SOAS University of London

Department of Religions & Philosophies, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Imag(in)ing Buddhas in South Asia, Part 2

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2022/23
Year of study:
Year 2, Year 3 or Year 4

This course will engage in a truly inter-disciplinary manner with the central ideal of Buddhism, as it developed within and beyond its South Asian cradle. The notion of Buddha (i.e., the Awaken One), being primarily an epithet of the founder of Buddhism, the religious leader also called Śākyamuni, has developed historically so as to encompass the range of his predecessors and successors on Earth, and of Masters currently teaching in distant universes. These have been and still are the primary focus of religious practice and devotion throughout the Buddhist world, believers not only willing to witness and benefit from the sacred presence of Buddhas, but also to identify with them and to imitate their journey to realise the ultimate goal of Buddhism. Bringing together the expertise of an Art Historian (Dr. Luczanits) and a Historian of Buddhist thought (Dr. Tournier), it will expose students to a diversity of approaches to textual, iconographic, and archaeological sources, to understand how Buddhas and their achievements were imagined, presented, pictured, and encountered by Buddhist practitioners in Pre-Modern South Asia. In order to allow for this double vision, each key topic will be dwelt upon during two classes, juxtaposing dynamically the textual perspective with what is communicated through imagery (see syllabus for further details).


Co-requisite : Imag(in)ing Buddhas in South Asia, Part 1

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of the course a student will be able to:

  • Demonstrate a good understanding of the major historical developments that affected the understanding and the representations of Buddhas and Buddhahood in Buddhist textual and visual discourses.
  • Explain in an informed manner the centrality of Buddha figures, the creative ways in which believers related to them, and how Buddhahood was perceived, and achieved, in South Asian Buddhist traditions.
  • Show an awareness of the wide variety of sources available for the study of Buddhism and of the variety of disciplinary approaches to these sources.
  • Demonstrate a keen understanding of key textual sources representative of the major phases in the developments of the Buddhist tradition in South Asia.
  • Relate the different forms of Buddha depictions to each other, in terms of their Buddhological and art historical contexts.
  • Approach a complex religious tradition like Buddhism in its doctrinal, experiential, aesthetic, and ritual dimensions.
  • Demonstrate the ability to evaluate scholarly interpretations, and to take an informed position within a scholarly debate


Two hours per week over 11 weeks

Scope and syllabus

  • Week 1: Speculations on the Buddha bodies: eternal Buddhas and their transient emanations (Vincent Tournier)
    Revisiting the Buddha's passing away, and re-evaluating the duration of his life; the Buddha's Life as a salvific show.
  • Week 2: Speculations on the Buddha bodies: which body is represented? (Christian Luczanits)
    Can the body of the Buddha be recognised in imagery and under what circumstances?
  • Week 3: The Buddha’s presence: a permanent resident in temple and monasteries (VT)
    The Buddha as a legal person and permanent resident in Buddhist monasteries from the 4th c. CE on; the identification of the Buddha with his images and its impact on Buddhist practice.
  • Week 4: The Buddha’s presence: the Buddha image and the stūpa (CL)
    The spiritual career of the Buddha on the stūpa; the stūpa as a body of the Buddha; stūpa and Buddha image.
  • Week 5: Wonder-working Bodhisattvas: key textual sources (VT)
    Bodhisattvas as substitutes to the Buddha's presence, their miracles and their salvific agency in late Mahāyāna thought.
  • Week 6: Reading Week
  • Week 7: Wonder-working Bodhisattvas: key depictions (CL)
    Avalokiteśvara rescuing from the eight dangers; the pilgrimage of Sudhana on the stūpa of Borobudur.
  • Week 8: The fabric of Esoteric Buddhism: textual sources (VT)
    Empowering formulas (dhāraṇīs) and their importance in late Mahāyāna practice; rituals of consecration and merit-making.
  • Week 9: The fabric of Esoteric Buddhism: early esoteric depictions and the three family system (CL)
    Personifications of dhāraṇīs, personified qualities and the three family configurations in art, from Ajaṇṭā to Dunhuang.
  • Week 10: Five Victors: the esoteric system of five Buddhas and its diffusion throughout the Buddhist world (VT)
    Genesis of the Five Victors (jina) system and the centrality of the ultimate Buddha Vairocana. The diffusion of esoteric scriptures setting forth the five Buddha system accross the Buddhist world.
  • Week 11: Five Victors: systems of five Buddhas in imagery (CL)
    The maṇḍala of the adamant plane (vajradhātu), from the Western Himalayas to South East Asia.

Method of assessment

  • One essay (3,500 words) (45%)
  • One 2 hour exam (55%)

Suggested reading

  • Anālayo. 2010. The Genesis of the Bodhisattva Ideal. Hamburg: Hamburg University Press.
  • Kinnard, J. 1999. Imaging Wisdom. Seeing and Knowing in the Art of Indian Buddhism. Richmond: Curzon Press.
  • Lamotte, Etienne. 1988. History of Indian Buddhism, from the Origins to the Śaka Era, tr. Sara Webb-Boin, Louvain-la-Neuve.
  • Malandra, Geri Hockfield. 1993. Unfolding a Maṇḍala. The Buddhist Cave Temples at Ellora. New York: State University of New York Press.
  • Rotman, Andy. 2009. Thus Have I Seen: Visualizing Faith in Early Indian Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Schopen, Gregory. 1997. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks. Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India, Honolulu: Hawai’i University Press.
  • Snellgrove, David L., ed. 1978. The Image of the Buddha. Paris: Serindia / UNESCO.
  • Snellgrove, David L. 1987. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Indian Buddhists and their Tibetan successors. London: Serindia.
  • Strong, John S. 2009. The Buddha: A Beginners’ Guide, 2nd edition, Oxford: Oneworld Publications.
  • Taddei, Maurizio. 2003. “Some Reflections on the Formation of the Buddha Image.” In Maurizio Taddei on Gandhāra. Collected Articles, edited by Giovanni Verardi, and Anna Filigenzi, 593–607. Napoli: Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale”.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules