Depicting the divine
Representing divine figures has long been a thorny issue. After all, depicting the divine in human form would seem to define and limit the divine in a manner which seems to contradict the idea of God as infinite and all-powerful. There’s also the fourth commandment, as offered in the Hebrew Bible, which reads:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20:1-17)
While this commandment has been interpreted in various ways, Judaism and Islam both prohibit the representation of God and other divine figures in human form. Christianity has long relied on images of God, Christ, and the saints as a way of educating the public, but even so, at several points in history, images of divine figures were destroyed—often violently (the destruction of images is called “iconoclasm”). The earliest images of the Buddha also appear to avoid depicting him in human form, though scholars are still debating why this is the case.
Buddha, enlightenment and the Bodhi tree
The man who became known as the Buddha was a Hindu prince, named Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in the 5th or 6th century B.C.E. to a royal family—the leaders of the Shakya clan—living in what is now Nepal. When he was about 29 years old, Prince Siddhartha (who was also known as Shakyamuni) traveled outside of his sheltered palace and encountered an old man, a sick man, and a corpse—figures that, for the prince, epitomized the pain and suffering of the world. He also encountered an ascetic, someone who has chosen to abstain from the pleasures of life in order to pursue spiritual knowledge. After this experience, Prince Siddhartha decided to renounce his luxurious, royal life and to travel around the countryside as an ascetic, meditating and studying. Ultimately, Prince Siddhartha was seeking an end to worldly pain and suffering, and a release from the cycle of rebirth and death (samsara) that characterizes Hindu concepts of time (more on Hinduism and Buddhism here).
One of the most important moments in the story of Prince Siddhartha is when he reached spiritual enlightenment—a state of infinite knowledge—and became known as the Buddha or “the enlightened one.” This occurred about six years after the prince renounced his royal life, while he was meditating underneath a fig tree outside a small village in the present-day state of Bihar, India. The fig tree under which the Buddha reached enlightenment became known as the Bodhi (“awakened” or “enlightened”) tree, and the place where the Buddha sat became an important tirtha or sacred place known as Bodh Gaya (“awakened” or “enlightened” place).
Early images of the Buddha at Bharhut
Some of the earliest depictions of the Buddha reaching enlightenment appear as sculptural friezes on the exterior of sacred Buddhist monuments known as stupas, which Buddhist monks and nuns built as part of their monastic complexes (more on stupas here).
One such depiction is originally from the stupa at Bharhut in the present-day state of Madhya Pradesh, India (left). Carved in reddish-brown sandstone sometime around 80-100 B.C.E. this depiction appears on a railing (vedika) pillar that once surrounded the main stupa. The scene shows several figures kneeling and standing on an architectural form that encircles a large tree.
The place of enlightenment or the moment of enlightenment?
An inscription that accompanies this scene, carved into the roof of the architectural form, identifies it as “the Bodhi tree of holy Shakyamuni”  which has led some scholars to interpret this depiction as the location, or the tirtha, where the Buddha’s enlightenment took place—the tree under which Prince Siddhartha reached enlightenment and the temple that devotees later constructed at this sacred site.
Some of the figures in the scene appear kneeling in prayer in front of an altar at the base of the tree. Celestial beings fly near the top of the tree, and appear to toss flower garlands on the branches. Their presence reinforces the sacredness of the site.
On the right side of the relief, we see a pillar topped with an elephant capital, which, scholars argue, supports the interpretation of this scene as the site of enlightenment. This pillar recalls those constructed by Emperor Ashoka—one of the first Buddhist rulers in India—who erected pillars with animal capitals at important sites of the Buddha’s life (below, left).
In this interpretation, the Bharhut scene could be a depiction of pilgrimage—the kneeling devotees could be Buddhist practitioners traveling to Bodh Gaya as part of religious devotion, to visit the site where the Buddha reached enlightenment hundreds of years before.
However, some scholars argue that it is not simply the location (tirtha) of the Buddha’s enlightenment depicted in this scene, but rather the actual moment of enlightenment itself—complete with an aniconic, symbolic representation of the Buddha. (What does aniconic mean?)
