Culture of peace

Print edition : September 12, 2008

SANCHI, SCULPTED TORANAS, 1st century A.D. This most significant Buddhist art was created under the rule of the Satavahana kings, who personally revered Hindu deities. The first 600 years of surviving art with Buddhist themes was all made under the rule of Hindu kings.-

The Upanishads, composed in the 8th or 9th century B.C., form the basis of all major faiths that originated in India.

FROM the river valley civilisation of 5,000 years ago, we see in India the foundations of one of the oldest continuing civilisations of the world. It is a culture based upon the belief of an underlying unity of the whole of creation. It is a vision of great compassion.

The first archaeological discoveries of early Indic civilisation were in the valley of the river Indus. Since then, numerous sites have been discovered southwards until Gujarat and eastwards until Uttar Pradesh. Along with Mesopotamia, this is one of the two oldest civilisations of the world. While the Mesopotamian remains cover a relatively small area, Indic culture is known to have spread over a vast area. The name Indus Valley Civilisation, however, has remained.

Other early cultures of the world present numerous representations, in their art, of warfare, war memorials and prisoners. The Indus Valley Civilisation of the 4th and 3rd millennium B.C. is unique in not providing even one such image in its many artistic depictions. This is the only civilisation where archaeology has not unearthed evidence of weapons of war or barracks for an army or police. Historians are also fascinated that all evidence points to a thriving, cooperative system and not a conventional kingship.

One of the most fascinating seals of the Indus Valley period depicts a man seated in a posture quite like that in Yoga. Yoga is an essential aspect of the spiritual life of India even today. Other elements of this depiction are very similar to the images of Buddhist, Jaina and Hindu deities in later Indian art.

RANI GUMPHA, KHANDAGIRI, Orissa, Jaina caves, 1st century A.D. The rock-cut caves of the Jaina tradition are very similar to those of the Buddhist faith. Besides the philosophic concepts, symbols and artistic motifs of both streams are the same in this period. For instance, one sees many chaitya arches in the Khandagiri caves.-

In the 8th or the 9th century B.C., the Upanishads were composed out of the philosophic traditions that came from the earliest times of Indic civilisation. The thoughts contained in the Upanishads went on to form the basis of all major faiths in the subcontinent, in times to come.

This is a philosophy that sees a great oneness in all of creation. It is the same that is in each of us, in plants and trees, in animals, even in inanimate objects. All that there is, is perceived to be a part of the One. Samsara, the world of separated beings and objects around us, is believed to be an illusion we see owing to the limitations of our senses and sensibilities. (Four or five centuries later, the Greek philosopher Plato voiced similar thoughts about the illusory nature of what we perceive through our senses.)

The high purpose in life is to lift the veils of this illusion, termed Maya or Mithya, and to seek reintegration with the One; to perceive oneself as a part of the divine, which pervades all of existence. Thereby, one would lose ones ego and the pain of a life caught in the web of endless desires.

In this period, there were large numbers of ascetics who gave up the material attractions of the world to seek the truth beyond. The names of two renunciators of this tradition became most prominent. One of them is Siddhartha, who is known as the 4th or the 7th Buddha, or Enlightened One, and those who follow his path are known as Buddhists.

A FRAGMENT OF a Jaina stupa railing, Kankali Tila, showing the depiction of a torana, which is identical to the toranas of the early Buddhist stupas (GovernmentMuseum, Lucknow). In ancient times, symbols and motifs of the art of all faiths in India were the same.-

The other is Mahavira, who is known as the 24th Tirthankara or Victor over the fear of death, and those who follow his path are known as Jainas. Both Mahavira and the Buddha taught the philosophy of the Upanishadic age and there are striking similarities in their teachings.

The earliest-known great emperor of ancient India was Asoka, of the Maurya dynasty, in the 3rd century B.C. Probably following the example of the Persians, with whom there was considerable interaction in that period, he made numerous inscriptions on tall pillars he had erected, as well as on large rocks.

His inscriptions show that he was preoccupied with dharma. Dharma means an understanding of ones place in the whole of creation and, therefore, of ones duty to all that there is.

CHAKRA, TORANA OF great stupa, Sanchi. In the early period, in art there was no depiction of the Buddha, Jaina Tirthankaras or Hindu deities. Instead, there were only symbols of their achievements and teachings. It was not the ephemeral personalities but eternal messages that were the subject of art.-

His Sacred Majesty does reverence to men of all sects.

A man must not do reverence only to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others, wholly from attachment to his own or with intent to enhance the splendour of his own sect. In reality, such conduct inflicts the severest injuries on his own sect.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of ancient Indian history is the humility of rulers. Even a king whose territories were as vast as Asokas, covering practically all of the subcontinent, hardly, even in his numerous edicts and inscriptions, mentions his own name. He is just described as devanampiya piyadassi, beloved of the divine and one whose vision is filled with adoration. This is not a title he had given himself; it is a term used for his father, his grandfather, other Indian kings and even for kings beyond Indian shores.

This is the same period of time when a thousand years of art does not have one portrait of a king, in sculpture or painting. The only exception was the period of the Kushanas, who hailed from southern China. They had portraits made of themselves in the 1st century A.D. After them, Indian art reverted to its traditions and the first portrait to come was 700 years later, in the time of the Pallavas, at Mamallapuram.

