Copyright
Sister Nivedita.

Footfalls of Indian history [microform] online

. (page 6 of 17)
Online LibrarySister NiveditaFootfalls of Indian history [microform] → online text (page 6 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Indian " superstition," as it has been called.

This was the movement that placed in each
new vihara excavated at Ajanta its Buddha shrine.
Whether Seven or Eleven is the older it is difficult
to determine, but each contains its image in its
shrine. This fact coincides with a further step
taken about this time. The ancient abbey with
its bhikshugrihas began to transform itself into a
university. Each of these new and more ambi-
tious viharas is a college as well as a monastery.
We are very familiar, from the study of Burma
and Japan, with the educational system in which
every student is theoretically a novice of the
monastery. Something of the same sort is true
to this day of Oxford itself. And there can be
no doubt that it obtained at Ajanta. It was with
this emphasizing of the function of the sangharama
as the abode of learning that the image of the




THE BIRTH OF BUDDHA.

From Water-colour hy Abatiindrn Natli Tagore.



THE ANCIENT ABBEY OF A J ANT A 81

great teacher became all-important. For orga-
nised worship the chaitya halls always sufficed.
The image in its shrine doubtless received a certain
ritualised attention morning and evening above
all, incense was burnt before it but its main pur-
pose was to keep the students in mind of the
great Guru, the divine teacher and ideal, in whose
invisible presence every act was to be performed.
It is this academic aspect of the life at Ajanta
which speaks in the long rows of viharas dug out
within single epochs. The numbers Four to One
cannot be far removed from number Seventeen,
and this fact can only be accounted for in this
way. Of the learning that was imparted in these
monastic colleges we read in Hiouen Tsang. From
the beginning the texts must have been recited
constantly in the abbey-halls. But that secular
learning also was sometimes cultivated we are
expressly told in the case of Nalanda, where
arithmetic and astronomy were studied, and stan-
dard time was kept for the kingdom of Magadha
by means of the state water-clock.

Not all the sculptural developments of Ajanta
are Kanishkan. The facade of Cave Nineteen, of
some centuries later, shows in a wonderful manner
the richness and variety of the elements to which
the Mahayana had opened the door. Buddha is
there treated not simply as the guru whose every
trace and footstep is sacred, but as a great historic
character, to be portrayed in many ways and
from many different points of view. He is being



82 FOOTFALLS OF INDIAN HISTORY

crowned. He carries the flag of Dharmma. There
is a freedom in his attitudes and in the arrange-
ment of the adoring figures by whom he is sur-
rounded. At the same time, the recurrence of
the chequer-pattern instead of the Asokan rail,
now forgotten, shows the influence of Gandhara.
And so the substitution of grinning faces for lotuses
in the horse-shoe ornaments shows the overwhelm-
ing of the old purely Indian impulse by foreign
influences. And so does the peculiar coat worn
by the Buddhas. This garment appears to me
rather Chinese or Tartar than West Asian. But
it must be said that it is not purely Indian. What
is the date of Cave Nineteen ? Kanishka was
A.D. 150, or thereabouts, and Cave Seventeen is
about A.D. 520. It is customary to assume that
Nineteen is the Gandakuti or image-house referred
to in the inscription on Seventeen. Critics profess
to find an affinity of style which groups them
together. For my own part I must frankly say
that to me this affinity is lacking. I believe the
Gandakuti to mean the image shrine at the back
of Seventeen itself. A pious founder might well
count this and the cave and the cistern three
separate works. This inference is confirmed by
a reference I find in Hiouen Tsang to a gandakuti
or hall of perfumes, i.e. doubtless, of incense
within a vihara in the kingdom of Takka. I
cannot imagine that Nineteen was made by the
same hands or at the same time as Seventeen. I
think it is considerably later and less conservative



