A visual communication and its influence.

My roles: Research, content, illustration.
Mentor: Immanuel Suresh

Buddhism iconography and its influence

In the civilization of mankind, before man learned about words and letters, he used different drawings and pictures to communicate stories and narratives to other people. Certain drawings or pictures were commonly used to connote particular things, thus symbols were born. Through the years, people all over the world have used symbols to mean many different things. They have become an easy way to point out an ideology, to express an abstract thought or even to denote a group or community who share the same goals.


I am a Buddhist by birth, I grew up in an environment full of spiritual expressions and feelings. Elders at home have always encouraged and fascinated me with the golden epics of the Buddhism and I always charged up gazing around the objects appear like some magical and heavenly. I still remember those days when I play running around my village monastery with all detail which are now a part of my life and absorbed so deep. I kept thinking that all these symbols must be having some heavenly power in it. At that time I was grown enough to go to school and one day my parents took me to a nearby school in my village, I was sad and at the same time dumbfound in a new environment. I started learning new things about the huge world around me and realize that every thing exist in these world has a value and meaning.

I always keep questioning myself, the paintings on the monasteries wall, logo on the school gate and even the regular pattern of the grill of the window. The zeal of knowing more and more about these colourful painting kept growing inside me and I started learning about the origin of the Buddhist symbol in my school history text book.

I came to know that history of Buddhism religion dates back to the year 580 BC, which started with the birth of Buddha Siddhartha Gautama. Born in the Lumbini, Southern Nepal, Siddhartha left his home at a young age of 29 years, in search of enlightenment. After going through a life of discipline and meditation, he attained enlightenment, which resulted in the alleviation of all his pain and suffering. He then set on a journey of teaching people the path to enlightenment that would liberate them from the cycle of life and death. Gradually, Buddhism spread to numerous countries of the world, which resulted in development of the religion. It expanded to the most parts of Asia. By the time of Buddha nirvana at about the age of eighty, the Buddha’s followers are established as communities of monks in northern India. Wandering through villages and towns with their begging bowls, eager to describe the path to the truth preach by the Buddha.


I feel the progress of the Buddhism at that period was largely due to the enthusiastic support of a king of the 3rd century BC.  Ashoka rules over much of the Indian subcontinent. His inscriptions, carved on pillars and rocks throughout his kingdom, helped spreading both of Buddhism and to his own support of the Buddha’s principles. He is acknowledged for giving a visual identity to Buddha and his teachings. The symbolic representation of the king was so prominent in today’s India even. The Wheel, which adorns the flag of my country, has kept His memory green always. The Ashoka chakra is a depiction of the Dharmachakra, the Wheel of Dharma. The wheel has 24 spokes. The Ashoka Chakra has been widely inscribed on many relics of the Mauryan Emperor, most prominent among which is the Lion Capital of Sarnath and the Ashoka pillar.

In Today’s modern India Lion Capital is an essential symbol, as it is recognize today as the national emblem of the nation. The Lion capital of Ashoka is a sculpture of four standing back to back. It was originally placed atop the Ashoka pillar at Sarnath, now in the state of Utter Pardesh, India.


The golden period of Ashoka gave a new life to Buddhism not only in India but also to southern and central Asia.His idea of representing and spreading Buddha and his teaching in a symbolic way gave a new spark in spreading the religion effectively. Like me, I think the people of that period are fascinated and attracted towards the highly unusual symbols. During Asoka’s reign, and with his encouragement, Buddhism spreads to almost all parts of India. The latter has remained to this day a stronghold of the earliest form of Buddhism.

The history of Buddhism also witnessed the development of numerous movements and divisions, such as Theravada, Mahayana, vajrayana etc. If we differentiate these three major Buddhist schools of thoughts in terms of symbolic representation of the religion, there is a huge difference among them. The earliest form of Buddhism is known as Theravada or also known as Hinayana. Theravada Buddhism first appears in Burma and Central Thailand. Theravada literally, “the Teaching of the Elders”, or “the Ancient Teaching” . It is relatively conservative, and generally closest to early Buddhism, and for many centuries has been the predominant religion of Sri Lanka and most of Southeast Asia.

India is the land where the first images of the Buddha were produced and where Buddhist iconography and symbolism evolved. The Maurya, The Kushan and the Gupta periods were the periods when Buddhist art flourish in India as well as to the large parts of southern Asia and central Asia. Buddhist iconography and symbolism started in long back during the Ashoka period. The representation of Buddha in the Ashoka period was entirely different form the later iconography. Ashoka represented Buddha in a symbolic was without giving a look of human figure. He is chiefly known from his series of rock and pillar inscriptions, which are found scattered in various parts of India and provide important information about his belief in Buddhism. In his efforts to propagate Buddhism, Ashoka built shrines and monasteries and inscribed Buddhist teachings on rocks and pillars in many places. He sent missionaries to various countries. The concept of representing Buddha in the form of symbols like the Lion, the Bodhi-tree, the wheel of Dharma; the throne of exposition, sacred foot-prints, stupa etc, has an effective role in the development and spreading Buddhism around the globe. Even today, thousand years after the evolution of the symbols, it’s still a very prominent part of in the society. Like me every Indian grew up encountering these iconography, which became an inseparable part in India.


