True or False: the earliest existing sculptural depictions of the Buddha were carved in his lifetime and therefore probably accurate likenesses.

False. The first surviving Buddhist art in stone was actually created prior to images of the Buddha himself.

During the Maurya period, in the reign of emperor Ashoka (272–231 BCE), significant monuments and other artworks in stone were commissioned, apparently for the first time. Although stone sculpture, such as large columns surmounted by images of lions and wheels, expressed Buddhist symbolism and motifs, there are no Buddha images from this period.

Many scholars have speculated that an aniconic (without idols) period existed in Buddhist art, where there was a prohibition against depicting the actual Buddha, and various symbols substituted for an explicit anthropomorphic representation.

Some scholars have interpreted narrative reliefs at early Buddhist monuments to illustrate early Buddhist processions or festivals, where aniconic symbols, rather than anthropomorphic symbols, repre sented the Buddha.

In Buddhist art, the image of the historical Buddha is often labeled “Shakyamuni” (sage of the Shakya clan). This distinguishes the image of the historical Buddha, the Buddha who lived on earth during this present period, from past, future, or cosmic buddhas, bodhisattvas, or other divine beings.

Learn more about the development of the Buddha image at Education.asianart.org.

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