The Origin And Mystery Of The Aniconic Buddha

1736 words - 7 pages

For most, it is difficult to describe Siddhārtha Gautama (the Historical Buddha) without imagining the round, jovial human form we have become accustomed to in popular culture. For five hundred years, however, Buddhism existed entirely without a human depiction of its leader; Instead, ancient Indian cultures produced various symbols to represent him in their artwork. The symbolic meaning of these images still remains a hotly debated subject between scholars, art historians, and archeologists. Nonetheless, these emblems should not be viewed as solely Buddhist, as they carried multiple meanings that accounted for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
The earliest known Buddhist artworks can be traced to the Maurya period of Ancient India (322-185 B.C.E), during the rule of King Ashoka the Great, whose reign lasted from 274-232 B.C.E. In the beginning of his rule, King Ashoka was known as a vicious tyrant who ravaged the other areas of the India Subcontinent. His most famous historical campaign was known as the Kalinga War, where he fought over a neighboring territory of India known as Kalinga. King Ashoka converted to Buddhism following the war, ashamed and disgusted by the bloodshed he caused and witnessed. In fact, he wholly adopted the religion of Buddhism as a national doctrine following this conquest, bringing peace to an entire nation of people during his time. Owing to his ambitious nature, Ashoka erected over 84,000 monuments dedicated to the Buddhist faith.

During the lifetime of King Ashoka, the famous stupa at sanchi was erected, which contains essentially all of the symbols associated with Gautama Siddhartha. A stupa is a mound-like structure which contains relics and the remains of the Buddha, and serves as an important site of worship. It is almost certain that King Ashoka directly ordered the building of the Sanchi stupa, revealed in an excavation by archeologist John Marshall. The sanchi stupa is one of the great examples of Aniconic art, however, some of the work is believed to date past the Aniconic period, specifically those works that describe a narrative regarding the historical buddha. Nonetheless, the stupa has indisputable cultural significance, as it was a site of worship for buddhists, and non-buddhists alike. The Sanchi stupa has been a site of renovation and change through out both the Aniconic period and into the Iconic period. “According to John Marshall, the renovation of the Great Stupa and the additions and alterations made to it were executed during the 2nd century BC when the Shungas were ruling over this region.” (Dhavalikar, 18.) This group who succeeded the Mauryans are viewed as being bitter enemies of Ashoka, and destroyers of many buddhist monuments and sites. This cannot be true, as although they were not advocates of Buddhism, they still contributed to the renovation of the great Sanchi Stupa. Dhavalikar even goes on to say “It must be noted that even the magnificent Buddhist stupa at...

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