Two Periods of Buddhist Art in India
Less than 1% of the population of modern India is Buddhist. Therefore, it is reasonable to say that India’s importance for Buddhism and its art is mainly its historical influence. Not only is India the country where the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, lived and taught, but it is the land where the first images of the Buddha were produced and where Buddhist iconography and symbolism evolved. Being a student whose family originates in India, I am interested in some of the historical aspects and influences of Buddhist Art in India. Therefore, my study of this topic extends to two of the most important periods of Buddhist art in India, the Kushan and the Gupta Periods. The Kushan period is the period in which the first human images of the Buddha appeared. This paper will briefly discuss the Mathura region and will primarily focus on the styles and attributes of sculptures from the Gandharan region. This discussion will illustrate how regional differences contributed in developing two distinct styles of art within the same period. Therefore, I will briefly discuss the history and location of the Gandharan region. I will focus on the Gandharan Bodhisattva (2nd/3rd century, made of schist) displayed in the Art Institute. Next, the paper will discuss the Gupta Dynasty, this is period in which the culture of the period was more concerned with aesthetic values of sculpture, which I will illustrate through my discussion of the Preaching Buddha of Sarnath (c. 475 ad, Buff Sandstone). As a result, the art from the Gandharan region will show how regional location and influences affected this period’s sculpture, and the art from the Gupta Period will illustrate how aesthetic preferences of the culture influenced the sculpture of this period. By discussing the Gandharan Bodhisattva and Preaching Buddha from Sarnath, we can see that the art of Buddhism in India reflects the ideals and the sophisticated aesthetics of the varied regions and periods in which it flourished.
In early Buddhist art, the Buddha was merely symbolized by a wheel, a bodhi tree, or a stupa. Not until the Kushan period [AD 50-250], during the reign of Kanishka I, was the historic Buddha represented in human form. The creation of a Buddha image in human form corresponded to the theological changes influenced by Mahayana Buddhism taking place in the religion. Two distinct styles of sculpture emerged during the Kushan period, one associated with the region of Gandhara and the other with the city of Mathura in northern India. There is much debate in which region these first images appeared, and such discussion is not relevant to my thesis. What is relevant is that these two regions developed two distinctly different styles of sculpture.
While Mathuran art developed from local Indian artistic traditions, Gandharan sculptures were heavily influenced by the artistic traditions of the Hellenistic world, most...