In this interpretation of the scene on the pillar from Bharhut, the Buddha appears not in human form—but rather symbolically, represented by the altar. What we are seeing here is a representation of the Buddha’s formless state upon reaching spiritual enlightenment. In fact, some believe the inscription translates as “enlightenment of the Holy One Shakyamuni” rather than the “Bodhi tree of holy Shakyamuni”—a reading that supports the interpretation of this scene as a depiction of the event of enlightenment not simply the place where enlightenment happened.
Other aniconic images of the Buddha
Along the same lines, scholars argue that other sculptural friezes at important early Buddhist stupas like Bharhut depict scenes from the life of the Buddha, with the Buddha represented in aniconic form—as an empty throne (above), a wheel signifying the Buddha’s creation of the Wheel of Law or Dharma (below, right), or footsteps (below, left), and sometimes even as a stupa (see the image at the top of this page). A third way to interpret the enlightenment scene from the Bharhut stupa and other so-called aniconic depictions of the Buddha is to read them as depictions of Buddhist doctrine or belief.
Imagining the Buddha’s Corporeal Body
This trend of depicting the Buddha in aniconic form continues until after the turn of the 1st century C.E. with the development of Mahayana Buddhism when we begin to see a large number of images of the Buddha in human or anthropomorphic form (below). These new, iconic images of the Buddha were particularly popular in the region of Gandhara (in present-day Pakistan) during the Kushana period and include depictions of the Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya (below). These anthropomorphic images usher in a new phase of Buddhist art in which artists convey meaning through the depiction of special bodily marks (lakshanas) and hand gestures (mudras) of the Buddha. In this anthropomorphic image of the Buddha’s enlightenment, the artist depicts Prince Siddhartha seated on a throne, surrounded by the demon Mara and his army, who attempted—unsuccessfully—to thwart Prince Siddhartha’s attainment of enlightenment. At the moment of enlightenment, the prince reaches his right hand towards the ground in a gesture (or mudra, and specifically the bhumisparshamudra) ) of calling the earth to witness his spiritual awakening. In doing so he becomes the Buddha.
A Buddhist king
What happens when a powerful ruler adopts a new religion that contradicts the life into which he was born? What about when this change occurs during the height of his rule when things are pretty much going his way? How is that information conveyed over a large geographical region with thousands of inhabitants?
King Ashoka, who many believe was an early convert to Buddhism, decided to solve these problems by erecting pillars that rose some 50’ into the sky. The pillars were raised throughout the Magadha region in the North of India that had emerged as the center of the first Indian empire, the Mauryan Dynasty (322-185 B.C.E). Written on these pillars, intertwined in the message of Buddhist compassion, were the merits of King Ashoka.
The third emperor of the Mauryan dynasty, Ashoka, who ruled from c. 279 B.C.E. – 232 B.C.E., was the first leader to accept Buddhism and thus the first major patron of Buddhist art. Ashoka made a dramatic conversion to Buddhism after witnessing the carnage that resulted from his conquest of the village of Kalinga. He adopted the teachings of the Buddha known as the Four Noble Truths, referred to as the dharma (the law):
Life is suffering (suffering=rebirth)
the cause of suffering is desire
the cause of desire must be overcome
when desire is overcome, there is no more suffering (suffering=rebirth)
Individuals who come to fully understand the Four Noble Truths are able to achieve Enlightenment, ending samsara, the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. Ashoka also pledged to follow the Six Cardinal Perfections (the Paramitas), which were codes of conduct created after the Buddha’s death providing instructions for the Buddhist practitioners to follow a compassionate Buddhist practice. Ashoka did not require that everyone in his kingdom become Buddhist, and Buddhism did not become the state religion, but through Ashoka’s support, it spread widely and rapidly.
