Buddhist Art

By Dr. Jennifer N. McIntire and Dr. Karen Shelby

Published in smarthistory, 2014

The Historical Buddha

A Human Endeavor

Photo of seated Buddha preaching the first sermon.

Buddha Preaching the First Sermon, Sarnath, c. 465–85, tan sandstone (Archaeological Museum, Sarnath, India)

Among the founders of the world’s major religions, the Buddha was the only teacher who did not claim to be other than an ordinary human being. Other teachers were either God or directly inspired by God. The Buddha was simply a human being and he claimed no inspiration from any God or external power. He attributed all his realization, attainments and achievements to human endeavor and human intelligence. A man and only a man can become a Buddha. Every man has within himself the potential of becoming a Buddha if he so wills it and works at it. Nevertheless, the Buddha was such a perfect human that he came to be regarded in popular religion as super-human.

Man’s position, according to Buddhism, is supreme. Man is his own master and there is no higher being or power that sits in judgment over his destiny. If the Buddha is to be called a “savior” at all, it is only in the sense that he discovered and showed the path to liberation, to Nirvana, the path we are invited to follow ourselves.

It is with this principle of individual responsibility that the Buddha offers freedom to his disciples. This freedom of thought is unique in the history of religion and is necessary because, according to the Buddha, man’s emancipation depends on his own realization of Truth, and not on the benevolent grace of a God or any external power as a reward for his obedient behavior.

The Life of Buddha

The main events of the Buddha’s life are well known. He was born Siddhartha Gautama of the Shaka clan. He is said to have had a miraculous birth, precocious childhood, and a princely upbringing. He married and had a son.

Fasting Buddha Shakyamuni, 3rd-5th century (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Fasting Buddha Shakyamuni, 3rd-5th century (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

He encountered an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a religious ascetic. He became aware of suffering and became convinced that his mission was to seek liberation for himself and others.

He renounced his princely life, spent six years studying doctrines and undergoing yogic austerities. He then gave up ascetic practices for normal life. He spent seven weeks in the shade of a Bodhi tree until, finally, one night toward dawn, enlightenment came.

Then he preached sermons and embarked on missionary travels for 45 years. He affected the lives of thousands—high and low. At the age of 80 he experienced his parinirvana—extinction itself.

This is the most basic outline of his life and mission. The literature inspired by the Buddha’s story is as various as those who have told it in the last 2500 years. To the first of his followers, and the tradition associated with Theravada Buddhism and figures like the great Emperor Ashoka, the Buddha was a man, not a God. He was a teacher, not a savior. To this day the Theravada tradition prevails in parts of India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand.

To those who, a few hundred years later, formed the Mahayana School, Buddha was a savior and often a God—a God concerned with man’s sorrows above all else. The Mahayana form of Buddhism is in Tibet, Mongolia, Vietnam, Korea, China, and Japan. The historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) is also known as Shakyamuni.

Introduction to Buddhism


What is your world view? Most of us have a tendency to judge the actions of historical individuals and people through the lens of our own contemporary values. To attempt to understand the ideas, philosophies, and beliefs of another culture, we need to grasp that culture’s world view. We need to be able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

To understand Buddhism and its origins, we need to learn about the outlook of the Ganges and Indus Valley inhabitants and society in the 5th and 6th centuries B.C.E. Their knowledge and point-of-view inform the environment in which Buddhism came into being. We need to know something of the Buddha’s life and his early followers’ world view.

Map of Ancient India, showing the "eight great places in Buddhism."


When we talk about the religion that worships the Buddha, we refer to it as singular: Buddhism. However, it may be more accurate to talk about “Buddhisms.” The religion that originated in India took on so many different forms and adapted in such a variety ways that it is often difficult to see how the various sects of Buddhism are related. What do they all have in common? The worship of the Buddha, of course! But who was Buddha? Was Buddha a man or a god? In early forms of Buddhism, Buddha is most definitely a man. As the religion changes and adapts, the Buddha is deified.

Buddhism originated in what is today modern India, where it grew into an organized religion practiced by monks, nuns, and lay people. Its beliefs were written down forming a large canon. Buddhist images were also devised to be worshiped in sacred spaces. From India, Buddhism spread throughout Asia.

