Blend of faiths

Print edition : September 26, 2008

Indra riding the elephant Airavata, his vehicle. Carved on the veranda of the vihara Cave No. 18 at the Bhaja Caves of the 2nd century B.C., this is one of the earliest-known representations of the deity. The style has similarities with the terracottas of the Sunga period. Indra continued to be popular in Buddhist art in subsequent centuries. He is also depicted as the one who, along with Brahma, receives Siddhartha on a cloth when he is born from the side of Queen Mahamaya.-

The period of Gupta rule brought forth some of the finest and best-known Buddhist, Hindu and Jaina art.

IN western India, the 2nd century B.C. ushered in one of the greatest periods of Buddhist art when, in about a thousand years, more than 1,200 caves were hewn out of the mountains of the Western Ghats. Most of them were sculpted profusely and painted in the Buddhist tradition.

The first phase of the prolific excavation continued until the 3rd century A.D. Great Buddhist prayer halls and viharas for the residence of monks were made during the rule of the Satavahanas and the Kshatrapas. Though these kings revered Hindu deities, they patronised all religious establishments.

The Buddhist Cave Number 18 at Bhaja of the 2nd century B.C. brings us some of the earliest-known representations of the Hindu deities Indra and Surya. They continue in worship until today in Hinduism and in Buddhist temples in Japan. A gana of the 2nd century B.C., made at the Buddhist site of Pitalkhora, carries an inscription that states that it was the donation of a goldsmith, Kanhadasa (servant of Krishna).

One of the grandest Buddhist caves is the great chaitya at Karle, of the 1st century A.D. Inscriptions record the names of numerous individual donors who paid for the carving of various parts of the cave. These include Greeks. In fact, many Greeks and Romans visited and even settled in India during this period of flourishing trade. Many of them are known to have become devout followers of Indic faiths. Among the earliest-known Hindu monuments is the Heliodorus pillar, of the 2nd century B.C., at Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh. The inscription on it states that it was donated by a Greek devotee by that name in honour of Vasudeva or Krishna.

The red sandstone cliffs of Badami in Karnataka offered a spectacular setting for the excavation of four caves, three Hindu and one Jaina, in the 6th century A.D. during the rule of the Chalukyas.-

The period of Gupta rule in North India brought forth some of the finest and best-known pieces of Buddhist, Hindu and Jaina art. Significantly, many of the kings personally followed Hindu practices. Some of the greatest pieces of Buddhist art of the world were made during their benevolent rule.

Records also show that these kings gave very generous grants for Buddhist establishments. In fact, the most vibrant and important centres of Buddhist philosophy and worship reached their height during the rule of the Guptas the vast university of Nalanda and the Mahabodhi temple at Bodhgaya.

By the time the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang visited it in the 7th century, the university of Nalanda had become an educational centre of supreme importance. Monks and scholars came to this university from all over Asia. According to Xuanzang, there were 10,000 students and 1,500 teachers at Nalanda. The courses of study included Sanskrit grammar, and Buddhist and Brahmanical scriptures and streams of philosophy, as well as agriculture, architecture, art and other subjects.

Bahubali, Jaina Cave, Badami, 6th century. The Jaina saint Gomatesvara, or Bahubali, is believed to have meditated in a standing, still posture for so long that creepers grew about his legs and snakes and other creatures gathered around him. The play of light in the rock-cut cave enhances the experience of the sacred interior.-

Such was the cosmopolitan culture that continued from the earliest times in the Indian subcontinent. Scholars such as Guru Padmasambhava and Santarakshita, who were responsible for spreading Buddhism across Asia, are known to have studied here.

There are no gods in the early philosophic vision of India. There are deities: deities that are the personifications of concepts and qualities. The qualities are within us and by responding to these deities brought to us in art, we awaken those fine aspects within us.

In ancient India, people were free to adore the deity of their personal choice. Within families, husbands, wives and children often followed the path of different deities.

In the Gupta period, the effort was to create deities, in a human form, that rose above themselves. It was not a human being caught in the web of the material world. It was an embodiment of that which was eternal, that which was still, undisturbed by turmoil and cravings. Meditating upon such a form, devotees awakened the best within themselves. They rose above the pains created by their desires and confusion.

