Bust of a bodhisattva

2nd–4th century CE
Gray schist
Overall: 28 3/8 x 19 3/4 x 8 1/4 in. (72.073 x 50.17 x 20.95 cm)
Arts of Asia
Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Margaret J. and George V. Charlton
Image courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

General Description

Gandharan Buddhist art was made in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India between the 2nd and 4th centuries. It was strongly influenced by Greco-Roman art, partly through the influence of Alexander the Great's followers in the area and partly through later trade contacts with the Roman Empire. Thus the bodies of Buddhist holy figures have a Mediterranean plasticity and tactile modeling. Even their clothes are similar to Greek and Roman costumes, but their sculptural effect is one of inwardness and otherworldliness in keeping with Buddhist doctrine.

This bodhisattva figure may have been created as late as the early 4th century. The identity of the bodhisattva is difficult to determine as he lacks defining attributes. What remains are the standard attributes of a bodhisattva: the powerful modeling of the body, the neck and arm ornaments of a divine prince, and thick hair styled in neat waves and gathered into a topknot on the crown of the head. The sculpture shows certain refinements in the ornamentation and in the facial features that are associated with the later Kushan period in Gandhara. The hair on the head, as well as the eyebrows and mustache, are fully detailed and quite prominent compared with earlier figures.

The robe is similar to that found in Hellenistic sculpture. There is a figure of Abundance holding a cornucopia on his necklace, and a power spirit (yaksha) on his arm band. The ornament on the bodhisattva's chest shows the wish-fulfilling jewel (chintamani) held in the mouths of a two-headed serpentine figure (naga). The jewel represents bodhichitta, the defining attitude of the bodhisattva. Bodhicitta is the unshakable commitment to deliver all living beings from the sufferings of the rounds of birth and death (samsara) to nirvana. Unlike busts produced in Greek and Roman cultures, this one is a remnant of a full body sculpture. Typically, the devotee worships the sculpture as a living divine presence, complete in every aspect of body, speech, and mind, and fully capable of coming forth and fulfilling any need or request.

Adapted from

  • Robert Warren Clark "Bust of a bodhisattva," in The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas, ed. Anne R. Bromberg (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 42.
  • Anne Bromberg, "Bust of a bodhisattva," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Suzanne Kotz (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997), 50-51.