In order it appreciate the magnitude of the Buddha’s achievement, we should try to imagine what life was like in early India, particularly in towns and villages of the Ganges Valley like Kapilavastu in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains in what is now the country of Nepal. This is the area in which the Buddha was likely born, in about 560 B.C.E. Every year the river flooded the valley destroying crops. Monsoons came every year too, creating famine. There were also severe droughts and disease such as dysentery and cholera.

The Brahmanas (the Hindu priests) chanted the Vedic hymns and offered fire sacrifices to Brahma. However, they did not improve conditions for the common man. From the earliest times, Hindu society was stratified. Castes were firmly established in the economy with the Brahmanas the creators and perpetuators of a social order highly favorable to themselves.

Standing Buddha, Gandhara, 1st-2nd century C.E. (Tokyo National Museum)

Standing Buddha, Gandhara, 1st-2nd century C.E. (Tokyo National Museum)

The Middle Way 

One of the Buddha’s greatest spiritual accomplishments was the doctrine of the Middle Way. He discovered the doctrine of the Middle Way only after he renounced the extreme practices of the forest dwellers. The Buddha lived among the forest dwellers as an ascetic for some time. This experience convinced him that one should shun extremes. One should avoid the pursuit of worldly desires on the one hand and severe, ascetic discipline on the other. Despite his doubts about existing religious practices, and his strong sense of mission, he did not think of himself as the creator of a new religion. Rather, he felt the need to purify the religion of his day.

Buddha took for granted the truth of cosmological perspectives indigenous to the Indus valley—the worldview that is often associated with Hindu conceptions. One must understand what time and space look like in the Buddhist framework of ancient India. This framework was shared by all, whether one was an adherent of Brahmanism, Jainism, or Buddhism.

Samsara and Time

Samsara (a Sanskrit word) literally means a “round” or a “cycle.” In the ancient Indian worldview this means the endless cycle of rebirth and death—there is no beginning and no end. This endless cycle is governed by karma (causality).

In ancient India, time is measured in kalpa. There is an unending cycle of Destruction, Rubble, Renovation, and Duration. Each period is 20 kalpa long and they are thought of as a circle.

Destruction: Has a great beginning, but gets progressively worse. There are scourges of fire, water, wind.

Rubble: Space is dark and empty, only wind exists in this stage, with seeds of karma.

Renovation: This is the phase when things build up from the bottom:

4. Earth
3. Metal
2. Water
1. Wind

Whirling wind forms a disk of water. Impurities float to the top and form a disk of metal. This disk breaks down and forms the earth.

Duration: This is the phase of preservation, and at the end of this phase, sentient beings appear.

Bhutanese thanka of Mt. Meru and the Buddhist Universe, 19th century

Mt. Meru and the Buddhist Universe, Thanka, c. 19th century, possibly Trongsa Dzong, Trongsa, Bhutan

Mt. Meru and the Buddhist Universe, Thanka, c. 19th century, possibly Trongsa Dzong, Trongsa, Bhutan


Mount Sumeru (or Meru) is the cosmic axis—that is, the link between heaven and earth. The Mountain is the center of the world in this cosmological conception, both physically and in terms of importance. On top of Mount Sumeru are the palaces of the Gods. Mount Sumeru is surrounded by seven chains of mountains and an ocean that has four continents: North = rectangle; West = circle; South = trapezoid (Jambudvipa, where humans live); East = crescent moon.

The Universe is vertically structured. At the top is the realm of “no form.” This realm has no qualities that can be perceived by the senses. It is impossible to have a conception of it. Next are the realms of form that can be perceived in various states of meditation. One can see pleasant sights, bright light, and perceive coolness.

Below is the realm of desire. This realm has six levels. This is our realm. The six levels are the six paths of rebirth. The highest realm is that of the gods (deva). Halfway between gods and humans are demi-gods (asura). Humans and animals dwell on the surface of Jambudvipa. Hungry ghosts inhabit the shadow world below the animals. This level has much pain and suffering. Beings here are always hungry and never satiated. Hell beings occupy the lowest level. There are 8 levels within this level. At the eighth and lowest level there is no rest between tortures.

