Arts of Buddhist India

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  • 7/28/2019 Arts of Buddhist India


  • 7/28/2019 Arts of Buddhist India


    T h e A r t s o f Buddhist I n d i ain the BostonMuseum

    HE redesigning and renovation of the Indian galleriesat the Museum ofFine Arts hasbrought the collection into new and vital focus. Cleaned anddisplayed n striking nstallations,works which hadbeenfamiliar o genera-

    tions of Bostoniansnow stand out with revived interestandimportance.The collec-tion hasin every sensebeenplaced n acrispandbrightnew light.Forover thirty yearsthe assemblingandinterpretationof these works were guidedby AnandaK. Coomaraswamy,an outspoken,versatilegeniuswho combined earlytraining in the science of geology with an ever increasingdevotion to philosophyand metaphysics.Coomaraswamylaid some of the solid foundation stones of Indianart history in his articlesin the Museum'sBulletin, in his History of Indianand Indo-nesian Art, and in his essays on the ideological basis of Indian aesthetics.He alsoplayed a marked role in the cultural renaissanceof modern India by his eloquent,uncompromising affirmationof traditionalAsian spiritualvalues and of their uni-versalsignificance.Since Coomaraswamy's death in I947, however, field excavations and specialstudies have releaseda torrent of historical data which has requirednew efforts toorganize and control. This has by no means invalidatedCoomaraswamy's insightsinto the ideological substratumof the arts,nor has it solved all vexing questionsofchronology and iconographic nterpretation.But the historicalpicturehaschanged-radicallyso in some parts.New views of the stylisticand iconic evolution of Indianart have emerged, and it is now possibleto ask questionswhich were not germanea generation ago.The Museum of FineArts is one of the few placesoutside India where under oneroof the studentcan trace much of the growth of India'sconceptionsof the arts andobserve the manner in which the various traditions- Buddhist or Jaina, Hindu orIslamic, that of Rajasor of primitive villagers- reachedtheir aestheticfulfillment.From this richarrayof material,I shouldlike to singleout some of the objectswhichwere made to serve the Buddhist faith and to consider them asillustrationsof a newtheory of the evolution of Buddhistart.'

    IT is possibleto see the artsof the Buddhistcommunity as an autonomous and dis-tinctive aesthetic tradition. Indeed, these comprised the first mature expressionofIndian art following the collapse of the prehistoric Harappa (or Indus Valley)Civilization. Needless to say, aestheticattitudes,decorative motifs, and folkloristic130

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    themes were sharedwith the Jainaand Hindu schools, but the Buddhist traditionwas increasinglyflavoredby the specialcharacterof the doctrines of the faith. Thiswas a faithfor which meditation remained he centraldiscipline eadingto the attain-ment of spiritualgrace;it was a faith for which the most characteristicmages werethose of a sageseated n deepcontemplationor dispensing he fruitof hismeditations,the Buddhist Dharma(Figs.II, 12, I8). Even though theologicaldoctrineswere sub-ject to debateand change and were divided into separate ectarian ines, they none-thelessexerted a pervasiveand unifying power, like that of a magnetic field, overthe realm of artisticexpression.As a result, the evolution of Indian Buddhist art, despite tortuous problems ofparticularhistoric detail, appearsas clear and consistentas that of Greek sculpturefrom the Archaic to the Hellenistic stages. It is not nearly so familiar to Westernstudentsof the history and theory of art, but it should be taken into account bythose who ask whether one may legitimately find certain lawful or predictableelements in the structureof artistictraditions. There is no doubt that historicallythere was a time when Indian Buddhistart did not exist, a time when it came intobeing, grew, and flourishedin many places, a time when it diminished and thenceased to exist in its homeland.The full process,from beginningto end, took nearlyfifteen hundredyears,and the forms of Buddhist art - in the largestsense- appearto have developed in an orderly, irreversibleway, and in a manner consistentwiththe objectives of the faith. Within this time, five distinct stages of developmentcan be defined which are, for the most part, entirely clear and distinctthroughoutthe land.2I. GerminalTHE origins of Indian Buddhist art are clear and even abrupt. They are seen in themonuments associatedwith Asoka, Emperorof the Mauryan dynasty, who placedthe vast resourcesof his state at the service of the Buddhist Church.They areprima-rily a seriesof stone columns with animalcapitalsused by the Emperorfor procla-mations at Buddhist sanctuaries.While they were erected over a number of years,250 B.C. can serveasa convenientreferentpoint for these works - over two hundredyearsafterthe deathof Sakyamuni.The examples of Mauryanart are otherwise extremely rare and no major workmay be seen outside India.3Their importance,however, exceeds their numbers,forthey comprise the very beginning of the continuous history of Indian art itself.Before this time, folk artssuch as terra-cottadolls and animisticvotive figurineshadbeen made; decorativeartsflourished n the ornamentationof furnitureand luxurygoods like mirrorsand cosmeticboxes. But for the periodin which the most originaland exalted of India's religious texts were composed - the Vedas, Brahmanas,Upanishads and the time of the careerof Sakyamuni himself, Indianscarved nostatue, built no temple, createdno great palacewhich has survived to the present.Indeed, most evidence indicates that the making of such things was either unim-portant or was anathemato the spiritualvalues which dominated Indian culture.This in itself is one of the most extraordinary acts in the entire history of art, andthe reasonsfor it have never been thoroughly explored. The ending of this long


