Asian Religious Art: Compare and Contrast

Religion is the utmost philosophy and the axis of each culture. It can be either a unifying or a destroying force. It both reflects and shapes the psychology, beliefs, values and even the political and economic reality of the time and of specific cultures. Although all religions share certain characteristics and have different manifestations of similar notions, each religion has its unique ideology. Art has been and continues to be the primary medium for conveying the teachings and conceptions of divine that different religions have. At the point where art and religion intersect, various images and forms are produced. These objects, in retrospect, help see and understand the history and development of diverse cultures more completely and from various perspectives.

Below, I discuss and contrast specific artworks that reflect the essence and reality of three major Asian religions: Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. A comparative analysis illustrates the migration of style, religious deities and philosophies across cultures.

sarnathBuddha preaching the first sermon is a sculpture from Sarnath, Gupta Dynasty (350-600). It illustrates the key aspects of the Buddhist conception of divine. The sandstone sculpture depicts the Buddha seated in a full yogic position with his monastic robe drawn over both shoulders. His raised hand gestures the turning of the wheel of Buddhism, which signifies teaching (dharmacakra mudra). The figure of the Buddha looks calm, a bit remote and very smooth. One can see the typical signs of the Buddha.  The bump on the head, the ushnisa is the sign of wisdom and excessive knowledge that Buddha gained through meditation. The elongated ears, curvy hair and the lotus flower, representing the birth, are other identifiers of the Buddha. There are two angels on the Buddha’s top left and right sides. At the bottom, tiny figures of attendants are listening to his preaching. Buddha has a halo around his head, which illustrates the influence of Christian art. The surroundings of the Buddha have a sense of horror vacui, which is inherent to Indian culture. The figure of the Buddha lacks biological correctness and has a sense of inflation: it is prana. The torso has no bone and muscle. The legs are bent unnaturally and seem to be made of rubber. Body proportions are also distorted. The hands of the figure are too long, whereas the legs are too short. The elbows and knees are placed wrongly. These abstractions do not signify the lack of the artist’s skills. They are aimed at reflecting the heavenliness and remoteness of the Buddha. The circular shape of the head, the narrowness and flashiness of the lips, the shape of the eyes resembling lotus flower petals are representative of Indian ethnicity. His clothing seems to be glued to the body. Besides, his sex is devalued, which also emphasizes the remoteness of the enlightened one.


This bronze sculpture from South India, 1000s depicts androgynous Hindu God, Shiva. As a symbol, Shiva Nataraja combines Shiva’s roles as a creator, preserver, and destroyer, in a single image. It conveys the Indian conception of the never-ending cycle of time. In his upper right hand, he holds the rosary, the beats that syncopate the act of creation and the passage of time. Shiva is shown perfectly balanced. He has multiple hands, which illustrates the supernatural essence. His right foot stands upon the huddled dwarf, the demon Apasmara. His lower left hand stretches diagonally across his chest with his palm facing down towards his raised left foot. This gives a sense of grace. The hands are too long and the head is too big for the body. However, the placement and the width of the shoulders are within the range of the normal. A slight representation of mass can be seen in the hips and around the pectorals. Some bones can be identified in the toes. However, overall, the figure lacks biological accuracy. The face is particularly flat and two-dimensional. The closed, elongated eyes look as though drawn with a pencil on a piece of paper. Shiva has a lot of jewelry: big earrings, bracelets and a necklace. The clothing looks as though glued to the body and he has abundant jewelry, which is typical for the Indian style. Shiva has loose, snakelike hair where one can see the tiny figure of the personified river goddess, Ganga.


