Depicting the divine
Representing divine figures has long been a thorny issue. After all, depicting the divine in human form would seem to define and limit the divine in a manner which seems to contradict the idea of God as infinite and all-powerful. There’s also the fourth commandment, as offered in the Hebrew Bible, which reads:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20:1-17)
While this commandment has been interpreted in various ways, Judaism and Islam both prohibit the representation of God and other divine figures in human form. Christianity has long relied on images of God, Christ, and the saints as a way of educating the public, but even so, at several points in history, images of divine figures were destroyed—often violently (the destruction of images is called “iconoclasm”). The earliest images of the Buddha also appear to avoid depicting him in human form, though scholars are still debating why this is the case.
Buddha, enlightenment and the Bodhi tree
The man who became known as the Buddha was a Hindu prince, named Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in the 5th or 6th century B.C.E. to a royal family—the leaders of the Shakya clan—living in what is now Nepal. When he was about 29 years old, Prince Siddhartha (who was also known as Shakyamuni) traveled outside of his sheltered palace and encountered an old man, a sick man, and a corpse—figures that, for the prince, epitomized the pain and suffering of the world. He also encountered an ascetic, someone who has chosen to abstain from the pleasures of life in order to pursue spiritual knowledge. After this experience, Prince Siddhartha decided to renounce his luxurious, royal life and to travel around the countryside as an ascetic, meditating and studying. Ultimately, Prince Siddhartha was seeking an end to worldly pain and suffering, and a release from the cycle of rebirth and death (samsara) that characterizes Hindu concepts of time (more on Hinduism and Buddhism here).
One of the most important moments in the story of Prince Siddhartha is when he reached spiritual enlightenment—a state of infinite knowledge—and became known as the Buddha or “the enlightened one.” This occurred about six years after the prince renounced his royal life, while he was meditating underneath a fig tree outside a small village in the present-day state of Bihar, India. The fig tree under which the Buddha reached enlightenment became known as the Bodhi (“awakened” or “enlightened”) tree, and the place where the Buddha sat became an important tirtha or sacred place known as Bodh Gaya (“awakened” or “enlightened” place).
Early images of the Buddha at Bharhut
Some of the earliest depictions of the Buddha reaching enlightenment appear as sculptural friezes on the exterior of sacred Buddhist monuments known as stupas, which Buddhist monks and nuns built as part of their monastic complexes (more on stupas here).
One such depiction is originally from the stupa at Bharhut in the present-day state of Madhya Pradesh, India (left). Carved in reddish-brown sandstone sometime around 80-100 B.C.E. this depiction appears on a railing (vedika) pillar that once surrounded the main stupa. The scene shows several figures kneeling and standing on an architectural form that encircles a large tree.
The place of enlightenment or the moment of enlightenment?
An inscription that accompanies this scene, carved into the roof of the architectural form, identifies it as “the Bodhi tree of holy Shakyamuni”  which has led some scholars to interpret this depiction as the location, or the tirtha, where the Buddha’s enlightenment took place—the tree under which Prince Siddhartha reached enlightenment and the temple that devotees later constructed at this sacred site.
Some of the figures in the scene appear kneeling in prayer in front of an altar at the base of the tree. Celestial beings fly near the top of the tree, and appear to toss flower garlands on the branches. Their presence reinforces the sacrality of the site.
On the right side of the relief, we see a pillar topped with an elephant capital, which, scholars argue, supports the interpretation of this scene as the site of enlightenment. This pillar recalls those constructed by Emperor Ashoka—one of the first Buddhist rulers in India—who erected pillars with animal capitals at important sites of the Buddha’s life (below, left).
In this interpretation, the Bharhut scene could be a depiction of pilgrimage—the kneeling devotees could be Buddhist practitioners traveling to Bodh Gaya as part of religious devotion, to visit the site where the Buddha reached enlightenment hundreds of years before.
However, some scholars argue that it is not simply the location (tirtha) of the Buddha’s enlightenment depicted in this scene, but rather the actual moment of enlightenment itself—complete with an aniconic, symbolic representation of the Buddha. (What does aniconic mean?)
In this interpretation of the scene on the pillar from Bharhut, the Buddha appears not in human form—but rather symbolically, represented by the altar. What we are seeing here is a representation of the Buddha’s formless state upon reaching spiritual enlightenment. In fact, some believe the inscription translates as “enlightenment of the Holy One Shakyamuni” rather than the “Bodhi tree of holy Shakyamuni”—a reading that supports the interpretation of this scene as a depiction of the event of enlightenment not simply the place where enlightenment happened.
Other aniconic images of the Buddha
Along the same lines, scholars argue that other sculptural friezes at important early Buddhist stupas like Bharhut depict scenes from the life of the Buddha, with the Buddha represented in aniconic form—as an empty throne (above), a wheel signifying the Buddha’s creation of the Wheel of Law or Dharma (below, right), or footsteps (below, left), and sometimes even as a stupa (see the image at the top of this page). A third way to interpret the enlightenment scene from the Bharhut stupa and other so-called aniconic depictions of the Buddha is to read them as depictions of Buddhist doctrine or belief.
Imagining the Buddha’s Corporeal Body
This trend of depicting the Buddha in aniconic form continues until after the turn of the 1st century C.E. with the development of Mahayana Buddhism when we begin to see a large number of images of the Buddha in human or anthropomorphic form (below). These new, iconic images of the Buddha were particularly popular in the region of Gandhara (in present-day Pakistan) during the Kushan period and include depictions of the Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya (below). These anthropomorphic images usher in a new phase of Buddhist art in which artists convey meaning through the depiction of special bodily marks (lakshanas) and hand gestures (mudras) of the Buddha. In this anthropomorphic image of the Buddha’s enlightenment, the artist depicts Prince Siddhartha seated on a throne, surrounded by the demon Mara and his army, who attempted—unsuccessfully—to thwart Prince Siddhartha’s attainment of enlightenment. At the moment of enlightenment, the prince reaches his right hand towards the ground in a gesture (or mudra, and specifically the bhumisparshamudra) ) of calling the earth to witness his spiritual awakening. In doing so he becomes the Buddha.
Vidya Dehejia, “Aniconism and the Multivalence of Emblems,” Ars Orientalis vol. 21 (1991), pp. 45 – 66.
Susan L. Huntington, “Early Buddhist Art and the Theory of Aniconism,” Art Journal vol. 49.4 (1990), pp. 401 – 408.