At the press opening for the beyond-beautiful of the Metropolitan Museum “Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BC-400 AD,” five red-robed monks chanted Pali blessings, the vocalized equivalent of ocean silence. The ancient sculptures around them projected a different, visual music: Forest birds sang, mythical creatures roared, and demigod and human figures clapped and danced as if at some tumultuous summer party.

There were also other contrasts at the opening, less obvious. Given the monumental brilliance of the sculptures, each lit to appear deeply carved from darkness, you probably wouldn’t think to guess the difficult, always trying process – logistical and diplomatic, spanning a decade – that went into gathering them together, with more than 50 on loan from India for the first time. It says something about those curatorial struggles that we haven’t seen such a display of ancient art from India, on this scale, in an American museum for years, and probably won’t again anytime soon.

So when the Met’s curator of South and Southeast Asian art, John Guy, stepped to the microphone to thank a group of visiting Indian museum directors, his words had a particular resonance. These were the people who basically gave permission for that show to happen.

Buddhism itself, in its fundamental form, is a permissive faith that offers us, as it does, many ways to save our souls, including through practices of generosity. At the same time, it is a belief of ethical absolutes, one important being: stop killing — your fellow creatures, that means all living things, and the earth, which has its own consciousness.

And it is with images of the Earth – of Nature driven by spirits, as it was gradually seen and understood by the man who would become the Buddha – that the exhibition begins.

The man was, in many senses, always worldly. He was born a prince, Siddhartha Gautama, in the fifth century BC in what is now Nepal, near the border with India. As a young person he was a familiar type, a wine-women-and-song sensualist, but one with a depressive streak that caused him to grow fixated on the fact of mortality and its problems. In a shock of despondency, he completely changed his life, set out and became a beggar, one among many, of various purposes and persuasions, who roamed India at that time.

And once out there, he soon became aware that he was in spiritually charged terrain, one perceived and respected by base nature cults. Trees, he learned, had souls; birds spoke wisdom; flowers were out of season, and snakes had protective powers. In this world, fantastic creatures – part crocodile, part tiger, part fish – were as common as house pets. And populations of nature spirits, male (called yakshas) and female (called yakshis), grotesque and beautiful, malignant and benevolent, ruled.

It was in this environment that Prince Siddhartha went over to being the Buddha, and found the peace he was looking for. He was in his 30s, and already had a few followers. By the time he died, at 80, he had many more. Then Buddhism became a “thing”, a path, a belief. And significantly for art, it was on its way to becoming a monument-building institution.

Those first monuments were of a special type. Known as stupas, and based on traditional South Asian funerary markers, they were domes of firebrick and packed earth in which the remains of the Buddha – initially cremation ashes – were embedded.

The Stupa is a recurring visual theme in the Met exhibition. A towering abstract walk-in version of one is a pivotal feature of Patrick Herron’s charismatic exhibition design. (Enter this stupa and you’ll find a third-century BC reliquary made of rock crystal shards, tiny pearls, and gold florets arranged in a radiating mandala pattern.)

And a sculptural depiction of a stupa, carved in relief on a limestone panel, opens the show. Dating from the first century AD, it was once attached to the surface of an actual, now long-gone stupa at Amaravati in southern India (in what is now the state of Andhra Pradesh), an area the Buddha never visited, but one that produced some of the grandest monuments to him, and the origin of most of the works in the Met show.

Cut into the surface of the panel are features of the natural-meets-supernatural world that Siddhartha-becoming-Buddha learned to know. A majestically towering serpent deity guards the balustrade gate of the stupa. A large umbrella-shaped tree shades its dome. And in extraordinary relief nearby, a grave-faced, luxuriant-bodied nature spirit seems to materialize like mist from the stone.