THE ANCIENT ABBEY OF AJANTA 83

and exclusively Indian. At the same time I think
it must be the ^ great vihara" of Hiouen Tsang,
which he describes as about 100 feet high, while
in the midst is a stone figure of Buddha about
70 feet high, and above this a stone canopy of
seven stages, towering upwards apparently without
any support. Making allowance for faulty trans-
lation in regard to terms, which by those who
have seen the caves are used with technical rigidity,
this may offer a fair description of the cave as
it would appear to one who saw it in the plenitude
of its use and beauty. If this cave were, as I
think, excavated about the year A.D. 600, then
when the Chinese traveller visited the abbey in
the middle of the century it would be the central
place of worship and one of the main features of
interest at Ajanta. But there is at least one other
synchronism of the greatest significance to be
observed in reference to Cave Nineteen. This is
the affinity of the treatment of Buddha in its
sculptures to those of Borobuddor in Java. It is
as if the style were only making its first appear-
ance. There is the same idea of costume, and
the standing Buddhas have something like the
same grace of attitude and gentleness of demeanour,
but the process of idealising has not yet been
carried to its highest pitch in this kind. There
is in the Javanese Buddhas, as revealed in Mr.
Havell's photographs of them, an ethereal remote-
ness with which these do not quite compete. Yet
here is the promise of it. And the great bas-relief



84 FOOTFALLS OF INDIAN HISTORY

on the stupa in the interior has the same look,
is of the same quality. The expedition that colo-
nised Java is said to have left Gujarat in western
India early in the seventh century, and this was
evidently the conception of fine art that they
carried away with them.

In this visit of Hiouen Tsang to the abbey, we
have a hint of the marvellous cosmopolitanism
which probably characterised its life. It is another
way of saying the same thing, that is said with
almost equal distinctness, by the chaitya-fagade
itself. Chinese, Gandharan, Persian, and Ceylonese
elements mingle with touches from every part of
India itself in the complexity of this superb edifice.
The jewel-like decorations of the columns without
remind us of Magadha. The magnificent pillars
inside carry the mind to Elephanta and its prob-
ably Rajput dynasty. The very ornate carvings
of the triforium and the pillar-brackets were origi-
nally plastered and coloured. The stupa also once
blazed with chunam and pigments. The interior
must have been in accord therefore with the taste
of an age that was by no means severe. The
Vakataka house must have ruled over an empire
in Middle India in which civilisation had reached
a very high level. It must have been the centre
of free and healthy communications with foreign
powers. And above all, the old international life
of learning must have had full scope in the abbey's
hospitality. Buddha and the Bodhisattvas were
only the outstanding figures in a divine world




'A

W 15



< a
a

fc '-5
=



a "

72 .=

t"" 1 'rt

C/2 ^

OJ C/3

E s



THE ANCIENT ABBEY OF AJANTA 85

which included a constantly-growing number of
factors. The little choultry outside is purely
Hinduistic in its sculpture, as if to say that the
order looked with no unfriendly eye on the less
organised religious ideas and affections of the
pilgrim householder. A mythological system which
is practically identical in Japan, China, and India
sheltered itself behind the Mahayana. All the
sacred and learned literature of India was by it
put in a position of supremacy. Hiouen Tsang
was as careful to pass on to his disciples the
comments of Panini on Sanskrit grammar as
more strictly theological lore. He was as eager
for the explanation of Yoga the secular science
of that age as for the clearing up of points
about relics and shrines. India, in fact, as soon
as the Mahayana was formulated, entered on a
position of undisputed pre-eminence as the leader
and head of the intellectual life of Asia.

THE THEORY OF GREEK INFLUENCE ON
INDIAN ART

Nothing is clearer at Ajanta than the existence
of two separate and almost divergent ways of treat-
ing the Buddha. One of these we see in the
Buddha of the Shrines, which represents the
moment of the First Sermon at Benares. Buddha
is seated on his throne, and devas are flying into
the halo behind his head. On the predella below
his seat are the symbolic animals, and in their



86 FOOTFALLS OF INDIAN HISTORY

midst the Wheel of the Law. The dress of the
Master is the Indian chudder of fine white muslin.
And in some form or other there is always a sug-
gestion of the lotus in the throne, although it may
take the form of folds of drapery. In all these
respects we have a very distinct approach to the
type of Buddha which is fixed in our minds as
representative of Sarnath and also of Sanchi. The
face here is characterised by a much greater mas-
culinity than that of Sarnath whose ostentatious
technical perfection shows it to be a late example of
the style but there are all the same elements in the
composition as a whole : the flying devas, the wheel,
the lotus, and the halo ; and the dress is of the
same fine and barely visible order. In Cave
Fifteen, especially, a greatly heightened beauty is
obtained by the fact that the halo is detached from
the head of the figure, thus producing a shadow,
which gives an air of life and freedom to the statue.
This is only one out of many signs that the type is
not rigidly fixed, but is to be seen at Ajanta as at
Sanchi or Sarnath itself, playing round a general
symbolistic convention. This Buddha is integral
to Caves Seven, Eleven, Fifteen, Sixteen, and
Seventeen, at any rate ; and that these caves
precede Cave Nineteen in date there can be no
doubt. A similar type of Buddha is also integral
to the series of Caves numbered Six to One, but
since it is probable that these were excavated
after Seventeen, we dare not base upon them any
argument which might depend upon their being




SARNATH BUDDHA



THE ANCIENT ABBEY OF AJANTA 87

anterior to Nineteen. Therefore, we shall here
rely upon the Sarnath Buddha, as found during
the evolution of the type, in Caves Eleven to
Seventeen only.