Ellora Caves, Maharashtra, 6th to 10th century A.D. These Buddhist, Hindu and Jaina caves lie on the trade route from Paithan to Ujjain in central India.-

The caves of Ajanta were made in two phases: the first around the 2nd century B.C. and the second between the 4th and the 6th centuries A.D. The first phase was during the Hinayana period of Buddhism, and Caves 9 and 10 of Ajanta are among the fine examples of Buddhist chaityas of that period. This was under the rule of the Satavahana kings.

The second phase of Ajanta was during the Mahayana period, and the paintings and sculptures are among the most beautiful ever made. These caves were made during the rule of the Vakataka kings, who too worshipped Hindu deities. There were no religious divisions, and feudatories of the king, ministers and even queens freely worshipped the deities they preferred.

In the inscriptions at Ajanta, the patrons of Buddhist caves sometimes proclaim their descent from Hindu deities. The paintings of Ajanta constitute the fountainhead of the ancient tradition of painting in India and the classical tradition of paintings in Asia.

Until this period there is no inscription that attributes the making of temples or caves and their art directly to a ruler. In the subsequent art made under the Chalukyas, of the 6th to the 8th centuries, we find a continuation of this tradition. Magnificent caves and temples were made and dedicated by members of the royal family. However, there are none made by the kings. Here again, we see both Hindu and Jaina caves made at the site of Badami.

This is a unique phenomenon of ancient Indian art and history. Rulers patronised monuments of all faiths through the grant of revenues of villages and by other means. However, they did not make or dedicate such edifices and art of any faith.

What remains of Nalanda University, Bihar. This internationally renowned Buddhist university flourished under the rule of the Gupta kings, most of whom revered Hindu deities. The courses of study covered Buddhist philosophy as well as Hindu shastras.-

The magnificent rock-cut caves at Ellora near Aurangabad mark the final stage of the development of cave-temple architecture in western India. There are caves of three faiths here, of overlapping periods. The Buddhist caves date from the mid-6th century to the mid-8th century A.D.; the Hindu caves date from the 7th to the 9th century; and the Jaina caves date from the 9th to the end-10th century. These show again the simultaneous patronage of monuments of more than one faith.

Xuanzang wrote enthusiastic accounts of his travels in India. These are written from a pilgrims point of view. Nevertheless, they provide much information about ancient India. The traveller was greatly impressed by King Harsha of the 7th century. Owing to the rulers generous patronage of Buddhist establishments, he describes him as a great Buddhist king. However, Harshas own inscriptions show that he was a devout Hindu worshipper. Harshas dramas, written on Buddhist ethics, are performed in Japan even today.

The Palas ruled in eastern India from the 8th to the 12th century. This period saw the greatest heights in the development of Buddhist logic. Many vast universities flourished here and spread their influence to other countries of Asia.

In the 8th century A.D., a great monastic university was founded by King Dharmapala at Vikramshila in Bihar. The philosophy of Vajrayana Buddhism was developed to its greatest heights here and its teachers were invited to faraway lands. Dharmapala also donated large amounts of money for the excavation of tanks in Hindu temples.

Inscriptions also show that many kings of the Pala dynasty followed the path of the Buddha. They also show that several others of the same dynasty followed other faiths. Best of all, the same kings are clearly seen to be equally generous to Hindus and Buddhists. King Mahipala I, of the 11th century, is described in his copperplate inscription as Parama sangata, respectful to the Buddha. An inscription of the king also shows that he was a follower of the Saiva ascetic Vanavasi. Other inscriptions state that he patronised Saiva ascetics and donated a vast monastery to them.

The spirit of worship of all deities is seen everywhere in India. In Gujarat, King Bhima I made a marvellous temple to Surya, the sun god, at Modhera in the 11th century. Simultaneously, his wife, Udayamati, made the most beautiful stepwell temple, dedicated to Vishnu, at nearby Pattan. Meanwhile, his minister Vimala made the famous Jaina temple at Mount Abu. A few centuries later, the Pittalhar temple at Mt. Abu was made by Bhima Shah, a minister of Sultan Begada, a Muslim ruler of Ahmedabad.