On other reliefs from different places, in northern and southern animist India, you will find scenes of communal worship in progress at stupas. With multiple figures kneeling, and waving and praying and flying – no real separation between natural and supernatural here – these gatherings can look pretty wild, and probably were. Early Buddhist public devotion, like that practiced by animistic nature cults, had a jamboree atmosphere. Along with rituals and processions, there were, no doubt, food sellers, and incense sellers, and corner buskers, as there are in India today. These occasions were about gaiety, abundance, abundance – about heaven, yes, but also very much about earth.

One figure you rarely if ever see participating in these sensual melees is that of the Buddha himself. For reasons that have been the subject of much historical speculation, early on, and for a long time, he appeared in art only in the form of symbols: an empty throne, a flaming pillar, a wheel (representing his teaching), a pair of footprints, or the Stupa itself. And this was true even when the depicted subject was, as very often, a scene from his own life.

As if, after his release from the agony of mortality, which he had tried so hard to achieve, to bring him back to bodily form would be sacrilege, and a shame. Ineffability was his great reward, a badge of Buddhahood, which he encouraged us all to try to win.

Salvation is, of course, like art, a universal concept, differing only in detail and dimension from place to place. And while the specific setting of the Met exhibition is India, its curator, John Guy, who also oversaw the superlative catalog, is careful to avoid the impression that early South Indian Buddhism and culture were deprived phenomena.

In a gallery titled “Buddhist Art in a Global Framework”, he succinctly demonstrates, through the inclusion of two exquisite luxury commercial items, the long-term exchange between the subcontinent and the Mediterranean world. One piece is a first-century bronze Roman copy of a Greek statuette of the sea god Poseidon, discovered, among other Roman items, in the 1940s in Western India and preserved in a museum there. The other, absolutely stellar work, also from the first century, is an ivory statuette depicting a fully naked and visually seductive yakshi, or courtier. It was carved in southern India and found, in 1938, in the ruins at Pompeii.

When these pieces made their journeys away from home, single-figure sculpture, bearing traces of Western models, already had a long influence, as a prestigious style, on Buddhist art in northern India, in political and religious centers such as Gandhara. Only later, in the third and fourth centuries, perhaps spurred by an increase in commercial maritime trade between Greater Rome and the subcontinent, did the taste for it move south.

And when it did, the Buddha himself began to appear there in bodily form as well. Carved and cast, free-standing and in-the-round, often wearing robes that had a toga-ish cut and drape, this image became the primary focus of worship at shrines, now centered at monasteries. It replaced the serpent deities and tree spirits strategically adopted by the old nature cults, and it incorporated some of the disembodied symbols – the Dharma wheel – that once replaced the Buddha.

Several independent Indian figures turn the show’s final gallery, mockingly titled “The Buddha Revealed,” into a kind of chapel. And it can be seen that a page has been turned, both in the story of the exhibition, and in the history of Buddhism itself.

By the time the latest of these single-digit icons was made in the late fifth to sixth century AD, the map of Buddhism had changed. By then the religion was widespread in Southeast Asia and China. In the sixth or seventh century, it would arrive in Japan. And its heyday in India gradually subsided. New evangelical forms of Hinduism overtook it in popularity; later, Islam would enter the scene and put Buddhism under siege. By the 12th century, it was reduced to a remnant in India. Then it almost disappeared.

If you didn’t know about this fate, it would be hard to guess it from the brilliantly vital, almost palpable early Indian Buddhist art in the Met show. And from the perspective of the time when art was made, it would have been difficult to predict the terrestrial disaster of our day, brought about by what turned out to be the most dangerous invasive species on the planet, humans. The free-standing Buddhas in the last gallery of the show are free-standing and expressive, commanding, and modern-looking. But to come to them after passing through rooms full of images of people and deities jostling, body to body, like New Yorkers in the subway – with those bodies inextricably woven into landscapes of trees and flowers and birds – “self-possessed” and “commanding” and “modern” feels like a responsibility, not virtues.

Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BC – 400 AD

Through Nov. 13, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., (212) 535-7710; metmuseum.org.

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