Elements of Buddhist Iconography

Elements of Buddhist Iconography

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Item Code: NAF305
Author: Krishna Deva
Publisher: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and Manohar
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788173044328
Pages: 146 (44 B/W Illustration)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 11.5 inch x 9.0 inch
Weight 750 gm
About the book

Sixteenth in the Series of Collected Works of Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy in the IGNCA’s publication programme, Elements of Buddhist Iconography was first published by the Harvard University Press in 1935. This new edition, ably edited and revised by Shri Krishna Deva, has been enriched by incorporating the additions made by Coomaraswamy in his own hand in his personal copy.

This volume is a sustained demonstration of Coomaraswamy’s knowledge of the external features of iconography, his knowledge of the entire metaphysical tradition underlying the iconography, as well as the corresponding traditions in Islam and Christianity. It is a demonstration of the characteristics of a universe of discourse based on a detailed textual, iconographic, and comparative studies that include the metaphysics, phraseologies, and iconographic of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.

Buddhist art in India begins about the second century BC, with a well developed set of symbols in its iconography. But it does not seem possible to completely separate Buddhism as religion and art from the main current of Indian religion and art, or to think these symbols suddenly developed as a new creation. Coomaraswamy believes that the source of early iconography of the Buddhist art is in still earlier Vedic and Upanisadic conceptions. In addition, he noticed many surprising similarities between passages in the Vedic literature and in the mediaeval Christian theologians and mystics. The illuminating parallels found in the non-Indian traditions convinced him that mystical theology the world over is the same.

The present study deals with the basic symbols of Buddhist art, viz., the Tree of Life, the Earth-Lotus, the Word-Wheel, the Lotus-Throne, and the Fiery Pillar, and shows that these symbols can be traced back beyond their first representation in Buddhist Iconography through the anicomic period of the Brahmanical Vedas, even into the Rig Vedic period itself, and that they represent a universal Indian symbolism and set of theological concepts.

About the Author

Krishna Deva was an eminent scholar of Indian Art, Architecture, and Archaeology. He retired as Director, Archaeological Survey of India. He had the distinction of assisting the famous explorer Sir Aurel Stein in his archaeological explorations in Rajasthan, Bahawalpur and Baluchistan during 1940-1. He was also actively associated with Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s excavations in India between 1944 and 1947. In addition, he conducted excavations at Rajaghat (Varanasi), Nagar near Jaipur, Vaisali and Kumrahar (Pataliputra). He had classified and reported on the pottery from Taxila, Arikamedu and Harappa. In addition to organizing the Temple Survey Project (North Region) of the Archaeological Survey of India, he was also deputed by the Government of India to make an Iconographical and Sculptural Survey of the images in Nepal.

On retirement he worked successively as Archaeological Advisor to the Government of Nepal and as Director, Birla Academy of Art and Culture, and for over a decade as Consultant to the American Institute of Indian Studies, Varanasi, for their project on the Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture, of which he had been one of the principal contributors. He participated in many National and International Seminars on Indian Art and Archaeology.

Shri Krishna Deva was the Editor of the Journal of Indian Society of Oriental Art, and authored numerous research papers and books including Temples of North India; Images in Nepal; Vaisali Excavations; and Temples of Khajuraho (two volumes).


By his holistic approach to art and religion, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy has inspired a whole generation of intellectuals, whereof the late Dr. V. S. Agrawala and Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan are among the leading lights. To Coomaraswamy the meanest craft and ritual forms an integral part of art and each element in the universe is in harmony with every other and participates in the total cosmic rhythm. This philosophy also inspired the activities of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. Significantly enough the writings of Coomaraswamy are a constant reminder of his holistic philosophy and since the present work enunciates it in emphatic terms, the IGNCA has undertaken the republication of the book which had long been out of print. This new edition has been enriched by incorporating the additions made by the great savant in his own hand in his personal copy which has been made available for publication through the kind courtesy and cooperation of Dr. Rama P. Coomaraswamy, the savant’s son. The new additions are now included as additional footnotes below each relevant page of the text and supplementary notes and descriptions which were appended to the earlier edition have now been incorporated at appropriate places.

I am glad to record here my profound gratitude to Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, the moving spirit of the IGNCA and Shri M.C. Joshi and Dr. L.M. Gujrat, for providing me the welcome opportunity and all facilities to undertake and complete the re-editing of this great work.


This is one of the seminal books by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy wherein he has ably demonstrated that the formula of Buddhist art and religion sprang from the fountain of Vedic and Upaniasdic concepts. In fact Buddha was a direct heir to the Upanisadic lore and philosophical speculations which constituted a natural extension of the total Vedic Vision.

This book does not so much deal with iconography of Buddha as with the interpretation of a few basic symbols of Buddhist art, viz., the fiery pillar, the tree, the trisula or tri-ratna, the lotus and the wheel. Pregnant with deep meaning, these symbols are often complementary and intertwined and allow an intimate peep into the secrets of Buddhist art and ontology.

Fiery Pillar: Buddha is comparable in many significant attributes with the Vedic god Agni, Indra, Varuna, Prajapati and Aditya, etc., and even with the Upanisadic Brahman. Buddha’s conception as a flaming pillar is strongly reminiscent of Agni and Siva who are represented likewise. Numerous representations are known from Amaravati art of the Buddha as a fiery pillar, often with wheel-marked feet supported by lotus and with a tri-ratna head. In the Rgveda Agni is stated to be born of the Waters or from the Earth based on the Waters, hence from a lotus (puskara). The Buddhist fiery pillars also ‘represent the survival of a purely Vedic formula in which Agni is represented as the axis of the Universe, extending as a pillar between Earth and Heaven.

