enduring episode in the annals of Christian art
is the 'Last Supper' of Jesus Christ. This was the
final meal he had prior to his crucifixion. However,
before partaking of the food, Jesus rose from the
table, took off his outer garments and tied a towel
around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin,
and began to wash the feet of his twelve disciples
sitting around him. Intrigued and bashful at the
same time, one of them exclaimed: 'You, Lord, washing
my feet?' The Great One answered: ' At present you
do not understand what I am doing, but one day you
After washing their feet, he
put on his garment and sat down again. Addressing
them he said: 'Do you understand what I have done
for you? You call me master and lord, and rightly
so, because that is what I am. If I then, your lord
and master, have washed your feet, you also ought
to wash one another's feet. I have set you an example:
you are to do as I have done for you.'
Yes, the Great Christ himself
knelt on the hard floor, and with his graceful hands,
cleansed the feet of each and every of his disciple.
This inspiring parable gives us a significant insight
into Christ's humility and the essentiality of his
"He who wants to be great
must become the smallest of all." (Mark 9.35).
Buddha was born into a royal
family amongst rich and extravagant circumstances.
Yet he gave it up all and became a monk, subsisting
on the charity of others. Thus from the highest
material station he graduated himself to the humblest
and lowliest worldly state possible. Hence says
Christ at another place in the Bible: "Whosoever
exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles
himself shall be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14).
As a relevant aside it should
be observed that the symbolic washing of the disciple's
feet also signifies that by sacrificing himself
at the cross, Jesus has in a sense washed away the
sins of all humanity.
Jesus Christ and Buddha, born
in two different traditions separated by large geographical
distances, nevertheless share common characteristics,
which is not surprising since they are but both
manifested expressions of the universal human yearning
for mystical harmony with the rhythms of nature.
According to Robert Elinor, 'Buddha and Christ are
but local inflections of a universal archetype:
the Cosmic Person imaging wholeness.' Beneath the
perceived differences underlying these two visionaries,
there are subtle unifying attributes which are amply
exemplified in the life they led and the message
An important idea in this context
is the belief shared by both in the natural cosmic
law of cause and effect, popularly known as 'karma.'
Christ says for example:
'Blessed are the merciful: for
they shall obtain mercy. If you forgive men their
trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive
you. But if you do not forgive earthly men their
trespasses neither will your Father forget your
trespasses. Therefore all things whatsoever you
would like that men should do to you, do them; for
this is the law and the prophets.' And of course
the popular quote:
"You shall love your neighbor
as yourselves." (Mark 12: 31)
The Buddha reiterates whatever
Christ puts forward and elaborates:
'Hard it is to understand: By
giving away our food, we get more strength; by bestowing
clothing on others, we gain more beauty; by founding
abodes of purity and truth, we acquire great treasures.
The charitable man has found the path of liberation.
He is like the man who plants a sapling securing
thereby the shade, the flowers and the fruit in
future years. Even so is the result of charity,
even so is the joy of him who helps those that are
in need of assistance; even so is the great nirvana.'
Since they both embodied universal
human aspirations and their ultimate realization,
it was but natural that the art they inspired too
would develop motifs which would elaborate similar
principles, though the metaphors deployed would
vary, being dependent upon local contexts.
Rather bewilderingly for the
interested reader, the first verses of the New Testament
are merely a long list of names. Now the New Testament
is the sacred scripture from which much of our information
about the life and deeds of Christ are derived.
Thus this lengthy array of names is bound to have
some spiritual import too. It does. These names
enumerate the ancestors of Joseph, Christ's earthly
father. Significantly, one of the names mentioned
is that of David, the second and greatest king of
Israel (famous for his victory over the giant Goliath).
Thus is Jesus proved to belong to a line of kings.
We have already noted Buddha's royal antecedents.
This typical characteristic presented
both a challenge and opening to artists. Here was
an abstract attribute (divinity) reduced to an earthly
metaphor (kingliness), and thus was presented a
solution to the difficult task of representing simultaneously
their twin nature: fully human and fully divine.
The question only remained of developing visual
formulae that would convey eloquently the dual personalities
of these exalted beings. Both traditions went about
According to Christian legend,
towards the end of one hard December in Palestine,
a Jewish carpenter and his pregnant wife traveled
from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be taxed by the bureaucrats
of Imperial Rome. There was no room for them at
the inn, so they lodged in a stable, where the young
woman, weary after the long journey, gave birth
to a son. Alerted by angels. Shepherds hurried down
from the hills to see the baby. Three kings guided
by a star, came from the east to offer him gifts.
