Seated Buddha

North Central India. Mathura, Kushan Dynasty, 1st century
Red sandstone
Ester R. Portnow Collection of Asian Art, a gift of the Nathan Rubin-Ida Ladd Family Foundation

One of the finest such sculptures in the United States, this work represents a type and style of fundamental importance. Originally from China, the Kushans (Kuei-shang) founded a dynasty that dominated a large expanse from Southern Russia through Afghanistan, Pakistan, northern India and Bangladesh. King Kaniskha (78-144 AD) was an enthusiastic patron of Buddhism, although he might not have practiced it. This seated Buddha image, faced frontally, is standard for Kushana sandstone art. The Buddha's right hand would have been raised in a gesture signifying a spiritual state; his left would have rested on his knee. Finely incised lines suggest the drapery of the Buddha's robes. Underneath the figure are bodhisattva disciples of the Buddha, carved in the understated but voluptuous manner of the Kushan period. Carrying lotus-branches, they surround the Bodhi-tree, the pipal tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment.

How might a Buddhist of Mathura experienced this image? In viewing the gestures of the Buddha, the meditator would have been reminded of a moment of spiritual growth in the Buddha's life, and tried to imitate it. The majesty of the sculpture would have reminded the meditator of the royal nature of the Buddhist path to enlighenment. The disciples' scene below would have suggested the popularity of the Buddha's teachings for all his followers, and the frank delight in nature that so much early Buddhist sculpture from the Mathura communicates.