Buddhas and Bodhisattvas from Pakistan to New York

I’ve never had much experience driving in cities.  I didn’t own my own car when I lived in Philadelphia while studying for my undergraduate degree, and despite being the capital of Florida, Tallahassee, where I went to graduate school, isn’t really a major metropolitan area. I’m certainly not a bad driver – I’ve driven hundreds of miles up and down the east coast with no difficulty and my driving record is nearly spotless – but I feel nervous thinking about driving into unfamiliar places with heavy traffic. I think I get this from my parents – like me, my mother just hasn’t had the experience, while my father has just never liked congestion or cities very much. This being said, when I realized driving into NYC to see Christian Luczanits’ lecture at the Asia Society Museum was far faster and less complicated than taking public transit from my new apartment, I knew this was going to be a somewhat nerve-wracking, albeit enlightening, experience. While Gandharan art is not my usual focus, I was particularly interested in hearing Dr. Luczanits’ presentation not only because I know very little on the subject, but because he is a scholar of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies as well as the current curator of the Rubin Museum of Art. I have often credited the Rubin Museum as my first encounter with Himalayan art and the reason I began to study Buddhism, so anyone or anything related to the institution holds an instant interest for me. A lot of work went into bringing this Exhibition to the United States, so it would be rather ridiculous to let a little fear of the unknown stop me from seeing it. Encouraged by my boyfriend, I set out for what Google Maps plotted as a half an hour drive at four in the afternoon, planning to arrive at the Asia Society Museum by five-thirty, when the Gandharan Buddhist galleries, normally closed on Mondays, would open for event ticket holders. I should have realized, it being September 12 and all, that there would be more than an hour’s worth of congestion going to and from the city, but I hadn’t counted on half the Lincoln Tunnel being closed off to through traffic.  Needless to say, by the time I finally made my way to the Museum it was already after six, and the lecture itself started at six-thirty. Having no time to search for street parking, I found an outrageously priced parking garage (with an incredibly kind attendant at least), and marched myself into the Museum, got my reserved ticket, and was grateful I at least had ten minutes to take a look at the critically acclaimed and much anticipated ancient Pakistani art before Dr. Luczanits spoke on the subject. Regretfully, this means that I do not have a fully comprehensive analysis of the pieces to present to you, but I can say without a doubt that the exhibit is made up of exquisitely detailed pieces accompanied by well-thought out and comprehensive written descriptions. There are, as always, a few pieces that stood out in particular.

The Exhibition: The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara

The Exhibition itself is divided into three sections: Classical Connections, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and Narratives and Architectural Context. In the first section, to quote the accompanying materials, “Gandharan art is exhibited alongside select works from India and the Roman world to highlight the stylistic and iconographic links and distinctions between these cultures.” In a number of examples, Gandharan deities are depicted in dress that is distinctly Eastern or Western in appearance. In other cases, such as the examples of Corinthian-style columns, Classical Western motifs are seamlessly melded with Buddhist imagery, as in the image below.

Figure capital with Seated Buddha, 2nd–3rd century CE, Schist (Lahore Museum)

The second section showcases numerous representations of enlightened beings from within the Buddhist pantheon. The Buddha himself is represented both abstractly, as in the second/third century C.E. schist Footprint of the Buddha, or anthropomorphically, alone or surrounded by an entourage. Images of other bodhisattvas, most prominently Maitreya, also feature in this section. These images drastically differ from those of Shakyamuni Buddha, maintaining intricately-carved long curling locks and distinctly masculine features.

Standing Bodhisattva Maitreya, 3rd–4th century CE, Shist (Lahore Museum)

The stupa features as an important monument and architectural feature throughout the ancient Buddhist world and this is no different in Gandharan art. While Indian stupas were often encircled by a “fence” containing images of the historical Buddha’s past lives as told in the Jataka tales, Gandharan stupas super-imposed narrative images upon the monuments themselves, and typically told the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s life in great detail instead. Examples of these narrative images fill the last section of the exhibit, and once again demonstrate a blending of religious cultures in their portrayal of classic Buddhist scenes.

Having toured the exhibit, spending less time reading about the images as I would have liked, I descended the stairs in time to take a seat for the lecture to follow.

Changing Conceptions: Gandharan Art and Buddhism:

A Lecture with Dr. Christian Luczanits

After a gracious introduction by the Asia Society Museum’s John H. Foster Curator for Traditional Asian Art, Adrian Prosser, Christian Luczanits took the stage to present on the changing conceptions of the Buddha from a mortal man based in history to one of many supramundane beings in Gandharan art and how this movement influenced the development of Mahayana Buddhism throughout Asia. Beginning with an explanation of the discovery of Gandharan Buddhist pieces as late as the eighteenth and nineteenth by British officials in Pakistan, Dr. Luczanits gave an introduction on the history of Buddhism in northern India, what is known about its move west, and the various types of images to be found and preserved in this and similar collections. In addition to familiar images of a reflective or meditative Buddha complete with hair knot, Dr. Luczanits noted three particular images of bodhisattvas, or buddhas-to-be, coming from this region: 1) a turban-wearing Siddhartha Gautama from before his enlightenment, who’s clothing and iconography epitomize the warrior kshatriya caste of India; 2) a long-haired and royally adorned brahmin bodhisattva recognized as the next Buddha to come, Maitreya; and 3) another turban-wearing bodhisattva holding a wreath, believed by some to be Avalokiteshvara.  Without paraphrasing his entire argument, Dr. Luczanits explained how the introduction of buddha-fields and multiple supramundane bodhisattvas and buddhas signified the presence of a shift in doctrinal focus within the religious practices of Gandhara to that which has become commonplace in Mahayana Buddhist teachings in East Asia. While much still remains unknown about the actual cult practices and specific doctrines followed by Buddhists in Gandhara during the first centuries of the Common Era, the presence of innovation and sophistication within the art of the area is impossible to ignore.

Vision of a Buddha’s Paradise, 4th century CE, Schist (Lahore Museum)


Having taught an introductory course on Buddhist history in which the doctrinal evolution of Buddhism played a large part, I was particularly surprised to learn that images of celestial bodhisattvas could be found as far as Pakistan even as early as these beautifully detailed images have been dated. I truly enjoyed listening to Dr. Luczanits’ speak, and it has prompted me to look further into this little-studied area of Buddhist history (as any good lecture should always do).  As to the Exhibition at the Asia Society Museum, which is the first of its kind in the United States in the last fifty years and continues to run until October 30, the selection of artifacts is astonishing. I absolutely recommend you visit before the collection is returned to its home museums abroad.

For more information on this Exhibition, please visit its detailed and informative official website (http://sites.asiasociety.org/gandhara/). You can also purchase the fully-illustrated catalogue for the collection, published through the Asia Society in association with the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik in Bonn, Germany, including essays by Christian Luczanits and Michael Jansen (http://asiastore.org/buddhist-heritage-of-pakistan.html).


About Kristen R.

Amateur home cook and preservationist with a love of event planning and a background in Tibetan Buddhist studies. View all posts by Kristen R.

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