legends surrounding the life of the Buddha have
been the principal sources of inspiration for
the creators of Buddhist art. A knowledge of these
are needed for a meaningful insight into the nuances
of Buddhist art, since each stage of the Buddha's
many existences plays a part in the development
of this art.
The young prince Gautama Siddhartha
was born into the ancient Sakya clan, whose symbol
was the lion; hence he is often known as "Sakyamuni"
(the Sage of the Sakya), or as "Sakyasimha" (the
Lion of the Sakya). His father belonged to the
warrior caste. Soon after the young prince's birth,
a wise sage named Asita predicted that the child
would grow up to be a holy man, rather than following
his father as ruler. Suddhodana, father of Gautama,
tried to prevent this from happening by making
sure that the prince lived a sequestered life
of ease and luxury in the royal palace, ignorant
of the world outside.
Even to this day Buddha is represented
with extended earlobes, now empty of adornment,
but which were once stretched out of shape by
the weight of the costly jewelry he wore before
renouncing his princely status.
When the young prince Gautama
had passed childhood and reached middle youth,
he learned in a few days the sciences suitable
to his race, which others require many years to
master; and the king, his father, sought for him
from a family of unblemished moral excellence
a bride possessed of beauty, modesty and gentle
bearing, Yashodhara by name, after which the prince
rejoiced in that princess. Gautama was sixteen
then, and in due course, to the fair-bosomed Yashodhara
there was born a son Rahula.
Until one day, by chance, while
riding his chariot, he encountered an old man
walking along the road. Intrigued by his first
encounter with old age, the prince addressed his
charioteer: "Who is this man there with the white
hair, feeble hand gripping a staff, eyes lost
beneath his brows, limbs bent and hanging loose?
Has something happened to alter him, or is that
his natural state?"
"That is old age", said the charioteer,
"the ravisher of beauty, the ruin of vigor, the
cause of sorrow, destroyer of delights, the bane
of memories and the enemy of the senses. In his
childhood, that one too drank milk and learned
to creep along the floor, came step by step to
vigorous youth, and he has now, step by step,
in the same way, gone on to old age."
The charioteer thus revealed
in his simplicity what was to have been hidden
from the king's son, who exclaimed, "What! And
will this evil come to me too?"
"Without doubt, by the force
of time", said the charioteer.
And thus the great souled one,
whose mind was but a store of merits, was agitated
when he heard of old age - like a bull who has
heard close by the crash of a thunderbolt.
He further encountered in such
manner a sick man and a dead man, leading to great
turbulence in his mind, seeking a remedy from
day he came across an ascetic mendicant. "What
art thou?" he asked. To which the other answered,
"Terrified by birth and death, desiring liberation,
I became an ascetic. As a beggar, wandering without
family and without hope, accepting any fare, I
live now for nothing but the highest good." Convinced
that herein lay the way to quell his mental agitation,
Gautama resolved to follow this holy man's example.
Having made the decision he requested
his father to allow him to proceed in his search
for truth. On hearing of Gautama's resolve, his
father became extremely anxious and entreated
him to revert his decision. To which Gautama replied
thus: "Father if you can fulfill my four desires,
I promise not to leave you. These are: First,
I should not die; Secondly, No disease should
ever afflict me, youth should never desert me,
and finally, prosperity should always be my companion."
Hearing these impossible demands, the king was
extremely dejected and became resigned to his
fate. Gautama left the luxurious palace of his
father in the middle of the night.
in his search for meaning, he came to a pleasant
hermitage by the lovely stream Nairanjana, where
he joined five mendicants in a way of discipline
based on progressively severe fasting; until having
only skin and bone remaining, emaciated to no
purpose, he considered: "But this, certainly,
is not the way to knowledge and liberation, which
cannot be attained without strength." The Buddha
then further thought "Perfect calm, the mind's
self possession, can be gained only by the constant,
perfect satisfaction of the senses. Contemplation
is produced when the mind, self possessed, is
at rest. And through contemplation that supremely
calm, undecaying state is eventually gained which
is so difficult to attain. All of which is based
upon eating food."
Engaged in these thoughts, he
was offered a rich bowl of milk, by the lovely
and delicate maiden Nandabala the daughter of
a leader of herdsman. This refreshing nourishment
restored his body. But the five mendicants, scandalized,
and considering him to have returned to the material
world, departed. And he, Gautama arose and alone
went to the Bodhi-tree, accompanied only by his
own resolve and abandoned himself to meditation,
vowing not to move from that spot until he attained
Four weeks after he began meditating
under the Bodhi tree, the heavens darkened for
seven days, and a prodigious rain descended. However,
the mighty king of serpents, Muchalinda, came
from beneath the earth and protected with his
hood the one who is the source of all protection.
