Buddhist Aesthetics

"All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him..... All forms are unreal, he who knows and sees this becomes passive in pain; this is the way that leads to purity."

2500 years have witnessed the profound philosophical teachings of the venerated Enlightened One, the Buddha, whose original aim was to teach liberation, release from the world. For him, truth is twofold – life is inherently full of suffering and everything is impermanent. Joys are transient and all lives end in decay and death, leading to a perpetual cycle of rebirth. The primal cause of this bondage is desire that rests on a false perception of an enduring essence, a Self or Soul, which is nothing but a bundle of physical and mental constructs kept going by desire. To eliminate desire and attain salvation, purification of minds through meditation is essential to lead to the foundation of a community or monastic order, the Sangha. The Buddha, also called Siddhartha Gautama or the Shakya Muni, his teachings or the Dharma, and the Sangha, formed to preserve the scriptures and aid in renunciation, constitutes the Triratnas or three jewels of this world religion.

From early Theravada, the “Doctrine of the Elders” based on the Pali canon, to Mahayana, the great vehicle and vast movement embracing almost all schools and sects of later origin, to tantric Vajrayana or the thunderbolt/diamond vehicle, better known for its wrathful deities and erotic imagery, the range of philosophical and monastic doctrines testifies to the sheer breadth of this worldview and of its followers who spread across every corner of the globe today. Moreover, thinkers such as Nagarjuna, Ashwaghosha, and Buddhaghosha have contributed immensely to Indian intellectual traditions.

Siddhartha Gautama, a righteous and world ruler or Chakravartin, morphs into the dharmachakravartin or spiritual sovereign as Buddha, introducing another dimension to the theory of kingship. His historical life story until the moment of his final parinirvana, the associated avadanas or miracles, the jatakas or stories of his previous births, didactic aids to inculcating paramitas or perfections in the laity and the believers, are depicted in countless relief panels, sculptures, murals, and manuscript illustrations across India and beyond. Shown in aniconic form to begin with, the early Buddha figures exemplify the lineage of the Yaksha type found in the Mathura region. As Buddhism spreads he is not only made manifest with increasing realism and drama, but an ever burgeoning pantheon of past and future Buddhas – Bodhisattvas, Jinas, Vidyarajas, Dharmapalas, Lokapalas, feminine deities, as well as other divine beings and deified historical figures – which weave an intricate iconographic tapestry.

The monasteries, with their own trajectory from a simple vihara to mahaviharas such as Nalanda and Vikramashila, transformed into large educational establishments with international students, as described in Chinese traveller accounts. The concomitant architectural stupa, temples and shrines, monk cells, refectory, library, both rock cut and structural, create a typology unique to the Buddhist realm as well as symbolise a gradual complexity of form and meaning.

The stupa, originally megalithic funeral mounds, used by several ascetic cults, gained primacy in Buddhism as a monument commemorating the death of a Buddha or other Enlightened persons and often contains relics. Subject to regional variation, the hemispheric dome came to signify the cosmos as well as the body of the Buddha, with the parasolic finials suggesting sovereignity over several cosmological regions.

This inherent connection between man and cosmos is best understood through the extremely complex concept of the mandala, diagrams ranging from those that represent the outer universe, the human body, those visualized in the practice of deity yoga, to the ultimate Tantric Kalachakra system.

The Buddhist Aesthetics public seminar series aims to address some aspects of this supremely civilised ethos of wisdom and compassion, benevolence and self control, where man finds his salvation through individual moral responsibility and honesty but only after overcoming craving, hatred, and delusion. At least three week-long seminars conducted each academic year by eminent and internationally recognised scholars foreground the immense visual richness of this world religion and attendant philosophy – from early beginnings in India, Sri Lanka, Burma, and China to their spread to Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and now, the Western hemisphere.

Gandharan Art and Architecture: Between Global and Local

This seminar series will explore the Buddhist artistic and architectural traditions of ancient Gandhara focusing on the latest archaeological discoveries, art historical Interpretations and historiography of museum collections. The five seminars will Present a series of case studies illuminating the genesis and developments of Buddhist Gandharan art. The series will open with an investigation into the multicultural roots of this important artistic tradition, followed by an examination of the great Buddhist architecture of the Kushan period at the sacred areas of Butkara, Takht-i-Bahi, Amluk dara and Gumbat. The seminars will explore the rich sculptural production of Buddhist narrative reliefs and icons in Gandhara and will take a look at the developments of artistic traditions in the region after the fall of the Kushan kings, including the poorly known rock sculptures from the Swat valley. The seminars will conclude with a brief review of the historiography of collecting Gandharan art and will explore how beginning in the 19th century a wealth of artistic material came to be dispersed among global museums.

November 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 2018

6:15 - 8:30 pm


Rs. 5,000

Registrations Closed

Buddhism in southern Andhra: the evidence of Amaravati

These seminars will consider the sculpture from Amaravati as a way to explore Buddhism in Andhra in the early centuries AD. This will primarily be carried out through the collection held in the British Museum in London, much of which has recently been re-presented. An attempt will be made to connect imagery with doctrinal and devotional change over a period of immense importance in the spread of Indian culture elsewhere in South Asia, and then throughout Southeast Asia.


Day 1: Amaravati in the local context
Day 2: Amaravati in the world

February 11, 12, 2019

6.30 pm


Rs. 2,000

Registrations Closed

Western Himalayan Art and Its Key Monuments

This seminar discusses the Buddhist art of the Western Himalayas, that is the areas of present day northern Pakistan, northwest India including Kashmir and West Tibet, in their interrelationship. It will do this on the basis of portable artworks as well as through some of its key monuments, in particular Tabo and Alchi monasteries. Special emphasis will be placed on the most important iconographic topics depicted and on reading a monument as a conceptual whole.


Day 1: Kashmir and the Western Himalayas
Day 2: Tabo Monastery in Context
Day 3: Yoga Tantra Revisited
Day 4: Alchi Monastery in Context
Day 5: Revival in Guge Art

March 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 2019

3:30 pm - 6:00 pm


Rs. 5,000

Registrations Closed


26 Nov 2018 - 29 Mar 2019

Registrations Closed