The idyllic classicism of the features in Head of Buddha distinguish this Buddhist sculpture as part of the tradition of Greco-Roman inspired art of the Gandharan Empire in India. Though this object was inspired by contact with the Roman Empire, it retains a markedly “local” character through its adherence to traditional Buddhist iconography which communicates a state of enlightenment and meditation.
This sculpture possesses characteristics common to depictions of the Buddha, including heavy-lidded eyes, curved brows, elongated earlobes, and a topknot. The topknot (ushnisha) and mark between the eyes (urna) are hallmarks of spiritual wisdom, and the elongated earlobes signify the historical Buddha’s former princely existence when he would have worn heavy earrings that stretched his earlobes.
Buddhism originated in India and is based on the teachings of Prince Siddhartha [sid-DAHR-thah] Gautama [go-ta-ma]. Prince Siddhartha was born in 567 B.C. and became known as the Buddha, or Enlightened One. He taught that all life is suffering, but renouncing desires and the self can lead to a state of enlightenment beyond both suffering and existence. Over time, diverse interpretations of the Buddha's teachings led to a variety of sects. Buddhism is no longer widely practiced in India, but has spread to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Far East through missionary activity. Today it is one of the world’s largest religions.
Buddhist teachings are based on the Four Noble Truths: all existence is suffering, the cause of suffering is desire, to renounce desire is to renounce suffering, and one can achieve renunciation by following the Noble Eightfold Path. This path includes right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
The Buddha began his life as a prince named Siddhartha Gautama. As a prince, Siddhartha had everything he could ever want, including abundant wealth and possessions. However, when he ventured outside the walls of the palace, he was confronted with a state of universal suffering: many people were sick or unhappy. In an attempt to gain understanding of universal suffering, spiritual knowledge, and liberation from earthly desires, he eventually abandoned his life in the royal palace to follow a path of meditation, prayer, and solitude.
Prince Siddhartha believed the cycle of suffering affected all people, and the only escape was through a life of detachment that separated one’s inner-state from worldly suffering or desire. After achieving enlightenment, he proceeded to travel and teach others about the path to enlightenment.
Siddhartha is also often referred to as the Buddha Shakyamuni [SHAH-kyuh-moo-nee]. The Buddha was born into the Sakya clan, and the name Shakyamuni may mean “glory of the sakya” or “sage of the sakya.”
Visual Elements of the Buddha
The Buddha is said to have possessed a supernatural body, with thirty-two major and eighty minor characteristics. Many of these traits reveal biological metaphors, such as ankles like rounded shells, legs like an antelope, chest like a lion, and eyelashes like a cow.
The Buddha’s hair appears as short curls and creates an ushnisha that protrudes from the top of the skull as top-knot. Some scholars consider the ushnisha to be merely the hairstyle of the prince and others view it as an indication of an enlightened mind. The ushnisha is sometimes topped with a finial, a decorative “jewel” or flame.
The Buddha’s distended ear lobes reference his former life as a prince, when he would have worn heavy earrings and other impressive ornamentation.
The urna, or “third eye”, appears in low relief between the eyes of the Buddha. This mark signifies wisdom.
Around the first century the Gandharan Empire included parts of what are now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northwestern India. From the first through the fourth centuries, this area was a center of Buddhist beliefs and art. Religious sculptures largely influenced the growth of Buddhism in the region.
Darius I, King of Persia, conquered the areas of the Gandharan Empire in 516 B.C. and Alexander the Great passed through the areas between 329-325 B.C. The Greek principalities in the area were mostly overtaken by 130 B.C. by the invading Prototurk people, who in the first century B.C. would dominate all other rivals in the region. The leader of the Prototurk people, Kujula Kadphises, founded the Kushan Empire that would eventually rule the area.
The Gandharan Empire was an intercultural world that interacted with the Mediterranean, Central Asia, China, and India through trade along the Silk Road as early as 1000 B.C.
The second and third centuries A.D. mark the height of the Gandharan art practice. During this period, rendering of the human form and complex drapery appear naturalistic and illusionary. These representations were inspired by Roman gods depicted in Greek and Roman sculpture. Though only the head appears in the DMA sculpture, the hallmark signs of the Buddha: the urna, ushnisha, and distended earlobes are readily apparent. This head would have been attached to a body whose realistic musculature and intricate drapery mimic a Roman style.
