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The Narrative Essence of Buddhist Art
Article of the Month - July 2006

The Buddhist art, which by its great artistic merit, unequalled dynamism, unimaginably diversified and refined form, versatile imagery, highly evolved iconography, massive scale and unique spiritualism revolutionised the art scenario of the entire ancient Indian sub-continent, was essentially a narrative art. Not only that Buddha's iconic images were initially disallowed; the emphasis in Buddhist art - aniconic or iconic, was always on the Buddha's life, as he lived it, and the ideals of the Buddhism, both revealing best in narratives. The art, if at all it sought to portray the Buddha, was required to discover in the Buddha's anthropomorphic dimensions, as also in various emblems representing him, first the body of the Dhamma - Law, and the Buddha only afterwards. Hence, both, the art of the initial phase which saw the Dhamma straightway, not in anthropomorphism, and the art of the subsequent phase, realising Dhamma in iconic dimensions and hence in his anthropomorphic form, found in narration the subtlest instrument of realising the Dhamma. In that age with little literacy, rendering written texts irrelevant to the larger segment of devotees, oral and visual narration - a tale-telling discourse, as also a 'pata-chitra' - cloth-banner, serialising a story and revealing a moral thereby, was the traditional tool of knowing and stimulating a mind to know; and, the Buddhist art seems to have best exploited it.

THE BUDDHA AND VISUAL NARRATION

Pabuji-ki-par
Pabuji-ki-par

Oral narration has been the mode of communication since times unknown, but even the tradition of visual narratives was quite in vogue during the Buddha's lifetime, if not before. This tradition of visual narratives has continued till recent days in forms like painted scrolls, Rajasthani 'pars', such as 'Pabuji-ki-par' or 'Ramaji-ki-par', and picture-showmen - itinerant bards, usually one male and one female, narrating tales out of the pictures that they carried. The Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya, a Buddha's contemporary text, contains at least two examples, one suggestive of the painted functional scrolls being in use those days and the other, indicative of the practice of painting monasteries' walls and its significance in the Buddhist way. The allusion to scroll painting, in the Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya, is suggestive of both, its functionality as also of the technique of narrating a theme. The occasion was the Buddha's 'Mahaparinirvana'- Great Extinction. Buddha's disciples had to communicate the message to the emperor Ajatashatru, who madly loved the Master, but they knew not how to do it without inviting his displeasure. Finally, monk Mahakasyapa resolved the problem. He asked the minister Varshakara to get a scroll prepared with four great miracles - the Birth, the Enlightenment, the First Sermon and the Great Decease, painted on it and to let it be so placed that the emperor's eye fell on it. By representing four major events the scroll narrated the whole life from the birth to the 'Mahaparinirvana', a technique which has ever continued in the Buddhist art, or rather in the entire narrative art world over.

Anathapindaka watering the mango tree
Anathapindaka watering the mango tree.
When there, Buddha was offered a large mango fruit by the gardener. Buddha ate it and got its stone laid in the ground where instantly grew from it a mango tree. Anathapindaka under instructions of the master is watering it. On the other side his men are covering the entire ground with gold coins. Bharhut, second century B.C.

 

 

 

 

In another part of the text, the Buddha is alluded to as instructing Anathapindaka, the donor of Jetavana, as to which of the themes should be painted on the walls of the monastery. He also cautioned monks against damage that they could cause to murals by washing them or lighting fire and instructed to take their care as they were effective aid in their meditation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NARRATION : TOOL OF RADICALISM AND VISUAL ALTERNATIVE OF SCRIPTURES

