Buddhism started becoming a tradition of the visual, wherein the message of the sutras was translated through image and murals. With the passage of time, devotion combined with needs and aspirations of people gave way to creation of a variety of Buddhas manifested in various forms, attributes and characteristic features in different countries across the world.
Dr. Shashibala, a specialist in art and culture of Asian counties, and a researcher at the International Academy of Indian Culture, has worked as an adjunct faculty at the National Museum Institute, New Delhi for fifteen years. She has travelled widely to participate in international conferences, worked on the art treasures and manuscripts of Asian countries. She has to her credit many research projects and research papers and articles presented at various conferences or seminars held in Indian and abroad. Her doctoral thesis 'Hindu Deities in Japan' was published by International Academy of Indian Cultural. There are two editions of her post-doctoral thesis 'Comparative Iconography of Vajradhatu-mandala and the Tattva-sangraha'. Author of Buddhist Art (published in English and Dutch). Divine Art And Buddhist Art and Thought, she is also highly acclaimed for her photo exhibitions and radio broadcasts.
When Shakyamuni became silent, and entered the unshackled state of existence or the final nirvana, the devotees wanted to adore and remember the Historical Buddha images. The followers could not accept that their teachers had completed his earthly sojourn and had departed his relics and enshrined them in stupas. The Buddha, in his incarnation of a mortal being had assumed the most profound level existence as Dharmakaya, or the Absolute. Thus the stupas began to serve as rememberances of the divine being. Symbolically, Buddha was represented in the form of footprints, an empty throne or other symbols. The ritualistic worship of the Buddha included placing garlands on these stupas, chanting mantras, and burning incense. But, the symbols were perceived to be inadequate for the expression of a devotee's bhakti. A suppressed yearning germinated in the hearts of the devotees for something more evocative and sensibly visual of the Supreme Lord.
Visualization of the Buddha initially began with formless, aniconic representations. Teachings and messages of the sutras were conveyed in consonance with symbols and shapes. The earliest known symbolic pictorial representation of the Buddhist art forms are found on the Ashokan pillars followed by the Jataka stories at Sanchi. Jatakas are a statement of the long evolution of the Dharma, or Buddhism, in hundreds of pre-incarnations of the Buddha. Earlier Dharma was eternalized throne, a tree of enlightenment, footprints, the wheels of law, amongst others, to anthropomorphic forms and complex mandalas containing different types of Buddhas.
Image of the Buddha in human likeness, in the iconic form began to appear in early red sandstone sculptures in Mathura. Seated and standing image in Indo-Hellenistic style sculpted in the northwestern region of ancient India during first-second century AD, became standardized in Indian art and was taken to other countries.
An intense debate arose within the monastic order as early as the first hundred years after the Mahaparinirvana of the Buddha. Some monks questioned the authenticity of the early scriptures and claimed the authenticity of the early scriptures and claimed to add new texts to them while others accepted the Pali Buddhist canon as the highest authority. Shortly before the beginning of the Christian era, a new form of Buddhism appeared in opposition to what is called Saravakayan or 'Vehicle of the Listeners' or Theravada which was known as Mahayana. The Mahayana school of though shifted focus from Arhatship, the aim of the followers of Shravakayana, to Bodhisattvahood. Shravakas sought entry into nirvana as quickly as possible while the Mahayanists aspired to become a Buddha and attain omniscience in order to devote themselves to welfare and happiness of all beings. The Bodhisattva concept also showed a way to venerate someone who could lead them to nirvana having postponed his own entry into it.
The Shravakas kept the Buddha on human plane. They claimed him to be the pre-eminent master endowed with knowledge and practise who became invisible after nirvana. But this could not satisfy the popular aspirations, which demanded a supreme spirit, and a pantheon. Thus Buddha was transformed into a 'God superior to the gods', and surrounding him were a host of other major and minor deities as well as powerful disciples. The followers of Mahayana increased the number of Buddhas and great Bodhisattvas.
Thus Buddhism started becoming a tradition of the visual, wherein images and murals translated the message of the sutras. And therefore buddhists started building their pantheon when mind is associated with shunya or void at the highest state. Then the bodhicitta thought of enlightenment gets dissolved and visualizes spark-like innumerable visions, gradually assuming forms of various deities full of glory and divine beauty, adorned with ornaments and dressed in finery; while the deities who are worshipped to subdue the evil doers are violent in expression with disheveled heir, blood shot eyes, bare fangs, with ornaments made of human skulls and bones, and carrying weapons.
Greco-Buddhists are believed to have sculpted the first buddhist images. The Guhya-samaja-tantra is the first book to contain the idea of a well-classified pantheon with descriptions of Buddhas with their respective mantras, mandalas and prajnas, or female counterparts.
As the need for efficacious protectors grew more pressing, the devotees conceived a compassionate Buddha as Maitreya and a universal monarch as Rocana. Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, and Amitayus the Buddha of Infinite Lifespan rule over the western paradise - Sukhavati. Akshobhya, the immovable, rules the Abhirati paradise. Bhaishajyaguru, the physician for the physical as well as spiritual illnesses also holds sway in the east. There are manifestations of Buddha's wisdom and compassion as well.
Devotion combined with needs and aspirations of people gave way to creation of a variety of Buddhas manifested in various forms in different countries across the world. The Mahayana pantheon infinitely increased the number of Buddhas, their respective abodes and the residents therein. For the devotees these images were supernatural beings who would lead them on their way to salvation. While making the Buddha images artists lent their own style and regional characteristics to their creations.
