Images of Buddha are popular in modern homes and health spas. It evokes peace, tranquillity and freedom from stress. It is the kind of artwork patronised by privileged people who are not very generous, but are forever in a state of gratitude. But the Buddha image evoked many other realities besides this one.
It all began in the 19th century when Europeans rediscovered Buddhism. They were able to translate the various Pali texts from Sri Lanka. They were excited that the mysterious giant images of sages that they found across East Asia, were actually the images of the same person. They were representations of a prince who lived 2500 years ago called Gautama Shakyamuni.
The Europeans at this time were also writing down the history of India. They used European history to serve as a template for Indian history. If Europe went from polytheism (Roman Empire) to monotheism (Christianity) to revolution of reason (Protestantism) to science, they felt India was on the same path. So Veda was equated with the polytheistic phase. Gita with the monotheistic phase, followed by the ritualism of fire-worship, cow-worship and idol-worship, a descent into ritualism challenged by the rational and serene Buddha. This understanding of India appealed to everyone – Buddha became the pinnacle of Indian wisdom, accepted by all from Gandhi to Nehru to Savarkar to Ambedkar.
But, now, we realise that that is a very simplistic understanding of Buddhism. The spread of Buddhism to Southeast Asia, Central and East Asia, had a lot to do with politics and economics. As Buddhism spread to different parts of the world over time, it also evolved dramatically. Three things draw attention to this.
Stupas, Circles and Giants
The earliest Buddhist sites show stupas, with grand gates and railings. They were built by great kings like Ashoka and Kanishka. Near the stupa was a Vihara, a monastery where the monks lived. Patronage of these monasteries established the greatness of kings. These monasteries, universities and rock-cut caves were often on trade routes that was under protection of these kings. So we find images of the Buddha protected by Vajrapani, symbol of the king’s power. From these spaces emerged texts that speak of kings inviting monks to debate and deliberate on Buddhist matters. These became known as the great Buddhist councils. It added prestige to Buddhist schools and to the reputation of kings.
But in the 8th Century, we see a dramatic shift in Buddhist iconography. The old kings were primarily toll tax collectors. But the new kings control lands and we see the emergence of a feudal idea even in the artwork of the Buddha. We find, especially in the eastern part of India, the stronghold of Tantric Buddhism, paintings of one Buddha sitting in the centre, surrounded by many Buddhas around him. They face the four directions. So there is a senior Buddha and a junior Buddha. The senior Buddha lives in his own world in his own kingdom. He towers over the junior Buddhas, who also have worlds of their own. These are the Buddha Kshetras (territories). In another circle around these five Buddhas are the Bodhisattvas who engage with humanity and help reduce suffering. This circle of Buddha mirrors the circle of kings (Raja-mandala) described in the dharma-shastra texts, where the further away you move from the capital city of the king, modes of extraction of wealth shifts from rental income, to tax income, to tributes by feudal lords, to gifts from allies. Here, instead of a single king controlling the whole ecosystem for administrators, we now have various smaller kingdoms, who pay tribute to a dominant central Chakravarthi, who power extends to the circular horizon.
The third thing which started emerging from the 10th Century onwards was the images of giant Buddhas. These are especially popular in Central Asia and China. Here, you find these giant Buddhas standing or seated, especially overlooking trade routes. This is the primal Buddha, the Adi Buddha, appearing as a substitute to the idea of God, who dominates the vista. The images is sometimes identified as Maitreya, the future Buddha, or Vairochana, the transcendent Buddha, who permeates the whole universe. It mimics the idea of the Chinese Emperor, to whom everyone is beholden to. Buddhism played a key role after the Tang dynasty to overpower the stranglehold of the Confucian and Taoist courtiers. Buddhist monasteries emerged, after much struggle, as a key player in Chinese affairs. These monasteries introduced banking practices hitherto unknown in China, and perhaps played a key role in the emergence of paper currency. Before China, Buddhist monks had introduced metal currency along Indian trade routes.
Buddha – popularised in the early 20th century as a symbol of renunciation – was in fact a symbol of mercantile and political power in its long history of over 2500 years. His image was favoured by kings who collected toll tax, feudal lords who collected tributes and emperors who loved to dominate the landscape. That is why Buddha was visualised on pagodas, in mandalas and finally as giants looming over trade routes. Wherever Buddhism went, mercantile networks followed and currency usage spread. Performative spirituality is always an indicator of material abundance. For the rich fear losing their wealth to the hungry poor. And are grateful when Buddha prevents them from stressing too much about it.