Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 3, 2017
Robert DeCaroli Image Problems: The Origin and Development of the Buddha's Image in Early South Asia Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015. 280 pp.; 44 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780295994567)

Robert DeCaroli’s book bears the title Image Problems. But I read the text as Image Answers, for DeCaroli provides some remarkable insights into the conception and production of images by mining textual sources, both Buddhist and Brahmanical, in enormously impressive ways. For almost as long as the history of South Asian art has been studied, the question of when and where the Buddha image was first created—invented, some even might say—has been central. Given the long history of image worship, if that is the right way of phrasing it, in the West, the assumption has been that this innovation was quickly adopted as the exclusive practice. DeCaroli, however, sees a much more complex process, one in which new ideas were both accepted and disputed. In DeCaroli’s words: “This book is an attempt to understand the history of Buddhism’s relationships [note his plural] with figural art as an ongoing set of negotiations within the Buddhist community and society at large” (4). He sees, as others have, a major change that took place after the first century, when “a whole new range of topics became viable as subjects for depiction” (5). These include figures both living and dead as well as Buddhist and Brahmanical deities and Jain Tirthankaras. Why this happened is essentially the subject of the book.

DeCaroli notes that while many have seen this change, at least in Buddhism, as a response to doctrinal changes in Mahayana traditions, he suggests that likely the reverse is the case, that is, that the doctrinal changes were a response to changes in culture and artistic practice. And they were by no means restricted to Buddhist practice. Chapter 2 reviews the debate about when and where the first Buddha image was made, but as subsequent chapters observe so effectively, the question is much more complex than that. Thinking about the debate regarding the so-called aniconic phase of Buddhist art, he asserts, “I am ultimately interested not in the question of whether there is or isn’t an aniconic phase but rather in a series of questions pertaining to when, where, by whom, and for what reasons images were embraced or shunned by both Buddhists and the wider South Asian community” (28).

Chapter 3 examines the aversion of images, mining the literary sources for evidence and importantly concluding that it was not just one school of Buddhism that approved of making images while another condemns their production; the disagreements “occurred within these communities as well” (31). Looking at vinaya texts, that is, those that prescribe rules for the Buddhist order, he suggests that the early sculptures depicting images iconographically appearing to be Buddha images but inscribed as Bodhisattvas have been seen by some as evidence that the “guidance offered in these vinayas was actually put in practice” (32–33). I cannot help wondering, however, whether the verbal might have followed the visual. There is no way to know, of course, but we need to be careful about assuming priority for the written or verbally transmitted notions. The diverse and often conflicting commentary recorded in the texts DeCaroli cites reminds us that the religion we have come to call Buddhism is not a single and unified force. Even within a single sect, as DeCaroli shows, for example the Sarvastivadins (31), there is not a unified response to making images of the Buddha, and different recensions of the same text may reflect somewhat different attitudes. We might then see the teachings of individual masters as trumping the prescriptions (and proscriptions) we find in the texts of a Buddhist school. But we also might see the products of individual artists as having similar weight. Much of the argument is based on a review of textual sources. Some information, of course, can be drawn from images and their inscriptions. But the absence of images also hides information. If a sect or even an individual monk opposed imagery and recorded that opposition simply by not providing images and perhaps advocating only vocally his opposition to image-making, that information cannot be recovered.

In chapter 4, DeCaroli argues effectively that images, even images of specific people, long had been made in India but that they were intended for practical purposes, e.g., defeating an enemy, winning a lover, subduing a Brahman. He sees the antipathy to imagery, insofar as it existed, as based on concerns about these very old uses of images. “In light of these cultural underpinnings, one can now more fully appreciate the scandalous implications of a monk painting an image of his former betrothed, or why visitors to monasteries made snide comments regarding images of people depicted on the walls of monks’ cells” (56–57). Arguing that there were at all times several South Asian modes of discussing and using visual imagery, DeCaroli concludes that “creating a stark division between image use and image aversion is in many ways an over-simplification that draws artificially stark boundaries between sets of religious practices” (52). Yes, the use of the word “stark” twice in a sentence and the repeated “Take, for example . . .” are things a more attentive copy editor might have caught, but they in no way diminish the importance of this book and the remarkable range of literature that DeCaroli controls.

