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BUDDHISM AND INDIAN ART
BUDDHISM is a growth. The diamond-throne of the original enlightenment is now difficult indeed to discover, surrounded as it is by the labyrinth of gigantic pillars and elaborate porticos which successive architects have erected, as each added his portion to the edifice of faith. For there has been no generation that did not bring its own stones and tiles to widen the great roof that, like the bodhi-tree itself, offers every day a broader shelter to mankind. As in Buddha Gaya, it is the obscurity of centuries that hides the image of the birth of Buddhism. Garlands of love and reverence have covered it, and sectarian pride and pious frauds have stained, each to his own hue, the waters of the surrounding ocean, till it is almost impossible to distinguish between the various streams and currents once its tributaries.
Yet it is this very power of adaptation and growth that constitutes the greatness of that system which not only embraces Eastern Asia, but bore its seeds long ago to blossom in the Syrian desert, and in the form of Christianity completes the circling of the world, with its fragrance of love and renunciation.
The several forms which the thought of the great Teacher has assumed, as it has come in contact with various nationalities and periods — even as the same raindrops may call to life the flowers of many different climes — are indeed difficult to analyse and describe in their true order of development. For Asia is vast, India itself larger than Europe west of the Vistula, and the twenty-three Indian, twelve Chinese, and thirteen Japanese schools, with their innumerable subdivisions, under which later students love to classify the formulations of Buddhism, are inter-related more in the sense of territorial distribution than of chronological sucession. Their very names, Northern and Southern, imply that this is so with the two main divisions of the faith.
In religions that are ascribed to individual founders, it is clear that there must be two great elements — one the gigantic figure of the Master himself, growing ever more dazzling as successive centuries reflect their own brightness on his personality, and the other, the historic or national background, out of which he springs to consciousness. If we go deeper into the psychological conditions of the sense of individuality, we shall think it reasonable to look for a certain antithesis, though not necessarily any antagonism, between the Teacher and his past. Those elements of his realisation which he does not discover in the social consciousness will be the subject of his most forcible utterance. And yet only in its relation to that consciousness will his message reach its full significance. It is, therefore, quite conceivable that the doctrine of the Founder, carried away from its natural environment, may be understood and developed in some sense, true in itself, and yet superficially contradictory of another stream of thought which is at least as authentic and vastly more faithful to the complexity of the original impulse. No one who has studied the relation which the holy man bears to the race in India, can fail to understand the application of this law. There, the most startling negations will be accepted from a seer as the natural evidence of his own emancipation, and fall on society with their full impetus of life, without for a moment disturbing that calm graduation of experience by which they were reached. Any Indian man or woman will worship at the feet of some inspired wayfarer who tells them that there can be no image of God, that the word itself is a limitation, and go straightway, as the natural sequence, to pour water on the head of the Sivalingam. Unless we can grasp the secret of this inclusion of opposites, the mutual relations of Northern and Southern Buddhism must baffle us. For it is not possible to say that either is true, and the other false, but it is perfectly comprehensible that, as the narrower basis of Southern Buddhism, we have the echo of the great voice itself, crying alone in the wilderness, amongst those who know nothing of its whence or whither, while in the Northern school we listen to the Buddha in his true relativity, as the apex of the religious experience of his country. Northern Buddhism is thus like some great mountain ravine, through which India pours her intellectual torrents upon the world, and the contention that in Kashmir was made the most authoritative deposit of the doctrine, though it may or may not be true in the sense intended, has an inevitable accuracy of its own, deeper than the words imply.
