Apr 28, 2011

The Helmet Of A Warrior Buddha

Early Buddhists revered not a man, but the wheel
Let's take a break from the Dhammapada just now because I want to talk a little about the Buddha's appearance, in particular his hair.

We know from the suttas (Sanskrit sutras) of the Pali Canon (the oldest scriptures of Buddhism) that the Buddha shaved his head and kept it shaved, like his followers.  So why is it that the vast majority of statues depicting the Buddha Gotama (Sanskrit Gautama) have what appears to be long, curled hair tied in a topknot?

There are three reasons why I think this may be so.
Helmet-like hair of Buddha

1. Buddha's hair reflects that of the artist

In the oldest Buddhist artworks the Buddha is conspicuous by his absence. Early Buddhist artists just did not depict the Buddha in human form. It wasn't until after the conquest of India by Alexander the Great, the arising of the Indo-Greek kingdoms, and the conversion of the Indo-Greeks to “Greco-Buddhism”, that the Buddha is finally depicted in the form of a man. Because of this lapsed span of time between the living Buddha Gotama and the first depiction of him in art (approximately 500 years or so) - and possibly because of a superstition about the Buddha's physical appearance1 the Greco-Buddhist representation of the Buddha in sculpture is that of a man dressed in a Greek-style toga (ιμάτιον, himation) with long hair tied into a topknot.  In all likelihood, this may merely have been representational of Indo-Greek fashion for high-born men of the times.
Sikh helmet with topknot

2. Buddha's hairstyle is a warrior's hairstyle

In the Digha Nikaya of the Pali Canon, the clan of Gotama Buddha is described as being foreign, and certainly Gotama was of the Śakyan people, most probably a Scythian (Saka) tribe from the north. According to common Indian practice, foreigners were usually placed into the Kshatriya (warrior) caste, and Gotama's clan was no different.

An important sign of the warrior Kshatriya is kesh, long hair, still evident in Sikh religious practice today2, and so a long-haired Buddha is merely a reflection of Gotama's caste. It need not be said that India's caste system, despite efforts to expunge it3, is still viewed as extremely important by Indians today, as it certainly was in ancient times.
Greek helmet (note swastika) with a topknot-like formation
Kshatriya Buddha

3. Buddha's hair is a helmet

Still keeping with Gotama's Kshatriya status, but staying close to what the scriptures say, the Buddha's hair may not be hair at all, but in fact a warrior's helmet symbolically placed upon Gotama's shaved head. 
There are certainly many helmets of the ancient world with hair as part of the design, especially amongst Greeks and those peoples influenced by Greek culture. 
It is certainly not out of the question that the Buddha's hairstyle may represent the helmet of a Kshatriya. This may in fact symbolise the well-known story of Gotama's victory over Mara, the devil in Buddhism, and his legions.

Such representations of a helmeted, battle-ready Buddha would indeed be great inspiration for all those Buddhists who recognised and understood the symbolism.

Macedonian helmet with hair and Buddha-like face

Roman helmet with hair depicted in its design
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Notes

1  The 32 signs of a Great Man.

2  Sikhism began amongst a Kshatriya people of the Punjab.

3  Gotama Buddha tried to rid his society of the caste system himself, but was unsuccessful.

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