Friday, July 3, 2009

The Buddha's Hair

Okay! Hears one for you. Why is the Buddha’s hair usually depicted as a collection of tightly twisted spiraling curls? A search through the internet came up with two particularly cockeyed explanations. (1) The Buddha sat in meditation for so long that snails slid up his body and rested on his head. This theory would seem to be based on the similarity between the spiriling curls and snail shells (yawn, yawn!). (2) On a black pride website claiming that most of the civilization’s great innovations actually originated in Africa or were made by black people, it is maintains that the Buddha was actually an African. The proof of that is that he had crinkly African-type hair (groan!). Okay, after that interesting sojourn in cloud-cuckoo land, let’s return to earth and have a look at the evidence. Firstly, let us be clear that this is more a question related to iconography and art history than to Buddhist thought and practice. Secondly, I know of no serious attempts by Buddhist commentators or art historians to explain the spiraling curls on Buddha images. And thirdly, the Tipitaka offers no authentic information about the Buddha’s hair other than to say that it was black (kalakesa) and that he cut it off when he renounced the world to become a monk (M.I,163). Although it is not mentioned anywhere in the Tipitaka, we can safely assume that the Buddha shaved his head like all other monks. Depictions of him with hair, is an iconographical convention without historical basis.
So where did the spiraling curls come from? The Lakkhana Sutta and several other suttas are devoted to the concept of the 32 Signs of a Great Man (mahapurisalakkhana), a rather strange idea introduced into Buddhism at a later period. One of these signs pertain to the hair. The relevant passage reads ‘Uddhaggani lomani jatani nilani anjanavannani kundalavattani padakkhinavattaka jatan’ (D.II,17). Word for word this means – uddhaggani = turns around or upwards, lomani = hair, nilanianjanavannani = black in color similar to collyrium, kundalavattani = curled, and padakkhinavatta = turning to the right. So according to the sutta, the Great Man’s hair was black and curled upwards and to the right. It was probably thought to curl the right because the right has been, in nearly all cultures, considered more auspicious. Being the color of collyrium is interesting. The Pali and Sanskrit word nila means black, blue or dark. Now collyrium as it is used in India, is made from the ash of fleabane, ghee and a few other ingredients and is a black greasy substance. In Mahayana sutras the nila gradually came to be understood as being blue. In the Gandhavyuha Sutra’s discussion on the signs of a Great Man it glosses nila as ‘the color of the vairocana jewel’ which is blue in color. This is why Tibetan Buddha statues have blue hair.
Anyway, when the first sculptors made Buddha statues they tried to depict at least some of the 32 signs. It is thought that the first Buddha statues were made in Gandhara under Greek influence, and in Mathura, in around the 1st/2nd centuries CE. Greek or Greek-influenced sculptors in Gandhara, perhaps more rooted in reality, depicted the Buddha’s hair naturalistically as, not exactly curling to the right, but waving to the right. The first Mathura-manafactured Buddhas show him with a single bun spiraling to the right, something like a Mr. Whippy ice cream. The Gandhara style never penetrated into India proper and eventually died out. The spiraling Mathura style eventually evolved into many spiraled curls and the Buddha’s hair has been depicted in that manner ever since.


rebeldealegre said...


A quick note:

There's a sutta on the Sutta Nipata (Sn. 142) where a brahmin angry at the presence of a shaved monk (he was going to make some ritual as I recall), he told him, "Stay there, you shaveling, stay there you wretched monk, stay there you outcast."
Maybe this indicates that the Buddha shaved his hair.

I didn't know that the Marks of a Great Man is not a canonical idea. Do you know which suttas in the Majjhima Nikaya are later introductions to the Pali Canon?
That would be interesting to know.


piotr.paweĊ‚ said...


There is a passage in Majjjima-nikaya, which indicates that, the Buddha of the past, Kassapa, was also shaving his head:

"One day the potter Ghatikara addressed the brahmin student Jotipala thus: 'My dear Jotipala, let us go and see the Blessed One Kassapa, accomplished and fully enlightened. I hold that it is good to see that Blessed One, accomplished and fully enlightened.' The brahmin student Jotipala replied: 'Enough, my dear Ghatikara, what is the use of seeing that bald-pated recluse?'" — Ghatikara-sutta (MN 81), translated from Pali by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Adrian and Piotr,
Thank you both for pointing out the two passages which I had forgotten, and which confirm what I said, that the Buddha was a
'mundaka’ monk. The 32 Signs are canonical in that they are mentioned in the Canon but of course not everything in the Canon can be attributed to the Buddha or dates from his time. The Signs would be an example of this.For some of my thoughts on the 32 Signs go to and have a look at ‘Signs of a Great Man.’
I think it is fairly safe to say that most of the material in the Majjhima dates from the earliest period of Buddhism, but suttas like numbers 91,92,116 and 123,are doubtful.

no said...

