Buddhist art from India: Where the natural meets the supernatural

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Buddhist art from India: Where the natural meets the supernatural
A red sandstone Sri Lakshmi, from the second century C.E., from the National Museum, New Delhi, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit “Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 B.C.E. - 400 C.E.” in New York, July 17, 2023. The museum has gathered a stunning display of ancient Buddhist art, including dozens of objects that have never been exhibited outside of India. (Elizabeth Bick/The New York Times)

by Holland Cotter

NEW YORK, NY.- At the press opening for the Metropolitan Museum’s beyond beautiful “Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 B.C.E.-400 C.E.,” five red-robed monks chanted Pali blessings, the vocalized equivalent of oceanic silence. The ancient sculptures around them projected a different, visual music: Forest birds sang, mythical creatures roared, and semidivine and human figures clapped their hands and danced as if at some riotous summer party.

There were other contrasts at the opening, too, less evident. Given the monumental glow of the sculptures, each lighted to look deep-carved from darkness, you probably wouldn’t think to guess at the difficult, always tentative process — logistical and diplomatic, extending over a decade — that went into gathering them, with more than 50 on loan from India for the first time. It says something about those curatorial struggles that we haven’t seen such a display of ancient art from India, on this scale, in a U.S. museum in years, and are unlikely to again soon.

So when the Met’s curator of South and Southeast Asian art, John Guy, stepped up to a microphone to thank a group of visiting Indian museum directors, his words had particular resonance. These were the people who had basically given permission for this show to happen.

Buddhism itself, in its fundamental form, is a permission-giving faith, offering us myriad ways to save our souls, including through practices of generosity. At the same time, it’s a faith of ethical absolutes, a major one being stop killing — your fellow beings, meaning all living things, and the Earth, which has a consciousness of its own.

And it is with images of the Earth — of Nature driven by spirits, as it was gradually seen and understood by the man who would become the Buddha — that the exhibition begins.

The man was, in many senses, always a worldly one. He was born a prince, Siddhartha Gautama, in the fifth century B.C.E. in what is now Nepal, near the border with India. As a young person he was a familiar type, a wine-women-and-song sensualist, but one with a depressive streak that led him to grow fixated on the fact of mortality and its woes. In a shock of despondency, he utterly changed his life, took to the road and became a mendicant seeker, one among many, of varying goals and persuasions, who were wandering India at the time.

Once out there, he became aware that he was in a spiritually charged terrain, one perceived and revered by grassroots nature cults. Trees, he learned, had souls; birds spoke wisdom; flowers were seasonless; and serpents wielded protective powers. In this world, fantastical creatures — part crocodile, part tiger, part fish — were as common as house pets. And populations of nature spirits, male (called yakshas) and female (called yakshis), grotesque and gorgeous, malign and benign, ruled.

It was in this environment that Prince Siddhartha transitioned to being the Buddha, and found the peace he had sought. He was in his 30s and already had some followers. By the time he died, at 80, he had many more. By then, Buddhism had become a “thing,” a path, a faith. And significantly for art, it was on its way to becoming a monument-building institution.

Those first monuments were of a particular type. Known as stupas, and based on traditional South Asian funerary markers, they were domes of fired brick and packed earth in which relics of the Buddha — initially cremation ashes — were embedded.

The stupa is a recurrent visual theme in the Met exhibition. A towering abstract walk-in version of one is a pivotal feature of the charismatic exhibition design by Patrick Herron. (Enter this stupa and you find a third century B.C.E. reliquary hoard made up of rock crystal chips, tiny pearls and sheet-gold florets arranged in a radiant mandala pattern.)

And a sculptural depiction of a stupa, carved in relief on a limestone panel, opens the show. Dating from the first century C.E., it was once attached to a now long-vanished stupa at Amaravati in southern India (in what is now the state of Andhra Pradesh), an area the Buddha never visited but one that produced some of the grandest memorials to him, and the origin of most of the works in the Met show.

Cut into the panel’s surface are features of the natural-meets-supernatural world that Siddhartha-becoming-Buddha learned to know. A majestically rearing serpent deity guards the stupa’s railing gate. A great umbrella-shaped tree shades its dome. And in an extraordinary relief nearby, a grave-faced, plush-bodied nature spirit seems to materialize like mist from the stone.