Pilgrimage to a holy site is a core principle of almost all faiths. Located in Mecca, The Kaaba from the Ummayad period (661-750) is the holiest shrine in Islam. The Kaaba, meaning cube in Arabic, is a square building. It is elegantly draped in a silk and cotton veil and decorated with gold-embroidered calligraphy. There are colonnades around the open plaza where the Kaaba stands. Muslims believe that Abraham and his son, Ismail, constructed the Kaaba. Tradition holds that, originally, it was a simple unroofed rectangular structure. Later, a door was raised above ground level to protect the shrine from intruders and flood waters. The door has rhythmic and repetitive geometric ornamentations. The Kaaba is built around a sacred Black Stone, which is believed to have been given to Ibrahim by the angel Gabriel. Many Muslims believe that the stone is, in fact, a meteorite possessing supernatural powers. Two of the five pillars of Islam, daily prayer and the pilgrimage-the hajj, are directly related to the Kaaba. It is the direction towards which most of the Muslim mosques point. The geometrical shape of the building and similar mathematical motifs used for decoration fit the religious narrative about the perfection and almightiness of the God, as mathematics is considered the purest and the most accurate of all sciences.


The Great Stupa in Sanchi from the Andhra dynasty (BC50-50AD) is one of the most representative architectural forms of Buddhist traditions. The Stupa contains a relic of the Buddha, which makes it a sacred placed for learning Buddha’s teachings. The bottom of the stupa is called the base. On the base, stands the semicircular mound where the relic is placed. On the very top of the mound, there is a square-shaped balcony. It has umbrellas and an axis, going all the way down to the relic. Symbolically, the axis mundi represents the connection between the Heaven and the Earth. It suggests that Buddhism is at the center of the Earth. The Great Stupa has four intricately decorated gateways facing all four directions; South, North, East and West. There is an ornamented balustrade surrounding the stupa. Various designs and motifs are carved on the railing and on the gates of the Stupa. The sculptures on the gateways consist of decorative illustrations of events encompassing the life of Buddha as elucidated in Jataka tales. The East gate is decorated with a sculpture of a Yakshi, a Buddhist symbol of fertility. Since in the early period Buddhist art was aniconic, the Buddha has been depicted symbolically- by figures like the Bodhi tree, thrones, wheels and footprints among others. Hence, The Great Stupa has a lot of such depictions.


The Lakshmana temple in Khajuraho was built between 10-13th centuries, in Central India.  This temple is a Latina type. The central deity at the Lakshmana temple is Vishnu. His statue is placed inside the temple’s inner womb-room, known as the garba griha. The garba griha is the symbolic and physical core of the temple’s shrine. It is a dark, windowless place designed for individualized worship of the divine. The Lakshmana Temple consists of a shrine known as the vimana, and an entry porch known as the mandapa. The shrine has a base platform and a large superstructure known as the sikhara, meaning a mountain peak. The Lakshmana temple’s sikharas resemble the numerous rising peaks of Himalayas. The sense of multiplication of the sikharas represents fertility, which is a key concept in Hinduism. The sikharas have egg-like amalokas at their tops. The temple has only one entrance on the east side but it has four smaller, subsidiary shrines at each corner of the plinth. These shrines appear like miniature temples with their own vimanas, sikharas, mandapas, and garba grihas with images of Vishnu’s Maya and avatars. Each mandapa has a pyramidal-shaped roof that increases in size from east to west. The temple has three rows of different types of carvings and sculpted decorations. The first row depicts images of daily life and love. In the next raw, the elephant-headed Ganesha, the god worshipped at the beginning of things, appears to suggest that devotees are circumambulating in the correct direction. On the exterior juncture wall between the vimana and the mandapa visitors encounter erotic images of Mithura couples in lively postures: swaying hips, bent arms, and tilted head. They perform kamasutras and create tapas and rasas, heat and energy.  All are carved in deep relief which emphasizes three-dimensionality.


