28: Avatars of Vishnu

Hey folks. Welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast, your nifty guidebook to the art and culture of the ancient world. I’m you friendly traveling companion, Lucas Livingston.

With all the current hype about Mr. Cameron’s latest titanic piece of cinematography, the CGI-wonder Avatar, I thought it might be enjoyable for us to explore the true meaning, history, and imagery of the traditional usage of the word “avatar.” The term has met widespread usage in recent years, especially in the realm of computer gaming and virtual reality, from World of Warcraft and The Sims to Second Life. But unless you were especially literate, eastwardly spiritual, or big into Dungeon & Dragons, you might not have had the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the true meaning of “avatar.” It comes from the Sanskrit avatara, basically meaning a being, who has crossed over or come down. In essence, an avatar is a physical manifestation or incarnation of a god on Earth, which we commonly encounter in Hindu narratives.

The Hindu deity most frequently associated with avatars is the god Vishnu. Vishnu is one of the most prominent and widely revered deities in the Hindu faith.

Vishnu is one of the Trimurti, the Hindu triad, or the “three forms,” where the concepts of cosmic creation, preservation, and destruction are personified by the three deities Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, respectively. As the divine preserver of the cosmos, it’s Vishnu’s job to manifest and restore dharma, or social justice and cosmic world order, whenever it’s threatened by some malevolence. The number of avatars of Vishnu ranges among texts, but the most commonly recognized number of his incarnations is 10, known as the Dasavatara, meaning the “ten avatars.” [1]

One of the most recognized avatars of Vishnu is the hero Krishna, a popular deity in his own right and the star of the Mahabharata, a great Hindu epic narrative. In Bhagavad Gita, the “Song of the Lord,” part of the Mahabharata, Krishna relates to his friend Arjuna:

“For whenever Right declines and Wrong prevails, then O Bharata, I come to birth.
To save the righteous, to destroy the wicked, and to re-establish Right I am born from age to age.” [2]

That quote is from chapter 4 of the Bhagavad Gita as told by the great 20th century spiritual leader and civil rights activist Mahatma Gandhi. We encounter another avatar of Vishnu in the supposed last words of Gandhi, featured as an epitaph on his tombstone, “He Ram.” Meaning “Oh God,” “He Ram” refers to Rama, the avatar, king of Ayodhya, and the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana. The Ramayana tells the tale of Rama as he battles the ten-headed Rakshasa demon Ravana, who has kidnapped Rama’s wife Sita. Ravana had become too powerful, ruling over the heavens, the earth, and the netherworld, invulnerable to all living and celestial beings, except man and animals. He was an arrogant and destructive ruler harboring evildoers. As the divine preserver of dharma, Vishnu promised to defeat Ravana on Earth manifesting as the human prince Rama, while his divine consort, Lakshmi, took birth as his future spouse Sita. Throughout his life as a man on Earth, his true identity and destiny were known by none, but himself and a few great sages.

Chronologically, Rama and Krishna are the 7th and 8th avatars of Vishnu, according to the list of ten avatars. [3] The 9th and most recent avatar is sometimes considered to be Buddha, also known as Gautama or Shakyamuni. That’s especially interesting, because, we usually encounter Buddha in, um, Buddhism, not Hinduism, but this is wonderfully exemplary of Hinduism’s traditional acceptance and incorporation of world religions. As opposed to “There’s only one god and I’m right and you’re wrong.” You could look at this as an expression of the core belief held by some that all of the many divinities of the world are extensions of a singular supreme divine force. Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu, who primarily promoted non-violence, or ahimsa, is still a popular belief among a number of modern Vaishnava Hindu organizations, including the West’s particularly recognizable, although modestly sized Hare Krishna movement. [4] Alternatively, some scholars have put forth the interpretation that Buddha as an avatar was an attempt to absorb this offshoot Buddhist heresy back into Hinduism. [5] There are always two sides to the coin.

