Searching for the Buddhist Sect Which Propagated the Worship of the Buddha Image*

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    From the viewpoint of political history, the Post-Mauryan period, which began with the breakdown of centralized Mauryan authority, was characterized by the rapid loss of Mauryan political sovereignty, i.e., the establishment of various dynasties by foreign invaders. In this process of political change, northwest India experienced not only economic growth through trade and coinage, but also socio-cultural change. Religions, including Buddhism, also entered a new phase due to the spread of bhakti ideas which became the theoretical basis of the religious change. At that time, the gods of early Hinduism were becoming increasingly well defined and distinct as objects of devotion, and one of the Buddhist sects, whose activities were centered in northwest India in the cities of Gandhāra and Mathurā must have been influenced by this tendency toward the personification of deities and the subsequent direct, emotional worship practiced by their devotees. This is, therefore, an attempt to identify that Buddhist sect which theoretically and literally contributed to the deification of the Buddha and led to the popularization of worshiping his image around the world.


    Buddha Image , Gandh?ra , Mathur? , Sar?v?stiv?dins , Bhakti

  • I. Introduction

    In the socio-cultural history of India, the Post-Mauryan Period was characterized by the spread of bhakti ideas and their influence. These caused great change in most of the religious systems of the time in two ways: in the establishment of extensive deity pantheons and in the development of sectarianism. Like other religious systems, Buddhism began to establish their own pantheon of deities which brought about an internal schism. Due to this, Buddhism split into two main streams from which eventually emerged and developed its two primary traditions: Theravāda and Mahāyāna. It is well known that the latter developed the concept of the divine Buddha and began to worship him and other divine beings known as Bodhisattvas.

    While many scholars have given their attention to the various aspects of Mahayana philosophy and its traditions, there exists a break in historical records, particularly in the field of social history dealing with the particular Buddhist sect responsible for the propagation of the Buddha’s image. A question naturally arises about who or which group contributed to the development of the concept of the divine Buddha and of the worship of his image by the many Buddhist sects which flourished in northern India at that time. We only know that the first Buddha image was produced in either Gandhāra or Mathurā during the Post-Mauryan period, and we know which Buddhist sects were active in northern India at that time. Therefore, my focus will be these two cities and the Buddhist sects which flourished there. Afterward, I will try to identity a particular Buddhist sect and to establish its role in the worship of the Buddha’s image.

    II. Theistic Transformations and Schisms

    We know that the Mauryan empire was unique in that they controlled the largest territory in India up until the British conquest, and their decline marked the beginning of what is now called the Post-Mauryan period. At that time, two Brāhman dynasties, the Śuṅgas and the Kāṇvas, were founded in northern India. After them, several independent principalities arose, but they were soon conquered by Indo-Greek and Indo-Parthian forces. However, these forces were also dislodged by the advance of the Yue-chis, known as the Kuṣāṇas. The Śatavahāna dynasty occupied India’s Deccan Plateau, while the Ceras, Pāṇḍyas and Coḷas kingdoms were in southernmost India. At this time, the Indian people witnessed great economic growth, now referred to as the “Third Urbanization.” Based on archeological research of trade, coins, artifacts and buildings, we can confidently say that India’s early urbanism historically began in the 6th century BCE with its epicenter in the Ganges Valley, and reached its peak between 200 BCE and around 300 CE. All over India urbanization was taking place (Sharma 1995, 204). The Urbanization in the 6th century BCE was due to the propagation of the Iron-Technology, but this time was from the increase of trade with the grown or newly opened markets. Especially, the emergence of the Roman Empire as the dominant Western power gave a boost to Indian trade from the 1st century BCE onward. Urban centers and religious institutions were both located along trading routes which may have fostered a close relationship between them.

    Most Indian religions also underwent change at the time due to theistic transformation and schisms developing within them. Those were mainly expedited by a flourishing religious movement of the time, known as bhakti.1 The meaning of bhakti is simply understood as ‘loving devotion for a personal God’ (Chaudhuri 1997, 256‑57). The significance of this movement is that it did not require brāhmaṇas to perform rituals, because in bhakti, these were performed by puja.2 Because of this, non-theistic religions such as Buddhism and Jainism experienced a theistic transformation, and the Vedic religion also came to re-arrange their pantheon of deities. The religions split as follows: the Vedic religion split into the Śaivas and Bhāgavatas (later known as Vaiṣṇavas); Jainism split into the Śvetāmbaras (‘the white-dressed’) and the Dīghambaras (‘the air-dressed’); and Buddhism split into Theravāda and Mahāyāna. In Buddhism, the Buddha image was first produced at this time and rapidly developed into two different art traditions, the Mathurī and the Gandhārī styles.