Narration, whatever its genre - drama, poetry, rhetoric, or fiction, its technique - discourse or a running tale, or even its medium, was thus the prime or perhaps the only mode of communication in the entire ancient world, not India alone. Roland Barthes has rightly defined the width of narration as "international, trans-historical and trans-cultural". The pre-Buddhist art in the Indian sub-continent seems to have had some kind of non-functioning imagery, largely the idols of psychogenic deities conceived for offering rituals and thus appease them and seek their protective cover. This imagery did not represent the body of a dogma, nor communicated knowledge or a moral. The Buddhist art, which was primarily the tool of communicating, knowing and stimulating the mind, something as did literary narratives, was not only different from this early art but it rather sought to completely distance itself from it. The widely believed Buddha's mandate against making and worshipping his personal images, which fell in line with the pre-Buddhist imagery and worship cult, was a well considered move distancing the Buddhism from the tradition of idol worship, not a move seeking to distance it from art. On the contrary, the Buddha considered art, as quoted above, an effective aid in accomplishing meditation. Thus, from its very inception the Buddhism and the Buddhist art deleted with a determined mind personal imagery but included what was communicative and stimulating. The Buddhist art was conceived thus more or less as a visual alternative of its scriptures, and narration was the essence of both. Whatever the phase of the Buddhist art - aniconic or iconic, this position in regard to its being a functional tool did little change, not even after the Buddha's anthropomorphic images began enshrining sanctums for even his sanctum images - each representing a turning point in his life, were endowed with narrative dimensions.

CHARACTERISTICS OF NARRATION : VISUAL VS LITERARY

Thus narration, though it is only the style of representing a subject not its theme, is the essence of the Buddhist art. A representation in art, literature or any other discipline is narrative when its theme unfolds as a chain of events, or a story consisting of various episodes, revolving around an action which progresses into time and expands into space. In ancient world discourse was the usual technique of narration. In almost all ancient classics, whether the Indian Mahabharata or the Ramayana, or the Greek Odyssey or Ulysses, the story and the related action unfold out of discourse. Many a time evolves a chain of stories which have no apparent link with each other. Often a moral is seen initiating a discourse and introducing a story to support it and then another moral and another story. In the case of visual narration it appears to be somewhat different. Here a moral can be deduced but it is not the starting point of the narration. Similarly, discourse can be its technique but not the ground to take off. The narrator using visual medium is required to be more precise in selecting out of the entire chain his episodes which more adequately reveals the whole story. It is inevitable for him to know how he portrays his actors, represents the space or spaces in which the story occurs and shapes the time during which it unfolds. In literary narratives, story itself manipulates time and space. In "When they met at Paris after five years, they had well grown beards" both the time and space appear in the body of the narrative itself. It is not the same with the sculptor or painter. He is required to expand his canvas to such length where he might carve two distinct sets of architecture and other things denoting two different places where action occurs. He has to use similar indicators when portraying time.

VIEWER IN BUDDHIST NARRATION

Thus in visual narration, time and space, the essentials of progression, and of course, protagonists, the agents of progression, are its indispensable components. The other significant component of visual narration is its viewer. In Buddhist art this viewer is of core significance, as here the chain of events does not unfold always in the represented form - artefact; it sometimes unfolds also in the mind of the viewer, particularly when the represented image is monothematic revealing just the terminating point of the action and leaving it for the viewer to re-construct within his mind the entire chain to the best of his ability. The Buddhist art, hence, often appears to have been rendered for a knowing viewer, a patron, monk or devotee, who is able to participate in the discourse which a stone slab, painted wall or palm leaf initiates.

Buddha Preaching to His First Five Disciples
Buddha Preaching to His First Five Disciples

 

 

An image of Buddha, in the 'Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana-mudra' - putting the Wheel of Law in motion, represents him apparently in state, not in action, but the viewer is able to read its entire narrative - how after the attainment of Enlightenment the Buddha decided to share his Divine experience with others; how he was reminded of his five erstwhile colleagues who had deserted him near river Niranjana and left for the Deer Park at Sarnath; how he went to them at Sarnath and delivered his ever first sermon the whole day and the whole night putting the Wheel of Law in motion; and how with these five converts established the Sangha - Order of the monks.

