3rd century A.D.
39 1/2 x 10 1/2 in. (100.3 x 26.7 cm)
Purchase, 1975 (4308.1)
As Buddhism spread across the northern Indian subcontinent and into Central Asia, it developed a complex pantheon of many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The term Bodhisattva (literally "enlightened existence") was originally used to refer exclusively to the historical Buddha Shakyamuni (ca. 563 B.C.-ca. 483 B.C.) in his many incarnations before achieving full enlightenment in his final manifestation as the Buddha of the present kalpa, or "world-age." However, it eventually came to be believed that in addition to innumerable Buddhas that simultaneously existed throughout the countless worlds of complex Indian cosmology, there were other spiritually advanced beings already on the path to enlightenment to whom Buddhist believers could turn for aid in their own spiritual quest, many of whom were referred to by the honorific title of Bodhisattva. In art, these Bodhisattvas are distinguished from Buddhas (who are usually unadorned as a sign of their final freedom from attachment) by their rich jewelry and noble dress, symbolizing both their spiritual advancement and their continued presence in the world. Among the most popular Bodhisattvas that developed in the Gandhara region was Maitreya, who was believed to have been recognized by Shakyamuni as the Buddha who would succeed him in the next kalpa, during a remarkable age of peace and prosperity in which Buddhist teachings would flourish. In the meantime, Maitreya awaited his appearance in the world and eventual full enlightenment in a celestial realm into which those who faithfully believed in him could also be reborn. As millenarian apocalyptic beliefs grew under the constant warfare and turmoil of the time, Maitreya attained a huge following who believed that his final incarnation was imminent, preceded by disasters on a massive scale that would destroy the entire world, but in the process cleansing it for the paradise that would follow. This millenarianism spread from Gandhara to Central and East Asia, where it colored Buddhist doctrine for centuries. The identification of most Gandharan Bodhisattva sculptures remains tentative, and this figure may either be Shakyamuni in a previous incarnation, Maitreya, or another of the many Bodhisattvas whose worship was developing in the early centuries of the first millennium. However, given the widespread popularity of Maitreya and his close association with Gandhara, where his cult first started, there is a strong possibility that the Academy's sculpture may depict this deity in his celestial abode, awaiting the time when he can turn the "Wheel of the Dharma" to alleviate suffering and bring all sentient beings to enlightenment.