The 200th anniversary of Ajanta’s rediscovery was the occasion for a celebration called ‘Buddha’s Bowl @ Ajanta’ at Asiatic Society of Mumbai. It sought to link the past – of these magnificent rock-cut Buddhist caves near Aurangabad to the 21st century – to the future, in the manner the Jataka tales on Ajanta murals do. But in real life, the Buddha taught his disciples to do the opposite: live the present, eschew the past, don’t worry about the future.
That is Tathagata’s advice to King of Kosala, who asks, “Why do your bhikkus seem joyful, even light-hearted as if they have a ‘gazelle’s mind’?”
“By brooding over the future and repenting the past, fools dry up like green reeds cut down in the sun,” the Buddha replies. “Neither negative, nor positive, live in the present.”
That may ‘explain’ why the Buddha, as limned in Ajanta paintings, is the very personification of peace, serenity and goodwill. He is the radiant Muniraja, ‘King of Ascetics’, who holds the promise of deliverance to a troubled humanity with his varada mudra in one hand even as the other holds a begging bowl.
There’s no conflict between the upraised hand and the outstretched one.
As for that hallowed bowl, it is one of Asiatic Society’s most prized possessions: an opalescent fragment purportedly taken from the original relic. Bhagwan Lal Indraji, the archaeologist, found it in a golden casket inside the heart of the stupa at Nala Sopara near Mumbai.
The presentation focussed on the symbolic, artistic and spiritual significance of Buddha’s Bowl @ Ajanta, primarily. It is this semi-circular shape of Buddha’s bowl that looms against the horizon of Indian thought, literally, figuratively and philosophically.
For starters, the inverted bowl shape is one of the three forms of stupa classed under the Mahayana tradition, said the great Madhyamika philosopher Nagarjuna. Whether you look at the great stupas at Sarnath, Sanchi, Karla or Ajanta, their form always followed function.
The structures were primarily constructed to house reliquaries of the Master himself and later to venerate the relics of Buddhist saints. But there was nothing inauspicious about them; if only because they supposedly ‘solved’ the problem of the absence of the Buddha’s physical body for the laity! The ‘Mahaparinibbana-Suttanta’, quotes the Buddha’s advice to Ananda to do what they do with a wheel-turning emperor’s remains, namely, to inter them at cross-roads with a stupa.
In the final analysis, what the legacy of Ajanta embodies for all of humanity is the power of stories – unworldly stories of self-sacrificing elephants, self-mortifying kings and ascetics committing hara-kiri to save starving tigers. They allude to what the poet Andrew Schelling calls ‘cross-species compassion’, or the Jataka Mind.
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