    Image worship is one of the most widespread phenomena in the history of Eastern religion, while it is downplayed in other world religions. In particular, Islam, prophetic Judaism, etc., continue to renounce the worship of icons. At that time, the Buddhists, unsatisfied with the worship of venerated symbols and objects, established their own pantheon of deities, borrowing some from local cults. And that is when they established the cult of the Buddha image, even though the Buddha himself refused to condone or conduct any kind of idol worship. Thus, Buddhism started out as an aniconic religion, but gradually accepted images into their worship. The worship of images was one of the significant features which distinguished Mahāyāna doctrine from Theravāda.

    The Buddha himself said a few things about personality cults. One relevant conversation on the issue is found in the Kāliṅgabodhi Jātaka. In this book, Ānanda requested that some object be selected for the Buddha’s followers to revere during his absences―while away teaching or meditating―or more importantly, after his death, for with his passing into Nibbāna, he would never again appear upon the earth. In reply, the Buddha considered three types of religious symbols: Sarīrika-ceitya, Pāribhogika-cetiya and Uddesika-cetiya.3 Among these, the Buddha decided that there was nothing against people paying their respects in the presence of a pipal tree, beneath one of which he had achieved enlightenment outside the city of Gayā (Jātaka 4:228). The Mahāpārinibbna Sutta also reveals indirectly the Buddha’s aversion to the cult of personality. When the Buddha was nearing death, Ānanda pressed him on the issue again with more urgency. This time, Ananda did not ask about an object of worship, but asked how to treat the remains of a Tathāgata, and the Buddha explained how. Following the Buddha’s instructions, his followers treated his remains as a Tathāgata (Mahāparinibbāna Sutta 5:25‑26.). Thus, in the words of the Buddha, there is no clear statement condoning idol worship. The Buddha only emphasized the Dhamma and the rules of the saṅgha, and suggested only symbols, such as a tree, as possible objects for worship. Therefore, we can cautiously say that the worship of the Buddha image originated from an idea not entirely in keeping with the Buddha’s thoughts.

    Otherwise, it is natural that the disciples of an ideally perfect man, who told them that after death he would forever cease to exist, should have devised some method to perpetuate his memory and stimulate a desire to conform to his example. Their first step, as we know, was to preserve his cremains and to honor every object associated with his earthly existence. The Buddha was always depicted symbolically in the story-telling bas-reliefs of Bhārhut and Sāṇcī with objects appropriate to the story, i.e., the Bodhi tree symbolized his enlightenment, the Dhamma-cakka (wheel), his First Sermon, and the stūpa, his Nibbāna (Coomaraswamy 2001, 7‑8). However, with the passage of time, representations of his human form began to appear, and the Buddhists came to worship not only his relics but the structures in which they were enshrined. Around these they placed sculptures commemorating his life and teachings. The early great stūpas belong to the Post-Mauryan period, such as those found at Bhārhūt, Sāṇcī, and Amarāvatī, and their gates are decorated with narrative bas-reliefs of events from the Buddha’s life and with scenes of gods and men rendering homage to him. For instance, the bas-reliefs on the balustrade of the stūpa at Bhārhut which dates from about the 1st century BCE, portray twenty-two scenes representing various tales from the Buddha legend, both his historic life as Prince Gotama and his prior 550 lives (Dehejia 1997, 83). Eventually, these evolved into small carvings and sculptures of his likeness in wood, stone, metal, terra-cotta, or clay, and on these were often inscribed well-known Buddhist sayings. Afterward, paintings of him also appeared, and wall frescoes became common. Indeed in some temples, paintings replaced statues and carvings as objects of adoration (Williams 1974, 468).

