Contribution of Indian Art to Communicate Life of Buddha

(Dr. Pandiri Harsha Bhargavi, Assistant Director on deputation with National Gallery of Modern Art, Ministry of Culture, New Delhi)

Recent events, exhibitions, and conferences on South Asian countries’ shared Buddhist legacy have provided a forum to promote India’s rich heritage and culture during the period.

Indian artists made significant contributions to the arts and culture sector through diverse means of expression like sculptures, paintings, and architecture. Architecture destinations have become the world’s most important tourist sites. It is essential to trace the historical and present contributions of artists to the promotion of Buddhism and its philosophy.


One of the events that has showcased the artworks of iconic masters of modern Indian art documenting a distinct facet of Buddhism and Buddha’s life. These artistic works display a glimpse into the history, philosophy of Buddhism and explore the spirituality of art and their elements related with Buddhism and its journey expressing the universal values of wisdom, compassion, and peace.

The Exhibition titled “Buddham Saranam Gacchami” organized by the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi recently. The Exhibition included artwork of artists from Sri Lanka and Myanmar. The most interesting artworks of iconic Indian artist Nandalal Bose have explored the life and teachings of Buddha and his path of spirituality through line drawings with an ethereal quality.


Nandalal Bose, a prominent figure in contemporary Indian art, was born in 1882 in Kharagpur, Munger, Bengal Presidency, British India. He was Abanindranath Tagore’s student and was known for his “Indian style” of painting. Bose was appointed principal of Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan in 1921. His classic works include scenes from Indian mythologies, women, and village life. Bose’s “Indian style” synthesized various art traditions, including folk art, Mogul and Pahari miniatures, and Ajanta murals.


Influenced by Japanese art and techniques, Bose reflected his identity and politics, addressing social ills and promoting Indian culture. His works have been auctioned off and he was entrusted with prestigious projects by the Government of Independent India.

Nandalal Bose’s artworks showcase indigenous modes of expression, blending traditional Indian themes, motifs, and techniques. His “Indian style” reflects his identity and promotes Indian culture. Bose’s use of bold lines, flat colors, and simplified forms contributed to the development of modern Indian art and created a visual and cultural national identity for India. His paintings celebrated the spirit of Indian life and indigenous traditions, separating him from the British colonial academic painting style.


Nandalal Bose’s artistic career was influenced by his strong connection to Buddhism. He used Buddhist symbolism and iconography, drawing inspiration from ancient scriptures and traditional art. Bose aimed to capture the spiritual essence of Buddhism through techniques and styles, often depicting key Buddha moments. He contributed to the revival and preservation of ancient art forms and collaborated with Buddhist scholars to promote Buddhist art and culture.


Nandalal Bose, an advocate for traditional Indian art, chose Buddha as a subject to reinterpret Buddhism’s artistic heritage. Drawing inspiration from ancient styles, Bose’s paintings aimed to reinstate the significance of traditional Indian art and its connection to spirituality. Bose’s Gautam Buddha paintings showcase his mastery of line, form, and color, and he collaborated with Buddhist scholars and leaders to promote Buddhist art and culture.


Nandalal Bose’s famous Buddha paintings include “Sujata and Buddha,” depicting Gautam Buddha receiving milk and rice from Sujata, showcasing his reverence and devotion. “Buddha and His Disciples,” depicting the Buddha in a meditative pose, captures unity and harmony between the Buddha and his followers. Bose’s works transcend Buddhism, encompassing mythological scenes, landscapes, portraits, and social issues, showcasing his artistic versatility and cultural sensitivity.

Origins of Indian Art in Buddhism

Indian art in Buddhism dates back to the 3rd century BCE, during the reign of Mauryan emperor Ashoka. The art of this period consisted of rock-cut caves, stupas, intricate sculptures, and paintings depicting Buddhist themes. These artistic creations served as visual representations of Buddhist teachings and propagated the religion among the masses. As Buddhism spread throughout India and the world, its art evolved to reflect local cultures and traditions. This fusion of local artistic styles with Buddhist themes resulted in diverse and vibrant forms of art that continue to be celebrated today.

Traditional art forms, such as sculpture, painting, and architecture, depict key moments in Buddha’s life, providing a tangible connection to the enlightened one. Modern art inspired by Buddha’s life captures his teachings and spiritual journey through various mediums, such as abstract paintings representing Buddha’s enlightenment and sculptures using innovative techniques to depict Buddha’s serenity and inner peace.


Early use of art in Buddhist shrines and cave temples

The early use of art in Buddhist shrines and cave temples significantly communicated Buddhism’s principles and teachings. The decorative motifs and sculptural representations created a visually captivating atmosphere and effectively conveyed core principles like impermanence, compassion, and enlightenment. Indian art, particularly the depiction of deities like Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, symbolized compassion and complex philosophical concepts. Indian art significantly influenced local artistic traditions, as Buddhism spread across Asia, introducing Indian elements into local cultures. Rich iconography, intricate sculptures, and vibrant paintings contributed to the development of unique local artistic traditions blended with Indian influences. The art of Gandhara and Mathura schools successfully synthesized indigenous and foreign artistic traditions, enhancing the spiritual experience and making Buddhism more accessible to the masses.


Symbols and imagery in Indian art can effectively convey Buddhist concepts

Buddhist art is a powerful tool for conveying religious concepts and ideas through symbols and visual elements. The lotus flower, symbolizing purity and enlightenment, and the dharma wheel, representing Buddha teachings and the path to liberation, are common symbols in Indian art. Mudras, hand gestures, and intricate detailing are used to convey specific meanings and spiritual qualities. Indian artists have effectively communicated core Buddhist concepts through sculptures, paintings, and architectural designs, showcasing compassion, meditation, and the path to enlightenment. These intricate details and symbolism not only enhance the aesthetic appeal but also serve as powerful tools for spreading Buddhism’s philosophy and practices.The Ajanta caves in Maharashtra showcase frescoes from Jataka tales, attracting devotees and educating them on Buddhism’s principles.