One of Ashoka’s first artistic programs was to erect the pillars that are now scattered throughout what was the Mauryan empire. The pillars vary from 40 to 50 feet in height. They are cut from two different types of stone—one for the shaft and another for the capital. The shaft was almost always cut from a single piece of stone. Laborers cut and dragged the stone from quarries in Mathura and Chunar, located in the northern part of India within Ashoka’s empire. The pillars weigh about 50 tons each. Only 19 of the original pillars survive and many are in fragments. The first pillar was discovered in the 16th century.
Lotus and lion
The physical appearance of the pillars underscores the Buddhist doctrine. Most of the pillars were topped by sculptures of animals. Each pillar is also topped by an inverted lotus flower, which is the most pervasive symbol of Buddhism (a lotus flower rises from the muddy water to bloom unblemished on the surface—thus the lotus became an analogy for the Buddhist practitioner as he or she, living with the challenges of everyday life and the endless cycle of birth and rebirth, was able to achieve Enlightenment, or the knowledge of how to be released from samsara, through following the Four Noble Truths). This flower, and the animal that surmount it, form the capital, the topmost part of a column. Most pillars are topped with a single lion or a bull in either seated or standing positions. The Buddha was born into the Shakya or lion clan. The lion, in many cultures, also indicates royalty or leadership. The animals are always in the round and carved from a single piece of stone.
Some pillars had edicts (proclamations) inscribed upon them. The edicts were translated in the 1830s. Since the 17th century, 150 Ashokan edicts have been found carved into the face of rocks and cave walls as well as the pillars, all of which served to mark his kingdom, which stretched across northern India and south to below the central Deccan plateau and in areas now known as Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. The rocks and pillars were placed along trade routes and in border cities where the edicts would be read by the largest number of people possible. They were also erected at pilgrimage sites such as at Bodh Gaya, the place of Buddha’s Enlightenment, and Sarnath, the site of his First Sermon and Sanchi, where the Mahastupa, the Great Stupa of Sanchi, is located (a stupa is a burial mound for an esteemed person. When the Buddha died, he was cremated and his ashes were divided and buried in several stupas. These stupas became pilgrimage sites for Buddhist practitioners).
Some pillars were also inscribed with dedicatory inscriptions, which firmly date them and name Ashoka as the patron. The script was Brahmi, the language from which all Indic language developed. A few of the edicts found in the western part of India are written in a script that is closely related to Sanskrit and a pillar in Afghanistan is inscribed in both Aramaic and Greek—demonstrating Ashoka’s desire to reach the many cultures of his kingdom. Some of the inscriptions are secular in nature. Ashoka apologizes for the massacre in Kalinga and assures the people that he now only has their welfare in mind. Some boast of the good works that Ashoka has done, underscoring his desire to provide for his people.
The Hinayana or Theravada period
The pillars (and the stupas) were created in the Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) period (also known as Theravada). Hinayana is the first stage of Buddhism, roughly dated from the sixth c. to the first century B.C.E., in which no images of the Buddha were made. The memory of the historical Buddha and his teachings was enough to sustain the practitioners. But several symbols became popular as stand-ins for the human likeness of the Buddha. The lotus, as noted above, is one. The lion, which is typically seen on the Ashokan pillars, is another. The wheel (chakra) is a symbol of both samsara, the endless circle of birth and rebirth, and the dharma, the Four Noble Truths.
Why a pillar?
There are a few hypotheses about why Ashoka used the pillar as a means for communicating his Buddhist message. It is quite possible that Persian artists came to Ashoka’s empire in search of work, bringing with them the form of the pillar, which was common in Persian art. But is also likely that Ashoka chose the pillar because it was already an established Indian art form. In both Buddhism and Hinduism, the pillar symbolized the axis mundi (the axis on which the world spins).
The pillars and edicts represent the first physical evidence of the Buddhist faith. The inscriptions assert Ashoka’s Buddhism and support his desire to spread the dharma throughout his kingdom. The edicts say nothing about the philosophical aspects of Buddhism and scholars have suggested that this demonstrates that Ashoka had a very simple and naïve understanding of the dharma. But, as Ven S. Dhammika suggests, Ashoka’s goal was not to expound on the truths of Buddhism, but to inform the people of his reforms and encourage them to live a moral life. The edicts, through their strategic placement and couched in the Buddhist dharma, serve to underscore Ashoka’s administrative role and as a tolerant leader.
