Best Proven Breathtaking Iconography and Arts in Buddhism

Best Proven Breathtaking Iconography and Arts in Buddhism

Buddha’s attainment of Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree has had a great impact in human history. He made all the supreme understanding available to the humanity. Along with this he dismantled many superstitious ideas and formulated the ideal theory of four noble truths and Eightfold path towards Enlightenment. His major contribution is his life-long preaching to innumerable seekers of the truth and his centuries’ long impact in the sentient beings. Buddha’s arrival altered the course of history of human consciousness.

            Before him, the path of realization was for only some chosen few. He made the Dhamma available to all. He made the path towards Nirvana actual and scientific. Faith and superstition has no place in Buddha’s scheme. He taught that all sentient beings possess Buddha-nature. If people are deluded, then they are ordinary humans and if they are awakened, they are Buddhas. His life-long teaching can be made compact in three terms: Dukkha (suffering), Anitya (impermanence) and Anatma (no-self). All the different propositions of different Buddhist sects share these three common ideas.

            Buddha’s insight is that life as such is full of suffering. We either cling to something or feel aversion towards the same and thus we are full of suffering all the time. And everything is happening to a man without his knowing. Man is asleep and suffering. This is because man wants a certain permanency in life. But the nature of substance is impermanence. Nothing is permanent. Everything is Anitya. Life is a flux. But a man cannot function accordingly. This is the cause of suffering. And another important thing Buddha said is that man does not have a separate self which coins overall facet of his being. He says, everything is in flow, nothing is permanent but the functioning rapidly, it creates a false centre which is thought to be permanent. But that is the illusion. There is nothing. The world is void of all the substances (sunya-svabhaba). His theoretical approach is that of ‘Nothingness’ which is much more focused and worked upon in Mahayana and Vajrayana.

Origination of Iconography in Buddhism

            In Buddhism, the real problem of art is that the Buddha himself never agreed for any anthropomorphic creation as a symbol. But there are some references of his consent in some of the Sutras. Coomaraswamy comments:

It has often been remarked that in Pali texts there is no express tradition prohibiting the making of anthropomorphic images of the Tathagata……this is essentially true; the representation by aniconic symbols is not in kind a Buddhist invention, but represents the survival of an older tradition, the anthropomorphic image becoming a psychological necessity only in bhakti-vada offices.

Here he labels the later need of anthropomorphic iconography like Five Dhyani Buddhas as the need for the deification of the Buddha and mere a psychological need rather than any factual value.

            In early Buddhist art, as is well known, the Buddha is constantly represented by a simple seat or throne. Later the Tree and Wheel also emerged as praxis to designate the essence of the teaching. Buddha’s dissidence towards any form of idolatry was due as Commraswamy writes:
…but that who had denied that he was either Gandhabba, Yakkha, or Man, asserting thereby his Principal essence, might have sensed, or been thought of as sensing, a psychological danger in the use of a cult image in the form of a man, danger in fact in any sort, of cult susceptible of an “animistic” interpretation … Actually, in the theological development, the Principal Essence of the Tathagata is more and more strongly emphasized, the content of the iconography, anthropomorphic or otherwise, becomes more and more ontological, less and less historical.

The ontology is in term of the pragmatic or didactic essence of the religion. The idolization of the principal essence is sympathized and in some case rather promoted in time when Vajrayana philosophy overlaps the core of the Buddhism. The inexpressible cannot be expressed or at least materially expressed in the human terms. The fallacy is unavoidable but something should be done however difficult and obscure the result will be. Mahayana and Vajrayana does not concern only with the Nirvana rather it declares that Samsara (The world) and the Nibbana (the other world) is the same and the One. This oneness is sometimes can be glimpsed through these art and iconographies.

            All the art and iconographies revered and meditated upon in religions are not mythological fact or with the historical presence. Rather they are the abstractions of certain philosophical and ritualistic outcome. They are even said to be visualized in the subtle realm by the Tantrikas and can be proved to be an abstract coherence of some abstract philosophy. But sometimes, as supported by some of the iconographical and historical fact, they are compared and phased upon in different aspects or incidental period of Shakyamuni Buddha. We can see this practically in the case of the concept of Five Transcendetal Buddhas. Comparing the Five Buddhas with Shakyamuni Buddha, Pradhan writes:

A theory of about the origin of the Pancha Buddha relates that these five Buddhas might have their own distinguished hand gestures to Shakyamuni Buddha himself, who had used mudras on memorable occasions. Three of the five Mudras can be easily traced back to such historical events in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. Preaching in Sarnath after his Enlightenment, Buddha displayed the Dharmacakra mudra (the hand gesture of turning the wheel of Dharma). Among the Pancha Buddha it is Vairocana who exhibits the Dharma-cakra-mudra and, therefore, he may be a prototype of the Preaching the-Dharma-situation. Shortly before his Enlightenment, Buddha was confronted with the temptation of Mara; at the moment, he displayed the Bhumisparsha mudra or the earth-touching gesture. He called the earth-goddess or wideness. The same mudra is the characteristic hand gesture of Akshobhya.

