I was in Pagan examining some of the beautiful although mostly much faded paintings in its temples and I noticed something I have never seen in Buddhist art before. There was a picture of the Buddha in the earth-touching gesture and on the pedestal (asana) below him was not the usual two deer, two lions or two elephants, but a herd of goats. Goats! Seven of them! – a billy goat and his mate, two youngsters rearing up and butting their heads, a mother and her kid and another one just standing there. I was intrigued, so I took a photograph of the picture.
A few hours later at the Pagan Museum I was in the upstairs gallery looking at all the Buddha images. On the pedestals of all the statues were the usual symbols and depictions – lions, deer, portraits of donors, Dhamma wheels, etc. But one stood out as being different from all the others. It showed a goat with a rope around its neck being pulled by a man. Now I was even more intrigued. I went downstairs, asked to see the curator, and after a few moments waiting, was ushered in to her office. I told her about the painting and the statue pedestal and asked her what the goats could mean. Her polite smile could not disguise her discomfort at not knowing. She picked up the phone and a few minutes another woman appeared, apparently the curator of the images, an animated discussion ensued, and even though I know no Burmese I could see from this second woman’s face that the goats were a mystery to her too. Still smiling the curator picked up the phone again, talked for a minute, wrote down a number and after hanging up, rung it. While waiting for a reply she turned to me and whispered, “I’m getting Professor XYZ in Rangoon.” When she got the professor there was a long discussion and then the phone was handed to me. “The goats are about the Ajapala Nigrodha” he explained, hesitantly and completely without conviction.
Clearly the matter was a mystery to him too and he was taking a stab in the goat-inhabited darkness. The Ajapala Nigrodha, the Goatherd’s Banyan, he was referring to is of course the tree at Bodh Gaya where the Buddha spent the second week after his enlightenment (Vinaya I,2). I thanked the curator for her attention and efforts to help and then continued on my way. As I passed through the museum’s gates onto the road I was met by a small herd of goats. They walked passed me, but one stopped for a moment to stare at me with her big brown eyes, then hurried to join the others.
Can anyone explain why goats should be depicted on the pedestal of a Buddha image? Or does anyone know of other examples of this?