Lecture tag: Practice

Contested Meanings: Pilgrimage and Ritual Space in Bhuban Cave, Assam, India

This paper explores a pilgrimage the author undertook with a group of pilgrims to the Bhuban cave in Assam, the assumed starting point of a religious reform movement known as the Heraka. He examines the interaction of the Heraka with different religious groups in the Bhuban cave (various ‘Hindus’, and indigenous religions). Dr. Longkumer is particularly interested in how different communities reify religious identification to the extent that other identities of shared interests attenuate, especially evident in the main ‘cave ritual’. Such encounters, he argues, not only sharpen Heraka identity vis-à-vis other communities, but also emphasise religious boundaries more generally. Such incidents can be read as a complex confluence of reform, intuition, experience and history. Dr. Arkotong Longkumer is a Departmental Lecturer in the Study of Religions at Oxford University. His research interests revolve around the anthropology of religion and history, with a south/southeast Asian focus. He has conducted fieldwork amongst the Nagas of India since 2005 and is currently interested in Naga nationalism, particularly the interaction between religion, nationalism and indigeneity.

The teleology of meditation

Graduate seminar

Drawing from a range of examples, this seminar will present a thesis about the ways in which the goal of meditation within specific spiritual traditions affects practice. It will raise questions about the nature of meditation and other spiritual practices and about individual and communal experience. Christopher Wood is a DPhil student in the Theology Faculty. His background is in Theology (Birmingham) and he has research interests in the history of ideas, comparative religion, and the interface between Theology and Psychology.

Conference: Empathy in Hinduism: Ritual, Drama, Aesthetics (MT17)

The sphere of emotions lies at the heart of Hindu religious experience. Numerous ancient Indian texts dwell on the complex sphere of human response to various revelations of beauty and divine presence in the world whether expressed in the material form, through sound, devotional poetry or realized on stage in theatrical performance. The arrangement of the ritual and the adoration of gods was itself deeply rooted in the field of emotional engagement and presupposed a very nuanced system of possible reactions and feelings of the devotees from a mere contemplation via an ecstatic state of rasa to the experience of supreme love towards a personal god (bhakti). This conference is the first attempt to analyze this complex way of human interaction with the divine in Hinduism based on various forms of emotional engagement, which is not limited to the contemporary and profane understanding of senses. The papers presented at the conference will cover a wide range of topics and approach the general theme of religious empathy from different perspectives: material culture, textual evidence, literature, ritual, sacred imagery, iconography, and theatrical performance.

Registration is essential – contact nandana@ochs.org.uk to register.

Emotional sacrifices? A closer look at the Mahābhārata’s sacrificial performances
Dr. Danielle Feller (University of Lausanne) 

Somatic Gestures as an Interface between Aesthetic and Devotional Emotions
Dr. Elisa Ganser (University of Zurich)

Threefold Theatrical Empathy: pratibhāsahṛdayatva and sattva
Dr. Daniele Cuneo (Paris 3 – Sorbonne nouvelle)

The Empathy of Laughter: Hāsya Rasa in the Nāṭyaśāstra
Dr. Natalia Lidova (OCHS, Oxford).

Rasa: the Embodied Emotions in Contemporary Performance
Dr. Sreenath Nair (University of Lincoln).

Tanmayībhavana as Empathy: Recognizing Other as Self in Abhinavagupta’s Aesthetic Vision
Dr. Sunthar Visuvalingam (Chicago).

Empathy, aesthetics, and the apsarases of Khajuraho
Dr. David Smith (University of Lancaster)

Theorising Devotion: A brief look at some lesser-known theories of bhakti-rasa
Dr. Rembert Lutjeharms, OCHS, Oxford University

The Nāṭyaśāstra as the Transnational Text
Dr. Avanthi Meduri (University of Roehampton)

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.

Haribhaktivilāsa as the meeting of Vedic, Tantric and Puranic ritualism (TT17)

The Haribhaktivilāsa (HBV) is an extensive Sanskrit ritual compendium written around 1534 by Gopāla Bhaṭṭa Gosvāmin, a grand-disciple of the celebrated Bengali mystic and reformer Śrī Kṛṣṇa Caitanya (1486–1533), the founder of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava saṃpradāya. Though being one of the oldest of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava texts, the HBV has received little academic study so far. No doubt this has been partly because scholars of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism have largely focused on the saṃpradāya’s theology, especially in relation to the concept of rasa, but also because so little of this text is original. More than 90% of its verses are cited from other texts.

