I had the pleasure of supervising Dr. Oleg Bendz’s MA thesis, which was completed last year in the Dept. of East Asian Studies, on the 32 signs of the Buddha. The physical representation of the Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama) is characterized by 32 uncommon attributes that are described in the Lalitavistara and other texts (including non-Buddhist texts) as the marks of a great man (mahāpuruṣalakṣaṇas). In various art forms depicting the Buddha, he is usually shown with some but not all of these attributes.
Dr. Bendz’s research notes that most of these 32 characteristics correspond to actual physical observations of congenital abnormalities, such as connective tissue disorders (Ehlers-Danlos and Marfan’s syndrome), which explain skeletal features (long arms, long digits and legs, pedal deformity), and acquired physical changes, i.e. endocrinopathies, as one might see with acromegaly (large tongue and jaw) and Cushing’s syndrome (interscapular hump, soft skin, hair growth quality). As Dr. Bendz pointed out to me, if the real Buddha had had more than two of these clinical features, he could hardly have lived beyond his teens, which is contrary to all texts, which categorically confirm that the Buddha was physically well-endowed and healthy, and lived well into his 80s.
Nevertheless, almost all the 32 main characteristics and the 80 sub-characteristics can be explained as real medical disorders, whether congenital or acquired (the only exception being the 40 white, well-set teeth), which can still be found, as Dr. Bendz’s photos convincingly illustrate. We usually do not see people afflicted by such disorders, since they are rarely seen in public. The exception may be people with Marfan’s syndrome, which could perhaps explain the extraordinarily long fingers seen in some pianists (not to speak of the usefulness of long arms for archers, such as Rāma, to whom the mahāpuruṣalakṣaṇas are also ascribed).
So what could be the explanation for these extraordinary signs of a great man? If we make a hypothesis in line with Foucault’s reasoning in his Histoire de la folie, it is possible that such congenital physical disorders – several of them recorded in medical literature such as the Carakasaṃhitā and the Suśrutasaṃhitā – were considered a blessing, not a curse, just as Foucault’s medieval mental patients were declared blessed by God and not at all mad.[About the author: Sandahl is Associate Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies in the Department of East Asian Studies, where she mainly teaches Advanced Sanskrit courses. For the CSR she offers a course on “Hinduism and Politics” (offered in 2010-2011 as RLG 3713Y).]