The shepherds signify the Jewish people while the
three kings are differently colored: black, brown
and white, representing Africa, Asia, and Europe
The essence being that not only
the people of Israel rather rulers from all over
the world came to venerate the infant Christ. That
he was glorified thus by kings representing the
majority of humanity reconfirmed his own status
as the king of kings, or ruler of the world. Of
related interest here are the individual offerings
made by the three kings. These were namely:
a). Gold: Symbolic of Christ's
b). Frankincense: This incense is used in worship
and hence is a metaphor for his divine status.
c). Myrrh: A resin used in the embalming of the
dead, thus predicting Christ's imminent and unnatural
Here it needs to be observed
that the identification of the three visitors as
kings is a later modification in Christian art as
the Bible itself does not specify their royalty,
rather only mentions them as 'wise men from the
east.' But more importantly when they came, they
asked for the 'newborn King of the Jews.' (Matthew
The Buddhist aesthetic too was
faced with a similar dilemma, namely the simultaneous
depiction of humanity and divinity. But rather than
take the Christian route of narrative theology transformed
into verbal metaphors, the art of Buddhism presents
a hard-hitting picture of the Buddha himself bejeweled
and crowned as a king would be.
But if only things were so simple.
This leaves the issue of divinity wide open and
also a logical basis needs to be given to the representation.
Both are resolved in a single and graceful stroke
of artistic ingenuity. The answer lies in the gesture
Buddha makes with his hands (mudra), the thumb and
index finger of both hands touching at their tips
to form a circle. This circle represents a wheel,
and herein lies the key to the whole symbolism.
In Sanskrit, the word for wheel is 'chakra,' and
in ancient times the title of Chakravartin or 'wheel
turner' was conferred upon a powerful and mighty
ruler. The idea being that as the chariot of majestic
and warrior king rolls along, all impediments on
his path get crushed and no obstacle can stand in
his way, expanding his empire endlessly. Similarly
is Buddha glorified as a Chakravartin, the circle
which his fingers make signifying the wheel, visualized
as the wheel of dharma. The wheel's swift motion
serves as an apt metaphor for the rapid spiritual
conquest wrought by the teachings of the Buddha.
Not to be interpreted in a literal
sense, Buddha and Christ are of course not sovereigns
over material kingdoms, but rather cosmic emperors,
ruling the spirit rather than the body. Verily does
say Christ: 'My kingdom is not of this world.' (John
One of the prominent Jews of
the city once invited Jesus for dinner. Jesus arrived
and took his place at the table. Just then, a woman
with a bad reputation in town entered. In her hands
was an alabaster jar containing an ointment.
And she stood at his feet behind
him weeping, and she began to wash his feet with
her tears, and wipe them with her hair, and she
kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.
Jean Beraud. Christ in the house of the Pharisee, 1891
Now when the host saw this he
said to himself, if this man was a prophet he would
have known who and what sort of woman this is that
is touching him: for she is a sinner.
Jesus (as if reading his thoughts)
said to him, Simon I have something to say to you.
There was a creditor who had
two debtors: one owed five hundred pounds and the
other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he
freely forgave them both. Tell me, therefore, which
of them will love him most?
The host answered, I suppose
that he to whom he forgave most.
And he said, You have judged
And he turned to the woman, and
said to Simon, Do you see this woman? I entered
your house, and you gave me no water for my feet.
But she has washed my feet with tears, and wiped
them with the hairs of her head.
You gave me no kiss: but since
the time I came in this woman has not ceased to
kiss my feet.
You did not anoint my head with
oil: but this woman has anointed my feet with ointment.
Wherefore I tell you, her sins,
which are many, are forgiven. For she loved much.
But he to whom little is forgiven, loves little.
This tale from the Bible illustrates
Jesus' all embracing forgiveness. In Christ's kingdom
of heaven there is mercy for all. Thus said Buddha:
'No sin is so great that a person cannot be purified
of it. Imagine that you had murdered several Buddhas;
you could still be purified.' (Dhammapada 295)
Yes. A person can be great enough
to forgive even his own murderers, as Christ said
when he was hung on the cross:
'Father, forgive them, for they
not what they do.' (Luke 23: 34)
It is well established that both
these luminaries evolved out of the latent reaction
against centuries of blind ritualism that plagued
the local communities. The original meaning and
symbolic structure of the rituals had been lost
and what remained was exploitation and subjugation
of the masses by the priestly class. Not surprisingly
thus, Buddha and Christ offer refreshing insights
into religious behavior. Christ says for example:
When you pray, don't pray like
the hypocrites; for they love to pray standing in
the synagogues and in the corners of the streets,
that they may be seen by others.
Enter your closet, shut the door,
and pray to your father in secret; and your father
who sees you in secret shall reward you openly.
And when you pray, use not vain
repetitions, as the hypocrites do; for they think
that they will be heard for their much speaking.
Therefore do not be like them. (Matthew 6:5-8)
Dull repetition of sacred verses
does nothing to remove rust on the soul. (Buddha
in the Dhammapada 240).
