NEW YORK - I’ve recently finished John Powers’ latest book, a fascinating and detailed study of Indian gender norms and the masculine ideal in early Indian Buddhism. Through Buddhist literature from the Pali and Sanskrit canons, written centuries after the parinirvana of the historical Buddha, as well as relevant art historical reference points, Powers explores the Buddhist ideal of the attributed physical perfection of the historical Buddha.

Of particular interest are the so-called 32 major marks of a Buddha, or defining physical characteristics which distinguish such an exalted figure, such as: a prominent cranial bump on top of the head (ushnisha); a curl of white hair in the middle of the forehead that when unwound reaches to the elbows (urna); webbed fingers and toes; flat feet; a thousand-spoked wheel pattern (chakra) on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet; sharp canine teeth. As Powers explains: “Men and women who saw [the Buddha’s] body were struck by his extraordinary beauty and mention the physical characteristics of a great man as a key factor in convincing them of the validity of his claims to authority.”

A Grey Schist Figure of a Standing Bodhisattva
. Ancient region of Gandhara, Kushan period, 2nd/3rd century. Sotheby’s New York: Footsteps of the Buddha, September 2013.

Physical perfection is a trope common to Buddhist art, and we see the earliest examples of this in the art of Gandhara from the 1st-5th centuries, such as the gorgeous Standing Bodhisattva above. We see the representation of marks such as the ushnisha and urna, as well as the powerfully chiseled figure and graceful physical symmetry of the figure. The bodhisattva’s physical perfection is an expression of his spiritual perfection.

A Black Stone Stele of Crowned Buddha
, India, Pala period, 10th/11th century
sold at Sotheby’s New York: March 20, 2013.

Almost one thousand years later in the Bengal region in northeastern India we see a subtle transformation of the Buddhist artistic ideal of physical perfection represented in the phyllite sculpture of a Crowned Buddha above. Again we see the ushnisha and urna, and the soles of the feet are indeed marked with the chakra.

Powers’ book is an exploration of “the cultural notions of normative manhood, the body, sexuality and male sociality” in early Indian culture, from the 5th-8th centuries, and an unusual commentary on art historical transmission and cultural appropriation, as we follow the dissemination of Buddhism throughout Asia and throughout the modern world. This accessible book is highly recommended for Buddhist art enthusiasts and those, like me, fascinated with gender roles and subaltern studies in early Buddhist literature.