BARABAR CAVES, BIHAR. Emperor Asoka and his grandson Dasratha made rock-cut caves for ascetics of the Ajivika sect, in the 3rd century B.C. One can see here the imitation of wooden architecture in the decorative arch made above the entrance. This became a constant feature (now known as the chaitya arch) in the worship halls of the Buddhist and Jaina faiths. It also continued as the decorative motif in later Hindu temples. The marvellous tradition of hundreds of rock-cut caves in India was initiated at Barabar.-

The ancient treatise on art-making is clear that ephemeral personalities are not the subject of art: it is eternal themes that are to be depicted in art. The names of artists are also not written upon the sculptures and paintings of the ancient period. This is all in keeping with Indian philosophy, in which it is the ego which must be lost in order to proceed on the path towards knowledge. Thus, the flattery of personal portraits would be against the very purpose of art, which is stated to be in the service of the philosophic quest.

It is also to be seen that the permanence of stone was accorded in ancient India only to edifices in the service of the eternal. There is not a single palace of ancient times that survives, as structures made for passing personalities were made in ephemeral materials until the early medieval period.

The four caves at Barabar are the oldest surviving rock-cut caves in India. These were originally made for the ascetic sect of Ajivikas by Emperor Asoka and his grandson Dashratha, out of huge granite outcrops near Gaya. Though Asoka may have personally been a Buddhist worshipper, we see here his patronage of the monuments of other faiths.

The architecture is designed to look like the wooden buildings of the period. We see here the earliest depiction of the so-called chaitya arch, which became prolific in Buddhist, Jaina and Hindu art. This was made in imitation of the design of contemporaneous bent-wood architecture. A cave facade very similar to this cave is found in Andhra Pradesh, at Guntupalli. These caves probably provided the model for the hundreds of rock-cut Buddhist caves that were made later in western India.

It is marvellous to see that kings of early times in India gave equal support to all faiths of people they ruled. As an instance, from the earliest Buddhist art of the 2nd century B.C onwards, until at least the 5th century A.D, all ancient Buddhist art was produced during the rule of kings who worshipped Hindu deities.

Best of all, while a king worshipped Siva or Vishnu, his wife freely worshipped the Buddha or Mahavira. In the meantime, his generals and ministers also freely followed the Buddha, Mahavira or any other deity they chose to.

The earliest Buddhist art of the world are the sculpted railings of stupas of the 2nd century B.C. Asokas pillars had only images that were common to all Indic faiths, such as the chakra, which stands for the cosmic order and is very common in the Jaina art of the early period.

LAKSHMI LUSTRATED BY elephants, railing of Sanchi Stupa II. The first formalised deity seen in Buddhist and Jaina art is Gajalakshmi, Lakshmi with elephants that shower water upon her.-

The Bharhut stupa railings, originally in Madhya Pradesh, bring us, for the first time, specific Buddhist themes, including Jataka stories. These were made under the rule of the Sunga kings, who personally worshipped Hindu deities.

Nothing remains of the stupa itself today. A portion of the railings that surrounded it and one of the gateways are preserved in the Indian Museum, Kolkata. The railings are made of sandstone and are engraved with sculptures representing incidents from the Buddhas life, Jataka stories and other scenes.In early Buddhism, the figure of the Buddha was never made. Instead, there were symbols of his achievements and teachings, such as the Bodhi tree, the wheel and the stupa. The sculptural reliefs of the railings are a virtual library of early Buddhist iconographic motifs.

Similarly, at Sanchi, also in central India, sculpted railings were made around a stupa, in the 2nd century B.C. These present Buddhist themes and were made under the rule of benevolent Sunga kings.

In the 1st century A.D., under the rule of the Satavahana kings, great gateways were made at the entrance to the large stupa at Sanchi. These continued the Buddhist themes. Inscriptions show that the Satavahana rulers followed Hindu deities and were generous to the Buddhist Sangha.

Since earliest times, the art of all faiths in India had beings that represented the abundance and vitality of nature. These were often in the form of young maidens, who stood below trees.

The mere touch of such an auspicious being was supposed to cause the tree to bloom. The Indic belief in the interrelatedness of the whole of creation is beautifully expressed in this image.

The first formalised deity seen in Buddhist and Jaina art is Gajalakshmi, Lakshmi with elephants that shower water upon her. Like the yakshi, she too represents the bountiful abundance of nature. Lakshmi continues to be worshipped until today by Hindus and by Buddhists in Japan and other countries.

In Jaina art, Ambika continues to depict the generosity of nature. It may be noted here that Saraswati, known today as a Hindu deity, was first seen in a Jaina monument of the 2nd century B.C. at Kankali Tila, near Mathura. Saraswati continues to be worshipped by Buddhists and is the second most-revered deity in Japan after the Buddha.

The fertile valley of the Krishna river was the cradle of civilisation in the eastern Deccan. This area became one of the greatest centres of Buddhism and over 140 early Buddhist sites have been listed in this region. The best-known monument of the region is the great stupa at Amravati. The exquisite phase of the art of the Amravati stupa was created under the rule of the Satavahanas.

The Ikshvakus came to power in the Krishna valley in the second quarter of the 3rd century A.D. A large number of monastic establishments were founded at Nagarjunakonda, for the residence, study and worship of at least four different sects of Buddhists. As in the case of all major Buddhist monuments since the 2nd century B.C., those at Nagarjunakonda were made under the rule of kings who worshipped Hindu deities. As was often the case, some female members of the royal family were devoted to Buddhism and made personal donations to the monasteries.

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