The twisted garland of beads behind the Buddha’s head represents his halo, a symbol of radiance. Around the inside of this halo, incised in low relief, is a standard formulation of a basic Buddhist belief:
“The Buddha has explained the cause of all things that arise from a cause. He, the great monk, has also explained their cessation.”
Here we see elements that tell us we’re in the presence of the Buddha as he was on the threshold of achieving enlightenment. Above his head are branches of heart-shaped leaves. They indicate the sacred bodhi tree, under which he is said to have attained enlightenment some 2,500 years ago.
His right hand reaches downward to touch the pedestal—symbolizing the ground on which he sat. Buddha images seated with the right hand in this earth-touching gesture memorialize the victory of the Buddha-to-be over the demon Mara, an embodiment of delusion and uncontrolled passions.
After many lifetimes of spiritual and intellectual preparation, while the Buddha-to-be sat in meditation under the bodhi tree, he and Mara repeatedly challenged each other’s power and accomplishments. Mara approached at the head of a monstrous army, determined to stop the Buddha’s enlightenment. The Buddha stretched out his right hand, calling out to the earth to witness his right to attain Buddhahood. The mighty earth thundered, “I bear you witness with a hundred thousand roars.” And Mara’s followers fled.
This sculpture was created in northeastern India, near Bodh Gaya, the site where the momentous event is said to have occurred. Over the centuries, pilgrims from all over Asia have journeyed to this sacred Buddhist site, returning home with texts and artworks that carried Buddhism to other parts of the world. Today, they still travel to Bodh Gaya to see the descendant of the Buddha’s bodhi tree.