A bodhisattva believed to be a future Buddha, Maitreya has been frequently depicted in Buddhist art since the first century at Gandhara, under Kushan rule. The deity is believed to represent a transitional period in Buddhist theology and worship. He is predominantly associated with emerging Mahayana traditions which developed a concept of past and present Buddhas, reducing the emphasis on Shakyamuni.
Mentions of Maitreya appear in the texts of several Buddhist schools. Within the Theravada canon, he is briefly mentioned in the Dighanikaya; among the Mula-Sarvastivada canonical texts, he appears in the Divyavadana; in the Mahavastu of the Lokottaravada-Mahasanghika school, he appears at the first position in a list of future Buddhas. Later Theravada texts such as the Pali Anagatavamsa centre entirely around Maitreya, possibly reflecting the deity’s growing popularity; a complete prophecy related to his emergence is presented in the Sanskrit Maitreyavyakarana of the early medieval period.
In general, Buddhists believe that Maitreya, like other bodhisattvas, awaits in the Tushita realm, (one of the six heavenly abodes) and will descend to the earth in a future birth. Iconographic depictions of Maitreya therefore locate him in Tushita, awaiting his incarnation.
One of the earliest known representations of Maitreya is a relief on one of the gateways to the Sanchi stupa. He is depicted aniconically, along with other aniconic representations of the six past Buddhas. Iconic images of Maitreya were produced in large quantities under Kushan rule in the early centuries CE, most prominently in Gandharan art and to a lesser extent in Mathura. His iconography includes a top knot and a water flask (kamandalu). His right hand is generally held in abhaya mudra; alternatively, the right palm may be turned inwards. Some scholars have suggested that his attributes may have been derived in part from those of Brahma.
Gandharan sculptures of Maitreya usually depict him standing upright, with a halo behind his head, elaborate jewellery, and the well-modelled musculature typical of Gandharan sculpture. Gandharan Maitreya images also feature elaborate dress and costume, with detailed, realistic depictions of fabric. The abundance of Maitreya sculptures produced in Gandhara suggests that his worship was extremely popular in the region, and may be seen as an indicator of a shift in Buddhism: the increasing focus on bodhisattva images is typical of Mahayana religious practice.
In Mathura at this time, Maitreya was usually portrayed with elaborate jewellery, either standing upright or seated cross-legged on a lotus flower or cushion. His hairstyles appear to have been influenced by those of Gandhara, and a halo is depicted behind his entire upper body.
The Maitreya cult had a deep impact in other parts of the subcontinent through the early medieval period. Bronze sculptures of Maitreya have been located in Jammu and Kashmir from the seventh century. Though they lack a halo, they are depicted with elaborate headdresses and stylised musculature influenced by Gupta art. In Leh and Ladakh, Maitreya’s iconography was further developed through the addition of prayer beads, flowers on the water flask, and a representation of a stupa in the headdress. Two strands of hair form a crown-like shape on the top of the figure, as seen in the monumental Maitreya statues in Mulbek and Dras in Ladakh, dated to the ninth or tenth centuries CE.
Maitreya appears to have been somewhat less popular in southern India, but depictions of him are nevertheless found in some places. Buddhist communities are known to have existed in Nagapattinam, a major port of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries CE, and were patronised by the kings of Srivijaya, a major centre of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. In Nagapattinam, Maitreya was depicted in bronze with many stylistic similarities to Chola bronze sculpture, including in posture and the modelling of the body; they are usually identifiable as Maitreya due to a miniature stupa in his crown.
While the popularity of Maitreya faded in South Asia through the late medieval period and after, Vajrayana Buddhists continued to depict Maitreya in Thangka paintings up to the present day. He is usually portrayed seated on a throne, with a lotus-like footrest, with the Tushita heaven represented in the background.
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