India, Tamil Nadu, Nagapattinam
Buddha with Hand in Gesture of Gift Giving (Varadamudra)
Chola period, 11th/12th century

78.7 x 34.0 x 25.4 cm (31 x 13 3/8 x 10 in.)
Samuel M. Nickerson Fund, 1940.83

Buddhism was founded in northeastern India (now Nepal) in the sixth century B.C. by a Hindu prince who sought to escape the endless cycle of death and rebirth that, according to his teachings, is determined by an individual's karma. He discovered that through meditation one could attain a state of enlightenment known as nirvana, or absolute bliss. He became known as Buddha Shakyamuni.

The Buddha can be recognized by his features, which include an ushnisha (prominent bump on the top of his head) and an urna (dot or mole on his forehead), signifying his extraordinary wisdom. Short hair and elongated earlobes represent his renunciation of the princely life in which long, beautiful hair and heavy earrings (which stretched the earlobes) were desired. Finally, mudras (hand gestures) signal his roles of teaching, meditating, protecting, and urging generosity. The last two mudras are evident in this bronze from south India—the Buddha's right hand is raised in abhaya mudra, a gesture of reassurance or protection, and his left is outstretched in varada mudra, a gesture of giving.

The pointed flame atop the Buddha's ushnisha is a late development in the depiction of the Buddha, which came to India from Southeast Asia. A Buddhist text, the Lalitavistara, explains that a ray of light, the light of true knowledge, shines from the ushnisha when the Buddha is in a blissful state of enlightenment. The robe with scalloped folds at the hem is also a later convention, seen from the 12th century on. This work is one of about 35 Buddhist bronzes that were cast in the southern Indian port of Nagappattinam for a colony of Indonesian Buddhists living there.

Pakistan, North West Frontier Province, Gandharan region
The Birth and the First Seven Steps of the Buddha
Kushan period, c. 2nd/3rd century

27.3 x 52.1 x 10.8 cm (10 3/4 x 20 1/2 x 4 1/4 in.)
Samuel M. Nickerson Fund, 1923.315

This section of a deeply carved relief panel that once decorated the base of a stupa illustrates Buddha's birth and first seven steps, which established his spiritual authority over the universe. His mother, Maya, grasps the branch of a tree—a traditional posture of birthing. Her sister Mahaprajapati presses Maya's belly on the left side as the infant emerges miraculously from her right side and is received in swaddling cloth by the Hindu god Indra. Musical instruments float above them suggesting the jubilation that accompanied the event. All wear graceful robes and all (except Indra) wear anklets. Spanning the right side is a square pillar with an Indo-Corinthian capital, revealing the influence of Greco-Roman art on the art of ancient Gandhara.

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