With Cave Nineteen we come suddenly upon a
new type. Here the Buddha on the great dagoba
is standing in what is now commonly known as the
teaching attitude ; though in truth the monks and
their students who used the viharas, probably
thought of the attitude of the First Sermon as that
of the teaching Buddha. Be this as it may, the
standing Buddha of the dagoba is clothed in a
choga over and above his muslin underclothing.
And this choga is not unlike the garment also to be
found on the gold coins of Kanishka. It is in truth
a yellow robe, and not merely the yellow cloth, of
the Buddhist monk. It is in any case a clear and
indubitable sign of the intercourse between Ajanta
and the colder regions of north-western India, and
marks the influence of the latter at this particular
moment upon the Buddhist symbolism of Central
India. This influence is borne out in many ways
by subordinate evidence, into which we need not
enter at present. The point now is, Had India
already owed the idea of the Sarnath Buddha itself
to this same stream of north-west influence on her
arts?

Ordinarily speaking, we are accustomed to take
for granted that an artistic style has arisen more or
less in the neighbourhood of the place in which we
find it. It requires no argument to convince us



88 FOOTFALLS OF INDIAN HISTORY

that Velasquez was the product of Spain or Titian
of Venice. Even if we had not been informed of
this we should have assumed it. To this rule,
however, India has so far been an exception. The
synthetic study of her past suffers from having been
largely initiated by foreigners. The modern method
has been forced upon the country from outside,
and it is difficult for outsiders to believe that the
same thing has not happened before, that it is not
indeed somewhat distinctive of Indian development.
The German scholar Griinwedel, writing on Bud-
dhist art, reiterates his sincere conviction over and
over again that India derives her new impulses
from foreign sources. Fergusson, with the pre-
possessions of his long work for Indian architecture
fresh upon him, finds more difficulty in minimising
the purely native elements in Buddhist art, and
though not untouched, is yet vastly less impressed
by the pre-eminence of Gandhara types, when he
comes upon them, than are his successors. And
perhaps it is useful to know that neither of these
writers is so assured of the negligibility of the
indigenous contributions to Buddhistic symbolism
as the latest of all, Mr. Vincent Smith, in his Early
History of India. This is worth mentioning, be-
cause it may serve to remind us that even in a
matter which has seemed so fixed and determined
as this of the Gandharan influence on Buddha
types, we really have to deal rather with a strong
and cumulative drift of opinion or prejudice or
preconception as we may choose to call it than



THE ANCIENT ABBEY OF AJANTA 89

with established facts. Vincent Smith is not better
able to form an opinion than Fergusson. Indeed
he is less fit in many ways ; yet his opinion is much
more fixed. What the one man threw out as a
tentative suggestion the other uses as if it were an
axiom. Evidently even the best of us is apt to
believe as he would wish, or as he has prepared
himself to think, and there is a large fraction of
predisposition in every robust conviction. There-
fore the formidable concensus of opinion which at
present exists on the origin of Buddhist icono-
graphy, does not in the least exonerate us from
examining carefully the grounds of that opinion.
On the contrary, it rather challenges us to do so.
Of the three famous names cited, it is precisely
that of the man who knew his India best which is
also that of him who attaches least importance to
foreign influences in Buddhist art. And it is the
man who knows least of Indian art at first hand,
and is presumably most influenced by popular
opinion, who delivers it over most cheerfully to a
foreign origin and the assumption of native inade-
quacy and incompetence.