Essentially, according to both interpretations, the message of Buddha was a message of the Freedom of the Soul, and those who heard were the emancipated children of the Ganges, already drinking to their full of the purity of the Absolute, in their Mahabharata and Upanishads. But beyond its philosophic grandeur, across all the flight of centuries and through the repetitions of both schools alike, we hear the divine voice tremble still with that passion of pity that stood forth in the midst of the most individualistic race in the world, and lifted the dumb beast to one level with man. In face of the spiritual feudalism whereby Caste makes a peasant in all his poverty one of the aristocrats of humanity, we behold him in his infinite mercy, dreaming of the common people as one great heart, standing as the breaker of social bondage, and proclaiming equality and brotherhood to all. It was this second element, so akin to the feeling of Confucian China itself, that distinguished him from all previous developers of Vedic thought, and enabled his teaching to embrace all Asia, if not the whole of humankind.
Kapilavastu, the place of his birth, stands in Nepal, and was in his days even more Turanian than now. Scholars are wont sometimes to claim for him a Tartar origin, for the Sakyas may have been Sakas, or Scythians, and the frankly Mongolian type in which the earliest images represent him, as well as the golden or yellow colour of the skin described in the earliest sûtras, are remarkable presumptive evidence. The Taoists even go ridiculously further, and narrate in the Roshi-Kakokio, the Book of the Conversion of the Barbarians by Laotse, how Laotse himself, after his mysterious disappearance in Kwankokukwan, travelled to India, and there reincarnated himself as Gautama!
At any rate it is certain, whether or not there was Tartar blood in his veins, that he embodied the root-idea of that race, and in thereby universalising Indian idealism in its highest intensity, becomes the ocean in which the Ganges and the Hoang-Ho mingle their waters.
The monastic idea further differentiates him from all those other rishis and sannyasins who preached in the forests, but whose spirit of independence made of them stars, and not constellations. The existence of the Buddhist Church, mother of all churches as it is, demonstrates the duel trend of the Buddhist idea. For the organisation of the sannyasin is the thraldom of the emancipated, and yet the very soul of the Faith is its inquiry into the nature of freedom from that suffering which is known as life.
But, indeed, both freedom and bondage must have been modes of the great Sage. Perfection, in order to express itself, must necessarily fall back upon the contrast of opposites, and in announcing the quest of unity in the midst of variety, the assertion of the true individual at once in the universal and the particular, we have already postulated all the differentiations of the creed.
The Lion of Sakya in shaking his mane disperses the dust of Maya. He breaks through slavery to forms, and denies their very existence, as he directs the soul towards the Eternal Unity. This gives their basis to the atheistic formulæ of the later Southern school. At the same time, the joy and glory of union with the Absolute gives birth to an immense love of the beauty and significance of things, and draws the Northern Buddhists and their brother Hindus to paint the whole world with gods. His teaching was probably delivered in the Gatha, or some kindred transitional form of the original Sanskrit before Pali. But, as if to repudiate it with his own lips, he ordered his disciples to talk in the dialects of the people.
Such varying interpretations of a single truth, clothed thus with equal authority in widely different garbs, led inevitably to schismatic disputes. At first these were mainly concerned with the discipline Or rule, which was the most important act of the great spiritual Deedsman, but later they involved such discussion of philosophic standpoints as to divide Buddhism into countless sects.
The original disruption seems to have occurred between those who represented the highest culture of that Indian thought which was a development of the Upanishads, and the acceptors of the popular interpretation of the new doctrine and discipline.
The first stage of Buddhism, immediately after the Nirvana — which we may consider to have taken place about the middle of the sixth century B.C. — is concerned with the ascendency of the primary group and the fact that its leaders, the early patriarchs of the Church, taught a system of positive idealism, while their opponents were engaged mainly on details of the monastic rule, and in discussions upon the real and the unreal, which led for the most part to negative conclusions.
Asoka — the great emperor who united India, and made the influence of his empire felt from Ceylon to the limits of Syria and Egypt, deliberately recognising Buddhism as its unifying force — gave the weight of his personal influence to those thinkers who must have been closely allied to the Northern school, though with Asiatic toleration he patronised their opponents also, and did not fail to countenance the Brahminical religion itself. His son Mahindra converted Ceylon to Buddhism, laying the foundations there of the Northern school, which still survived in the seventh century, when Gensho (Hieuntsang) visited India, till the reflux from Siam, a few centuries later, of the Southern doctrine, of which it remains the present stronghold.
