Tuesday 16 October 2018


This silent throng of painted worshipers suggests to the mind's eye the worship itself that once filled the little cathedral chapel. We see the procession of monks that must have entered at one door, made Pradakshina about the altar, and gone out on the other side. We see the lights that they carried, the incense they waved, the prostrations they made, and the silent congregation of lay-folk and students who may have looked on them from the back of the nave, as even now at a Hindu Arati one may kneel apart and watch. We hear the chanting of the monks as the incense was swung, and we realise the problem that Buddhism had to solve in giving solemnity and impressiveness to a worship denuded of the slendours and significance of sacrifice. It must have been this consciousness that led to the rapid organisation of a ritual whose elements were all indeed derived from the Vedic, but which was in its entirety the most characteristic and organic expression of democratic religion that the world had ever seen. The history of Christian worship has not yet been written, but it is open to us to believe that when it is, it debt to the Chaityas will be found greater than is now suspected.

The host of saints and apostles brings us face to face with another thought. We see how much the Stupa-shaped altar meant to the Buddhist worshipper. We begin to feel our way back to all that it implied. Sanctified by ages of consecration-for there was a pre-Buddhistic Stupa-worship; Newgrange, the Irish Sanchi, is a thousand years older than Buddha-men saw in that domed mound more than we now can ever fathom. Yet we may look at it and try to summon up all that we have felt for this symbol or for that. How curious are the things to which the heart of man has gone out in its fulness from time to time! A couple of spars lashed together at right angles; a couple of crescent shaped axes back to back; a cairn. And each of these has had the power in its day to make men die joyfully and merrily as a piece of good fortune! Usually it is easier to imagine this when the emblem has taken to itself an icon or image. The crucifix might better make martyrs than the cross, one thinks. The Stupa, with the Buddha upon it, stirs one deeper one deeper than the Stupa or Dagoba alone. Yet here amongst the choir of saints we catch a hint of quite another feeling, and we understand that when the icon was added to the emblem, faith was already dim.

The University of Ajanata departs in its painting from primitive simplicity. Cave Sixteen is highly decorated, and Cave Seventeen a veritable labyrinth of beauty and narrative. Everywhere flames out some mighty subject, and everywhere are connecting links and ornamental figures. Not once does inspiration fail, though the soft brightness today is for the most part dim, and the colours have largely to be guessed at. What are the subjects? Ah, that is the question! Here at any rate is one rendered specially famous, for the moment, by the recent labours upon it of any English artist,* which evidently portrays the Maha Hamsa Jataka from the Jatakas or Birth-Tales. These were the Puranas of Buddhism. That is to say, they were its popular literature. History is to a great extent merely the story of organisation, the gradual selecting and ordering of elements already present. And in that sense the Puranas form a reflection and imitationof the Jatakas. The elements of both were present before. Buddhism organised the one in Pali, and Hinduism, later, the other in Sanskrit. But in some cases it would appear as if the Mahavamsha, with its history of the evangelising of Ceylon, had been the treasure-house of Ajanta artists. There are in some of the caves, notably One, pictures of ships and elephant-hunts which seem to correspond to known fragments of that story. Yet again, in the same cave, there will be another picture of something frankly Pauranika or Jatakyan, -such as the king stepping into the balances, in the presence of a hawk and a dove-and it is impossible in the present state of the paintings to make out the sequence. Here also occurs that political picture which dates the paintings of Cave One as after, but near, A.D. 626. It would be natural enough that the story of Ceylon should dispute with the Jatakas the interest of the Buddist world. It formed the great romance of the faith. The same efforts had been made and as great work done in many other cases, but here was a country so small that the effort told. The whole civilisation yielded with enthusiasm to the stream of impulse that came to it from the home-land of its sovereigns. The Sacred Tree, with the prince Mahindo and the princes Sanghamitta, had formed an embassy of state of which any country might be proud. And the connection thus made had been maintained. We may imagine, if we places, that there were students from Ceylon here in the Sangharama of Ajanta. Kings and nobles would doubtless send their sons to the monasteries for education, even as is still done in the villages of Burma and Japan. The East was early literary in her standards of culture, and the fact that monastic instruction would in no way have benefited a Norman baron need not make us suppose that the ministers and sovereigns of India, early in the Christain era, boasted an equally haughty illiteracy. The whole aspect of the caves, with the Viharas containing the shrine of the Great Guru, tells us of the development which their functions had undergone, from being simple Bhikshugrihas to organised colleges, under the single rulership of the abbot of Ajanta. Hiouen Tsang was only one out of a stream of foreign guests who came to the abbey to give knowledge or to gather it. And we must, if we would see truly, people its dark aisles and gloomy shadows with voices and forms of many nationalities from widely distant parts of the earth. In Cave One is a historical painting of the Persian Embassy which was sent by Khusru II to Pulakesin I about A.D. 626.


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