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Time and Time Again: Finding Perspective for Bodhgayā Buddha Imagery

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Bodhgayā after the sixth century is particularly heralded as the location of the vajrāsana, the place where Śākyamuni achieved enlightenment. This essay explores miraculous and magical qualities in the imagery of Bodhgayā by focusing on the form of the Buddha touching the earth (bhūmisparśa mudra), which became increasingly common during the sixth through thirteenth centuries. The central question concerns how this imagery conveys the miraculous power of the place, a concept shaped by the generative powers of emerging ritual practices connected to the enlightenment experience.

Some time ago, when writing about the Buddhist elements in Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, I pointed out that his remarkable ekphrastic description of a Gandhāran sculpture allows us to identify a specific image in the Lahore Museum, the now well-known Muhammad Nari stele (fig. 1).[1] I did not, however, fully register the important nature of the scene that Kipling had fashioned, with a Tibetan lama standing in the museum, exclaiming in front of this sculpture: “‘The Lord! The Lord! It is Sakya Muni himself,’ the lama half sobbed . . . ‘And he is here! The Most Excellent Law is here also! My pilgrimage is well begun. And what work! What work!’”[2]

Figure 1. View of Buddha sculpture installed in Lahore Museum, from Muhammad Nari, ca. 3rd century. Lahore Museum. Photo: Getty Images The lama’s astonished reaction signals a significant regard for seeing, a topic increasingly addressed in Buddhist studies in recent years.[3] Kipling’s narrative indeed seems a wonderful analogy for the productive shifts occurring in the study of South Asian Buddhist art. The fact that he embraced questions of what images do—meaning their affective nature—in a novel now over a hundred years old is both sobering and inspiring.[4]

Attention to the dynamic interactions that gave rise to the production and use of Buddhist images is finally shifting a perspective that has long privileged the evidence found in Buddhist canonical texts.[5] As Todd Lewis writes in his recent collaboration with Jinah Kim for the exhibition catalogue Dharma and Puṇya: Buddhist Ritual Art of Nepal,

Early scholars held that “true Buddhists” followed a rational, atheistic belief system, and that these were monastics who focused mostly on meditation, fervently intent on nirvana realization; and that as its history unfolded, this tradition was corrupted by “popular” practices—especially rituals—that represent a deformation of the Dharma (the Buddha’s teaching). What the earliest canons show, however, is that the Buddha taught—as part of his Dharma—that Buddhist monastics and householders must perform rituals: the former as part of their communal life, the latter to earn merit and secure worldly blessings. Anyone who has visited Buddhist communities across Asia, or been welcomed in Asian immigrant temples in the West, has seen that this view of a pure, rational, ritual-free tradition is unfounded, a baseless projection.[6]

Understanding the role of ritual practices seems key to recalibrating the study of Buddhist art, but it can be difficult to move beyond long-held assumptions.[7] Bringing together different types of sources not usually combined may help to shape new perspectives, especially when surviving evidence of Buddhist devotion is minimal. This essay focuses on the site of Bodhgayā to see what may be discerned if we consider certain ritual technologies in conjunction with the production of imagery there during the last centuries of major Buddhist activity in India (the sixth through thirteenth centuries), a period marked by emerging esoteric practices.[8] During this time frame, Bodhgayā clearly witnessed significant activity, as reflected by the sheer amount of extant material, but the ruined nature of the site constrained some investigation.[9] I want to consider what well-known material put in conversation with recent lines of inquiry might reveal about perceptions of the miraculous and magical nature of the site.[10]

The significance of Bodhgayā as the place of the vajrāsana (diamond seat), where the Buddha’s enlightenment occurred, is well recognized and in many ways well studied.[11] Questions about the miraculous quality of images produced there—indeed, the very definition of miraculous—are usually framed by testimony found in the accounts of foreign pilgrims, especially Xuanzang (ca. 602–664). As discussed in Dorothy Wong’s essay in this volume, his record has justly been a dominant voice because it richly details many wonders to behold at the site, including the miraculous character of the main image. Although Buddhist texts are replete with tales of the miraculous powers the Buddha displayed, there is no testimony from later South Asian devotees that parallels the character of Xuanzang’s account.[12] The evidence of ritual practices can, however, augment our understanding.

I wish to juxtapose here two ritual practices that became especially significant after the sixth century: those invoking the use of sādhana texts (instructions for visualization) and those featuring the ye dharmā verse. Although these can seem distinct, I believe they remarkably cohere in reflecting an emphasis on seeing and defining the Buddha that aligns well with the nature of the site. In important studies, Yael Bentor and Peter Skilling have outlined different approaches to the roles of the ye dharmā verse across distinct areas of the Buddhist world that were inspired by ideologies of merit (puṇya) as well as spiritual advancement.[13] The verse appears on a vast array of objects, particularly the hundreds and hundreds of sealings surviving at

Bodhgayā after the sixth century. Skilling called these various manifestations “sealings” rather than “votive seals” or “plaques,” believing that the “votive” label undermines their nature as multivalent, multifunctional ritual products.[14] Although not always recognized, the ye dharmā verse is considered the epitome or essence of dependent origination, the concept realized by Śākyamuni while seated on the vajrāsana beneath the bodhi tree; it is this understanding that constitutes his enlightened awareness. Commentaries on the Prajñāpāramitā (perfection of wisdom) teaching specifically emphasize that understanding śūnyatā (emptiness) is the realization of the concept of pratîtyasamutpāda (dependent origination).[15]

In contrast to the ubiquity of the ye dharmā verse is the astonishingly diverse imagery that proliferated in eastern India after the sixth century, including at Bodhgayā. Much of what is depicted corresponds to descriptions found in ritual texts called sādhanas. These prescribe celestial forms to be generated in visualization practices, often called deity yoga, which, as Yael Bentor has outlined, begin with various steps to enhance a practitioner’s realization of śūnyatā.[16] The ultimate goal the practitioner seeks is an understanding of non-duality, or the true nature of things, accomplished through union with what is visualized. As Jinah Kim has skillfully demonstrated in her studies of painted manuscripts, images encountered in the late Buddhist art

of India reflect a key visual strategy in the development of the visualization practices outlined in sādhanas.[17] Placing this view of the agency of visuality in conjunction with the extant evidence of abundant visual production can shed light on the miraculous quality accorded Bodhgayā as a place. Whether or not the many stone sculptures known from the site were specifically used in visionary practices, they manifested a rich field for merit-making and beneficial vision. Through the power of repetition, “seeing” (or perceiving) at Bodhgayā was surely enhanced by what one saw as well as what one did there.

Perceptions of Bodhgayā

The site no doubt witnessed many developments over the centuries, but the rate of change has been dizzying since it obtained UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2002. Visiting today ensures a heady mix of experiences, and it can be difficult to untangle the threads of the myth that the site has become.[18] Along with new attractions and images, old remains have been refashioned into new forms, and ancient sculptures resurfaced or reclothed. Each day, a remarkable range of practices is centered around the Mahābodhi Temple (figs. 2a, b and 3). This motley mix is likely closer to the truth of the past than how it looked after the clearing and reconstruction efforts that occurred in the nineteenth century.[19] Many writers have focused more on its early importance as the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment than on subsequent religious developments, but there is little evidence that Bodhgayā was ever isolated from later activities occurring at sites such as Nālandā or Vikramaśīla.[20]

Bodhgayā is finally becoming better understood as a place that witnessed varied Buddhist practices.[21] For instance, while the achievements of the great Buddhist teacher Atīśa (982–1054), who was from eastern India and journeyed in Tibet, have long been known, scholars now have a more nuanced understanding of his diverse practice, which included significant interest in Bodhgayā.[22] Recent study makes especially clear that Bodhgayā is repeatedly promoted in Tibetan texts as a site of practice with powerful images. In a valuable study, Kurtis Schaeffer considered the significance of Tibetan writing about seeing Bodhgayā.[23] Toni Huber had earlier traced the development of the Tibetan view of India, and Tibetans’ changing relationship with the vajrāsana as the center of the world, through the Tibetan re-creation of India’s sacred Buddhist landscape.[24] This insightful study details various linkages to eastern India and Indian teachers that are highlighted in accounts of the revival of Buddhism in Tibet.[25]

