Causes of the Absence of the Buddha’s Image in Early Buddhism
Prof. Dr. S.K. GUPTA
In the early Pali literature the Buddha appears as a young religious teacher who covered his one or both the shoulders with diguna sanghati and moved bare feet. He is described as shaven headed or with short hair. His perfect (paripunna) golden radiant body was marked with mahapurusa laksanas. His clean shaven face appeared as if melting with karuna. This description of Buddha’s physical personality indicates that early Buddhists were familiar with a mental image in their teacher. But it is also a fact that they never tried to portray that image in any medium. They always depicted him through symbols, such as wheel, stupa, tree etc. Thus the absence of the Buddha image in human form in early Buddhist monuments poses a problem to the student of Indian art. Why has the Buddha been represented in the art of Bharhut, Sanchi, and in the early phase of Amaravati through symbols what could have been the reasons of this phenomenon? Curiously enough, answer to these questions has never been seriously investigated. Most of the scholars, European as well as Indian who have written on the problem of the origin of the Buddha image have merely accepted the fact that in the early Indian art the Buddha is represented through symbols. For them, the main problem has been ‘where’ and ‘when’ the first image of the Buddha was carved i.e. where does the origin of the tradition of the Buddha image lie. But no scholar has so far seriously posed the question as to why the Buddha image did not appear during the first 400 years of the history of Buddhism. Even Coomaraswamy never tried to explain this unusual phenomenon. Foucher and Bacchofer made a note of it but could not explain it properly. They were of the opinion that incapability of the artists of the early period was responsible for the absence of the portrayal of the Buddha in human form.