This is just another theory juxtaposing different feature of reality to only one possible fact. In the light of all the available texts of Higher Tantras of Vajrayana, mainly the Guhyasamaja Tantra, we are forced to believe that Five Buddhas are the characteristic features of the inner transformational psychology for the practitioner. It does not have to do anything directly with the historical Buddha but it rather concerns with his teaching.

            Buddha declares that man is functioning through five faculties of knowledge. These components are known as Five aggregates or five Skandhas. They are: Rupa (body), Vedana (sensation), Sangya (perception), Sanskara (volition) and Vigyana (consciousness). They are empty in their nature. It means they are not endowed with any distinct quality of their own but they are functioning in relativity. These are the five components with which life is thus formed. At the same time these are the manacle of humanity as they constitute and create the false identity, form the ego or self. To overcome these five skandhas, with clear understanding of the same is the central teaching of the Buddha. These five heaps of ignorance are thus symbolically represented in iconographical forms in later Buddhism. All the later development of Buddhist philosophy does have these basic tenets as their foundation.

Significance of Art and Iconography in Buddhism

            Art in its different manifestations should be properly analyzed in order to understand the true nature of any icon or image. The symbolism is very important to be understood because it is all about symbol. As iconography is that science which deals and analyses icons, we have to have the proper knowledge of kinds, historicity and philosophical provenance of any given icon.

            Iconography has various facets. It is being used in different subjects as per the need. Iconography, often of aspect of popular culture, is a concern of other academic disciplines including semiotics, anthropology, sociology, media studies and cultural studies. Iconography, in the west after 1940, has been especially prominent in art history.

            In his work ‘Studies in Iconography’, Erwin Panofsky details his ideas of three levels of art- historical understanding which will help us to understand the gravity of this study:

Primary or Natural Subject Matter: The most basic level of understanding, this stratum consists of perception of the work’s pure form…
Secondary or conventional subject matter (iconography): This stratum goes a step further and brings to the equation cultural and iconographic knowledge…
Intrinsic meaning or content (Iconology): This level takes into account personal, technical, and cultural history into the understanding of a work. It looks at art not as an isolated incident, but as the product of a historical environment.

Religious Iconography, which our present account deals with, is related with the secondary and intrinsic level of understanding. Primary or perception of the work’s pure form is very basic to deal with the manifold aspect of religious phenomena.

            To identify, describe and to interpret the image, which is the major aspect of iconography and if that is in case of the religious studies, we must have proper study of philosophy because due to their nature, these religions do not lend themselves to understanding in purely intellectual terms and have to be lived or experienced mentally, emotionally and physically in order to give an idea of their meaning and message. Religious images are used to some extent by all major religions, including both Indian and Abrahamic faiths, and often contain highly complex iconography, which reflects centuries of accumulated tradition.  Throughout history religious cults or religious cultures have been inspired or supplemented by concrete images, whether in two dimensions or three. The degree to which images are used or permitted, and their functions, whether they are for instruction or inspiration, whether treated as sacred objects of veneration or worship or simply applied as ornament, depends upon the tenets of a given religion in a given place and time.

            The systematization of form and content and tracing them with meaningfulness is the most important feature of iconography. Form is the piece of art and the content the metaphysics while considering the iconographical value in religion. As our concern is with the religious kind and to be more precise with Buddhist one, it will be easier and practical to consider iconography being used in Buddhism. As Buddhism is thought to be offshoot of Hinduism both historically and philosophically and it is obviously remarkable that major iconographical attributes of Buddhism are borrowed and developed from the Hinduism, we will deal with Hindu iconography too in order to justify its historicity and metaphysics. As Nepal, India and Tibet are the central spaces for these types of art, therefore, the art from these countries are vividly considered.

            Central to the iconography and hagiography of Hindu and Buddhist religions are Mudras or gestures with specific meanings. Other features include the areola and halo, also found in Christian and Islamic art, and divine qualities and attributes represented by asana and ritual tools such as the dharmachakra, vajra, dadar, phurba, swastika etc. The symbolic use of color to denote the Classical Elements or Mahabhuta and letters and bija syllables from sacred alphabetic scripts are other features. Under the influence of Tantra, art developed esoteric meanings, accessible only to initiates; this is an especially strong feature of Tibetan art.

           Buddhist art originated on the Indian subcontinent following the historical life of Siddhartha Gautama, 6th to 5th century BC, and thereafter evolve by contact with other cultures as it spread throughout Asia and the world. The earliest phase of Buddhism was generally aniconic, with the Buddha being represented as symbols such as a footprint, an empty chair, a rider less horse, or an umbrella. Buddha was never represented through in human form at that time. Later, iconic sculptural traditions were established, with two of the most important being in the regions of Gandhara and Mathura. The art of Gandhara benefited from centuries of interaction with Greek culture since the conquests of Alexander the Great in 332 BC and the subsequent establishment of the Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek Kingdoms, leading to the development of Greco-Buddhist art. Gandharan Buddhist sculpture displays Greek artistic influence, and it has been suggested that the concept of the "man-god" was essentially inspired by Greek mythological culture. Artistically, the Gandharan School of sculpture is said to have contributed wavy hair, drapery covering shoulders, shoes and sandals, acanthus leaf decorations, etc.

