‘Abhaya’ is since its initial phase the essence of Buddhist thought; however, an ‘abhaya’-granting form of Buddha is only a late addition, perhaps a form derived from Hindu divine iconography or a mere modification of his teaching Buddha form. In deeper implications attainment of ‘abhaya’ is the gist of Buddha’s entire teaching. Thus too, the two forms are inherently conjoined. Different from the idea of ‘abhaya’ in Hindu way or in other theologies world-over, where the power to grant ‘abhaya’ is the attribute of some divine agency and it is granted against an outside enemy, in Buddhism, ‘abhaya’ is not granted but is attained by the individual himself on one’s own strength. Buddha said, 'None else but fear is thy enemy, thy death, disease and distress. Overcome fear and then there is no death, no disease, no distress’, and further, that ‘Not death, fear of death is thy problem and redemption from fear is thy redemption from death'. 'Abhaya' – freedom from fear, is thus the essence of Buddha's philosophy. The Buddha had realised that fear, enshrining within, was one’s arch enemy and his redemption was in defeating this fear – his arch enemy. He does not grant ‘abhaya’ from this fear, or any, but only leads the mind beyond this fear. Hence a posture imparting ‘abhaya’ has a widely different connotation in the Buddhist iconography. Unlike gods of other pantheons that carry different weapons for protecting their devotees Buddha carries , instead, in his other hand, as in this statue, the ‘mani’, the symbol of supreme truth enshrining within which one obtains through meditation : the subtlest weapon that ensures 'abhaya'.
This magnificent Buddha statue, rendered pursuing the first-second century Gandhara art style of Buddha’s images : a vigorous iconography, robust anatomy and an astonishing style of drapery, is simply unparalleled in its sculptural quality, elegance, finesse, details and spiritual fervour. The statue represents the Buddha’s three-fold image : the search within which the ‘mani’ carried in his left hand symbolises; ‘abhaya’ – freedom from fear, that enshrines his figure; and, his universality as the teacher of mankind that comprises the essence of his being. Though it relates to his pre-Enlightenment phase, the search within is incessant in the Buddha’s path; ever after he was enlightened he was the teacher of mankind redeeming the fearing ones from the clutches of fear – death, disease and distress. In Buddhism ‘abhaya’ also defined ‘dhyana’ – introspection, for it was through ‘dhyana’ that one could locate one’s arch enemy, the ‘fear’, and defeat it. This triply conceived form of Buddha’s image is thus his more accomplished form for it represents the Buddha in aggregation.
This statue, a contemporary work rendered in two millennium old Gandhara art style, represents Buddha as holding his right hand in ‘abhaya’, a form unlike those in the authentic iconography of Buddhism. It sometimes surprises why the Buddha’s classical forms do not include a form of Buddha that represented him in pure abhaya-granting posture despite that ‘abhaya’ has such cardinal significance in Buddhism. A Buddha leading the mind to attain freedom from fear is as significant as one who leads to the attainment of enlightenment. Besides, a form granting ‘abhaya’ is the same as leading the mind to attaining freedom from fear. Obviously, an ‘abhaya’-granting posture was as relevant for a Buddha’s image as for a divinity in any line. Perhaps an image like this, representing him in pure ‘abhaya-granting mode, makes up for this long sustaining lapse and marks a beginning of a new kind of Buddhist imagery : a visual renaissance in trial stage.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.