Recently, while bumbling around Wikipedia (as one does), I came upon this random by very fascinating example of Buddhist art from the Gandhara region. This is a depiction of Amitabha Buddha preaching upon a lotus throne in the Pure Land (Sukhāvatī in Sanskrit).
This picture dates from the Kushan Empire, which inherited the earlier Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms that in turn arose from the empire of Alexander the Great. I’ve talked about the interaction between India and Greeks before, but the cultural interactions were even deeper than I originally hinted at. The Hellenistic Age Podcast recently posted a fascinating interview with Dr. Osmund Bopearachchi (website) that explored this cultural interaction even further. Highly recommend if you can.
But this picture of Amitabha Buddha got me thinking about a more specific question: where does Amitabha Buddha come from? Amitabha is not mentioned in the earliest Buddhist texts at all, and the earliest statuary appears in Kushan Empire under the reign of King Huvishka, and some artwork as far back as the Gandhara period of northwest India.
A number of interesting theories have arisen over time, some of which have been encapsulated in an essay from 1988 by Soho Machida titled Life and Light, the Infinite: A Historical and Philological Analysis of the Amida Cult. Machida points out some interesting facts:
- No statuary of Amitabha Buddha have ever been found in India’s interior, only in northwest India.
- Chinese monks who later visited India never mentioned Amitabha Buddha.
- Luminosity as an Buddhist symbol is never described in early Buddhist texts, but does appear in later Mahayana ones.
- Similarly, Buddhist statues that feature a luminous “halo”, known in Sanskrit as śiraś-cakra (Chinese: 光背), do not appear until the 1st century CE.
The people of Gandhara interacted not just with India, but also with the Scythians (who conquered the Indo-Greeks) as well as the Parthians. The Parthian Empire in particular did have a Buddhist presence, albeit small, and yet the state religion was Zoroastrianism, which frequently uses light as religious symbolism, and in the royal symbolism of khvarenah. For example, the god Mithra, who also had a cult-following in the Roman Empire, symbolized light, justice, and the sun.
It’s conceivable that the neighboring people of Gandhara in creating new Buddhist art borrowed elements and styles from their neighbors and contemporaries:
- from the Greek descendants of Bactria and Indo-Greek kingdoms, they learned to depicted the Buddha in an anthropromorphic way (i.e. similar to Greek statues) as Dr. Osmund Bopearachchi attests to
- from the Parthians, they may have learned to depict wisdom, truth and compassion through the imagery of light, using the religious imagery of Zoroastrianism.
- from India, they would have imported Buddhist teachings and concepts in an abstract sense, in addition to the literary tradition of the sutras.
If that is the case, then Amitabha Buddha represents a fusion of Indian-Buddhist thought, especially Mahayana Buddhism, with Parthian religious symbolism and Greek artistic methods. The Sutra of Immeasurable Life preamble depicts the gradual progression of a being to becoming a fully enlightened Buddha:
After attaining the Buddha-garland samādhi, he [the prospective bodhisattva] proclaims and expounds all the sutras. While dwelling deep in meditation, he visualizes all the innumerable Buddhas and in an instant visits every one of them. By elucidating and teaching the ultimate truth to sentient beings, he delivers them from the state of extreme pains, from the conditions in which suffering is so great as to prevent people from finding time for Buddhist practices, and also from the conditions in which suffering is not so great as to prevent them from doing so. Having attained the Tathāgata’s thorough knowledge and eloquence, he has fluent command of languages, with which he enlightens all beings. He is above all worldly affairs and his mind, always serene, dwells on the path of emancipation; this gives him complete control over all dharmas.Translation by Rev. Hisao Inagaki
The Sutra, one of the founding texts of Pure Land Buddhism epitomizes the path to Buddhahood, using the story of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha as the template, and through this sutra, Amitabha is clearly meant to be the epitome of Buddhas. What better way to epitomize a Buddha than to use infinite light as symbolism?
Update: posted some additional content I forgot add with the initial draft. Enjoy!