The Symbols of Early Buddhist Art

Contrary to its later forms, ancient art used to be generally symbolic in nature. This particularity, found across the arts of various religions in the world, including in India, comes from various roots. It used to be common that a great historical figure would not accept to be depicted in a human form in artistic creations. Religious leaders were aware of the gap appearing between a being and the representation of that being, and the risks emerging from the latter. It is for instance the case of Buddhism. Ancient Buddhist Art, mostly influenced by Theravāda tradition, is greatly a non-iconic, symbolic art. The present essay attempts to detail some of the main roots and pragmatic implications of that theory, usually called “aniconism”. We will also go through the general critiques of Susan Huntington on this widely accepted dogma.

The roots of symbolism

Ancient Buddhist Art, and particularly Theravāda art, is a symbolic art. Artists, often devoted believers, did not draw or sculpt the founder of their religion in a human form. In other words, Theravāda art is not an iconic art. A few reasons of the non-representation of the Buddha in a human form in early Buddhist art can be found in the teachings of Buddhist philosophy.

First, the Buddha himself discouraged his worship in human form. This may be understood as an expression of both his wisdom, concerning his own impermanence, and his humility, concerning his controlled ego, which did not lead him, like for most human beings, to seek fame and recognition.

Secondly, The Hīnāyanists believed that after the Parinibbana, Buddha’s putikāya (body of impure matter) could not be anymore visible (Nibbuta). This proof relates to the famous Buddhist teaching of Anicca, or impermanence: no conditioned thing is without an end (‘Sabbe Sankhara Anicca).

Finally, the Buddha had himself taught that after his Parinirvāṇa, Dhamma would be the teacher. Through this request, the Enlightened one attempted to free human beings from millennium-old beliefs in deities or in other humans. Instead, he tried to make them follow a moral law.

Peculiarities of Buddhist symbolism

When figuring the religious characters, the ancient artists had to restrict themselves to symbols. They could not use anthropomorphic forms. To illustrate Buddha and his life, the Buddhist artists would make a use of a variety of symbols. The four important events of Buddha’s life are the following: his birth, his enlightenment, the first sermon and his passing away.

Buddha’s Jati, or birth, is usually represented by a lotus. This element symbolizes Buddha’s purity, his diving birth, or his spiritual ascent. It is sometimes used to represent a “tree of life and fortune”. The Lotus flower is occasionally laden with fruits and jewels, symbols of countless blessings.

Buddha’s Sambodhi, or enlightenment, is represented by the Asvatha tree. This Pipal tree (Indian fig) is used to represent his illumination because it is under one of them that he attained Nirvana, in the locality now known as Bodhgaya. The Asvatha tree symbolizes an abode of folk deities or spirits.

The Dharmacakrapravartana, or “Turning of the wheel of law”, his first sermon, is represented by the Dharma Wheel (“Wheel of Law”). This Wheel usually contains eight spokes, representing the eight-fold path. The Dharma Wheel’s signification is that of a mark of royalty or chakravartin (initial meaning). The Dharma Wheel is for instance found, as a symbol of the Buddha, on many of Aśoka’s pillars, starting with that of Sārnāth (anciently Deer Park, where Buddha pronounced the Dharmacakrapravartana).

Finally, Buddha’s Mahaparinibbāna or passing away, is usually symbolized by a stūpa, where his remains where kept. This construction, sign of the enlightened mind, is made of four sections: the square base, the dome, the cone, and the canopy. They represent the four elements: earth, water, fire and air, completed by space, signification given to the total volume of the stūpa.

Not all illustrations of Buddha and his life concern only these four moments. The depictions of two more events have been found at numerous places: his conception and the great departure from Kapilavastu.

Buddha’s conception or descent, known as Avakranti, is symbolized by a white elephant. This symbol is found in a variety of Aśoka’s remains, along with other animals: bull, horse and lion (Vogel, 1977, p. 11).

