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Beliefs made visible: Buddhist art in South Asia

Buddhism, founded by Siddhartha Gautama 2,500 years ago, seeks answers to human suffering through insight and meditation. The religion spread from India to Asia, with Bodh Gaya as a key pilgrimage site. Buddha's teachings include the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Early Buddhist art, like the Sanchi Stupa, symbolizes Buddha's presence. Created by Asian Art Museum.

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Video transcript

Buddhism can be traced to the life of a single individual named Siddhartha Gautama who lived about 2,500 years ago raised as a prince he decided to leave his home at the age of 29 to seek an answer to the problem of human suffering through insight and meditation he gained supreme wisdom and his teachings formed the basis of the many practices we now call Buddhism Buddhism thrived in India for over a thousand years but eventually declined and spread to other parts of Asia and beyond at the heart of the Buddhist world is the sight of wood gaya pilgrims visit here from all over the world to pay their homage to the Buddha's this is where the Buddha achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree so the tree is very significant the present tree is a descendant of the original you can see devotees wrap pieces of cloth around it and right next to the tree is the mahabodhi temple and many smaller shrines and stupas worshipers walk around these sites as an act of devotion when you see images of the Buddha touching the ground with his right hand that is usually a reference to his moment of enlightenment which took place here at both gaya that has a reference to his struggle against Mara the the evil principle you know and Mara was tempting bin Siddhartha because before he became the Buddha and he was putting all kinds of obstacles and he challenged Prince Siddhartha and said who is your witness that you are qualified to seek the absolute truth and instead of saying such-and-such a guru is my witness or such-and-such a sacred text is my witness he touched the earth and said the whole earth is my witness that I have performed here that I have acquired the necessary qualifications for seeking the way out of sorrow and it is said that the earth shook tries to confirm his claim another important site associated with the life of the Buddha is our not here the Buddha preached his first sermon near the deer park and the deer can still be seen roaming around but the monasteries that were built here live mostly in ruins what did the Buddha preached the nucleus of Buddha's teachings are contained in the Four Noble Truths these truths are that life is full of suffering that suffering is caused by desire the desire lessness is the route to salvation and that these causes can be eliminated by following the Eightfold Path also known as the middle path the middle path between extreme indulgence and extreme asceticism because he had joined the company of ascetics starving and exposing yourself to extremes of cold and heat and one day he fainted and he said this is nonsense how can i how can i give perfect myself like this followers of the buddha carried on his teachings by forming monastic communities and some of these monastic activities took place around stupas and at cave shrines that can still be seen today the main focal point in early Buddhism for a monastic complex was the stupa it's basically a hemispherical mound that represents the burial mound in which relics of the Buddha would have been buried so when the Buddha was cremated there was a dispute about his relics until one of the elders he calmed them and said well our Buddha was a man of peace and we are fighting over his relics so they distributed the relics and stupas were directed at eight places and the relics were enshrined one of the most famous stupas is at Saatchi in central india the stupa as you can see is just a simple unadorned dome but the four gateways are very elaborately decorated worshipers would walk through these gateways and then walk around the stupa in a clockwise direction [Music] very early Buddhist art such as the gateways at Sanchi stupa for instance which were created between 50 BCE and 50 seee we don't see the buddha represented stupa became the symbol of the buddha so very often in sochi you find the relevance for the fog from the forests have come and they are paying homage to the stupa sometimes there you see them paying homage to the tree the Bodhi tree but there is not shown anywhere it's a chi the gateways here at Sanchi also contain narrative scenes but the buddha is never depicted in human form his presence is indicated in this relief for instance by emblems of royalty like the umbrella above the horse or by his footprints in scenes of worship the image of the wheel or of the stupa appear to stand for the Buddha himself so his presence is indicated by these symbols we see the fertility goddess the yuk she on one of the railing pillars and her particular position in the position of her leg indicates her kicking the tree into blossom who doesn't made use of these types of fertility deities because they had to appeal to popular taste and so they absorbed many of these local fertility deities into their pantheon and images such as this we're considered highly auspicious may have served to delineate the transition between sacred and secular space as well as sanctify the site a similar image in the Asian Art Museum galleries from a railing pillar probably served in much the same way [Music] the traveler to western India will most likely encounter a number of Buddhist cave shrines that are located in that region and this is a practice that developed very early where monastic groups would create these beautifully decorated caves for the location of of their monasteries and their Buddhist shrines this practice of using caves in this way is probably related to the ancient practice of ascetics in India who would retreat to mountains and to caves to perform their austerities and their meditations Argenta is in a wonderful setting these are cliff-like faces that are arranged in a horseshoe shape [Music] for three months in India there is a monsoon at that time you