha life events. Thus, their identifications of the activities and subjects shown in the reliefs have conformed to the assumption that the subjects are life scenes with the Buddha absent. Even Heinrich Luders, who so carefully reread and analyzed the inscriptions, entitled one of his chapters "Inscriptions Attached to Scenes of Buddha's Life," in spite of the fact that his own translations of the inscriptions did not support the identification of the scenes as events in the life of the Buddha.[23] Another example of a so-called aniconic composition that invites a new interpretation is an uninscribed carving from Bharhut traditionally identified as the Buddha's descent from Trayastrimsa heaven at the site of Sankasya (fig. 6).

The usual interpretation of this cat first-century B.C. relief is that the ladder by which the Buddha made the descent is shown in the center of the composition, but due to the presumed aniconic proscriptions, the Buddha was not shown. However, the theory that I am proposing--that reliefs like this portray a place but not an event of the Buddha's life--allows another interpretation that perhaps better accounts for the elements depicted in the relief. The figures appear to move as if in a clockwise procession around the ladders in the nearly ubiquitous circumambulation ritual used inewitness accounts of Buddhist pilgrims to Sankasya and archaeological evidence at the site indicate that as early as the third century B.C. Sankasya had become a major pilgrimage center and that an actual set of stairs--perhaps the very ones depicted in this relief--were the focal point of worship. Regarding the ladders, the seventh-century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) observed: Some centuries ago, the ladders still existed in their original position, but now they have sunk into the earth and disappeared. The neighboring princes, grieved at not having seen them, built up of bricks and chased stones ornamented with jewels, on the ancient foundations (three ladders) resembling the old ones.


They are about 70 feet high. Above them they built a vihara in which is a stone image of Buddha, and on either side of this is a ladder with the figures of Brahma and Sakra, just as they appeared when first rising to accompany Buddha in his descent.[24] Thus, at one ]time the focus of devotion at Sankasya had apparently been a set of stairs erected by the early royalty of India. Therefore, instead of representing the Buddha life event itself, with the main actors missing, the Bharhut carving seems to show a later worship scene at the holy site of Sankasya, where the descent took place. Another panel from Bharhut, dating from about the first century B.C., shows a subject common in the early Buddhist relief art of India, a depiction of a stupa (fig. 7). Because the Buddha's relics were divided and enshrined in eight stupas shortly after his demise, depictions of stupas in the early art are often said to depict the Buddha's great decease (parinirvana). Yet, as in other reliefs already discussed, the presence of lay worshipers in the composition suggests that the main subject of the carving is the practice of making pilgrimage to the sacred sites where relics of the Buddha were housed. The pillar crowned with addorsed lions at the left suggests that the stupa site is shown as it appeared after around the third century B.C.,

when Emperor Asoka erected numerous similar pillars at the sacred sites of Buddhism. Many other reliefs at Bharhut and other sites show a wheel, a tree, a stupa, a pillar, or other type of monument, and I believe these also should be interpreted as depictions of places, not events with the main actors missing. At least by Asoka's time in the third century B.C., numerous places associated with the Buddha had become famous pithas (holy "seats," i.e., holy places), and shrines, pillars, or other monuments had been erected at them. The almost invariable presence of devotees and worshipers in such compositions suggests that it is not a historical event in the life of the Buddha that is being represented, but rather the activities of darsana--of "seeing" a sacred place, person, or object--and the associated devotional practices.[25] Inasmuch as specific sacred sites were the focus of many of the early reliefs, the significance attached to pilgrimage to these locations forms an important background for understanding early Buddhist art. The Buddha himself, upon his deathbed, instructed his followers to make pilgrimage to the sites of the four main events of his life: his birth, enlightenment, first sermon, and death (parinirvana).[26] The practice of making such pilgrimages was popularized in the third century B.C. by Emperor Asoka, Buddhism's paradigmatic lay devotee, whose pious journey was immortalized in the Asokovadana.[27]