The Great mosque of Qairawana, Tunisia was built during the Abbasyd period (750-900). It is a vivid example of an architectural form inherent to the Islamic art. It is a Friday Mosque used for communal prayers on the Muslim holy day. As an early example of a hypostyle mosque, its layout resembles that of the Prophet Muhammad’s house, in Medina. It is rectangular and has an open courtyard with a fountain at the center. Initially, it had been built of mudbrick, however, later on, it was fortified with stone, brick, and wood. The sanctuary roof and courtyard porticos are supported by Roman-style columns and capitals. It has a qibla wall directed towards the Ka’bah with the mihrab arch pointing to the heaven, the Allah. Wider aisles leading to the mihrab give it a T-plan. The dome emphasizes the placement of the mihrab on the same central axis. The small windows on the dome let natural light into the otherwise dim interior. The stone dome is constructed of 24 ribs. The mosque has a square minaret functioning as a place to call for prayer. It is placed just off the mihrab axis. The minaret also served an identifier of the presence of the Islamic center in the city. The lower portion of the mihrab is decorated with openwork marble panels in floral and geometric vine designs. Since it was used for Friday prayers, the mosque has a minbar, a wooden pulpit where the weekly sermon was delivered. The expensive material and elaborate carvings of the minbar exemplifies the commercial reach of Qairawan.

buddhist monk

The depiction of a Buddhist monk from China (1300), 6 dynasties, embodies a religious role model. As opposed to the Indian indigenous sculptures, this Chinese piece features a thin body with thick clothing. The figure is sculpted with meticulous consideration of all the details.  One can see the jawbones, the cheekbones, the bones in the lobe and in the hands. Eye-sockets are well defined. The nose and the mouth stick out. There is a sense of mass, three-dimensionality in the upper part of the cheeks and the lobe. The only part that is flat and lacks biological correctness is the chest. The reason is that artists did not have models that would pose with uncovered bodies, so that they could observe and make the torso more natural. The elongated, narrow opening of the eyes suggests Chinese ethnicity. However, the shapes of the nose and the mouth have some European elements. Not only does the figure have biological correctness but it also has a character. In contrast to the common statues of deities, the face of this monk reflects presence and personality. Clothing is heavy, which is a specificity of China. All of these features notably differ from the characteristics of the artworks representing the deities, such as the Budhha or various Bodhisattuas. The reason is that as humans, monks were perceived as earthly, real, whereas deities were considered heavenly, thus, being portrayed in a symbolic, abstract way.

dancing krishna

The statue of the little dancing Krishna from South (1000) represents one of the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu, Krishna, also known as the Blue One. Lord Krishna is neither a practical nor a virtuous religious role model. However, his life represents an ideal human life, where one can avoid the caste system and all kinds of conventions. The fact that Krishna was mischievous as a child gave him the alluring freedom and made him a depiction of ideal, free life.  The main characteristic of Krishna was his playfulness, which can be seen in this sculpture. The head is round, the piece does not have any bones and muscle: it is prana. The softness of the belly gives the figure a sense of inflation. The face is particularly two-dimensional. Eye-sockets cannot be determined and eyes look as though drawn with a pencil. However, lips and nostrils are flashy and have a sense of mass. A bit of mass can be identified in the pectorals as well. His head and hands are too big, whereas legs are too short for the body. The clothing includes jewelry, big earrings and the big belt, which are typical for the Indian indigenous style. His movements represent tapas and rasas, the heat and energy. His dance has a juxtaposition of elegance and cheerfulness. The symmetrical position of hands and legs gives a sense of balance to the figure.

 nizamiThe painting of the court scene in Khamsa by Persian painter Nizami (1500, Persia) portrays the royal couple. The entire image is filled with a sense of luxury, richness and royalty, which are representative of ideal surroundings of an Islamic role model. The green, fresh gardens of the background, in their turn, illustrate the idea of heaven for the Muslims. The figures have heart-shaped faces, which is typical for Persian art. However, the ethnicity also includes Chinese, Monghol and Korean features. This is the result of the migration of culture across the trade roots. The bodies are covered with hanger clothing. The source of the light cannot be identified. The absence of shadows makes the picture flat and two-dimensional; no mass can be felt. All patterns are flat as well. There is a fountain with ducks swimming in it and the figure that feeds the ducks has more of European appearance. Color plays a particularly crucial role here. It is used to dictate the manner in which the spectator’s eyes move around the picture. This very movement creates a hyperbolic spiral that is centered on the figure of the ruler, the wealthy role model.