In a beautiful simplification
Christ also elaborates upon the sup eriority of
brotherhood of man over mere ritualism:
If you bring your gift to the
altar, and there remember that your brother has
anything against you, leave there your gift before
the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled
to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
(Matthew 5: 23-24)
Many people appear to be generous,
but in fact are trying to gain advantage for themselves.
Take heed that you do not give
alms making it a show. When you give alms, do not
sound a trumpet. But rather when you give alms,
let your left hand not know what your right hand
does. Your alms be in secret and your Father who
sees it in secret shall reward you openly. (Matthew
It is easy to see the fault of
others, but much harder to see your own faults.
You can point out other people's faults as easily
as pointing out chaff blowing in the wind. But you
are liable to conceal your own faults as cunning
gambler conceals his dice. (Dhammapada 252)
Judge not, that you be not judged.
For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged;
and with what measure you give, it shall be measured
to you. And why behold the speck that is in your
brother's eye but do not consider the log that is
in your own eye? How will you say to your brother,
Let me pull the speck out of your eye, when you
are blind to the log in your own eye. First pull
the log out of your own eye, and then you will see
clearly to take the speck out of your brother's
eye. (Matthew 7: 1-5)
You have heard that it has been
said, You shall love your neighbor, and hate your
enemy. But I say to you , Love your enemies, bless
those that curse you, Do good to those that hate
you, and pray for those who despitefully use you,
and persecute you. That you may be the children
of your Father who is in heaven: For he makes his
sun to rise on the evil and on the good, And sends
rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:
Right he is. Who are we to make
judgment on what is right or wrong? They are both
twin aspects of the same reality manifested on the
earth by the divine powers above.
It is well known that Buddha
attained enlightenment under a tree. In popular
parlance it is known as the bodhi tree or 'tree
of knowledge.' It is not without significance that
Buddha found grace under a tree. The tree, with
its annual renewal of foliage, reminds us of life's
continuity and suggests that Buddha was that day
reborn (spiritually), as each of us will be on our
own day of resurrection (Unless a man is born again,
he cannot see the Kingdom of God (John 3: 3)).
According to legend, the denuded
tree on which Christ hung was made from the wood
of Eden's Tree of Knowledge. It is through ascending
this tree of knowledge that an ordinary human can
transcend all that is material and mundane in life,
gaining the heights of heaven. Thus by ending his
life at the cross, the great Christ in a sense infused
us with the promise of a new, spiritually enlightened
life. Thus was the tree of knowledge transformed
into the 'tree of life.'
The tree of life is a common
feature of salvation mythology and is said to be
standing at the axis of the cosmos. It is the place
where divine energies pour into the world, where
humanity encounters the absolute, and becomes more
fully itself. Buddha and Christ, as incarnations
of god, are themselves the navel or axis of the
world, the umbilical point through which the energies
of eternity break into time. More than a physical
point, it is a psychological state which enables
us to see the world and ourselves in perfect balance.
Without this psychological stability and this correct
orientation, enlightenment is not possible. The
tree of life grows throughout the world as the principal
symbol of cosmic centering and regeneration. Continually
reborn through its seed at the world axis, its root
thrust down through the earth to the underworld,
its trunk rises through the world, where it grasps
everything in its immeasurable arms, and its crown
Indeed, the cross is a cosmic
symbol, its vertical and horizontal lines spanning
the universe. According to Rutherford: 'The cross
of Christ on which he was extended, points, in the
length of it, to heaven and earth, reconciling them
together; and in the breadth of it, to former and
following ages, as being equally salvation to both.'
It is the heavenly ladder, the only ladder high
enough to touch heaven's threshold.
A beautiful thing about the cross
is that its center of gravity is not at its exact
center, but upwards where the stake and the crossbeam
meet. In simple terms it symbolizes the tendency
to remove the center of man and his faith from the
earth and to "elevate" it into the spiritual
In a mystical dissertation on
the notion of cosmic wholeness, Jesus describes
himself as a tree:
I am the true vine and my father
is the gardener. Every branch of mine that does
not bear fruit he takes away; and every branch that
does bear fruit he prunes, to make it clean and
bear even more fruit. You have already been made
clean by the teaching I have given you. Dwell in
me, as I dwell in you. A branch cannot bear fruit
by itself, but can only bear fruit if it is united
with the vine. In the same way you cannot bear fruit
unless you are united with me. (John 15: 1-4)
Heaven is god's throne and earth
his footstool (Isaiah 66:1), and Christ, suspended
on the cross, is the connecting link.
Indeed, just as Buddha gained
enlightenment by conquering the five senses, Christ,
pinned in five places (the two hands, the two feet,
and the head crowned with thorns), nails down the
Christ and Buddha, two manifestations
of divinity, showed us that true salvation lies
only on the path of humanity and compassion towards
all. Indeed, through their humanity they are both
related to us, and through their divinity, to god.
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