SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

Imag(in)ing Buddhahood in South Asia (1)

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2019/2020
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 1

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 Buddahood in South Asia Part 2

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the course, students should 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.


  • One hour Lecture, one hour Seminar

Scope and syllabus

  • Week 1: The Buddha’s invisible presence: relics and their importance in early Buddhist cult (Vincent Tournier)  
    The Buddha's Final journey, final Extinction (parinirvāṇa), and funeral. Relics as receptacle of the Buddha's enduring presence and their importance in early Buddhist cult.
  •  Week 2: The Buddha’s invisible presence: depicting the Buddha's previous and continuous presence (Christian Luczanits)
    The veneration of the stūpa, eminent places, narratives, and emblematic representations as references to the Buddha’s past and continuous presence.
  •  Week 3: Buddhas of the past and future: the predecessors of the Buddha, and the emergence of Maitreya (VT)
    Buddhist visions of the past and future. Narratives on the predecessors of the Buddha Śākyamuni, and prophecies about the future Buddha Maitreya. Past and future Buddhas in the sacred landscape.
  •  Week 4: Buddhas of the past and future: group depictions of past Buddhas and Maitreya (CL)
    Four and seven Buddhas of the past in art; addition of Bodhisattva Maitreya to the group; exemplary representations of the set of eight in early South Asian Art.
  •  Week 5: Anthropomorphic representation of the Buddha: etiological myths and bodily marks (VT)
    Myths explaining the conception of the first Buddha images. Buddhas, universal emperors, and the development of the bodily marks of great men.
  •  Week 7: Anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha: early images and the representation of bodily marks (CL)
    Emergence of the Buddha image; Mathura and Gandharan types; selection of the bodily marks in iconographic representations.
  •  Week 8: On the path to Buddhahood: the emergence of the Bodhisattva doctrine (VT)
    Past lives, spiritual lineages, and the retrospective of the Buddha Śākyamuni's career. Mapping the path to Buddhahood and the development of the Bodhisattva doctrine. The genesis of the ten stages (bhūmi) system in early Mahāyāna discourses.
  •  Week 9: On the path to Buddhahood: early Bodhisattva imagery (CL)
    Bodhisattva or Buddha in Kaniṣka inscriptions; Maitreya as archetype; the Bodhisattva as heir to the Buddha; early triads with two types of Bodhisattvas and their identity.
  •  Week 10: Buddhas beyond: Buddhas of the present and their pure lands (VT)
    The emergence of the beliefs in present Buddhas in early Mahāyāna discourses. Two major Buddhas of the present: Amitābha and Akṣobhya. Visualisation, commemoration, and other practices securing rebirths in their pure lands.  
  •  Week 11: Buddhas beyond: the Muhammad Nari stele and its interpretation (CL)
    A detailed analysis of a masterpiece representing a Buddha-field and its implications for the history of Buddhism.

Method of assessment

  • One 1 000 words essay (worth 30%)
  • One 2 000 words essay (worth 70%)


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules