Friday, May 16, 2008

The Veronica

In 2002 the magazine Popular Mechanics published a picture of what Jesus may have looked like based on the latest forensic anthropological techniques. The results are rather startling. Jesus looks dark (makes sense; he was Semitic), grizzled (he was from peasant stock), somewhat dismayed (he had apocalyptic visions and heard voices) and has short hair (I Corinthians,11,14 says “even nature itself” tells you that long hair on men is “a disgrace.” I think we should criminalize long hair on males because the Bible says it’s ‘unnatural’). There is no suggestion that this is a portrait of Jesus but only of what the average male living in Palestine might have looked like in the 1st cent CE given Jesus’ background and likely upbringing. Certainly, it is much closer to reality than those light-skinned, blond-haired, well-groomed Jesus’ that you see in Protestant publications. The Mormon Jesus looks exactly like those preppy young Mormons you dread to see when you open your front door. Strange to say, the New Testament gives not a hint of Jesus’ appearance, suggesting that he was physically rather nondescript. It was what he said that attracted attention, not his presence or countenance. The earliest hint of what Jesus may have looked like comes from Justin Martyr (2nd cent CE) who wrote: “He appeared without beauty…as the Scriptures proclaimed.” Justin was referring to supposed prophesies about Jesus in Isaiah 52,14 and Pslam 22. Whether he was drawing on authentic memories about Jesus or attributing to him characteristics to make him fit into supposed prophesies, as Christians generally do, is unclear. The spurious but interesting letter of Publius Lentullus says of Jesus: “It cannot be remembered that any have seen him smile but many have seen him weep.” This comment would accord with his role as ‘the man of sorrows,’ another side of Jesus that today’s rose-colored, ultra-positive Christians falls over themselves to avoid.
A few years ago a picture circulated widely within the Chinese Buddhists community which was supposed to be an actual portrait of the Buddha. The claim was that a Chinese monk sitting in meditation under the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya had a vision in which the Buddha appeared to him and he later put down on paper exactly what he saw. The picture is of a dignified-looking male of about 40 or 50 with long hair and slightly oriental features. Quite apart from its miraculous origins, this picture has to be dismissed as of no value at all. The oriental features are an immediate give-away. They can be explained by a naive and muddled understanding of history (the Buddha was born in ‘Nepal’ therefore he must look like those people we saw in Katmandu) and or ethnocentricity (I’m Chinese so the Buddha must look Chinese), both traits almost universal amongst traditional Buddhists. I can’t find a copy of this picture to show you. After causing much interest it seems to have disappeared.
Fortunately, the Tipitaka gives us a fairly complete picture of the Buddha’s physical appearance. I can only imagine that this is so because it was noticeable and memorable enough to be commented upon. We are told that he was about a fathom tall (S.I,62); a fathom (byama) being the distance between both hands when extended to their full length. We are also told that he was four finger breadths taller than his half-brother Nanda (Vin.IV,173). When young, before his renunciation, he had long black hair and a beard (M.I,163). I. B. Horner translated the kala in this passage as “coal-black”! Were the ancient Indians really familiar with coal? Although statues of the Buddha always show him with hair, this is an iconographic convention and is not historically accurate. After his renunciation, like all other monks, he “cut off his hair and beard” (M.I,163). All sources agree that the Buddha was particularly good-looking. The brahman Sonadanda described him as “handsome, of fine appearance, pleasant to see, with a good complexion and a beautiful form and countenance” (D.I,115). Another person, Dona, described him as “beautiful, inspiring confidence, calm, composed, with the dignity and presence of a perfectly tamed elephant” (A.II,36). Concerning his complexion a particular brahman said of him: “It is wonderful, truly marvellous how serene is the good Gotama’s presence, how clear and radiant is his complexion. Just as golden jujube fruit in the autumn is clear and too is the good Gotama’s complexion” (A.I,181). In numerous places the Buddha is described as having a golden-coloured skin (kancanasannibhattaca), exceptionally smooth skin (sukhumacchavi) and clear radiant faculties (vippasannani indriyani, A.I,181; D.III,143; Sn.551). ‘Golden-colored’ here probably means the same as it does in English – bronze or ‘milk coffee.’ This outer beauty was a direct result of the Buddha’s inner transformation. The experience of enlightenment had dissolved all greed, hatred and perplexity creating space for the unrestricted expression of love, kindness, detachment and clarity. But of course, like everyone else, the Buddha’s appearance declined with age. In contemporary depictions of the parinibbana, he is inevitably shown as being about 20 or 25 years old, yet another indication of just how divorced traditional Buddhists are from reality and even from scriptural evidence. In the last year of his life the Buddha described himself like this: “I am now old, aged, worn out, one who has traversed life’s path. Being about eighty, I am approaching the end of my life. Just as an old cart can only be kept going by being patched up, so too my body can only be kept going by being patched up” (D.II,100).
No one has ever attempted to give an idea of what the Buddha may have looked like using the same techniques as was done by Popular Mechanics with Jesus. However, the Buddha certainly would have been an Indo-European ‘type’ (I think this is called ‘Palaearctic’); black-haired, brown-skinned, long-boned and probably not unlike the people you see in northern even today. An Indian friend tells me she is convinced that the Buddha looked very similar to Sharuk Khan. Its an interesting thought but why him and not Dino Morea, Damiel Balaji, Shashi Kapoor (what ever happened to him?) or the dhud walla who used to bring me his watery milk?
Below are some images of modern Indian men with pleasant features.


desertboot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
desertboot said...

Found a link to a book that seems to address the 'image' question. Perhaps you have / have seen it?


thailandchani said...

For some reason, the picture including the four men sounds right. (I don't know who they are.. )