Discuss the Development of Buddhist Art in East Asia

Buddha’s death in the fourth or fifth century BC gave rise to the Buddhism religion in India, which later spread far and beyond his motherland. A prince known as Siddhartha was to become the Buddha as his conception and birth were miraculous to a royal family in the Himalayan Kingdom. He left the palace and went to find the purpose of his life, and he first pursued asceticism but abandoned it after six years. He then sat under a banyan tree in a yoga position, where he achieved enlightenment, and he was now known as the Buddha, which meant the enlightened one.[1] Henceforth, Buddha spent his life preaching what he believed in, and many people were converted to Buddhism. Therefore, the development of Buddhist art came after his death when people attempted to create his image to have a god they could worship.

In the early Buddhist art of India, the Buddha was not represented as a human. Instead, they used signs such as a pair of footprints, an empty space below a parasol, or an empty seat to indicate his presence. The artists avoided any imagery representation of Buddha. Hence, a used of a symbol is known as aniconism. In fact, the theory of aniconism has been widely accepted as it interprets early Buddhist art. The philosophy assumes that the first images of Buddha were produced in the Gandhara region in the era of Christianity.[2] In the first century, when the first human image of Buddha was produced, it dominated the artistic scene. The appearance depicts him seated on the throne, where he is portrayed with a pair of deer next to a wheel below. The image represents Buddha’s first sermon at Benares and Deer Park.[3] At first, India was irked by the idea of the Western influence in creating the first Buddha image. Some people believed that the absence of Buddha images was based on the fact that he was not supposed to be shown since they regarded him as extinguished. The lack of Buddha images in early India was that they believed he was inconceivable in human shape or visual form.

After Mahayana Buddhism initiated the creation of anthropomorphic images of Buddha, art began to flourish. However, there has been opposition from people who suggest that the association of Buddha images with the people of Mahayana was incorrect, as most of the schools in Hamayana were involved in cult images.[4] Additionally, archeological evidence shows that Buddha’s images were first created during the Kusana period in the second or first century A.D. Therefore, the existence of pre-Kusana sculpted images of Buddha suggests that they were the first to create Buddha portrayals.

The presence of these images confirms that Buddhist art existed even in the time of aniconic relief; hence, the absence of Buddha images cannot be attributed to the ban on their creation. The comprehensive piece of art shows an elaborate temple enshrined on the Asvattha tree. There are claims that a house of worship was built under the tree where Buddha first meditated. However, there is no archeological evidence that shows such a site existed. The Buddhist art clearly indicates the place where Buddha was enlightened at Bodh Gaya.[5] Other respites from the Bharhut show the trees of other mortal Buddhas, accompanied by inscriptions that indicate scenes of sacred and trees instead of the events of enlightenment.

Buddhist art spread to Sri Lanka, where they believe he visited the place several times. They have preserved the places he went to, rested, and housed his relics; other sacred places have been named the Sixteen Great places. In Sri Lanka, the sixteen places have played a significant role in Sri Lankan Buddhism since they are sculptured or portrayed in all Buddhist temples and other Buddhist objects.[6]

In conclusion, Buddhist art and religion spread all over Asia, especially in India. His presence was and still is depicted by the use of Buddhist artistic pieces. However, in early India, there were no images of Buddha; instead, he was represented using symbols such as footprints or an empty seat. It has been noted that people thought that Buddha’s image was inconceivable; therefore, it could not be depicted using a human form. Others believed that the absence of Buddha images in greater Asia was that he was not supposed to be displayed. However, it was later discovered that there existed pieces of art that portrayed the image of Buddha. As such, there was a haste spread of Buddhist art after the creation of the Buddha image by the Mahayana. The development of the first image stimulated the growth and spread of Buddhist Art in Asia.



[1] Alfred Foucher. The Beginnings of Buddhist Art, trans. L.A. Thomas and F.W. Thomas (JournalAsiatique, 1911), 4.

[2] Ibid, 13.

[3] Susan Huntington, “Early Buddhist Art and the Theory of Aniconism”, Art Journal (1990), 1

[4] Huntington. “Early Buddhist Art”, 1.

[5] Ibid,1

[6] Huntington. “Early Buddhist Art,”, 1.

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