Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 13, 2011
Andy Rotman Thus Have I Seen: Visualizing Faith in Early Indian Buddhism New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 336 pp. Cloth $74.00 (9780195366150)

The title of the volume Thus Have I Seen: Visualizing Faith in Early Indian Buddhism is captivating for an art historian: it promises an inquiry into the visual components of an important strand of Buddhist discourse. Instead, author Andy Rotman offers an interesting and thorough exploration of the “economy of dharma” in the Divyavadana (produced sometime during the first three centuries CE), with special attention to the role played by the act of seeing in the establishment of faith and devotion. Rotman digs deeply into the theoretical fabric of the Divyavadana; however, he does not include much background information on it. Rather, he refers the reader to his own translation of the first part of this Sanskrit collection of Buddhist stories. Published in 2008 by Wisdom Publications in Boston, it serves as a companion volume to Thus Have I Seen.

As a Sanskrit scholar and historian of religions, Rotman focuses mostly on the written word: he dissects the terminology employed in the Divyavadana to describe faith, devotion, and donations, and he provides a theoretical analysis of the causal links relating seeing to believing. He substantiates his interpretations with a wide range of secondary literature on sociology and anthropology, and only occasionally leaves the world of the avadanas, the stories gathered in his text, to look into other primary sources.

Rotman uses a fresh approach in his exegesis of the Divyavadana. He equates its world to a moral economy and employs a business perspective to examine the dynamics of karma: merit becomes the currency in this system, and accumulated merit becomes capital to be reinvested in further actions. He remarks that the Divyavadana is filled with mercantile references, which is especially interesting given the strong connections existing in antiquity between Buddhism and trade. In one of his very few references to the Divyavadana’s historical backdrop, Rotman observes that the avadanas may well reflect the atmosphere of the Kushan period, in which mercantilism played an important role.

The first part of Thus Have I Seen investigates the meaning and use of the word shraddha as well as the paradigm that sight triggers faith; however, it is faith and not sight that becomes the true focus of examination. Rotman does not dwell on the literal meaning of the term shraddha, loosely intended as faith (setting one’s heart on something), but rather characterizes shraddha as a form of action or, rather, reaction to a sight. The characters described in the Divyavadana’s stories all need to see in order to believe; they develop shraddha because they are offered a chance to view the karmic ‘‘interest’’ accumulated through the cycle of rebirth. Rotman remarks that in the avadanas the karmic fruits are invariably translated into visual and quantifiable entities: for example, wealth or gold are considered as tangible karmic rewards, and therefore the sight of gold in the Kotikarna-avadana triggers faith and devotion. Rotman rightly points out that this is another aspect linking the Divyavadana to the mercantile world of the time where wealth was perceived as a sign of good deeds performed in past existences.

From an art historian’s point of view, the crucial argument Rotman makes in the first chapter of his study is that images are essential to engender faith and support for Buddhism. Seeing the workings of karma is vital to the laity. In the Sahasogdata-avadana the importance of having representations of the wheel of existence in the entrance hall of a monastery is noted; if properly accompanied by a monk’s explanation, the sight of the wheel of existence will cause awareness of the karmic workings and will elicit offerings to the Buddha and the Buddhist community. For example, in the fifth-century rock-cut monastery of Ajanta (Maharashtra), in cave 17, the wheel of existence is painted precisely in the location described in this avadana; clearly its original role was to engender shraddha. The Divyavadana is a product of the Mulasarvastivada school, and good arguments can be made in favor of a possible affiliation of the monastic population at Ajanta with this particular Buddhist milieu. Therefore Rotman’s analysis can be reasonably used to decode the function of Buddhist imagery at sites like Ajanta where the visual component played such a dominant role.

