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How Indian artists transformed the Buddha’s absence into presence

NEW YORK — “Tree & Serpent,” an exhibition of early Buddhist art from India at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through Nov. 13), put me in a strange and beautiful state. Packed with precious, hard-won loans, primarily from India, the show is somber, restrained and scholarly. It’s also inexpressibly moving.

Sculptures of the Buddha, sometimes seated cross-legged, sometimes standing with one hand raised, are a familiar mainstay of museums and yoga rooms all over the world. But in telling the story of how an identifiably Buddhist art emerged in the Deccan in southern India over about 600 years (200 B.C. to A.D. 400), “Tree & Serpent” reveals that early Buddhist sculptors wrestled with the question of not only how to represent the Buddha, but whether to represent him at all.

At first, they refused.

That refusal carried philosophical weight. Buddhism hinges on the insight that we suffer because we are too attached to the world, too desirous. It is based in the teachings of Prince Siddhartha, who, as a young man, renounced his life of privilege to seek spiritual understanding through meditation. After spending 49 days under a bodhi tree (a kind of fig), Siddhartha attained enlightenment and came to be known as the Buddha Shakyamuni, meaning “the wise-one of the Shakya [clan].”

Enlightenment has been described as both an awakening and a kind of cessation. The Sanskrit word “nirvana” — the state you attain through enlightenment — can be translated as “a flame blown out by the wind.”

You can see the problem: How do you represent nonexistence? Instead of creating images of Buddha, early Buddhist sculptors evoked his presence, and hence his teachings, through calculated indicators of his absence. They showed a riderless horse (to signify Siddhartha’s departure from his father’s palace at the beginning of his spiritual quest), an empty throne beneath a tree (to denote his awakening), a kneeling deer (to evoke the forest where he delivered his first sermon) and a wheel (his dharma, or teachings). Perhaps most powerfully, they conjured his presence-as-absence by carving out his footprints.

The Met show, organized by John Guy, has been many years in the making. Slated to open at the end of 2020, it was delayed by the pandemic. The exhibit fans out around a structure that replicates the form of a Buddhist stupa. Stupas were initially burial mounds built to house the Buddha’s relics — the remnants of his cremated body. Over time, these burial mounds became gradually larger and more architecturally complex. The Buddha’s tiny relics (cremations leave little behind) were buried deep inside the stupas’ core. Their invisibility not only reinforced the sanctity of the place but provided another way to invoke the Buddha’s absence-as-presence.

The stupas’ projecting platforms and pillars were decorated with narrative scenes so devotees circumambulating the stupas (always in a clockwise direction) could familiarize themselves with stories that illustrate Buddhist precepts. Mostly carved in sandstone, these scenes make up the pith of the exhibition. Many are from the ruins of the great stupa at Bharhut, in central India, built around 250 B.C. and excavated after its rediscovery in 1873.

What’s interesting about these ancient sculptures and fragments of sculptures is that they incorporate so many pre-Buddhist nature deities — specifically male yakshas and female yakshis. Just as Christianity, in its early era, readily incorporated pagan beliefs and iconography into its developing creed and rituals, Buddhism was very accepting of preexisting Indian beliefs. It simply reframed them in Buddhist terms. “The authority of the nature spirits was acknowledged by the Buddha,” as one wall text in the exhibition puts it, “and he, in turn, was honored by them.”

These nature deities were unruly and fearsome, and the suggestion is that the Buddha, in a sense, tamed them. Yakshas guarded the stupas that housed the Buddha’s relics. The most remarkable yaksha here is a magnificent, free-standing sculpture, his corpulent belly overhanging his knotted waist sash. He reminded me of Valerio Cigoli’s beloved Renaissance sculpture of the naked Morgante, a dwarf in the court of Cosimo I, sitting astride a giant turtle in Florence’s Boboli Gardens.

Yakshis, meanwhile, ensured fertility and nurtured new life — including human life. As the Met’s Kurt Behrendt points out in his 2019 book, “How to Read Buddhist Art,” “the veneration of these goddesses would have been vitally important to the lay community, who were probably more concerned with the success of their crops than with something as elusive as enlightenment.”