Thanks for this interesting bit of information. I had thought that it was due to beliefs in physiognomy, so it more or less confirmed my suspicion. Intelligent persons are supposed to have bumps on the head, so an exceptionally intelligent person like the Buddha would have a very large cranial bump. As for the hair, if monks shaved their heads once a month, nearer to the end of the month there would be hair visible, as can even be observed nowadays on some monks.

ah-ha said...

If only camera was invented 3,000 years ago, we wouldn't be splitting curly hairs now.
Talking about creator-god, why wasn't the camera created? This is far more useful than eye-worms and enable all things bright and beautiful to be captured.

Tonya said...

I am tired of the esoteric answers to a simple question. The Indian hair structure is varied---from straight to curly. Historically, India was invaded by the Aryans, hence a straighter hair texture. Buddha's hair deeply resembles an African hairstyle called "Bantu Knots." Through trade, people shared music, religion, clothing styles, foods, martial arts, and even hairstyles without the baggage that race placed upon modern society. I am not attempting to prove Buddha to be a Black man, but I encourage you to research India and take a look at the many faces of India. Here is a great website that should help you understand that Buddha's hair was probably extremely curly---no snails. If you can set aside your biases, ethnocentrism, and fears, you may be able to view India as it was and is. Please view:

This site was created by an Indian and, therefore, it is not Black pride propaganda. Just historical and factual information. Please note the bronze Africoid dancer figurine found in the Indus Valley around 2nd millenium B.C.

Ruben Demos said...


I really liked this post and I've seen it being mentioned by many people whenever the discussion about the Buddha's hair pops up.

However, I have a question related to this article about the use of the word 'nila'. One of the signs of a great man is 'Ahbi Nila Netto' translated by many on the Internet (inlcuding wikipedia) as 'Very Blue Eyes'. This confuses me a little bit. Who has decided that the word Nila is meant as blue here? When, like you stated, Nila can also be used for 'black' and 'dark'. The hair of the Buddha is mentioned as 'Blue Black', also named with the word Nila. Why is the nila from the hair color, different from that of the eyes? Where is the difference, I wonder. Very Blue Eyes, in my opinion, might give people a wrong impression. They might associate this with the blue eyes you see in people today, light blue eyes, sky blue eyes etc. I don't think Nila is a correct word for such a light color.

To support the sign, a quote if often given:
''He has very blue eyes (Pali: abhi nila netto). Note 1: "very (abhi) blue (nila) eyes (netto)" is the literal translation. Nila is the word used to describe a sapphire and the color of the sea, but also the color of a rain cloud. It also defines the color of the Hindu God Krishna. Note 2: "His lashes are like a cow's; his eyes are dark./ Those who know such things declare/ 'A child which such fine eyes/ will be one who's looked upon with joy./ If a layman, thus he'll be/ Pleasing to the sight of all./ If ascetic he becomes,/ Then loved as healer of folk's woes.'" (Lakkhana Sutta)''

Wait a second. Very blue eyes, but ''his eyes are dark? And Nila is also used to describe a rain cloud? Sapphire is really dark blue. And Krishna is dark/black/dark-blue. Where does this fit with the 'very blue eyes' translation?
On wikipedia this 'particular scentence is stated as: ''His eyes are blue.'' (and on other sites too. Really odd that only this scentence is changed.) Why would people have two meanings to this word? There is a difference between blue eyes and dark eyes. Unless ofcourse, nila was used, and therefore nobody is really sure what exact color is used here.

My question is not necessarily related to the Buddha only, but to the use and definition of 'Nila' when talking about the 32 Signs of a Great man a Great Man.

I would really like to know what your opinion is about this.

Greetings Ruben Demos
(Also interesting to mention, maybe, I'm Dutch and Buddhism is really growing in popularity here. Thankfully.)

Ruben Demos said...

Pardon me,
it is not Wikipedia that has these changes in the scentence. It is this page:

siyu siti said...

ok, thank you for the information
How To Treat Split Ends

Russell Manning said...

African culture is the only culture to be found on each and every continent. American Indians were the offspring of African and Asians. Ha. Christopher Columbus just stumbled across America? How about lead here by Africans. Jesus had the hair texture of wool...but he was a white man with read hair. Open your eyes people, or better get watch hidden colors documentary. Pharaohs- Africans and so fourth. That's why they have cover up the truth about the Africans reign. The African culture will reign again, like it or not.