Queen Maya and King Sudodana, the royal couple of Kapilavastu are overjoyed these days as there are predictions from Gods that they would soon be blessed with a son who will become a world changer. Queen Maya quietly sits in her quarters awaiting the Buddha’s descent. As time moves, she falls asleep. In her dream the Buddha enters her womb in the shape of an elephant. When she wakes up, there are no ones. Then Maya decides to go to a forest of Ashoka tress. Once she arrives, she sends a servant to ask the king to meet her there. The king arrives at the edge of the forest but not allowed to go any further. Queen Maya comes to the forest edge and tells her dream to her husband king Sudodana. She asks to get Brahmins to interpret the dream. Brahmins tell the couple that the queen will give birth to a son who would become either a universal ruler or a Buddha.
The event revealed through Lalitavistara is deeply trapped in the hearts of billons of people who have taken refuge at the Buddha. But it remained only as a story in the initial years of Buddhism and after 300 years of Buddha’s birth, Maya’s dream was first represented through sculptural art.
Three hundred years later, when Ashoka, the mighty Mauryan Emperor fought the Kalinga War on the banks of Odisha’s Daya River, he was already journeying inward on the path of the Buddha’s wisdom. The loss of life of thousands of innocent people in the war only triggered Ashoka’s spiritual journey as he finally embraced Buddhism and non-violence after the Kalinga war. As a testament to Askoka’s transformation, he commissioned sculpting the dreams of Maya at Dhauli, close to the battle site. The elephant sculpted out of a live rock today stands as a mute testimony through its metaphorical representation of the Buddha’s birth and it is perhaps one of the most moving specimens of early India art.
The elephant sculpture at Dhauli as I remember was a great inspirer in my teen. It was through the inspiration of this image, I decided to pursue my career as an archaeologist at far of Pune’s Deccan College. During my stay at Pune, each visit I made to my home state, the first thing I used to do was cycling to Dhauli, to the abode of the rock-cut elephant and bow down before it. As archaeology is more about the physical description of images and their cultural context, I found difficult to connect with the image spiritually.
As time moved, my spiritual quest rippled and years after, today I am set to go Buddhism spiritually (I am visiting Tushita Meditation Centre at Dharmashala in Himachal Pradesh for 10 days silence mediation). During my next stage of journey I hope I will be able appreciate better the spiritual context of Indian art rather than their mere physical descriptions.