 

 

The Buddha's images, whether in state or in action, or for sanctum or otherwise, have been so conceived that more than his likeness they represent his spiritualism or an aspect of life, though such aspect rarely reveals in these images; it reveals more often in the mind of the viewer. Maybe, the Buddhist art was so devised that the Buddha emerged, evolved and grew in the viewer's mind, not in stone or a non-living medium. This defines the dynamism of the Buddhist art as in it the Buddha takes off from the stone image and enters the mind of the viewer, a living entity, and thus as one representing constant life. The Buddha's images are rarely endowed with a boisterous action or with an agitated demeanour, not even when the elephant Nalagiri attacks him or he subdues the elephant. The event is there and so its agitation and action, and so the evil design and the triumph of the good over it, but in the form of the Buddha reveals only a divine composure, the quiescence, the flavour of life, not its agitation or turmoil. The event, with its all narrative dimensions, is left to evolve in the viewer's mind, not in the Buddha's form.

THE NARRATED THEMES

The legend of Buddha's life, in this birth as also in previous births, is the main subject-matter of Buddhist narratives. The other group of narratives comprises episodes related to some of the Buddha's distinguished devotees and performance of rites to include episodes like the distribution of relics among various kings present during the funeral of the Master and the installation of relics beneath different 'stupas'.

Bimbasara visiting Sakyamuni Buddha
Bimbasara, king of Magadha, visiting Sakyamuni Buddha, 2nd-1st century B.C., Sanchi.

 

 

 

 

Episodes of worship are mostly descriptive though with narrative dimensions and thrust. Most massively covered in these narratives is the life of the Buddha in his present birth. The upper frieze - a 3 ft. wide and 1260 ft. long band, on the wall around the Borobudur stupa in Central Java alone comprises one hundred twenty episodes from the life of the Buddha. Each of these episodes covers a space with 10 ft. 6 inches length and 3 ft. width.

 

 

 

 

 

Kanthaka and Chandaka returning
Kanthaka and Chandaka returning after bidding farewell to their master. The grief surfaces on their faces and in gestures. Borobudur, Central Java, A.D. 750.

Mother Maya's dream before Buddha's birth, Buddha's nativity and other related scenes, schooling, great departure, penance, fasting, attack of Mara's daughters to beguile him and Buddha defeating them, attaining Enlightenment, his first sermon, various miracles, visit to various kingdoms including the Trayastrimsa Heaven and preaching gods there, descent from Trayastrimsa Heaven at Sankissa, Great Extinction…. are the themes of various narratives at different Buddhist sites in India and abroad and in various illustrated texts. Borobudur is, however, different and more elaborate. It narrates even the minor episodes like Buddha taking bath in the river Niranjana, Sujata, the Harijan girl, serving him rice-pudding and the things like the emotional drama which reveals in the gestures of Buddha's horse Kanthaka and groom Chandaka when going back after leaving their master. The lower frieze, with a similar length and width, narrates various Jatakas.

JATAKAS

The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births
The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births (6 Volumes)

 

Jatakas, the stories of the Buddha's various previous births, are as significant a source of Buddhist narratives. Each of the Jatakas is a story representing Buddha, as the man or animal, revealing in his being the highest form of one of the virtues which finally led him to the attainment of Buddhahood, and many emotional and trial some situations which occurred during the course of his accomplishing it. Put together, the Jatakas suggest that the self, attaining Buddhahood as the Sakyamuni, had lived to the highest level of all virtues before he was born as Siddhartha in the present birth. The Jatakas also inspire reverence for all living beings, men, animals, or birds. If the Vessantara Jataka inspires such reverence for men, the Shaddanta Jataka inspires it for animals and the Hamsa Jataka, for birds. The Buddhist artist, while weaving around a Jataka his narrative, discovered in it such several emotional situations which make his tale a living experience and his narration, a fiction of the real life.

 

 

Shaddanta Jatakasm
A painted wooden book-cover representing four major events of Vessantara Jataka; Prince giving away his elephant; leaving his kingdom with his wife and two sons; the wicked Brahmin asking for his sons; and giving away his cart. Nepalese style, twelfth century.

