WE FLEW THROUGH the thin, light-suffused mist of a December afternoon in north India before landing among open fields outside the paramount site of Hindu pilgrimage: Varanasi, a temple town that curls around the Ganges, the equivalent of Rome or Jerusalem in the Hindu imagination. But the pilgrims on my flight from South Korea had an altogether different purpose. It was here, scarcely 15 miles from the airport, among fields now yellow with mustard flowers, that a renunciant prince had, upon gaining enlightenment some 25 centuries ago, given his first sermon, setting what Buddhists call the Wheel of Dharma into motion. At a deer park once called Isipatana, now Sarnath, a 35-year-old Gautama Buddha, hardly older than Christ when he climbed the hill of Calvary, revealed the eightfold path to liberation from suffering, his four noble truths and the doctrine of the impermanence of everything, including the Self. It was to the remains of the monastery and shrine at Sarnath that the pilgrims from East and Southeast Asia came, as pilgrims had for well over 1,500 years, along a subsidiary branch of the Great Silk Road, which ran through the high snowy mountains that girdle the Indian subcontinent into a riverine plain that stretches across what is today Pakistan and north India. The pilgrims took an exit off that highway of goods and ideas that ran from China to Rome in order to honor what may well have been the most influential doctrine to travel along its lines of transmission — the word of the Buddha, and the art made in his name.
FOR THE FIRST six centuries after his death, the Buddha was never depicted in human form. He was only ever represented aniconically by a sacred synecdoche — his footprints, for example; or a parasol, an auspicious mark of kingship and spirituality; or the Wisdom Tree, also known as the Bodhi Tree, under which he gained enlightenment. How did the image of the Buddha enter the world of men? How does one give a human face to god, especially to he who was never meant to be a god nor ever said one word about god? How, in rendering such a man in human form, does one counterintuitively end up creating an object of deification? And what is the power of such an object?
These were the questions that were uppermost in my mind as I drove to Sarnath among green fields whose red brick boundary walls advertised educational courses and aphrodisiacs. To pass through open country in India, surrounded by signs of every religion except Buddhism, from temples and mosques to churches and Sikh gurdwaras, was to feel the ghostly imprint that Buddhism had left in the land of the Buddha. Gautama, believed to have been born in the fifth century B.C., had lived and taught the entire duration of his 80-year life within 200 miles of where I was. His doctrine, partly a reaction to the rigidity of Vedic religion, or Brahmanism — widely seen in India as an early form of Hinduism — had flourished here for more than a thousand years, patronized and disseminated by kings.
India’s oldest stone architecture was Buddhist. There had been viharas, or monasteries, that stretched across the Indian mainland, from Sarnath in the north to Nagapattinam, deep in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. There were the glorious painted caves at Ajanta, in western India, and, most intact and enchanting of all, there was the great stupa at Sanchi, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The hemispherical stupa, among the earliest and most distinctive of Buddhist monuments, is a reliquary mound. With its origins in pre-Buddhist burial mounds or sacred tumuli, it retains a cosmogonic power. “The act of making the stupa,” writes Richard Lannoy in his 2001 history “Benares: A World Within a World,” “was a rite in itself, on the analogy of creating the world ‘in the beginning,’ a symbolic re-enactment to get into the right relationship with the source of the Cosmic Order.”