Beyond Rama, Krishna, and Buddha, two avatars of Vishnu that we frequently encounter in art are Vishnu’s incarnation as a boar or boar-headed man, Varaha, and the man-lion Narasimha. Varaha is skillfully represented on this 11th century sandstone sculpture from Rajasthan, India at the Art Institute of Chicago. When the Earth began to sink into the ocean under the burden of all the world’s evil and corruption, Vishnu manifested as the avatar Varaha and lifted the Earth personified here as the goddess Bhudevi. This work captures the moment when Varaha and Bhudevi fall in love. Varaha gazes fondly at Bhudevi as she gently lays her hand upon his snout. Down below, his left knee bent, he rests his foot upon a lotus. Beneath the lotus are two nagas, serpent deities, who symbolize the oceans from which Varaha has lifted the Earth. And Varaha and Bhudevi live happily ever after, so the story goes. In other representations of the story, we encounter the evil demon Hiranyaksha, who kidnapped the Earth and pulled her beneath the cosmic oceans. Varaha descended into the oceans to battle Hiranyaksha for 1000 years. Once victorious, we see Varaha raising the Earth from the water.

Hiranyaksha had an older brother named Hiranyakashipu and he’s downright angry. Hiranyakashipu wanted to avenge his brother’s murder at the hands of Vishnu, so he offers many years of penance to Brahma and gains special powers in return: that he may not die indoors or outdoors, during the day or at night, nor on the ground or in the sky. He can’t be killed by human, divinity, or animal. Oh, and he also become supreme ruler of everything. So, he had a son named Prahlada, who, much to his father’s disappointment, was a devout follower of Vishnu. One day as the sun was setting and nighttime was encroaching, Prahlada, as any angst-ridden child would do, challenged the notion that his father was the supreme lord of the universe, saying that Vishnu’s the all-pervasive, omnipresent lord of everything. Hiranyakashipu points at a column in the courtyard and smugly says, “So, your omnipresent god is even in that column, there?” Prahlada says he is, at which point Hiranyakashipu smashes the column in a fit of rage. Vishnu bursts forth from the fractured column as the avatar Narasimha, not human nor beast nor divinity, but the part-man, part-beast incarnation. He grabs Hiranyakashipu at that moment of twilight, neither day nor night, lifts him onto his lap, neither ground nor air, and tears into him right there in the courtyard, a liminal space neither indoors nor outside. Crafty fellow, that Vishnu.

In this amazing 11th century black basalt sculpture from the Art Institute, we see a fierce six-armed Narasimha digging into Hiranyakashipu, stretched across his lap. The column is shown on the lower left next to his right leg. He’s also standing on another demon, who’s trying to stab him with a knife. Below the lotus flower base, we see the prostrate donor couple who commissioned the work of art, which was originally set up in a temple.

The last avatar of Vishnu to get an honorable mention here is the dwarf Vamana. As we might come to expect, a demon king had taken over the cosmos. This time his name was Bali, but he wasn’t so bad. He was the grandson of the pious Prahlada, the Vaishnava son of Hiranyakashipu. But still, that was just too much authority for one person to have. So, the diminutive Vamana requested that he could have as much land as his his little legs could cover in just three steps. Bali consented and Vamana suddenly grew to an immense size becoming the mighty Trivikrama, which means “Three Steps.” With his first step, he covered the world, with his second step he covered the heavens and netherworld, and with nowhere else to step, Bali offered his own head for the third and final step. The god was so impressed by this pious gesture that he renamed him Mahabali, meaning “The Great Bali,” and granted him immortality up in heavens.

So, one thing you could say that James Cameron got right in the movie Avatar is that the avatar in the film, Jake Sully, came to the Na’vi people in a time of great trouble. It wasn’t the character’s original intention to be their savior, but perhaps it was his destiny. Likewise, Cameron probably wasn’t even thinking of the original sacred context of the avatar when he scripted the film, but it makes for an interesting connection. And hopefully you’ve found our journey here not only enjoyable and educational, but maybe you can even impress your friends with some enlightening conversational insights as Avatar goes up for its 9 Oscar nominations at the 82nd Academy Awards on March 7th.

Be sure to check out the website at ancientartpodcast.org for the image gallery with image credits, the transcript with references, and lots of other fun stuff. I welcome your feedback and suggestions at info@ancientartpodcast.org or with the online feedback form. I’d also love to get your comments on YouTube, in iTunes, or on the website, itself. You can follow me on Twitter at lucaslivingston and on Facebook at facebook.ancientartpodcast.org. Thanks for listening and see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.

