The Beginnings of Buddhist Art by A. Foucher – II

The following essay is the 2nd part of the first essay in the book: The Beginnings of Buddhist Art and other essays in Indian and Central-Asian Archeology by A. Foucher, who herein discusses the important aniconic phase of Buddhist art, giving a reasonable thesis for its production and development. I have illustrated the essay with some files from Wikimedia.It was originally published in French in 1911, and later translated by L.A. Thomas and F.W. Thomas

For further texts and readings in English please follow up from THE SOURCE.

To begin, we have the best reasons for thinking that the habit of adoring human images, and even the art of fabricating them, were still less general in the India of the Brahmans before Alexander than in the Gaul of the Druids before the time of Caesar. Certainly this absence of idolatry properly so-called did not in any way exclude the existence of more rudimentary forms of fetichism:  [1] nevertheless, the fact remains that Buddhism did not dcvelop, like Christianity, in a world long infected by the worship of images and prompt to contaminate it in its turn. Not [9] only did the first century already know symbolical or allegorical representations of Christ; but from the second century we meet with his portrait on the paintings of the catacombs.  [2] When that of Buddha makes its appearance in India, the religion which he had founded was already four hundred years old: even so it had required the contact of the civilisation, and the influence of the art, of Hellenism. On the other hand, Buddhism was not born, like Islam, in an environment beforehand and deliberately hostile to idolatry. We do not find that the Vedic texts breathe a word about it, either for or against: and their silence is explained precisely by the fact that the idea of it had not even presented itself to the Indian mind. As soon as the time for it shall have come, the grammarians will not fail to mention in the employment of the learned language the mode of designating the new fact of the Brahmanic idols.  [3] Likewise, when the question of the images of the Master presents itself to the faithful Buddhists, their writings will supply explicitly the opportune solutions; and if these successive solutions are, moreover, contradictory, it is simply that in the interval the needs of the religious conscience have changed at the same time as the conditions of artistic production. But, as far as concerns the most ancient period with which we have to deal, investigations into the literature have remained from an iconographical point of view as sterile as the researches on the spot. For the moment the history of religious art in India, previous to Buddhism, is, [10] whether it must remain so or not, philologically a blank page, archeologically an empty show-case.

The Awakening (Barhut)
The Awakening (Barhut)

That in Buddhism, as in all religions, art is at first only a simple manifestation of worship, everyone will willingly admit. The only question is to know what branch of Buddhist worship has supplied this special excrescence with an opportunity for its production. It is evidently not in the periodical reunions of the monks that we shall find the smallest decorative pretext. The veneration shown to the mortal remains of the Blessed One explains the leading role of the funeral tumulus in Buddhist architecture. It will not escape us that it is still the same veneration which, thus advantaged, has offered in the obligatory surroundings of those reliquary monuments the natural support to the sculptures, the sole destination of which for a longtime was to decorate the balustrades of the stūpas. We might even suspect a mark of its influence in the almost entirely biographical character that this decoration has assumed, just as, by the rite of circumambulation, it has fixed the direction in which the scenes must succeed one another and be read. But, beyond this general orientation, we discover at the basis of this kind of devotion nothing that could have determined the mode of composition of the bas-reliefs. There remains the third and last ancient form of Buddhist worship, that which Buddha himself is supposed to have taught on his death bed to his well-loved disciple, “There are four places, O Ānanda, which an honorable worshipper should visit with religious emotion, What are these four?”…They are, as we know, those where the Predestined One for the first time received illumination and preached and those where for the last time he was born and died.  [4] Now [11] just in this devout practice of the four great pilgrimages resides any hope which we have of at last coming upon the long-sought point of departure. In order that we may grasp at once the germ and the directing principle of Buddhist art, it is necessary and sufficient to admit that the Indian pilgrims were pleased to bring back from these four holy places a small material souvenir of what they had there seen.

We can scarcely believe that the reader will refuse to grant us this small postulate. Can he be so ignorant of the outer world that he does not know the universal empire of the mania, innocent in itself, for souvenirs of travels? The innumerable manufacturers and shopkeepers who everywhere live by it would quickly demonstrate it to him. Has he never in the course of his migrations, whatever may have been the object or the cause of them, bought curios, collected photographs, or sent away picture post-cards? These are only the latest modes and a profane extension of an immemorial and sacred custom. If he doubts this, let him lean, for example, over one of the cases at the Cluny Museum  [5] which contain the emblematic metal insignia of all the great pilgrimages of the Middle Ages, as they have been fished out of the Seine in Paris.

