Buddhism has a great vision of the eternal harmony of the world. This faith, with its message of compassion, spread far and wide and shaped the culture of a continent. This is a culture of peace and gentleness which continues, even in the midst of the materialistic world of today.
From earliest times of Buddhism, the influences of the faith reached Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia. It was both the Theravada and Mahayana orders that traveled far and wide across this region.
Vajrayana Buddhism was born out of an intellectual search, at the great universities of Eastern India and in Kashmir, in the First Millennium CE. It is believed to have the clarity and indestructible nature of a diamond, as well as the striking nature of a thunderbolt. Its purpose is to free us and to dispel the veils of ignorance, with the force of a clap of thunder. It is this form of Buddhism which traveled to Tibet, Mongolia, Buryatia and Kalmykia.
Benoy K Behl is an art-historian, film-maker, and photographer who is known for his tireless and prolific output of work over the past 34 years. He has taken over 36,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage, made 126 documentaries on art history, his exhibitions have been warmly received in 32 countries around the world and he has been invited to lecture by most of the important universities and museums around the world, which have departments of Asian art.
In my quest of documenting the art of India, in 1991 I photographed the 2nd century BCE to 5the century CE paintings of the Ajanta caves. This began as a technical exercise, as these murals, which are recognized as the fountainhead of the Buddhist paintings of Asia, had never been clearly photographed before. The cave interiors are very dark and strong lights are not allowed inside, as these would damage the ancient paintings. Over the years, permission had sometimes been given in exceptional cases for flash lights to be used, as in the case of National Geographic Magazine in the 1950’s, at the instance of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. However, the colours and details of the paintings were not very well captured, on account of the surface reflections of the strong lights. I had developed a technique of taking very accurate photographs in condition of extremely low light and this appeared to be a fine opportunity to benefit from this technique.
The technical exercise was carried out to satisfaction. Indian and foreign scholars who had studies Ajanta for a lifetime said that they had never before seen so clearly the details and colours of the Ajanta paintings. However, in the course of spending weeks in front of the paintings, to take the photographs, something more important happened to me.
The world of the Ajanta paintings was filled with figures who were warm and caring towards each other. It was a world of compassion, which influenced me profoundly. The gentleness and love which flowed from the murals was like a balm on my brow. All the values which I had been brought up with were reconfirmed so beautifully on the walls of Ajanta.
From there began a long journey of sharing the compassionate message of paintings with the world and of photographing other sites of ancient art which reflected the same philosophic outlook, which was in the Ajanta murals. In 1994, the Government of India wanted my photographic exhibition on Buddhist sites and art heritage of India, to hold it as a part of the Festival of India which was to be held in Thailand. This gave me a reason and opportunity to visit some Buddhist sites which I had not photographed till then.
Subsequently, my documentation of Buddhist heritage in all corners of India and in the other countries of Asia, continued over the years. Gradually, I was able to document the important monuments in most of the countries with a Buddhist history. In 2007 and in 2012, the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies were very kind to give me fellowships to visit the countries which had still to be covered, which were China, Tibet, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Russia. I remain very grateful to MAKAIAS for this very valuable support which was extended to me. Beyond the introductory photographs, this book contains photographs which were taken in my research and photographic visits undertaken on MAKAIAS fellowships.
One of the seeming miracles in the story of man is the spread of ideas, across the barriers of formidable mountains, vast oceans and national boundaries. The warm acceptance of concepts from distant lands goes to underline the deep similarity of human nature and aspirations everywhere. One of the greatest examples of the dissemination of philosophic and artistic ideas is the spread of Buddhism from the Indian subcontinent to the many countries of Asia. (We must remember that these ideas spread entirely without the use of the sword).
The concept of samsara, of maya and mithya, the illusory nature of the material world around us, was crystallized in the Upanishads by the 8th or 9th century BCE. The high purpose in life was to be able to see beyond the veils of illusion, to the eternal truth. Persons who were able to achieve this were known as Buddhas or Enlightened Ones and Tirthankaras or Victors over the Fear of Death.
Over the next two thousand years, this vision of life and of a path to escape from the web of maya, spread to the many countries of Asia. It pervaded the culture of present-day Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Tibet, Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan. The Northern-most frontiers to which this philosophic view of life traveled were Buryatia in Siberia and Mongolia.
The Buddha’s message was one of self-discipline. He pointed out that there was pain in our lives and that the cause of this pain was our desires. Therefore, to escape the pain, we had to do away with our desires. We would then leave behind the illusions of the material world around us, to attain Buddhahood.
In the First Millennium AD, in vast Buddhist establishments in Eastern India and in Kashmir, many intellectuals worked on the creation of a logical path which would lead us towards the attainment of this knowledge. The styles of art which were born in vast universities like Nalanda and in Kashmir, are different from the simple and compassionate art of ancient Buddhism. Here, the focus has shifted to the dynamic intellect, which analysis the philosophic propositions, in order to create an irrefutable path towards the truth which is sought.
Vajrayana Buddhism was born out of this intellectual search. It is believed to have the clarity and indestructible nature of a diamond, as well as the striking nature of a thunderbolt. Its purpose is to free us and to dispel the veils of ignorance, with the force for a clap of thunder.
By the 4th century, in the Buddhist centers of Kashmir, the Yogachara school of thought had developed. In this, it was believed that the most effective method for the attainment of the Truth was through meditation or Yoga. The different aspects of the wisdom of the Buddha were personified as the five Dhyani (Meditation) Budhdas: Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi and Vairocana. Mandalas were also conceived in Buddhist practice and are seen in art from the 5th century onward. The path to enlightenment was visualized as a movement through various levels of spiritual growth. From the outer spheres towards the illumined centre, towards the moment of the realization of the Truth or Buddhahood.
In the 10th century, Abhinavagupta in Kashmir took the Indian philosophy of aesthetics to rare heights of development. This was in a climate deeply imbued with the thoughts of Kashimr Shaivism, which saw the beauty of the world around as a reflection of the glory of the divine. The experience of beauty, the ecstasy of the aesthetic experience, was considered to be akin to the final bliss of salvation itself.
This experience of aesthetics and of joy lies at the heart of the Buddhism which came to Tibet and the Indian trans-Himalayas. In these vast and bleak desert lands, the Buddhist temples are like an oasis of colour. The architecture, the sculpture and the paintings are all a part of a unified, sacred plan. Their purpose is to move us and to transport us, far from the cares and confusions of the material world: to the peace to be found within.
The Cham, or masked ritual dance of the lamas, signifies the victory of knowledge over ignorance. In Buddhist thought, the greatest evil is the ego. It is that sense of the self which is the greatest illusion that we must lose, in order to gain true knowledge. The masks are very important. For on the sacred ground it is not the individual lamas who are supposed to dance. They have to forget themselves: they have to obliterate their own personalities to become the deity, who will then dance. The masks present qualities of the deities within them. There are peaceful masks and those with wrathful expressions. Finally, both symbolize the emptiness of the ultimate nature of all appearances.
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