I have a talmid who may become a baal teshuva. He is very wealthy and has a collection of Indian art including sculpures – very valuable. He raised with me the possibility of them being avodah zara.
The questions: is buddhism avodah zara? If not, what is the status of the art? If yes, what can he do with them? Please advise.
Buddhism in its original form is an idolatrous religion, though today it is mingled with many other ideas, and I am not expert in the various forms.
However, I believe that Indian art statues are generally made for the purpose of art, and not for the purpose of idolatry, and they are not actually worshipped. Under this assumption, it is permitted to keep them home, or to sell them.
However, if there is reason to believe that the statue is an icon of idolatry, it would be prohibited to keep/sell it.
See Rambam, Avodah Zarah 6:7, ruling that if the status is made for show, and not for idolatry, it is permitted to derive benefit from it; Tur (Yoreh De’ah 141) writes that if in doubt, the idol/statue is forbidden, but Taz (141:2) writes that this is only true under circumstances of itchazek, meaning that there is concrete reason to suspect idolatry. Although Shach disputes this, today the vast majority of statues are made as works of art and not as idolatry, and unless one has concrete reason for suspecting otherwise, there would be no prohibition on keeping the statue.
Based on Yoreh De’ah 139, there is reason to suggest that the selling of the item is also grounds for leniency. Although for actual idolatry, selling does not permit the icon, this is because the idol-worshipper still hopes that the idol will return to a fellow worshipper, and he will serve it. This does not readily apply to works of art sold to tourists. However, I have not found an explicit source to support this argument, and perhaps even the idolaters of today hope that their icon will be worshipped.
Also worthy of note is the general statement that today’s idolaters are not true idol-worshippers, but only continue the traditions of their ancestors, without meaning to truly worship idols (Chullin 6).