A higher number of artistic representations are found which concern Buddha’s great departure from Kapilavastu, also known as Mahabhinishkramana. This event is depicted, for instance, on one of the reliefs of the east gate of Sānchi (Vogel, 1977, p. 15-16). From the palace, the horse Kanthanka is shown five times but the prince Siddhartha is never present; no one is seated under the parasol, symbol of royalty. In the scene representing his arrival at the place where he will start his hermit life, we can see Chhandaka kneeling down but no one faces him. However, two footprints are found on the ground: they represent the prince standing there. When the horse goes back to the palace, the Buddha is still not visible but this time there is no parasol: the non-represented Buddha is not there anymore.

Another aspect of Buddhist art’s symbolism is related to the fact that the Jātakas, or past life stories of the Buddha as Bodhisattva, already present him in the form of a variety of animals. Elephant, bull, lion or horse, among other races of beings, are commonly found in this section of the Khuddaka Nikāya. The deer is a particular symbol: representing the harmonious and peaceful presence of Lord Buddha, it is also an explicit reference to the Deer Park where he pronounced his first sermon. Examples of Jātaka illustrations are found in reliefs of the south and western gates of Sānchi. In the Shaddanta-Jātaka, Buddha is represented as an elephant. In the Jātaka of the ruru deer, depicted in a medallion of Bharhut, Buddha’s past life took the form of a deer (Vogel, 1977, p. 16-17).

Later on, with the development of Mahāyāna Buddhism, some typical characteristics will be the sign of the enlightened one, and of what can be considered as a proper “image of the Buddha”. It is an anthropomorphic figure seated in ‘yogasana’ or on a ‘simghasana’ (throne) under a Bodhi tree. There is a ‘prabhamandal’ (halo) behind his head. He is bearing mahāpurusha laksaas, including ‘ūrña’ (the mark in the centre of the forehead, also called ‘Eye of wisdom’), ‘ushīsha’ (the elevation on the head of a fully enlightened one) and ‘chakra’ on the palms and sole. This new type of image is an icon and not a symbol.

Aniconism and controversies

The shared belief, by late nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars, that Early Buddhist artists either avoided to represent the Buddha in a human form (icon) or preferred to use symbols to do so, has been called ‘aniconism’. First developed by the French historian of art Alfred Foucher (1865-1952), the theory became widely accepted, including by Indian scholars, like Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), even if specialists like him personally disagreed on several aspects of the original idea.

Susan Huntington, in an article entitled Early Buddhist Art and the Theory of Aniconism (1990) breaks a century of complacency and questions the validity of the theory of aniconism. Huntington first explains that the arguments using Buddhist doctrine (humility, non-ego, impermanence, etc.) to prove this theory might be insufficient, as they are used a posteriori to explain an original phenomenon. The writer argues that numerous archaeological, inscriptional and literary evidence have been denied in order to satisfy the theory according to which a general aniconic period preceded a general iconic phase. For instance, Lewis R. Lancaster and Gregory Schopen have contended, based on evidences, that the relation of iconic art with an exclusively Mahāyāna tradition is incorrect, and that both Hīnāyana and Mahāyāna traditions were concerned by the cult of images (Huntington, 1990, p. 401-402). Indeed, only one rule of one particular Buddhist sect, the Sarvāstivāda, explicitly forbids in its Vinaya the creation of Buddha images (Huntington, 1990, p. 402). On the archaeological side, recently sculpted Buddha images, dated to periods previous to the Kuṣaṇa dynasty (1st or 2nd c. A.D.), have been found. They also come to contradict the main beliefs at the root of the aniconic theory. These sculptures were created at the same period as the non-iconic representations of the Buddha. Huntington’s main contribution, in this article, is to explain that the artists drawing or sculpting scenes of the four great events of Buddha’s life did not actually want to depict śākyamuni Buddha himself but mostly the practices of worship that generations of laypeople indulged in.