byodo in

Nirvana, the enlightenment, is considered an impractical and remote goal in Japanese Buddhist art. Thus, the narrative of the Western Paradise is more commonly represented as an illustration of the concept of heaven. A vivid example is the Byodo-In temple in Kyoto, built under the rein of the Hein dynasty (1000). The main building in Byodo-in, the Phoenix Hall consists of a central hall, flanked by twin wing corridors on both sides of the central hall, and a tail corridor. It is not a stupa-it has an educational function. The building is made of stained wood with some white elements. Wood gives it a sense of naturalness and purity. There is a garden with a pond in front of the building. The roofs have the Christmas-tree shape coming from Chinese pagodas. Overall, the architectural simplicity of the complex, gives it a sense of heavenliness. Applied to the walls of the hall are small celestial relief carvings that suggest the presence of Amida, the Buddha of the Heaven. Inside the Phoenix Hall, an image of Amida, is installed on a high platform. It is believed that Amida descends from the Western Paradise to gather the souls of believers at the moment of death and transport them in lotus blossoms to Paradise. The Amida sculpture is made of Japanese cypress and is covered with gold leaf.

holy family

This painting from Northern India (1800) depicting the ultimate holy family reflects the concept of Heaven, according to Hinduism. The reason Shiva and Parvati are considered the holy family, is that according to the Hindu mythology, they are the only couple among the Gods that, have children. Thus, they embody fertility, a core concept in Hinduism. The concept of mass, volume, roundedness and three-dimensionality play a crucial role here. The source of the light from the upper left part can be identified with the help of shades and the change in the color value. The sticking parts, such as Shiva’s and Parvati’s faces, have light value and are shiny. Underneath these parts, the value gets darker. To give a sense of surface, they use shading around shoulders. The anatomy is represented with the contrast of dark and light. The characters are a bit flatter than the objects of nature. The proportions and the presence of mass carry European influence. To represent space, the figures of the family members nearby are bigger, whereas the objects far away are smaller. Also, things in the foreground are sharper, whereas things in the background are blurry. The beauty of the background colors represents the image of heaven, release. There are also a lot of deliberate design choices, such as the choice of contrasting colors of blue and orange in the background landscape. There is a sense of rhythm and repetition of shapes in the way trees are placed. This also, gives the landscape a sense of heaven.

 alhambraThe Hispano-Moorish (1300) palace of The Alhambra in Granada, Spain, is distinct for its sophisticated planning, complex decorations, and its many enchanting gardens and fountains. It is built of red sand and has thirty towers of various sizes. Originally, the Alhambra had consisted of three palaces. However, later on, when Christians took over the Spain, King Charles built the forth palace. Thus, it has more of a European style. The different parts of the complex are connected by paths, gardens and gates but each part of the complex could be blocked in the event of a threat since it was constructed as a fortress. The exquisitely detailed structures with their highly ornate interior spaces and patios contrast with the plain walls of the fortress exterior. Its buildings feature shaded patios and covered walkways that pass from well-lit interior spaces onto shaded courtyards and sunny gardens enlivened by the reflection of water and intricately carved stucco decorations. This type of design perfectly illustrates the concept of Heaven for the followers of Islam. As desert-dwellers, Muslim people associated heaven with a place full of green space, vegetation and water-the opposite of a desert. Thus, when designing each detail of the palace they kept in mind this image. The gardens of the Alhambra are so rich and diverse that they have become a place for botanical studies.

To conclude, the contrast in the artworks of different Asian religious traditions illustrates both the similarities and the differences between these religions. It exhibits the migration of style from one culture to another. Reading visual texts of the three major Asian religions, one can see that non-theistic Buddhism, polytheistic Hinduism and monotheistic Islam share certain ideas, forms and visual vocabulary. The Buddha’s teachings utilize much of the same vocabulary of the Hindu Vedas. Islam, in its turn, incorporates appropriation into various manifestations of its aesthetic traditions.  All three have certain depictions of divine, architectural forms aimed at honoring the deities and a conception of the afterlife. However, looking closely, it becomes clear that each religion has doctrines and pillars which are unique and which have remained intact, regardless of the foreign impact and appropriation of visual elements.



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