The same text also records Asoka's well-known embellishment of the sacred sites of Buddhism with architectural and artistic creations, some of which may be depicted in the "aniconic" compositions. The presence of lay worshipers in virtually all of the reliefs in question supports the theory that they record a practice of lay devotion. A number of reliefs specifically show devotees performing the Buddhist rite of circumambulation, which may be ascertained by the depiction of the figures as if turning in space as they walk around a sacred object of devotion (fig. 8). The reinterpretation of the reliefs as depictions of places rather than events bears directly upon the issue of whether the various objects that appear in the reliefs, like wheels, sacred trees, stupas, or pillars, are "symbolic" representations of the Buddha. If we consider that these reliefs may represent sacred places, then it would follow that the artists would depict the focal point of worship at each of them. In representations of the site of Bodh Gaya, the temple and/or the tree might be shown (fig. 5); in representations of Sarnath, a wheel or temple with an enclosed wheel could be depicted.[28]

The place where the Buddha's death took place, or the sites where his relics were enshrined, might be shown by a rendering of a stupa. Similarly, depictions of other sites might be portrayed by illustrations of their identifying or most characteristic features. That objects installed at Buddhist sacred sites can be worthy of devotion in their own right and not merely substitute for a forbidden anthropomorphic rendering of a Buddha is attested by a phenomenon seen in Sri Lankan Buddhism. The phenomenon is likely to have had an Indian source, perhaps in the early Buddhism of the period of concern to the aniconic question (ca. second century B.C. through the first century A.D.). Based on the belief that the Buddha visited their island three times, Sri Lankan Buddhist revere the places he visited or rested, and sites housing some of his relics.

These, along with several other sacred sites, have been codified into a cult of the Sixteen Great Places, which are the focus of Sri Lankan pilgrimage and constitute a central theme in the art and literature of the country. Most Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka bear painted or sculpted depictions of the sixteen sites, and the motif appears commonly on other types of objects, such as Buddhist books covers (fig. 9). At first glance, such depictions could be interpreted as symbolic representations of the Buddha, for they show sacred trees, stupas, or footprints. However, in Sri Lanka there is no doubt that these are portraits of sacred places. The importance of a cult of pilgrimage to the sacred sites of Buddhism is also verified from Buddhist texts that describe the three types of relics (cetiya) that the Buddha is said to have left after his death: (1) sariraka (pieces of the body), (2) paribhogaka (things he used), and (3) uddesaka (reminders, i.e., representations, or images).[29]


The meaning of sariraka is eminently clear--here, Buddhists refer not only to the cremated ashes of the Buddha, but also to any other bodily relic, such as a hair, a tooth, a fragment of bone, or nails. Small caskets containing such sacred relics became an important focal point of Buddhist worship, and monuments and shrines said to contain such relics are found throughout the Buddhist world. The second category of relic, paribhogaka, includes objects like his robe, begging bowl, turban, and any chair or seat upon which he sat, among others. The most important of the paribhogaka objects is the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya. But any place the Buddha visited, rested, or traversed would also be considered paribhogaka. The third of the three types of relics are the uddesaka, specifically, images (pratima) of the Buddha.

The aniconic theory encodes the expectation that the image of the Buddha must be of primary importance and that other depictions, such as a bodhi tree, were secondary substitutes for a figurative form. However, in the Buddhist context it is primarily the sariraka and paribhogaka that have provided the main impetus for pilgrimage and reverence at Buddhist sites. In the Mahavamsa, the Buddha is cited as having pronounced: "In remembrance that I have used these, do homage to them."[30] Further in the "Mahaparinibbanasuttanta," the Buddha explains that such places should be seen and admired, and that whoever dies with a contented mind while on a pilgrimage will be reborn in heaven.[31] In a Sri Lankan monastery, the most important element is the relic, which is enshrined in the mahastupa, the focal point of the monastic plan. Second in importance is the bodhi tree (mahabodhi), and indeed every monastery in Sri Lanka has at least one major bodhi tree. Third in importance is the image house (pratimaghara).

