Twentieth Gonda Lecture by Robert L. Brown, Professor of Indian and Southeast Asian art at the University of California at Los Angeles, and Curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on the role of metal icons in the spread and development of Buddhism.
It is usually assumed that icons of metal have played an important role in Indian religious traditions from the earliest appearance of art, specifically in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions from as early as the third century BCE. Evidence indicates, however, that the production of metal icons was rare up until the fifth century CE, and even then was unusual. The production of metal icons began in any numbers only in the sixth and seventh centuries, at which time they were produced in enormous numbers.
In his lecture, Professor Brown will explore the implications of this dating of Buddhist metal image production. He will argue that the creation of metal images was tied to the turning away from stone stupa structures as an explanation for the decline in India of narrative reliefs of the Buddha’s life stories and jātakas in the fifth century. He will also state that the creation of metal images in India happened at the same time as the appearance of metal images in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Thus, the appearance of the icons in both South and Southeast Asia does not follow the standard scholarly explanation that Buddhism arrived sequentially as Hīnayāna, Mahāyāna, and Tantric. In fact, the Buddhism of the sixth and seventh centuries reflects elements of all these categories that were moving together at the same time. It also means that there was not a layering of artistic influences over time with the early metal images but a mixture of influences all at one time.
In addition, he will discuss the means by which Buddhism spreads via texts, teachers, and objects. While texts and teachers are highly restrictive, of interest primarily to the cultural elite, objects can move outside these boundaries. The easy transport of metal icons due to their size, durability, and relative inexpensiveness allowed the images to move outside court and monastic environments. The many small metal icons found scattered across much of Southeast Asia must have been used in personal and often non-monastic contexts. They probably had talismanic and magical properties, and certainly were not burdened by complex Buddhist textual explanations. They perhaps allowed Buddhism to prosper on a popular level, Buddhism about which we have little knowledge and which is tied to local and personal interpretations.
About Robert L. Brown
Robert L. Brown is Professor of Indian and Southeast Asian art at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), and Curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). His research focuses on the relationship of South Asian culture, religion, and art to the cultures, religions, and art of Southeast Asia. The means by which cultural characteristics move between different geographical regions, language groups, and religious traditions has been of particular interest. These interchanges among Indic related cultures have become increasingly studied by scholars with many new insights and theories.
He teaches both undergraduate and graduate classes at UCLA, and has had an active graduate student program at UCLA, advising 24 PhD students, many of whom are producing important research and now have positions in academic institutions and museums. He also is a curator of South and Southeast Asian art at LACMA, having started his career in museum work. The combination of teaching and curatorial has offered a rare opportunity to work directly with art objects while being constantly challenged by highly knowledgeable students.
His publications include: The Dvaravati Wheels of the Law and the Indianization of Southeast Asia (1996); edited volumes: Ganesh: Studies of an Asian God (1991); Living a Life in Accord with Dhamma: Papers in Honor of Professor Jean Boisselier (1997); Art from Thailand (1997); The Roots of Tantra (2002); and Encyclopedia of India, 4 vols. (2005). He translated (with Natasha Eilenberg) a series of articles from French to English which were published as a book Studies on the Art of Ancient Cambodia: Ten Articles by Jean Boisselier (2008). At LACMA he is writing an on-line scholarly catalogue of the Southeast Asian collection as part of a Getty Foundation funded initiative.