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The image-form classified as the Universal Teacher manifests in two aspects of his image, one, the gesture of fingers indicating ‘vitark’ – the gesture of interpreting or elaborating a point, or discoursing, known in iconographic tradition as ‘vitark-mudra’ : sometimes also called ‘vyakhyana-mudra’, and other, a standing posture suggestive of his determination and act to move around for spreading the ‘light’ he had attained : one relating to the act of mind, and other, that of the feet. ‘Vitark-mudra’ is a common feature of two classes of his images : ‘Dharma-chakra-pravartana’ representing the event he delivered his ever first sermon at Deer Park, Sarnath, near Varanasi, to his five prior colleagues who had deserted him, and other, the Universal Teacher, though while in the Universal Teacher image he is represented in walking mode, in ‘Dharma-chakra-pravartana’, as seated. Apart, in ‘Dharma-chakra-pravartana’ his images incorporate, on the bases or pedestals, also the icons of these five initial disciples and some form of deer denoting the place. The Universal Teacher imagery does not have any such specific features.
‘Vitark’ – interpretive mode, is the essence of both image-forms; however, while the images representing ‘Dharma-chakra-pravartana’ conceive fingers of both hands involved in ‘vitark’, those representing him as Universal teacher often have the fingers of just one hand involved in it. This representation of the Great Master as the Universal Teacher with fingers of both hands involved in ‘vitark’ is a more accomplished image as it multiplies the magnitude of the act of mind. Two other aspects of the wood-carving : inclusion of a lotus as also an architectural frame around his figure, are as much significant. The image of the Great Master has been installed on a lotus. Representing the elements of earth, ocean and sky in Indian iconographic tradition the lotus is seen as symbolising cosmos. Incorporating lotus with the image of the Buddha as the Universal Teacher the artist has attributed to his message-couriering cosmic breadth. Similarly, an architectural unit – symbolic of the material world Buddha was born in, has been carved to frame his image; however, his image, more so his ‘mind’, is seen transcending suggesting that the material world : a palace or a hut, was not his frame.
This statue of the Buddha as Universal Teacher represents the aggregate of the last forty years of his life when, after he had attained Enlightenment, for enlightening the ignorant mankind : redeeming it from the fear of sickness, old age and death, he moved from one place to other delivering the divine knowledge. Individual events and experiences are innumerable and are the themes of scores of the Buddhist texts. His visual image as the Universal Teacher represents its totality. The glow, composure and sublimity that enshrine his face are born of the divine ‘light’ he has attained. Anthropomorphically, the statue has been carved with broad forehead, sharp well defined nose, elegantly delineated lips, pointed chin and slightly shut eyes carved like a lotus bud. Lofty as it is the statue is unparalleled in its quality, elegance, stylistic versatility, spiritual fervour and divine lustre. Though carved with largely open eyes, the demeanour of the face is as if engaged in the search within. The beauty of the ‘sanghati – the textile piece his figure has been wrapped in, is perhaps the most outstanding feature of the image’s visual aspect. A simple wood piece, luminous as it is, the image is rare in gentle expressions, refinement, fluidity of lines, plasticity and transcendental quality.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.