Iconography in Indian Buddhist Art

Iconography plays a crucial role in the creation of Indian Buddhist art, serving as a visual language to convey the tenets and teachings of Buddhism. The depiction of deities, figures, and symbols in Buddhist art offers a means of communication, enabling viewers to engage with complex philosophical concepts and spiritual ideas. Through the use of specific poses, gestures, and attributes, Indian Buddhist art successfully conveys the various aspects of Buddha’s life, his teachings, and the pantheon of deities associated with Buddhism. Furthermore, the iconography in Indian Buddhist art also serves as a guide for practitioners, aiding in meditation and deepening their understanding of Buddhist principles. Iconography plays a crucial role in Indian Buddhist art as it effectively communicates the principles and teachings of Buddhism. The use of symbols, gestures, and imagery allows artists to depict various aspects of Buddhist philosophy and mythology. For example, the representation of the Buddha is often depicted in a specific mudra (hand gesture) or posture, which conveys his enlightened state. Similarly, the depiction of other deities and bodhisattvas showcases their specific attributes and roles within the Buddhist pantheon. Through iconography, Indian Buddhist art serves as a visual medium for believers and non-believers alike to understand and appreciate the profound teachings of Buddhism.


Use of narrative art in communicating Buddhist stories and teachings

Narrative art has significantly contributed to the dissemination of Buddhist stories and teachings through visual representations, such as the Jataka tales. These tales, enriched with moral lessons, were skillfully translated into sculptures and paintings, allowing for a wider dissemination of Buddhist teachings beyond oral transmission. Narrative art effectively conveys the moral and ethical values of Buddhism to a broader audience, making these stories accessible to both literate and illiterate individuals. The skillful use of symbols and metaphors in narrative art conveys complex philosophical concepts in a visually appealing and easily understandable manner, contributing to the spread of Buddhist values and beliefs across different cultures and generations.

Indian art has played a crucial role in depicting important events in Buddha’s life, such as the Great Stupa of Sanchi and the Ajanta Caves. These works capture important events and serve as a means of spreading Buddhist teachings and principles to a wider audience. Indian art, including sculpture, painting, and architecture, served as powerful vehicles for communicating the principles and messages of Buddhism. Through intricate carvings and elaborate murals, artists skillfully depicted the life and teachings of Buddha, attracting the attention and curiosity of the masses. The aesthetically pleasing and spiritually evocative nature of Indian art not only captured the essence of Buddhism but also conveyed its teachings to both the illiterate and the learned, making it a potent tool for religious propagation.


Role of Indian Art in Rituals and Worship

Indian art has been a significant force in depicting important events in the life of Buddha, such as the Great Stupa of Sanchi. It serves as a powerful medium for religious expression and communication, providing devotees with a tangible connection to their faith. Indian art’s intricate temple sculptures and vibrant mural paintings are deeply connected to spiritual practices and beliefs, fostering reverence and devotion. The depiction of deities, symbols, and sacred stories in Indian art facilitates the devotee’s journey towards enlightenment, fostering a sense of reverence and devotion. The use of vibrant colors and intricate designs in Indian art enhances the spiritual experience and fosters a deeper connection between the devotee and their religious beliefs.


The influence of Indian art on the spread of Buddhism cannot be overstated, as ancient India’s artforms, including sculpture, painting, and architecture, served as powerful vehicles for communicating the principles and messages of Buddhism. The aesthetically pleasing and spiritually evocative nature of Indian art captures the essence of Buddhism and conveys its teachings to both the illiterate and the learned, making it a potent tool for religious propagation.


Adaptation of Indian Art in Southeast Asia

Indian art played a crucial role in communicating Buddhism in Southeast Asia through its adaptation and assimilation. Influenced by trade, missionary activities, and political connections, Indian art forms, such as sculpture and architecture, were introduced to the region and adapted to local artistic traditions. This fusion of Indian and local elements resulted in unique styles, showcasing a remarkable fusion of cultures. The adaptation and integration of Indian art in Southeast Asian Buddhist cultures preserved Buddhism’s teachings and allowed for the expression of cultural identities and beliefs among local communities.


Contemporary artists’ interpretations of Indian Buddhist art

Contemporary artists have reinterpreted Indian Buddhist art, blending traditional aesthetics with modern sensibilities to create captivating artworks that communicate the essence of Buddhism in a contemporary context. They use innovative materials and techniques to reimagine traditional Buddhist symbols, fostering a dialogue between ancient wisdom and contemporary artistic practices. The modern art world is embracing multimedia and installations to push traditional boundaries and create immersive experiences. Artists use vibrant colors, abstract forms, and unconventional materials to capture the essence of Buddha’s transformation from prince to enlightened soul, fostering a deeper understanding of Buddhism’s teachings and philosophy. This has significantly impacted Buddhism’s communication and accessibility, particularly in the Western world. Indian art, particularly intricate sculptures and mural paintings, effectively conveys the spiritual and moral values of Buddhism, leading to a deeper understanding and appreciation among followers.



Indian art has significantly influenced Buddhism, spreading teachings, and shaping religious and cultural ideologies. Through sculptures, paintings, and architecture, Indian artists depict the lives and teachings of Buddha, Bodhisattvas, and Buddhist deities. Modern art has transcended boundaries, fostering a global understanding and appreciation of Buddhism. By integrating traditional Buddhist symbols, motifs, and stories, modern artists have made the religion more accessible and relatable to a diverse audience. This dialogue and understanding between cultures and religions promotes a more harmonious and inclusive world.


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