©2010 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org


[1] The Dasavatara of the Garuda Purana is a series instructions that Vishnu gave to his animal companion Garuda, whom we met back in episode 17 of the Ancient Art Podcast. For multiple lists of the avatars of Vishnu according to different scriptural traditions, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar.

[2] The Gita According to Gandhi (4.7-8).

[3] “Daśāvatāra,” Wikipedia.

[4] “Gautama Buddha in Hinduism,” Wikipedia.
See also:
“Krsna Will Accept You Anyway You Like.” Lecture given on March 31, 1974 by founder of ISKCON – A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
“Sri Dasavatara-stotra and Upaaya” (from Gita-govinda) by Jayadeva Gosvami.

[5] (Wendy Donniger) Wendy O’Flaherty, Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, University of California Press, 1976, page 203.

More Cicada Resources

We’ve got so many interesting resources on cicadas from this month’s podcast, that I thought it best to give them their own place online.

Indiana University’s award-winning film Return of the 17-Year Cicadas

Indiana University’s Invasion of the Cicadas

Field Museum of Natural History: Cicadas and Emerald Ash Borers

Lake County Forest Preserves’ Species Database

Lake County Forest Preserves’ Cicada Mania! Brood XIII Cicada Emergence 2007

“So long, cicadas. I’m glad I got to know you” Chicago Tribune (June 23rd, 2007).

“Cicadas in Illinois: Return of the noisy teenager” The Economist (June 14th, 2007).

“Cooking Up Cicadas” ABC 7 Chicago (June 21st, 2007).

Anyone try these or any other cicada recipes? What’s your opinion? Make your opinion known. Add a comment to episode 8: Cicadas.

Soft-Shelled Cicadas Snack

1 cup Italian dressing
60 freshly emerged 17-year cicadas
4 eggs, beaten
3 cups flour
Salt, pepper, garlic powder, thyme & paprika
1 cup corn oil
1 cup marinara sauce, heated

Remove the wings and marinate the cicadas (best done in a plastic ziplock “baggie”) in Italian dressing for at least four hours.
Mix the salt, pepper, garlic powder, thyme and paprika with the flour in a bowl.
Dip cicadas in the beaten eggs, and then roll them in the seasoned flour and gently sauté them for 3 minutes in hot oil until they are golden brown.
Serve with marinara sauce for dipping.

The Simple Cicada

2 cups blanched cicadas
2 cloves crushed garlic
2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh basil, or to taste
4 oz. Shitake mushrooms
2 oz. fresh spinach
1 lb. of your favorite pasta
Olive oil

Boil pasta in a pot of salted water.
Melt butter in sauté pan over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Add basil, cicadas, spinach and mushrooms and continue cooking, turning down the heat if necessary, for 5 minutes or until the cicadas begin to look crispy and the basil and spinach are wilted.

Toss with cooked pasta and olive oil; sprinkle with parmesan cheese, if desired. Yields 4 servings.

Chocolate-Chip Trillers

2 1⁄4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 cup butter, softened
3⁄4 cup sugar
3⁄4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs
1 12-ounce pkg. chocolate chips
1 cup chopped nuts
1⁄2 cup dry-roasted chopped cicadas

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a small bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt; set aside.

In a large bowl, combine butter, sugar, brown sugar and vanilla; beat until creamy. Beat in eggs. Gradually add flour mixture and cicadas, mixing well. Stir in chocolate chips.

Scoop-up a teaspoonful of batter, and drop it onto ungreased cookie sheet. Repeat until all batter is used.

Cook for 8-10 minutes. Yields approximately 3 dozen cookies.


