New Approaches to South Asian Art || Art and Identity: The Rise of a New Buddhist Imagery

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  • Art and Identity: The Rise of a New Buddhist ImageryAuthor(s): Gary Michael TartakovSource: Art Journal, Vol. 49, No. 4, New Approaches to South Asian Art (Winter, 1990), pp.409-416Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 05:53

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  • Art and Identity: The Rise of a New Buddhist Imagery

    By Gary Michael Tartakov

    If you want to gain self-respect, change your religion. If you want to create a cooperating society, change your religion. If you want power, change your religion. If you want equality, change your religion.

    -B. R. Ambedkar

    hile Buddhism arose in India and was an important religion in the his-

    tory of the subcontinent, its adherents at the time of Indian Independence in 1947 were few. Indeed, the faith at that time was practiced by only a small group of Tibetans located in the Himalayas. Yet by the efforts of an extraordinary individual, B. R. Am- bedkar, the religion has experienced a re- markable upsurge in the last thirty-five years. The architecture and pictorial imagery adopted by this new Buddhist movement reveal a process by which an- cient symbols have been reinterpreted and given meaning in a new and a different social context.1

    The faith's success at the time of the historical Buddha (ca. 560-480 B.C.E.) and its resurgence in the twentieth century have hinged in part upon its heterodox ap- proach to the Indian problems of caste and rebirth. Unlike brahmanical Hinduism, it rejects caste distinctions and the karma theory of a soul that is reborn and predes- tined to live out a life determined by its previous actions. A person's value is meas- ured by current actions and not by the caste into which she or he is born. In ancient India, Buddhism was common among the lowest socioeconomic groups that experi- enced discrimination by high-caste Hindus.

    Buddhism virtually vanished within In- dia following the twelfth century, by which time it had taken root in Central Asia, China, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia.2 During the period of British colonization, India's largely disused and ruined Bud- dhist monuments were explored. By the middle of the twentieth century a good many Buddhist shrines had been uncov- ered, restored, and placed under the natu- ral protection of the Archaeological Sur- vey. Among these are a number of India's most world-renowned monuments, such as

    the great stupa memorial at Sanchi and the painted monastic halls of Ajanta, visited by pilgrims from around the world and treated in the standard survey texts of world art.

    B. R. Ambedkar was born on April 14, 1891, in Maharashtra in western India. By the time of his death on December 6, 1956, Maitreya Ambedkar-as he has come to be known by some-succeeded in bringing Buddhism back to the land of its origins. Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism was largely a response to his birth into an un- touchable family of the Mahar community in Maharashtra. In the nineteenth century Mahars were "village servants," mostly landless laborers, outside the castes ac- ceptable to Hindus. Ambedkar was thus among the one-seventh to one-fifth of In- dia's population condemned to a life of social ostracism, which he later likened to the situation of African-Americans in the United States.3 His conversion to Bud- dhism, which disclaimed caste, was a care- fully planned remedy for the social distinc- tions so basic to Hinduism.

    Rising through the schools the colonial British made available to a limited number of untouchables, Ambedkar gained recog- nition in Bombay, Maharashtra's great ur- ban trade center, as a leader in the Mahar community's civil rights struggles. The first in the community to gain a college education, he eventually traveled to the United States where he took a doctorate in economics at Columbia University. Later, in Great Britain, he became a barrister, as Mohandas Gandhi had before him, and took a second doctorate from the London School of Economics. Returning to Bom- bay, Ambedkar threw himself into the poli- tics of Maharashtra, winning a seat in Bombay's Legislative Assembly. In the midst of India's Independence struggle, Ambedkar rose as the leading champion

    for the "depressed classes." While outside of India it was Gandhi who became known as the untouchables' advocate, within India and among the untouchables it was Am- bedkar who was recognized as their great leader. The roles played by Ambedkar and Gandhi in Indian history are comparable to those played by Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln in American history, both in politics and subsequently in the popular media.4

    Within the freedom movement Ambed- kar became the great advocate of secular- ism. Despite his continual struggle with Gandhi and the Indian National Congress over their inability to transcend Hindu- ism's continuing reliance upon caste and its implicit support of the concept of "un- touchability," he was able to maintain a political presence that allowed him to be- come the principal drafter of the Indian constitution and main source for that docu- ment's staunch secularism. He was also, in this role, responsible for choosing the non- brahmanic wheel and lion-capital symbols adorning the nation's flag and seal.

    In 1935, despairing of Hinduism's in- ability to renounce the caste system and the stigma of untouchability, Ambedkar de- clared his intention to convert to a religion that did not endorse the heinous hierarchy. He "solemnly assured" the Depressed Classes Conference at Yeola, "that though I have been born Hindu, I will not die a Hindu." He considered Christianity, Is- lam, Arya Samaj, and Sikhism, but from relatively early on his choice was Bud- dhism. While it had been virtually extinct in India for centuries, Buddhism was a traditional Indian faith, based upon suppo- sitions familiar to every Indian. Besides rejecting caste, Buddhism was also a major world religion, with vast support in the nations surrounding India and high respect in India itself.5

    Winter 1990 409

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  • On October 14, 1956, a decade after Independence and precisely two decades after his original declaration of his inten- tion to convert, Ambedkar took his Bud- dhist dTksa (initiation) at Nagpur. On that day and the next he personally led the con- version of about one-half million who had come for that purpose. By the time of the 1961 census there were 3.25 million Bud- dhists in India. Millions more have con- verted since.6 For Ambedkar and his many associates and followers, the conversion was not merely a practical matter, but one of deep, psychological significance. They were rejecting a system that condemned them, but they were also committing them- selves to an ideology that disputed the pos- sibility of karma, transmigration, and a divine hierarchy by birth, embracing in- stead a faith that stressed the equality of all human beings. In repudiating the power and prestige of the brahmans and their creed, they were choosing an alternative that promised them progress without limits, that from the beginning rejected the idea of untouchability.7

    Ambedkar's epithet, Maitreya, carried significance in the movement he

    founded, for Buddhist tradition held that after the death of the Sakyamuni (the his- torical Buddha) another Buddha, or Bodhisattva (perfectly enlightened being), called Maitreya would appear on earth to bring a renewed enlightenment.8 Signifi- cantly, Ambedkar's conversion coincided with a worldwide celebration of the Bud- dha's Jayanti, the twenty-five hundredth anniversary of Sakyamuni's enlighten- ment.9 As in this adoption of the epithet Maitreya, the new Buddhistso1 have resur- rected and revivified a number of tradi- tional Buddhist concepts and imageries. In the interest of exploring, defining, and le- gitimizing their Buddhist identity, they have also taken symbols and motifs from Buddhist imagery abroad and invented new imagery to fit their modem situation.

    The reuse of Buddhist monuments of the past, with their powerful resonance in pan- Indian elite and popular culture, has been employed to sanction the new faith by en- hancing its identification with established tradition. Beginning in the nineteenth cen- tury, British and Indian writers raised a laudatory literary and scholarly apprecia- tion around the rediscovery of India's Bud- dhist past. The intellectual richness of this tradition and the aesthetic power of its magnificent remains elevated Indian Bud- dhism in the eyes of the British and of the outside world, and, consequently, of In- dia's moder elite.

    In adopting Buddhism, the Mahars and others who followed Ambedkar's lead be- came heirs to India's vast stor