    1The question on the origin of bhakti still has been remained in debate: many scholars such as Banerjea, Bhattacharyya, Majumdar, etc. asserted the Hindhu origin, while other scholars such as Jha, Dayal, etc. suggested the Buddhist origin (Banerjea 1985, 72; Bhattacharyya 1998, 58‑59; Majumdar 1982, 171; Dayal 1978, 32; Jha 1999, 136).  2Here, it must be noticed that vedic sacrifices were not entirely rejected. They still provided the ceremonial content of occasions like the coronation of kings, but people lost touch with Vedic tradition.  3For more details on those three cetiyas, see the first section, ‘Venerated Symbols and Objects of Early Buddhism’ of the chapter in the Kāliṅgabodhi Jātaka.

    III. Buddhist Sects in Gandh?ra and Mathur?

    It is generally believed that likenesses of Buddha were first produced in one of two urban centers, Gandhāra or Mathurā. The epic poets include the inhabitants of Gandhāra among the people of Uttarapātha, and their territory contained two great cities, Takṣaśilā and Pṣukarāvati, which were located on both sides of the Indus River. The poet Hecataeus referred to a city of the Gandhāri called Caspapyrus, which Stein equated with the Caspapyrus referenced by the historian Herodotus. According to the Gandhāra Jātaka, the kingdom of Gandhāra included Kāśmir. In the Telapatta Jātaka and the Susuna Jātaka, Takṣaśilā lies 2,000 leagues north of Benares (Bhattacharyya 1998, 151‑52). And Gandhāra is mentioned as early as the fifth century BCE as being one of the sixteen Mahājanapadas in the lifetime of the Buddha, but seems to have received the Buddha’s teachings some 150 years after the Buddha’s Nibbāna.4 It is significant that Buddhism traveled to China along the central Asian silk route via Gandhāra. A remarkably eclectic school of art arose in Gandhāra due to the artistic influence of the Hellenistic West and from Persian culture mingling with an Indian Buddhist ethos.5

    Under the patronage of the Kuṣāṇa rulers, whose empire extended from the Hindukush Mountains to the Ganges River and included the territories of Gandhāran Peshawar and Indian Mathurā, dozens of extensive monastic complexes were founded in this region (Dehejia 1997, 183‑84). Mathurā, known by the Greeks as Mothera and Modoura (‘City of God’), was the capital of the Śūrasena Kingdom. It was also known as Madhupurī, Madhurā, Madhupaghna and Śivapura. This kingdom was the land of the Yādavas who were always in conflict with the eastern powers led by Magadha. Mathurā was subsequently occupied by the Indo-Greeks, the Śakas and the Kuṣāṇas (Bhattacharyya 1998, 242‑43). Then, the Arjunayanas established their independence to the southeast of Mathurā towards the end of the Śuṅga period. Brick structures, roofing tiles, fortifications, etc., dating from that time have been discovered. Therefore, it seems that Mathurā was a great centre of trade, the arts, religion and administration in the 1st and 2nd centuries during the Saka-Kuṣāṇa period (Sharma 1995, 223‑24).

    Many scholars have researched where the first Buddha likenesses may have been produced, and Gandhāra has been suggested as the first place by some scholars such as Farquhar, Bhattacharyya, Ray, etc.6 These scholars have suggested that the making of such images was due to foreign influence and not of Indian origin. They suggest that Greek, or at any rate Eurasian craftsmen, created the first images of the Buddha for Indian patrons based on the model of a Hellenistic Apollo, and that later images were not so much Indian as they were Indianized versions of Hellenistic art, or, as it was more loosely expressed, Greek prototypes (Bhattacharyya 1993, 21). On the other hand, the theory that Mathurā was the origin of the Buddha image has been asserted by other scholars. According to Maxwell and Lamotte, the Buddha images found at Mathurā were comparatively older than those of Gandhāra, and no Buddha images prior to the Christian era are known to exist (Maxwell 1998, 136?39; Lamott 1988, 437). Jha asserts that in the context of the progression from stūpa to human likeness, Mathurā produced the first image of the Buddha (Jha 1999, 141‑43). Similarly, Coomaraswamy, explaining the similarities of form between Buddhist worship and that of the Nāga or Yaka,7 also concluded Indian origin (Coomaraswamy 1998, 13‑14). This debate on point of origin remained unresolved, repeating parallel arguments without any mutual agreement. The reason for the uncertainty is the lack of dependable sources. In addition, archeological findings to date do not coincide with historical records or literature. The fact that we don’t have relevant archaeological proof does not disprove either theory. And in regards to any written record, we can not regard anything as fact.