The Vessantara Jataka is the tale of unprecedented and unparalleled charity. The Bodhisattva Vessantara was the prince of Jetuttara, a small kingdom. Jetuttara had an auspicious white elephant that brought good rains and abundant food to the state. Hence, when the neighbouring state Kalinga had a chain of drought and famine consecutively for twelve years, people of Jetuttara were well off. To relieve the people of Kalinga of their miserable plight the compassionate prince donated to Kalinga the auspicious elephant of Jetuttara. Now Jetuttara had no rains and only drought and famine. The agitated citizens forced the king Sanjaya to banish prince Vessantara from the state. Respecting people's sentiments and his father's command prince Vessantara left the kingdom with his wife Madri and two sons. On way, he came across a disabled Brahmin Jujuka. He begged the prince to give him his two sons to serve him in his disability and old age. The prince donated his sons to the Brahmin. The gods, testing him, posted on his way different persons asking from him his possessions one after the other, and thus deprived him of his bulls driving his cart, then cart, and then finally his wife. The wicked Brahmin Jujuka had nothing to feed the children. He instead treated them cruelly and kept them without food for about two weeks. Finally, he took them to Jetuttara to sell. There a king's servant recognised the children and took the Brahmin to king Sanjaya. The overwhelmed king clinched the grandchildren to his bosom and tears of happiness as well as repentance rolled from his eyes. He paid the Brahmin for them and sent him away. That very day, the repentant king called a full court and with its assent reverted his earlier order. Prince Vessantara was sent for, his wife Madrai was redeemed and brought to Jetuttara and the entire family was re-united.

 

Hamsa Jatakasm
Shaddanta Jataka.
Hunter kneels in reverence while Bodhisattva Shaddanta removes his tusks. Ajanta, third-fourth century.

As pathetic is the Jataka of the Bodhisattva Shaddanta, a noble elephant with six beautiful tusks living on the banks of a Himalayan lake. He was the king of a herd of elephants, comprising 80000. Shaddanta had two wives, Mahasubhadda and Kullasubhadda. The younger Kullasubhadda was jealous of the elder and could not bear her husband doing anything for her. One day, when the entire herd was on a trip around a Sal grove, Shaddanta unknowingly shook a blossom-laden bough of a Sal tree causing an abundance of flowers fall on Mahasubhadda standing under it. This annoyed Kullasubhadda. She henceforth prayed to be born as the queen of Benaras to be able to avenge Shaddanta for slighting her. In her next birth Kullasubhadda was born as a princess and was wedded to the king of Benaras. One day, feigning sickness, she won king's sympathy and asked for the tusks of Shaddanta living in Himalayas. The hunter Sonuttara was commissioned for the job. Sonuttara went to the Himalayas and having located Shaddanta trapped him and poisoned his body with his arrows but despite was unable to cut his tusks. However, after Shaddanta knew from the hunter that he needed his tusks for his queen who, Shaddanta knew, was no other than his own wife Kullasubhadda in her new birth, he took the saw from the hunter's hands and himself removed his tusks and died. Kullasubhadda, after she was presented the tusks and heard from Sonuttara the entire episode, was reminded of Shaddanta's unique love for her and died out of repentance.

 

Hamsa Jataka
Hamsa Jataka. Ajanta, third-fourth century.

Hamsa Jataka, the story of the Bodhisattva Dhritarashtra, a golden goose, who lived with his flock on the Mountain Chitrakuta, exemplifies the unique model of loyalty and friendship. Khema, the queen of Benaras, dreamt one day of a golden goose delivering a sermon. The goose was no other than Dhritarashtra. On her request the king, who had some idea of a golden goose, deployed the Brahmins of his court to locate the bird and bring it to his court. In the meantime, to attract the bird he got an artificial lake constructed and posted a fowler with instructions to ensnare the bird as soon as it alighted around the lake; and one day the golden goose did alight and fell into fowler's net. Before the fowler reached him the golden goose voiced alarm listening to which all birds flew away except his minister Sumukha. He entreated Sumukha to leave but Sumukha refused to desert him. Thus, both became fowler's prey and were brought to the court. The king, who heard from the fowler of the unique loyalty and friendship between the two birds, was extremely impressed and honoured them with seats by his side. Bodhisattva Dhritarashtra then delivered to the royal couple a sermon on the nature of Dharma.

