The Buddha in pictures

- through Henry Oudin

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The first images of the Buddha or the need for men to represent their models.

Buddhist literature suggests that the question of the anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha had already arisen during his lifetime. A passage from the Divyavadana (1) thus explains that at the request of the king of Maghada, the Buddha cast his shadow on a cloth to facilitate the production of a portrait of himself. Another text evokes an effigy of golden sandalwood, made with the consent of the Blessed and intended to make up for his absence, if necessary.

Nothing in the writings, however, makes it possible to affirm that the Buddha specifically prohibited or authorized the reproduction of his image. But the question is raised again when the monastic communities begin to settle; a few decades after the Parinirvâna, durable residences were built and the parts open to the laity had to be decorated. The themes are self-evident: episodes from the life of Shakyamuni Buddha and his previous lives. By the very fact of having reached enlightenment and then by the perfect extinction of the Mahaparinirvana – the “dispersion” of the components, of which certain texts speak –, the Buddha definitively left the world of conditioned phenomena. Could we therefore envisage giving it a form, whether it was sculpted or painted, in this world from which it freed itself? At first, the answer is negative.

Le premier buddhist art is therefore qualified as aniconic, because the Awakened is never represented there in human form. Until the beginning of the Christian era, artists circumvented the difficulty by indirectly evoking his presence by means of an empty space and by a judicious choice of symbols adapted to the moment represented: the parasol, insignia of his dignity, the tree of the Awakening, footprints, an empty throne for his mere presence, a wheel framed by gazelles for the first sermon, a small stupa for Nirvana.

Le monastic costume of the renouncing religious

Things change in the early years of the Christian era. Developments specific to Buddhism, the more devotional aspirations of Indian religiosity combine with foreign artistic influences from the Iranian-Greek sphere to give birth to the first images. The iconography of the Buddha is gradually being put in place, based on two essential points: the clothing and the highlighting of the lakshana, the major signs of the Great Man.
The Buddha is a religious renunciant. It is therefore out of the question to dress and adorn his effigy in a sumptuous way as we are beginning to do at the time for the gods of Hinduism. He wears the tripartite monastic costume – undergarment, robe and mantle – draped so as to clear the right shoulder, as the monks of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia always wear.

Other signs of the Buddha come close to certain classic criteria of beauty of the Indian tradition: the lion's torso, the thigh of the antelope or even the flexible arm like "the trunk of the young elephant".

From the birth of the future Buddha, the sages summoned to the palace had noted on his body the presence of lakshana, physical marks identifying, according to Indian tradition, a being destined to an exceptional destiny. Some of these signs are immediately identifiable and loaded with symbolism often associated with the great wisdom and knowledge of the Buddha. This is the case of the cranial protuberance, theushnisha, which is easy to confuse with a bun, orurn, the frontal mark that the texts describe very precisely as “a silky white hair rolled up in the favorable direction between the eyebrows”. Other signs, less spectacular in appearance, come close to certain classic criteria of beauty in Indian tradition: the lion's torso, the antelope's thigh or even the supple arm like "the trunk of the young elephant". The very tight drape of the monastic garment, however, gives a glimpse of these features for those who know the list of lakshana. The gilding and polychromy that once covered the sculpted works also made it possible to evoke certain other physical characteristics such as the golden complexion and the radiance emanating from the body of the Buddha.

The lakshana being 32 main and 80 secondary, it was impossible to represent all of them, a fortiori when they relate to the inside of the body, the mouth for example (shape of the tongue, the power of the voice, the number of teeth). Some are still ambiguous and their description lends itself to various interpretations. On the other hand, the deformation of the earlobes, spectacular in the eyes of Westerners, is logically explained by the wearing of heavy jewels imposed by his status on Prince Siddhartha, the future Buddha. It does not appear in the traditional lists.

A representation of the Buddha tinged with spirituality

In the first centuries of the Christian era, three great schools of so-called “primitive” Buddhist art thus contributed to the establishment of the image of the Buddha. Two of them are located in the north and north-west of India, respectively the school of Mathura, about 150 km south of Delhi, and the school of Gandhara, on the current territory of Pakistan and from Afghanistan. The latter, marked by influences from the Iranian-Greek world, is also described as Greco-Buddhist art. The third school flourishes further south, in Andhra Pradesh, where the site of Amaravati, which gave it its name, is located.

They agree on the respect of iconographic rules, but diverge in detail: treatment of hairstyle, the urn or drape, as well as in the material used in the sculpture.

A little later, in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries of the Christian era, when a good part of the subcontinent was under the authority of the Gupta dynasty, a synthesis took place to arrive at a classic representation of the Buddha. , more tinged with spirituality. This image was to influence Buddhist art throughout the whole of Asia.

photo of author

Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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