8: Cicadas

It’s Sunday afternoon, June 10th, 2007 and I’m standing on a trail in the Chippewa Woods Forest Preserve in Des Plaines, Illinois, just a mile or so northeast of O’Hare Airport. You hear that constant, high-pitched, hissing noise in the background? It’s so load, it almost seems deafening and I’m wondering if it’ll going to leave a ringing in my ears. No, it’s not a 747 ready for takeoff. Just a few short weeks ago, the most prominent sounds you’d hear here were birds chirping, a nearby babbling brook, maybe some crickets, distant traffic, and jets overhead. This noise hasn’t been heard here on such a scale in quite a few years … 17 to be exact … and in just a few weeks, it won’t be heard here again for another 17. This is the sound of cicadas. Millions of insects singing their song. An elaborate symphony of percussion. This year — 2007 — marks the return of the 17-year swarm of the magicicada to much of the Midwest, known to the biologists and cicada enthusiasts under the austere moniker of Brood XIII.

17 years ago in early July, hundreds of billions of tiny cicada grubs hatched and burrowed on down into the earth to hang out and such on tree roots. Well, now they’re back, a lot bigger, and they mean business … of an adult nature. [love music] After 17 years of waiting underground, the surviving troopers have dug their way out, shed their hard shell, and are flitting about singing a song in hopes of attracting a mate. The noise you hear is their mating call. I’m in the midst of an insect orgy, here. They make that sound by vibrating little tymbals on the sides of their abdomens. Actually, only the males do the singing, so magnify the sounds by 2 and that’s how many cicadas we’ve got here.

Now, why is it that they come out every 17 years? Well, one of the more prominent theories — sounds a little too much like folklore to me, though — it says that particular species of cicadas have an emergence cycle of the high prime numbers 13 and 17 as a survival mechanism. The idea being that no predator of the cicada is likely to adapt its emergence to synchronize with the cicada.

It should come as no surprise that an article in the magazine “The Economist” manages to express this cicada emergence survival theory best, and I quote:

“It is no coincidence that the span of each brood’s cycle is a prime number of years. If a brood were to emerge in cycles divisible by a smaller number, then local predators could reap rewards by synchronising their own shorter cycles with one of the divisors.”

Of course! It’s simple economics!

But you may be wondering about the buzzing noise you swear you hear every year, and you’re probably right. There is such a thing as annual cicadas. In fact, the periodical cicadas that emerge in intervals greater than one year exist only in the eastern half of the United States, but annual cicadas live on every continent except Antarctica. Annual cicadas are often called “dog-day” cicadas, referring to the “dog days of summer,” the hottest days of summer in the northern hemisphere, around July to early September. The term “dog days” actually derives from the Dog Star, Sirius, the brightest star in the sky (well, except for the Sun, of course). The Latin Sirius comes from the Greek Seirios meaning “glowing” or “scorcher,” referring to the extra heat it’s annual appearance seems to bring, but since Roman times it’s commonly been called the Dog Star since it’s the major star of the constellation canis major, Canis Major, the big dog. The Egyptians placed particular significance on Sirius, the Egyptian Sopdet, or Sothis when translated into Greek. The Egyptians kept a close lookout for the first annual appearance of Sothis, its heliacal rising, the first morning of the year when you could just barely make it out in the Eastern horizon only moments before the Sun begins to rise and wash out any other stars in the sky. Problem was, the Egyptians reckoned a 365-day year, so every year the rising of Sirius got nudged back a quarter day and some change. So it took a long time before the rising of Sirius coincided again with the start of the 365-day year. About 1,460 years. This span of time is the so-called Sothic cycle. Whew! Clear as mud, huh? Good thing you can rewind to hear that part again.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret. Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the sky … it’s a scam! It’s actually a binary system … two stars! Sirius A and Sirius B. No, I’m serious. Ha!

Over the past couple months, folks in the Midwest have been all a-buzz about cicadas. The media’s been churning out story after story on crazy cicada enthusiasm. The Ravinia Festival, the annual music festival just north of Chicago, actually moved some outdoor concerts inside and even rescheduled the performances of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra so they wouldn’t have to compete with the din of cicadas. And some adventurous folk have been serving up recipes on crispy, batter-fried cicada tempura, soft-shelled cicada bites, and — hey, why stop at entrees? — anyone care for a chocolate-chip cicada cookie? Of course, less discriminating palettes needn’t waste time with preparation. Birds, squirrels, raccoons, fish, and even the neighbor’s dog have taken up knife and fork to partake of this copious all-you-can-eat buffet. Getting back to cicada economics, safety in numbers is a much more practical means of survival of the species … and numbers we’ve got when you’re talking cicadas. They call that “predator satiation” — flooding the market with supply to curb demand through overeating. Of course, numbers — as in sheer quantity — are a tactic no natural predator can compete with in the case of the cicada, what with their numbers being estimated at two to three billion in Brood XIII alone. Prime numbers eat your heart out.