Mediaeval India has also left by hundreds evidences of this custom. Most frequently they are simple clay balls, moulded or stamped with a seal, and without doubt within the reach of all pockets, which served at the same time as memento and as ex-voto. They are to be picked up nowadays on all Buddhist sites, even [12] in the peninsula of Malacca and in Annam.  [6] Do we compromise ourselves very much by conjecturing that these sacred emblems are in Buddhism the remains of a tradition which goes back to the four great primitive pilgrimages? The worst that could result from it would be that Buddhist art must have owed its origin to the satisfaction of a need everywhere and always experienced, and, we may almost say, of one of the religious instincts of humanity. It would be difficult to imagine a theory more humble and more prosaic: it is in our opinion only the more probable for that, nor do we see what other we can substitute, if, at least, we are unwilling to attribute to that art any but a rational origin.

In fact, this point once gained, all the rest follows. Nothing is more easy than to guess what must have been the souvenirs brought back by the pilgrims from the four great holy places. To take the modern example most familiar to the French reader, what is represented by the images or medals offered for sale and bought at Lourdes? First and foremost, the miraculous grotto. What must have been represented on stuffs, on clay, wood, ivory, or metal by the first objects of piety manufactured at Kapilavastu, at Bodh-Gayā, at Benares, or at Kuśinagara? Evidently the characteristic point towards which, at the approach of each of these four towns, popular devotion was directed. Now we know these points already from the picturesque expressions of the texts. What was first visited at Kuśinagara was the site, very soon and quite appropriately marked by [13] a stūpa[7] of the last death of the Master.

In the same way, the essential miracle of Benares having taken place at the “Mr̥ga-dava”, the Gazelle-park, it was inevitable that its consecrated description as “putting the wheel of the law in motion” should be translated in concrete terms by a wheel, usually accompanied by two gazelles. What was contemplated at Bodh-Gayā, on the other hand, was the evergreen fig-tree, at the foot of which the Blessed One had sat to attain omniscience. Finally, what would be worshipped at Kapilavastu? Here the answer is less certain: undoubtedly the great local attraction consisted in the recollection of the nativity of Buddha; but, without mentioning his paternal home, the most ardent zeal might hesitate between the place of his material birth and that of his spiritual renaissance, between the park of Lumbinī, where he issued from the right side of his mother, and the no less famous gate, through which he escaped from the miserable pleasures of the world. Whatever might in this case be the difficulty of choice, with regard to the three other sites at least no hesitation was possible. A tree, a wheel, stūpa, these suffice to recall to our memory the spectacle of those holy places, or even, by a constant association of ideas and images, to evoke the miracles of which they had been the theatre. Again, these things could be indicated as summarily as one could wish: if human weakness cannot dispense with the material sign, imagination makes up for the poverty of artistic means.


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  1. We allude to the golden puruṣa which formed a part of the altar of sacrifice (Śat.-Brahm., 7, 4, I., 15) and to the effigy kr̥tya of the magic rites (Ath. Veda, X, I), etc. – For what is to be understood by the Gallic simulacra of Cesar (Bell. Gall., VI, 4), see the article of M. S. Reinach on L’art plastique en Gaule et le druidisme (Revue Celtique, t. XIII, 1892, pp.190 sqq.), where are cited also corresponding testimonies of Herodotus (I, 131) and Tacitus (Germ., IX) as to the non-existence of idolatry among the Persians and the Germans.
  2. M. Besnier, Les Catacombes de Rome, Paris, 1909, pp.204, 208, 223-224.
  3. Cf. Scholia to Pāṇini, V,3,99, excellently discussed by Prof. Sten Konow in his interesting Note on the use of images in ancient India (Ind. Ant.,1909): but they have no value as proof for the pre-Mauryan epoch with which we are here concerned.
  4. Mahāparinibbāna-sutta, V, 16-22.
  5. Unless it is more convenient for him to try the same experiment at the British Museum, where a case in the Medieval Room also contains a collection of these signacula.
  6. For specimens from India, see Cunningham, Mahābodhi pl, XXIV; J. R. A. S., 1900, p. 432, etc.; from Burmah, Archeol. Survey of India, Annual Report, 1905-1906, pl. LIII; from Malacca, Bull. de la commission Archeologique de I’Indo-Chine, 1909,p.232; from Annam, B.E.F.E.O., 1901, p.25, etc.
  7. “A Stūpa of Aśoka”, says Hiuan-tsang; that is, of archaic form; cf. also Fa-hian (Beal, Records, I, p. LII, and II, p 32).

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