[Buddha-l] Re: angels and buddhism

James Ward jamesward at earthlink.net
Sat May 28 03:14:00 MDT 2005

Hi Kate,

On May 27, 2005, at 9:55 PM, you wrote:

> The above article is rather vague on the relationship of the fresco of 
> angels and buddhism (though it seems to be saying that there is a 
> link) and deals mainly with a book written by the author Kenji.  
> Unfortunately I haven't been able to find out more about this fresco.

These are probably what the author is referring to:



Well done -- this is "hot stuff" as far as any discussion of Buddhism 
and angels is concerned.  Note what Sir Aurel Stein says about these 
frescoes at


and following (see below).  I wasn't able to quote everything of 
interest for this discussion, so do look at the complete text at the 
above web-site as well (pictures may load slowly).  I will just add 
that the possibility of Nestorian influence on these frescoes seems 
entirely likely, given the history of the region.  I am not familiar 
enough with Manichaean art of the area to be able to say whether this 
too could be a source of influence -- I'm not even sure if angels are 
mentioned in Manichaean texts.

      "There still remain two questions of interest which claim our 
consideration:  What is the iconographic origin and meaning of the 
'angels' which here figure so strangely on the walls of a Buddhist 
shrine, and whence came the decorative scheme in which this painted 
dado exhibits them?

[merciless editing in the interests of message length]

      "The close connexion which the preceding observations have 
established between the designs used for the decorative dados of the 
Miran temples and the festoon friezes of the Gandhara relievos helps us 
to trace the true iconographic descent of the winged figures appearing 
on the walls of M. iii.  They correspond too closely to the youthful 
figures with wings which we see rising from the hollows of the festoons 
in so many of the Gandhara friezes to allow any other direct origin to 
be claimed for them.  The smallness of these carved winged figures, and 
still more the much-reduced scale of the reproductions, make it often 
difficult to ascertain whether boys or girls are intended.  But almost 
invariably their forms are childlike, and this, combined with the 
constant male representation of the festoon-carrying putti which flank 
them, makes it highly probable that the Gandhara sculptors, in 
accordance with their regular wont using a classical type which was 
ready at hand, modelled them after the youthful winged Eros of Greek 
mythology.  How accustomed these sculptors were to draw upon the 
classical Cupids, whether with or without wings, for their decorative 
personnel, and how closely the type presented conformed to classical 
tradition, M. Foucher has lucidly demonstrated.  Nor is it difficult to 
discover why they preferred the winged form for insertion in the 
hollows above the festoons.  No ornamental device could have been 
artistically better suited for filling the tapering sides of the 
lunettes thus created than the graceful ends of the wings.  The 
evidence of the Gandhara relievos just discussed seems sufficient to 
warrant the conclusion that these winged figures of the Miran dado must 
be traced back to the classical god of love as their original 
iconographic prototype.  But there are indications, too, warning us 
that this descent may well have been affected at intermediate stages by 
the influence of Oriental conceptions.  In the figures before us, with 
their youthful but not childlike looks, their low-cut plain garments 
and quasi-sexless features, there is something vaguely suggestive of 
representations of angels such as we might have expected to meet with 
rather in some Early Christian church of the East than in a Buddhist 
shrine.  I am unable to secure either time or materials for the 
researches which would be needed to test and eventually to explain this 
impression.  There may be reasons, chronological or other, to put aside 
altogether the possibility of influence exercised by early Christian 
iconography.  But it should be remembered that the idea of angels as 
winged celestial messengers was familiar to more than one religious 
system of Western Asia long before Christianity developed its 
iconography, and that the Zoroastrian doctrine of Fravashis had 
specially prepared the ground for it in those wide regions of ancient 
Iran through which both the influence of classical art and Buddhist 
cult must have passed before reaching the Tarim Basin.  No graphic 
representations of angels appear to have survived in the Hellenistic 
East from a sufficiently early period to help us in clearing up the 
question where and when the Cupids of classical mythology underwent 
transformation into that type of winged figures of which the painter of 
the dado in M. iii seems to have made use for the decoration of a 
Buddhist shrine.  The unmistakable presence of Semitic traits in most 
of these faces makes our thoughts turn instinctively to regions like 
Mesopotamia and Western Iran as likely ground for such an adaptation.
      "However this may be, it is certain that the appearance of such 
strange figures, unconnected with Buddhism, in the fresco decoration of 
a Buddhist place of worship need cause us no surprise.  The carved 
friezes of Gandhara Stupa bases previously referred to, and an 
abundance of other relievos, show us how familiar a procedure it was 
for Graeco-Buddhist art on Indian soil to use, for the decoration of 
Buddhist shrines, figures and whole scenes entirely unconnected with 
the cult or sacred tradition of Buddhism.  That this decorative 
practice was inherited by the early Buddhist art of Central Asia and 
carried to the very confines of true China was conclusively 
demonstrated when, on excavating the neighbouring shrine M. v, of 
exactly the same type, I discovered that the interior walls of its 
cella, under a painted frieze with pious scenes from a well-known 
Buddhist legend, were decorated with a dado displaying figures of an 
altogether secular and frankly Western character.  Finally, it should 
be remembered that if ever a Central-Asian Herodotus had visited this 
temple of Miran, and had cared to inquire from the priest holding 
charge about the significance of the winged beings so strangely 
reminiscent of figures he might have seen before in regions where 
Buddhism had never effected a footing, the local guardian would 
scarcely have been at a loss for a name and might well have called them 
Gandharvas.  Though in reality not needed, it would have been an 
acceptable label; for there is abundant evidence to show that this 
class of celestial attendants was as popular in the Buddhism of Central 
Asia and the Far East as their representation was varied."

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