cannot travel so they needed so sometimes you know monasteries were there donated by some of the affluent disciples of the Buddha and for the same purpose to remain during the rainy season in a protected place where their scholarly pursuits my god the cave was made through infinite labour they cut into the mountainside and made a sanctuary so now I think it is called rock-cut sanctuaries they have congregation halls and they have the individual cells where the monks would have lived there are also the chai Thea halls which are the halls of worship and they contain a replica of the stupa and are adorned with capitals along both sides and columns argenta also contains some of the oldest paintings that survived in India these caves that contain them are very dark and you can only see these paintings with a flashlight it's a fascinating place to study early Buddhist art in India [Music] very early on in Buddhism we don't have images of the Buddha that survived so we don't know if these images once existed or not but sometime around the first century of the Common Era we start seeing images of the Buddha where previously in stone sculpture for instance he had only been depicted by symbols such as the wheel of the law or by his footprint part of the reason for the emergence of actual images of the Buddha at such a late date is probably related to the rise of devotional ism what it represents is this need for worshipers to establish a sort of close relationship with the deity as the image of the Buddha evolves some distinguishing attributes or characteristics emerge well you see the Buddha showed either as seated in a posture of meditation or he is turning the wheel of Dharma so his two fingers are brought together in a gesture of rotating a wheel because in his first sermon he said I am now going to set in motion the wheel of Dharma images of the Buddha will often display a number of different hand gestures and probably the most common are the setting into motion of the wheel of the law the fear not gesture the gesture of granting a boon the gesture of meditation and the gesture of touching the earth when which occurred before his enlightenment there are several signs of luck Shahnaz as this a and you find that he's invariably depicted with closely curl snail shell curl on his head he has a little shine on like thing which is called the ocean Isha his eyes will be shown almost always downcast looking down in compassion his earlobes are often shown distended because siddhartha gautama was a prince and those days the princess used to wear heavy jewellery and their earlobes used to get distended because of the weight of the jewelry you have narrative scenes that tell the life story of the Buddha or stories from his previous lives some of the most standard scenes from the life of the Buddha that we see depicted are his birth his enlightenment miracles that he performed during his lifetime his death Hannity said he took him 500 lives to better this said before he could become Buddha he takes so many different forms in different animal forms different forms as a human beings maybe he's a prince maybe he's a king many Buddha's are now developed in show just one historical Buddha and one which is a primordial Buddha and then the Buddha's of the directions and so now we got the whole multiplicity of Buddha you see the idea is that the Buddha principle is eternal wisdom is eternal [Music] over the course of time the stupa was replaced by the Buddha image as the principal object of devotion one of the most admired representations of the Buddha is this 5th century sandstone sculpture showing the first sermon at Sarnath sometimes people ask me why are there no great images of padma gandhi and i say 500 years passed before there was a great image of buddha one of the most interesting figures to develop in buddhist art is the bodhisattva Bodhisattvas have reached the stage when they can achieve enlightenment for themselves and they have stayed back in the in the life to help the other sentient beings achieve enlightenment the most famous of course the most popular is a bodhisattva avalokitesvara the sanskrit name itself means the god who looks down in compassion of a locator Ishwara then there is bodhisattva maitreya and he is the future buddha to be the buddha to come the last great flourishing of buddhist art in india probably occurred between the 8th to 12th centuries under the Paula and Sina dynasties and these dynasties ruled that area of eastern India which included many of the sites associated with the Buddha's life including Odeon and what we see in Buddhist sculpture from this period is a greater complexity much of the polisena sculpture produced in eastern india has a very distinctive appearance it's carved from a very hard dark-colored stone and its hardness lends a certain precision to the features of the sculpture there are several reasons why it may have died out in India although it survived in certain pockets around the 12th of the 13th centuries we see the rise of Islam in India and with the Muslim invasions we see the destruction of many of the monasteries and the important libraries that constituted the focal point of Buddhist teachings as Buddhism and Hinduism evolved together over the centuries they became much too similar so Buddhism has been absorbed into the mainstream of Hinduism and has sustained it from age after age even though Buddhism declined in South Asia its ideas and practices were carried to nearby regions Buddhist sculpture and painting came to dominate the religious arts of China Korea Japan and Tibet for instance indian buddhist art forms then are fundamental to the study of asian art in general in india we encounter the images of the gods and the goddesses in their natural temple settings when we see them in a museum context we have the opportunity to view them at a closer distance appreciating the lines and the rhythm and the artistic quality of the images we can look at these works in the museum you can look at them now as works of art very lovingly crafted and still conveying a sense of great beauty and spirituality but one of the great contributions of Indian art I believe is its ability to use human figure to convey the spiritual power and perfection [Music] you [Music]