Today Gandhara might well be called one of the most dangerous places on earth. How ironic that the Museum Rietberg in Zürich, in the current exhibit „Buddhist Paradise: Treasures from ancient Gandhara, Pakistan“, is looking back on a culture of peace and beauty. And in doing so, it also recalls another exhibit two years ago that radiated a similar beauty and calm, “Angkor—Divine Heritage of Cambodia.“ An arc is traced—back to a source. Without Gandhara, Angkor would have a very different face than the one we now know.
A graceful “Lady with a Bouquet,“ named Hariti, carved out of green slate, opens the exhibit.
And rightly so. For early Buddhism was enthusiastically supported by women. The images of the goddesses from this time can tell us a lot about the female role in this philosophy of life that gradually developed into a religion.
The goddess and one-time demoness, Hariti, is part of a culture that blossomed between the 1st and 6th c. CE, not only in northern Pakistan, but spreading outwards from parts of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kashmir, as well. The name conjures up visions of isolated cloisters, the fertile valleys of the Punjab, and the lushly vegetated mountainous region of the Swat Valley, the “Holy Land of Buddhism,,“ with its rushing rivers and its snow-peaked mountains jutting into the sky. Much of this can be viewed in the beautiful photographs that accompany the exhibit. Last but not least is the vision of the Silk Road, permeated by a multitude of cultures and religions, and vibrant with its brisk trade in spices and silks, glass and porcelain.
But not only trade took this route, but war and conquest as well. The over 1,000-meter-high Khyber Pass has connected the peoples of the West with the Indian lowlands from time immemorial. “Every stone of the Khyber Pass is drenched with blood,“ wrote a British officer in 1919 during the Anglo-Afghan War. In the 4th c. CE, Alexander of Macedonia invaded Gandhara, passing through there on the way to India on his notorious expedition of conquest. Only the exhausted soldiers, who refused to continue, saved the world from further bloodshed. But first Alexander managed to subjugate Gandhara, in a particularly brutal way, declaring it a province of his empire.
History proceeded on a similar course: in 303 BC the Macedonians made a trade with the Maurya Dynasty, exchanging Gandhara for 500 elephants, after which in the following order the Graeco-Bactrians, the Sakas and the Indo-Parthians invaded, the latter finally being defeated by the Kushans, a steppe people from Central Asia. The Kushans supported Buddhism on a large scale and enlarged the empire eastwards all the way to Bengal. 500 years of cultural splendor and cosmopolitanism followed. Gandhara was considered—not always justifiably—”The Land of Peace.“
Over the centuries, Buddhism, too, underwent changes in this region: new notions and beliefs gradually came into being. Nowhere in the ancient Buddhist Pali-texts can there be found a reference to the historical Buddha as being any more than a highly evolved human being. But through the encounter between Persian Zoroastrianism and Buddhism there developed the idea of Buddha as a divine incarnation. The concept of innumerable future Buddhas, the Bodhisattvas, who sacrificed themselves on earth for the good of humanity, developed as well. An echo of Christian thinking is discernible here—and contact between the two schools of thought at this time is certainly conceivable. The new belief system became known as Mahayana Buddhism, “The Greater Vehicle,“ a spiritual path that was meant to accommodate all beings. In the following centuries it was to spread through Central Asia and China and further eastwards all the way to Southeast Asia and Japan.
Even 2,000 years ago the Buddhist devotees practiced the ritual circumambulation of the shrine—today the visitor to the exhibit can walk in clock-wise direction around the circular imitation of a stupa. A consciousness of the continuous flux and the temporal flow of the world, a fundamental element of the early Indian world view, can thus be experienced through this movement in space. In later times, the cult statue of the Buddha would be circumambulated in the same way. In early Gandhara the idea of a frontally positioned deity statue, so common in the Greek and Persian world, was still foreign. Monumental size, too, was even more so. It is surely no coincidence that the transition from traditional clay brick architecture to monumental buildings of stone took place in a time in which state-sanctioned, institutionalized Buddhism was being introduced by the Maurya king Ashoka in the 3rd c. BCE.
For centuries artists had preferred other materials to stone with its clearly delineating contours, its very material permanence. The depiction of Buddha was avoided completely. His presence was indicated symbolically by an empty throne, for example, or by his footprints. Not until the encounter between the Iranian-Hellenistic and the Indian world did the first representation of Buddha come into existence sometime in the 1st or 2nd c. CE.
An icon developed that was to be fundamental for Buddhist art into present times. Even in the earliest representations of Buddha, one finds the originally Persian halo, the top knot, the elongated earlobes indicating his royal lineage. His right hand is raised in a sign of blessing, his left holds the seam of his robe or points to the earth.
But the realistic style, the fall of the folds, the toga-like garment, and the facial features of the Gandharan Buddha are not Indian. Indeed, they indicate the artistry of Hellenized sculptors, who in a time of change in Buddhism, were very likely imported by the wealthy Kushan rulers from the Roman Empire—Alexandria, perhaps—for the purpose of developing an appropriate image. With similar freedom, this Buddha with a Western touch was depicted without ado together with Brahma and Indra, deities from the Hindu pantheon, kneeling in adoration.
The Gandharan syncretism can be seen clearly in the story of Hariti. Hariti* is not only a mother-goddess, but also a protectress of the city and a bearer of good fortune. She is thought to have developed from the Greek goddess, Tyche, as well as from several Indian goddesses. According to her legend, however, she was once far more. A deity with insatiable desire and unlimited cravings, she regularly gorged herself on masses of human babies to still her hunger. She was demonized by the Brahmans, but not until her conversion to Buddhism did she change her ways.
It is noteworthy that this development in Hariti’s story took place in a time in which—if one chooses to believe Bardesanes, a contemporary observer around 200 CE—the women of the ruling class in at least the Bactrian part of Gandhara had an enviable amount of freedom. According to him, they dressed in male attire, did not care a whit about their chastity, and were looked up to as mistresses by their husbands. Might the various Dionysian scenes shown in the exhibit be a reflection of these very customs?
A few steps away, the visitor encounters Hariti, a tamed, Madonna-like Hariti. In only one of the figures are fang-like teeth still to be seen, though the identity of this particular statue as Hariti is still disputed. Little is left of this goddess who once inspired terror in the hearts of men as well as women—little of her power, little of her awesomeness. Transformed and co-opted, she too is part of the Buddhist heritage.
The figure of Buddha, on the other hand, took on ever larger dimensions under the Kushan rulers. The most famous, as well as the most monumental of these Buddha figures were those in Afghan Bamyan. Since the dynamiting of these statues by the Taliban in 2001, only reports of war and terror have issued from this region that was once Gandhara. And in the pristine Swat Valley, the home of the beautiful goddess at the entrance to the exhibit, the Taliban banned education for women in January of this year. 400 private schools are still closed, and though the public schools have since reopened, the girls stay away. They are simply afraid.
*For more on Hariti, see “Danger and devotion : Hariti, mother of demons in the stories and stones of Gandhara“ Jennifer G. Rowan (2002, University of Oregon)