    Nevertheless, it is now clear that the first Buddha image was produced in either Gandhāra or Mathurā, and that the ‘bhakti’ movement was flourishing in both places. Therefore, for the aim of this study, we need to identify a specific Buddhist sect which meets the following three conditions: 1) a sect which flourished during the Post-Mauryan period, 2) a sect which believed in the divine nature of the Buddha, and 3) a sect whose activities centered around Mathurā or Gandhāra or both.

    Many inscriptions dating from the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century CE record gifts of cave-temples and land for the building of stūpas to various Buddhist orders. According to these inscriptions, gifts to more than twenty sects are recorded (Hirakawa 1998, 106). If we include written records, that number rises to thirty-four. They are: Mahāsāṅgika, Lokottaravādin, Ekavyāvahārika, Gokulika or Kukkuṭika, Bahuśrutīya, Prajñaptivādin, Caitīya or Caitika, Andhaka, Pūrvaśaila or Uttaraśaila, Aparaśaila, Rājagirīya, Siddhārthika, Sthavira, Haimavata, Vātsīputrīya, Sammatīya, Dharmottarīya, Bhadrayānīya, Ṣaṇṇagarika or Ṣaṇḍagiriya, Sarvāstivādin or Vaibhāṣika, Mūlasarvāstivādin, Sautrāntika or Saṅkrāntivādin, Dāṛṣtāntika, Vibhajyavādin (Sri Lankan Theravāda sect), Mahīśāsaka, Dharmaguptaka, Kāśyapīya or Suvarṣaka, Tāmraśātīya (Sri Lankan sect), Mahāvihāra sect of the Theravādin, Abhayagirivāsin or Dhammarucika, Jetavanāya or Sāgalika, Hetuvādin, Uttarāpathaka, Vetullaka.8 It is generally conceded that none of the groups was present everywhere throughout India and no area was the exclusive domain of any specific group. Very little is known about their geographical distribution.

    According to Buddhist tradition, some monks known to be a branch of the Theravādins went to northern India from Magadhā and settled in Gandhāra and Kaśmir during the Post-Mauryan period, and they later traveled to Central Asia and China (Singh 1994, 89). The schism in the Theravādin lineage began with the formation of the Mahīṃsāsakas and the Vajjiputtakas. The Sarāvāstivadins branched off from the former, and the date of its origin is usually estimated to be about 150 years after the Buddha’s Nibbāna (Hirakawa 1990, 114). They were called Sarāvāstivādins because of their fundamental doctrine of Sarāvāsti, which means ‘all things exist.’ During the reign of King Aśoka, the Sarāvāstivādins did not find a congenial home at Paṭāliputra, i.e., in Magadha, and migrated north. It is well known that in the Sanskrit Avadānas, Upagupta became King Asoka’s spiritual adviser, while Pāli texts claim it was Moggaliputta Tissa. This also lends support to the view that Mathurā became the first centre of the Sarvāstivādins soon after the Second Buddhist Council, and that it was from Mathurā that the influence of the Sarvāstivādins radiated all over northern India, particularly over Gandhāra and Kaśmir (Dutt 2007, 129). The earliest known inscription from the 1st century CE records that the main center of Sarāvāstivādin activity was first at Mathurā and later expanded to Kaśmir (Hazra 1998, 27). The Sarāvāstivādins at Mathurā were under the leadership of Upagupta and their branch in Kaśmir, under that of Madhyāntika.9 Some Sarāvāstivādins claimed Rāhulabhadra as their founder, renowned for his devotion to discipline. Rhulabhadra, in the Abhidharma-kośa-vyākhyāṃ, is mentioned as a teacher (Dutt 2007, 131‑32).