Laying the Foundation

The sculpture now installed in the central shrine of the Mahābodhi Temple is a good place to begin reflecting on the efficacy of seeing and visualizing at the site (fig. 3). Xuanzang in the seventh century and the Tibetan monk Dharmasvāmin in the thirteenth century (whose common epithet, Schaeffer notes, is Chak Lotsawa) relate strikingly similar tales about the miraculous creation of a sculpture there.[26] Particularly interesting is Dharmasvāmin’s account of how the image in this shrine provides a powerfully efficacious vision: “Inside the gandhola is the Mahābodhi image; it is two cubits in size. Upon seeing such an image, one will never be satisfied [that one has seen it enough] and one will have no wish to go elsewhere. It is said that even for those in a hurry who remain only briefly, no matter how small their faith, it is impossible that they not feel devotion and weep in the presence of that image. Its blessings are many.”[27]

There is much evidence among India’s religions of a long-enduring belief in the special nature and power of certain places, their efficaciousness often understood as resulting from visual contact with a specific manifestation of the divine entity. This is especially well known from the scholarly study of darśan, seeing the divine, and the shower of benefits that results from such encounters with images at sacred places (tirthas).[28] For example, Jinah Kim

has carefully analyzed how an elaborate eleventh-century painted Buddhist manuscript from Nepal, now in the University of Cambridge Library, presents evidence of the desire for such in its depictions of Buddhist images found at specific South Asian cultic sites.[29] Part of the increased production of painted manuscripts of the Aşţasāhasrika Prajñāpāramitā sūtra beginning in the eleventh century, this manuscript and another, now in the collection of the Asiatic Society, Kolkata, remarkably have inscriptions on most of the paintings that identify them as specific manifestations at specific sites.

It is, however, difficult to glean what this mode of visuality might mean in terms of the miraculous, magical nature of seeing specific works found at Bodhgayā. Regard for the wondrous nature of seeing at Bodhgayā is in part indicated by surviving depictions carved on floor slabs in front of the main shrine of the Mahābodhi Temple (fig. 4). One slab presents kneeling figures proffering flowers; the accompanying inscription, “Buddhadarśan,” characterizes them as devotees.[30] Dating from the fourteenth century, this carved floor slab demonstrates continued interest in seeing at Bodhgayā, even after Buddhist practice had largely collapsed in India. Likely the vision sought was that of the Buddha through the image enshrined in the temple.[31]

Figure 4. Floor slab inside the Mahābodhi Temple with carved figures and inscription. Author’s photo, 2007 Photographs of the image presently in the central shrine, taken before it became enveloped by recent devotional practices, reveal that it is an exquisitely carved black stone sculpture (fig. 5). The careful treatment of the body and facial features points to the time of its creation as likely the eleventh century. Its large size is distinctive, as is the fact that it is fully carved; most eastern Indian stone sculptures are deeply carved reliefs with finished back slabs.[32] The majority of examples of such fully sculpted works are Buddha figures. While the sculpture’s current position in the central shrine may not have been its original location, there is simply no certain evidence as to where it was originally installed. The sculpture was moved from the adjacent Shaivite monastery, known as the Mahant’s compound, to the Mahābodhi Temple after reconstruction work there in the nineteenth century. At some earlier point, members of this Shaiva order had moved a number of works from the area of the Buddhist temple, many of which remain at the Mahant’s compound today under worship.

It is likely that the surviving individual steles at the site were once placed in niches much like those now installed on the exterior of the Mahābodhi Temple, or in small shrines, but we will never know how they were originally situated or grouped. In her study of eastern Indian sculpture, Susan Huntington noted that fully carved images were likely parts of larger ensembles, which is a reasonable conclusion.[33] Fragments of a large throne back still at the Mahant’s compound suggest that the Buddha sculpture at the Mahābodhi Temple was part of an elaborate grouping, as the dimensions would have worked with those of the image now in the central shrine. Another distinctive feature of this sculpture is the patterned cushion on which the figure sits, replacing the usual lotus seat; this element is sometimes encountered in other Buddha images.[34] The most significant feature of this impressive sculpture, however, is the gesture of bhūmisparśa mudra, making it the largest example of this seated form known from the site.[35]

The Evidence of Imagery

It is widely known that the bhūmisparśa mudra refers to the moment when Śākyamuni, seated on the vajrāsana beneath the bodhi tree, called upon the earth to witness his right to enlightenment in response to the challenges made by the deity Māra. It was with the earth as witness that Śākyamuni overcame this last obstacle to attaining Buddhahood. Sometimes erroneously interpreted as the moment of enlightenment, it is properly called the victory over Māra (māravijaya). Various Buddhist texts relate that Śākyamuni then spent the night passing through a series of meditations that resulted in his enlightenment at sunrise.[36]

Many images of the Buddha making this gesture are still extant at the site. Identifying this form as symbolizing the removal of the final obstacles to enlightenment and referring to it as the māravijaya is certainly not wrong. But such labels can obscure how the form developed over time. In this respect it is important to underscore that large, single sculptures of the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra appear frequently only after the sixth century in India, despite the fact that the gesture is encountered earlier in sculpted panels depicting the māravijaya. Relevant depictions are especially found in the

Gandhāran region, dating as early as the second century CE. In these panels there is usually some degree of narrative detail. Andy Rotman made an interesting analysis of the choice to distinguish between narrative and iconic images, advocating instead for differentiating treatments as discursive or figural in order to move away from excessive focus on narrative details.[37] This perspective allows us to embrace the fact that the narrative may always be retained as part of an image’s identity, but it may not always form the primary focus. This seems to be the case with the large single images of the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra that become common only after the sixth century; these typically included few narrative elements. While some writers have

posited the creation of these images as reflecting increased pilgrimage activity, the question of what motivated the increase remains. Simply emphasizing a narrative interpretive frame for these later sculptures can undermine the sense of change that likely accompanied emerging ritual practices. The evidence of sādhana texts here seems distinctly relevant. Three sādhanas found in a group known as the Sādhanamālā (garland of sādhanas), which was collated in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, bear the title Vajrāsana sādhana; these are versions for visualizing the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra.[38] The descriptions do not emphasize the narrative of Māra’s attack.

Jinah Kim carefully analyzed how Alfred Foucher began the practice of using sādhana descriptions to identify images in the early twentieth century.[39] Her study also illuminates the somewhat quixotic process of Benoytosh Bhattacharyya following Foucher; he collected the texts of the Sādhanamālā and based his widely used volume, Iconography of Buddhist Art, on some of the descriptions.[40] It is important to note that an interest in visualization practices links not only to sādhanas but also to developing practices using mantras and dhāraṇīs.[41] These ritual technologies convey through repetition the magical means to acquire spiritual and material benefits and protection, often redefining and enriching earlier ideas with new concerns, especially with the concept of śūnyatā (emptiness).[42]

The three Vajrāsana sādhanas prescribe the visualization of the Vajrāsana Buddha; one also notes that this is a vision of Śākyamuni. What is emphasized in these texts is a visualization of an enlightened state. The Vajrāsana sādhanas relate that the Buddha sits on the vajrāsana, makes the bhūmisparśa mudra, and is attended by two bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara and Maitreya. Here, I believe, is where we might see a shifting emphasis given to place—the vajrāsana—in the imagery of the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra. Significantly, this grouping of figures is frequently encountered in eastern Indian sculpture made after

the eighth century. In stone sculptures the depiction is often quite close to the textual description, as seen in a well-preserved work (missing only its base) from Bodhgayā that dates from the ninth century (fig. 6). The sculpture presents the Buddha sitting on a double lotus, his seat marked by a vajra to represent the vajrāsana. He makes the gesture of touching the earth (bhūmisparśa mudra), and a small cluster of leaves carved at the stele’s top signifies the bodhi tree. These elements emphasize the place where the Buddha sat at Bodhgayā. The bodhisattvas who flank the Buddha figure can be easily identified by the different flowers they hold as well as by the small Buddha in the headdress of Avalokiteśvara and a small stupa in the depiction of Maitreya. These

bodhisattvas are not participants in narrative accounts of the māravijaya. Xuanzang’s record of the central shrine describes ten-foot-high silver sculptures of the bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara and Maitreya that flanked the entrance to the temple’s central chamber. His description is certainly interesting in terms of pairing the same two bodhisattvas mentioned in the Vajrāsana sādhanas, but his details about their size and material are questionable given that they are quite unparalleled in known works.[43]

