Arts of Asia

Buddhist Stele, 2nd century
India, Gandhara
30 3/4 x 21 inches
Gift of Ellnora D. Krannert 1965-16-1

This stele from a Buddhist stupa ("reliquary mound") was made in the northwest region of Pakistan and Afghanistan in what was then known as Gandhara. Until the first century CE, Buddhist sculpture in Gandhara was aniconic. The Buddha was not represented in human form but signified symbolically by the depiction of a thematic event in his life or an object related to that event. Subsequently, Buddhist form became codified and the divine image of the Buddha was incorporated into the art.

This stele depicts two of the eight miracles associated with the life of the Buddha. The lower register depicts the Great Miracle of Preaching the Law at Sravasti, when manifestation of the Buddha's divine power led unbelievers to convert. The Buddha is seated in a pillared pavilion in padmasana (with legs folded and interlocked) on a raised lotus flower (signifying divinity), his hands in vyakhyana mudra, the preaching gesture representing the pure wisdom of a deity. Beneath him on either side of the lotus are two nagas ("serpent spirits") and flanking him are two Bodhisattvas (beings dedicated to attaining enlightenment) with their right hands raised in abhaya mudra, the gesture of protection.

On the upper level of the pavilion in the middle of the stele are female devas (powerful non-human beings) framed by arched chaitya windows. In the center window, the robed figure on the right with the ushnisha (cranial protuberance) is the Buddha. The figure on the left may be King Prasenajit, a follower of Buddha who had the pavilion constructed; there is precedence at the stupa sites of Barhut and Sanchi for inclusion of the donor's image in the reliefs.

The upper register of the stele represents the Buddha's ascendance to the Trayastrimsa heaven, where he converted his mother Maya, an event that occurred immediately after the Miracle of Sravasti. The Buddha is seated under an umbrella on an inverted lotus with his right hand raised in abhaya mudra. Standing on lotuses beside the Buddha are the gods Indra, on his left, and Brahma, to his right. Devotees stand alongside with their hands in anjali mudra, the gesture of devotion.

Text by Barbara H. Friedell, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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