Lecture tag: Iconography

Nineteenth-century Hindu discourse on image worship (HT15)

Nineteenth-century colonial India offers examples of both Hindu iconoclasts and iconic worshippers, but there has been a tendency to privilege the former and regard them as agents of modernity, and the latter as backward. Most nineteenth-century studies of Hindu attitudes to image worship have mainly focussed on two prominent figures—Rammohan Roy (1772–1883) and Dayananda Saraswati (1824–1883) who denounced image worship. This paper seeks to widen the discourse and to include the often overlooked nineteenth-century Sri Lankan Shaivite ‘reformer’, Arumuga Navalar (1822–1879) who took a very different stance on the issue of image worship. While Roy and Dayananda rejected image worship, Navalar affirmed it. Situating these three ‘reformers’ in their respective historical and cultural contexts, the paper will draw attention to the significant differences between Navalar and the two Indian Hindu responses to the Protestant missionary critique of image worship. It seeks to problematize the conventional approach which situates the debate on image worship within the narrow confines of the tradition verses modernity paradigm.

Dr Sharada Sugirtharajah is Senior Lecturer in Hindu Studies in the Department of Theology, at the University of Birmingham.  Her research focuses on representation of Hinduism in colonial and postcolonial writings. 

Śākteya Mudrās: Hand Gestures in Tantric Goddess Worship (MT 16)

This seminar fundamentally attempts to understand and contour hand gestural or mudrā practice in tantric rituals. Rooted in older traditions, mudrās have always been an integral part of tantric rituals. Delineating on how śākteya tantric practitioners construct a symbolic world through their visualisation and use of mudrās, this talk will explore training methods of mudrās followed by śākteya practioners. Furthermore, the intertwined nature and presence of mudrās in Indian classical dance and Hindu Temple traditions will be discussed.

Janaki Nair is PhD student at Northumbria University, researching on Semiotics in Tantra and Indian dance. She is affiliated with the Śakta Traditions research project at the OCHS.

The Pañcāyatanapūjā and the Problem of Aniconism (MT17)

The Pañcāyatanapūjā is a worship of five deities, Śiva, Viṣṇu, Sūrya, Gaṇeśa and Devī. It emerged as a ritual style within the Smārta movement and appeared both in temple architecture and as a domestic worship performed with small stones and/or figurines representing the gods. The worship which had almost died out in most parts of India has recently been revived among Smārta Brahmins in Tamil Nadu. An analysis of the ritual can proceed from different perspectives. There are the social-historical developments which may explain the revival in Tamil Nadu. But there is also the theoretical perspective of aniconicity as a deliberate choice of representation vis-à-vis the iconic, anthropomorphic forms of the gods. Together with a group of researchers with expertise in different religious traditions I have been examining this spectrum of visual and material choices. The seminar will present an overview of the results of this research.

Mikael Aktor is Associate Professor of History of Religions at the Institute of Philosophy, Education and the Study of Religions, University of Southern Denmark. He holds a PhD from University of Copenhagen, a part of which was carried out at School of Oriental and African Studies, London. His field of expertise is within the study of Dharmaśāstra, in particular with a focus on caste and untouchability. He has lately been engaged in research on North Indian Śaiva temple ritual and temple sculpture as part of a general interest in ritual studies and religious aesthetics.

The Cult of Pūjā and the Genesis of Hindu Iconography (MT17)

This paper is dedicated to the genesis of Hindu Iconography and brings together the results of the research project conducted at OCHS in 2015-2016. The circumstances of the emergence and use of the first cult images in Hinduism remain understudied in scholarship. It is extremely difficult to determine when, how, and in what ritual context the anthropomorphic canon was introduced in the Ancient Indian culture. However, it is certain that at the time preceding the rise of Hinduism, Vedic religion made no real use of anthropomorphic images of gods. Even if, notwithstanding the lack of any archaeological or textual evidences, we accept the possibility that the images of deities already existed, it is evident that they did not played any significant role in the ritual practices. The more probable scenario is that they appeared rather late, in the post-Vedic period, when new ritual – puja – replaced the ancient Aryan rite – yajña. The original and innovative element of pūjā-cult consisted in scenic representations of myths in the form of religious drama used as a visual preaching tool in the ritual ceremony.

In this paper, I will try to demonstrate that the affinity of image worship and theatre performance, as described in the Nāṭyaśāstra (the most ancient and authoritative text on Indian drama), is much more profound and multifaceted than has been hitherto acknowledged. In my view, the appearance of individual iconographic features in the anthropomorphic representations of various deities derives from the ritual drama performances that actualized before the eyes of the viewer the world of gods, demons, heroes, and numerous supernatural beings. Doubtless, the nature of scenic performance made the differentiation in appearance of various characters absolutely crucial, which led to the formation of a permanent set of individual features, including the elements of costume, make-up and hairstyles. I will try to substantiate a hypothesis that it was this scenic act that lied at the basis of anthropomorphic images of gods in Early Hindu Pantheon. This hypothesis is borne out by the evident proximity in approach of the abhinaya techniques, which helped the actors to feel as if really transformed into their characters, and artistic devices, employed to create pictorial and sculptural representations of gods. Sculptural renderings of Hindu deities on temple facades show them in postures, described in the Nāṭyaśāstra. Statues and relief figures are endowed with gestures from the repertoire used in theatre practices, enabling experts up to this day to illustrate the theoretical precepts of the treatise with actual figures from temple decorations. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that the paintings and sculptures of gods received their attire, make-up and postures from actors who played gods on stage.