This deft and lively study by Robert DeCaroli explores the questions of how and why the earliest verifiable images of the historical Buddha were created. In so doing, DeCaroli steps away from old questions of where and when to present the history of Buddhism’s relationship with figural art as an ongoing set of negotiations within the Buddhist community and in society at large. By comparing innovations in Brahmanical, Jain, and royal artistic practice, DeCaroli examines why no image of the Buddha was made until approximately five hundred years after his death and what changed in the centuries surrounding the start of the Common Era to suddenly make those images desirable and acceptable.
The textual and archaeological sources reveal that figural likenesses held special importance in South Asia and were seen as having a significant amount of agency and power. Anxiety over image use extended well beyond the Buddhists, helping to explain why images of Vedic gods, Jain teachers, and political elites also are absent from the material record of the centuries BCE. DeCaroli shows how the emergence of powerful dynasties and rulers, who benefited from novel modes of visual authority, was at the root of the changes in attitude toward figural images. However, as DeCaroli demonstrates, a strain of unease with figural art persisted, even after a tradition of images of the Buddha had become established.
About the Author
Robert DeCaroli is associate professor of art history at George Mason University.
Table of Contents
1 Problems and Preconceptions 3
2 Questions of Origin 12
3 Image Aversion 29
4 Images and Identity 51
5 Historical Shirts 78
6 Image Appeal 116
7 Coping Strategies 146
8 Final Words 178
List of Illustrations 239
What People are Saying About This
"A fascinating account of the complex and, at times, contradictory ideas around the utility and appropriateness of figural representations in early Buddhist communities. DeCaroli’s study marshals an enormous amount of textual, inscriptional, numismatic, and visual evidence to examine how Buddhist communities were not only participating in broader social and cultural transformations but also seeking to differentiate uniquely Buddhist approaches to the relationship, or lack thereof, between subject and image."Catherine Becker, author of Shifting Stones, Shaping the Past: Sculpture from the Buddhist Stupas of Andhra Pradesh
A fascinating account of the complex and, at times, contradictory ideas around the utility and appropriateness of figural representations in early Buddhist communities. DeCaroli’s study marshals an enormous amount of textual, inscriptional, numismatic, and visual evidence to examine how Buddhist communities were not only participating in broader social and cultural transformations but also seeking to differentiate uniquely Buddhist approaches to the relationship, or lack thereof, between subject and image.
Being the first or earliest often ensures a central place in the narratives of history. Founders and innovations consistently draw our attention beyond that afforded to other individuals or events of the past. While this in itself is rarely a problem (although admittedly it is a bias) the potential risk arises when such concerns overwhelm and overshadow the importance of other historical moments and subjects of inquiry. In the study of South Asian Buddhism the topic of origins is a particularly thorny one. And, it is worth asking if our general fixation over the questions of where and when has at times distracted us from the equally significant questions of how and why. To be specific, the fixation of which I am speaking does not pertain to the origins of the Buddha himself, rather it hinges on the question of where and when the first, demonstrably verifiable images of Úàkyamuni, the historical Buddha, were created. This search has been the topic of a long and ongoing discourse among scholars and, like most long-standing academic debates, this discussion has come to encompass many intricacies and given rise to numerous individual theories.From the early days of Alfred Foucher and Benjamin Rowland to recent works by Juhyung Rhi and Vidya Dehejia, explorations of the earliest images have almost exclusively appeared as article length studies. Despite their valuable insights, the narrow scope of these works has prevented them from engaging with the wider issues driving these religious developments. Close studies often miss the comparative issues at work, and such comparisons are important because the emergence of Buddhist figural art was by no means a uniform or organized process. Only by stepping back can we situate these innovations in the wider social, cultural, and political contexts that defined South Asia in the centuries surrounding the start of the Common Era. In so doing we can move beyond questions of location and chronology and begin to understand the reasons behind this shift in artistic practice.Methodologically this work has much in common with my first book, Haunting the Buddha: Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism (Oxford UP, 2004). In that text, I adopted a wide chronological and geographic scope to explore the role that local gods and folk religions played in the development of Buddhist art and ideology. This new project seeks to apply a similarly comprehensive approach to the development of the Buddha image through a comparative exploration of innovations in Brahmanical, Jain, and royal artistic practice. At the center of the project is a simple set of questions. Why was no image of the Buddha made until approximately 500 years after his death, and what changed to suddenly make those images desirable and acceptable?The first step requires understanding the way figural art was used prior to the first century CE. A study of the textual and archaeological sources reveals that likenesses and effigies held special importance and were seen as having far more agency and power than we might expect. Images are consistently described as forging a powerful connection between themselves and that which they represent. Such bonds could be beneficial in gaining access to local gods via their statues or, in other contexts, pose potential dangers. There is a body of late Vedic rituals, for example, that seeks to influence individuals by performing rites on their effigies. Given the implications and risks associated with figural imagery, it is not surprising that the anxiety over image use extended well beyond the Buddhists and helps to explain why images Vedic gods, Jain teachers, and political elites are also absent from the material record prior to the first century BCE.I trace the eventual acceptance of figural art to the emergence of dynasties with ties to Central Asia, such as the Śaka and Kuṣāṇa kings, as well as to South Asian rulers, like the Sātavāhana, who quickly adopted modes of visual authority used by their rivals. These influential transitions can be observed in royally sponsored rock-cut sites like Nanaghat and Kanheri, which record both the shift towards royal portraiture and the emergence of Buddha images along the Western Deccan. Evidence of vandalism at these sites and the damaged nature of all extant examples large-scale royal portraiture may reflect the unease expressed in some contemporaneous textual sources. After the first century CE, the literary output of several South Asian religious communities contain works with widely divergent views on the topic of images. The authors actively seek to justify, excuse, denigrate or limit the use of images in religious contexts. These passages reveal that resistance to image use was not a phase to be overcome but, rather, constituted an ongoing and important strand in the debate over image use. This book is an attempt to understand the history of Buddhism’s relationships with figural art as an ongoing set of negotiations both within the Buddhist community and within society at large.The book will be 270-300 double-spaced manuscript pages (almost all of which is already written) and will require approximately 40 images. I currently possess the permissions for most of these images. Because the project deals primarily with architecture and unpainted sculpture, monochromatic printed images should be sufficient. I have noted that University of Washington Press has a new series on Gandharan Studies and, while my book does not deal exclusively, or primarily, with Gandhara, it does overlap chronologically. Many of the same dynasties and locations relevant to your recent book Gandharan Buddhist Reliquaries are also central to my research; and, certainly they would be of interest to similar audiences. My expectation is that the book will be of most interest to those in Buddhist Studies (and Religious Studies, more broadly), Art History, and History, but it has been written intentionally to be accessible to a wider audience. The range of interest in my first book came as a pleasant surprise and I expect this topic to reach similarly diverse audiences.