Sibi Jataka, Champeya Jataka, Mahajanaka Jataka, Kapi Jataka, Vidhurapandita Jataka, Matriposhaka Jataka, Sutasoma Jataka, Mriga Jataka, Mahisha Jataka, Sankhapala Jataka, Conversion of Nanda Jataka are some of the other Jatakas that prominently figure in the Buddhist narratives. Besides them, some of the Avadanas also comprise the subject-matter of these narratives. In sculptural art and wall painting, two major genres of the Buddhist narrative art, the emphasis is variedly laid. Sculptures emphasise on broad factual details of the depicted event, while in wall painting, as at the Ajanta Caves, emphasis is more on rendering emotional and sensuous aspects of it.

MODES OF NARRATION IN THE BUDDHIST ART

Broadly, narration is the art of breaking a story into various episodes and enabling at the same time the reader, listener or viewer to discover the whole from its parts. The narrator follows the story along each of its steps expanding over the time and space carrying in one of his hands the thread that keeps them bound and in the other, a pen to record each step independent of others. The narrator using language medium has a little more liberty than the narrator using visual medium. He can expand his theme to any length of time and space and yet keep various episodes well connected. The narrator using visual medium is required to select some and sometimes even one of the episodes out of the whole chain and represent thereby his entire tale. The Borobudur sculptures depict the story of the Buddha's life in one hundred twenty episodes, while monk Mahakasyapa's banner revealed it in just four episodes. Sometimes various episodes of a story run across the entire space without being bifurcated into various frames and sometimes some framing motif divides them into different compartments. The Buddhist art comprises, thus, at least six well distinct modes of narration.

In early sculptures, mainly at Bharhut, Sanchi, Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda, many a time the narrator has carved only the key-episode out of the entire chain and stimulated by it recognition of the whole story. This monoscenic mode required the narrator to select the most characteristic episode - usually the 'seed' out of which grew the entire story, as also to include such elements which further specified the represented event as the one he contemplated in his mind. A Bharhut sculpture, coping, portraying a prince donating an elephant to someone standing close-by, enables the viewing eye to recognise in it the story of Prince Veassantara. The Prince Vessantara's act of giving away State's auspicious elephant is the seed out of which grows the entire Jataka. To further specify its Buddhist links the narrator has included the Buddhist emblems of 'Tri-ratna' and 'Dharmachakra'. The monoscene could be both, in action mode as well as in state mode.

Monoscenic Narrationsm
Monoscenic narration in action mode.
Prince Vessantara donating Jetuttara's auspicious elephant to the people of Kalinga represented in the panel by the figure of a Brahmin. Second century B.C., Bharhut.

 

 

 

 

This Bharhut monoscene, representing the protagonist Prince Vessantara performing an act, is in action mode,

 

 

 

 

 

 

Static Monoscenic Narration
Static monoscenic narration.
The miracle at Sravasti. Sanchi, second-first century B.C., Sanchi

 

 

 

 

while the Sanchi panel, depicting the miracle of Sravasti, which represents an action having been crystallised after it has been accomplished, defines state mode.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Continuour Narration
Continuous narration.
On the extreme left is Kapilavastu. Repeated representation of Buddha's horse Kanthaka portrays the act of Great Departure in progression. Finally, at extreme right Buddha's footprints symbolise his renunciation. Kanthaka is returning without his master. A whole chain of events rendered without a frame separating one from the other.

 

Contrary to monoscene the narrator might let the story flow through many episodes - a polyscenic narration type thing. While revealing such multiplicity of episodes the narrator had three broad options.

 

Firstly, he could let various episodes of his story emerge on the canvas - cloth, wall or stone-slab, one after the other with nothing in between to separate them from each other. This unbroken continuity might be defined as the continuous mode of narration. It is largely by the repeat use of the figure of the main protagonist, each time comprising an episode, that the identity of each episode as also their total number is determined.