But the enthusiasm and fascination for cicadas is nothing new to humanity. The fascination stretches far back to the earliest of human civilization. The collection of Chinese jade figurines at the Art Institute of Chicago contains some of the most ancient art objects in the museum. The Art Institute’s Sonnenschein collection of over eight hundred Chinese jades includes a wide array of different figural forms and designs, some even dating to about 3000 BC. Most of these jades functioned as preservation jades, offering physical or spiritual protection when placed on and alongside a body in a wealthy person’s tomb from the Neolithic period, Shang and Zhou Dynasties, and beyond. Some jades were even placed inside the body, specifically within the mouth of the deceased, and even more specifically in the case of jade cicadas. Here we see a few examples from the later Han Dynasty, specifically the Eastern Han Dynasty, around AD 9 to 220. Although, here’s a little secret: the two on the right … they’re actually modern. The ancient Chinese considered jade in general to have a sort of life-preserving or longevity property and cicadas were regularly associated with rebirth, regeneration, and immortality, and a symbol of continuity between the generations. These associations, of course, likely arose from the observation of cicadas emerging very punctually in the same locations year after year. Don’t forget, periodical cicadas live only in the eastern US.

And here’s a remarkably realistic, 3-D jade cicada from the Shang or Western Zhou Dynasty around the 13th to 11th century BC. Jade is a particularly interesting material. Actually, the term “jade” was used by the ancient Chinese to refer to a couple different types of stone: jadeite and nephrite, and even other stones of similar qualities. And it took some serious elbow grease to carve jade. Well, it wasn’t so much carved as it was meticulously ground down with a lot of effort, skill, and determination using drills and some sort of abrasive like quartz and water.

Another art form that you’re likely to encounter nearby a collection of ancient Chinese jades is the piece-mold bronze vessel. As with many of the jades, these are also grave objects. Vessels of this sort come from the Shang Dynasty, around 1700 to 1050 BC, and also from the succeeding Western and Eastern Zhou Dynasties. They’re really remarkable for a number of reasons. One is that the technological skill involved in crafting vessels of bronze on this scale and with such intricacy is completely without equal at this time. In fact, we don’t see anything of this quality elsewhere in the world until the much later Archaic Greek period. Across the large region of China united under the Shang kings, we notice a strongly controlled decorative schema to the bronze vessels. This suggests a very centralized top-down ruling authority with little room for artistic innovation and stylistic variation. These vessels were all crafted under the strictest guidelines from the nobility above. And that’s where you’d originally find them too. They aren’t gonna be found in yer common bloke’s grave. The most prominent decorative motif encountered on nearly all bronze vessels and other contemporary arts is that of a sort of monster face or mask called a taotie. You can make out the taotie quite easily on this one particular large tripod vessel called a jia, used for holding and warming ceremonial wine at the Shang royal funerary rites. See the two large round nobs or bosses? Those are its eyes. In between you see the long raised nose ridge? Then above the eyes are some elaborate, curled horns and the smaller curls below the eyes are its fangs. You can follow the evolution of this taotie monster figure as it gradually morphs into later more familiar and recognizable forms, like dragons and ogres. But the thing I really want to point out on this vessel is further up the body. You see that neat triangular motif running around the rim? These are actually stylized cicadas. They’re facing downward, so the tips at the top are their butts and their eyes are at the bottom.

And here’s another Shang Dynasty bronze vessel called a fanglei, also used for wine. As common decorative motifs at this time, the taotie and cicadas emblazon this vessel too. Well, here, what if we just … zoom in a bit to the lid … and then … flip it upside down? There. The taotie. And then further on down the body at the tips of each one of these triangular wedges, we see a little cicada. Yeah … a little hard to see. If you can’t see it, you’ll just have to believe me. A little more gratifying, though, is this impression of the cicada that’s cast inside the vessel’s lid. So with the taotie and cicadas, we see an interesting use of both the imaginary and natural bestiary decorating these ancient bronze funerary vessels.

