Yoga is now better known for its pants than its spiritual enlightenment. But yoga’s 2,000-plus-year history has much more to do with transforming the mind, predominantly through meditation. In fact, the early yoga art on view in the Sackler Gallery exhibit closing this weekend depicts mostly meditation, and none can be more disturbing or enchanting as the “Fasting Buddha,” an eighth-century ivory sculpture from the Kashmir region of India that interprets Siddhartha Gautama‘s six-year fast prior to attaining Buddhahood. And, at a little under five inches in height, this meticulous carving is astonishing for its detail.
Surrounded by a multitude of little figures, reminiscent of Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and child, three dominant figures are at the focus, and all are Gautama. The central Gautama is experimenting with austerities. To the left he despairs from the futility of such experiments. To the right he accepts a food offering. While the narrative beginning, middle, and end of the work can be lost without the guidance of wall text, it’s the meditative form of the Buddha—-in the center—-that is unmistakable. Except it seems different from the plumper Buddhas we’re familiar with: His cheeks and eyes are sunken, ribs and hips protruding from his midsection, leg and arm bones visible beneath his skin.
“Fasting Buddha” reminds us of yoga’s purpose of enlightenment, but especially of the lengths to which some have gone on their quest to find it—-like depriving themselves of food and movement, and enduring physical suffering far greater than a Velveeta shortage before Superbowl weekend.
Fasting Buddha is on view at the Smithsonian Institution’s Sackler Gallery through Jan. 26.