There are no clear answers, for art reveals itself slowly, mysteriously and variously as we begin to acquire knowledge and respond to it. And yet, to those who persevere and perceive, art yields, enlightens and opens a space for meaningful articulations.
I am drawn to the first representation in Indian art of the conversion of Brahmin ascetics to Buddhism. It was carved in stone 18 centuries ago on a pillar of the east gate of the great Sanchi stupa in Madhya Pradesh. Buddhist texts such as the Vinaya Pitaka record its literary resonance. It tells the story of three Brahmin ascetic brothers, the Kassapas (Kashyapas), who abandoned Brahmanic practices and converted to Buddhism.
The Kassapa looked after the sacred fire and lived in a hermitage with a fire station and ritual accessories. When the Buddha reached the banks of the Nairanjana in eastern India, he met one of them, Uruvela Kassapa, and requested accommodation in the fire station, which was inhabited by a vicious serpent. With his miraculous powers, the Buddha subdued the serpent.
Uruvela Kassapa was suitably impressed, but considered himself holier than the Buddha. The Buddha then waited in a nearby grove and performed many miracles until the Brahmin ascetics realized the futility of their ritual claims and converted to the Buddhist path with their thousands of followers.
Some of the Buddha’s miracles that led to the conversion of the Kassapas are vividly engraved in Sanchi, the most evocative of which is the taming of the serpent in the fire station. The scene takes place in the Kassapa hermitage near the Nairanjana river, in the middle of a forest canopy and a multitude of animals. One of the brothers is sitting cross-legged by a leaf cottage with a yoga band on his legs. A second stands nearby, while a third offers fire oblations. A disciple goes to fetch water from the river. Brahmin ascetics are depicted more than once to register their presence in various activities at different points in the story.
The focal point of the visual composition is the fire station with a domed roof, flanked by three ascetics on either side, their hands clasped in worship for the Buddha, who is not depicted in human form in early Buddhist art. by Sanchi. The invisible presence of the Buddha is symbolized by the stone platform which serves as his seat. The subjugated serpent offers itself as a canopy for the invisible Buddha.
Smoke rises from the fire station through arched skylights in an evocative depiction of the Buddha’s confrontation and his miraculous victory over the serpent. Several subplots of this account of the encounter between the Buddha and the Brahmin ascetics are merged into a timeless continuity by the artist.
The miracle as a motive for persuasive religious conversion has a long history in India. From Tamil Bhakti poets in South India to Sufi saints and their karamat or miraculous feats, voluntary religious conversions are well recorded in different religions.
Looking at the alarming violence, social taboos and legal obstacles to religious conversions in our country today, one wonders how the authors would react to this long history and this diversity of religious conversions? The use of coercion and violence to interfere with an individual’s free will to practice or convert to a religion is as unacceptable as forced religious conversions are.
This is the first of a monthly column in which the author will explore works of art keeping their historical context while challenging current misinterpretations.