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The Mystery of the 5th Century Sarnath Buddha

When it comes to Buddhist art, one of the first thing that comes to mind is the Gandharan form which developed when Classical Greece met Buddhism in the Af-Pak region; it was a Big Bang moment in Buddhist art. Less mentioned is a major breakthrough which happened in 5th century Sarnath — the place where Buddha gave his first sermon — when a new style of representing Buddha was created. The origins of this style still remain a mystery.

Compared to other representations of Buddha, the Sarnath Buddha (see pic) is quite different. He is seen wearing a see through dress which covers his torso and has no folds; most other styles show dress with folds. The second point is not quite clear in the photo, but the left knee is a bit bent. Third, his genitals are hidden. Also, the eyes look down and he looks feminine. This unique style spread to rest of the Buddhist world — to China, to Vietnam, to Cambodia.

To put this in perspective, look at Bala Buddha (125 CE), one of the important anthropomorphic representations of Buddha, found in nearby Mathura. The statue is 9ft tall and he is staring right at you. Also his genitals are not hidden; the pose is quite strong and powerful. He wears a underskirt and exposes his torso. This is not surprising since Ananda Coomaraswamy found that the inspiration for the Bala Buddha came from the Hindu iconography for the Yaksha. You can see similar pose for a 5th century Vishnu as well. Now if you go back to the Sarnath Buddha (see pic) you can see that all the manliness has been drained out.

What exactly happened to trigger such a change? Was there a political situation which caused Buddhists to change their representation or was it in response to an ascendant Hinduism? (Note that while this change was happening, the Gupta empire was in political turmoil). Is this a feminine representation to come up with something like the ardhanari concept? Or is this a boyish look to appeal to women or queens who were Buddhists ?

Or is there any other theory?

Notes:

  1. Recently I attended a lecture by Prof. Robert L. Brown of UCLA on this topic. This post comes from the lecture notes.
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Briefly Noted: The Buddha (PBS)

For someone interested in Buddha’s life, there are numerous books ranging from the ordinary (Deepak Chopra’s Buddha) to the brilliant (Thich Nhat Hanh’s Old Path White Clouds). When it comes to movies or documentaries, I have seen more on the Dalai Lama (Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun) than the Buddha himself; Siddhartha is summarized quickly in programs like Michael Wood’s The Story of India.

In this new PBS documentary, he gets two full hours — highly insufficient to understand his work in detail, but just sufficient to piqué your interest. The documentary combines video, cartoons, and Buddhist art to narrate Siddhartha’s biography.The miracles and the super natural elements are not left out; you get the traditional story. The documentary also finds some time to briefly discuss meditation and mindfulness and why it is effective. It is combined with commentary by Dalai Lama, Buddhist monks, Prof. Robert Thurman, a bunch of American Buddhists I have never heard of.

The PBS website for the program, as usual, is a treasure trove of information. Checkout the dynamic timeline or the Educational Resources

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Briefly Noted: Creation (2009)

Creation (2009)In his new book, The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking states that God is not part of the grand design of the universe. In The Brief History of Time, he tried to grok the mind of God and left it at that. Now with the No-boundary proposal, top-down cosmology and the latest discoveries in M-theory, he argues that gravity and quantum theory are sufficient to explain how multiple universes are spontaneously created from nothing. If there is God maybe he could have chosen the initial state; he then goes on to say that even that would not be possible for there are laws for the initial state too.

More than 150 years back another Englishman too killed God. In this movie, Darwin is still working on his manuscript on the theory of evolution. In one of the earliest scenes Charles Darwin is visited by Joseph Dalton Hooker (botanist and explorer, who was once held prisoner by the King of Sikkim) and Thomas Henry Huxley (biologist). Encouraged by the abstracts he had seen and with the desire to see archbishops and their threats of eternal punishment removed from society, Huxley encourages Darwin to publish his book. But Darwin is not in the mood, “There is no book”, he dismisses. Huxley still does not give up. “You have killed God, sir”, he says, “And I, for once, say good riddance to the vindictive old bugger.” For Darwin, the church, however imperfect, is the one which holds society together. 

But Darwin had become a different man following the death of his daughter;he had prayed to God to save her. Following Annie’s death, Darwin’s wife sought refuge in religion, while he turned away from it like Mark Twain, who wrote novels like The Mysterious Stranger after the death of his daughter Susy.

He was convinced about his theory but had not published it due to his wife. He was worried that if he wrote about a world in which God, love, trust etc were not required and that the world just depended on survival, it would break her heart. His wife was worried that he would never enter heaven and they both would be separated for eternity.

The important thread in this slow movie is not Darwin’s relation with his wife, but with his daughter Annie to whom he narrated tales of his journeys. Annie appears to Darwin as hallucinations and in flashbacks as the script moves back and forth in time; she had died of sickness.The script finds patterns: in Annie’s death and the death of Jenny the Orangutan who too fell sick; in the water treatment Darwin and Annie took; in the suggestion of a pigeon breeder that relatives should not get married and a similar conversation between Darwin and his wife. 

In the final scene, Darwin walks with the manuscript, with his wife’s approval, and hands it over to the postman who rides off in his carriage.  The book was sold out in a day. His idea changed the world, except for few like US Senate candidate Christine O’ Donnell, who in 1998 wondered why monkeys are not evolving in front of her eyes.

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Beck's Christianity

One in five Americans believe that the President is a Muslim, even though the President himself has declared that he is a Christian; everyone seems to have forgotten about his infamous pastor. Now adding a twist to this debate, Glenn Beck, the Fox News anchor, has declared that the President may be a Christian, but no one understands his Christianity because he believes in liberation theology.

“You see, it’s all about victims and victimhood; oppressors and the oppressed; reparations, not repentance; collectivism, not individual salvation. I don’t know what that is, other than it’s not Muslim, it’s not Christian. It’s a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it,” Beck said. [After Washington rally, Glenn Beck assails Obama’s religion]

This is funny on many levels. It assumes that there is one generic version of Christianity and  President Obama’s Christianity. It was never true historically nor is it true now. From the time of Paul and the Gnostics, there have been varying interpretations on the life of Jesus. Each group called the other heretic and groups which gained political power, eliminated rival sects.

For instance, the letters of Paul speak often of both the nature of the gospel and whether the good news is meant for only those of the Jewish faith or should be shared with the “Gentiles.” In addition, it is well documented that the Early Church was split between a more orthodox view of Jesus and that of Gnosticism, which denied the humanity of Jesus in favor of a Jesus that only appeared to be human. Read the Gospel of John, for instance, and one comes away with the stark impression that John is very concerned with whether or not God did indeed come “in the flesh.”[Now, It’s the Wrong Jesus.]

Now move forward in time and you have Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, each different from the other. Then there are American Christian groups, like the Mormons, of which Beck is a member. According to a Pew Poll only 46% of white evangelicals have a favorable opinion of Mormons and some even think of them as unbelievers.

“The Apostle Paul warns Christians against uniting with unbelievers in spiritual endeavors,” Howse wrote. “While I applaud and agree with many of Glenn Beck’s conservative and constitutional views, that does not give me or any other Bible-believing Christian justification to compromise Biblical truth by spiritually joining Beck.”

“Jesus Christ’s Church has universally rejected Mormonism’s Anti-Trinitarian theology and its claim that mortals may become God,” David Shedlock, a contributor to the evangelical blog Caffeinated Thoughts, wrote in a post this month. “Beck asks Christian leaders to ‘put differences aside,’ but Beck himself daily peppers his broadcasts with Mormon distinctives because he cannot keep his beliefs to himself.” [Some evangelicals on defensive over partnering with Glenn Beck, a Mormon]

Thus when Beck says “Christians” don’t recognize Obama’s Christianity, a large number of “Christians” don’t recognize Beck’s Christianity either. For many of them he is a heretic.

In the final review, “Christian” is a self-defined attribute. It doesn’t make any sense for anyone to declare or decry anyone else’s identification as a Christian. If someone says they are, then they are. If they say they aren’t — even if they’ve been baptized and attend services regularly and participate in all the rituals — then they aren’t. This isn’t something that another person can add to or take away from anyone else. This is what “Freedom of Religion” ultimately means.[Nomenclature]

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The story of Hypatia

There are two reasons to see the movie Agora when it is released:  One, it is a gripping tale of the woman philosopher  Hypatia who was murdered  by Christian zealots in Alexandria in the 5th century; second, it stars  Rachel Weisz. The Smithsonian had an article on her in this month’s issue.

With Cyril the head of the main religious body of the city and Orestes in charge of the civil government, a fight began over who controlled Alexandria. Orestes was a Christian, but he did not want to cede power to the church. The struggle for power reached its peak following a massacre of Christians by Jewish extremists, when Cyril led a crowd that expelled all Jews from the city and looted their homes and temples. Orestes protested to the Roman government in Constantinople. When Orestes refused Cyril’s attempts at reconciliation, Cyril’s monks tried unsuccessfully to assassinate him.

Hypatia, however, was an easier target. She was a pagan who publicly spoke about a non-Christian philosophy, Neoplatonism, and she was less likely to be protected by guards than the now-prepared Orestes. A rumor spread that she was preventing Orestes and Cyril from settling their differences. From there, Peter the Lector and his mob took action and Hypatia met her tragic end. [Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Scholar]

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