Edict #6 is a good example:
Beloved of the Gods speaks thus: Twelve years after my coronation I started to have Dhamma edicts written for the welfare and happiness of the people, and so that not transgressing them they might grow in the Dhamma. Thinking: “How can the welfare and happiness of the people be secured?” I give my attention to those near and those dwelling far, so I can lead them to happiness and then I act accordingly. I do the same for all groups. I have honored all religions with various honors. But I consider it best to meet with people personally.
 The details and extent to which Emperor Ashoka was a practicing Buddhist is a topic debated by scholars, though it is widely accepted that he was the first major patron of Buddhist art on the Indian subcontinent. For more discussions as to whether or not Ashoka was a “secular” ruler, see Akeel Bilgrami, ed.,Beyond the Secular West (Columbia University Press, 2016); Charles Taylor and Alfred Stepan, eds., Boundaries of Toleration: Religion, Culture, and Public Life (Columbia University Press, 2014); and Ashis Nandy, “The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance,” Alternatives XIII (1988), pp. 177-194. For more on Ashoka’s relationship with the Buddhist community and doctrine, see Alf Hiltebeitel, “King Asoka’s Dhamma,” in Dharma (University of Hawai’i Press, 2010), pp. 12-18 and John S. Strong, The Legend of King Asoka: A Study and Translation of the Asokavadana (Princeton University Press, 1983).
Site of Buddha’s First Sermon
The most celebrated of the Ashokan pillars is the one erected at Sarnath, the site of Buddha’s First Sermon where he shared the Four Noble Truths (the dharma or the law). Currently, the pillar remains where it was originally sunk into the ground, but the capital is now on display at the Sarnath Museum. It is this pillar that was adopted as the national emblem of India. It is depicted on the one rupee note and the two rupee coin.
The pillar is a symbol of the axis mundi (cosmic axis) and of the column that rises everyday at noon from the legendary Lake Anavatapta (the lake at the center of the universe according to Buddhist cosmology) to touch the sun.
The top of the column—the capital—has three parts. First, a base of a lotus flower, the most ubiquitous symbol of Buddhism.
Then, a drum on which four animals are carved representing the four cardinal directions: a horse (west), an ox (east), an elephant (south), and a lion (north). They also represent the four rivers that leave Lake Anavatapta and enter the world as the four major rivers. Each of the animals can also be identified by each of the four perils of samsara. The moving animals follow one another endlessly turning the wheel of existence.
Four lions stand atop the drum, each facing in the four cardinal directions. Their mouths are open roaring or spreading the dharma, the Four Noble Truths, across the land. The lion references the Buddha, formerly Shakyamuni, a member of the Shakya (lion) clan. The lion is also a symbol of royalty and leadership and may also represent the Buddhist king Ashoka who ordered these columns. A chakra was originally mounted above the lions.
Some of the lion capitals that survive have a row of geese carved below the lions. The goose is an ancient Vedic symbol (Veda means knowledge in Sanskrit and the Vedas refers to the canonical collection of hymns, prayers and liturgical formulas that make up the earliest of the Hindu sacred writings. Many of the Buddhist symbols and practices derive from these early texts). The flight of the goose is thought of as a link between the earthly and heavenly spheres.
The pillar reads from bottom to top. The lotus represents the murky water of the mundane world and the four animals remind the practitioner of the unending cycle of samsara as we remain, through our ignorance and fear, stuck in the material world. But the chakras (wheels) between them offer the promise of the Eightfold Path, that guide one to the unmoving center at the hub of the wheel. Note that in these particular chakras, the number of spokes in the wheel (eight for the Eightfold Path), had not yet been standardized.
The lions are the Buddha himself from whom the knowledge of release from samsara is possible. And the chakra that once stood at the apex represents moksa, the release from samsara. The symbolism of moving up the column toward Enlightenment parallels the way in which the practitioner meditates on the stupa in order to attain the same goal.