How do people (beings) move about in this world? The answer is karma. Karma is the law that regulates all life in samsara. Existence in time and space is ruled by karma. Karma means action or deed. Every action has a result. Every deed has an effect. Karma is a built-in universe scale for good and evil—good leads to good result and vice versa. Karma governs the long-term and the short-term. Karma is never destroyed. In the short term good deeds lead to a good result and bad deeds lead to a bad result. Karma transgresses from one life to another. It determines how a being will be reborn (higher or lower). Karma is not predestination because the concept of predestination does not take into account free will. Your current circumstances are determined by deed in your previous life, but between the present and the future there is free will. Upward mobility is possible.

What are the implications of the Buddhist world view? Being reborn a human is rare and important—rare especially in the time of Buddha. Buddha is born only in a small time period within the phase of destruction. We are fortunate to have access to his teachings since there is limited time and place to be given the chance to encounter Buddha. A being can only encounter Buddha and benefit in the human realm.

How does one achieve salvation? All is impermanent. All is cyclical. All is painful. Even Gods suffer. They are only gods for one lifetime and then they are reborn lower down. Also Gods do not have access to Buddha. Beings need to find a way out of the endless cycle of rebirth. The goal is Nirvana. Nirvana is extinction. Nirvana is the traditional name for that which is not samsara. Where is Nirvana? Nowhere. Nirvana is outside the vertical concept of the universe.

Standing Male Worshiper from Tell Asmar, Ancient Sumerian, c. 2900-2600 B.C.E., Gypsum alabaster, shell, black limestone, bitumen, 11 5/8 x 5 1/8 x 3 7/8 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Buddhist Monasteries

Why Monasteries?

So what is a monastery exactly? A monastery is a community of men or women (monks or nuns), who have chosen to withdraw from society, forming a new community devoted to religious practice. The word monk comes from the Greek word monos, which means alone.

It can be difficult to focus a lot of time on prayers and religious ritual when time needs to be spent on everyday activities that insure one’s survival (such as food and shelter). Think of the ancient Sumerian Votive Statues from Tell Asmar, for example (image, right – Standing Male Worshipper, c. 2900-2600 B.C.E., Metropolitan Museum of Art). These statues were placed in a temple high above the village. Each statue represented an individual in continual prayer as a stand-in for the actual individual who was busy living, tending to crops, cooking food, and raising children. The person was depicted with hands clasped in prayer (at the heart center) with eyes wide open in perpetual engagement with the gods.

The Work of the Monastery

In Buddhism and Christianity, however, instead of statues, monks or nuns pray on behalf of the people. The monastery typically becomes the spiritual focus of the nearest town or village. In Christianity the monks pray for the salvation of the souls of the living.

But in Buddhism, there is no concept of the soul. The goal is not heaven; rather it is cessation from the endless cycle of rebirth (samsara), to achieve moksha, which is freedom or release from attachment to ego or the material world and an end to samsara, and to realize nirvana (or liberation), which is to be released into the infinite state of oneness with everything.

The Four Noble Truths or Dharma

It is difficult to achieve moksha, which is why the Buddha’s teaching focuses on achieving Enlightenment or knowledge that helps the practitioner. This is described succinctly in his Four Noble Truths, also 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)

Adept practitioners of Buddhism understood that not everyone was ready to perform the necessary rites to obtain the ultimate goals of ending samsara (rebirth). The common person could, however, improve their karma (an action or deed that enacts a cycle of cause and effect) by everyday charitable acts that were mostly directed toward the monastic community.

The Buddhist monks and nuns meditated and prayed on behalf of the lay community (or laity—basically everyone who is not a priest or monk), those without specialized knowledge of the faith, assisting them in the goal of realizing The Four Noble Truths. Monks and nuns also instructed the lay practitioner on how to conduct the rituals, how to meditate, and advised them about which Buddhist deity to focus on (this depended on the issue or obstacle in the practitioner’s path to Enlightenment). The laity, in turn, supported the monks with donations of food and other necessary items. It was a mutually beneficial relationship.

