Aspiring Narratives of Previous Births

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Written and Visual Media in Ancient Gandhara


  • Jason Neelis Wilfrid Laurier University


Buddhist sutras, iconographic reliefs, ancient Gandhāra, pilgrimage


It has long been known that Buddhist sutras have functioned as relics to embody the Dharma since at least the first centuries C. E. Jason Neelis focuses on narratives of the Buddha’s past lives to show that these stories also transmit the Dharma both verbally and visually. He describes the religious lives of these narratives by tracing them in the iconographic programs of reliefs from ancient Gandh?ra, some of the earliest extant examples of Buddhist art. Gandh?ri scribes and artists appropriated these narratives by associating them with local people and shrines. As a result, people made pilgrimages to these places from as far away as East Asia in order to retrace the path by which the Buddha became enlightened across his many lives. Neelis argues that the goal of such pilgrims, and of the artists who marked their routes for them, was to come closer to enlightenment themselves by bodily following the spiritual path of the Dharma as described in these narratives.





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