Image Problems

The Origin and Development of the Buddha's Image in Early South Asia

Robert DeCaroli

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  • Published: March 2015
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies / South Asia; Art History / Asian Art
  • Bibliographic information: 280 pp., 44 b and w illus., 1 map, 1 chart, 7 x 10 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Contents

This deft and lively study by Robert DeCaroli explores the questions of how and why the earliest verifiable images of the historical Buddha were created. In so doing, DeCaroli steps away from old questions of where and when to present the history of Buddhism's relationship with figural art as an ongoing set of negotiations within the Buddhist community and in society at large. By comparing innovations in Brahmanical, Jain, and royal artistic practice, DeCaroli examines why no image of the Buddha was made until approximately five hundred years after his death and what changed in the centuries surrounding the start of the Common Era to suddenly make those images desirable and acceptable.

The textual and archaeological sources reveal that figural likenesses held special importance in South Asia and were seen as having a significant amount of agency and power. Anxiety over image use extended well beyond the Buddhists, helping to explain why images of Vedic gods, Jain teachers, and political elites also are absent from the material record of the centuries BCE. DeCaroli shows how the emergence of powerful dynasties and rulers, who benefited from novel modes of visual authority, was at the root of the changes in attitude toward figural images. However, as DeCaroli demonstrates, a strain of unease with figural art persisted, even after a tradition of images of the Buddha had become established.
Robert DeCaroli is associate professor of art history at George Mason University.

"A fascinating account of the complex and, at times, contradictory ideas around the utility and appropriateness of figural representations in early Buddhist communities. DeCaroli's study marshals an enormous amount of textual, inscriptional, numismatic, and visual evidence to examine how Buddhist communities were not only participating in broader social and cultural transformations but also seeking to differentiate uniquely Buddhist approaches to the relationship, or lack thereof, between subject and image."
-Catherine Becker, author of Shifting Stones, Shaping the Past: Sculpture from the Buddhist Stupas of Andhra Pradesh

1. Problems and Preconceptions
2. Questions of Origin
3. Image Aversion
4. Images and Identity
5. Historical Shifts
6. Image Appeal
7. Coping Strategies
8. Final Words

List of Illustrations

"It is refreshing to read a scholar who presents the authors of ancient texts not simply as authority figures, or even as persons locked into a specific school or tradition, but rather as individuals grappling with the startling fact of images suddenly coming into vogue, and seeking philosophical justification or proscriptive. . . . Image Problems thoroughly surveys image use, devotion, the merit of making and donating to images, miracle images, and the problem of copies of images."
-Jon Ciliberto, Buddhist Art News

"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. . . . Image Problems is a very important work, one that should shape our thinking and teaching about early South Asian images."
-Frederick M. Asher