Buddhism is a religion with deep and ancient roots. Originating sometime around the 6th Century BCE, Buddhism has persisted through historical shifts of all varieties and remains one of the most practiced religions around the world today. There are currently more than 500 million followers of Buddhism, and that number seems to grow more and more each year. With a general message of tranquility, inner peace, and harmony with the world, it can be easy to see why so many people find Buddhism to be appealing.
This is nothing new, either. Since it first began to find ground, Buddhism has been intriguing to people who have come in contact with it. Historians have stated the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia and Europe along the Silk Road was largely due to the fact that Buddhism was so different than most of the religions being practiced at the time. It has also been stated that this spread of Buddhism has led to some misconceptions and false impressions of the religion. One large way this has happened was in the portrayal of the Buddha.
Though Buddhism dates back to the sixth century, artists did not attempt to portray the Buddha for many years. In fact, the first recorded artist’s rendering of the Buddha is dated to roughly 500 years after the religion began. Sometime around the first century BCE, statues of the Buddha began to appear around the region where the religion was being practiced. One of the more famous examples of this was discovered in Pakistan. The “Standing Buddha,” which now resides in the Tokyo National Museum, showcases how Buddhism’s spread influenced the artwork that emerged around it.
Even though the “Standing Buddha” is supposed to depict Buddha, the style of the statue is quite different than anything found in Eastern Asia. Most archaeologists and historians have stated the statue found in Pakistan looks remarkably like the Hellenistic statues found throughout Greece. This suggests the spread of Buddhism into the Mediterranean influenced artists of the time enough to create art of the Buddha in this classical style. What’s more, the art must have been sold or believed to have been of value by invaders, as these statues were found all over Europe and Asia.
Then and Now
It is important to note there was Buddhist art before the first depictions of Buddha. Many scholars argue this is due to the idea of aniconism. Throughout Asia in the earliest centuries of Buddhism, the Buddha was only ever depicting by not being shown. A statue of an empty throne, for example, would be understood to represent the Buddha. This helps to explain how there are so few depictions of Buddha in a region known for gorgeous sculptures and statues. Popular symbols around this time included thrones, footprints, and trees.
Nowadays, statues of Buddha are crafted with specific points in mind. If the earliest Buddhists depicted Buddha symbolically and the next movement took Buddha to a more literal level, then the modern idea combines both concepts. Statues of Buddha in various incarnations can be found all over the world. Some of these poses are classical in structure, and others have a more modern feel. All, however, are meant to symbolize aspects of Buddhism and, to some extent, the life of the Buddha being shown in the art.
An Evolving Artform
Art and religion often go hand-in-hand. Buddhism has a very complex and interesting history in relation to art. While there has been art depicting various Buddhist practices for as long as the religion has been around, images of the Buddha are subject to mystery and study. Like the religion itself, art surrounding Buddhism is always evolving and reflecting the time period at hand.