When considering images from the perspective of the Vajrāsana sādhanas, it is useful to remember that visualization is the prescribed goal; the image visualized is that which one wishes to become. The Vajrāsana Buddha form seems to highlight the experience of Śākyamuni in terms of his transformation, which could be construed as evidence of his miraculous nature. Although one must be cautious in using The History of Buddhism in India by Tāranātha (1575–

1634), as he lived so much later than the events he narrates, the amount of detail given suggests access to distinctive early sources, from which he drew his account. The discussion of Atīśa’s teacher, Jñanaśrīmitra, who lived in the tenth and eleventh centuries, seems to provide a record of the practice of the Vajrāsana sādhana, for Tāranātha states that Jñanaśrīmitra, who studied the works of Nagarjuna and Asaṅga and knew the Guhyasamāja, always meditated on the bodhicitta (enlightenment mind) and had repeated visions of the three, namely Bhagavan Śākyarāja, Maitreya, and Avalokiteśvara; there is evidence that Atīśa continued this practice.[44]

While a few painted Buddha figures are labeled Vajrāsana in Aşţasāhasrika Prajñāpāramitā manuscripts, they do not conform closely to the sādhana descriptions, and their full significance warrants further study.[45] The incomplete evidence of original groupings and placement of sculptures also means that we do not know how many single figures of the Buddha were once part of a group like that named in the Vajrāsana sādhanas. We can at least conjecture that visionary experience was sought by many devotees, which is part of what is conveyed by the form of a Buddha displaying the bhūmisparśa mudra.

The Limits of Evidence

It is challenging to understand the expanded presence of the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra after the sixth century because the context of so many examples is not known. This is especially true for the many metal examples now scattered around the world in various collections. Even works discovered in scientific excavations often have only the barest details of their provenance preserved—as, for example, a small bronze sculpture found during archaeological operations in the 1980s at Antichak, believed to be the important Buddhist site of Vikramaśīla (fig. 7).[46] Stylistic elements of this small, well-crafted sculpture indicate that it dates from the late eleventh or twelfth century. While as an object it seems complete, we do not know its original context. Much is unknown about how it was used or the circumstances that prompted its creation. Beyond issues of subject, style, and provenance, we are often limited, it seems, to registering the significance of such works in terms of their physical similarity to other images. However, we can also consider whether the increased frequency of the form might connote something beyond simply the continued significance of the historical Buddha.[47]

The creation of works made of metal seems to have increased after the sixth century. The proliferation of these objects, many of which are small and thus easily portable, suggests possible uses beyond enshrining them in fixed spaces. Robert Brown’s recent and provocative study proposes that such works played a central role in spreading Buddhist practice beyond South Asia in the first millennium.[48] He sees their portability as a critical factor in this spread. His is a perspective that aligns with emerging visualization technologies. Metal sculptures survive in some quantity from eastern India during these last centuries of major Buddhist practice there. Especially well known are large numbers discovered at Kurkihar and Nālandā,[49] making the fact that none are known from Bodhgayā striking. This may result from the limited amount of excavation at the site[50]; nonetheless, it is most unfortunate that this aspect of the development of image-making cannot be easily discussed with respect to Bodhgayā.

The question of why there are so many examples of the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra from the last period of Buddhist practice in eastern India can be recast as a query about the ways in which their numbers signal a new significance for the form that may relate to new ritual practices. How might a heightened sense of the miraculous quality of Bodhgayā be tied up in the astonishing production of such images found at many sites? Considering repeated visualization as promoted by sādhana texts may clarify a concerted effort to invoke the power of the vajrāsana. This visual strategy seems to have developed in tandem with an increased emphasis on the concept of prajñā, which is the realization of śūnyatā (emptiness)—and what Śākyamuni realized at Bodhgayā.

Thinking about repeated miraculous manifestation—as represented by the form of the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra—with respect to Bodhgayā makes sense of the many images that could inspire visualization; while not all who visited the site engaged in practices prescribed by sādhana texts, a belief in the efficacy of vision as exemplified by darśan was likely widely held. Aligning repeated visualizations promoted by sādhana texts with the increasing appearance of new forms in sculpture allows us to consider how such images could have shaped the general experience of the environment of the vajrāsana. It is a perspective that considers how new ritual practices can emerge from those already established. Of value for this endeavor are studies that have questioned whether certain images might have been meant to copy a particular image once enshrined in the Mahābodhi Temple at Bodhgayā.

This line of thinking began with an important article by Hiram Woodward exploring so-called “andagu plaques,” small sculptures that present a grouping of life scenes around a central Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra.[51] Dating these works is not so problematic—they are usually placed in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries—but their provenance is a vexed issue. While these sculptures were long thought to be Burmese, principally because of the shortened neck of the central Buddha figure, a feature usually identified as Burmese, Woodward makes a most reasonable case for identifying at least some of them as Indian. He specifically labeled this form the “robust type” and identified the characteristics of a shortened neck, broad forehead, rounded shoulders, and a massive long-reaching arm. He suggested that this treatment replicated an image form that originated at Bodhgayā.[52]

Jane Casey Singer perceptively explored the question of whether some images were meant to replicate a specific work at Bodhgayā.[53] One image emphasized in her study is a much-published metal sculpture, now in the Asia Society collection in New York, that is most often thought to be Tibetan.[54] All the works—paintings and sculptures—that she discusses depict the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra and present the shortened neck (as well as other features), but some of them have been thought to be Tibetan, others perhaps Burmese. Singer posits that the similar elements in this wide range of works point to a common Indian prototype as all of these regions were in contact with India. She concludes that they copied some now-lost image, designating them depictions of the Bodhgayā icon.[55]

These discussions demonstrate the exceptional significance seemingly held by Bodhgayā and its imagery, but the fact that so much is uncertain, displaced, or lost makes it difficult to conclude that the sculpted works are all copies of the same phenomenon. Claudine Bautze-Picron has, I think wisely, suggested that it seems best to view them as produced within a broad network but not necessarily the result of a single workshop or one location.[56] Given various indications that Bodhgayā suffered significant disruptions after the eleventh century, new agents, such as Burmese Buddhists, may have achieved a greater role there than has been recognized thus far.[57] The fact that the most secure examples of this Bodhgayā icon cluster around a narrow period from the twelfth through the thirteenth century might suggest that factors shaping the development of such a form are not yet fully understood.

There seem to be no surviving examples of this short-necked form among sculptural remains at Bodhgayā, but a stunning bronze image discovered in 1968 at a site called Fatehpur, very near Bodhgayā, provides impressive Indian evidence for this discussion (fig. 8). As with the other works in the small hoard from which it came, the stylistic features of this rather large sculpture (27.8 cm in height) have most often been taken to indicate a date in the eleventh or twelfth century; Susan Huntington pointed out connections to Burmese forms. [58] Unfortunately, it was stolen from the Bodh Gaya Site Museum in 1981 and cannot be further studied. Certain features are similar to those that have been identified as depicting a Bodhgayā icon.[59] The shortened neck is not apparent, but other elements of the treatment of the figure and the patterned cushion on which the Buddha sits, as well as the richly foliated scroll on the pedestal below, relate to those identified as depicting the Bodhgayā icon. The work from Fatehpur and the small Antichak sculpture (see fig. 7), among others, may well reflect a desire for reproducing the cultic power believed to be held by distinct Bodhgayā images, as discussed by Woodward and Singer.[

While studies addressing the idea of a Bodhgayā icon highlight the reasonable assumption that the central image there would be famous, thus leading to desires to replicate it, there has been little discussion of why this is so. Useful guidance is found in Jinah Kim’s exploration of painted Buddhist manuscripts, as she defines the ways in which visualization aligns with awareness of the materiality of a book. She emphasizes viewing the painted manuscripts as three-dimensional works that create sacred spaces for the paintings that they contain.[61] At stake here is the manner in which place and visuality are actively engaged. Reflection on such concerns with the power manifested in specific places can allow us to understand how this power is part of the efficacy of what is to be seen. Taking such a perspective to bear on the increased appearance of the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra suggests that works which connote the site (some even replicating a particular image there) embody, and thus make present, its miraculous nature.