In trying to offer a more complete understanding of what shraddha is, Rotman focuses in the second chapter on the use of the word bhakti, commonly translated “love for the divine.” He shows how in the Divyavadana, bhakti expresses faith ingrained in the emotional sphere and is therefore different from shraddha. He shows how in the Kotikarna-avadana and the Dharmaruci-avadana, bhakti is invariably linked to the cult of the devas and it does not produce any karmic effect, while taking refuge in the Buddha leads to salvation. In essence Rotman contends that in the Divyavadana it is shraddha and not bhakti that the Buddhist cultivates: it is not faith in someone but faith in the truth spoken by the Buddha, who articulates the system of karma and the positive effects generated by giving (dakshina) which in turn become objects of shraddha.

It is clear from Rotman’s analysis of the Divyavadana that one of its main concerns was to encourage people to give offerings. Art historians will find of interest Rotman’s extensive discussion of the mechanics of reward generated by giving to the Buddha, since Buddhist art as a whole is the product of gift giving (dakshina). Rotman’s text also sheds light on the practice of votive inscriptions so common in the Buddhist milieu: from the Kotikarna-avadana it appears that inscribing a donated object was a key component in transferring the positive merit generated by the gift to someone else. Ubiquitous votive inscriptions on pedestals of Buddhist sculptures from the Kushan period illustrate this practice: many of these epigraphs state that the karmic benefits produced by the gift should be directed to someone other than the donor. In fact, making offerings seems to have been so important for salvation that according to the Divyavadana one could be saved on the sole basis of transferred merit.

In the second part of Thus I Have Heard, Rotman focuses on the meaning and use of the term prasada: a mental state that arises in individuals at a particular sight and triggers the mechanism of giving (dana), which in turns produces karmic rewards. Rotman highlights the mechanical workings of this dynamic, as if the process were regulated by some sort of natural law. He argues that prasada is ignited by the power inherent to certain entities that he calls agents of prasada (prasadika); for example, the body of the Buddha is prasadika, as a glance at it can create this particular state of mind. Prasada seems to be a key factor of Buddhist practice in the Divyavadana, a “root of merit” that grows at the sight of prasada agents and encourages people to give. I believe that this connection provides a way to understand how elaborate sculptures and paintings functioned on Buddhist monuments: these images offered people a chance to see the Buddha, experience prasada, and offer donations. It appears that the sense of awe generated by the sight of beautiful Buddhist artworks would have inspired people to give more; this theme is also apparent in a few passages of the Mulasarvastivada-vinaya, a monastic code of the Mulasarvastivada school that closely resembles the Divyavadana.

After clarifying that it is the mental state of giving and not the actual size of the gift that matters, Rotman proceeds in his fourth chapter to address the Divyavadana’s “sociology of practice.” He shows how this Buddhist text emphasizes that karma is directly tied to the offering of gifts (dana) to the Buddha, and that a donation by someone who suffers or is very poor is especially efficacious. This, in turn, raises the question of what is an effectual giving practice for powerful and wealthy kings, since royal gifts do not carry the same karmic potency of those made by indigent people. To address this issue, Rotman digs deep into the Ashoka-avadana and concludes that royal giving is a category of its own in the text. Interestingly, the Divyavadana strongly advocates monastic offerings; yet it would seem that because prasada is a state of mind that bears karmic fruits, it is not particularly advantageous for a monk whose goal is to overcome samsara and thus escape the karmic cycle. In fact Rotman proposes that the Divyavadana seems to be a text geared mostly to the laity.

It is only in the fifth chapter, “Proximity and Presence,” that Rotman finally addresses the tangible implications of his theoretical discussion on the “economy of karma.” He focuses on the world of Buddhist ritual practices, where worshipping images or circumambulating stupas is a skillful way (upaya) to accumulate karmic benefits. Physical closeness to the object of devotion and seeing the divine (darshana) appear to be very important elements of faith in the Divyavadana, and the parables indicate that the efficacy of a sacred shrine (caitya) or a particular locus depends on its use. In trying to explain how visiting a shrine causes an automatic and immediate arousal of prasada or faith that inspires people to give to the Buddha and acquire karmic rewards, Rotman takes a big leap and discusses the psychology of pornography. He argues that much like an individual’s physical reaction to pornography, prasada is a response to certain sights, which is not filtered through the intellect but is rather a physiological state that impels an individual to make offerings.

