Interpretation of Early Buddhist Art

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Interpreting Early Buddhist Art

In the articles “Early Buddhist Art and the Theory of Aniconism” by Susan L. Huntington and “Aniconism and the Multivalence of Emblems” by Vidya Dehejia, two different opinions and viewpoints are expressed towards the theory of Aniconism and the way early Buddhist art was intended to be viewed and interpreted. In both articles, the authors acknowledge the theory of Aniconism and it’s existence. However both Huntington and Dehejia propose different explanations and evidence as to why they believe Aniconism is not the only or most ideal system to understanding a piece of early Buddhist art.

In Dehejia’s article “Aniconism and the Multivalence of Emblems,” she shows her concern for the lack of full acknowledgement, in regards to the range of meanings found in early Buddhist art. The author suggests that for anybody to correctly interpret early Buddhist art, you must be aware of the many meanings being carried by that emblem along with the chance for a multidimensional connotation. Dehejia proposes one must interpret these emblems of early Buddhist art through their multiplicity of meanings as aniconic representations, representations of a sacred spot or devotion, or viewed as an attribute of the Buddhist faith.

Susan L. Huntington takes a slightly different approach on the subject, in that she believes that the lack of Buddha’s presence in early Buddhist art, is not to be explained by Aniconism, but rather to be seen as vital emblems of Buddhist fidelity. Huntington expresses her disappointment in the dismissal of ‘secure archaeological, inscriptional, and literary evidence to the contrary of Aniconism just to accommodate the theory’ (Huntington 1990, 401). Along with that comes Huntington’s frustration with the lack of a explanation and affirmativeness behind the avoidance of the Buddha image. Huntington suggests that the symbols were not depicted to act as replacements of the Buddha’s image, but rather seen as the...
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