Thinking about place as defining sacred space—and a miraculous nature—can also reframe the importance of various sculptures that seemingly replicate the form of the Mahābodhi Temple. The most famous are a number of quite small examples made of stone, such as one now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.[62] As discussed by John Guy, these small works are usually thought to date after the eleventh century, although their date and the precise provenance of most are unknown.[63] Guy and other authors recognized that these unusual objects reveal a distinct importance of Bodhgayā’s central monument, but discussions have mostly focused on their varying details depicting the temple’s form. These small works become more striking if we view them not as merely small-scale models of the Mahābodhi Temple but as a different means of presenting the specific Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra contained in the temple—or, simply put, as another version of the Bodhgayā icon.

Consideration of another example replicating the Mahābodhi Temple form—this one made of bronze—makes this line of thinking even more intriguing (figs. 9 and 10). Little noticed, this small work is now housed in the Gaya Museum but was found in a small hoard by a farmer when collecting soil from a mound at Jaipurgarh near Bodhgayā. [64] Shortly after its discovery in 1976, Archaeological Survey Director General Dr. Debala Mitra wrote a brief but valuable article detailing the characteristics of this object and the dedicatory inscription dating to the twelfth or the thirteenth century.[65] She noted that it was cast in three sections: shikara (tower); a hollow central chamber with a small Buddha figure; and a base, triratha (three-faceted) in plan. The small chamber encloses a figure of the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra that, remarkably, may have something of a shortened neck.[66] This object suggests the complexity in defining a Bodhgayā icon.[67] By viewing this work as an image that presents a specific setting for a specific image of the Buddha, we are able to consider how it denotes what is to be visualized. This perspective can usefully move discussions about models of the Mahābodhi Temple beyond questions of the veracity of depicted details.[68]

Connecting Evidence

Further insight about the site’s status can be gleaned from the immense number of surviving sealings noted by nineteenth-century investigators at the site; many are now found in various museum collections. Most feature the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra within a structure that seems to refer to the Mahābodhi Temple; an example now in the Cleveland Museum of Art is typical (fig. 11). While the imagery may vary, the sealings are usually inscribed with what is now called the ye dharmā or dharma-relic (dharma śarīra) verse, although it was long known as the Buddhist creed. The inscribed nature of these sealings points to their significance as products of ritual practice, as various scholars have noted.[69] It is with reflection on these sealings that we might discern the miraculous/magical nature of the image of the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra and the place of Bodhgayā (specifically the vajrāsana) as linked to ritual practices. This may in fact be some of the best evidence for identifying the miraculous power of place as one that articulates enlightenment.

The ye dharmā verse is often defined as presenting the Buddha’s teachings, but most specifically the verse connotes the concept of dependent origination, the realization achieved at Bodhgayā that might be said to define enlightenment. The verse is now most frequently discussed as a means of consecration, but as ritual products, many objects inscribed with this verse were inspired by quests for merit as well as spiritual advancement and other functions.[70] The

verse even became a significant dhāraṇī; as Yael Bentor notes, it was one of the five major dhāraṇīs used in Tibet.[71] Peter Skilling highlights the reputed efficacy of the verse when he relates the story in the Tripitaka about its role in converting Śāriputra and Maudgalyayāna, who became the foremost of the Buddha’s followers. Aśvajit, who was one of the five monks converted at Sarnath when he heard Śākyamuni’s first teaching, recited it when asked by Śāriputra what his teacher taught. Śāriputra then repeated it to Maudgalyayāna.[72]

By demonstrating the range of the ritual practices utilizing the verse, Daniel Boucher’s important study of a short text preserved in Chinese, Sutra on the Merit of Building a Stūpa Spoken by the Buddha, has led to much subsequent attention.[73] The text unequivocally equates bodily relics with the well-known verse that Boucher calls the Buddhist formula, thus demonstrating a cultic role for the verse after the sixth century. Boucher also remarks that the verse is specified as signifying śūnyatā, or emptiness, the central concept in the important Prajñāpāramitā literature, which is defined as the realization of dependent origination (pratîtyasamutpāda).[74] The verse could even be considered a synecdoche of the teaching of pratîtyasamutpāda and the experience of enlightenment. Indeed, Boucher notes that another text reports that the Blessed One spoke, “As for this Avalokiteśvara, this pratîtyasamutpāda is the dharmakāya of the Tathāgata: ‘He who sees the pratîtyasamutpāda, sees the Tathāgata.’”[75]

Sealings depicting a Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra inside a towered structure (see fig. 11) have seemed to be ready references to the Mahābodhi Temple and thus to the image it contained, but the ye dharmā verse is also part of such depictions. Neither caption nor simply a consecratory verse, it conflates word and image. The nature of the verse shapes the focus upon the site of enlightenment—the vajrāsana—and the experience of it. The verse can be construed as an embodiment of enlightenment, making visible this astonishing truth.[76]

Proliferating Visions

In his seventh-century account, the Chinese pilgrim Yijing related that the monks and laity of India took as their practice to impress or place inside a stupa two kinds of relics: the bodily relic of the Great Teacher and the dharmā-relic verse on the chain of causation (also known as dependent origination).[77] Yijing’s account thus describes a specific ritual technology widely practiced after the sixth century. Together, the common nature of this practice connoting the essence of the enlightenment experience and the increased production of images of the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra would seem to demonstrate a heightened efficacy of seeing at Bodhgayā, with all sorts of attendant benefits, both merit-making and soteriological.

Although a detailed exploration is beyond the scope of this essay, it seems appropriate to conclude with some thoughts about the ensuing development of other imagery related to the site. My example is the deity known as Mārīcī, depicted in an unusually large number of sculptures at Bodhgayā. The images of Mārīcī at Bodhgayā are among the earliest known, and the form could well have originated there, as sādhana texts link her manifestation of light to the power of enlightenment.[78] One spectacular work not previously published is worshiped today in the Mahant’s compound (fig. 12). In this assuredly carved

sculpture, Mārīcī is three-headed, the proper right face depicting a boar. Her six arms as well as her various attributes, which include a bow and arrow, conform to what is prescribed in multiple sādhanas of Mārīcī.[79] These texts also relate that her name evokes the shining power of light, and that she rides a chariot through the sky to bring light to the world. Richly ornamented and dressed, the dynamic figure depicted in this sculpture stands atop a pedestal figured with the seven small boars that are meant to pull her chariot; above them sits the small figure of the chariot driver. Depictions of Mārīcī also appear at the site, on steles erected by Chinese pilgrims and on small stupas (fig. 13).[80] Sādhana texts designate that she is enclosed within a stupa, perhaps echoing the character of a relic. Looking broadly at this form underscores connections to the realization of śūnyatā. From this perspective it seems that another practice of visualizing the miraculous quality of the site correlates with the production of imagery there.

Figure 13. Small stupa with depiction of Mārīcī, Bodhgayā Temple compound, ca. 10th–11th century. Stone. Author’s photo, 2007 When we remember Yijing’s account of making sealings with the ye dharmā verse, such repeated production seems consonant with the power created by the repeated recitation of a mantra or dhāraṇī, magic words with miraculous effects. The repetitive nature of these practices of devotees aligns with the repeated forms of images. Recognizing that visuality can connect with the miraculous power of what Śākyamuni realized while seated beneath the bodhi tree thus seems a promising way to broaden other conversations about the study of the site.[81]

Janice Leoshko, PhD (The Ohio State University), 1987, teaches in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research has long focused on assumptions about the significance of artistic production at Bodhgayā, the Indian site where the Buddha achieved enlightenment (Sacred Traces: British Explorations of Buddhism in South Asia [Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003]). She also writes about the influence of museums and exhibitions, partly a result of time spent as a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Recent focus on Sri Lankan art has led to her current book project on the significance of the early writings of Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, which will be published by University of Chicago Press. E-mail:


Janice Leoshko, “What Is in Kim?: Rudyard Kipling and Tibetan Buddhist Traditions,” South Asia Research 21 (Fall 2001): 51–75.return to text

Rudyard Kipling, Kim, edited and with an introduction by Edward Said (New York: Penguin, 1989), 28. The Muhammad Nari sculpture has been much studied; see the valuable assessment of the many discussions about its iconography by Paul Harrison and Christian Luczantis, “New Light on (and from) the Muhammad Nari Stele,” Special International Symposium on Pure Land Buddhism (Kyoto: Ryukoko University Research Center for Buddhist Cultures in Asia, 2011): 69–126 (131–94, Japanese translation, 197–207, plates).return to text