There are two different theories about foreign in-
fluence on the Indian art of the Buddhist period.
One is that from the beginning India had owed
almost everything artistic to external forces. The
Asokan pillars were Persepolitan,the winged animals
were Assyrian, the very lotuses and plant-forms
were West-Asian. The school which thus almost
holds that India has no originality in matters of art,



90 FOOTFALLS OF INDIAN HISTORY

leans its own weight for the sources of her Bud-
dhistic inspiration on the existence in Bactria, ever
since the time of Alexander, of Greek artisan
colonies. From these descendants of Greek settlers
sprang the art of India. And what was not com-
municated thus had been the gift of Persia to the
East. These two sources being postulated, we may
accept the whole story of India's greatness in
matters artistic without doubt and without distress.
The other theory bears more especially and de-
finitely on the evolution of the statue of Buddha as
a sacred image. This, it is held, was not an Indian
invention. The idea was first conceived in the
country of Gandhara, the contact-point between
India and the West. Here, between the beginning
of the Christian era and the year A.D. 540, when
they were broken up by the tyrant Mihirakula,
there was a very rich development of Buddhism
in the form of stupas and monasteries. And the
argument of GrUnwedel may be accepted with
regard to the number of Euro-classical elements
which the art of this Buddhistic development dis-
played. There is to this day a highly artistic popu-
lation established in the region in question, including
as that does Kashmir and the North Punjab, and
almost touching Tibet, and on the other side of
Afghanistan and Persia. The fertility of the races
who meet at this point, in decorative arts and forms
of all kinds, need not be disputed. Nor would they
ever be slow to absorb new elements that might
present themselves in unusual abundance at some




Photo : Johnston and Hoffmann

FRESCO PAINTING AT AJANTA



THE ANCIENT ABBEY OF AJANTA 91

well-marked political period. The fact that this
would surely happen is only part of their extra-
ordinary artistic ability. The conversion of the
country of Kashmir to Buddhism would follow
naturally on Buddhistic activity in Gandhara, and
this was strong between the first century of the
Christian era and A.D. 540, and even persisted with
modified energy for a couple of centuries longer,
as we can gather through Hiouen Tsang. We may
also accept without cavil the statement that ever
since the raid of Alexander there had been an east-
ward flowing traffic along the ancient trade-routes
that connected India with the West. We cannot
admit that Alexander created these routes. That
had been done silently through the ages that pre-
ceded him by the footsteps of merchants and
pilgrims, of traders and scholars, and even monks.
The fame of Indian philosophy in the West had
preceded Alexander. Indian thinkers had long
gone, however few and far between, in the wake
of Indian merchants. But it is possibly true that
before the raid there had been very little compensat-
ing back-flow into India. The great geographical
unity and distinctness of this country must be held,
if so, to account for the phenomenon. India was the
terminus of at least one line of international travel
in an eastern direction. Undoubtedly the over-
land route of those days was still more vigorously
followed up under the Roman Empire. It was
to India with her advanced civilisation that the
Roman Empire went for its luxuries, and Pliny



92 FOOTFALLS OF INDIAN HISTORY

laments the drain of imperial gold for the silks and
ivory and gems of the East. The finding of many ob-
viously Greek relics, such as a Silenus,and Heracles
with the Nemaean lion, at Mathura, would seem to
indicate that the older trade-routes had come in by
sea, and ended at that city, in the interior of the
country, on the river Jumna. But the roads that
ended in Gandhara, and brought the influences of
classical Europe to bear on Buddhism there, were
certainly those which connected it with the old
Byzantium and with Rome. Greek art may have
spoken at Mathura, but certainly nothing better
than the Graeco-Roman ever made itself felt in the
north-west. All this represents facts which will be
acknowledged. The argument that the artistic
capacities of the Gandharan region in the time of
the Roman Empire were the result of a certain
ethnic strain, due to Alexander and the Graeco-
Bactrian kingdom which succeeded him, is not of
a character to be taken very seriously. Garrisons
of occupation are not usually accompanied by
the representative genius of their home-countries
in such force and numbers as to act with this
spiritual intensity on strange populations, partly
through personal contacts and partly through
mixing of blood ! We may compare the assumed
achievement with what has been accomplished by
modern peoples, under similar circumstances and
with vastly superior advantages, if we wish to bring
the proposition to its own reductio ad absurdum.
But in fact it need not be approached so gravely.