Parihaspura, Stupa site. In the 8th century this site had stupas, chaityas and Vishnu temples, which were built by King Lalitaditya and his Tocharian minister Chankuna. Many sites across Central Asia were modelled on the lines of the monuments here.-

Between the 10th and 12th centuries, one of the greatest temple cities the world has seen was made at Khajuraho, in present-day Madhya Pradesh. Many grand Hindu and Jaina temples were made here in that period. In the continuing, fluid spiritual traditions of India, the Jaina temples have numerous images of Hindu deities made on their walls.

There are many murals made by Kashmiri painters in the 11th and 12th centuries, which survive in Ladakh, Spiti, Kinnaur and western Tibet. These are the only painted records of the architecture and culture of Kashmir of that period. We see in these that a Kashmiri temple dedicated to Balarama, the Hindu deity, also has a shrine dedicated to Goddess Tara of the Buddhist pantheon. This is typical of the unified spiritual culture of that period.

Joyous worshippers and musicians are seen everywhere in the paintings of Kashmiri Buddhist monasteries. It is this sense of lyrical joy that is the hallmark of the ancient art of Kashmir. We are reminded that one of the greatest Indian philosophers of aesthetics, Abhinavagupta, lived in Kashmir in the 10th century.

Parihaspura in Kashmir was a great centre of Buddhist and Hindu worship in the 8th century. Stupas and chaityas made here would have served as the models for the Buddhist art of central Asia. The site had a Buddhist chaitya as well as a Vishnu temple dedicated by King Lalitaditya. In that cosmopolitan culture, Parihaspura also had an impressive stupa made by the kings Tocharian minister.

In the spiritual climate that continued from ancient times, there were no boundaries between faiths in the early medieval period too. The same person is most often described as a devotee of different deities, depending upon the occasion. Examples of this are numerous. Such religious divisions are a later construct by scholars who have tried to understand Indian history from a vastly different perspective.

Brahma, Adinath temple, Khajuraho. The Hindu and Jaina temples in Khajuraho, the capital of the Chandella kings from the early 10th to the 12th century, have a shared style that has no sectarian differences. In fact, there is a profuse depiction of Hindu deities on the walls of the Jaina temples here.-

Ancient Indic culture, with its blend of Buddhist and Hindu deities and concepts, continues to this day in many countries of Asia. In Nepal, at the Swayambhunatha stupa complex, many stupas have Siva Lingas made on them. Nepals religious history presents a vision of the blend of faiths, just as in India. In Buddhist Thailand, numerous statues of the Hindu deities Brahma, Vishnu and Siva are installed on the main streets of Bangkok and are worshipped. In the Buddhist temples of that country, the walls have painting with themes from the Ramayana. Statues of Rama are also common in Thailand.

At an international seminar on Asian religions in 2007, a message was read out by the Secretary to His Majesty King Rama IX, in which it was said: Court Brahmins and astrologers were a fixture of the court as they were integral to the timing of auspicious days for the holding of Hindu rites for the divine God-like-kings who were personifications of Siva, Vishnu and Brahma; but at the same time being Buddhist kings. The Brahmins officiated at the ceremony of coronation whereby they opened the gates of heaven for the Hindu gods to descend and thus make the person of the king God-like and empowered with dignity and grace.

In Buddhist Japan, after the Buddha, the second-most revered deity is Saraswati. There are many temples dedicated to her in Tokyo, as well as numerous images of her in Buddhist temples. When the great Daibutsu (Big Buddha) temple of Nara was to be dedicated in the 8th century, they could not find a suitable learned Brahmin priest for the task in Japan. Therefore, a priest was brought from Myanmar. Images of a vast range of Hindu deities are seen in the temple complex. The early Buddhist caves of China have paintings of Krishna, Siva and Parvati.

It is important to remind ourselves that we tend to look at the past through the looking glass of colonial writers, who have put together our cultural and religious history. They grew up with an understanding of a monotheistic Judaeo-Christian belief system and created similar watertight compartments into which to fit the Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina faiths. Sometimes the most educated Indians seem to know the least about the fluidity of our traditions and their free, philosophic nature. In India, it is still possible to come across a person who says that she was born a Jain, married a Hindu and practises worship of the Buddha. Fortunately, the ancient tradition has not been lost altogether.

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