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”Beautiful Bodhisattva” by artist Padmapani

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  • Pages: 3
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  • Category: Buddhism

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            One of the most fascinating aspects of viewing works of art from the ancient world is the differences in both form and function which are apparent when contrasting ancient art and modern art.  When taken together, the impact of form and function help to define both the essential “quality” of a work of art, on aesthetic grounds — and the purpose of the artwork, when viewed from a cultural or even political or religious viewpoint.  In th case of the cave-fresco  “The Beautiful Bodhisattva,” (7th cent.) which  is a part of th extensive cave-temples of Ajanta, both the form and function of the artwork can be appraised with some degree of certainty that the conclusions of modern viewers will at least be in keeping with the broad intentions of the original artist and the historical culture which produced the work in question.

               While modern artists often work from an openly subjective viewpoint, striving to express individual emotions and themes, artists in the ancient world worked from a more traditional and culturally cohesive aesthetic.   The purpose of the fresco “The Beautiful Bodhisattva” was not merely to create an expressive work which engaged the viewer’s senses and intellect, but to represent in art, ” the concept of the Bodhisattva, a being who, although having attained Enlightenment, has renounced the goal of Nirvāṇa in order to minister eternally to allaying the sufferings of all creatures” (Rowland 32).  As such, the painting is not realistic, but stylized according to the then-contemporaneous techniques and aesthetic which were held to be suitable for the work’s theme.

            The work, overall, demonstrates certain characteristics which even the modern critic would hold as artistically “sound.”  For example, the an admirable degree of balance is integrated  into the fresco, with the central figure  of the Bodhisattva flowing into the surrounding setting of the natural world, and all of the elements of the image are proportioned to exude a sense of flowing harmony.  In this sense, the painting is, obviously, abstract to the degree that it eschews realistic representation in favor of aesthetic resonance.  The resonance of the painting is directed in a specific manner toward evoking  religious principles associated with Buddhism. Gazing at the image, even the modern viewer who may be only slightly acquainted with Buddhist philosophy will perceive in the image, something of the mystical and scared doctrines of Buddhist thought.   One of the suggestions which flows out of the fresco’s harmonious unity is the Buddhist idea of karma.  The idea of karma is that “Actions can also lead to karmic fruits in a human life. This might be the present life, or a future human life, be this one’s next life, or one that comes after one or more other types of rebirth” (Harvey 15).  The Bodhisattva, surrounded by Nature, takes his rightful place as an organic part of the rhythm and flow of the natural universe which is articulated by the rhythm and flow of the fresco itself.

            The “Beautiful Bodhisattva” is a brilliant example of the degree of technical and thematic unity which was brought to bear on the works in the Ajanta caves.  It is true that works such as these show that “”art had reached the perfection […] attained in the Ajanta frescoes” (Rhys-Davids 34)  by combining both aesthetic theory and religious inspiration; painterly technique and philosophy.  An important insight gained by studying the work is that the elements used to produce the visual harmony, rhythm, and expression of the work are themselves indicative of the philosophical and religious idea that the work is meant to express.  The work seems to be positing itself as a monument of artistic and spiritual enlightenment which carries in its message, the idea that artistic expression and spiritual “balance” are, in fact, one.  In this manner, the work forwards an idiom and overall connotative resonance which is both complete and culturally determinative.

Works Cited

Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values, and Issues. Cambridge,

            England: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Rhys-Davids, T. W. Buddhist India. 3rd ed. Calcutta: Susil Gupta, 1957.

Rowland, Benjamin. The Art and Architecture of India: Buddhist, Hindu, Jain. London: Penguin

            Books, 1953.

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