    Sanskrit was the language of their sacred scriptures. The Sarāvāstivādins had their own canon in Sanskrit, or in mixed Sanskrit, which was divided into three sections; the Sūtra, the Vinaya and the Abhidharma. The Sarāvāstivādins agreed with the Theravādins in their doctrinal matters (Hazra 1998, 27). A Sanskrit anthology of the Buddhist legend, however, the Divyāvadāna or ‘The Divine Achievements’ which was compiled by the Sarāvāstivādins was used as the vehicle of the new ruling (Maxwell 1998, 135‑36). We also learn from Chinese translators that the Lalita Vistara was a Sarāvāstivādin biography of the Buddha (Dutt 2007, 243). It is one of the most significant texts to lay a solid foundation for the concept of the Buddha’s divine, sometimes super-divine, powers, even though they, like the Theravādins, regarded him as a human being.

    With the spread of bhakti ideas in northern India, the Sarāvāstivādins rapidly became the most influential sect in Buddhism, especially with the patronage of King Kaṇiṣka, one of the Kuṣāṇa kings. Furthermore, even before King Kaṇiṣka gave them land, other inscriptions record that other powerful officials also gave land to the order, such as a northern Indian governor-general named Kusuluka and a governor named Patika (Hirakawa 1990, 106). The popularity of the sect is evidenced by an inscription discovered at Mathurā which contained a Buddhist image dating from the reign of King Huviṣka in the 1st century CE. The inclusion of a Bodhisattva image on the inscription is attributed to two nuns, both of whom were disciples of Bhikṣu Bala, a Tripiṭaka master. In addition, one of the nuns, Dhanavatī, was a niece of Bhikṣu Buddhamitra, also a Tripiṭaka master. This inscription evidently refers to an image of Gotama Buddha before his attainment of bodhi, that is, a Theravādic image. The preceptor of the nun is described as a student of the Tripiṭaka, attributed only to the Theravādins. That Bhiksu Bala was a Sarāvāstivādin is supported by two other inscriptions discovered at Śrāvasti (Dutt 2007, 134).

    4Therefore, it can be carefully asserted that an apocryphal series of legendary works, evolved in this area, was partly due to the geographical distance from the sacred center in the north-east India.  5Unfortunately, the Buddhist monuments in Gandhāra were destroyed by Mihiragula, one of Hun kings ruled over India during the last decade of the 15th and early 6th centuries CE. Therefore, today we do not have enough archaeological sources.  6For more details, see Farquhar (1966, 111), Bhattacharyya (1998, 271), Ray (1973, 24‑25).  7Traditionally, the worship of Yakṣas and Yaṣaṇīs (female form) was so popular over the Ganga-Yamuna Valley as well as in the central India with the Nāga cult. They were regarded as beings who were super-natural human in power and energy but also capable of being malevolent, sometimes even acting as guardians of individuals, groups and communities of people. they were usually imagined to be of the earth, earthy, and were visualized as such, because they were supposed to be concerned more with mundane affairs than with those of the mind and the spirit.  8The names of the sects are from Bareua’s article ‘Hīnayāna’ of Encyclopedia of Religion 2:444‑57.  9According to the Buddhist tradition, Madhyāntika was the direct disciple of Ānanda while Upagupta was the disciple of Śāṇavāsika who was also a disciple of Ānanda (Hazra 2009, 187).

    IV. Conclusion

    The Post-Mauryan period began with the breakdown of Mauryan centralized authority and was followed by the establishment of various dynasties by foreign invaders. The period was characterized by the loss of Mauryan political sovereignty, economic growth through trade, and increased cultural exchange with the West and other Asian countries, which possibly also provided a model for vigorous social development. The local religions also changed and splintered, probably due to the spread of the bhakti movement which laid a new theoretical base for religion. As the gods of early Hinduism were becoming increasingly well defined and distinct as objects of devotion, the non-Vedic religions, such as Buddhism and Jainism, applied the new ideas and modified their own pantheons of deities.

    It is generally conceded that the Buddha image as an object of devotion was first produced in either Gandhāra or Mathurā in the Post-Mauryan period. For the aim of this work, we identified a specific Buddhist sect which met three conditions: 1) a sect which flourished during the Post-Mauryan period, 2) a sect which believed in the divinity of Buddha, and 3) a sect whose activities centered around Mathurā or Gandhāra or both. As mentioned above, more than thirty sects were identified from literary sources. Among them, we found one Buddhist sect which was active in the cities of Gandhāra and Mathurā in northwest India. Moreover, they developed the concept of the divine Buddha, which was a necessary precursor to making the Buddha image an object of worship, and that sect was the Sarāvāstivādins.

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