On other reliefs from different locations in northern and southern animist India, you’ll find scenes of communal worship in progress at stupas. With multiple figures kneeling, and waving and praying and flying — no real divide between natural and supernatural here — these get-togethers can look pretty wild, and probably were.

Early Buddhist public devotion, like that practiced by animist nature cults, had a jamboree atmosphere. Along with rituals and processions, there were, no doubt, food sellers, incense vendors and corner buskers, as there are in India today. These occasions were about exuberance, abundance, moreness — about heaven, yes, but also very much about Earth.

One figure you rarely, if ever, see participating in these sensuous melees is the Buddha himself. For reasons that have been the subject of much historical speculation, early on, and for a long time, he appeared in art only in the form of symbols: an empty throne, a flaming column, a wheel (representing his teachings), a pair of footprints or the stupa itself. This was true even when the subject depicted was, as is often the case, a scene from his own life.

It’s as if, after his release from the anxiety of mortality, which he had worked hard to achieve, to return him to bodily form would be a sacrilege. Ineffability was his great reward, a badge of Buddhahood, one he urged us all to try to earn.

Salvation is, of course, like art, a universal concept, different only in detail and dimension from place to place. And while the specific milieu of the Met exhibition is India, its curator, Guy, who also oversaw the superlative catalog, is careful to avoid the impression that early south Indian Buddhism and culture were landlocked phenomena.

In a gallery titled “Buddhist Art in a Global Setting,” he succinctly demonstrates, through the inclusion of two exquisite luxury trade items, the long-standing give-and-take between the subcontinent and the Mediterranean world. One piece is a first century C.E. bronze Roman copy of a Greek figurine of the sea god Poseidon, discovered, in a jumble of other Roman items, in the 1940s in Western India and preserved in a museum there. The other, totally stellar work, also from the first century, is an ivory statuette depicting a fully nude and conspicuously seductive yakshi, or courtesan. It was carved in southern India and found in 1938 in the ruins at Pompeii, Italy.

By the time these pieces had made their journeys away from home, single-figure sculpture, bearing traces of Western models, had already had a long influence, as a prestige style, on Buddhist art in northern India, in political and religious centers like Gandhara. It was only later, in the third and fourth centuries, maybe spurred by an uptick in commercial sea trade between Greater Rome and the subcontinent, that the taste for it moved south.

And when it did, the Buddha himself began to appear there too in bodily form. Carved and cast, free-standing and in-the-round, often wearing robes that had a toga-ish cut and drape, this image became the primary focus of worship at shrines, now centered at monasteries. It replaced the serpent-deities and tree-spirits strategically adopted from the old nature cults, and it incorporated some of the incorporeal symbols — the Dharma wheel — that had once stood in for the Buddha.

Several free-standing Indian figures turn the show’s final gallery, teasingly titled “The Buddha Revealed,” into a kind of chapel. And it is visually clear that a page has turned, both in the exhibition’s narrative and in the history of Buddhism itself.

By the time the latest of these single-figure icons was made in the late fifth to sixth century C.E., the map of Buddhism was changing. By then the religion was widespread in Southeast Asia and China. In the sixth or seventh century, it would arrive in Japan. Its heyday in India was gradually quieting. New evangelical forms of Hinduism were overtaking it in popularity; later, Islam would enter the scene and put Buddhism under siege. By the 12th century, it was reduced to a remnant in India. Then it was all but gone.

If you didn’t know of this fate, it would be hard to guess it from the glowingly vital, all but palpitating early Indian Buddhist art in the Met show. And from the perspective of the time that art was made, it would have been difficult to predict the terrestrial disaster of our day, engineered by what has turned out to be the planet’s most dangerous invasive species, humans.

The stand-alone Buddhas in the show’s last gallery are self-contained and expressively commanding, and modern looking. But coming to them after passing through rooms filled with images of humans and divinities jostling, body to body, like New Yorkers on a subway — with those bodies inextricably woven into landscapes of trees and flowers and birds — “self-contained” and “commanding" and “modern” feel like liabilities, not virtues.

‘Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 B.C.E.-400 C.E.’

Through Nov. 13, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., Manhattan; (212) 535-7710; metmuseum.org.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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