The Beginnings of Buddhist Art
by A. Foucher

Buddhism is a historical fact; only it has not yet been completely incorporated into history: sooner or later that will be achieved. Meanwhile its initial period remains, we must confess, passably obscure. To add to our difficulty, the little that we think we know of the social and political state of India in the times of its birth has been learned almost entirely through its medium: thus the frame is no better defined than the picture. But the task, arduous though it may be, is not impossible. The fifth century B.C. is not so remote a period that it must always elude archeological research; the interval between the death of Buddha and the first information transmitted to us concerning him is not so considerable that we cannot flatter ourselves with the idea of discerning across it the veritable physionomy of the work, if not - in conformity with the pious, but too tardy wish of later generations - the “actual features” of the worker. This hope is still more confident, and the ambition less audacious, when it is a question of the beginnings of Buddhist art. The appearance of the latter is a relatively late phenomenon, since it presupposes not only the development of the community of monks, but also a certain organization of worship on the part of the laity.

If among the productions of this art the sculptures are almost the sole survivors, we have at least preserved to us, notably in the labelled bas-reliefs [2] of Barhut, documents of the very highest rank. Certainly the stones are by no means loquacious: but they atone for their silence by the unalterableness of a testimony which could not be suspected of rifacimento or interpolation. Thanks to their marvellous grain, they are to-day as they were when they left the hands of the image-makers (rūpakāraka) two thousand years ago; and upon this immutable foundation we can construct inferences more rigorous than upon the moving sand of the texts. In the ever restless and changing play of the doctrines we are never quite certain that the logical sequence of the ideas is exactly parallel to the historical succession of the facts. On the other side, the routine character of all manual technique will allow us to detect with certainty, in the still existing monuments, the material traces of the procedures which must have been usual earlier: inversely, and by a kind of proof backwards, the correctness of these postulates will be verified in that they alone will be found to render a satisfactory account of the often uncouth character of that which has been preserved to us. All these reasons seem to us to justify the task which we have undertaken. In the assault delivered from various quarters upon the origins of Buddhism we believe even that the attempt to go back to the very beginning of its art is, among all the methods of approach, that which has for the moment the most chances of success.


None, indeed, of the monuments known at the present time, building or sculpture, takes us further back than the Maurya dynasty. Does that mean that art was created entire [3] in India towards the year 250 before our era, by a decree of the Emperor Aśoka? Of course it would be absurd to believe this. From the Vedic times Indian civilization had at its disposal the services not only of the carpenter, the wheel-wright and the blacksmith, of the potter, the weaver and other fabricators of objects of prime necessity, but also of those whom we call art-workers, painters, goldsmiths, carvers in wood or ivory. If the texts were not there to tell us this in words, the evidence of the sole surviving monuments would be sufficient to establish it. Fergusson has proved once for all that the oldest constructions in stone, by the servile manner in which they copy the framing and joining of timber work, testify to the previous existence of wooden buildings. On the other hand - as we know from a reliable source by means of an explicit inscription - it was the ivory-workers of Vidiśa who carved, in the immediate vicinity of their town, one of the monumental gates of Sāñchī. Besides, it is obvious that the finished and well polished bas-reliefs, which for us are the first in date, represent not by any means the first attempts of beginners, but the work of sculptors long familiar with their business and changing their material, but not their technique. The whole transformation which was accomplished during the third century before our era is limited to the substitution, in religious and royal foundations, of the reign of stone for that of wood.

Mara’s Assault (Amaravati)
Māra’s Assault (Amaravatī)

Unfortunately, there are no worse conditions, climatic and historical, for the preservation of monuments than those of India. All that was of wood was condemned beforehand to fall into dust; all, or nearly all, that was of stone and that the climate might have spared has been destroyed by the vandalism of man. Thus is explained why the most ancient remains of Buddhist art are at once so late and so rare. If we leave aside [4] the great monolithic pillars dear to Aśoka, as well as the caves excavated for the benefit of all the religious sects in every place where the geological formation of the rocks lent itself thereto, we find on the ground level, and pending more systematic excavations, scarcely anything to mention, except the debris of the balustrades of Bodh-Gayā and of Barhut, and the four gates of Sāñchī. The mention of the kings Brahmamitra and Indramitra, inscribed on the first, on the second that of the dynasty of the Śuṅgas, and on one of the last that of the reign of Sātakaṇi suffice to date them generally, but with certainty, as belonging to the second, or first, century before our era. It is doubtless to the same epoch, if we may judge by the style, that we must refer the oldest fragments of the balustrades exhumed both at Amarāvatī and at Mathurā. If to these few stray remnants of sculptures we add the remains of the most archaic paintings of Ajaṇṭā, we shall very soon have finished compiling the catalogue of what may be styled - in opposition to the later school, of the north-west frontier, much more penetrated by foreign influences - the native school of Central India.

Let us go straight to the most striking feature of this old Buddhist school. Although well known to specialists, it will not fail to surprise uninformed readers. When we find the ancient stone-carvers of India in full activity, we observe that they are very industriously engaged in carrying out the strange undertaking of representing the life of Buddha without Buddha. We have here a fact which, improbable as it may seem, Cunningham long ago demonstrated. It is established on the written testimony of the artists themselves. Those of Barhut inform us by an inscription, that such and such a person on his knees before a throne “is rendering homage to the Blessed One”. Now, without [5] exception, the throne is vacant; at the most, there is a symbol indicating the invisible presence of Buddha. A. Cunningham, Stūpa of Barhut, pl. XII-XVII.