The art of Mathura tends to be based on a strong Indian tradition, exemplified by the anthropomorphic representation of divinities such as the Yaksas, although in a style rather archaic compared to the later representations of the Buddha. The Mathuran school contributed clothes covering the left shoulder of thin muslin, the wheel on the palm, the lotus seat, etc.

Mathura and Gandhara also strongly influenced each other. During their artistic florescence, the two regions were even united politically under the Kushans, both being capitals of the empire. It is still a matter of debate whether the anthropomorphic representations of Buddha was essentially a result of a local evolution of Buddhist art at Mathura, or a consequence of Greek cultural influence in Gandhara through the Greco-Buddhist syncretism.

This iconic art was thus characterized from the start by a realistic idealism, combining realistic human features, proportions, attitudes and attributes, together with a sense of perfection and serenity reaching to the divine. This expression of the Buddha as both man and God became the iconographic canon for subsequent Buddhist art.
It has often been remarked that in Pali texts there is no express tradition prohibiting the making of anthropomorphic images of the Tathagata, originally “So-come” or “So-gone” which might account for the designation of the Buddha only by aniconic symbols in the early art. And this is essentially true; the representation by aniconic symbols is not in kind a Buddhist invention, but represents the survival of an older tradition, the anthropomorphic image becoming a psychological need only in Bhakti-vada sects. In the absence of specific definition, it may be assumed that the class of associated symbols included also such other aniconic representations as the Wheel, Feet, Trisula and other geometrical, vegetative forms actually met with in early Buddhist art. It is true that, like the tree, these symbols had older than Buddhist application and one could imagine objections made accordingly. All these aniconic representation does have the specific historical background which resembles with the some specific incidents of the life of Gautam the Buddha. The wheel, for example had special reference to the first preaching in the Benares. At the same time, the use of such symbols, with their inherent metaphysical implications, must have contributed to the early definition of the mythical Buddhism.

To understand the symbols used in this religion, the understanding of the later development of the Buddhism is needed. It differs and develops in the course of time along with the pragmatic need and progressive philosophical trends that Buddhism underwent through. The Buddhist community did not remain united for long and soon fell apart into number of sects. Buddhist tradition generally speaks of eighteen such sects, but that is a mere traditional number and in fact more than thirty are known to us. The historical Buddha appointed no successor and Buddhism has never known a central authority like that of in the other religious tradition. As different communities fixed themselves in different parts of India, local traditions developed, though in spite of all geographical and doctrinal divisions the different sects generally speaking remained in constant communion with each other. Not only did individual monks constantly travel from one centre to another but the institution of regular pilgrimage of masses of monks and laymen to the holy places caused a constant intermingling of the most diverse elements. The problem which the sects discussed remained thus roughly the same for all and so were the assumptions on which the solutions were based.

With the development of new sects, new ideas has been developed to such level that Bhattacharya once funnily commented,:
It is hardly necessary now to state that the Buddhism of the Lord Buddha found entirely different expressions as time passed from century to century, so much so that even if Buddha is reborn, he will not be able to recognize Vajrayana or the Buddhist Tantra as his own handicraft.

When Tantra is also introduced in Buddhism, new gods and demigods appeared, Vajradhara, Vajrayogini, Five Dhyani Buddhas and their whole family emerged. They are not only written about in the literature, rather they are being placed in the Mandala, reproduced in Thankas and idols with the definite idea of their deification. It is not only the deification but also the new ideas and philosophy of Mahayana and Vajrayana sects interpenetrating the inner essence of Buddhism. From then on, the scenario of Buddhist philosophy has been changed.

Emergence of Tantra in Buddhism does have multifold obscurations. Tantra has lots of magicality in it. Tantra speaks from different folds of reality. It has all due to its all grasping capacity. With the Tantra of Buddhism, the meaning of Sunyata has been changed which it has depicted from Yogacara and Madhyamika philosophy. However, for us, the importance of different iconographical works still remains of immense help to understand certain expressions which nevertheless is thought to be inexpressible.


Bhattacharya, Benoytosh. The Indian Buddhist Iconography. Calcutta: Firma K.L Mukhopadhyaya, 1958.
Bhattacharya, D.C. Studies in Buddhist Iconography. Chandigarh:1978.
Bapat, P.V. (ED.) 2500 Years of Buddhism. Delhi: Publication Division. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1987.
Bajracharya, Naresh Man. Pancha Buddha. Kathmandu: Tula Ratna and Padma Keshari Bajracharya, B.S. 2060.
Coomaraswamy, Annanda K. Elements of Buddhist Iconography. New Delhi: Gayatri Offset Press, 1979.                                                                                        
Pradhan, Mrigendra Man Singh. Pancha Buddha and Dance. Kathmandu: Prajna Chhapakhana, 1996.
Shakya, Min Bahadur. The Iconography of Nepalese Buddhism. Lalitpur: Subash Printing Press, 1994.
Wayman, Alex. Yoga of the Guhyasamajatantra. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2005.

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