Ancient art typically used to be symbolic in nature

Ancient art typically used to be symbolic in nature

Ancient art typically used to be symbolic in nature, and it was the later forms that lost this form of representation. The reason behind this is the origins of the art and is a phenomenon that is witnessed in various forms found around the world, including India. Renowned and famous historical figures typically deemed a presentation of them in human form as being unworthy to their own self-perception. The religious leaders were also aware that there was a gap between the actual being and the way he or she was presented in art. This had its own associated risks, and the religious leaders were aware of these as well. In the case of Buddhism and ancient Buddhism art, the influence of the Theravada meant that it developed as a symbolic, non-iconic form, which is referred to as “aniconism”.

The viewpoints and opinions about aniconism and the early Buddhist art vary, and the articles by Susan Huntington and Vidya Dehejia present two such contrarian stands. They provide views on both the theory of Aniconism as well as the manner in which Buddhist art is supposed to be seen and understood. Both the authors agree on one aspect, which is the existence of aniconism. Where they have their differences is on the evidence and the explanation that they offer, and on why or why not aniconism is the perfect theory to understand examples of early Buddhist art.

Dehejia’s interpretation of early Buddhist art begins with the Buddha’s descent at Sankissa Swat, Gandhara and as being an aniconic representation. Dehejia looks at the manner in which the Buddha is leading to the pilgrimage, and focuses on the footprints seen at the bottom of the ladder. Using this seemingly innocuous addition to the art, Dehejia argues for the existence of aniconism and says that the footprints point to the artist wanting to show the presence of the Buddha without depicting his actual form.  It is also possible to have varying interpretations on the same artifact. The artists responsible for the creation of such works tended to merge various ideas and meanings. Dehejia is of the belief that this merging was intentional and meant to create multiple meanings in the visual narratives of early Buddhist art.  She feels that the interoperations can be made in three distinct ways. Apart from being just aniconic representations, they may also be seen as attributes of the faith or depictions of worship on Buddhist sites.

The other article titled Early Buddhist Art and the Theory of Aniconism by Susan Huntington presents a view that the aniconic signs do not show the events of Buddha’s lives, but only adoration and worship at sacred locations (Huntington 1990; 1992) XXXX.  Huntington’s article breaks from the general perception of the theory of aniconism and even questions its validity. She begins by utilizing the arguments with the context of Buddhist doctrines such as impermanence, humility, etc. In her belief, many pieces of evidence, whether they are archeological, literary, or inscriptional, have been ignored for the sole purpose of satisfying the Aniconic theory. Relating the iconism in art only to the tradition of Mahayana is not right, as it, along with the Hinayana was involved with images (Huntington, 1990, p. 401-402) XXXX. There is only a minority within the Buddhist s

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