I always surprise to think about the great shift of the iconography of Buddha from symbolic form to human figure. But if we read about other religious behaviors of that era, Hinduism is the dominant religion in the India and idol worship already exists. The representation of Buddha as a perfect human being came about much later in the kushan period, perhaps through the influence of the Greek and Hinduism. His images were meant not merely to please the eyes but also spark pious and noble thoughts in the hearts of the people. The Buddha image personified compassion, wisdom, enlightenment and tranquility. The artists, generations after generation spread over the centuries and across the continents have strived to give expression the beauty and virtue of the Buddha and his message.

Its in Chandigarh, while studying Fine Arts College, I came to see and learn about the Gandhara School of art and its statues in the government museum of Chandigarh. I came to know that the art of Gandhara School is influenced by the Greek art. The Gandhara School of art has more emphases on the look of the form. The most prominent features of the Buddha statues in Gandhara School are curl hair, mustache, wet look clothing. Around the same era Gupta dynasty flourish in Magadha (now Bihar) of northeastern India. The dynasty also plays an important role in spreading Buddhism in India and south Asia, the rapidly increasing of Hinduism and the worship of Hindu images led to changes in state patronage and encouraged the wide acceptance of image worship. At Bodhgaya, in eastern India, a temple was constructed beside the Bodhi tree, the place where the Buddha had meditated and gained enlightenment. The sculpture of Buddha from Mathura during fifth century is covered by the monastic garment unlike the statutes of Buddha that had been found from the earlier kingdom of the Kushans. The style of the drapery contains a clear resemblance to certain late Gandhara Buddha.

If I closely look back in the history, evolution in iconography and symbolic representation of the Buddha and his teachings, it is clearly noticeable that with the change of time, people and place, representation of Buddha and his teachings varies but they are not totally distinct in their thoughts and representation. From the beginning, the religion is influence by the teaching of Buddha and his contribution for mankind. Buddhism evolve to an enormous extend since from the Buddha period till today as today Buddhism is understood by worldwide and frequently influencing people all over. Today Buddhist iconography is a major subject to study in India as well as in western countries.


It will be incomplete in the evolution of Buddhist symbolism, if I fail to talk about Tibetan Buddhism. It is the most important and complex sect of Buddhism in today’s world. The image of Buddhism is perceived today, world wide as Tibetan Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana or Tantra Buddhism. Earlier schools of Buddhism has simple and limited iconography of Buddha and his teachings, but diverse from others, Tibetan Buddhism is more about symbolism and rituals.

Tantra Buddhism was developed by Mahayana teachers in Tibet very early in around 5th -6th century, possibly as a way to reach those who weren’t responding to teachings of Buddha. (There is a story, a king approached the Buddha and explained that his responsibilities did not allow him to abandon his people and become a monk. Yet in his privileged position he was surrounded by temptations and pleasures. How could he realize enlightenment? The Buddha responded by teaching the king tantric practices that would transform pleasures into transcendent realization. Soon it spread out of Tibet and became established in several parts of the Buddhist world, particularly in Bhutan, Nepal, and Mongolia where it became the dominant form of Buddhism. Indeed, the Vajrayana is often referred to simply as “Tibetan Buddhism.” Even as it may have originally emerged from the Hindu religion from India.


In 7th century the saint Padmasambhava bring Vajrayana Buddhism from Afghanistan to Tibet, at the request of the king of Tibet, Trisong Detsen. It was Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, who merged tantric Buddhism with the local Bon religion to form what we now recognize as Tibetan Buddhism. This was the original transmission that anchors the Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibetan and even the neighbouring countries. Today it is spread across the Himalayan regions; Tibet, Nepal, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Bhutan, Mongolia, China, Japan, Thailand, Russia and many parts of Southeast Asia, rich in their culture and ancient religious iconography.


Buddhism is a mammoth in its iconography and one of the major influencing religions in today’s world. Tibetan Buddhism philosophy and its iconographic representation of the became a major subject to study and research. Since it has traditionally been isolated from the world, culturally and geographically, the mystery it provokes has shaped most people’s beliefs into viewing it as a Shangri-la or sacred land. This popular view is supported by the fact that Tibet is a place where its people see Buddhism as so important that it is not only their religion, but also the essence of their identity. Westerners have always been fascinated by rumours of a place, high in the mountains of Asia where enlightened masters with super-human abilities live immortal lives.  However, it was not until the 19th century that credible eyewitness reports began to circulate. A French woman, Alexandra David-Neel managed to study Buddhism in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, in the early 1900s.  She wrote of her experiences in her book, Magic and mystery in Tibet. Till now there are hundreds of Books are written on the iconography of the Buddhism. The Dalai Lama, most important figure as a religious and spiritual leader in today in Buddhism as well as worldwide, after the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s exile drawn a huge attention and interest internationally, its later strengthened by the Nobel Peace Price he was awarded in 1989, its shift from being a traditional local leader to becoming an international figure. Accompanied by the spread of Buddhism to the West with increasing popularity. I feel it’s again a revival of Tibetan Buddhism outside Tibet.


