Schist head of the fasting Buddha

From Rawalpindi District, Gandhara, Pakistan
2nd-3rd century AD

The Buddha undergoing austerities

Siddhartha's idyllic life was interrupted at the age of 19, when he went outside his palace and saw the 'four sights': an old man, a sick man, a corpse and an ascetic. He resolved to renounce his luxurious life, leaving his palace to go out and seek a way out of this world and its inevitable suffering. He tried various methods, under different teachers, but dissatisfied with their instruction, he left to practise religious austerities on his own. He pursued physical hardships to such an extent that he reduced himself to an emaciated state. This was not an unknown feature in the early historic period in India, where renunciation and asceticism (the self-denial of certain pleasures, or even what are usually considered essential practices of life) was a traditional method of building up spiritual power and purity.

This sculpture captures that time when the Buddha had brought himself close to death. This is not a common subject, but a few powerful and graphic pieces such as this one are known from Gandhara. After pursuing austerities, Siddhartha realized that the true nature of the world and the answers that he was seeking did not lie in such extremes. Instead, he began a more moderate life of meditation and moral conduct that led him to nirvana. This moderate lifestyle the Buddha described as the 'Middle Way', a key feature of Buddhist life even today.

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More information


W. Zwalf, A catalogue of the Gandhara sc, 2 vols. (London, The British Museum Press, 1996)


Height: 22.300 cm
Width: 12.700 cm
Depth: 18.500 cm

Museum number

Asia OA 1907.12-28.1


Gift of Lieutenant-Colonel F.G.L. Mainwaring


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