33015 n.jpg

Therefore, the image and image hall are far less important than the stupa and the bodhi tree at Sri Lankan monasteries.[32] While the Sri Lankan evidence does not prove the existence in India of such a ranking, I believe that the importance of sariraka and paribhogaka relics has been greatly underestimated by Western scholars, who have given the idea of the image a primacy that it did not have in the early Buddhist context. I propose that the sacred trees, stupas, and other features that mark special places associated with the Buddha had inestimable importance in their own right and that the cult of image worship was secondary. This concept is expressed in the Commentary on the Vibhanga, wherein it states that one obtains Buddhalambanapti (joy or ecstasy derived by looking at or thinking about the Buddha) by looking at a stupa housing a relic of the Buddha or a bodhi tree, but no mention is made of the merit gained by looking at an image of the Buddha.[33] To view sacred trees, stupas, and other such forms as substitutes or symbols for something else is to misunderstand their intrinsic importance in the Buddhist scheme. Essentially, I suggest that the early Buddhist art of India was not primarily concerned with the biography of gakyamuni Buddha, as has been assumed for so many decades. Instead, an important emphasis was placed on the practice of lay devotion at the sacred sites of Buddhism. That merit is derived from viewing the sacred traces of the Buddha is clear from the literary sources and, I believe, the surviving artistic remains. That such sanctified places (specifically "seats," or "pithas") are believed to contain great power is also well known throughout the Buddhist world.

41642 n.jpg

The many early Buddhist relief sculptures surviving today were not isolated images, but were part of the adornment of major architectural structures. Rather than serving as the focus of these monuments the reliefs played a subsidiary role in the overall schemes. For the most part, the carved reliefs were located on railings and gateways, or, in some cases, as part of the facing of the exterior of stupas. In their secondary but essential role, the images helped to communicate and reinforce the central meaning of the monuments they adorned. Considering the function of these monuments as repositories or adornments for important Buddhist relics, it is not surprising that depictions of worshipers visiting similar places constitute one of their major artistic themes. Further, since devotion to the relics of the Buddha was an activity specifically associated with the laity rather than with the clergy, the inclusion of lay worshipers as a prominent motif in the carvings is fitting indeed.[34] If the reinterpretation offered here is valid, one must ask how these artistic remains have been so misunderstood by so many for so long. How did the aniconic idea originate and what arguments were put forth to validate the idea of the avoidance of Buddha images? How did the theory continue to be reinforced and why was it never doubted?

The history of the theory provides some of the answers. Although nineteenth-century writers had observed the absence of Buddhas in the early art of India, Foucher was the first scholar to propound the theory of what has come to be known as aniconism in early Buddhist art. Writing in the early twentieth century, Foucher stated: "When we find the ancient stone-carvers of India in full activity, we observe that they are very industriously engaged in carrying out the strange undertaking of representing the life of Buddha without Buddha."[35] Foucher further asserted: "Such is the abnormal, but indisputable fact of which every history of Buddhist art will have at the outset to render account."[36] Characterizing this phenomenon as a "monstrous abstention,"[37] he read into the reliefs what a modern European scholar unacquainted with the practices of early Buddhism might have expected to be there.

His premise that the lack of a Buddha image reflected an abnormality became the foundation stone for the view that the art created by these early Buddhists was a substitute for something else that had been deliberately avoided. Ultimately, Foucher's measuring rod of expectations led him and his followers to overlook the intrinsic message of the art. The problem--the misunderstanding of the thematic content of the art--is inextricably related to and has been perpetuated by the terminology that has been used to describe this artistic phenomenon. Using a term--aniconism--that defined a phenomenon according to what it is not, scholars have been overly concerned with what they believe should be in the art rather than with what is actually there.


