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How the Buddha got a face– reposted


photo by Einfach-Eve courtesy of

[Somewhere in India, now known as Sarnath] It was here, scarcely 15 miles from the airport, among fields now yellow with mustard flowers, that a renunciant prince had, upon gaining enlightenment some 25 centuries ago, given his first sermon, setting what Buddhists call the Wheel of Dharma into motion. At a deer park once called Isipatana, now Sarnath, a 35-year-old Gautama Buddha, hardly older than Christ when he climbed the hill of Calvary, revealed the eightfold path to liberation from suffering, his four noble truths and the doctrine of the impermanence of everything, including the Self.

FOR THE FIRST six centuries after his death, the Buddha was never depicted in human form. He was only ever represented aniconically by a sacred synecdoche — his footprints, for example; or a parasol, an auspicious mark of kingship and spirituality; or the Wisdom Tree, also known as the Bodhi Tree, under which he gained enlightenment.

How does one give a human face to god, especially to he who was never meant to be a god nor ever said one word about god?

(Gandhara Buddha, Tokyo, 0-100 CE, courtesy wikimedia commons)

The other problem with representing the Buddha in human form, as the great Sri Lankan art historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy points out in his 1918 essay “Buddhist Primitives,” is that early Buddhism was disdainful of art itself. He writes: “The arts were looked upon as physical luxuries and loveliness a snare.” Quoting the Dasa Dhamma Sutta, an early Buddhist text, Coomaraswamy adds: “Beauty is nothing to me, neither the beauty of the body nor that that comes of dress.”

“In the omission of the figure of the Buddha,” writes Coomaraswamy, “the Early Buddhist art is truly Buddhist: For the rest, it is an art about Buddhism, rather than Buddhist art.”

Kushans were descendants of pastoral nomads who settled in India during the second century BC– pushed out of China into Afghanistan, then finally reaching India.  They developed a form of Buddhism called Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”).  They were heirs to Greek, Chinese, Persian, and Indian ancestors.  They spread their religion along the trade routes that extended into China and Korea, and eventually Japan.

The Kushans were syncretic, that is, they mixed and synthesized cultural and religious traditions from all four of the areas they entered: Greece, China, Persia, and India.  They adopted Bactrian (a middle Iranian language), which they called “the Aryan language”.  They adopted Buddhism but venerated the gods of Greece, India, and the Zoroastrians.

The greatest Kushan king was Kanishka, great-grandson of Kujula Kadphises, who conquered Greek Bactria (Afghanistan) in the first century A.D.  A headless statue of him in the Mathura museum carries the inscription, “The Great King, King of Kings, Son of a God, Kanishka.”  He was something of a narcissist– a quality with which most kings are endowed.

The Kushans established two centers of statuary production, Mathura (which has a speckled red sandstone), and Gandhara (which has an ash-colored schist).  Both centers produced Buddhas, with heads.  The Gandhara center’s Buddhas have a Hellenistic (Greek) appearance, slender (and idealistic?); the Mathura statues are fuller-bodied, with soft stomachs.  The latter resemble the Buddhas of the East, more obese-looking.  They have a slight smile.

Under Kanishka, monasteries and other Buddhist centers were established, and the Buddhist texts were translated into Sanskrit.  This became the major language of Buddhism.

Kanishka issued coins bearing the image of Buddha– his face.  He was recognized as the great patron of Buddhism in China and is related to the establishment of the first Buddhist temple in China, the White Horse Temple near Luoyang.

After the collapse of the Han empire, the Chinese warlords embraced Buddhism as being more egalitarian than Confucianism, which made them feel disrespected as commoners.  Between the fourth century BC until after the sixth century AD, when Buddhism was fully established in China, Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese and became the source of Chinese knowledge about Buddha’s life.

The traffic of monks and scholars between India and China lasted well until the 12th century, when Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji, a Turkic chieftain, destroyed the great Buddhist university of Nalanda, in what is today the eastern Indian state of Bihar.

The statues of the Kushan empire and the coins of Kanishka represent the first time the Buddha’s face was pictured– six centuries after his death.  Buddhism started as a religion without art.  It was not until the Kushan, with their syncretism, that he became visualized.

(From the New York Times magazine, “How the Buddha got a face”, Sunday, May 10)

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