Symbolism, Sacred Art, Metaphysics

The Origin of The Buddha Image & Elements of Buddhist Iconography


This volume gathers in one place three of Coomaraswamy’s most important writings on Buddhist art and thought . Coomaraswamy rarely set aside a published work once and for all; using his publications as an ongoing journal, he continued thinking and recognizing new connections. The works here are among his greatest.

  • 9781887752800
  • 9x12
  • Paperback
  • 65

Product Description

This volume gathers in one place three of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy’s most important writings on Buddhist art and thought in facsimile reproductions of the author’s personal copies with his annotations and corrections. Coomaraswamy rarely set aside a published work once and for all; using his publications as an ongoing journal, he continued thinking and recognizing new connections. The works here are among his greatest. “The Nature of Buddhist Art” (1938) is a classic essay, as eloquent as anything he wrote.

“[Coomaraswamy] is one of the most learned and creative scholars of the century.”
-Mircea Eliade

“[His] writings remain as pertinent today as when he wrote them and his voice echoes in the ears of present day seekers of truth and lovers of traditional art.”
-Seyyed Hossein Nasr

“Coomaraswamy’s essays [give] us a view of his scholarship and brilliant insight.”
-Joseph Campbell

“That noble scholar upon whose shoulders we are still standing”
-Heinrich Zimmer

What did Coomaraswamy really think about the content and purpose of art at its deepest and truest? The answer to that question is here, never more brilliantly stated. “The Origin of the Buddha Image” (1927) is a more strictly art-historical work, which looks at the evidence for an Indian or Hellenistic Greek origin for the central image of early Buddhist art. The volume concludes with a masterful book-length study, “Elements of Buddhist Iconography” (1935), which focuses the author’s unique blend of scholarship and spirituality on key images in Buddhist art.

From the Publisher:
Introduced by Coomaraswamy’s “The Nature of Buddhist Art” (1938), “The Origin of the Buddha Image” (1927) is crowned by a supremely important metaphysical and spiritually transformative text, “Elements of Buddhist Iconography” (1935)

Although this essay is about sacred art, it actually is sacred art itself in that it is able to transport the reader to the very threshold of an awakening. This is achieved through the etymological and artistic explication of the archetypal nature and profoundest meaning intended by the Cosmic Tree of Life (symbolizing the Buddha) and the Lotus Throne which are not actually situated in “art” but may be beheld within the human heart and found in each one of us.
Ananda K. Coomaraswamy’s The Origin of the Buddha Image is a detailed study and analysis of the controversial problem. In the present monograph, with his usual acumen and deep understanding of the subject, Coomaraswamy has laid bare the facts which clearly show that the Buddha image was a product of the Indian mind. In this detailed excurses, he has discussed the problem not only with a view to prove that the Buddha image originated out of the pre-existing Indian forms, but has also taken pains to disprove the theories of those scholars with whom “Indo-Greek art has become a veritable obsession.”

Coomaraswamy has divided the work into the following heads: (1) What is the Buddha image?, (2) The early representation of deities by means of symbols, (3) The necessity for a Buddha image, (4) Elements of the later anthropomorphic iconography already present in early Indian art, (5) Style and content: differentiation of Indian and Hellenistic types, and (6) Dating of Gandhara and Mathura Buddhas.

According to Coomaraswamy, every element essential to the iconography of Buddha and Bodhisattva figures appears in early Indian art before the Buddha figure of Gandhara or Mathura is known. For this, he says we have only to look at a sequence of examples beginning with the Parkham image and culminating in the Mathura types of the Gupta period to realize that there is no room at any point in the intercalation of any model based on the Hellenistic tradition: he has even suggested that the Gandhara iconography itself is derived from the pre-existing Indian forms, either through Mathura or otherwise.


"Are patriarchs precursors? Are their work and insights gratefully recognized--and then quietly shelved in favor of up-to-date sources? Coomaraswamy is assuredly a patriarch, and for all who acknowledge the grandeur of traditional religious art, he is much more than a precursor. He is a lifelong companion and teacher who offers endless insight into the meaning and power of religious art. In this volume, his essay of 1938 on the nature of Buddhist art is still the latest word."
-Roger Lipsey, editor and biographer of Ananda K.Coomaraswamy Princeton's Bollingen Series LXXXIX
"Merely touching these obvious truths, the author sweeps us on to an analysis of three examples of Indian symbols - the Tree of Life, the Earth Lotus, and the World Wheel. He demonstrates the cosmic simplicity of these three conceptions in his peculiar penetrating way and thereafter we are given a glimpse of their elaboration through more than fifteen centuries of Indian mysticism...[I]t is finished by illustrations chosen from the Buddhist monuments of India, China, and Japan to picture these three great symbols. It then appears that we have experienced, perhaps vicariously and surely only according to our own powers of penetration, a deeper knowledge of sacred art...This book is scholarship, tough and rewarding. It is part and parcel of religion and of art and will stand as a model for Christian as well as Oriental iconographic studies of the future. Once and for all it demonstrates that dates and influences and schools and styles, though they fascinate the specialists, are not in their nature of primary importance."
-Langdon Warner
"Over forty years have passed since the death of Ananda Coomaraswamy; yet his writings remain as pertinent today as when he wrote them and his voice echoes in the ears of present day seekers of truth and lovers of traditional art as it did a generation ago. In contrast to most scholarly works which become outmoded and current philosophical opuses which become stale, Coomaraswamy's works possess a timeliness which flows from their being rooted in the eternal present."
-Seyyed Hossein Nasr, George Washington University
The Matheson Trust is a charity whose principal aim is to further the study of comparative religion and the great metaphysical and religious traditions. "Coomaraswamy's essays, learned, elegant, and wise, are one of the great treasures of 20th century thought. To read them is to see the world in the clear light of tradition, to understand art and philosophy from the viewpoint of first principles, to be reminded of our sacred calling and of the One who calls us."
- Philip Zaleski, author, editor for Parabola
"Don't make any mistake about Coomaraswamy. He is an eminently practical man. I love him."
Wendell Berry
"It is not that I want to write about AKC, but rather than I want to enter contemplatively into the world of thought, for all of us, but which nevertheless had to be opened up to us by him."
Thomas Merton (Thomas Merton series)
Ananda Coomaraswamy is best known as one of the twentieth century's most erudite and percipient scholars of the sacred arts and crafts of both East and West. He also had few peers in the exegesis of traditional philosophy and metaphysics.
- Dr. Harry Oldmeadow
Like St. Augustine, Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote in order to perfect his own understanding. He sought to know the whatness and principial roots of things, above all, of himself. In doing so, he collaterally provided access to a fundamental intellectual itinerary, which unfailingly beckons all who recognize in themselves an intrinsic regard for Truth.
- Alvin Moore, Jr.
In Coomaraswamy…all the religious traditions of the world meet.
- Jean Borella
After having read Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, the distinction between oriental and occidental thought hardly has any more meaning.He is a tireless ‘ferryman’ between one and the other side of the same transcendent [reality].
- Jean Canteins
The pioneering and interdisciplinary essays of Ananda K.Coomaraswamy on medieval Christian and Oriental art have shed so much light on religious symbolism and iconography, and given such profound metaphysical insight into the study of aesthetics and traditional folklore, that if contemporary art history does not take [his] challenges and contributions into account, it will inevitably fall prey to ideological reductionisms and degrade the ancient and perennial language of art forms into a mere archaic system of lifeless symbols with [no] meaning.
- Ramon Mujica Pinilla, art historian, Universidad Mayor de San Marcos, Lima, Peru