Believing that the scenes shown on the monuments were meant to illustrate episodes in the life of the Buddha, Foucher of course found the absence of the Buddha figure perplexing. Inferring that the objects in the reliefs--such as trees, stupas, and thrones--were intended as symbols for something that was not shown, namely, an anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha, Foucher and his followers were led astray from the intrinsic meaning of the art. While virtually all other authors espousing the aniconic theory have assumed that there were religious interdictions against the creation of the Buddha image, Foucher himself expressly stated that he knew of no textual proscriptions against such a practice.[38] Foucher toyed with a number of suggestions to explain the aniconic phenomenon and finally concluded that the explanation is "in appearance . . . simpleminded enough, but one which, in India, is still sufficient for all: 'If they did not do it, it was because it was not the custom to do it.' "[39] The insubstantiality of his explanation makes it difficult to comprehend how the theory he propounded ever took root and has been embraced so tenaciously by generations of scholars. Indeed, the development and passionate advocacy of the aniconic theory constitutes an intriguing chapter in intellectual history and involves an array of political, social, and cultural factors. For instance, it is doubtful that the theory of aniconism would have achieved its sanctified place in art-historical writings if the related issue of where the first Buddha image was made had not been so hotly debated.

Foucher and his Western followers believed that the Buddha image was first created in the GrecoRoman-influenced region of Gandhara, thus claiming an essentially Western origin for the idea of the image.[40] Ananda Coomaraswamy and his Indian nationalist sympathizers, perhaps attempting to cast off the yoke of Western imperialism, asserted a strictly Indian origin at Mathura.[41] In retrospect, the arguments can be viewed in light of twentieth-century political issues that polarized European and Indian scholars. Yet so intent was each cultural camp on claiming the primacy of its contribution to Buddhist art, that other, potentially more important issues were overlooked.

Indeed, throughout the debate, what I believe to be a more fundamental question was never posed: Was there really an aniconic period?[42] Because the idea of an aniconic period was never doubted, the preconceptions associated with the theory of aniconism have saturated art-historical thinking for nearly a century. The idea of aniconism has been so thoroughly embedded in scholarly thought that it has led scholars to misread inscriptions, dismiss literary documentation attesting to an early image tradition, and express skepticism about scientific archaeological data confirming the early existence of Buddha images. Perhaps the most serious and far-reaching consequence has been in the area of interpretation, in which scholars have misunderstood the subject matter of the images and misread the overall message of the monuments the sculpted images adorned. Assuming that the points I make in my full-length study are valid, the conclusions will require a reexamination and probably a revision of virtually all of these areas of study.[43]

I have suggested that the subjects in a specific type of composition are not substitutes or symbols for something else, but are important emblems of Buddhist devotion in their own right. While these early reliefs do not contain Buddha figures, this absence is not to be explained by an aniconic proscription or by the belief that these common motifs reflect a substitution for a figure of a Buddha. Expressing concepts central to the practice of Buddhism during this period, particularly relating to the exaltation of lay worship, such carvings are completely compatible with the recently proven existence of Buddha images even from early periods of Indian history. The emphasis on sacred pithas and pilgrimage to them in Buddhism has never waned, although the "aniconic" period was brought to a close many centuries ago. A record left by the thirteenth-century monk Dharmasvamin of his visit to Bodh Gaya is especially interesting in light of the problem of aniconism. Like earlier pilgrims to the sacred site, Dharmasvamin did not find the living Buddha at Bodh Gaya.

Instead, what he described is not unlike what we see in some of the so-called aniconic reliefs, for he said that "inside the courtyard stood the empty throne of Sakyamuni . . . which was worshipped, and an eternal offering lamp was kept in front of it."[44] Today, the sacred spot is also vacant, as it has been for two and a half millennia. We, like the countless pilgrims who have visited Bodha Gaya since the time the great sage sat there in deepest meditation, cannot expect to see him there in the flesh. Yet we should not be disappointed at the sight of an empty seat, for the power of the sacred Pitha still resonates and can be felt by anyone who stands in the presence of the spot where the Buddha-to- sat and was sheltered by the sacred tree on the day of his awakening.