Much later on, the archaic bronze vessel shape and decorative patterns were emulated as a sort of archaism, a taste for antiquity, in the new precious material of high artistic and aristocratic achievement, porcelain. This blue-and-white square vase comes from the late Ming Dynasty, the Wanli period (1573-1620).

“’Late 14th century Ming Dynasty. Oh, it breaks the heart.’ ‘And the head. You hit me, Dad!’ ‘I’ll never forgive myself.’” (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)

Thank you Dr. Jones. The shape is meant to mimic the bronze vessels from a couple thousand years earlier, like the fanglei we were just looking at. Notice the similar four-cornered shape bulging in the center, tapering at the shoulders and base, and a squat square box-like neck. This vase was probably in the ownership of a well educated scholar-bureaucrat. Something to show off his lofty classical education. The antiquarian taste seen in its archaic shape goes well with the highfalutin symbolism of the decorations. You see the regal dragon with its five-fingered claw, an ancient and generally auspicious symbol, little jade chimes, cranes and phoenixes skirting about wispy clouds, and flutes with cute little ribbons, which when played, draw down the phoenixes from the clouds. And above all that running along the neck of the vessel we see a somewhat familiar band of triangular shapes. This is yet another archaism on this Ming Dynasty vase, a band of highly stylized cicadas, just like on the Shang tripod jia we looked at earlier. So, just as the cicada is a symbol of resurrection and continuity, we see a great interest among Chinese art forms in the resurrection and preservation of ancient shapes and motifs.

And if that’s not all you ever wanted to know about cicadas, I urge you to hop on over to scarabsolutions.com to check out some good photos and video clips that I wasn’t able to squeeze into the podcast, plus links to various cool cicada resources, including a breathtaking award-winning video Return of the 17-Year Cicadas from Indiana University and some cicada recipes. But now that the Brood XIII magicicadas are all gone, you’ll just have to hold out for the “dog-day” cicadas to have your choco-fudgy-twirl cicada-sicle. And lastly, I’d like to thank Catherine Savage of Lake County Forest Preserves in Libertyville, Illinois and Dr. Gene Kritsky, Editor of American Entomologist and Professor of Biology at the College of Mount Saint Joseph in Cincinnati for their help in answering some of my stickier questions about cicadas.

Thanks for listening. So long and see ya next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

7: Gandharan Bodhisattva

Hello and welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. Or rather, you could be welcoming me back after this couple month hiatus from cyberspace. But we’re back online and good to go.

So, if ya ever bothered listening all the way through one of the earlier podcast episodes, you’d know that I often have little bits of news or other info at the tail end. Right about at the point when you tune out or switch over to NPR Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. But ha HA! Now I have tricked you and I’m putting the news at the beginning this time!

A little while back in Episode 4 I poked a little fun at the Art Institute of Chicago for not having a searchable freely-accessible online database of its collection. Well, if you’ve been to the Art Institute’s website recently, you may have noticed the subtle addition of a little search box on the Collection page. Yes, the Art Institute leaps headlong into the 21st century with the addition of this search box. It’s a work in progress, for sure. They claim to have a small but growing portion of the collection in the online database and the search functionality could use a little help, but it’s a definitely a very welcome addition for the scholarly community since they offer decent images, publication history, exhibition history, and provenance. These online collection databases with imagery and research details are a vital component to the mission of a modern museum. A big distinction between an art museum and a private collection is the accessibility of the collection to the general public. Keeping some 99% of one’s collection hidden away from public eyes doesn’t do anybody any good. Now, while the Art Institute’s definitely moving in the right direction by making its collection available online, is still pretty stingy with its images, though. They explicitly state that the images are for identification only and are not to be used for publication or presentation purposes. You need to drill down deeper into the terms and conditions to find a statement about fair use, but that still reads a little intimidating.

