By Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya
Throughout the long course of humankind’s religious history, spiritually inspired artists have attempted to depict the other-worldly status of saints and spiritual teachers in a variety of ways. Some of these have included the use of nimbus and proportionality. One of the unique features of Buddhist iconography is the use of the ushnisha, or crown of hair, in its attempt to secure Shakyamuni Buddha’s transcendent status. We will now briefly explore the development of the ushnisha in the long history of Buddhist iconography.
In its original function, the ushnisha was intended to be symbolize a crown atop the head of the Buddha. In Shakyamuni’s pre-ascetic life, he was the prince Siddhartha. It is quite possible that this kshatriya origin of Siddhartha’s is what the ushnisha, in its function as a crown, is partially a reflection of. What is known for sure is that incorporated into the new Buddhist movement were direct remnants of the earlier Chakravarti tradition of pre-Buddhist North India. According to this religio-political principle, at certain times in history a perfect monarch rules the known world. Known as the Chakravarti, this perfect king is at the center of a concentrically expanding regime based upon the ideals of Dharma, or Natural Law. One of several characteristic features of this ideal monarch is a crown of hair known as ushnisha. The Buddha was viewed by his followers as being one such perfect Chakravarti. As we will see, however, the precise symbolic content of the ushnisha, as well as its stylistic representation, seems to have undergone a slow transformation as time progressed.
Some of the earliest depictions of the ushnisha are found in the Greco-Roman inspired art of the Gandhara period. At this time the ushnisha is most definitely depicting a crown. In keeping with the Greek influence on Gandharan art, the Buddha’s hair is generally wavy and voluminous. The ushnisha atop the Buddha’s head is an unmistakable gathering of his hair into a chignon. In later periods, both the style and the explanation of the ushnisha undergoes a radical change.
As more indigenously South Asian depictions of the Buddha begin to emerge, we begin to see the ushnisha become more schematic. The ushnisha increasingly becomes an infinitely complex matrix of small curls. In some depictions, the ushnisha resembles more of a protuberance coming directly from the skull than a chignon of hair. Indeed, as we trace the evolution of the ushnisha into South-East Asia, we see the chignon replaced altogether by either a flame or a lotus flower. The reason for this stylistic change may lie in the fact that, rather than still symbolizing the crown of the Cakravarti, the ushnisha is now increasing interpreted as a symbol of the spiritual power of the Buddha’s enlightenment. One might even venture to speculate that the protrusion emanating from the top of the Buddha’s head might represent the opening of the sahasrara (or thousand petalled lotus) chakra during the Buddha’s enlightenment experience.
While the ushnisha has been an omnipresent and important feature of many iconographical representations of Shakyamuni Buddha, whether or not the Buddha actually even had an ushnisha is somewhat doubtful. The textual evidence seems to indicate that the Buddha had a completely shaved head. In one account, for example, there is the story of the hunter who happened upon the Buddha in the forest. When he saw the Buddha sitting in the middle of the forest, the hunter, it is said, took the vision of the fully bald head of Shakyamuni as an inauspicious omen and gave up his hunting for the day. Baldness, along with gauntness of body and moroseness of features, were seen in traditional South Asian culture as representations of bad fortune, and therefore as signs of foreboding. In another story which seems to indicate that the Buddha did not have an ushnisha, a person wanted to give alms to a brahmana, as was the custom in traditional Hindu society. When he first saw the Buddha, in his flowing monk’s robes, he was at first convinced that this was indeed one such brahmana. On closer inspection, however, he saw that this “brahmana” was missing the usual shikha, or tuft of hair on the back of the head, that brahmanas usually wear. Instead, the Buddha was reported to have had a completely shaved head. These textual accounts, then, make it debatable whether the Buddha had an ushnisha or not.
The ushnisha, then, has had a long and evolving presence in Buddhist iconography. It’s ultimate purpose, however, is not to necessarily accurately depict the physical features of the historical Shakyamuni , but to communicate to its viewer the special status accorded to, and spiritual power manifest in, the religious ideal of the Buddha.
About the Author
Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya is universally acclaimed as one of the world's most respected and qualified Dharma teachers and Hindu spiritual leaders alive today. He personifies what it means to be a true and authentic guru.
Dr. Deepak Chopra has exclaimed in 2002: "You've done truly phenomenal work teaching the pure essence of Yoga". In a similar manner, Dr. David Frawley has said about Sri Acharyaji, "Sri Acharyaji represents the Sankalpa [the will] of the Hindu people and the cause of Sanatana Dharma. I urge all Hindus everywhere to give him your full support, assistance, and encouragement in his crucial work. He needs and deserves our help."
Sri Acharyaji began his personal spiritual journey over 35 years ago at the tender age of ten when he read the Bhagavad Gita for the very first time. He coupled his decades of intense spiritual practice and study with advanced academic achievements, earning a B.A. in philosophy/theology from Loyola University Chicago, as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He has lectured on Dharma at dozens of top universities, such as Harvard, Columbia, Rutgers, Cornell, and Northwestern. He has also served as a consultant for such Fortune 500 companies as Ford Motor Corporation and Lucent Technology.
Explaining to his doctoral advisor that "I don't want to just study the history of religion…I want to make religious history", Sri Acharyaji eventually left academia to devote himself exclusively to spiritual teaching and to the preservation of the great tradition of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism).
Today, Sri Acharyaji occupies his full time teaching Dharma spirituality to diverse audiences. In addition to leading classes, satsanghas, seminars and lecturing on Sanatana Dharma widely, Sri Acharyaji is a renowned author, as well as a personal spiritual guide (guru) to a rapidly increasing following of enthusiastic students from both the Indian and the non-Indian communities.
Sri Acharyaji was the Resident Acharya (Spiritual Preceptor) of the Hindu Temple of Nebraska (2007 - 2009), which represents the first time in American history that a Hindu temple has ever made such an esteemed appointment. He is the Founder-President of the International Sanatana Dharma Society, a global movement dedicated to teaching Dharma in its most authentic form.
Sri Acharyaji is the real thing: an enlightened guru with the ability to deliver the highest wisdom and spiritual liberation to his sincere students.
Sri Acharyaji's teachings stress the achievement of enlightenment through the practice of meditation, Yoga, and directly experiencing the presence of the Divine. Another overarching aspect of Sri Acharyaji's teachings focuses on the importance of love, compassion and service toward all living beings.
Whether speaking to an audience of thousands, or having a heart-felt discussion with only one person, Sri Acharyaji vividly conveys a deeply moving sense of compassion, peace, humility, and spiritual insight that has endeared him to thousands of students and admirers throughout the world.
Some of his books include:
"Sanatana Dharma: The Eternal Natural Way"
"Living Dharma: The Teachings of Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya"
"Radical Universalism: Does Hinduism Teach that All Religions are the Same?"
"Taking Refuge in Dharma: The Initiation Guidebook"
"The Vedic Way of Knowing God"
"The Shakti Principle: Encountering the Feminine Power of God"
"The Art of Wisdom: Affirmations for Boundless Living"
His latest book Sanatana Dharma: The Eternal Natural Way, is scheduled for publication in 2011.
For more information on following the life-transforming path of Sanatana Dharma, please visit his website:
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