 

Four Continuou Events
Sequential mode of narration.
Four continuous events represented in a chain but contained in separate frames. All events are associated with the birth of Buddha : (top right) Maya, the mother of Buddha dreaming; (top left) astrologers interpreting her dream; (bottom right) Buddha's birth symbolically represented by the cloth-sheet bearing Buddha's footprints; (bottom left) Maya presenting the child to Sakyas' Yaksha deity. Second century A.D., Amaravati.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Secondly, the narrator could opt to separate each of his episodes from the other by using some dividing motif, usually an architectural member, providing each a separate frame, though in this mode also the story runs as above in a continuous chain of various episodes. This mode is usually defined as sequential mode of narration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Synoptic Mode
Synoptic mode of narration. The sculpture comprises three unconnected events with three different contexts. The first register represents the Sibi Jataka with king Sibi sacrificing his flesh to save the life of a dove; the middle panel portrays the episode of Nalagiri elephant attacking Buddha though later only submitting to him; and, the last, the Shesha Jataka. Second century A.D., Amaravati.

 

Thirdly, the narration might jot multiple episodes within a single frame sans temporal sequence and formal order. In this mode one episode runs into the body of the other. Various episodes being represented like synopses of a theme, the mode might be named as synoptic mode. In all above modes the figure of the leading protagonist is repeated with each portrayed episode. But, there also are many of these early sculptures which do not repeat the protagonist's figure with each episode; instead, such episodes, whatever their number, rotate around a conflated figure of the leading protagonist.

 

Conflated Narrative Mode
Conflated narrative mode.
A part of Dipankara Jataka rendering a chain of events but instead of repeating Buddha's figure each time, the narrative has used his conflated figure. Gandhara, first-second century A.D.

 

 

 

This fourth mode of polyscenic narration might be named as conflated narrative mode. The last of the polyscenic mode reveals in sculptures which portray a long series of events stretching over an expanded and well defined geography though lacking in chronological order. The events emerging in such narrative network might belong to more than one story. This Buddhist model of narrative visual art, with all its widths and dimensions, is the proto-model of India's visual narrative art.

 

 

 


FOR FURTHER READING :

  1. Gandhara Sculpture, ed. Dr D. C. Bhattacharya, Chandigarh, India, 2002

  2. Ajanta Murals, ed. A. Ghosh, A.S.I., New Delhi, 1996

  3. Buddhist Art of India, Catalogue of Korean Exhibition from the National Museum Collection, New Delhi, 2006

  4. Ancient Sculptures of India, Catalogue of Japan Exhibition from the National Museum Collection, New Delhi, 1984

  5. Narrative : A Seminar, ed. Amiya Dev, New Delhi, 1994

  6. Studies in Buddhist Art of South Asia, ed. A. K. Narayan, New Delhi, 1985

  7. Benoy K. Behl : The Ajanta Caves, London, 1998

  8. Haesner, Chhaya : India, Land of the Buddha, Thailand, 1988

  9. Zimmer, Heinrich : The Art of India Asia (2 Vols.) New York, 1960

  10. Sharma, R. C. : Bharhut Sculptures, New Delhi, 1994

  11. Foucher, A. : Life of Buddha, New Delhi, 2003

  12. Srivastava, A. L. : Life in Sanch Sculptures, New Delhi, 1983

  13. Stone, Elizabeth Rosen : The Buddhist Art of Nagarjunkonda, Delhi, 1994
    Knox, Robert : Amaravati, London, 1994

  14. Dahejia, Vidya : Discourse in Early Buddhist Art, New Delhi, 2005

We hope you have enjoyed reading the article. Any comments or feedback that you may have will be greatly appreciated. Please send your feedback to feedback@exoticindiaart.com.


This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet.


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Article Reviews

  • Vessantara Jataka is confused with Shadanta Jataka and the latter with Hamsa Jataka in the image links.

    A very useful explanation of the forms of iconography. Many thanks. It's a pity the pics are so blurry.
    - Ian Ison
    20th Jul 2006
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