Photo : Johnston and Hoffmann

FRESCO DESIGNS OF AJANTA



THE ANCIENT ABBEY OF AJANTA 93

The best answer to the suggestion lies in the extra-
ordinary difference between the two forms of art.
The art of the Greek world was concerned almost
entirely with the human form. The horse, indeed,
with the deer, the eagle, and the palm-tree, are not
altogether unknown to it. But it is remarkable for
the absence of any strong feeling for vegetative
beauty, or for the animal world as a whole. Now
it is precisely in these two elements that the popu-
lations of the Gandharan country were and are to
this day strongest. Severe chastity and restraint of
the decorative instinct is the mark of Greece. Exu-
berance is the characteristic, on the other hand,
of Oriental art. It revels in invention. Its fertility
of flower and foliage is unbounded. Being of the
nature of high art, it knows indeed how to submit
itself to curbing forces. The highest achievement
of the Eastern arts of decoration, whether Chinese
or Persian, Tibetan or Kashmirian, or Indian proper,
often seems to lie in the supreme temperance and
distinction with which they are used. But the
power of hydra-headed productivity is there. In
Greece and Rome it is altogether lacking Thus
to say that the art of Gandhara was due to elements
in the population which were of Hellenic descent is
absurd. There was never in it the slightest sign of
any wedding of East and West in a single blended
product, such as this theory presupposes. We
can always pick out the elements in its com-
positions that are unassimilated of the West, as
well as those that are unassimilated of the East,



94 FOOTFALLS OF INDIAN HISTORY

and those, thirdly, that are purely local and more
or less neutral.

The same is true of the Persepolitan pillars and
winged animals of the older Mauryan art. Of
internationalism these are eloquent, but by no
means of intellectual imitation. India, as the pro-
ducer of so many of the rare and valuable com-
modities of the world, was the most international
of early countries. The positions of her great
merchants, such as was that one who excavated the
chaitya at Karli, may well have transcended those
of kings. Amongst the most important of the
world's highways were those that joined Babylon
and Nineveh to the Dekkan and to Pataliputra, or
Egypt and Arabia to Ceylon and China. It shows
the dignity and international standing of India
that she should have used freely the best of the
age, undeterred by any premature or artificial sense
of national boundaries. If we take one group of
winged animals quoted by Griinwedel from Sanchi,
there is even a kind of accuracy of scholarship in
the way these are given foreign men, as riders, in
their own dress and with their heraldic devices, so
to speak, of the time. Those who incline to think
that because she used Persepolitan pillars, therefore
she derived her civilisation from West Asia, have
to ignore the whole matrix of the original and in-
dividual in which such elements inhere. The pillars
of the chaitya at Karli may go by the name of
Persepolitan, but the idea of the chaitya-hall itself,
for which they are utilised, has never been supposed




COMPARTMENT FROM THE THIRD ARCHWAY OF THE
EAST GATEWAY AT SANCHI



THE ANCIENT ABBEY OF AJANTA 95

to be anything but Indian. The pillar with a group
of animals on the top of it is not, in truth, adapted
to the structural uses that it serves at Karli. It is
the creation of Asia at an age when pillars were
conceived as standing free, to act as landmarks, as
vehicles of publication, as memorials of victory,
and possibly even as lamp-standards. But this use
was common to all Asia, including India, and
though the Achamenides adorn Persepolis with it
in the sixth century before Christ, and Asoka uses
it at Sarnath or at Sarichi in the third, we must
remember that the latter is not deliberately copy-
ing monuments from a distant site, but is trans-
lating into stone a form probably familiar to his
people and his age in wood. In the simple chaityas
Nine and Ten, at Ajanta excavated during the
same period as Karli, but by simple monks intent
upon their use, instead of by a great merchant-
prince, with his ecclesiastical ostentation the
columns from floor to roof are of unbroken plain-
ness. The result may lose in vividness and
splendour, but it certainly gains in solemnity and
appropriateness. And the extremes of both these
purposes, we must remember, are of the Indian
genius.

Other things being equal, it is to be expected
that symbols will emanate from the same sources
as ideals. For an instance of this we may look at
the European worship of the Madonna. Here
it is those churches that create and preach the
ideal which are also responsible for the symbolism



9 6 FOOTFALLS OF INDIAN HISTORY

under which it is conveyed. It would seem indeed
as if it were only as the vehicle of the ideal that
the symbol could possibly be invented or dis-
seminated. Now if we- ask what was the radiating
centre for the thought and aspiration of Buddhism,
the answer comes back without hesitation or dis-
pute Magadha. The Holy Land of Buddhism


1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibrarySister NiveditaFootfalls of Indian history [microform] → online text (page 6 of 17)