The first anthropomorphic representations of the seated or standing Buddha were developed between the first and third centuries CE in Gandhara and Mathura, before and during Kushan rule. The human image of the Buddha was supported by an emerging view of Buddhism that favoured an embodied form over existing symbolic or aniconic representations, such as chakras, footprints, bodhi trees and so forth. Some scholars believe that the lack of images of the Buddha before this period was due to early Buddhists, also known as Hinayana Buddhists, being opposed to representations of the Buddha, although there is no clear scriptural or textual evidence to support such a claim.
The earliest examples of anthropomorphic sculpture in the Gandhara region date back to the late first century BCE, under Saka rule. The surviving reliefs of bodhisattvas carved in a flat, rigid style were likely a part of the stupas and monasteries in the region. A few seated figures carved from stone and bronze, as well as images on the Bimaran reliquary dating to the same period, are very likely the earliest human representations of the Buddha, based on the iconography that was standardised later in that century and over the next. However, it was not until the Kushan Empire expanded into the Indian subcontinent and became a major regional power that anthropomorphic imagery of the Buddha flourished.
Under the Kushans, a rise in Mahayana Buddhism was accompanied by a rise in the imperial patronage of Buddhist art. Scholars speculate that a lack of local legacy in sculptural aesthetics may have led the Kushans to commission craftsmen and sculptors from Persia, Greece and Rome – cultures that had a long tradition of envisioning religious and spiritual heads in the anthropomorphic form – to produce images of the Buddha. Many of these were sculpted from the blue or grey slate of the Swat valley and depicted the Buddha with several features that have now become ubiquitous, including a smooth and youthful face, a protective halo behind the head, the ushnisha or top knot in his hair and an urna or small between the eyebrows, to name a few. These features became essential elements in subsequent depictions of the Buddha and comprise the thirty two mahapurusha lakshanas listed in the Pali Canon. These standardised representations of the Buddha, along with other Graeco-Buddhist art, comprise what is now known as the Gandhara school.
In images of the standing Buddha, the Hellenistic influence is most pronounced in the naturalistic modelling of the robes, his slight contrapposto posture and his bare feet. The seated or meditating Buddha, however, sits cross-legged with his feet either tucked under him or in padmasana. The palms of his hands and soles of his feet are typically marked with the chakra or the swastika. A rare variation of the seated Buddha is the fasting Buddha, an extremely emaciated figure intended to represent the Shakyamuni Buddha after the seven weeks for which he is believed to have meditated without pause. The introduction of the anthropomorphised Buddha further paved the way for narrative reliefs depicting the Jataka tales, particularly his life as Siddhartha, replete with iconography borrowed from both the Graeco-Roman and Hindu traditions. These reliefs line the dome and the base of several stupas from the first and second centuries CE. Several Kushan rulers also associated themselves with the Buddha and commissioned bodhisattva statues in their likeness in order to grant a divine legitimacy to their reign. The standing anthropomorphic Buddha, for instance, was stamped on gold coins during the reign of the emperor Kanishka, who was himself depicted on the obverse.
In Mathura, the anthropomorphic Buddha emerged by the early second century. Sculpted from red sandstone in high relief, the Mathura Buddhas seem to be modified versions of yakshas – nature and guardian deities whose sculptures had been produced in the region since the second century BCE – with robes replacing the dhoti and paryataka. The Mathura version featured full lips, broad shoulders, a thick neck, a spiral ushnisha and robes rendered with shallow grooves, as though to indicate a thin, translucent fabric. A subtle but significant characteristic of the early Mathura Buddhas is their gaze, which is directed at the viewer, unlike the meditative gaze of the Gandhara Buddhas. Standing Mathura Buddhas were not shown in contrapposto, suggesting a significantly reduced Greek influence. In other respects, such as the frequent appearance of the abhaya mudra, the presence of the urna and the benevolent expression, the Mathura Buddha is very similar to its Gandharan counterpart.
By the fourth century, when both centres of Buddhist art and most areas with a Buddhist following fell under Gupta rule, the Gandhara and Mathura styles began to merge. Buddhas made in the Gupta period are a clear amalgamation of the physical proportions of the Gandhara Buddhas and the drapery of the Mathura style. The ushnisha, for example, was now considered a cranial protrusion covered in a layer of thick curly hair or dried snails, rather than a top knot of curly hair, although visually it remained the same as that of the Gandhara Buddha.
Over the centuries, the Gupta version spread across Asia as the standard image of the Buddha, with variations occurring from region to region.
“A Buddha from Mathura.” Khan Academy. Accessed on December 29, 2021. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/south-asia/x97ec695a:1000-b-c-e-500ce-indo-gangetic-plain/a/a-buddha-from-mathura.
Behrendt, Kurt A. The Art of Gandhara in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007.
Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. New York: Phaidon Press, 2012.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Fasting Buddha Shakyamuni.” Accessed December 30, 2021. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/38119.
Google Arts & Culture. “Fasting Siddhartha.” Accessed December 29, 2021. https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/fasting-siddhartha/QgGcgQazjovxxg?hl=en.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Gandhara.” Accessed December 30, 2021. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/gand/hd_gand.htm.
Huntington, Susan. The Art of Ancient India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2016.
Mogali, Sreenivasulu Reddy, Peter Abrahams. “Human Anatomy in ancient Indian sculptures of Gandhara art illustrating the fasting Buddha” European Journal of Anatomy 21, no. 4 (2017) 287–291.
Shaw, Sarah. Buddhist Meditation: An Anthology of Texts from the Pāli Canon. London: Routledge, 2006.
Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. London: Pearson, 2008.