Robert D. DeCaroli

Robert D. DeCaroli

Robert D. DeCaroli

University Affiliate


Interactions of early South Asian Buddhism with popular religious practice, the origin of the Buddha image and the social, political, religious factors that led to its codification and spread

Robert DeCaroli received his Ph.D. in the field South and Southeast Asian art history from UCLA. He is a specialist in the early history of Buddhism and has conducted fieldwork in India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia.

He is the author of Haunting the Buddha: Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism (Oxford UP 2004) as well as of several journal articles and book chapters. The majority of this work deals with early (3rd c. BCE - 5th c. CE) aspects of South Asian material culture and its interaction with forms of regional religious practice.

His second book, Image Problems: The Origin and Development of the Buddha’s Image in Early South Asia (U Washington Press 2015), explores the origin of the Buddha image and the social, political, and religious factors that led to its codification and spread.

He is co-curator of the Encountering the Buddha exhibit at the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.

He has been the recipient of the George Mason University Teaching Excellence Award and has received research grants from the Asian Cultural Council and the Getty Research Institute. He was awarded the ACLS/The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Program in Buddhist Studies Research Fellowship for 2020-2021.

From 2005 to 2014 he served as Director of the Art History Program.

Selected Publications

Buddhism and the Senses. Co-edited with Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Press).

Across the South of Asia: A Volume in Honor of Robert L. Brown. Co-edited with Paul A. Lavy. (New Delhi, DK Printworld Books, 2020).

"Snakes and Gutters: Nāga Imagery, Water Management, and Buddhist Rainmaking Rituals in Early South Asia," Archives of Asian Art. vol 69 no.1. April 2019.

Image Problems: the Origins and Development of the Buddha's Image in Early South Asia (Seattle:University of Washington Press, 2015).

“‘The Abode of a Naga King’: Questions of Art, Audience, and Popular Deities at the Ajanta Caves” Ars Orientalis. vol. 40 (2011) 142-161.

Haunting the Buddha: Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

“Shedding Skins: Naga Imagery and Layers of Meaning in South Asian Buddhist Contexts” in Buddhist Stupas in South Asia. A. Shimada and J. Hawkes eds. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009) 94-113.

“From the Living Rock: Understanding Images in Early South Asia” in What’s the Use of Art?: Asian Visual and Material Culture in Context. J Mrazek and M Pitelka eds. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008) 21-45.

“Reading Bhaja: A Non-Narrative Interpretation of the Vihara 19 Reliefs.” East and West. vol. 50. (2000) 259-280.

Expanded Publication List

“Conspicuous Absences: The Avoidance and Use of Images in Early South Asia” in The Image in Islam. Christiane Gruber and Stephano Carboni eds. Ginko Library Art Series.

Introductory chapter and section openings. Paths to Perfection: Buddhist Art at the Freer/Sackler. Smithsonian Publications

 “Iconography and Programmatic Decoration in Early Buddhism” in Cambridge History of Religious Architecture.

"Art of South and Southeast Asia before 1200" and "Art of South and Southeast Asia after 1200" (Chapters 10 and 24) in Art History. 5th edition, M. Stokstad and M. Cothren eds. Boston: Pearson/Prentice Hall.


Courses Taught

ARTH 102 Symbols and Stories in Art

ARTH 203: Survey of Asian Art

ARTH 382: Arts of India

ARTH 383: Arts of Southeast Asia

ARTH 384: Arts of China

ARTH 394/599: The Museum

ARTH 400: Historiography and Methodology in Art History

ARTH 482/599: Art of Colonial India

ARTH 482/599: Cave Temples of Asia

HNRS 122: Reading the Arts

Recent Presentations

Ritual and Narrative at the Ajanta Caves. International Association of Buddhist Studies 2011 Taipei, Taiwan.

Buddhist Art and Ritual Practice. American Academy of Religions Oct. 2010. Atlanta GA

Standing Guard: The Terracotta Army. Invited Lecture at the National Geographic Society, Washington DC April 2010.

Dead and Gone: Negotiating Absence and Presence in Images of the Buddha. The American Council of Southern Asian Art Conference. Denison Museum Denison, Ohio. Oct. 2009

Footsteps of the Buddha: Art and Pilgrimage in India. Invited Lecture at the Smithsonian Institution. Sept. 2009

Serpents in the Family Tree: Art of and for the Gods. Invited Lecture for the Center for Indian and South Asian Studies and the Department of Archaeology at University of California, Los Angeles. May 2009.

“The Abode of a Naga King”: Questions of Art, Audience, and Popular Deities at the Ajanta, Invited Lecture at Houston Museum of Fine Arts. April 2009.

Invited Discussant and Respondent at “Nativism in Buddhism” Conference held in Dusseldorf, Germany sponsored by EKO – Haus. September 2008.

In the Media

Consultant for Fairfax County, Virginia school system World History textbook selection. Mentioned in April 17, 2005, Washington Post.