The representation of the fasting Prince Siddhartha, also referred to as "Fasting Buddha," must be considered the most iconic of all of Gandharan Buddhist images. Rarely does a work of art combine and embody such power and projection - aesthetically, spiritually, and intellectually. It depicts Siddhartha meditating, emaciated by fasting, now almost skeletal. He is totally devoted to his quest for release from the endless cycle of suffering, driven by superhuman will. There is an aura of total control, of focus, of deep thought and calmness.
Gandharan artists, beyond capturing the idealized physical beauty of the enlightened Buddha, were equally capable of dramatizing a subject. At the crossroads of East and West in present day Pakistan and Afghanistan, they combined elements of the Greco-Roman tradition with Indian thought. The goal was to express the noble spiritual state of the bodhisattva seeking the meaning of life at the threshold between life and death and to condense the narrative of Buddha's path into a single image. Though not anatomically precise, the body is depicted in extraordinary detail, employing a kind of hyper-realism to express intense emotion and create an ultimate symbol of mind over body. It represents a striking culmination of a process evolving from aniconic Buddhist imagery, through the creation of an idealized anthropomorphic image of Buddha, to the heightened expressionism of this image. In the world of Buddhism, it arguably takes on a similarly emblematic place as the crucifixion in Christianity. However, it is not a symbol of sacrificial death, but of defiance and liberation.
After renouncing his princely existence in search of truth, Siddhartha went through a stage of profound austerity. For six years he tried passionately to work out his own way of salvation visiting several religious masters of the time. Dissatisfied with their teachings, he practiced asceticism, submitting himself to the most rigorous mental concentration in order to attain truly pure, superhuman knowledge and insight, submitting himself to such severe physical austerities that he came to look like a living skeleton. The deeply sunken eyeballs, the projecting cheekbones and rib cage attest to his effort and discipline to exceed human limitations in his quest for spiritual transcendence.
The fasting Buddha image is a distinctive feature of Gandharan Buddhist art. It is considered a beneficial act to view him in this condition, as recorded in the ancient scriptures:
For so long will I practice austerities in this form once seated cross-legged, until innumerable hundred-thousand living beings witness my extraordinary austerities and may they plant immeasurable seeds of liberation. Such austerities as I would conduct never have been practiced before by any living beings.
-I. Yamada ed., Karunapundarika, 1968, vol. II, pp. 244-245
Apart from the representation of the six-year fast, the image may actually refer directly to Buddha Shakyamuni's enlightenment, indicated by the kusha grass incised on the base. Kusha grass is sacred throughout Indian traditions and is associated with Amrita, the nectar of immortality, and is used in traditional medicines. The blades of the kusha grass are sharp, a deterrent for insects and snakes, making it a favorable seat for meditation. According to textual evidence, Buddha remained in a state of meditation and fasting for seven weeks after reaching enlightenment, seated under the Bodhi tree on a bed of cut grass:
I would grab a bundle of grass for myself, spread it on the vajrasana under the Bodhi tree and sit cross-legged with the body upright. I would practice the asphanaka meditation and stop the inhaling and exhaling of breath and would awake from the meditation once a day: having awoke, I would eat a half grain of sesame and give away another half. I would practice austerities in this form until all devas up to the Akanistha heaven and those of Saha Buddha field would approach, paying homage to me and would be witness to my austerities.
-I. Yamada ed., Karunapundarika, 1968, vol. I, p. 242
While Buddha's austerities are referred to in narrative reliefs of his life, very few free-standing images exist in private hands, most notably an example in the Bumper Collection, Calgary (www.bumpercollection.com/G8-large-fasting.html). Only a handful of images are known from excavations and are now in public collections, foremost the famous sculpture at the Lahore Museum, excavated in Sikri in 1889 in a shrine adjacent to the main stupa indicating its importance in the cultic function of the site, and a less complete figure in the Peshawar Museum, suggesting that very few were ever made, especially of such large size (K. Behrendt, The Art of Gandhara at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007, p. 57, and Fasting Buddhas, Ascetic Forest Monks, and the Rise of the Esoteric Tradition, 2010, p. 301f.). While images appear to span the entire Gandharan era, Behrendt most recently dates the larger images to the later phase.
Beyond Gandhara the theme never reached such prominence, but Gandharan influence is evident in Central Asia where examples feature at cave sites including Dunhuang and Kizil from the fifth century onwards. An ivory carving from Kashmir dated to the eighth century in the Cleveland Museum of Art also appears to derive from Gandharan prototypes. The famous Chinese monk Xuanzang, during his travels in the seventh century, recorded the presence of a fasting Buddha image in a shrine at Bodhgaya (R. Brown, The Emaciated Gandharan Buddha Images: Asceticism, Health, and the Body, 1997, p. 114). He reports that the image was venerated to cure disease; worshippers looked at the emaciated figure's potential of coming back to life and health.
A triumph in concept and execution, the heightened realism of the body and face contrast with the more stylized treatment of the garments. The form is as much defined by positive as by negative space. A web of veins, taut skin, wasted muscles and prominent bones, all deliberately stylized, speak eloquently of his deprivations. Yet the emaciated form foretells its imminent revitalization. With mind transcended, he will be restored to a perfect body, having triumphed over life and death for good.
A highly important gray schist figure of the Emaciated Siddhartha, or 'Fasting Buddha'
THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
"A goal stood before Siddhartha, a single goal: to become empty, empty of thirst, empty of wishing, empty of dreams, empty of joy and sorrow. Dead to himself, not to be a self any more, to find tranquility with an emptied heart, to be open to miracles in unselfish thoughts, that was his goal. Once all of my self was overcome and had died, once every desire and every urge was silent in the heart, then the ultimate part of me had to awake, the innermost of my being, which is no longer my self, the great secret." (Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha, With the Samanas)
1st Millennium A.D., Sculptures, Statues & Figures, schist, Gandhara, Buddhist
The Crossroads of Asia, Transformation in Image and Symbol, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 1992, cat. no. 215
INDIAN & SOUTHEAST ASIAN ART
31½ in. (80.0 cm.) high
E. Etherington and J. Cribb (eds.), The Crossroads of Asia, Transformation in Image and Symbol in the Art of Ancient Afghanistan and Pakistan, 1992, p. 227f., illustrated
Private collection, acquired in Germany, 1981
Visa bud Utrop