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The Buddha Sakyamuni and the Courtesan Utpalavarna in Gandhâran Buddhist Art

By Dr. Osmund Bopearachchi, Scholar of Gandharan Art and Sri Lankan Archaeology

Friday, October 12, 2012
3:00 PM - 5:00 PM
275 Dodd Hall

The Buddha Sakyamuni, having preached Abhidhamma in the Trayastrimsa heaven to the gods and to his mother who was then reborn as a deva, descended to Jambudvipa at Samkasya on a triple ladder with Brahma to his right and Indra to his left. At the bottom, the Buddha was greeted by Utpalavarna, a Buddhist nun who had been a courtesan in Rajagriha. Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese sources, relate how Utpalavarna came to renounce the secular world. While giving birth to a daughter, to her utter dismay, she discovered that her husband was having an illicit affair with her mother. She then ran away from home, leaving her newborn child behind. Sometime later she became the wife of a wealthy man in Varanasi, only to discover one day that the second wife he brought home was her own daughter. Disappointed with life, she became a courtesan in Rajagriha. After a chance encounter with Maudgalyayana, she became a disciple of the Buddha, engaging in Buddhist practice under the guidance of Mahaprajapati until she attained arhatship. The story of Utpalavarna has been a favorite legend among Buddhists, as attested not only by literary sources but also by Buddhist art in which the depiction of Utpalavarna, transformed by magic power into a great emperor (Chakravartin) and admitted with her chariot and troops into the foremost row to pay tribute to the Buddha upon descent from the Trayastrimsa heaven, was a popular theme. Very few art historians have paid attention to representations of the encounter between Utpalavarna and the Buddha. In his lecture, Prof. Bopearachchi will reexamine previously identified reliefs depicting this event in the light of newly discovered unpublished Gandharan reliefs where Utpalavarna is shown both as a Chakravartin and a Bikshuni.

Cost : Free and Open to the Public

Sponsor(s): Center for Buddhist Studies, Center for India and South Asia, Art History

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