This is a vast topic; for an important discussion (by a Buddhist textual scholar) of the centrality of visuality even in early Indian Buddhism, see Andy Rotman, Thus Have I Seen: Visualizing Faith in Early Indian Buddhism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), especially his last chapter, “Images and Imagination,” 177–95. The volume is a companion to his translation, Divine Stories: Divyavadana, Part 1, trans. Andy Rotman (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008).return to text

Stanley Abe adroitly used Kipling’s text to raise critical questions about the historiography of studying South Asian Buddhist art. See Stanley K. Abe, “Inside the Wonder House: Buddhist Art and the West,” in Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism, ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 63–91. return to text

Some of the broad observations made by Gregory Schopen about the constrained approach of many early studies of Buddhist traditions in India are found in his significant article, “Archaeology and the Protestant Presuppositions in the Study of Indian Buddhism,” History of Religions 30 (1991): 1–23. Schopen also demonstrates that much archaeological evidence continues to be dismissed. return to text

Curated by Jinah Kim and Todd Lewis, the exhibition and its catalogue are skillful interventions, demonstrating deep engagement with questions concerning the ritual use of objects. See Jinah Kim and Todd Lewis, Dharma and Puṇya: Buddhist Ritual Art of Nepal (Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2019). Their effort demonstrates the importance of collaboration and discussion across disciplines, the lack of which Matthew Kapstein noted some time ago in his article about image-making: “the ritual craze that swept through much of Asia from Pāla domains toward the end of the first millennium remains dimly perceived and even more poorly understood (“Weaving the World: The Ritual Art of the Paţa in Pāla Buddhism and Its Legacy in Tibet,” History of Religions 34, no. 3 [1995]: 262).return to text

Kim and Lewis, Dharma and Puṇya, 11–17. Scholars are increasingly deploying in their research various ways to push new perspectives. One interesting example is the work of Andrew Quintman (“Life Writing as Literary Relic: Image, Inscription and Consecration in Tibetan Biography,” Material Religion 9, no. 4 [2013]: 468–505). Breaking down long-held boundaries, such as that between text and image, can hopefully result in a fuller appreciation of the visual power in images, too often still simply defined as their “artistic qualities.”return to text

Significant discussions about the development of esoteric traditions in Buddhism include Alexis Sanderson, “Vajrayāna: Origin and Function,” in Buddhism into the Year 2000: International Conference Proceedings, ed. Dharmakaya Foundation (Bangkok and Los Angeles: Dhammakaya Foundation, 1994), 87–102; Ronald Davidson, Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002); and Christian K. Wedemeyer, Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism: History, Semiology, and Transgression in the Indian Traditions (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).return to text

Its ruins attracted much attention—including wide-ranging interest in rehabilitating the site for Buddhist worship—in the nineteenth century, when two books as well as various articles about the site were published. Interest in its remains has continued, and there is now a vast bibliography. For one overview, see Janice Leoshko, “Bodh Gaya,” in Oxford Bibliographies in Buddhism, ed. Richard Payne (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 10.1093/OBO/9780195393521-0234. return to text

I seek a subtle shift of the perspective of what is possible to study, and so I have tried to give a detailed accounting of many newer sources and relevant prior studies in the endnotes here.return to text

The significance of the site has been framed in various ways; see, for example, the exploration of influence in Susan L. Huntington and John C. Huntington, Leaves from the Bodhi Tree: The Art of Pāla India (8th–12th Centuries) and Its International Legacy (Dayton, OH: Dayton Art Institute, 1990).return to text

Max Deeg is completing an important study and translation of Xuanzang’s text. Preliminary observations are made in various articles, for instance, Max Deeg, “The Historical Turn: How Chinese Buddhist Travelogues Changed Western Perception of Buddhism,” Hualin Journal of International Buddhist Studies 1, no. 1 (2018): 43–75. For a useful discussion of the Buddhist textual treatment of the Buddha’s biography, as well as the hagiographic process evident in surviving South Asian remains, see Vincent Tournier and John S. Strong, “Śākyamuni: South Asia,” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism, ed. Jonathan A. Silk, vol. 2, Lives (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 3–38.return to text

Yael Bentor, Consecration of Images and Stūpas in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism (Leiden: Brill, 1996); and Peter Skilling, “Buddhist Sealings: Reflections on Terminology, Motivation, Donors’ Status, School-Affiliation, and Print-Technology,” in South Asian Archaeology 2001, ed. Catherine Jarrige and Vincent Lefèvre (Paris: Editions Recherche sur la Civilisations, 2005), 677–85.return to text

Peter Skilling, “Buddhist Sealings and the Ye Dharma Stanza,” in Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia, ed. Gautam Sengupta and Sharmi Chakraborty (New Delhi: Pragati Publications, 2008), 503–25. Although the stanza is known in early texts, Skilling notes that evidence of its widespread nature as a ritual practice survives only from after the sixth century. Similar investigation was undertaken earlier by Simon Lawson in his dissertation considering examples now found in British museums (S. D. Lawson, “A Catalogue of Indian Sealings in British Museums” [PhD diss., University of Oxford, 1982]); in one article about this research (“Dhāraṇī Sealings in British Collections,” in South Asian Archaeology 1983, ed. Janine Schotsmans and Maurizio Taddei [[[Naples]]: Istituto Universitario Orientale, 1985], 2:709), Lawson discusses some sealings from Bodhgayā inscribed with dhāraṇīs, reflecting interest in the magical power of the text impressed upon them. This is good evidence of the diverse activity at the site, where many kinds of practices likely occurred.return to text

See below for a fuller discussion of the evidence presented in Daniel Boucher, “The Pratītyasamutpādagāthā and Its Role in the Medieval Cult of the Relics,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14, no. 1 (1991): 1–27. Boucher identifies textual evidence for increased attention to śūnyatā, the understanding of which makes the Buddha present or makes the experience of the Buddha’s presence possible.return to text

Yael Bentor, Consecration of Images and Stūpas in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 1–8. There is much to learn in this valuable study, beginning with the observation that ritual has not always been a significant topic of Buddhist studies even though the great majority of works in the collected writings of Tibetan teachers are devoted to rituals.return to text

A significant analysis of these paintings is found in Jinah Kim, “Local Visions, Transcendental Practices: Iconographic Innovations of Indian Esoteric Buddhism,” History of Religions 54, no. 1 (2014): 34–68, esp. 35–37. For a broader discussion of painted manuscripts, see Jinah Kim, Receptacle of the Sacred: Illustrated Manuscripts and the Buddhist Book Cult in South Asia (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013).return to text

For an incisive analysis of contemporary activity, see David Geary, The Rebirth of Bodh Gaya: Buddhism and the Making of a World Heritage Site (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017). A succinct overview of the site is Frederick M. Asher, Bodh Gaya (New Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). Traditional approaches continue with the study of surviving material, as seen in S. S. Biswas, The Art of Bodhgaya, 2 vols. (New Delhi: Kaveri Books, 2017), but there is marked interest in broadening the perspective of past and present practices. An important example is Abhishek S. Amar, “Buddhist Responses to Brāhmana Challenges in Medieval India: Bodhgayā and Gayā,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3rd ser., 22 (2012): 155–85. Also see the valuable essays in Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on a Contested Buddhist Site: Bodh Gaya Jataka, ed. David Geary, Matthew R. Sayers, and Abhishek Singh Amar, Routledge South Asian Religion Series (London and New York: Routledge, 2012).return to text

Much recent attention has been paid to the remarkable events that shattered the site, which was literally torn apart by competing interests. See, for instance, Nayanjot Lahiri, “Bodh-Gaya: An Ancient Buddhist Shrine and Its Modern History (1891–1904),” in Case Studies in Archaeology and World Religion: The Proceedings of the Cambridge Conference, ed. Timothy Insoll (Oxford: Archaeopress, 1999), 33–44; and Alan Trevithick, “British Archaeologists, Hindu Abbots, and Burmese Buddhists: The Mahābodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya, 1811–1877,” Modern Asian Studies 33 (1999): 635–56. The latter author further developed

his perspective in Alan Trevithick, The Revival of Buddhist Pilgrimage at Bodh Gaya (1811–1949): Angarika Dharmapala and the Mahabodhi Temple (Delhi: Motilal Barnasidass, 2006). Yet another recent publication covering this same topic is Nikhil Joshi, The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya: Constructing Sacred Placeness, Deconstructing the “Great Case” of 1895 (New Delhi: Manohar, 2019). A valuable assessment of the documentation of the temple is given in Michael Willis, “Bodhgayā: From Tree to Temple, 220–243,” in Modes of Representing Sacred Sites in East Asian Buddhist Art (Kyoto: The Institute for Research in the Humanities, Kyoto University, 2016).return to text