Images are one thing, but if you’re looking for audio … well, you’ve got this podcast, but you can also head on over to the Art Institute’s website again. Click on Exhibitions then Past Exhibitions where you’ll find a link to the recent exhibition The Silk Road and Beyond: Travel, Trade, and Transformation. Delve into the Silk Road exhibition website and you’ll find snippets from the audio guide on selected works from the exhibition. Sounds hard to find, huh? I’ll make it easy for you. Just head on over to scarabsolutions.com and click on the Silk Road link in the Additional Resources section. Some of the highlighted Silk Road objects even have relevance to the Ancient art context of this podcast, like this incredible Gandharan statue of a bodhisattva.

This statue is quite a departure from previous podcast topics. This is actually a Buddhist statue and technically it’s not even from the Ancient Mediterranean World. Gandhara is the name of the ancient kingdom from where we get this incredible statue. The name may not mean much to us nowadays, but we may be a little more familiar with its modern derivation, a city whose name had been all too frequent in the news of recent years, until we started liberating other nations … Kandahar. The ancient Gandharan kingdom encompassed approximately the region that’s now Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gandharan art, which dates to around the 2nd century of the Common Era, is actually among the earliest Buddhist art, even though Buddhism originated around in early 5th century BC.

The art of ancient Gandhara is a unique bridge between East and West. Look closely at the details of this figure. The musculature is so highly modeled and naturalistic, if not unrealistically idealized. The facial features are chiseled and well defined. We see incredible detail in his beautifully coifed hair with gently drilled, soft curls. As we move lower down his form we explore the dynamic quality to the drapery. We can really feel a sense of gravity, friction, tension, and movement in the folds of cloth. There’s a deliberate attempt by the artist to express the realism of soft fabric in this hard stone. Compare this to other Buddhist statuary even from significantly later periods, like this 10th century Indian stele depicting different pivotal scenes from the life of Buddha. Notice how here the artist chooses to represent the folds of the drapery in a very stylized, unrealistic manner of regular, parallel, almost concentric curves — a fairly common stylistic quality of South and Southeast Asian Buddhist art. But the Gandharan figure is quite different. Many of us buffs of Ancient Mediterranean art might see a certain similarity between the Gandharan Bodhisattva and Classical Greek statuary and there’s a good reason for that.

Y’all know this fella. Alexander the Great, born in 356 BC, came to succeed his father Philip II, King of Macedon, who united the entirety of Greece under the single Macedonian military authority. Alexander capitalized and expanded on that legacy by spreading his influence much further eastward. He conquered Persia, or some say Persia conquered him, with its sexy oriental exotique, and he even pushed his Greek army as far as the Indus River in northwest India before his disgruntled soldiers eventually compelled him to start pulling back. And at the age of 33 in June of 323 BC, Alexander the Great dies … but then, why should I tell you when yet another “great,” the legendary heavy metal icon Iron Maiden can tell you.

After the death of Alexander, this gargantuan swath of the world that he conquered was soon divided among his generals. Mesopotamia and Persia went to Seleucis, who in turn gave rise to the Seleucid Empire. Over time various territories of the Seleucid Empire rebelled and seceded. Around 305 BC, Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan Empire, managed to wrestle Gandhara back from Seleucis, reuniting it with much of the Indian subcontinent. For a while Gandhara fell to the so-called Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, which was still under heavy Hellenistic Greek influence for a long time. It’s in the 2nd century of the Common Era, after changing hands more than a good pair of vintage jeans, when Gandhara experiences what’s considered its “golden period” with strong rulers engaging in expansive trade and a flourishing of the arts. This is the time period of our favorite Gandharan Bodhisattva. So even a good four/four and a half centuries after the death of Alexander, the seeds sewn by his campaign have a profound lingering artistic effect.

And just what is a bodhisattva? Well, very briefly, not doing the concept any justice, a bodhisattva is an individual who, through right living and meditation, has reached a state of being where he could achieve enlightenment and transcend beyond the physical world of suffering. But instead of making this leap, as the ultimate expression of compassion and charity, the bodhisattva chooses to sacrifice enlightenment and remain behind in the physical world to serve as a teacher and guide to help others reach this goal. We see bodhisattvas in Buddhism throughout the world from ancient Gandhara and India to modern Korea, China, and Japan. If you want to learn more about bodhisattvas, Buddha, and Buddhism … well, you’ll just have to stay tuned to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. Thanks, take care, and see ya next time.

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org