India Through the Eyes of Europe - Lord Buddha


In the examples from the European Dasavatara series we have looked at thus far, a number of elements have repeatedly been found that mark a departure from the traditional Indian method of rendering images of the Deities.

Throughout the 16th to 18th centuries, Anglo artists used whatever they had at hand to create representations of India scenes for books and publications, including traditional India images and hand-drawn travelogue illustrations.. As we read in the University of Chicago exhibition catalog, they also used their own imaginations, interpreting text as best they could to render images:

"In many of these books the texts were enriched by illustrations, especially copper engravings of maps, sketches made in Asia by amateur artists, and depictions of Asian subjects created in Europe by professional artists who tried to follow as best they could the descriptions in the texts. Individual maps like travel accounts were compiled, revised, and published in collections called atlases by Mercator, Ortelius, and the Blaeu family. The sketches made in Asia were most often reproduced faithfully by the engravers of the Netherlands. The Dutch engravings, as well as those of a few others, were borrowed and sometimes altered, by presses all over western Europe. Portable objects - costumes, jewelry, and other everyday objects - were often copied accurately by European artists who incorporated them into their representations of Asian life. At other times the unfamiliar was portrayed through the use of familiar stereotypes, such as a temple or mosque being shown with Christian attributes, a practice which distorted Asian realities. Realism in depiction reached its apogee in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

In the eighteenth century the European depictions, often copied from earlier engravings of Asian places and peoples, were generally less clear and more fanciful. Accuracy of depiction of mundane matters became of less interest in Europe as its intellectuals became more preoccupied, especially during the Enlightenment, with understanding and analyzing the languages, religions, and philosophies of the East and in undertaking comparative studies."

In today's example, yet another of the Ignio Barlow copper plate engravings, we have an interesting example of Lord Buddha from Dasavatara. In this case, several elements of the picture are rather odd departures from the universal Indian depictions of the Buddha.

Like other examples in the series, the artist has drawn a natural setting typical of Anglo representations of India. Because Lord Buddha is levitating above the ground on his lotus asana, the artist has created a bare dirt hillside as a backdrop for the scene that is quite unusual.

Two Buddhist stupas are visible in the far background, and as usual in Anglo representations, the buildings are shaped more conically than they actually were.

What sets this image apart from the other Visnu Avatars is that our Lord Buddha is four-armed and holding conch and sastra. As we know, Lord Buddha is typically depicted in a meditative pose with two or four arms, generally postured with hand mudras.

While the conch is a prominent item of Buddhist paraphernalia, and four-armed forms of Buddha are found holding lotus and conch, the Buddha certainly would not be holding the Vedas. We can assume this is an example of the confused European interpretation of the Visnu expansions, several of whom are properly depicted holding the Vedas.

Lord Buddha wears a crown typical of the English style. The two acolytes standing on either side would be fair representations of Hindu devotees, but are not good representations of Buddhist devotees.

Finally, we have the paraphernalia on the ground, where a prayer shawl would not be placed out of respect for the item.

In total, this depiction of Buddha Avatara is not a fair representation, although similar copies were proliferated throughout European literatures as a result of the errors made by 18th century engravers like Picart.