For example, Gregory Schopen has discussed the evidence of the dhāraṇī Bodhigarbhālankāralakṣadhāraṇī (Dhāraṇī of the Hundred Thousand Ornaments of the Essence of Awakening), found at Bodhgayā as well as Nalanda, in his article, “The Bodhigarbhālankāralakṣa and Vimaloṣnīṣa Dhāraṇīs in Indian Inscriptions: Two Sources for the Practice of Buddhism in Medieval India,” in Gregory Schopen, Figments and Fragments of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005), 314–44.return to text

Material long known is now better studied, such as sculptures depicting significant esoteric deities. See, for example, Rob Linrothe, Ruthless Compassion and Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art (Boston: Shambhala, 1999). For a discussion of some unusual panels from Bodhgayā that depict devotion to a book placed on a pedestal, likely the Aşţasāhasrika Prajñāpāramitā, see Claudine Bautze, “Between Men and Gods: Small Motifs in the Buddhist Art of Eastern India, an Interpretation,” in Function and Meaning in Buddhist Art, ed. K. R. van Kooij and H. van der Veere (Groningen: Egbert

Forsten, 1995), figs. 9–12. Careful reassessment of long-known inscriptions has been made by Vincent Tournier, “Mahākāśyapa, His Lineage, and the Wish for Buddhahood: Reading Anew the Bodhgayā Inscriptions of Mahānāman,” Indo-Iranian Journal 57, nos. 1–2 (2014): 1–60. Also see Tilman Frasch, “A Buddhist Network in the Bay of Bengal: Relations between Bodhgaya, Burma and Sri Lanka, c. 300–1300,” in From the Mediterranean to the China Sea: Miscellaneous Notes, ed. Claude Guilot, Denys Lombard, and Roderick Ptak (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1998), 69–92.return to text

A fascinating account of a vision by Atīśa that caused him to commission paintings (including one of the Mahābodhi of Bodhgayā) to be made in India and sent to him in Tibet is preserved in an early Tibetan text. See David P. Jackson, with contributions by Christian Luczanits, Mirror of the Buddha: Early Portraits from Tibet (New York: Rubin Museum of Art, 2011), 75. Atīśa and his work in Tibet continue to be much studied. See, for instance, James B. Apple,

“Atīśa’s Open Basket of Jewels: A Middle Way Vision in Late Phase Indian Vajrayāna (An Annotated English Translation of the Ratnakaraṇḍodghaṭamadhyamakopadeśa),” Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies 11 (2010): 117–19. For reference to Atīśa’s activities with regard to his commentary on Prajñāpāramitā literature, see Donald S. Lopez Jr., Elaboration on Emptiness (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 8–11, 21–23.return to text

Kurtis R. Schaeffer, “Tibetan Narratives of the Buddha’s Acts at Vajrāsana,” Zang xue xue kan (Journal of Tibetology) 7 (2011): 92–125. The article surveys surviving Tibetan accounts dating from the twelfth century and after. Schaeffer also explores their related nature and significance for guiding visualization of the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment, which, he notes, was more popularly known as Vajrāsana.return to text

Toni Huber, The Holy Land Reborn: Pilgrimage and the Tibetan Reinvention of Buddhist India (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008).return to text

For another discussion of the topic, see Roberto Vitali, “In the Presence of the ‘Diamond Throne’: Tibetans at rDo rje gden (Last Quarter of the 12th Century to the Year 1300,” in “The Earth of Papers,” special issue, The Tibet Journal 34/35, no. 3/2, (2009–10): 161–208. Details about exciting

discoveries made in the storage areas of the British Museum, which include the first known early Tibetan inscriptions from Bodhgayā, are documented in Tsering Gongratsang and Michael Willis, “Tibetan, Burmese and Chinese Inscriptions from Bodhgayā in the British Museum,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 23 (2013): 429–39.return to text

Schaeffer, “Tibetan Narratives,” 94. For one discussion of the central image, and textual accounts of its miraculous qualities, see Janice Leoshko, “The Vajrasana Buddha,” in Bodhgaya: The Site of Enlightenment, ed. Janice Leoshko (Bombay: Marg Publications, 1988), 30–44.return to text

As the translation by George Roerich has been noted as problematic, I am very grateful to Donald S. Lopez Jr. for kindly making it possible for me to use his translation here. The published version is George Roerich, trans., Biography of Dharmasvāmin (Chag Lo-Tsaba Chos-rje-dpal), a Tibetan Monk (Patna, India: K. P. Jayaswal Institute, 1959), 67. return to text

The classic statement of this concept is the study by Diana L. Eck, Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India (Chambersburg, PA: Anima Books, 1981). Gregory Schopen has noted the potential difficulty in using this term when working with early texts, in light of its modern valence, and the larger problem of what is meant by “seeing” (“Taking the Bodhisattva into Town: More Texts on the Image of ‘the Bodhisattva’ and Image Processions in the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya,” East and West 55, nos. 1/4 [December 2005]: 299–311, especially 308n38). The term continues to attract wide interest; for instance, even scholars of ancient art in the Mediterranean region have borrowed the concept to interrogate the reception of images there.return to text

Jinah Kim, “Local Visions, Transcendental Practices,” 35–37.return to text

Frederick M. Asher, “Stone Engravings at Bodhgayā,” in Nalinîkāntha Satavārṣikî, Dr. N. K. Bhattasali Centaury Volume (1888–1988), Studies in Art and Archaeology of Bihar-Bengal, ed. Debala Mitra and Gouriswar Bhattacharya (Delhi: Sri Satguru, 1989), 23–36. Asher identifies these as donors, but they are more properly depictions of devotees.return to text

Distinctive and very interesting stone panels found at Bodhgayā further suggest such regard. These are discussed in Claudine Bautze-Picron, inscriptions read by Gouriswar Bhattacharya, The Art of Eastern India in the Collection of the Museum für Indische Kunst (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1998), 73–75.return to text

For a discussion of the sculpture before it became obscured by devotional garb, see Susan L. Huntington, The “Pāla-Sena” Schools of Sculpture, Studies in South Asian Culture 10, ed. J. E. van Lohuizen-de Leeuw (Leiden: Brill, 1984), 99–100.return to text

Huntington, “Pala-Sena” Schools, 106–8.return to text

Various scholars have noted that this feature, found in some other Buddha sculptures, may demonstrate significant regard for the one now enshrined at the site; e.g., Huntington, “Pala-Sena” Schools, 100.return to text

I have written about the significance of the form and its relationship to other Buddha sculptures in Janice Leoshko, “About Looking at Buddha Images in Eastern India,” Archives of Asian Art 52 (2001): 63–82, esp. 74–75.return to text

See the account of Māra’s assault and the event of enlightenment in Tournier and Strong, “Śākyamuni: South Asia,” 12–14. For a broad discussion of the diversity of descriptions of the Buddha’s enlightenment, which frames a fine analysis of that contained in the Buddhacarita, see Vincent Eltschinger, “Aśvaghoṣa and His Canonical Sources (III): The Night of Awakening (Buddhacarita 14.1–87),” Journal of Indian Philosophy 47, no. 2 (2019): 195–233.return to text

Rotman, Thus Have I Seen, esp. 184–85. This designation framed his discussion of early worship to address the perspective of the devotee on whom non-discursive objects exerted powerful effects.return to text

These are outlined by Marie Thérèse de Mallmann in her broad survey, Introduction à l’iconographie du tantrîsme bouddhique (Paris: Adrian Maisonneuve, 1975), 418–19. They are numbers 3, 4, and 5 in the Sādhanamālā. Alfred Foucher (Étude sur l’iconograhie bouddhique de l’Inde d’après des documents nouveaux, Bibliotheque de Ecole des hautes studes: Sciences religieuses [[[Wikipedia:Paris|Paris]]: Leroux, 1900], 1:93–94) first discussed these sādhanas and the few known paintings of a Buddha labeled “Vajrāsana.”return to text

