Whether or not one accepts Hayden White's assertion that the will to narrativize history is inseparable from a will to impose moral authority in a specific social reality, a brief survey of the artworks of several important Asian religious sites shows that there were narrative works. A further look reveals that those narrative works took as their subject matter the most significant entity in the region, the Buddha.
In addition, the fact that the Buddha and the ideas of the Buddha were exported to sites beyond the Indian subcontinent, to Jakarta, Indonesia for example, does indicate that perhaps White is correct. Perhaps by exporting the ideas attributed to the Buddha, those who commissioned the artworks were attempting to impose their own moral authority on a specific social reality, as well as reinforcing it at home.
Author Jean Johnson of New York University has pointed out that by the early part of the Common Era, Southeast Asia had been visited by Indian traders and the priests who accompanied them. In addition to bringing the Sanskrit language to Sumatra, Java and other points, they brought their priests with them.
The priests brought Hinduism and Buddhism and the idea within those religious practices and the authority of those religions, which extended into secular life. One of those extended ideas was the possibility of kings obtaining divine status. How does one do that? Just as in modern commercials, in which buyers of a product are led to believe they can attain some desired status by drinking a certain beer or wearing a certain kind of cosmetic, the ancient leaders made sure they were seen in proximity to the source of ultimate power, a god. In this case, that was Buddha. If the faithful saw their secular kings in proximity to the divine, the essence of that divinity would rub off, at least a little.
Rather than guilt by association, it would be taken as glory by association. The carving at Barhut, "Naga king worshipping Buddha" from the second century, BC, is one example.
An even later carving, this one from Borobudur, tells the tale of King Sibi in the lower panel, and makes reference to a Bodhisattva in the upper panel.
Bodhisattva is a mortal who seeks Buddhahood by practicing perfect virtue. Despite practicing perfection, Bodhisattvas choose not to enter into Nirvana, paradise, until all living things are also ready to enter. In this case, the Bodhisattva is attended by reverent humans, apparently protective of him. He rides in a horse-drawn chariot, putting him literally and figuratively above the other humans. Still, one of the figures holds a sunshade above the old man's head. The panel is very likely meant to reinforce the idea that Bodhisattvas are worthy of respect, as they are leaders on the way to Nirvana and selfless holy people for waiting for the rest of humanity, and for the animal kingdom as well.
King Sibi is shown with many other humans, but with no animals, although his story is one of his heroic act in giving of his own flesh, from his thigh, to save a starving bird.
In the teachings of the Buddha, one of the prime concepts was reverence for all life, including animals. That the viewers would know the story of King Sibi from teachings by their holy men is likely. So, in fact, the depiction is very likely to be, as White says, a way to impose (or at least reinforce) moral authority in a specific social reality. The specific social reality is, of course, a visit to the religious site. Although these are visited mainly by tourists and researchers today, when the carvings were first installed, they would have been visited by believers or by those brought there to teach them about the beliefs.
In fact, the King Sibi story would be a particularly important one for communicating a change in a moral concept that accompanied the spread of Buddha's teachings. At one time, Hindu rites were accompanied by a great deal of animal sacrifice. Although Buddha was a Hindu by birth, his message was one of compassion for all life forms. He taught that humans and animals were equal partners in the legacy of nature. As a result, Bodhisattvas are not always old men, living out another karmic cycle on their way to Nirvana.
They are often depicted as animals, and the Jatakas, or Buddhist 'parables,' contain stories of animals about one-quarter of the time.
The Barhut carving, "Worship of Buddha," contains two elephants outside the main carving. Although not specifically identified as Bodhisattva, the two elephants well might be representative of that state or at least a very holy state. They appear to be standing upon lotus blossoms. In Buddhism, the lotus blossom is the most frequently represented flower and has a symbolic meaning, also one that would have been known to followers of Buddha. The lotus grows from the mud at the bottom of a pond. A long stalk ends in a lovely white flower appearing to float on the surface. Buddhists believe that people can "rise from the mud of materialism into the sunlight," according to the Art of India Web site.
Does this mean the same concept applies to elephants? Actually, the elephant is symbolic of longevity, fortune and abundance in both Hinduism and Buddhism. The elephant and its symbolism is associated closely with the carving of the worship of Buddha. The Buddha is represented in this carving by a tree. This carving was done at a time when the Buddha was rarely depicted in human form, but rather was symbolized by a wheel or a tree or other image that contained in it all life and completion. In White's view, the creator of the pictorial narrative might have been attempting to reinforce the idea that worship of Buddha and adherence to his teachings was a way to achieve everything represented by the elephants and lotus blossoms. The worshippers themselves appear to be prosperous by the presence of fine headdresses.
The Bodhisattva theme is very well represented at Borobudur, as well. In the carving "Bodhisattva in Tusita heaven," the Bodhisattva is surrounded by an enormous entourage. The members of the entourage are all well dressed. Many have musical instruments. And the Bodhisattva himself is seated in the center, under a sort of temple roof supported by carved pillars.
The Bodhisattva figure is depicted seated in the lotus position, in a pose like that later seen in poses of the Buddha himself.
The Bodhisattva wears a wise, benign expression, and appears to be bestowing a blessing on those who surround him, and on those who view him. Unlike the entourage, almost all of whom are depicted in ae profile, the Bodhisattva is pictured facing outward, full-face, although his gaze is slightly downward. It is possible that, because of the position of the viewer when the panel is in place, he would be looking down, in a very typical 'blessing' position. The viewer would be looking upward, like a supplicant seeking a blessing. It is possible that here, White's concept is borne out not in the art itself alone, but also in the way the viewer might have been forced to look at the art. The moral authority would be the instruction to 'seek blessings;' the social reality would be 'a visit to the religious site at Borobudur.'
Johnson believes that the Borobudur monument was a "vivid visual expression of how Salindra rulers in Java 'localized' Indian ideas in order to enhance their own position." She doesn't claim to know what all the symbols mean, but she says that the site does open the way for speculation on how art was used at that time and place, again supporting White's contention.
Two panels in particular might be helpful in ascertaining that, indeed, there were moral concepts being explained by the artwork.
The first of these is called "Care for an Invalid." There are very few symbols present, but those that are present are important. For example, there is, to the left of the main group of characters, a tree. The tree is very like the tree in the "Worship of Buddha" carving. And in fact, caring for life was one of the four truths of Buddhism. (These truths are: that there is suffering, that suffering has a cause, that suffering can be suppressed and that there is a way to accomplish this.) Here, the apparent patient is central to the carving, as a Buddha or Bodhisattva is central to a carving. The attendants wear an amazing range of expressions of concern and care, all of them subtle. The patient's expression is apparently appreciative of all the kindness from the healers, whose ages range from quite young to quite old.
The message of this carving would be understood by any viewer, not just a Buddhist or would-be Buddhist from that time and place. In fact, the 'moral authority' extends even into the present era's…