The Beginnings of Monasteries

In the early years of Buddhism, following the practices of contemporary religions such as Hinduism and Jainism (and other faiths that no longer exist), monks dedicated themselves to an ascetic life (a practice of self-denial particular to the pursuit of religious or spiritual goals) wandering the country with no permanent living quarters. They were fed, clothed, and housed in inclement weather by people wishing to gain merit, which is a spiritual credit earned through virtuous acts. Eventually monastic complexes were created for the monks close enough to a town in order to receive alms or charity from the villagers, but far enough away so as not to be disturbed during meditation.

Three Types of Architecture: Stupa, Vihara, and the Chaitya

Buddhism, the first Indian religion to require large communal and monastic spaces, inspired three types of architecture.

The first was the stupa, a significant object in Buddhist art and architecture. On a very basic level it is a burial mound for the Buddha. The original stupas contained the Buddha’s ashes. Relics are objects associated with an esteemed person, including that person’s bones (or ashes in the case of the Buddha), or things the person used or had worn. The veneration, or respect, for relics is prevalent in many religious faiths, particularly in Christianity. By the time the Buddhist monasteries gained importance, the stupas were empty of these relics and simply became symbols of the Buddha and the Buddhist ideology.

Second was the construction of the vihara, a Buddhist monastery that also contained a residence hall for the monks.

Third was the chaitya, an assemly hall that contained a stupa (though one empty of relics). This became an important feature for the monasteries that were cut into cliffs in central India. The central hall of the chaitya was arranged to allow for circumambulation of the stupa.

Chaitya hall at Karle near Lonavala, Maharashtra

Chaitya at Karle near Lonavala, Maharashtra, first century B.C.E.. The stupa is at the end of the nave (the main central aisle), as seen in the photo above. On either side of the columns are side aisles to help people walk through the space—around to the stupa, and back out. This is similar to the architecture of Early Christianity (for example, the side aisles at the Early Christian Church in Rome, Santa Sabina, which help the flow of people who come to worship at the altar at the end of the nave).

Buddhist Monasteries in India

In India, by the 1st century, many monasteries were founded as learning centers on sites already associated with Buddha and Buddhism. These sites include Lumbini where the Buddha was born, Bodh Gaya where he achieved enlightenment and the knowledge of the dharma (the Four Noble Truths), Sarnath (Deer Park) where he preached his first sermon sharing the dharma, and Kushingara where he died.

Great Stupa, Sanchi, India, 3rd century B.C.E. to first century C.E.

Great Stupa, Sanchi, India, 3rd century B.C.E. to first century C.E.

Ashoka: the first King to embrace Buddhism 

Sites special to King Ashoka (304–232 B.C.E.), the first king (of northern India) to embrace Buddhism, were also integral to the building of monasteries. For example, the complex at Sanchi, where the original Great Stupa (Mahastupa) of Sanchi was created as a reliquary for the Buddha’s ashes after his death, became the largest of many stupas that were created later when a monastery was built at the site. Ashoka added one of his famous pillars at this location—pillars that not only proclaimed his acceptance of Buddhism, but also served as instructional objects on Buddhist ideology.

Monastic center at Vaishali

An example of the monastic center at Vaishali. One can still see the remains of one of several stupas, the Ashokan pillar and the later addition of the monks’ cells and the administrative center.

Soon these types of monasteries were replaced by rock-cut accommodations due to their durability.

Plan of cave 1 at Ajanta

A vihara was a dwelling of one or two stories, fronted by a pillared veranda. The monks’ or nuns’ cells were arranged around a central meeting hall as in the plan of the Ajanta vihara. Each cell contained a stone bed, a pillow, and a niche for a lamp.

Between 120 BCE and 200 CE over 1000 viharas (a monastery with residence hall for the monks), and chaityas (a stupa monument hall), were established along ancient and prosperous trade routes. The monasteries required large living areas.