Thinking about what an image signifies, DeCaroli probes the use of the term pratimā (image) in literature and inscription, noting that it refers to ritual substitution and so helps “clarify the profound nature of the relationship between the copy and the original” (61), the original in this case often being a human figure or deity, although later in the book he examines the perceptions of the Buddha: a deity or a human or something else. Thus when considering an inscribed yaksha sculpture from Pawaya, one identified in its inscription as a pratimā of the yaksha Manibhadra, DeCaroli notes that it “helps to confirm our expectations that the image embodied or mirrored the presence of the yakṣa itself” (62). The connection between the represented and the representation is seen as powerfully binding, as he describes it, and implies that through the copy one can gain access to the original, even the intangible original such as a god.

Chapter 5 reviews early royal portraiture on coins and in sculpture, noting that early images of the Buddha invariably appear in areas where images of royalty are found. He further notes the extensive appropriation of iconographic details from royal imagery for figures of the Buddha. To use DeCaroli’s words, “Buddhist art largely consisted of royal imagery appropriated and redefined for use in religious contexts” (114). Reviewing royal portraiture in sculpture and coinage, he notes that “depictions of the Buddha did not appear in any regions that did not also have the practice of depicting royalty in art” (112). Because the royal portrait sculptures at Mat (on p. 99, he reverses the position of the Kanishka image’s hands) have been disturbed and those at Nanaghat have been almost entirely effaced, he suggests that many of these images were the victims of intentional vandalism, probably a political gesture.

The sixth chapter reflects on the appeal of images, but not just Buddhist ones. Thinking about the rise of Krishna as a major religious figure in the Braj region, including Mathura, where so many of the earliest surviving Buddha images were found, DeCaroli makes the important observation that, “Although the exact relationship between Hindu bhakti [intense devotion, usually to the god Krishna] and Buddhist devotionalism is not well understood, it seems highly unlikely that they are not connected” (141). Here, too, I wish a copy editor had eliminated this double negative to make a very important point more lucid. Donative inscriptions, DeCaroli observes, parallel textual sources in presenting a broad range of positions regarding the value of devotional acts, but all sources, inscriptional and other textual ones, concur that devotional acts produce positive rewards that can result in material benefits (133). Following Gregory Schopen, DeCaroli notes that images of the Buddha were granted rights and treated as legal entities within the code of one Buddhist order, the Mulasarvastivadins, and that the images literally resided in the monastery with other monks and were allowed to possess property and receive gifts on their own behalf. Sculptures depicting the Buddha were thus more than approachable or inviting: they produced an emotional response, even a thrill, in their viewers.

But then there is the problem that DeCaroli confronts in the final chapter: if the Buddha’s image can move or otherwise physically act, as some texts insist, how can we see the Buddha as totally absent, having attained the state of non-existence, i.e., nirvana? In this chapter DeCaroli also deals with the Miracle at Shravasti and its sculptural depictions, for the reduplication of the Buddha’s form is, after all, an image, or rather a lot of images. The discussion is compelling and far more complex than any of the several earlier considerations of this miracle that he cites. And I especially appreciate his explanation of the apparent shift from depicting the Buddha with wide staring eyes, as is rendered on Kushan images from Mathura, to those with seeming downcast eyes. To the seated monks listening to the Buddha’s discourse, the Buddha above them, whether the image is standing or seated, would be gazing directly at the monks, not averting a gaze at viewers in a modern museum context.

I do, however, have a very few quibbles, mostly minor ones. For example, on pages 184–88, DeCaroli refers to fourth-century images. I think he means fifth century. And on pages 162–63, he says that Shravasti seems to have been an important center for the early acceptance and use of Buddha images, citing in a footnote the image of the year 3 of Kanishka’s reign. That image, though, isn’t from Shravasti; it’s from Sarnath. That is repeated on page 171, where he cites a Sarvativadin inscription of Kanishka’s third year, conflating the Shravasti inscription (which does cite the Sarvastivadin school) and the Sarnath inscription (which does refer to Kanishka’s third year).

I admit that I am not very fond of diacritical marks, especially for words that are readily recognized without them, e.g., Ajanta, written Ajaṇṭā in the text. They make our publications more impenetrable to colleagues in other fields and to students who do not understand what they signify. I also recognize that I am pretty much alone in this point of view. And though no fault of the author, I have to note that the quality of the plates is not very good and does little for the University of Washington Press’s reputation as a publisher of art books despite an impressive art-history and visual-culture list. At the same time, I wondered about how necessary many of the plates in this book are. If the text does not make a point that requires looking at an image of the work of art, then I wonder if the photo is essential. In other words, to what extent do we, as art historians, contribute to the rising cost of publishing art-history books and thus the reluctance of publishers to take on our work?

Those petty points notwithstanding, Image Problems is a very important work, one that should shape our thinking and teaching about early South Asian images.

Frederick M. Asher
Professor Emeritus, Department of Art History, University of Minnesota