Huntington first studies a sculpture recently found in Amaravati (Andhra Pradesh). Dated to the 2nd c. A.D., it seems to represent a Buddha. After further examination, it appears that it is not the śākyamuni Buddha but a Buddha image placed on a throne, and it is neither representing a particular event of Buddha’s life nor that it seems placed in one of the locations of these four main events. Some artistic creations must have therefore, like this one, represented not the Buddha (whether visible in human form or not) but simple laypersons practicing their worship. The inscriptions beneath numerous sculptures of the so-called aniconic period actually refer to places and not to particular events of Buddha’s life, deepening the hypothesis of Huntington. Another proof of the same kind is found in an illustration of the Bodhi Tree, from Bharhut, dated around the 1st c. B.C. Representing the Bodhi tree and laypeople worshiping in front of it, its inscription states the presence of the tree, under which Viśvabhū Buddha (one of the mortal Buddha) got enlightened, but no mention is made of the particular Nirvana event. Such a scene must have happened after Viśvabhū’s death, therefore this piece of art has for subject of representation Buddhist devotion, therefore clearly post-Buddha’s Parinibbana. In another illustration, a visible temple behind the Bodhi tree unambiguously indicates that it is a post-Aśoka event that is depicted, and not śākyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment itself. Other Bharhut reliefs display very similar aspects and come to corroborate Huntington’s hypothesis (Huntington, 1990, p. 402-405).

Regarding the set of symbols proper to so-called Buddhist aniconism, Huntington explains: “Many other reliefs at Bharhut and other sites show a wheel, a tree, a stūpa, a pillar, or other type of monument, and I believe these also should be interpreted as depictions of places, not events with the main actors missing” (Huntington, 1990, p. 404). Indeed, after Aśoka, these symbols were already present in architecture, and, furthermore, sculpted on the buildings and constructions that were depicted in these very reliefs.

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For Huntington, the cult of image was secondary, as one can understand from the Vibhanga: “one obtains Buddhālambanapīti (joy or ecstasy derived by thinking about the Buddha) by looking at a stūpa housing a relic of the Buddha or a bodhi tree”. In this passage, no mention is made about Buddha images.

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This switch of emphasis from a supposed habit or duty of using symbols towards, an importance of worship practices is also corroborated by the Buddhavacana. It is said in the Mahaparinibbāna Sutta that the Buddha explicitly requested his followers to visit the places where he has been, with great emphasis on the locations of the four important events. A few centuries later, this practice would become widespread after Aśoka’s pilgrimage. Buddhist tradition also regards three kinds of cetya or objects of worship. The first is śarīraka (pieces of body), the second is paribhogaka (things he used) and finally udeśaka (representations or images). The most important paribhogaka is the Bodhi tree, and by extension all other locations where Buddha went are places of worship. In Sri Lankan monasteries, a greater devotion is shown to the stūpa, symbol of the Buddha’s bodily relics, then to the Bodhi tree, symbol of a his enlightenment but also of a place where he actually went, and finally, to the Buddha images. (Huntington, 1990, p. 405). For Huntington, the cult of image was secondary, as one can understand from the Vibhaṇga: “one obtains Buddhālambanapīti (joy or ecstasy derived by thinking about the Buddha) by looking at a stūpa housing a relic of the Buddha or a bodhi tree” (Huntington, 1990, p. 405). In this passage, no mention is made about Buddha images.

According to Huntington, the theory of aniconism survived so long because of the fundamental misunderstandings of its first scholars, and in particular, Foucher. Foucher might have been convinced that these pictures depicted events of Buddha’s life and that artists were responsible of a “monstrous abstention” in not showing him (Huntington, 1990, p. 406). The original problem is one of language: by creating the theoretical notion of “aniconism”, scholars have discussed what should be there on the illustration and not what is actually there. Huntington attempts the reversed methodology, and out of her examinations, she explains that many so-called aniconic illustrations do not actually depict an event of Buddha’s life. Her contribution comes to deny many of the conclusions of the theory of aniconism and of the use of symbols in early Buddhist art, but it does not discuss more problematic reliefs, like those representing the great departure of Buddha from Kapilavastu. Indeed, art pieces like these ones seem to depict an event of Buddha’s life with an intentional abstention from representing the Enlightened one in an anthropomorphic form.



Huntington, S.L. (1990). Early Buddhist Art and the Theory of Aniconism. Art Journal, Vol. 49, No. 4, 401–408

Personal notes from the class of Buddhist Art and Architecture (Department of Buddhist Studies, Delhi University), taught by Dr. R.N. Mathew during the month of August 2011.

Vogel, J.P. (1977). Buddhist Art in India, Ceylon and Java. London, UK: Coronet Books.


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