Published in The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Indian Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, edited by Arindam Chakrabarti, Bloomsbury, 2016.
Gautama Siddharta, the prince from Kapilavastu, has become the Buddha, the enlightened one, or a mahasamana, a perfected ascetic. An image from Gandhara shows the transformed prince inside a pavilion-like structure in which he is seated on his lotus-pedestal, hands set in a mode of argumentation (fig. 1 and fig. 2). Part of a larger presentation, the pavilion is shown not quite like a house with walls and doors; it is a coarse structure with a double-roof. Similar to the huts of forest hermits, a pattern of large leaves covers the cone-shaped top roof. A parrot on the roof completes the imagery of a forest setting, the domicile of hermits and ascetics.
With the former prince no longer an ordinary human, but a suprahuman, his body is now larger than other attendant figures. His physiognomy too does not conform to the scale of the building. The head of the superascetic interrupts the architectural framework and distends it into forming a kind of an arch. Many examples from Gandhara and other Buddhist sites show such distention of an architectural member. Sometimes the protruding head forms an arch in the architecture, and sometimes simply a distended lintel. It appears that in both embracing and contravening the logic of dwelling, the ascetic disrupts the norms of architecture.
Two paradoxical conditions are decipherable in the Gandhara artists’ attempt to represent a successful ascetic. First, the former householder who has abandoned home to free himself from the fetters of society finds himself “housed.” The artists may have wondered: But how to show such a mahasamana housed or sheltered? Second, accepting that even a hermit-ascetic may need a shelter, how to visualize the dwelling of someone who represents the highest form of ascetic attainment? The first hints at an existential contradiction around the necessity and nature of dwelling, and the latter a representational challenge, an aesthetical quandary in depicting the hermit in his hut.
While hermits and ascetics have been regarded as virtuous human figures and played significant roles in developing key thoughts in the philosophies of India, and the space of their habitation – the forest – has been extolled as significant, the dwelling structures of those glorified humans remain in a cognitive penumbra.