The international support and recognition for Tibet as a rich and independent country in the history gave strength to the revival of Buddhism in Tibet. The two major up rise in the history of Tibet in 1959 and 2008 are impossible without the interest of its supporter around the globe. Today with the popularity of the Tibetan Buddhism worldwide, I found it’s very difficult to understand the reason of popularity in Buddhism. One can be influence by its outer appearances and can also be enlighten by its philosophy. Every year thousand and thousand tourist visits various Buddhist place in India, as With Tibetan image becoming popular world over, anything with Tibetan and Buddhist tag is a big business now a days. Iconography study, Meditation, philosophy, Tibetan Tattoo, Tibetan cooking, medicine and yoga are becoming a major business. And they have dollars at which the growing numbers of spirituality sellers aim at. As religion becomes secondary in the race for money, reverence is losing. The recent news, about getting a huge sum of western currencies in a Monastery in Dharamsala can again be an example. There is a big thread of spreading Buddhism as a fashion also, the spiritual leaders and believers of Buddhism are in worries, recently Dalai Lama appealed to the West world, not to embrace Buddhism as a mere cultural fashion.


In recent years Tibetan Buddhism and its iconography influencing more and more western towards it. Today in fashion world every third person is converted into Buddhism. People are fascinated with the symbols and iconography of Buddhism worldwide. Today we can see the Tibetan symbols everywhere, on garments, logo and even as  body tattoo. The mantra “Om”, Dorje, dharma wheel, eight auspicious sign etc are most popular in fashion world. Buddhism is also becoming a Hollywood religion, I mean Tibetan Buddhism is getting popularize in the Hollywood so much in past few years. Many famous actor and actress are adopting Buddhism. It is becoming as a fashion statement. The peace, nonviolence, environment friendly nature philosophy of Buddhism is also a major reason of attracting these people. The actor like Richard Gere are influence by the religion and also by the iconic figure of Tibetan Buddhism “Dalai Lama”. Some Hollywood celebrities also in habit of hiding their sin and unlawful acts under the shelter of the religion, like Paris Hilton is converted into Buddhism as she said, she want to enter into a peaceful and spiritual world, but I think its her sign, that she is now becoming a better human and appealing the law for relief from jail. There is also a major reason that attract hippies and Afro-American to the Buddhism is the trend which come to existence of Tattooing Tibetan Buddhist symbols on their skin. Many Hollywood stars also adopt this trend in their outlook. Anglina Jolie few years back also tattooed mantra on her back in a pali language. These days Tattooing Tibetan Buddhist symbols on skin is also becoming an campaign to promote peace and support towards the freedom of Tibet. People are promoting the trend by giving it a traditional and therapy to overcome illness. In west special Tibetan Tattoo shops are open and are the most expensive and popular.

There are many Indian as well as western artists who are majorly inspired by the Tibetan iconography and art. Sidharth, Famous Indian contemporary artist who is fascinated by the Tibetan Buddhism. He not only practices Buddhism but also adopted the famous traditional thanka painting style in his work. He spent several years in monasteries practicing the rich knowledge of thanka art and its philosophy. Like him today there r several artists and researcher who are fascinated by the Tibetan Buddhism. Tashi Mannox, a painter, calligrapher and a tattoo artist from England is famous for his excellence in Tibetan iconography and calligraphy. He studied several years about Tibetan Buddhism, its iconography and calligraphy in the various monasteries. The book, “The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols” by Robert Beer confirms the passion and interest of the person in the Tibetan Buddhism iconography. With the outcome, Buddhism is spreading rapidly around the world now. There are Buddhist centers in many European countries, North America, South America, South Africa, Australasia, and so on.

The further development of symbolism and iconography in the Tibetan Buddhism of the modern world is an open question. During 20th century in the Buddhist communities, revivals of the traditions and of ritual symbolism were in progress, iconography and symbols are highlighting in one or other way around the world. I feel Buddhism is still a glossy Object for most of the people around the globe for which they are attracted. There is a need of better understanding of the religion and its philosophy. In my opinion one should first understand the philosophy of the religion before adopting its iconography and symbols. The decline of the Buddhism in past history in India may be a reason of shallow understanding of the philosophy of the religion, though evolution in the iconography and symbolism was immense.


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