More useful to art historians is Rotman’s analysis of passages from the Indrabrahmana-avadana describing rituals performed for the previous Buddha Kashyapa at an enigmatic location called Toyika. Lumps of clay, pearls, flowers, garlands, oil lamps, sprinkling of perfume, umbrellas, flags, and banners are all offered at Toyika to the Buddha Kashyapa’s shrine; the merit generated by such ritual offerings, if performed in the proper mental state, is by far superior to the merit produced by offering gold. Images from the early Buddhist vedika of the Bharhut stupa and toranas of the Great Stupa at Sanchi confirm the antiquity of these devotional offerings. The sculptures are replete with representations of sacred loci of worship decked with flowers, garlands, and umbrellas. The importance the Divyavadana places on the donation of lumps of clay to Buddhist sites is also noteworthy, since it constitutes the source for the later popular practice of offering clay tablets with impressions of Buddhist images at Buddhist sites like Bodhgaya. Finally, the mention of ritual giving of oil lamps is confirmed by the finds of these objects in the Buddhist sites of Gandhara; some of these lamps also bear votive inscriptions.

Another point raised by Rotman which has significant implications for the art history of Buddhism is that a desire to see the Buddha in his physical form (rupakaya) transpires from the Divyavadana. If this text was indeed produced in the northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent at the time of the Kushana, as scholars seem to agree, then such literary interest in dealing with the corporeal manifestation of the Buddha roughly corresponds to the popularization of his anthropomorphic images and to the diffusion of visual narratives in Gandhara. In fact, art serves the ideas put forth in the Divyavadana; Rotman observes that the prasada paradigm is formulated essentially for the lay community, where one first sees the Buddha and then grasps his dharma. For monks, however, a vision of the Buddha is just a confirmation of the knowledge of the dharma. In his relatively lengthy analysis of the Ashoka-avadana and related apologues, Rotman shows how the image of the Buddha to Ashoka represents the “visual legacy” of the teacher who had entered nirvana, and even Mara’s masquerade as a Buddha is a valid tool to recreate the presence of the master.

There is one point in the last chapter of Thus I Have Seen that may leave the reader a bit perplexed. Rotman seems to argue that the efficaciousness of Buddhist images does not have anything to do with aesthetics, yet it seems from passages in the Mandhata-avadana and Kotikarna-avadana that the appeal of Buddhist images or sites may in fact have something to do with their intrinsic aesthetic value. This would be perfectly in line with some of the remarks, based on the Mulasarvastivada-vinaya, made by Gregory Schopen about the beauty of a monastery, namely, that the aesthetic factor encourages people to give more (Gregory Schopen “Art, Beauty, and the Business of Running a Buddhist Monastery in Early Northwest India,” in On the Cusp of an Era: Art in The Pre-Kushana World, D. Meth Srinivasan, ed., Leiden: Brill, 2007, 287–317).

Thus I have Seen is a thorough study by a historian of Buddhism that follows in the narrow path marked by other scholars of religions who have looked into the Buddhist discourse of vision and seeing; a good example is David McMahan’s Empty Vision: Metaphor and Visionary Imagery in Mahāyāna Buddhism (London: Routledge Curzon, 2002). However, in his investigation into the Divyavadana’s paradigms of faith, Rotman does not dwell on the visual discourse, but instead focuses on an analysis of the causal mechanisms that allow vision to be an effective religious inspiration. He zooms in on this Buddhist text and dissects its parables, suggesting interpretative archetypes that one is tempted to apply universally across the Buddhist world. This may be one of the dangers of this articulate and engaging study: that Rotman de-historicizes the discussion and omits contextual details on the Divyavadana and its milieu, making one forget that the interpretations proffered hold true especially for the social, religious, and chronological sphere relevant to it. On the other hand, Rotman offers art historians interested in Gandharan art a valuable theoretical perspective for understanding the artistic remains from Buddhist sites of the Kushan Period, and his work sheds light on the conceptual framework associated with the emergence of the image of the Buddha.

Pia Brancaccio
Associate Professor, Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design, Drexel University