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The Great Stupa is a famed Buddhist monument that resides in Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, India. The textbook shows that it consists of a hemispheric dome made of rubble, dirt, and stone. Also, it is a mandala (meaning circle). On the top center, is a small square platform. In the center of the platform, there is a mast supporting three circular discs called chatras. The entire dome rests on a raised base and around the top is a walkway. It has four gates, but they are not aligned on an axis with the openings of the railing. The Great Stupa stands at 50 feet and has a diameter of 105 feet. It was founded in the 3rd century BCE and enlarged ca. 150-50 BCE. (Sayre, 115)
Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha). Born as a prince, Buddha was troubled by the suffering of humans. As a result, he traded his luxurious lifestyle for the wilderness where he meditated for six years before finally attaining complete enlightenment while sitting under a banyan tree at Bodh Gaya (Sayre, 114). Afterwards, he taught at the Deer Park at Sarnath, presenting the Four Noble Truths for the first time. He taught until his death and gained a following that would outlast him. Buddhism became the official state religion of the Maurya Empire under Emperor Ashoka (273-232 BCE) after Ashoka became appalled by the bloodshed of battle. He even declared a non violence policy and transitioned from “the cruel” to “the pious” (Sayre, 115). During this time, Ashoka built 8,400 shrines and monuments to Buddha throughout the empire, spreading Buddhism beyond India (Sayre, 115). One of these monuments was the Great Stupa. A stupa is a burial mound. Ashoka had them built to hold the remains of Buddha. There are eight stupas, which were then divided into eight parts, and Buddha’s relics were scattered among them. As Buddhism was introduced in different areas, “the basic architectural features of stupas were transformed into a variety of shapes reflecting the artistic expressions of those cultures” (Violatti).
The structure of the monument is highly symbolic. The stupa is a dome which can be connected to the Dome of Heaven–the sky. The chatras represent the tree in which Buddha achieved enlightenment under as well as the three levels of consciousness– desire, form, formlessness (Sayre, 115). The walkway allows visitors to symbolically follow Buddha’s path or the Eightfold Path as found in the Four Noble Truths. The entire stupa is a mandala which is the Buddhist diagram of the cosmos (Sayre, 115). Also, the Great Stupa is a large structure and is open to the public. This allows for more viewers to make a connection to Buddhism as they walk the path and study the architecture. The Four Noble Truths are: “1.life is suffering, 2.this suffering has a cause which is ignorance, 3.ignorance can be overcome and eliminated, 4.the way to overcome this ignorance is by following the Eightfold Path of right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration” (Sayre, 114). Perhaps the intention behind the Great Stupa was to force viewers to confront their ignorance which could lead to following these truths and finding enlightenment. Stupas were places to hold relics of Buddhist monks and were also used for meditation. The Great Stupa was commissioned by Emperor Ashoka in honor of Buddha, so in making it large and public, more people could see the mark Buddha left and follow in his steps. Additionally, Buddhist monks in South Asia used stupas to assert authority over the common Buddhist in the 2nd century BCE through the 2nd century CE (Fogelin, 278). According to Fogelin, in changing the positions people could view stupas from, Buddhist monks became “physical and metaphorical intermediaries” between the Buddha and ordinary people. The influence that Buddhist monks gained from the design of ritual spaces rewarded them in the form of donations to monks from the Buddhist laity (Fogelin, 278). The Great Stupa could have been power tool like those stupas, but it is more likely that Ashoka simply wished to honor Buddha. Stupas, however, are not unique to Buddhism. They originated in India before Buddhism. In prehistoric times, stupas were used as burial mounds as homage to the dead (Violatti).
One feature of the Great Stupa that is reminiscent of western culture and Christianity is the dome. The building being shaped like a dome reflects their culture by being in relation to the sky as a receptacle of relics. Buddhists believe in heaven, but the stay there is not eternal. Their idea of heaven and hell is that both are a state of mind. Heaven and hell are present on earth and the afterlife. Which place a person ends up in depends on their final thoughts before death; both locations are temporary. Unless a person reaches “Right View” through the Noble Path and achieves Nibbana (eternal happiness), they will continuously be rebirth (Anson). This contrasts with Christianity. Heaven and hell are seen as permanent places of rest; although, there are some debates around whether hell is eternal or not. The closest to the Noble Path is probably the Ten Commandments. The main difference, though, is that Christianity is centered on God while Buddhism is centered on humans. The dome is seen in sacred Christian architecture like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Domes were “visual metaphors for the spiritual journey and communion between human and divine realms that the architectural spaces were themselves intended to encourage” (Grupico). In Buddhist culture, the dome was meant to represent the sky as a receptacle for the soul. This does not differ much from the architectural use of the dome in western culture. Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States. There has been a movement from it, but as a whole, it is reflected as a Christian nation. The dome is used in sacred architecture as a connection between humans and divinity. Although these cultures share a similarity with the dome, stupas are different from burial methods in both Christianity and western culture. Tombs and graveyards are common practice for said groups.
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