Sculpture and other imported items arriving from the Roman Empire via sea and the Silk Route greatly inspired Gandharan art. However, Gandharan art did not simply copy models from classical antiquity, but developed its own rich aesthetic that expanded upon a Greco-Roman foundation to create an innovative and cosmopolitan style. Greco-Buddhist art integrated indigenous Indian styles with those of classical Greece and Rome and the Parthian Empire (247 B.C. - 224 A.D.) in Persia. Buddhist iconography characteristic of Gandharan art spanned the first century B.C. until the Islamic conquest of the region in the ninth century.
Schist is a stone abundant in the Gandharan region. It was widely used and generally cut into plaques. The stone ranges in color from a dark black or grey-blue to a more rare white marble-like color.
1. What characteristics or visual elements identify this figure as the Buddha?
2. The features and expression of this figure communicate a mood of meditation. What does quiet reflection mean? Does quiet reflection figure into your own life? How?
3. Representations of Buddhism and the figure of the Buddha have become commercialized in America through contemporary media outlets and mass consumption. How is this figure of the Buddha similar or different from other images you’ve seen on television, in books, or in commercial goods?
1. The ushnisha, urna, and distended earlobes indicate the identity of this figure as the Buddha. What visual symbols are used in images of figures from other religions? Research another religious figure and write a brief essay describing their representation in both visual and written sources. Consider how this is similar or different from the DMA Head of Buddha and provide support for your hypothesis of the reasons behind these similarities and differences.
3. This Head of Buddha was originally a larger sculpture that included a body. Imagine what the body features and details would have looked like based on your knowledge of the Buddha, other Buddhist sculptures, or Greco-Roman sculpture. Create a clay sculpture or drawing of your imagined figure.
4. Research the life of the historical Buddha or read the story of the Buddha. Then, choose several scenes to illustrate and create a storyboard. Students may wish to choose different scenes. Compile class illustrations into a storybook.
5. The appearance of this sculpture was greatly influenced by trade and exchange along the Silk Road between the Gandharan Empire in western Asia and the Roman Empire. Research this historic group of land and maritime routes that promoted trade and exploration. Create a presentation using text and images to describe the timeline, countries affected, and goods transported. Older students can consider in an essay how the interaction affected the participating regions (i.e. religion, culture, economics, and art) and if these effects were positive or negative. Afterwards, create a map outlining the route and labeling the participating countries and regions.
|Listen to curator Anne Bromberg discuss the Greek and Roman influences on Head of Buddha.|
|Listen to curator Anne Bromberg discuss the spread of Buddhism.|
|Listen to curator Anne Bromberg discuss the story of Buddha.|
Jansen, Eva Rudy. The Book of Buddhas: Ritual Symbolism used on Buddhist Statuary and Ritual Objects. Diever, Holland: Binkey Kok Publications, 1994.
Leidy, Denise. The Art of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its History and Meaning. Boston: Shambhala, 2008.
Tingley, Nancy. Buddhas. Petaluma, CA: Pomegranate Communications, Inc., 2009.
Books for Students:
Chatterjee, Manini. Roy, Anita. Eyewitness Books – India. New York: DK Publishing, 2002.
Ernst, Judith. The Golden Goose King: A Tale Told by the Buddha. Chapel Hill, NC: Parvardigar Press, 1995.
Streissguth, Tom. A Ticket to India. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1999.
Wilkinson, Philip. Morgan, Peggy. Eyewitness Books – Buddhism. DK Children, 2003.
Access a lesson plan for a study of trade along the Silk Road for elementary students.
Listen to a podcast from BBC Radio 4 about a Buddha sculpture in London.
This web site provides a summary and timeline of Buddhist religion, art, and culture.
Learn more about the Kushan Empire.
This web site provides a summary of the Buddha’s life.
This web site provides an overview of trade between Europe and Asia.
The story of the Buddha in pictures and video.
This web site provides a rich, multimedia exploration of India through photos, commentary, and educational resources.
Secondary level lesson plans focused on reflection and comparison of world belief systems.
Access a pdf document full of teaching ideas for understanding South Asian Hindu and Buddhist art.
Learn the basic concepts of Buddhism.
Access tips for recognizing Hindu and Buddhist gods.
This website provides a summary and timeline of South Asian Culture through art.
Access rich educational materials focused on the Art of South and Southeast Asia
Explore five facts helpful to teaching about Indian Art.
Concise and comparative presentations of world religions with connections to works of art.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”