Buddhas in their Dharmakaya forms constitute the transposition of the doctrine itself. They are enthroned in paradises in the midst of assemblies of gods and holy ones, whom they enchant with their sambhogakaya. Finally, they send into this world likeness of themselves called niramakaya who expound the doctrine and show the path to nirvana. Images to the historical Buddha Shakyamuni serve as models for all later manifestations. He is beyond all kinds of pain and pressures of the mortal world.
Varied conceptions regarding the Buddha gave rise to a kaleidoscopic iconography. Images of the Buddhas are primarily composed of symbolic and spiritual elements. The artistic considerations enhance and sustain all the other values. Thirty-two sings of a Great Man (mahapurusha) are seen in early iconographic conventions. For example Buddha, has an ushnisha, a lock of hair curled up at the top of his cranium. Uma is a small round bump of fresh or a tuft of hair in the middle of his forehead that emanates light. Three rings of flesh encircle his neck, his earlobes are exceptionally elongated, and a thousand-spoked wheel is imprinted on his soles. His soft skin does not hint at roughness. His fingers are webbed. Following the mahapurusha lakshanas or signs of a Great Man, his arms are exceptionally long and touch his knees. His body gleams, and there is a halo round his head. He is often shown taller than others while depicting narrative scenes. Apart from thirty-two auspicious signs, there are eighty subsidiary features of a superhuman that are added while portraying a Buddha through painting or sculpture.
Buddhas, as manifestations of the Absolute, are depicted in regal vestments more often than in the monk's robes. This tendency increased with the passage of time because one of the attributes of kingship is victory and Buddha is a jina, he who has won the great victory. Therefore Buddha images are usually adorned with regal robes, crowns, necklaces, and other jewels. He is a Universal Monarch, a chakravartin. Some Buddha statues are adored with flames at the shoulders and water flowing from his feet. As Buddha of Heading, he is called Bhaishajyaguru. There are Buddhas who sit and preach in full majesty. Amitabha is one of them; he has risen to the paradise of beatitude, Sukhavati. Another Budha form is Akshobhya, who is surrounded by the choirs of the blessed in Abhirati heaven, and Maitreya, the Future Buddha in Tushita heaven.
Budha images can be identified through their attributes and characteristic features, such as Amitayus holds a vase containing the nectar of longevity, Shakyamuni often sits in dharma-chakra-pravartana-,bhumisparsha-, or varada-mudra. But attributers and mudras differ in different traditions and texts, and symbolise various aspects. Preaching of the Law alludes to the revelation and availability of truth to man. Protection or assurance signifies that only Truth can free man form the cycle of rebirth. Touching the Earth, Bhumi-sparsha mudra, for example refers to the certainty of possessing the Truth. The mudra of meditation recalls that without concentration Truth will not shine.
Each Buddha has his own throne or vehicle - Akshobhya rides an elephant, Vairocana a dragon, Amitabha a peacock, Ratnasambhava a horse, and Amoghasiddhi a Garuda. They can also be distinguished through their colours: Akshobhya and his family are blue, Vairocana is white. Amitabha is red, Ratnasambhava is yellow, and Amoghasiddhi green. Colour as an essential element in mystic symbolism replaces the splendour of gold. Buddha was golden colour, and all the images were gilded because gold was the sign of resplendent spiritual luminosity.
Thus Buddha images became symbolic representations of the Absolute. A deep spiritual significance is attached to their characteristic features. For Shantikavibhi or propitiatory rites, for protective rites yellow is used and for bewitching and attraction, that is vasyavidhi and akarsana, yellow, green or red are prescribed. Blue is meant for the terrific subsidiary signs should be exhibited in a Buddha image. An image should carry symbols of Buddha nature in his hands, and these attributes are supposed to confer Buddhahood or success in rites. This led to complex iconography described in texts. Major literary works on iconography are Nishpannayogavali by Mahapandita Abhayakara and Sadhanamala. Buddhist icons in painting and sculpture are different aspects of religious beliefs and they faction as an aid in meditation and comprehension of spiritual truths. An icon should be regarded as a reflected image or shadow of a supreme being, the creator, the preserver and the destroyer of the world.
Sutras, the canonical scriptures of the teachings of Buddha developed and constantly introduced new forms of Buddhas. While Avatamsaka sutras refer to Buddha as colossus, the Lotus Sutra represents him as Amityayurdhyan-sutra as Amitayus, Sukhavativyuha-sutra as Amitabha. They provide lists of Buddhas such as Seven Historical Buddhas, Buddhas of Three Times, Buddhas of Ten Directions, Thirty-five Buddhas of Confession, Tathagatas are contributed by Mahavairocana-sutra and Sarvatathataga-tattva-sangraha.
Therefore, from the second century BC to the modern times, iconographically and stylistically different images, from tiny amulets to colossi, from the simplest to the most sophisticated and well-defined forms, from a mendicant to bejeweled and crowned Buddha, wearing rich garments have been created by devoted artistes.
Pantheons were draws and painted using iconographical details prescribed by the sutras and tartars. These iconographic treasures correlate to the texts, which were unique to aid in creating iconographically varied forms. Tibetans and Mongols create the divine in statues and scrolls to visualize the ineffable, the immeasurable in the immense network of monasteries, hermitages, and other sacred places. The deities of heaven merge into icons in the cave temples in China, painted on the walls or carved out of rocks. Hundreds of thousands of bronze, wood and clay images brought forth a combination of artists skills and devotion, material splendour and state power to the visual representation.
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