Seated Buddha from Gandhara

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This is one the first images of the Buddha ever created. It shows him in an enlightened state, wearing monk's robes and seated in the lotus position. The position of his hands indicates that he is revealing the dharma, the 'way' of his teaching. This statue would have sat in front of a stupa - a domed structure that enclosed the Buddha's ashes. Pilgrims used statues like this to contemplate the Buddha's teachings before they visited his relics.

When were the first images of the Buddha created?

Images of the Buddha were not created until over 500 years after his death. The Buddha was an Indian prince who lived around 400 BC. He became a Buddha - an 'Enlightened One' - through comprehending the roots of human suffering while living an ascetic life. Buddhism spread from India along the Silk Road and by sea, but it was not until AD 0 - 100 that the first images of the Buddha were created. Before that the Buddha was represented by symbols such as his footprints.

The Buddha's seated posture refers to the moment just before he receives enlightenment

The awakening

Images of the Buddha have very important significance. On one level, by venerating and revering the image of the Buddha, the practising Buddhists are also remembering the historical teacher – the Buddha. In fact in Tibetan we often refer to the Buddha as The Teacher, and by venerating the image of the Buddha we are honouring him, his memory. Also the image of the Buddha reminds you of the potential of awakening that lies in all of us. This is particularly true of the Mahayana Buddhists where one of the key ideas is the presence of the Buddha nature, the seed for enlightenment that exists naturally in all of us. So the image of the Buddha inspires the religious devotee and reminds him or her of that natural potential that exists in us.

This particular form of Buddha is very significant because it symbolises the Buddha’s awakening. So the left palm resting on his lap symbolises the Buddha in a meditative state, in which he is experiencing the awakening state, while the right palm in the gesture of touching the ground symbolises the calling up of the earth to bear witness to this event which is the principal source of inspiration for all the Buddhists. In actual fact you can look at the whole history of Buddhist thought as an attempt to try to understand and articulate the content of this one event – which is the Buddha’s enlightened awakening under the Bodhi tree.

Thupten Jinpa, Buddhist translator

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  • 1. At 21:10 on 4 June 2010, Shreya Rai wrote:

    Buddha, An Indian Prince?? Seriously?? This is outrageous!!!...

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  • 2. At 22:08 on 8 June 2010, shinro wrote:

    "It's still not entirely clear just why the bodily image appears at this time [the 3rd century]": Yet images of gods and heroes in human form were de rigeur in Greece and Rome, and the influence of the Greco-Roman style in the Gandharan images of the Buddha is striking. Is it then too simplistic to suppose that human images of the Buddha are likely to owe as much to the spread of Greco-Roman cultural tastes across central Asia and northern India through trade, colonisation and conquest as anything else?

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  • 3. At 17:52 on 22 July 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    Sorry to take so long to get back to you. There has been a lot to digest in Wikipedia to get to the bottom of this one.
    In the synthesis of Ashokan Buddhism with the Greek mythological tradition Mahayanan Buddhism served the same purpose for the remnant empires of Alexander?s eastward expansion as Ashokan Buddhism did for Ashoka over much of the same area. It divided the conquered and weakened the defeated by teaching peace and handing out forgiveness. Ashokan Buddhism is short was an ideal tool for any conqueror. And that is why it exported so easily to other empires.
    The Indo-Greeks, the last of the remnant, were isolated from their roots in Greece and denied access to India?s east coast where a port would have assured them of their richest ambition that of a direct trade link to China and the near east. The route back home to Greece lay to the west and the pacifying influence of their adapted pet religion might have paved the way there for them to. It turned out to be just a dream as the world turned out to contain too many un-pacified dispirit peoples with heroic aspirations or desperate needs and they like so many before them were assimilated into another culture. As the Buddha said, ?Life is change?.
    However, there were other markets for this package further west. Rome had already been sold on the philosophies and sciences formally Greece? own and could vouchsafe the successes of syncretism. It?s pretty obvious that there is more to the similarity of conversion experienced by emperors Constantine and Ashoka. Ashoka had brutally suppressed the proud and ancient peoples of Kalinga and Rome was similarly and constantly engaged with dispirit rebellious vassals of her own. A peaceful messiah or a malleable post-messianic religion, withal of the built-in precepts supporting imperial rule, was just what she needed.
    I suppose It too turned out to be just a dream as the world turned out to contain too many un-pacified dispirit peoples with heroic aspirations or desperate needs just as it was for Ashoka and all the emperors after him.
    This statue is certainly not that of Gautama The Buddha. He forbade the making of his image after his death. When his was a study in self annihilation the making of images would have been understood to be a contradiction. How does one make an image of The undivided existence?

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  • 4. At 09:54 on 24 August 2010, Karl wrote:

    @Shreya Rai

    Yes, but he WAS an Indian prince. He gave up his riches and started his search for enlightenment after he went out of the palace and saw human suffering

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  • 5. At 04:50 on 20 October 2010, Mekh Gurung wrote:

    @iluvhistory12 & the editor,
    Don't solely trust on wikipedia or any online gadgets to know the real history. Go to Lumbini, Nepal to find out his birth place. "Shakya" Buddha's ethnicity still exists in Nepal (Kathmandu) who STILL practices Buddhism. If you really love history you got to be on the spot rather than googling in your desktop.
    @Shreya, don't be outrageous but tell them the truth. We do have now millions of internet user back home who can find out these kind of misinterpretations.

    Doing doctorate from Oxford does not mean all Oxfordians are British as simple as that!

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  • 6. At 04:52 on 20 October 2010, Mekh Gurung wrote:

    Forget to post this link:

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  • 7. At 09:39 on 8 February 2011, David Prudames wrote:

    @shinro - This is a good question and the answer is really no, but with a hint of maybe? I spoke to our curator of this object, and he explained that images like this one first appeared in India in the first century AD and spread throughout the subcontinent, including the Gandhara region in what is now Pakistan. They were all of Buddhist subjects ? nothing directly related to the Greeks or Romans in terms of religious subject matter. We can discount the Romans as a direct influence because there is nothing between Syria and South Asia that looks like Gandhara art. There was an established (post-Alexander the Great) Indo-Greek population in the area, which may have been responsible for a local classical style. This seems the most likely reason why many sculptures from Gandhara have a ?Mediterranean? appearance to western eyes. How the people of the time understood this style is, however, not recorded, so we cannot say if they regarded it as overtly classical or not.
    David Prudames, British Museum

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2nd - 3rd century AD


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