Who is depicted here?
This is an image of a crowned and bejeweled Buddha, standing on a lotus pedestal, surrounded by four other figures representing four famous scenes from the life of the historical Buddha. It dates from approximately 1050–1100 CE. The central figure stands in a fairly rigid fashion, in contrast to the mid-sized figures to his lower right and left, who appear in a more relaxed posture.
The central figure’s right hand is in a gesture (mudra) of “fear not,” his left hand grasps the stem of a lotus bud. He wears a long robe that delineates the forms of the body. The figures are idealized in their conception. For example, the torso of the central Buddha figure is said (in ancient texts) to resemble the head of a bull. The legs and arms of the larger figures are sculpted in a buoyant, geometrically abstracted style. The dark grey chlorite stone used here allows for both high polished, smooth areas such as the limbs of the larger buddha figures, and the intricate details surrounding all the figures, and along the borders of the piece.
The two tiny figures at the viewer’s bottom left may be depictions of donors who financed the creation of the sculpture, or they may simply be worshipers. Nearby are two cone-like bowls filled with offerings. The four subsidiary figures are:
- (viewer’s upper left) the Buddha calling on the earth goddess to witness his claim to Buddhahood; the earth goddess can be seen below the figure (upper right) the Buddha accepting an offering from a monkey (the monkey seen below the figure)
- (upper right) the Buddha accepting an offering from a monkey (the monkey seen below the figure)
- (lower right) the Buddha taming a wild elephant; from the Buddha’s outstretched hand spring lions, representing his teachings after preaching to his mother in Indra’s heaven (Indra, a Vedic/Hindu god that also appears in Buddhist texts)
- (lower left) the Buddha’s descent from heaven after preaching to his mother in Indra’s heaven (Indra, a Vedic/Hindu god that also appears in Buddhist texts)
Why is the Buddha crowned and bejeweled?
Here the central figure wears a five-point crown, and above him is a parasol topped by stupas, a symbol of royalty and respect. As Buddhism evolved, it developed greater complexity, and this is reflected in artistic imagery. The central buddha here is an abstract figure representing the cosmic buddha principle, rather than the historical figure who lived in a certain time and place. This cosmic buddha encompasses other buddhas, including the historical one. This is indicated artistically by the fact that the central figure dominates all the others in size.The five points on the crown may refer to five insights, personified as five buddhas (jinas) each representing one of the cardinal directions.
A majestic form of the Buddha, embodying universal principles, was one that even earthly monarchs could follow. The Pala kings who ruled eastern India at the time this sculpture was made were the last great patrons of Buddhist art in India. They probably imagined that they could aspire to the universal Buddha principle that encompassed their own and other earthly realms.
Susan and John Huntington wrote in their catalogue, Leaves from the Bodhi Tree: The Art of Pala India (8th–12th centuries) and Its International Legacy (Dayton: Dayton Art Institute, 1989):
The crown and jewelry emphasize the aspect of the Buddha as a universal sovereign, drawing a visual analogy between the attainment of Buddhahood and coronation as a king. Unlike the monk’s robes, which signal his renunciation, the royal adornments evoke the king’s majesty, kingly qualities, and omniscience.