Museum Secrets

A Light at the End of the Tunnel

December 31, 2020 Ashmolean Museum / Lucie Dawkins / Shailendra Bhandare Season 1 Episode 4
Museum Secrets
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
Show Notes Transcript

Shailendra Bhandare shares some very special coins with one of the first images of Buddha as a future saviour. He reflects on the way that humans have always been eager to imagine saviour figures, to help us find hope in dark times. Shailendra is Curator of South Asian and Far Eastern Coins at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

If you want to take a closer look at the coins discussed in this episode, please visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website:

Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Presenters: Lucie Dawkins and Shailendra Bhandare

About Museum Secrets: The curators at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology have been recording bite-sized tales of the wonderful, and sometimes unexpected, life of a museum. We can’t wait to share them with you! Join us every weekday for 3 weeks, from 28 December onwards, for a daily dose of cheer.

Lucie: This is Museum Secrets from the Ashmolean. 

I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every day I’ll be bringing you a bitesized undercover story from our collections. Step in through the front doors, and join me for some joyful, wonderful, and sometimes bizarre tales hidden in the objects. We will be going behind the scenes and beyond the labels, into dark corners of the storerooms and into the minds of the curators.

Today, we are heading into the coin room. This is where we find the curators who specialise in the history of money, and its design. These are some of my favourite objects in the museum. They are everyday things designed to infiltrate your life with tiny images that the person who made them wants you to pay attention to. They are like little billboards - targeted advertising before the age of social media. And there is one set of coins in particular that carry a message about hope. To tell us more, here’s Shailendra Bhandare, a Curator from the  Heberden Coin Room. 

Shailen: We will remember 2020 as the ‘Great Pause’ in our histories. We would reflect on how a seemingly insignificant microorganism brought the entire humankind to its knees and how, with Knowledge and Science on our side, we saw the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. However, for historic societies, spirituality, faith, and religious practice provided a steer to this often-used metaphor in difficult times. We now take scientific knowledge for granted, but life was very tough until not so long ago – diseases were rife, epidemics were common and morbidity was all around us. A common strategy to hold on to hope and redemption was to seek divine intervention.

We therefore find the idea of a ‘future saviour’ in many societies and religions. In Christianity, it is Jesus; in certain schools of Islam, there is ‘Mahdi’ the future prophet and the Hindus might believe in Kalki, the final incarnation of Vishnu. These figures have one theme in common: they offer a vision of transition – a transition from chaos, misery and death to a future that is ‘glorious’ and ‘golden’. They offer us the hope we all so need in difficult times, a hope that firmly sets our eyes to better times and helps us tide over our current crises. 

In Buddhism, the figure that offers such redemption is ‘Maitreya’, the ‘Future Buddha’. His name originates in the Sanskrit term Maitri which means ‘close companionship’. It is believed that Maitreya currently lives in ‘Tushita Heaven’ and awaits entry to the human world. The Buddha predicted in a sermon that five thousand years after his life, the ‘Path of Righteousness’ he showed to humankind will be forgotten. There will be a period of greed, lust, poverty, ill will, violence, and impiety. The ‘Sermon of the Seven Suns’ paints the doomsday scenario in vivid environmental details, some of them surprisingly akin to phenomena like global warming. 

Then Maitreya will make his descent and for the final time, attain ‘Buddha-hood’ to save humanity from such perils. He will herald a ‘Golden Age’. He will teach humanity the ‘ten non-virtuous deeds’ and ten ways to abandon them. This will be the final ‘Nirvana’ for everyone – there will be no more rebirths. The cycle of suffering of humankind will end.

Around first century AD, Buddhism had evolved into two major branches known as the ‘Lesser’ and the ‘Greater Vehicles’. Buddha also began to be worshipped as a ‘god’. This was a major shift, because the Buddha never regarded as himself as a god. He was also against his own worship.

At the same time, a nomadic dynasty from Central Asia called the Kushans established their rule in the Northwestern Indian subcontinent. Kanishka, who ruled from 127 to 150 AD, was the greatest Kushan ruler. During his reign, the Kushan Empire reached its zenith. It extended from the plains of North India to the grasslands of Central Asia. 

Kanishka was also great patron of ‘Greater Vehicle’ Buddhism. Buddhist Art flourished in his reign. The popularity of Buddha’s images began to grow at this time.

Kanishka’s coins show many deities – they are from the Greek, Iranian and Indian traditions. Kanishka regarded himself to be a ‘divine king’. Most likely, these deities are shown as his divine companions who support his kingship. Interestingly, the Buddha also appears on Kanishka’s coins as one of these deities. This suggests the Buddha seen as more a god than a preacher or a reformer. 

The Buddha is shown on coins in two forms – one as a ‘real’ or ‘historic’ Buddha and the other, the ‘future’ or ‘Maitreya’ Buddha. The cult of Maitreya was popular in the region of Gandhara - present-day Northern Pakistan, Afghanistan and Northwestern India. Some of his earliest images are found in that region.

The ‘historic’ Buddha stands facing, wearing the robes of a monk. He is hallowed, his hair are neatly tied in a top-knot, his right hand is flexed at the elbow and rests in a ‘gesture of reassurance’. His left hand holds the hanging end of his robe. The fine folds of his robe cascade over his torso covering it up to his knees. The surrounding inscription is in Bactrian– an old Central Asian language. It reads Cakamano Boudo, meaning Shakyamuni Buddha or ‘Buddha, the monk of Shakya lineage’.

The Maitreya Buddha sits cross-legged on a throne, with a halo. He is bare bodied. He wears ear and arm ornaments. These features are in contrast to his depiction as a monk. His right hand makes the gesture of reassurance. In his left hand, he holds the small water-pot, which is his chief attribute. Observe carefully, and you will see the folds of lower garment, the Indian style Dhoti, falling over his ankles, tucked over each other. The inscription on these coins is Metrago Boudo - Metrago is the form of Maitreya in the Bactrian language.

I am intrigued and fascinated by the question “why have such images on coins?” Of course, we cannot dip into Kanishka’s mind directly, so we only have contexts to make a sense of these depictions. People who used these coins might have recognized them immediately, because they very likely saw them in other contexts as well – such as when they visited Buddhist establishments like monasteries. Offering such images and setting up their shrines had become a pious practice. By placing the Buddha on his coins, Kanishka clearly sends a message that he regarded the Buddha as one of the deities that supported his divine kingship. That sentiment might have proved worthwhile to the followers of the Buddha; a lot of them came from rich and elite classes like wealthy merchants. They would have been very pleased to see the Buddha on money.

The choice of ‘Maitreya’ is even more interesting. ‘Maitreya’ heralds a new world order and brings forth a so-called ‘Golden Age’. Was Kanishka suggesting that his reign was that ‘Golden Age’ and it had already arrived? Or was there a particularly bad spell when these coins were issued, when the arrival of Maiterya needed to be invoked? 

We might never know the final answers, but the images are undoubtedly important. They are by far among the earliest images of the Buddha as a human being whose dates we can almost be sure. As such, their importance for understanding Art, History and Sociology of the Ancient World is extremely significant.

Lucie: I love these coins, which both the past and the future Buddhas raise their hand in a gesture of reassure for us in the present. If you want to take a closer look at them, check out the link in the podcast notes. Coming up, we have another story where the past comes full circle. It’s a story about music, love, and geometry. Tune in tomorrow to hear it. If you enjoyed this episode, please remember to rate, review, and share the podcast. It helps other people find us.