‘Gandhara’ is an ancient name of a region that today encompasses northwest regions of Pakistan extending into Afghanistan, from the Hindu Kush range of mountains to the foothills of the Himalayas. From around 1st century BCE, the region was at the centre of a thriving trade, between India and the wealthy trading towns of Central Asia. The control of these lucrative trade routes meant that the Gandharan region not only became extremely wealthy but was also a crossroad of cultural exchange. The unique style of predominantly Buddhist art that emerged here between 1st century BCE and 3rd century CE, largely under the Kushana dynasty, is referred to as ‘Gandhara Art’.
Gandharan Art was heavily influenced by Greco-Roman artistic influences brought to the region by the Roman and Bactrian (Central Asian) merchants as well as the Buddhist Art from India. This cross-cultural syncretism between East and West makes Gandharan Art unique. The MARG Magazine in its latest issue, ‘Gandhara: A Confluence of Cultures’ looks at some aspects of the Gandharan culture.
In this essay, art historian Naman Ahuja looks at the cult of the Buddhist goddess ‘Hariti’, believed in several Buddhist traditions to be the protector of children. Through a detailed study of a 2nd-3rd century CE sculpture of Kushan-period Hariti, the essay looks at the numerous religious ideas and cults that came to be consolidated in this significant sculpture from ancient Gandhara. It shows how Hariti, a powerful ogress was transformed into a benevolent mother goddess, and made room for a variety of figures from Hindu, Buddhist, Hellenistic and Zoroastrian myths.
The Cult of Hariti in Gandhara
A 2nd-3rd century AD statue of Hariti from Yusufzai can be found at the British Museum. She is seated with a baby in her lap while seven others gambol around her feet. Not only is it possible to identify each of the children, what is even more remarkable is that they come from different religions and cultural zones.
Hariti, who was later imagined as a beneficent protector of children, appeared in myth as a powerful ogress who had the capacity to cause epidemics like smallpox. This required sacrifices at her shrine, which continued regardless of which saint or other cult grew in popularity. Thus worship at her shrine would not have declined even through the rise of the teachings of the Buddha, which were based on an empirical and rational experience of religion, quite antithetical to the power or fear that a deity like Hariti evoked. The compassion and grace embodied by the non-violent Buddha and his bodhisatvas were in stark contrast to the blood sacrifice accorded to Hariti. How then was this popular cult to be accommodated alongside mainstream Buddhism?
The myth of Hariti as it is preserved in Buddhist texts is instructive. The name Hariti, derives from the root “Har” (stealing/capturing) and literally means “she who steals”. To show her the anguish that other mothers felt when she stole or captured their children, the Buddha once hid her youngest child under his begging bowl. This drove Hariti to desperation; repentant and transformed she vowed that she would, thenceforth, protect children rather than consume them. The Buddha reunited her with her youngest child and assured her that she would have a place in the monastery.
Hariti statues were placed at the entrance to monasteries, and a cult established around her.
Devotees and monks gave her offerings as they entered a monastery, and texts begin to describe her as the provider of children; while her sister is said to help women in childbirth. Monasteries, which also performed a major role as medical centres and as spaces for healing, were particularly important for the care of pregnant women. Evidence for this is now emerging archaeologically as well as from readings of ancient texts.
A sizeable number of statues of Hariti have been found in Gandhara, mostly datable to the 2nd century AD. Images from the same period are also known at other places like Mathura and in Guntur, Telangana. It has been suggested that Hariti’s popularity grew at a time when there was a major global pandemic of smallpox, one that has been recorded as having decimated significant legions of the Roman army.
Remarkably little is known by way of direct evidence about Hariti’s iconography prior to her depiction in Buddhist sites, but there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to consider.
The type is related to dozens of sculptures in India of matrikas (or mothers) who also sit on stools or chairs, often with a baby in their laps. Similar Hellenistic images of a nursing woman, often small portable terracottas, also exist. Grander cult images of Isis Lactans, Demeter and Aphrodite that can be found all over the Mediterranean world at the same time, in the 2nd century, make it appropriate to consider how all these images create a universally common reception of the iconography of a Hariti such as this. We know that the iconography developed into the Madonna and child in European art. Were it not for the fact that this sculpture was probably located at the entrance to a Buddhist monastery, her Magna Mater form is elastic enough to appeal to various religions, and this is reflective of an age in which differences are being collapsed in this figure type.
An opposite, and remarkable tendency, of maintaining difference, is also visible in the British Museum’s Hariti, however. A study of the eight children that surround her reveal the diverse traditions from which they come: from the Ptolemaic world of Egypt, Phoenician Lebanon or Cyprus, Zoroastrian Iran, Hellenistic Greece, Hindu India and of course from Buddhism itself. Each child reveals a unique iconography; and together they highlight the cultural influences brought by the communities that were migrating to Gandhara during this period. Thereby, this statue becomes a wonderful study of early cosmopolitanism in the region that allowed for distinct local practices to coexist.
Cover image: Hariti, from Mathura, 2nd century AD. Red mottled sandstone; 84(h) x 63(w) x 15(d) cm. Courtesy Mathura Museum. Photograph: Naman P. Ahuja.
Naman P. Ahuja is a historian and curator of Indian art. He is a Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi and is Co-Editor of Marg.