So Many Buddhas

The exhibition in the Indian Museum in the journey of Buddha is enlightenment because it placed Buddha in a wider socio-cultural and historical context, which greatly illuminates the mind of the general interest person, not specialized in Buddhist studies.

The exhibits are in a timeline starting with the Sunga period, a set of non-Buddhist kings who may have hailed from China, more specifically Manchuria, bringing with them the jatakas, or ideas that the Buddha has had several incarnations in which his animal twin, the white elephant, his mother Maya and the charioteer, Sunanda remain common. Along with the jatakas tales emerge symbols of the tree, the wheel, scenes from Buddha’s life as narratives find their way into the domain of art. With the Kushanas, the Gandhara art takes over where Buddha becomes more human and more Divine because he is human. Forms of the Buddha as a corporeal body are explored, as a prince, a renouncer and a universal teacher. From just being a Hegelian soul seeking perfection of the self, Buddha becomes a guru and along with that the former is depicted as the Hinayana and the latter as Mahayana.

The Mahayana brings Buddha to the world, but soon the Stupa culture takes over. We find among the displayed objects, stone tablets with Chinese writings from Sarnath. The stupa culture is part of the culture of the pyramids, more as sites marking preservation of mortal remains of kings. The stupas are common across China, Korea, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam. The tooth, pyre ashes and a foot print were part of this culture. A huge impression of his foot on stone is on display as well. From a teacher in the Mahayana, we now get him as a King in the stupa culture. The Hinayana of the Sungas pertained to the jatakas and symbols such as the peepal tree to depict the Buddha, the Mahayana inspired by the Gandhara art set him as a mortal and a Universal teacher while the stupa culture makes him into a King; together Buddha is all set towards becoming a Deity.

The Bajrayana makes Buddha, for the first time a part of the pantheon of multiple gods and goddesses. Puranic styles are followed in the Vajrayana texts where Buddha resides among other Gods and goddesses and as the Palas rule Bengal and other parts of the foothills of the Himalayan range, Buddha becomes a magical God from a metaphysical teacher, to who one could pray for rain and against epidemics. Mixed with tantric elements due to its magical powers, Buddha is fully embedded into a pantheon and becomes a regular God. This is also when, post the Pala rule that Buddha is absorbed into Hinduism. Harsha is confused between what is Buddhism and what would Hinduism be, for he breaks and builds shrines of both religions with equal vigour.

The Sahajayan Buddhism, which inheres Bengal during the Sena rule is all set to become the Sahajiya sects, those who again set Buddha back into the realm of the unseeable formless One. Here, post the Vaishnav movement, Sahajiyas mix easily with Bengal Vaishnavism while they absorb elements from the Bauls and other worshippers of the Formless One God. Buddha’s residence into Hinduism become permanent as one of its Gods, specifically as an avatar of Vishnu much like Rama.

There is a chart in the Museum that lists the four councils; 483 BCE, after the death of Buddha when his teachings and philosophy was documented in the textual form. The second one takes place under Kalashok in 383 BCE of the Sisunaga dynasty where the split occurs between the Theravada Buddhism and the Mahasangika, where the teachings were divided into what constituted the fundamentals and what would be the more liberal. The third council was under Asoka in 250 BCE, where Pali was established as the official language of Buddhism. Texts of the Hinayana sect, namely those which focused on personal salvation through the Hegelian refinement of the soul via repeated births. The fourth council was held under Kanishka in 72 AD where Buddha emerged into the visual space as a human who lived a worldly life. Kanishka’s contribution appears to be the most significant as he created visual images literally in stone to portray Buddha, hitherto only heard of. From here really begins the journey of Buddha from a hero, a prince, to a teacher to God.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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