How can we connect the imagery of representational Buddhist/Hindu art and architecture to Buddhist/Hindu practices, rituals, or beliefs?
Historically, Buddhist art was only used to capture Buddhist religious figures or to illustrate the Buddhist message. It differs significantly from Western religious art in that Western religious art was used to depict the Christian narrative by depicting religious figures and mythological events. In contrast, Buddhist art, especially Tibetan Buddhist art, was used to not only depict religious figures but to represent, in a physical, tangible way, the abstract ideas of the religion, such as living a life full of compassion and wisdom (Brown University, "Tibetan Art," p. 1). Buddhist art captured such abstract ideas by making use of symbols all who practiced the religion would easily recognize.
One clear example is the mandala, which is an important part of the Buddhist religious practice. The word mandala in general means "circle" in Sanskrit, and the circle is used to represent wholeness (Ancient History Encyclopedia, "Mandala"). Buddhists see the mandala as a representation of mankind's relationship to the infinite universe and as a guide for spiritual practices. Some mandalas represent spiritual practices by depicting a palace at their center. The palace is protected by multiple layers and opens up to the "four quarters of the world"; each protective layer represents what one must do to be admitted into the palace ("Mandala"). Other mandalas will depict a deity or multiple deities, and these deities will be located in the center of the circle. As Buddhist followers connect with whatever is in the center of a mandala, they grow closer to obtaining enlightenment and achieving complete understanding.
Other Buddhist art will contain many other various religious symbols. For example, many artworks will depict the Bodhi Tree, "the site of enlightenment," to symbolize the Buddha (Ciliberto, "What is Buddhist Art?," Buddhist Art News). Other artworks will depict footsteps to represent the Buddha's "physical presence in the world" (Ciliberto). The understanding of Buddhist practitioners is that, since the Buddha truly existed in this world, we all, like him, have the ability to "pursue and attain enlightenment" (Ciliberto).