In my last update post I wrote on my senior thesis:
I’m analyzing the imagery of Herakles/Hercules in Gandharan Buddhist art, hoping to draw meaningful comparisons with early Christian art’s appropriation of Hercules in particular and pagan imagery in general.
This project is why I’ve been largely absent from blogging this last month. It’s taking up all my writing time! This quarter I’ve been working on my annotated bibliography (up to 60 sources now). There are a lot complicated aspects of my project:
- There is a LOT of historical context to keep track of. I’m looking at cultural exchange between the Indian and Greco-Roman worlds on the Silk Road. Much of what we know about the Indian world at this time (the Kushan dynasty of 1st-3rd centuries CE) comes from Chinese Buddhist pilgrims’ travel diaries. There is also Bactrian/Indo-Greek influence to keep track of.
- The mythological figure I’m writing about is depicted in many different ways by different writers. Herakles (Hercules in Latin) was variously depicted as a cultural hero, a drunken madman, a filicidal maniac, a model of Stoic virtue, a devotional healing figure in religious cult, and a model of ideal kingship. The art and the literature about Herakles do not always match.
- The art isn’t always well explained. The Buddhist art I am analyzing does not have much textual evidence to explicate it. Although art historians agree that Herakles became the Buddha’s bodyguard Vajrapani in Gandharan art, we don’t know how much Buddhists knew about Herakles’ myth-cycle, or about why they chose Herakles to represent Vajrapani.
That last sentence contains my essential research topic: a synchronic analysis of the use of Herakles-as-Vajrapani in Gandharan Buddhist art. I’m hoping to find some original, publishable points. I’ve done extensive reading in the Greco-Roman art and myth of Herakles and the historical context of the Kushan dynasty and Roman trade with India. The next step is to go through catalogs of Gandharan art, find all the images of Vajrapani I can, and do some kind of exhaustive analysis of his role in sculptural reliefs depicting the life of the Buddha.
Parinirvana of the Buddha, Gandhara, 2nd-3rd cent. Herakles-Vajrapani is on the Buddha’s right, bare-chested with his vajra, the implement of the Vedic storm-god Indra. Vajrapani usually looks out of place amongst Buddhist monks, so his iconography is easy to spot!
One decision I made early on was to cut the Christian comparison out. There simply isn’t much use of Herakles in early Christian art, apart from the Via Latina catacomb in Rome. As I’ve been finding my voice more and more, I feel more comfortable cutting things out and whittling my topic down to a manageable size. It’s been fun exercising this newly-found power.
Otherwise things have been very good. I’m taking an online graduate course with Thomas Cattoi on “Tibetan-Christian Dialogue.” This class is helping me figure out what I want to do in Buddhist-Christian dialogue down the road. The field is so new that the opportunities seem endless. (I like this terra incognita aspect to the field — it’s why I am not interested in being a classicist!) A part of me is skeptical about systematic theology, and far more attracted to scripture as a way to bring Christianity into dialogue. My training in biblical languages certainly makes scripture an interesting choice. But I also need more time to explore theology and find what approaches and thinkers resonate with me most.
Last but not least, languages. I am trying to squeeze in a Greek minor, which would require one more Greek class before I graduate, for a total of six quarters of post-first-year Greek. Right now we are reading Euripides’ Medea. In the winter and spring we are doing Plato and the Iliad. I’m hoping to finagle a reading course in Patristic Greek somewhere in there. Greek is definitely the most challenging subject I have ever taken, but I know it will also be the most rewarding as I go into graduate school well-prepared for Koine texts.
Hebrew Hosea is fascinating, though Hosea’s gender imagery is rather disturbing. (Though I can’t think of a more suitable metaphor for religious indulgence than adultery!) This is the first time I have just read through a text and discussed its issues as they came up. It’s been very rewarding.
Anyway, keep me in your prayers as I try to stay on track with my projects. Peace!