Material Practice and the Metamorphosis of a Sign: Early Buddhist Stupas and the Origin of Mahayana Buddhism


From at least the third century b.c. , Buddhist ritual focused on stupas, stylized replicas of the mounds of earth in which early Buddhists interred relics of the Buddha. Beginning in the first century b.c. , Buddhist monks in western India began manipulating the physical shape of monastic stupas to make them appear taller and more massive than they actually were. Buddhist monks used these manipulations to help assert authority over the Buddhist laity. Employing theories of practice, materiality, and semiotics, I argue that physical manipulations of the shape of stupas by Buddhist monks led to the progressive detachment of the primary signs of Buddhism from their original referents. Where earlier stupas were icons and indexes of the Buddha encased within indexes of his presence, later stupas were symbols of the Buddha and Buddhist theology. This change in the material practice of Buddhism reduced stupas’ emotional immediacy in favor of greater intellectual detachment. In the end, this shift in the meaning ascribed to stupas created the preconditions from which the Buddhist image cult and Mahayana Buddhism emerged in the first through fifth centuries a.d . The development of Mahayana Buddhism and Buddha images signified a return to iconic worship of the Buddha.