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    spanof indifference o the monumental artsmay well have beendue to the EmperorAsoka;it was certainlya symptom of the profound changes n the social andspiritualorderof Indiawrought by him and by the faith which he adopted,a faith which hehelped changeinto a religionfor laymenas well as for smallcommunitiesof monks.The Asokan animalcapitalsaresplendidheraldicemblems,but they by no meanscomprise an iconic language of the faith. They do possess,however, two stylisticfeatureswhich areimportantones in the laterBuddhist tradition.The Lion Capitalsof Sarnathand SanchT,or example (Fig. i), were inspired argely by the sumptuousi. Asokan LionCapital.Sandstone.Sarnath, a. 250 B.C.Sa,rnath Museum.



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    art of AchaemenidIran.They areimperious n mien, heraldic, heir surfacespolishedto a high gloss. The absorptionof Iranianelementsinto Buddhist arts was to recuroften in the future,reflectinga cosmopolitanismwhich was characteristicf the faith.Far more than orthodox Brahmans,the Buddhists welcomed those born outsidethe sanctifiedHindu castesystem as well as foreign ideas- a major factor in Bud-dhism'srise to the statusof Asia'sforemost universalreligious system. On the otherhand, the Rampurva Bull Capital, for example (Fig. 2), has an amazingly sym-pathetic,intuitive feeling for the natureof the animal. The bulk and solidity of the2. Asokan Bull Capital. Sandstone. Rampurva, ca. 250 B.C.Indian Museum, Calcutta.



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    3. Bust of a Yakshi. Red sandstone.Indian, rom Bharhut, a. I20 B.C. H. 1934 inches.Ross Collection. 31.435


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    bull is strongly culpturesquen conception ndreveals, t an earlydate,thatdeepaffinityor stonesculpturewhichis a majoraspectof the Indiannational radition.Thequestion f whetherhe Asokanmonumentstand sabrief, solatedmomentin history, he creations f aninventivegenius,or whether heyweremorebroadlybasedandconnectedwiththe artistic tageswhich succeededhem, s stillunsolved.It is boundupwithalong standing ontroversyentered nthedatingof agroupoflarge, mpressivetone magesof folk deities uchasthe PatnaYakshas,he Yakshiof Didargafnj,nd he ParkhamndBarodiYakshas.Coomaraswamy,ogetherwiththemajority f scholarsnthesubject, eldthat hesebelongedo the time of Asokaor shortlyhereafter;therscholars, owever,would correlatehemwith thefiguralstylesof the next artistic poch.4A satisfactoryolutionof thisproblemhas beenhamperedby the rarityof the statues hemselvesand of supporting vidence.Fortunately,owever, urther rchaeologicalctivity slikelyto providemoredata.II. EarlyTHEMuseum sespeciallyich nmaterial rawn romsomeof themostimportantmonuments of this period, which lasted from ca. I25 B.C. to A.D. 50. These carvingsreflect he pioneereffortsof the growingBuddhist anctuarieso communicatenvisual ermswith the largenumbers f newlyconvertedaymen.Theyalso revealthesevereproblemof findinganappropriateestheticormto embodythe spiritualvaluesof thefaith.There s no questionhat he worksof thisagearemoreprimitivetechnically nd esselegant han,say,the AsokanLionCapital f Sarnath,or afterthefallof theMauryasndthe withdrawal f imperialupport,heresourcesvail-able to the Buddhist ommunitieswere lessgenerous ndthe unifyingspiritof asinglegreatpatronwas lost. The result,however, s a styleof great diversityandvigor,one born of the effortsof localivory-or woodcarvers,oldsmiths, ndthemakersof ceramic igurines o adapttheirold, small-scale raftto monumentalsculpturen stone.The oldestBuddhistconic magerywasin many waysanassortmentf miscel-laneous ecularmotifs which had been relatedor adapted o Buddhist hemes.Atypicalexample s the female igure rom Bharhutn Centralndia(Fig.3), datablefromca.I20 B.c. Tattooed verher aceandbodywithauspiciousigns, hewas oneof a seriesof animistic odlingscarvedon the outside