There is significant debate concerning the development of the Buddha image—where it first occurred, why, and when. Broadly speaking, the image of the Buddha emerges during the first few centuries CE in two major centers of Indian art during the Kushana period. One center of artistic production was the ancient region of Gandhara, an area that includes northwestern India as well as parts of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. Gandharan images have a style that is reminiscent of Hellenistic sculpture, and artists in the region were certainly influenced by the presence of Hellenistic colonies, and the large-scale trade and exchange that occurred in this cultural crossroads.
A second area of artistic production is associated with Mathura, a city that still stands to the south of Delhi. Here, artists developed a style that can be characterized as more indigenous, less concerned with naturalistic realism in the human form, and more with the symbolic qualities of the spiritual figure. Mathura artists created other kinds of religious imagery as well. It is probable that Buddhist imagery was influenced by the development of Hindu and Jain figures, and that various communities were developing images of devotional figures simultaneously.
A very significant gap of several centuries exists between the lifetime of the historical Buddha, and the creation of the first surviving images of the Buddha in stone or any other medium. The first surviving Buddhist art in stone was actually created prior to images of the Buddha himself. During the Maurya period, in the reign of emperor Ashoka (272–231 BCE), significant monuments and other artworks in stone were commissioned, apparently for the first time. Although stone sculpture, such as large columns surmounted by images of lions and wheels, expressed Buddhist symbolism and motifs, there are no Buddha images from this period. Many scholars have speculated that an aniconic (without idols) period existed in Buddhist art, where there was a prohibition against depicting the actual Buddha, and various symbols substituted for an explicit anthropomorphic representation. Some scholars have interpreted narrative reliefs at early Buddhist monuments to illustrate early Buddhist processions or festivals, where aniconic symbols, rather than anthropomorphic symbols, repre sented the Buddha.
Not all scholars accept these theories, however. It seems likely that various kinds of religious imagery, in the Buddhist, Hindu, and other contexts, were created in ephemeral materials before being created in stone. Indeed the great sophistication and high level of sculptural expertise expressed in Maurya stone sculpture implies that the sculptural tradition was already highly developed by this time. The imperial might and Buddhist inclinations of the emperor Ashoka may have been the first great instigators of a transition to large-scale stone sculpture in India. More than three hundred years later, in the Kushana era, a strong imperial ruler bringing various outside artistic and stylistic influences to the realm, seems to have contributed to further artistic developments and a hitherto unseen profusion of sculpture created in stone.
We are not entirely sure how all Buddhist figures were used in ritual and worship. Buddhist images and sculptures originally adorned the complexes of stupas (sacred mounds containing relics) as well as monastic structures. Early Buddhist sites also incorporated indigenous imagery such as loving couples and fertility figures. Caves were hewn from rock in parts of India, creating spaces for worship rituals and community meetings, as well as monastic dwelling quarters. These rock-cut cave complexes became increasingly elaborate in terms of imagery and iconography, which was created in painting as well as carved from stone in situ. Laypersons contributed to small- and large-scale constructions as a means of acquiring merit. Votive images also developed for private use, andas souvenirs for pilgrims to sacred sites.
The figure of the Buddha and attendant bodhisattvas, and other divine and semi-divine beings, became the objects of devotion themselves. As these divine personages expanded in number and complexity, they required larger stupa and temple structures to house them. Over time, the proliferation of great numbers of Buddhist images, in some cases explicitly created through mass production techniques, reflected beliefs in the meritorious repetition of various names and phrases.
In Buddhist art, the image of the historical Buddha is often labeled “Shakyamuni” (sage of the Shakya clan). This distinguishes the image of the historical Buddha, the Buddha who lived on earth during this present period, from past, future, or cosmic buddhas, bodhisattvas, or other divine beings.