A vihara was a dwelling of one or two stories, fronted by a pillared veranda. The monks’ or nuns’ cells were arranged around a central meeting hall as in the plan of the Ajanta vihara. Each cell contained a stone bed, a pillow, and a niche for a lamp.

The monastery quickly became important and had a three-fold purpose: as a residence for monks, as a center for religious work (on behalf of the laity) and as a center for Buddhist learning. During Ashoka’s reign in the 3rd century B.C.E., the Mahabodhi Temple (the Great Temple of Enlightenment where Buddha achieved his knowledge of the dharma—the Four Noble Truths) was built in Bodh Gaya, currently in the Indian state of Bihar in northern India. It contained a monastery and shrine. In order to acknowledge the exact site where the Buddha attained Enlightenment, Ashoka built a diamond throne (vajrasana – literally diamond seat) underscoring the indestructible path of the dharma.

Rock-Cut Caves

The rock-cut caves were established in the 3rd century B.C.E. in the western Deccan Plateau, which makes up most of the southern portion of India. The earliest rock-cut monastic centers include the Bhaja Caves, the Karle Caves and the Ajanta Caves.

Bhaja Caves, photo: Andrea Kirkby

Bhaja Caves, c. 3rd century B.C.E. to 2nd century B.C.E. Twenty-two caves are located at the site.

The objects found in the caves suggest a profitable relationship existed between the monks and wealthy traders. The Bhaja caves were located on a major trade route from the Arabian Sea eastward toward the Deccan region linking north and south India. Merchants, wealthy from the trade between the Roman Empire and southeast Asia, often sponsored architectural additions including pillars, arches, reliefs and façades to the caves. Buddhist monks, serving as missionaries, often accompanied traders throughout India, up into Nepal and Tibet, spreading the dharma as they travelled.

Chaitya (monastic monument hall) at Bhaja, India, 1st century B.C.E. 

Chaitya (monastic monument hall) at Bhaja, India, 1st century B.C.E.


At Bhaja there are no representations of the Buddha other than the stupa since Bhaja was an active monastery during the earliest phase of Buddhism, Hinayana (lesser vehicle), when no images of the Buddha were created. In Hinayana, the memory of the historical Buddha and his teachings were still a very real part of the practice. The Buddha himself did not encourage worship of him (something images would encourage), but desired that the practitioner focus on the dharma (the law, the Four Noble Truths).

The main chaitya hall (which contained a memorial stupa, empty of relics) at Bhaja contains a solid stone stupa in the nave flanked by two side aisles. It is the earliest example of this type of rock-cut cave and closely resembles the wooden structures that preceded it.The columns slope inwards, which would have been necessary in the early wooden structures in the north of India in order to support the outward thrust from the top of the vault. In similar stone caves, sometimes the columns are placed in stone pots, which mimic the stone pots the wooden columns were positioned in, in order to thwart termites. This is an example of a practical architectural practice being adopted as the standard.

Ajanta, cave 19

Ajanta, cave 19


At Ajanta, the earliest phase of construction also belongs to the Hinayana (lesser vehicle) phase of Buddhism (in which no human image of the Buddha was created). The caves are very similar to those at Bhaja. During the second phase of construction, Buddhism was in the Mahayana (greater vehicle) phase and images of the Buddha, predominantly drawn from the jataka stories—the life stories of the Buddha—were painted throughout. In Mahayana, which was more distant in time from the life of the Buddha, there was a need for physical reminders of the Buddha and his teachings. Thus images of the Buddha performing his Enlightenment and his first sermon (when he shared the Four Noble Truths with the laity) proliferated. The paintings at Ajanta provide some of the earliest and finest examples of Buddhist painting from the period. The images also provide documentation of contemporary events and social custom under Gupta reign (320-550 C.E.).

Rock-Cut Monasteries Become More Complex

Eventually, the rock-cut monasteries became quite complex. They consisted of several stories with inner courtyards and veranda. Some facades had reliefs, images projecting from the stone, of the Buddha and other deities. A stupa was still placed in the central hall, but now an image of the Buddha was carved into it, underscoring that the Buddha is the stupa. Stories from the Buddha’s life were also, at times, added to the interior in both paintings and reliefs.