When the great storm had cleared, the serpent
king assumed his human form, bowed before the
Buddha, and returned in joy to his palace.
But as the great prince Shakyamuni
was about to penetrate the last mystery of being,
a light began to shine from his forehead over
all the earth. Beholding this Mara, the Evil One,
shuddered: he knew that his power to mislead humankind
was threatened. Deciding to confront his opponent
directly, he summoned his three attractive sons
and his three voluptuous daughters (lust,delight
and pining) to make Gautama abandon his meditations.
Accompanied by his offsprings he repaired to the
spot where Gautama was engaged in meditation:
"Up, up, O noble prince!" he ordered,
with a voice of divine authority. "Recall the
duties of your caste and abandon this dissolute
quest for disengagement. The mendicant life is
ill suited for anyone born of a noble house; but
rather, by devotion to the duties of your caste,
you are to serve the order the good society, maintain
the laws of the revealed religion, combat wickedness
in the world, and merit thereby a residence in
the highest heaven as a god."
Observing that the blessed one
failed to move by his words, he fixed an arrow
to his bow: "If you are stubborn, stiff-necked,
and abide by your resolve, this arrow that I am
notching to my string, which has once inflamed
Lord Shiva himself, shall be let fly. It is already
darting out its tongue at you, like a serpent".
And, threatening, he released the shaft, but without
result. Perceiving that his weapon had failed,
Mara wondered " He doesn't notice even the arrow
that set the sun aflame ! Can he be destitute
of sense? He is worthy neither of my flowery shaft,
nor of my daughters: let me send against him my
army." Immediately around the Shakyamuni, a demonic
army crystallized, wearing frightening shapes
and bearing deadly weapons. But lo! Amidst all
these terrors, sights, sounds, and odors, the
mind of the Blessed One was no more shaken than
the wits of Garuda, the golden -feathered sun-bird,
among crows. And a voice cried from the sky: "
O Mara, take not upon thyself this vain fatigue!
Put aside thy malice and go in peace! For though
fire may one day give up its heat, water its fluidity,
earth solidity; never will this Great being abandon
his resolution. And the god Mara, discomfited,
together with his army disappeared.
The Buddha's superior powers
of intellect and yogic control enabled him to
overcome the temptations of illusion and evil,
personified as the demon Mara.
Finally, at age 35, on the night
of a full moon, Sakyamuni attained enlightenment.
(From this time forward, the pipal tree under
which he sat would be known as the Bodhi tree,
or tree of enlightenment.) As he was alone with
no one to witness this momentous event, he called
the Earth itself to be his witness by touching
the ground with his right hand in a gesture known
as the Bhumisparsa mudra.
The Enlightened One gave his first
public sermon in the Deer Park at Sarnath, near
Benares, setting in motion the wheel of the Dharma
(or spiritual law) as he expounded the doctrine
of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
This first sermon is represented by the Dharmachakra
Mudra, a two-handed gesture symbolizing the setting
in motion of a wheel. This mudra is also used
to show the Buddha in his role as a teacher.
In Mahayana Buddhist art, the
Buddha is typically represented as a young, ideally
proportioned man dressed in simple monk's robes.
But he is distinguished from ordinary humans by
thirty-two sacred identifying features, or Lakshana.
Among the most frequently observed are: the Ushnisha,
a cranial bump on the head of the Buddha symbolizing
wisdom; the Urna, an auspicious tuft of hair between
the eyebrows of the Buddha which looks very much
like a third eye on his forehead, and which represents
his power to illuminate the world.
At the age of 80, after 45 years
of teaching, the Buddha entered into a deep trance
and died peacefully in the Sala Grove in Kushinagara.
This event, often called the (Maha)parinirvana,
is depicted with the Buddha reclining gently on
his right side, often surrounded by sorrowing
attendants and disciples. Sometimes his body appears
already shrouded with muslin, as is follower Ananda
prepares for his master's funeral.
The Buddha's coffin proved impervious
to ordinary fire, but a divine flame came from
within; it burned for seven days and reduced Buddha's
earthly remains to ashes. These remains, or sharira,
were divided into eight parts, and sent throughout
the world. The recipients reverently enshrined
these holy relics in special mounded shrines called
stupas, where they became the subject of worshipful
reverence, often serving as the focal points of
In time, Mahayana Buddhist iconography
incorporated many more obvious characteristics
of divinity into representations of the Buddha
-- perhaps in order to compete with the images
of Hindu deities. A halo-like aureole often surrounded
the Buddha's head. Flamelike projections sprang
from his shoulders, and streams of water flowed
from his feet, recalling the miracle at Sravasti
which had made manifest the Buddha's transcendent
power in the face of those who doubted him. Wheel-like
chakras appeared on his palms, and on the soles
of his feet.
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