Tree of Life: The tree symbol is the Tree of Life or the World-tree, signifying the Buddha. There is a unique representation of Buddha as kalpa-vrksa on the Sand gateway. Similar to the fiery pillar of Amaravati in the forms of the head and feet, its trunk is built up of superimposed palmettes bearing jewelled garlands as fruits. This jewel-tree corresponds to the Bodhi-tree of Amitãyu Tathagata described in the Mahayana text Mahasukhavativyuha. The World-tree is the procession of incessant life. Standing erect from earth to heaven and branching throughout space, the World-tree is verily turned into the Wisdom-tree ‘whose roots strike deep into stability whose flowers are moral acts. . . . Which bears Dharma as its fruit... Buddhacarita,

Tri-ratna: The so-called trisula-like ‘Tri-ratna’ symbol which is labelled in the Mauryan Brahmi as Nanidipaam (Nandipadam) at the ancient monument on the Padana Hill has been aptly translated as hoof-mark or ‘Taurine’. This symbol applies equally to Buddha, Siva and Agni. In the Rgveda the metaphor is employed of tracing the lost Agni as a ‘mighty bull’ by his foot-prints. When doubled, this symbol forms a vajra, the special weapon of Indra of ‘adamantine’ quality. In Mahayana and Vajrayana and particularly in Shingon Buddhism the metaphysical significance of the symbol vajra is specially emphasized.

Indra is known for his exploit of vanquishing Ahi-vrtra by hurling vajra (thunderbolt). So also did Buddha sit in vajräsana (adamantine pose) with a firm destination of attaining supreme Sambodhi (translated by Coomaraswamy as ‘Awakening’) after crushing Mara (Mara-dharsana) and is also known to have subjugated many Nagas including the fire-spitting one in the hermitage of the Jatilas (Kasyapa Brothers), leading to their conversion. Buddha also shares with Indra his miraculous birth from the right side of his mother (tirascinajanma).

Lotus: Lotus (padma, puskara) is the ground whereon and wherein existence is established. Buddha seated on padmasana is comparable with Brahma-Prajapati, the creator, who sprang from lotus (Kamala-yoni, Padmanadbha). Lotus has attributes of absolute purity and radiant beauty. Though born of mud (pankaja), lotus has faultless radiance and is free of all taints. So also the Tathagata, though moving in the world, is free of all attachments and temptations. This analogy is also extended to the lotus leaf which though in water is untouched by it (padma-patramivambhasa).

We get sculptural representation Of Buddha seated on lotus which is supported by a stem, flanked by nãgas. This is equivalent to the Brahma’s manifestation on lotus which issues from the navel of Narayaa (Vedic Varuna), lying on the back of the waters. The concept of lotus-birth of the manifest deity of creation is coeval with Tree of Life, but there is a subtle distinction between the two. While Tree of Life denotes all existence, the lotus-birth is confined to that wherein the manifestation takes place. This navel of the creator is the firmament equivalent to Hrddkasa or Antarhrdayakasa wherein Heaven and Earth are contained (p. 36). In the Upanisads, too, lotus represents the Hrddakasa wherein the Inner Self or Brahman resides.

Lotus is the principal attribute or cognizance of SrI or Laksmi who is also born of and supported on lotus. The equivalents of Laksmi are Aditi, Prakrti, Maya and Apsara (the Waters), all maternally personified. She is the same as Vasudha, Vasudhara and Vasundhara, as well as Gajalaksmi bathed by elephants with Soma-bearing raining besides a combined personification of the earth-lotus and the Mother Earth.


Coomarawamy’s A New Approach to the Vedas, Luzac and Company, 1933, The Transformation of Nature in Art, Harvard University Press, 1934, and the present volume, which is published under the auspices of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, are based on the following convictions, which have gradually been developing in his mind.

In the first place, Buddhist art in India—and that is practically equivalent to saying art in India—begins about the second century before Christ with a well-developed set of symbols in its iconography. It does not seem possible to completely separate Buddhism as religion and as art from the main current of Indian religion and art, or to think that these symbols suddenly developed as a new creation. Therefore Coomaraswamy proceeded to study from a new point of view the symbolism which pervades the whole early Vedic literature of India, trying to discover whether concepts expressed symbolically in the literature of the aniconic Vedic period may not have found their first iconographic expression in early Buddhist art.

In the second place, he noted many surprising similarities between passages in the mediaeval Christian theologians and mystics, such as St Thomas, Meister Eckhart, Ruysbroeck, and Böhme, and passages in the Vedic literature—similarities so striking that many sentences from the Christian writers might be taken as almost literal translations of Sanskrit sentences, or vice versa. The conviction developed in him that mystical theology the world over is the same, and that mediaeval Christian theology might be used as a tool to the better understanding of ancient Indian theology. This theory he proceeded to apply even to the Rig Veda, assuming, contrary to the general opinion, no complete break in thought between the Rig Veda and the Brahmanas and Upanishads. In many obscure and so- called “mystical” stanzas of the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda he finds the same concepts vaguely hinted at which are employed in a more developed form in Brahmanism and Buddhism.

The present study of the Tree of Life, the Earth-Lotus, the Word-Wheel, the Lotus-Throne, and the Fiery Pillar tries to show that these symbols can be traced back beyond their first representation in Buddhist iconography through the aniconic period of the Brahmanical Vedas, even into the Rig Vedic period itself, and that they represent a universal Indian symbolism and set of theological concepts.

Objective linguistics is apparently near the end of its resources in dealing with the many remaining obscurities of Rig Vedic phraseology. This new metaphysical approach is welcome even thought to the matter of fact linguist it may seem that ideas are not being built up on the basis of words but that words are being made to fit ideas.


Part I: Tree of life earth louts and word wheel19
Part II: The place to the lotus throne55
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