Northern India and Kashmir, where immediate disciples preached the faith, formed the busiest seat of Buddhist activity. It was in Kashmir, in the first century after Christ, that Kanishka — that King of the Gettaes who extended his power from Central Asia to the Punjaub, and left his footprints at Mathura, near Agra — called a great Buddhist council, whose influence spread Buddhism farther into Central Asia. But all this was only enforcing the work begun by Asoka, the great descendant of Chandra Gupta (fourth century B.C.).
Nagarjuna was an Indian monk, whose name is well known in China and Japan. In the second century of the Christian era, he followed in the wake of previous teachers, known as Asvaghosha and Vasumitra, the latter of whom had acted as president of Kanishka's council. Nagarjuna gave ultimate form to this, the first school of Buddhism, by means of his eight negations and the elucidation of the middle path that lies between two opposites, as well as by his recognition of the infinite self, the great soul and light which pervades the All. This is a doctrine which the Buddha of the Pali texts (the Southern school) does not deny, though he there preaches the non-existence of the finite self. The fact that the memory of Nagarjuna connects itself with Orissa, and Southern India, and that his immediate successor, Deva, came from Ceylon, shows the wide range within which the influence of this first school worked.
In India the art of this early Buddhism was a natural growth out of that of the Epic age that went before. For it is idle to deny the existence of pre-Buddhistic Indian art, ascribing its sudden birth to the influence of the Greeks, as European archæologists are wont to do. The Mahabharata and Ramayana contain frequent and essential allusions to storeyed towers, galleries of pictures, and castes of painters, not to speak of the golden statue of a heroine, and the magnificence of personal adornment. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that those centuries in which the wandering minstrels sang the ballads that were later to become the epics, were devoid of image-worship, for descriptive literature, concerning the forms of gods, means correlative attempts at plastic actualisation. This idea finds corroboration in the sculptures of Asoka's rails, where we find images of Indras and Devas worshipping the bo-tree. These things point to the early use of clay, paste, and other impermanent materials, as in ancient China. We find a trace of this custom again as late as the Gupta period, in the habit of covering the stone basis of the statue with paste or plaster. Probably the rails of Asoka were originally so covered. There is here no trace of the influence of the Greeks, and if it be necessary to establish a relation with any foreign school, it must surely be with that old Asiatic art whose traces are to be found amongst Mesopotamians, Chinese, and Persians, the last of whom are but a branch race of the Indian.
The lofty iron pillar of Asoka at Delhi — strange marvel of casting, which Europe, with all her scientific mechanism, cannot imitate to-day, like the twelve colossal iron images of Asoka's contemporary, the Shin Emperor of China, points us to ages of skilled workmanship and vast resources. Too little effort is spent in reconstructing the idea of that great splendour and activity which must have existed, in order to leave such wreckage as it has to a later age. It may be that the desolate wastes of Kurukshetra, and the wailing weeds of Rajagriha, still cherish the memory of an ancient glory, which they cower down to cover from alien eyes.
Images of the Buddha himself, though absent from the early stupas, and now undistinguishable by us among the existing specimens of this early period, may probably have been the first work of his disciples, who soon learned to clothe his memory with the Jataka legends, and to beautify his ideal personality.
In the post-Asokan period in India we find Buddhist art-activity working out of the confinement of its primitive type into freer forms and a wider range of subjects, yet remaining always a legitimate development of the national school, whether seen in the rock-temples of Orissa and the rails of Sanchi, or in the elegant delineations of Amaravati, the culmination of the art of this school of the third century.