Her study is a wonderful explication of Alfred Foucher’s valuable observations and missteps, and she outlines as well how Benoytosh Bhattacharya followed Foucher’s pioneering work in the early twentieth century. See Kim, “Local Visions, Transcendental Practices,” 35–37. return to text

Kim, 37–39.return to text

Luis O. Gomez, “Two Tantric Meditations: Visualizing the Deity,” in Buddhism in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 318–27. The article provides a good exposition and translation of a significant sādhana dedicated to Tārā. Koichi Shinohara (Spells, Images and Mandalas: Tracing the Evolution of Esoteric Buddhist Rituals [[[New York]]: Columbia University Press, 2014]) valuably studies various other texts to explore how visualization developed esoteric Buddhist ritual practices.return to text

Various Buddhist scholars (e.g., Wedemeyer, Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism, 12) note that such activities are not found only in esoteric practices but are more widely used. return to text

In fact, single bodhisattva images of any size were just beginning to be common from the sixth century. For example, relatively few are found at Sarnath dating from the Gupta period. They likely present the powers of compassion and friendliness, which helped vanquish Māra.return to text

Tāranātha’s History of Buddhism in India, trans. Lama Chimpa and Alaka Chattopadhyay, ed. Debiprasad Chattopadhyay (Calcutta: K. P. Bagchi & Co., 1980), 302.return to text

The difficulty of assessing the significance of this evidence is exacerbated by the fact that the manuscripts discussed come from a range of places. Most useful are two Nepalese manuscripts, including the one in the Cambridge Library (Add.1686), identified by colophons and bearing inscriptions on the paintings. Kim (“Local Visions, Transcendental Practices,” 66, 68) notes two relevant examples in this manuscript; one is labeled “Vajrāsana Buddha” at a

site Kim locates in West Bengal, and another is named the “Disease-dispelling Bhaiṣajya-bhaṭṭtāraka-Vajrāsana Buddha.” The latter example is not identified with a place, and, interestingly, the painting does not present the Buddha within a shrine. Another manuscript has a Buddha figure inscribed “Mahābodhi Vajrāsana”; this is illustrated by Marie Thérèse de Mallmann, “Les bronzes nepalais de la collection Sylvain Lévi,” Artibus Asiae 27 (1964): 137. What these differences reveal about the specific practices employed by artists preparing the manuscripts is an important question that requires further study.return to text

B. S. Verma, “Excavation at Antichak,” Journal of the Bihar Purāvid Parishad 1 (January–December 1977): 192–201. See also the recent volume on the site, Kumar Sinha and Om Prakash Pandey, History and Archaeology of Vikramaśīlā Mahāvihāra: The Last Beacon of Buddhist Philosophy (Varanasi: Bauddha Sanskriti Kendra, 2015).return to text

As addressed by various authors, the continued interest in Śākyamuni is clear; see for instance the important discussion by Claudine Bautze-Picron, “Śākyamuni in Eastern India and Tibet from the 11th to the 13th Centuries,” Silk Road Art and Archaeology 4 (1995–96): 357–408.return to text

Robert L. Brown, Carrying Buddhism: The Role of Metal Icons in the Spread and Development of Buddhism, 20th J. Gonda Lecture 2012 (Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2014), to text

They have been much studied. For particularly broad coverage and bibliographic references, see Ulrich von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet (Hong Kong: Visual Dharma Publishing, 2001). This study also includes works from Nepal and India.return to text

There has been little real excavation in the area. For an important example—which is, however, very limited—see A. K. Prasad, “Excavations at Tārādih,” in Art and Archaeology of Eastern India, ed. Naseem Akthar (Patna, India: Patna Museum, 2001), 31–48.return to text

Hiram W. Woodward Jr., “The Indian Roots of the ‘Burmese’ Life-of-the Buddha Plaques,” Silk Road Art and Archaeology 5 (1997/98): 395–407.return to text

Woodward (“Indian Roots”) also cited as evidence a painted depiction of a Buddha with a shortened neck appearing in an Indian manuscript of the Aşţasāhasrika Prajñāpāramitā dated by its colophon to the thirteenth century. The painting (in a manuscript in the collection of the Bharat Kala Bhavan, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi) is not inscribed.return to text

Jane Casey Singer, “Tibetan Homage to Bodh Gaya,” Orientations 32, no. 10 (2001): 44–51. The question of provenance for the Asia Society sculpture, and its possible relationship to a sculpture in the National Museum, New Delhi, was first discussed by Pratapaditya Pal, “The Story of a Wandering Bronze Buddha—and Two Examples from American Collections,” Connoisseur (November 1972): 203–7.return to text

Buddha Shakyamuni, Tibet, 11th century. Copper alloy with copper overlay and inlays of silver, 14.3 x 10.8 x 5.72 cm. Asia Society, New York, Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection (1979.089), to text

Singer (“Tibetan Homage”) cited the same small manuscript painting that Woodward used to make his case for a Bodhgayā icon as the strongest evidence of this Indian form. However, inexplicably, she identified it as an eleventh-century work, whereas its colophon dates it to the thirteenth century. Jinah Kim has adopted the view that this thirteenth-century painting of a Buddha figure with a shortened neck represents the Bodhgayā icon, and she extended the discussion to include a second Indian example in another thirteenth-century manuscript. See Kim, Receptacle of the Sacred, 68–70, figs. 2-7, 2-8.return to text

Claudine Bautze-Picron, “Between India and Burma: The ‘Andagu’ Stelae,” in The Art of Burma, New Studies, ed. Donald M. Stadtner (Mumbai: Marg Publications, 1999): 37–52. Thus, she notes, we may be looking at evidence of differing attempts to replicate the special image of Bodhgayā. See also Claudine Bautze-Picron, “New Documents of Burmese Sculpture: Unpublished ‘Andagu’ Images,” Indo-Asiatische Zeitschrift 10 (2006): 34–38, in which she considers how the Burmese form of the shortened neck may have influenced the creation of at least some of these copies.return to text

This seems especially true when we consider the growing evidence of visitations by Tibetan and Burmese Buddhists to the site. We may simply not have a sufficient view of the complex nature of the site, as indicated by the interesting discussion of Burmese activity at Bodhgayā that goes beyond repairs to the temple. See, for example, the valuable analysis by Upinder Singh, “Politics, Piety, and Patronage: The Burmese Engagement with Bodhgaya,” in her book The Idea of Ancient India: Essays on Religion, Politics and Archaeology (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2016), 394–431. return to text

The site is twenty miles east of Bodhgayā. B. N. Sharma (“Pāla Bronzes from Fatehpur, Gaya,” East and West 29 [December 1979]: 127–30) notes that the Fatehpur Buddha likely derived from a prototype. See the discussion of its stylistic connections by Susan L. Huntington (“Bronzes from Fatehpur,” Oriental Art, n.s., 25, no. 2 [1979]: 240–47).return to text

The image was also discussed by David Weldon and Jane Casey Singer in The Sculptural Heritage of Tibet: Buddhist Art in the Nyingei Lam Collection (London: Lawrence King Publishing, 1999), 62–65. The authors address the notion of the shortened-neck form and its possible significance as copying a specific image at the site. It is this perspective that Jane Singer perceptively continued and expanded in her 2001 Orientations article, where she labeled the form the

Bodhgayā icon (“Tibetan Homage”). Sharma (“Pāla Bronzes from Fatehpur, Gaya”) was the first to connect the Fatehpur Buddha to an image in the National Museum that was discussed by Pratapaditya Pal in 1972 (“Story of a Wandering Bronze Buddha”). Sharma is the only scholar who attributes that work to Nepal; others have concluded that it is Indian. Other Buddha images close to the Asia Society work are in need of study (including further examples given in Weldon and Casey, Sculptural Heritage of Tibet). Compare, for instance, Huntington and Huntington, Leaves of the Bodhi Tree, fig. 133, with a work

identified as Tibetan and one identified as eastern Indian, illustrated in Ulrich von Schroeder, 108 Buddhist Statues in Tibet (Chicago: Serindia Publications, 2008), fig. 18A . See also a discussion by Don Stadtner (“Pagan Bronzes: Fresh Observations,” in The Art of Burma: New Studies, ed. Donald M. Stadtner [[[Wikipedia:Mumbai|Mumbai]]: Marg Publications, 1999], 59, fig. 7) for an intriguing image identified as Burmese and dating from the late twelfth century.return to text

