Gandharan Buddhist Reliquaries
David Jongeward, et al
(Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project
University of Washington)
A relic is hair or a bit of bone --- finger, toe, tooth, rib, thigh, shin, forearm --- or an organic remainder (cloth, wood, parchment) associated with a divinity. Which could be a Buddha, a Jesus, a Muhammad, or any one of their most holy followers. In all religions, the surviving parts of the divines are held in high regard. It was thought that special powers were attendant on the bones of these masters, and wars were fought between sects to own (for example) a holy tooth or a lock of the divine hair.

This weighty and impressive volume features photographs of over four hundred containers that were designed to hold the holy relics of the Buddha --- all from Gandhara, the region of the Peshawar valley in the Khyber Province, which is described as "Taxila to the east, Swat Valley to the north, and Hadda and Bamiyan to the west in current day Afghanistan" ... including the Kabul and Jalalabad areas.

One of the editors has furnished an essay on "The Buddha's Last Days" which may be of interest to students of that particular religion. As we know, well into his eighth decade, the Buddha traveled about with his followers, going from village to village, speaking on the subject of spiritual practice. Near the town of Kusinagara, he was served a pie --- a supposedly vegetarian pie --- which turned out to be concocted by an enemy, and made up of pork carefully minced up.

Since he had refused to eat meat for most of his life the pot-pie made him virulently ill. He lay down beside the road; at that moment, "flowers fell from the sala trees to cover his body ... flowers and sandalwood powder fell from the sky while divine music and singing sounded through the air in his honor." A monk trying to serve him was sent him away,

    stating that the gods of the ten-world systems had assembled to see him, and there was not a place the size of the tip of a hair in twelve leagues around him that was not filled with gods, so that the gods were complaining that the monk was obstructing their view.

Buddha's death was "accompanied by great earthquakes and terrifying thunder." Just before his cremation, followers had asked to unwrap the body so they could venerate his feet, but Ananda --- his senior disciple --- refused. At that moment, "the Buddha's feet miraculously emerged from the coffin of their own accord."

    After the miracle of the feet, the funeral pyre burst into flames spontaneously ... and the bones were transformed into pearls, jasmine buds, and nuggets of gold, each material in three sizes.

The relics were divided into eight portions for each of the domains of his followers, but you know how relics tend to grow on their own. One of the most devoted followers, Asoka, "placed a portion into each of the eighty-four thousand reliquaries that he had specially prepared and arranged for them to be transported and enshrined throughout the kingdom, as far as the surrounding ocean, in the stupas that had been commissioned." With the commissioning of such a vast number of holy buildings, Buddhism was able to avoid the problem of Christianity where the selling of Christ's bones, hair and clothing constituted one of the major manufacturing industries in the Middle Ages. Luther's revolt was fed by this lucrative trafficking in vital parts of the Savior, and it was said that if you added up the bits and pieces of the cross, they were enough floating around to build another ark.

In India, "the presence of the stupa was equated with the presence of the Buddha." Even the lowly Bodhi tree was considered holy, the original tree having been the site of his enlightenment. A branch from that tree was carried to Sri Lanka, and after grafting, it took root and the fruits were planted throughout the land, until "eventually the trees spread all over the island."

The reliquaries pictured here vary greatly in aesthetics and quality. Some are old and fragmented. The casket above [Fig. 1] is from the Bimaran stupa 2. It is made of gold with inlaid garnets and lives today in the British Museum. Many relics are shaped as miniature stupas, are carved from bronze, terra-cotta, soapstone, schist, stone with gold plate, and often come with holy figures carved into the sides.

In the latter part of this book, there is much to-do about the inscriptions to be found on these stupas. A typical footnote reads,

    Falk ... interprets gamdharaspami as the locative of a compound *gamdhara-spa, in which spa would be a term for "some rather large area" and possibly related to Sanacrit sva, "property." It seems more straightforward to take spami as a nominative singular corresponding to Old Indo-Aryan svanum "master," and as part of the subject pujayidu. The word in question is attested with added ka-suffix in Asoka's Ninth and Eleventh Rock Ediucts at Shahbazgarbi (II. 19 and 24) and Mansehra (II. 5 and 13) (spamikena) as well as in th epedistal inscruption CKI 117 (spaniasa) and in Kharosthi scross 19 in the Senior Collection (spamiana).

'Nuff said.

--- Akira Iriye
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