A statue (pañimà) is a figure of a person or animal in metal, stone or some other substance. Buddha statues are not, as is sometimes supposed, idols but representations of the Buddha meant to act as an object of contemplation or a focus of attention.
The first Buddha statues were made in India in about the 2nd century CE, perhaps due to Greek influence. Before that time, the Buddha was represented by a wheel, a Bodhi Tree, a pair of footprints or an empty throne.
A common misconception is that the Buddha did not allow statues or stupas and this was a later innovation. This is not correct. The Buddha advised that stupas should be done.
26. "The body of a universal monarch, Ananda, is first wrapped round with new linen, and then with teased cotton wool, and so it is done up to five hundred layers of linen and five hundred of cotton wool. When that is done, the body of the universal monarch is placed in an iron oil vessel, which is enclosed in another iron vessel, a funeral pyre is built of all kinds of perfumed woods, and so the body of the universal monarch is burned; and at a crossroads a stupa is raised for the universal monarch. So it is done, Ananda, with the body of a universal monarch. And even, Ananda, as with the body of a universal monarch, so should it be done with the body of the Tathagata; and at a crossroads also a stupa should be raised for the Tathagata. And whosoever shall bring to that place garlands or incense or sandalpaste, or pay reverence, and whose mind becomes calm there — it will be to his well being and happiness for a long time.
27. "There are four persons, Ananda, who are worthy of a stupa. Who are those four? A Tathagata, an Arahant, a Fully Enlightened One is worthy of a stupa; so also is a Paccekabuddha, and a disciple of a Tathagata, and a universal monarch.
28-31. "And why, Ananda, is a Tathagata, an Arahant, a Fully Enlightened One worthy of a stupa? Because, Ananda, at the thought: 'This is the stupa of that Blessed One, Arahant, Fully Enlightened One!' the hearts of many people will be calmed and made happy; and so calmed and with their minds established in faith therein, at the breaking up of the body, after death, they will be reborn in a realm of heavenly happiness. And so also at the thought: 'This is the stupa of that Paccekabuddha!' or 'This is the stupa of a disciple of that Tathagata, Arahant, Fully Enlightened One!' or 'This is the stupa of that righteous monarch who ruled according to Dhamma!' — the hearts of many people are calmed and made happy; and so calmed and with their minds established in faith therein, at the breaking up of the body, after death, they will be reborn in a realm of heavenly happiness. And it is because of this, Ananda, that these four persons are worthy of a stupa." (Digha Nikaya 16)
King Ashoka is said to have erected 84,000 stupas honoring the Buddha and the Dhamma. He gazed for one full week at the Bodhi Tree. Considering this we can say with certainty that he must have built one in Bodh Gaya honoring the spot of enlightenment, i.e., the Maha Bodhi Temple stupa.
The hands of Buddha statues are usually shown in one of several gestures (mudrà), the most common being the gesture of meditation, of fearlessness, of teaching and the earth-touching gesture. On the top of the statue’s head is usually a flame - sometimes realistically depicted, sometimes highly stylised - meant to suggest a halo. Buddhists place flowers, lights and incense before Buddha statues to honour the Buddha’s memory and as reminders of fleeting beauty, the light of knowledge and the fragrance of virtue respectively. Although much popular superstition surrounds Buddha statues, particularly in Thailand, no informed Buddhists believe that they are anything more than symbols of the enlightened person in material form.
Great artistic skill is used in making the statues and the use of beautiful statues and other artistic forms in Buddhist temples is at least skilful means, for the understanding of Buddhism and the wholesome representation of the teacher and teachings at its best.
See also: Idolatry
The Buddha Image, D.L.Snellgrove, 1978.