Other evidence includes depictions like that carved on an inscribed stone found at Jānībighā, a village six miles east of Bodhgayā. Appearing below a figure of the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra, on a seat marked by a vajra, the inscription records the gift of a local ruler, Jayasena, in the late thirteenth century, for the benefit of Vajrāsana. Discussion and translation of the inscription are given in K. P. Jayaswal, “Importance of the Jānībighā Inscription

of the Year 83 of the Lakshmaņa-Sena Era,” Journal of the Bihar and Orissa Research Society 4 (1919): 266–73; H. Panday, “The Jānībighā Inscription,” Journal of the Bihar and Orissa Research Society 4 (1919): 273–80; and N. G. Majumdar, “Patna Museum Inscription of Jayasena,” Indian Antiquary 48 (1919): 43–48. Interestingly, the depicted Buddha has certain characteristics (e.g., the long left arm) of the robust type described by Woodward.return to text

This line of thinking is presented in her book Receptacle of the Sacred, as well as in “Local Visions, Transcendental Practices,” 73–148. It is a reflection on both the visual design strategies and their likely effect when the books are used by practioners.return to text

Model of the Mahabodhi Temple, Indian, Pala period, 10th–11th century. Soapstone with traces of pigment and gilding, 13.5 x 7.3 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of Benjamin Rowland Jr, in memory of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (47.1343), to text

John Guy, “The Mahābodhi Temple: Pilgrim Souvenirs of Buddhist India,” Burlington Magazine 133 (1991): 356–68. An interesting accumulation of these models, now in the collection of the Potala Palace, Lhasa, is shown in a photograph taken by Ulrich von Schroeder in 1991. See Von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, fig. IV-2.return to text

For the first description of the find, see Bhagwant Sahai, “The Bronzes from Fatehpur,” Journal of the Bihar Purāvid Parishad 1 (1977): 173–86. The author notes that the discovery of twelve bronzes and some stone sculptures was actually made at Jaipurgarh; Fatehpur is the name of the headquarters of the administrative block in which the site is located. He illustrates all of the metal works and briefly discusses them.return to text

Debala Mitra, “A Miniature Reproduction of the Mahabodhi Temple from Jaipurgarh,” in Madhu: Recent Researches in Indian Archaeology and Art History, ed. M. S. Nagaraja Rao (Delhi: Agam Kala Publishers, 1981), 333–36. Mitra notes that the script of the donative inscription that runs on all four sides is proto-Bengali.return to text

The other three sides present forms within trefoil-arched frames which were separately cast and then affixed to the exterior of the shrine walls. Moving clockwise, these present a figure of the Buddha in dharmacakra mudra, a Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra, and a figure of Māyā giving birth. Mitra also suggested that there was likely once a small tree positioned above the relief of the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra, fixed by a rod that remains.return to text

It seems useful to consider how the production of different types of objects embodying the site was likely driven by a desire to “experience” the beneficial vision, such as that described by Dharmasvāmin about his encounter at the Mahābodhi Temple. Another example is David Jackson’s account of a tale about Atīśa’s dream in Tibet, resulting in the commission of paintings that included one of the Mahābodhi of Bodh Gaya; this series of events led Jackson to speculate that something more than the famous structure was likely meant. See Jackson, Mirror of the Buddha, 75. Indeed, it would seem to be a

demonstration of the desire for a depiction constituted by Vajrāsana sādhana. It is also interesting to note that some later Tibetan paintings are identified as “the Sage of the Vajrāsana”; see M. Wilson and M. Martin, eds., Deities of Tibetan Buddhism: The Zurich Paintings of the Icons Worthwhile to See [Bris sku mthoṅ ba don ldan] (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000), 243, fig. 14.return to text

These small works warrant much further study. Close observation reveals interesting details, such as the depiction of the birth in the same position in some examples. Whether their uniformity corresponds to actual details of the temple as it was then is one matter, but sorting out the various differences among the growing number of known examples in different materials might also reveal something about the nature of the networks involved.return to text

See, for instance, Skilling, “Buddhist Sealings: Reflections on Terminology,” 677–85; in this article he discusses multiple functions and various recensions, as well as the range of Buddhist teachers who advocated its use. He also notes that the verse became the most inscribed in India before the end of the first millennium.return to text

Another useful study is Peter Skilling, “Traces of the Dharma: Preliminary Reports on Some Ye-Dhammā and Ye Dharmā Inscriptions from Mainland South-East Asia,” Bulletin de l’Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient 90–91 (2003): 273–87.return to text

See Yael Bentor, “On the Origins of the Tibetan Practice of Depositing Relics and Dhāraṇīs in Stūpas and Images,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 115, no. 2 (1995): 248–61. Jinah Kim (Receptacle of the Sacred, 41) made the astute observation that, beyond a simple consecration function, the verse may carry a protective role. She views its appearance at the end of painted manuscripts as sealing the text with a magical guard, not very different from dhāraṇīs and protective mantras.return to text

Skilling, “Traces of the Dharma,” 273. He further notes that the verse, or gāthā (stanza), relates to the Buddha’s first preaching at Sarnath. There are other valuable studies of this important material found throughout the Buddhist world; see, for example, Arlo Griffiths, “Written Traces of the Buddhist Past: Mantras and Dhāranīs in Indonesian Inscriptions,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 77 (2014): 137–94.return to text

Daniel Boucher, “The Pratītyasamutpādagāthā and Its Role in the Medieval Cult of the Relics,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14, no. 1 (1991): 1–27.return to text

According to Boucher, “Pratītyasamutpādagāthā and Its Role,” 24, the seventh-century text posits that understanding śūnyatā makes the Buddha present, or makes the experience of the Buddha’s presence possible. The verse is identified in the text with the dharmakāya “because all causes and the dharma-nature of all that are produced are empty,” and so the verse aligns pratîtyasamutpāda with the doctrine of śūnyatā.return to text

See Boucher, “Pratītyasamutpādagāthā and Its Role,” 4, where he reiterates that in order to understand this concept we must realize that the verse is the epitome of the text, and the verse equals Buddha’s presence. Boucher notes that the verse is found literally everywhere, and he lists many instances, including Dunhuang miniature stupas.return to text

See Quintman (“Life Writing as Literary Relic”) for an interesting discussion about the shared nature of consecration texts, biographical texts, and images to manifest embodied presence in Tibetan practice.return to text

Skilling, “Buddhist Sealings and Ye Dharma,” 504. He gives the frequently cited translation by Yijing that states the verse as:

All things arise from a cause

The Tathāgata has explained their cause

And the cessation of the cause of these things,

This the great ascetic has explained.return to text

Broad discussions of this important deity include Claudine Bautze-Picron, “Between Śākyamuni and Vairocana: Mārīcī Goddess of Light and Victory,” Silk Road Art and Archaeology 7 (2001): 263–310; and Jinah Kim, “Emergence of a Buddhist Warrior Goddess and the Historical Development of Tantric Buddhism: The Case of Mārīcī,” Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, n.s., 28–29 (2011–12, 2012–13): 49–65.return to text

Mallmann, Introduction à l’iconographie du tantrîsme bouddhique, 259–66.return to text

For a discussion of Mārīcī’s importance at Bodhgayā, see Janice Leoshko, “The Changing Landscape,” in Geary, Sayers, and Amar, Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on a Contested Buddhist Site, 43–60. The article considers the interesting memorial erected at Bodhgayā in the eleventh century by Yunshu that is inscribed with his hymn and a figure of the Buddha in bhūmisparśa mudra, flanked by two figures of Mārīcī. Translation of the hymn is given in Xinru Liu, “A Note on the Chinese Inscription in the Indian Museum,” Indian Museum Bulletin (1994): 77–79.return to text

There is much yet to study that could greatly enhance understanding of the site. For instance, only limited consideration has thus far been given to the erroneously named votive stupas, examples of which were reported as innumerable at the site in the nineteenth century. Some of the smaller ones have been studied by Hiram Woodward Jr. (“The Life of the Buddha in the Pāla Monastic Environment,” Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 48 [1948]: 13–20). He usefully worked with the perspective of the mortuary significance of such works that was significantly highlighted by Gregory Schopen (“Burial Ad Sanctos and the Physical Presence of the Buddha in Early Buddhism: A Study in the Archaeology of Religions,” Religion 17 [1987]: 193–225).return to text