The historical Buddha (‘Awakened’ or ‘Enlightened’) Shâkyamuni (‘Wise’ or ‘Powerful’ of the ‘Shâkya’ clan which he belonged to) lived and preached in northern India around half a millenium before Christ. According to his legendary biography, written after the beginning of the common era, he was the son of a king, in spite of the fact that the Shâkya clan was organized in a small oligarchic republic, occupying a territory including a southern strip of present day Nepal, where Shâkyamuni was born. As a child he received the name of Sarvarthasiddha, but he was also known as Siddhartha, with the hereditary title of Gàutama, and with the epithets of Bhagavan (‘Lord’), Bodhisattva (‘Being’ vowed to ‘Awakening’ or ‘Enlightenment’) and Mahâbodhisattva (‘Great Bodhisattva’), besides Shâkyamuni. Only at the beginning of the Common Era did his followers start to represent him with anthropomorphic features and no longer solely through symbols referring to the main events in his life.
After reaching Enlightenment, Shâkyamuni started to preach his doctrine, delivering his first sermon in the Deer Park at Sârnâth, near Varanasi, and established the religious order flourishing to this day thanks to the many schools into which it branched out throughout Asia in the over 2500 years of its history. This image hints at that very sermon and that is why Shâkyamuni is portrayed in a meditation (dhyâna) posture (âsana) displaying the gesture (mudrâ) of setting the wheel (chakra) of his doctrine (dharma) into motion. In an Indian context that gesture is related to the notion of the ideal universal monarch who, according to a traditional Hindu and Buddhist conception, revolves the wheel of the law (chakravartin). Indeed here Shâkyamuni sits on a throne supported by two couples of addorsed lions — an animal to which Shâkyamuni’s voice is compared — portrayed in a heraldic style of Iranian origin, and by two male nature spirits (yaksha) standing on lotuses — an ancient symbol of purity and fertility — and belonging to the early pantheon of the Indian subcontinent.
The sculptor has rendered the folds of Shâkyamuni’s garment with pleats, ultimately of Greek and Roman origin, which are characteristic of the aesthetics of the Gandhara kingdom, corresponding to present-day eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly the Swat Valley, one of the areas where the Great Bodhisattva started to be represented in his anthropomorphic features. The flames of Shâkyamuni’s aura represent the irradiation of his doctrine throughout the whole universe as symbolized by the combined sun and moon crescent at the sides of his head, and emerging from the shoulders of several Kashmirian images of the Buddha.(1) Shâkyamuni is flanked by two Bodhisattvas, in a composition that is reminiscent of later copper-alloy images from the Swat Valley:(2) possibly Matreya, to his proper right, holding a ritual jug, and Avalokitèsvhara, to his proper left, holding the stem of a lotus flower. The eyes and small protuberances between the eyebrows of Shâkyamuni and his assistants are silver-inlaid.
1) Cf. Pratapaditya Pal, Bronzes of Kashmir, Graz 1975, pp. 41 and 45, n. 12.
2) Cf. ibid., pp. 198-199, fig. 75, and Ulrich von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes, Visual Dharma Publications, Hong Kong 1981, pp. 96-97, fig. 12E.