The latest researches have only opened our eyes to the extent of the field of application of this constant rule; it holds good for the years which preceded as also for those which followed the Sambodhi, for the youth as also for the old age of the Master. The facade of the middle lintel of the eastern gate of Sāñchī illustrates his departure on horseback from his house: the embroidered rug which serves as a saddle for his steed is empty. A medallion of Bodh-Gayā represents his first meditation: empty again is the seat before which the traditional ploughman is driving his plough. Art Greco-bouddhique du Gandhāra, fig. 177 and p. 345. Some panels of Amarāvatī show us his birth and presentation to the sage Asita; only his footprints - a direct ideographic transcription of the formula which was in use in India to designate respectfully a “person” - mark the swaddling clothes on which in one place the gods, in another the old ṣi are reputed to have received him into their arms. See on the staircase of the British Museum, nos 44 and 48, or Fergusson, Tree and Serpent Worship pl. XCI, 4, and LXI, 2. These selected examples suffice to demonstrate that the ancient Indian sculptors abstained absolutely from representing either Bodhisattva or Buddha in the course of his last earthy existence. Let us add, in order to be quite correct, “at least under his human form”; for we know that a bas-relief at Barhut represents the Blessed One Descending into the bosom of his mother in the form of an elephant (cf. below, p. 20). Such is the abnormal, but indisputable fact of which every history of Buddhist art will have at the outset to render account.

[6] As far as we know, no perfectly satisfactory explanation of this fact has until now been given. First of all we tried to dispose of the matter more or less by the supposition, as evasive as gratuitous, that the ancient school had either not desired or had not been able to figure the Blessed One; neither of these two reasons appears to us to have the least value in proof. Shall we speak of incapacity? Assuredly, one can see that the concrete realization of the image of the “perfect Buddha” was not an easy task: and the difficulty could not but increase with the years, in proportion as the time of the Master grew more distant and his features faded more and more into the mists of the past. Nevertheless, we must not form too poor an opinion of the talent of the old image-makers, and the argument becomes moreover quite worthless, when one attempts to apply it to the youth of Buddha. What was he, in fact, up to the time of his flight from his native town, but a “royal heir apparent”? Now the type of rāja-kumāra, or crown-prince, is common on the gates of Sāñchī, as also on the balustrade of Barhut; See Cunningham, Stūpa of Barhut, pl. XXV, 4, (Mūgapakkha-jātaka, no 538: cf. infra, p. 56 and pl. V, 6) and p. VI (mention of theViśvantara-jātaka) ; north gate of Sāñchī, lower lintel (Viśvantara), etc. what material hindrance was there to their making use of it to represent the Bodhisattva? It is clear that they could have done so, and yet they carefully abstained from doing so. Shall we fall back, then, upon the other branch of the dilemma and say that they did not dare? Assuredly the gravest members of the order must long have held to the letter the stern saying that “the master gone, the law remains”; Mahāparinibbāna-sutta, VI, I. and we are quite willing to believe that the law alone was of import for them. The reverend Nāgasena still teaches king Menander that henceforth the [7] Blessed One is no longer visible except in the form of the dharmakāya, Milindapañha, ed Trenckner, p.73; trans. Rhys Davids, P. 113. of the “body of the doctrine”; but of any express prohibition of images we have in the texts no knowledge. Since when, moreover, and in what country does popular devotion trouble itself about the dogmatic scruples of the doctors? Certainly it was not so in ancient India: for otherwise we could not at all understand the enthusiasm with which the valley of the Ganges and the rest of the peninsula welcomed the Indo-Greek type of Buddha. From Mathurā to Bodh-Gayā, and from Śrāvastī to Amarāvatī, we see it installed in triumph on the circumference of the stūpas as in the interior of the temples. So rapid a conquest is a sufficient proof that the objections of conscience, if any such existed, were far from being insurmountable.

But, it will be said, if it is true that the ancient Indian image-makers asked for nothing better than to represent the Blessed One, and that, on the other hand, they were capable of it, why then have they so carefully abstained? To this we see but one reply, in appearance, we must confess, simple-minded enough, but one which, in India, is still sufficient for all: “If they did not do it, it was because it was not the custom to do it”. And, no doubt, it would be easy to retort: “But you confine yourself to putting off the question; if it does not arise with regard to the sculptors whose works we possess, it still holds good entirely with regard to their predecessors.” - Certainly, and far from contradicting, that is just the point at which we wished to arrive. We hold that this monstrous abstention, such as we observe on the monuments of Barhut and Sāñchī, remains perfectly incomprehensible, unless we [8] enquire into the traditional habits which it supposes and which, for that very reason, it is capable of revealing to us. Like certain anomalies in animal species, it can only be explained as an inheritance from a nearly obsolete past, which this survival helps us to reconstitute. In other words, it is vain for us to seek a solution of the problem in the few relatively late specimens at present known to us; it is to the anterior history, to what is still the prehistoric period of Buddhist art that we must go to discover it. To such a typical case of artistic teratology it is the evolutionist method of embryology that it is proper to apply.