The remains of Mathura and Gandhara fall into the general movement, for Kanishka and the Gettaes, in imposing their Mongolian traits on Indian art, could but bring it within the shadow of that common ancient style in which a deeper and better-informed study of the works of Gandhara itself will reveal a greater prominence of Chinese than of the so-called Greek characteristics. The Bactrian kingdom in Afghanistan was never more than a small colony in the midst of a great Tartar population, and was already lost in the late centuries before the Christian era. The Alexandrian invasion means rather the extension of Persian influence than of Hellenic culture.
The second stage of Buddhist activity — on whose Sino-Japanese development we shall have occasion to touch in the Nara period — begins in the fourth century under the Gupta dynasty, which was able through the preceding Andras to amalgamate the Dravidian culture of the South and that of the Cholas.
We now find Asangha and Vasubandhu inaugurating the school of objective research, a movement whose poetic impulse reaches extraordinary scientific expression. It must be understood that Buddhism, owing to its special definition of Maya, is a religious idea remarkably retentive of scientific effort, and we have in this period a forcible demonstration of the fact. This was the age of that great intellectual expansion when Kalidasa sang, and astronomy scaled its heights under Varahamihira, lasting till the seventh century, with Nalanda as its centre of learning.
The art of this second Buddhist epoch is best seen in the wall-paintings of Ajanta, and in the sculptures of the Ellora caves, now the few remaining specimens of a great Indian art, which doubtless, thanks to innumerable travellers, gave its inspiration to the Tâng art of China.
The third phase of Buddhism, the era of concrete idealism, begins with the seventh century to sound the dominant note of the faith, spreading its influence to Thibet, there to become, on the one hand, Lamaism, and on the other Tantrikism, and reaching China and Japan as the Esoteric doctrine, to create the art of the Heian period.
It was now that the idea of the Southern school of Buddhism, which had always been working side by side with its companion movement, penetrated Burmah and Siam, and, returning upon Ceylon, absorbed the remnant of the Northern adherents in that island, thus creating a new stratum of Indo-Chinese art, very different in style from that of the North.
Hinduism — that form into which the Indian national consciousness had been striving to resolve Buddhism ever since its appearance as a creed — is now recognised once more as the inclusive form of the nation's life. The great Vedantic revival of Sankaracharya is the assimilation of Buddhism, and its emergence in a new dynamic form. And now, in spite of the separation of ages, Japan is drawn closer than ever to the motherland of thought.
The spiritual feudalism whereby. — This is an allusion to the ideal of Brahminhood, which is complete culture rooted and practised in an extreme simplicity of life. The Brahmin villager may be not only a scholar in the European university sense of the term, but also a man of emancipated intellect and character. And yet it will be his pride to remain always the same frugal villager. Much more does this standard hold good of the sannyasin, who is expected to worship poverty as did S. Francis of Assisi. It may be said that in India, amongst both these classes, many men are to be found of whom the statement made in the text is by no means exaggerated.
Mahabharata. — The epic of "Great India," which sings of the war between the Kurus and Pandavas. This war must have occurred some ten or twelve centuries before Christ, and its history is still the heroic feature in the education of Indian boys of the upper classes. It contains the Bhagavad Gita, as one of its episodes, and it may be said of this short gospel that it embodies all the essential features of Northern Buddhism.
The Upanishads. — These were written at least as early as from 2000 to 700 B.C. They are supplementary to the Vedas, and form the great religious classics of the Hindu people. Their subject-matter is the realisation of the super-personal existence. For depth and grandeur they are without rivals in the literature of the world.
The Ramayana. — The second of the great Indian epics, dealing with the heroic love of Rama and Sita.
Kurukshetra, or Field of the Kurus. — The great plain in the neighbourhood of Delhi, where the eighteen days' battle, recorded in the Mahabharata, took place. It was here that the Gita was spoken. It is now only a place of pilgrimage.
Rajagriha. — The ancient capital of Magadha, before it was removed to Patna, within the province now known as Behar, India.
Nalanda. — The great monastery and university of Buddhist learning, in the vicinity of Rajagriha.