Art of Asia
- Yaksha and Yakshi
- An Indian ivory statuette in Pompeii
- The Pillars of Ashoka
- Lion Capital, Ashokan Pillar at Sarnath
- The Didarganj Yakshi
- Bodh Gaya: The Site of the Buddha’s Enlightenment
- Bodh Gaya: center of the Buddhist world
- The stupa
- Bharhut Stupa Relief Sculptures
- Jatakas: the many lives of Buddha as Bodhisattva
- Beliefs made visible: Hindu art in South Asia
- A Buddha from Mathura
- Gandharan Sculpture
- The Gupta period
- The Caves of Ajanta
- The Cave of Shiva at Elephanta
- Images of Enlightenment: Aniconic vs. Iconic Depictions of the Buddha in India
By Dr. Karen Shelby
Site of Buddha’s First Sermon
The most celebrated of the Ashokan pillars is the one erected at Sarnath, the site of Buddha’s First Sermon where he shared the Four Noble Truths (the dharma or the law). Currently, the pillar remains where it was originally sunk into the ground, but the capital is now on display at the Sarnath Museum. It is this pillar that was adopted as the national emblem of India. It is depicted on the one rupee note and the two rupee coin.
The pillar is a symbol of the and of the column that rises every day at noon from the legendary to touch the sun.
Then, a drum on which four animals are carved represents the four cardinal directions: a horse (west), an ox (east), an elephant (south), and a lion (north). They also represent the four rivers that leave Lake Anavatapta and enter the world as the four major rivers. Each of the animals can also be identified by each of the four perils of . The moving animals follow one another, endlessly turning the wheel of existence.
Four lions stand atop the drum, each facing in the four cardinal directions. Their mouths are open, roaring or spreading the dharma, the Four Noble Truths, across the land. The lion references the Buddha, formerly , a member of the Shakya (lion) clan. The lion is also a symbol of royalty and leadership and may also represent the Buddhist king who ordered these columns. A cakra (wheel) was originally mounted above the lions.
Some of the lion capitals that survive have a row of geese carved below the lions. The goose is an ancient symbol. The flight of the goose is thought of as a link between the earthly and heavenly spheres.
The pillar reads from bottom to top. The lotus represents the murky water of the mundane world, and the four animals remind the practitioner of the unending cycle of samsara as we remain, through our ignorance and fear, stuck in the material world. But the cakras between them offer the promise of the Eightfold Path that guides one to the unmoving center at the hub of the wheel. Note that in these particular cakras, the number of spokes in the wheel (eight for the Eightfold Path), had not yet been standardized.
The lions are the Buddha himself from whom the knowledge of release from samsara is possible. And the cakra that once stood at the apex represents moksa, the release from samsara. The symbolism of moving up the column toward Enlightenment parallels the way in which the practitioner meditates on the stupa in order to attain the same goal.
Essay by Dr. Karen Shelby
Want to join the conversation?
- What about the "lotus" represents "murky water of the mundane world"?
As seen here..."The lotus represents the murky water of the mundane world and the four animals remind the practitioner of the unending cycle of samsara as we remain, through our ignorance and fear, stuck in the material world."(6 votes)
- A lotus flower has its roots in the muddy soil at the bottom of a river or pond. In Buddhism, this soil is often seen as a symbol of the material world.(5 votes)
- What were the Pillars made out of? Iron, copper, metal, diamond, gold etc.(1 vote)
- The Pillars were made of sandstone quarried from Chunar and Mathura. There is also a metallic pillar housed in the Qutab Minar complex in Delhi.(1 vote)