Thursday, July 24, 2008

Imaging The Buddha

We Buddhists are funny people. We believe the most poposterous thing about the Buddha – that his relics can multiply, that he flew from one place to another, that he was 18 ft tall, that he knew everything and that he could read minds as easily as we read newspapers - and yet we have always depicted him as a human being. The earliest images of him, from Gandhara (2nd to 5th cent CE), show him quite realistically. Other than funny-looking hair, golden skin, being much bigger than those around him and sometimes so stylized as to be almost totemic, Theravadin Buddhas are always unmistakably human. Strangely, when he is shown dying, which you will recall happened when he was 80, he is inevitably portrayed as being about 25. I say ‘strangely’ because Theravada harps on so much about the reality aging, decrepitude and impermanence. Even when the Buddha was transformed into the deity Amitaba or Amida he was still shown as distinctly human, albeit with rays of light coming out of his body and floating above the clouds. Perhaps the most popular and widespread contemporary images of the

Buddha are a set of about 10 pictures done by an anonymous Indian artist in the late 60’s. Kitsch, garishly colored and sentimental, these pictures show the Buddha, whether as a young prince or an old man, as an ageless, androgynous milk sop. Despite this, I love these pictures, there is something homely and folksy about them. The recent Telugu film Gauthama Buddha by Allain Sridhar tries and succeeds in showing him in exactly the same way.

When is someone going to portray the Buddha as he actually might have been? Tomorrow I’m going to have a look at how people have imagined God to be.


Terrance said...

I always find it very funny that The Buddha rupa is never portrayed bald ! And your last pictures on this simply rocks! :-)

Chela said...

the anonymous indian left his signature: "padmekar"

and he happened to paint other pictures of hindu deities.


and gad! how i look at the indian movie about the buddha with great embarrassment! can't they find a slimmer actor? lol or maybe they had chinese buddha images in mind.