Yakshis were depicted as semi-naked women standing beneath flowering trees, occasionally kicking their trunks to make them bear fruit. (Try it.) A particularly beautiful example, on loan from the National Museum in New Delhi, was carved in Uttar Pradesh in the 2nd century A.D. It shows a woman standing against a column of lotuses. Perched on the lotuses is a pair of peacocks, signaling the arrival of the monsoon. The goddess’s hair is heavily adorned, and more jewelry hangs from her ears, neck and ankles. Her title, Sri Lakshmi, links the words for what is pleasing to look at (sri) with the idea of auspiciousness (lakshmi). She appears to smile as she cups one breast in her hand.

Snake spirits, or nagas, were also adapted from earlier belief systems. According to Buddhist lore, in the sixth week after his enlightenment, the Buddha was deep in meditation when a storm caused floodwaters to rise. A snake king, or nagaraja, protected him from the rain with its cobra hood and from the floodwaters by wrapping his body in its coils.

Consequently, the exhibition has many sculptures featuring hooded snake motifs and just as many featuring trees — a ubiquitous motif in Indian religions. A fig tree sheltered the Buddha during his meditation, so it came to be associated with bodhi, or wisdom. In many of these sculptures, trees spread and metamorphose into protective umbrellas that are rendered as exquisite, fanning patterns.

Lotuses, too, feature prominently. They signify the Buddha’s transcendence, emerging as they do from snaking vines that pass through muddy waters before flowering spectacularly. But lotuses already embodied renewal and the life force in Indian art before Buddhism.

A winged lion on top of a pillar reminds us that early Buddhist art also incorporated motifs from other cultures, especially Persia, Greece and Rome. The walls inside my brain spontaneously vaporized when I came across a one-inch-tall Indian ivory figurine of a sensuous and bejeweled yakshi.

Why? Because it was excavated in 1938 from a merchant’s villa in, of all places, Pompeii. It is the only Indian object to have been discovered there. It has never previously left Italy. Proving the existence of trade and a healthy cultural exchange between India and ancient Rome in the early days of Buddhism, it appears in the same room as a Roman bronze statuette of the sea god Poseidon, excavated in India in 1944.

The final section of the exhibition has a hushed, minimalist feel. Some of the earthy complexity and messiness of early Buddhist iconography is brushed aside and purified as the serene figure of the Buddha himself becomes manifest and takes commanding shape. This extraordinary historical figure, hitherto invoked by signs of his absence, appears initially in narrative scenes, surrounded by other similar-sized figures, and then alone, magnified, in the round and seated on a lotus, as if under a spotlight. He has been transformed, in other words, into an icon.

Such figures began to appear in southern India in the 3rd century A.D., about a century after similar versions were created in the north. Despite their emphatic divinity (always consoling, always compassionate), many include allusions to the Buddha’s earlier life as a wealthy prince. A monumental standing Buddha, for instance, has, among other auspicious marks of Buddhahood, distended earlobes — a legacy of the heavy jewelry he wore as royalty.

But in Buddhist art there is always a dance between presence and absence. So his eyes also roll back in his head, evoking a deep meditative state and, even more, a kind of withdrawal, as of a flame extinguished by the wind.

Buddhism would soon become more important in China, Japan and Southeast Asia than on the subcontinent, where it slowly withered away, replaced by new forms of Hinduism. But it was never extinguished.

You leave a show as beautiful as “Tree & Serpent” reluctantly. When I did, I made my way to the subway station on Lexington Avenue. Standing on the platform in the city’s bowels, I saw a tile at my feet imprinted with a design of two footprints. Intended to encourage social distancing, the sign was a legacy of the pandemic. But I didn’t think about that. I thought instead of the Buddha’s feet. And I suddenly understood that I hadn’t left the exhibition at all.

Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE-400 CE is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through Nov. 13. metmuseum.org/exhibitions/tree-and-serpent

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