THE STORY OF how the image of Buddha finally broke forth into the world after 600 years of symbolism is one of the most intriguing in the history of art — one that is inextricably tied up with the advent of a new dynasty in India that, unconstrained by the conventions of the past, was able to set the image of the Buddha free into the world of men.

It begins with the Kushans, descendants of pastoral nomads who emerged like a wind out of the Eastern steppe around the second century B.C. They were heirs to a dazzling hybridity, which included the first ever confluence of Greece, China, Persia and India. Evidence suggests that it was under their reign that a reconstituted form of Buddhism, known as Mahayana (Great Vehicle) Buddhism, flourished and was transmitted along Kushan-controlled trade routes, deep into the East, through China, and eventually Korea and Japan. It was this rare meeting of politics and faith that led to the discovery, Coomaraswamy felt, “that the two worlds of spiritual purity and sensuous delight need not, and perhaps ultimately cannot, be divided.”

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It is something of a miracle that the Kushans should ever have existed. Their progenitors, the Yuezhi, nomads who roamed the pastoral grasslands of modern-day Gansu, had been pushed out of China in the second century B.C. The Yuezhi drifted into northern Bactria, modern-day Afghanistan, which at the time was controlled by Greek kings, the residue of Alexander the Great’s conquest. The Indo-Greeks lived in garrison towns that turned into cities, and numismatic evidence shows Demetrius I, who reigned in Bactria from about 200 B.C. to 180 B.C., wearing an elephant scalp as a symbol of his conquest of India. His successors, such as Menander I, converted to Buddhism and extended their kingdom deep into the Gangetic plain. It was this India, one fertilized by Greece, that the Yuezhi, now Kushans, inherited. Led by the marvelously named Kujula Kadphises, they conquered Greek Bactria in the first century A.D. That conquest, writes Craig Benjamin in “Empires of Ancient Eurasia,” his 2018 study of the first Silk Roads era, which he dates from 100 B.C. to A.D. 250, “was the very first incident ever in world history that was commented upon by both Western (as in Greco-Roman) and Eastern (as in Chinese) historians.” The Kushans, as if racing to meet their destiny as the bridge between East and West, would go on to become the quintessential Silk Road empire.

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