In this talk, based on my present text-critical work with this book, I will try to shed light on some of its vexing questions, such as its authorship, primary and secondary sources, purpose, Tantric influences and neglect or downplaying of practices thought typical for Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism. Further, by looking at its manuscript history, I will offer some tentative thoughts on the spread of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava texts in the early 17th century.

Dr. Måns Broo is a university researcher in comparative religion at Åbo Akademi University, Finland. His main research interests include yoga – both its history and contemporary forms – and the intersections between Vaiṣṇavism and Tantrism in pre-modern Bengal. He is at present engaged in compiling a critical edition and translation of the mediaeval Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava ritual compilation Haribhaktivilāsa

The Temple Tradition in Three Styles of Classical Indian Dance: Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kathak (TT17)

This illustrated paper/lecture demonstration, will examine the changing importance of religious expression in three classical Indian dances (Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kathak), from their traditional (up to 1947), to their modern context.

Bharatanatyam originated in Tamil Nadu state. It was the hereditary profession of devadasis, women who danced in temples as part of religious ritual and on secular occasions, where they also played an important secular role as professional dancers and singers. Devadasis were taught by hereditary male teachers. In the 1930s, these teachers began to teach the dance, with some modifications, to non-hereditary dancers, both women and men, who were instrumental in creating the modern stage version of Bharatanatyam. Early stage presentations, although including much devotional repertoire, generally eschewed religious trappings. Recently this has changed, with increasing emphasis on temple associations.

While the Bharatanatyam of today evolved from a preexisting classical style, Odissi, from Orissa State, was created as a classical dance style in the 1960s and differed from Bharatanatyam in many ways. Unlike Bharatanatyam, it did not constitute a unified dance style but was assembled out of pre-existing elements of which the most important was the gotipua tradition, a dance-drama style performed by prepubescent boys. Many of the chief architects of Odissi had been gotipuas and spent their youth dancing, studying percussion and performing in theatres and villages. Unlike the devadasi tradition, where some dances were performed as part of temple ritual, gotipua performances took place mainly in secular venues, except for certain very sporadic specific events associate with the Jagannatha temple in Puri. While their repertoire centered on Hindu mythology, especially Krishna, the gotipuas were essentially itinerant entertainers. From the late 1950s, girls and women started to perform the Odissi of the gotipuas which induced a group of teachers to formalize the style, borrowing their format from Bharatanatyam. From the 1980s, many men also began to perform Odissi. In recent years there has been an attempt to trace Odissi’s roots to a pre-existing temple tradition. However, historical records for the temple tradition of female dancers/musicians (maharis), dedicated to Lord Jagannatha in Puri, lacks clear documentation. While their dance was largely ignored in the 1960s, during the creation of Odissi, there has been a recent trend by a few high caste women towards recreating their vision of the mahari’s dances which emphasizes the religious component. A similar tendency is apparent among Kathak adherents. All accounts ascribe the origin of Kathak to Hindu temples and princely courts, but the temple connection remains tenuous and most dancers of the post-independence period studied within traditions associated with the Muslim court of Wazir Ali Shah in Lucknow (Oudh) and the courts of some of the Hindu Rajas of Rajasthan, especially Jaipur. Despite this, modern practitioners generally claim that the dance originated as a religious presentation, whatever the immediate antecedents may have been. As in the other dance styles, records indicate that all of the Kathak teachers were men. Historical records, with very few exceptions, list only men as performers, despite the fact that there was an important parallel tradition of women dancers and singers in the courts and wealthy houses.

I will discuss the origins for each of the three dance styles, their presentation in the early post-independence period and subsequent trends towards increasing religiosity in repertoire and presentation.

Anne-Marie Gaston (D.Phil. Oxon, M. Litt. Oxon) (Anjali) is a scholar and internationally recognized performer of several styles of South Asian classical dance: Bharata Natyam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, Mayurbanj and Seraikella Chhau . All of her dance training has been in India, over fifty years, with some of the greatest teachers. Her dance repertoire includes both traditional repertoire and innovative dance/theatre performances which seamlessly blend movement, original musical scores, text, video and images on a variety of themes: Environment Yoga, Buddhist, Greek and Mesopotamian myths. For these mixed media productions, which include professional quality images and video, she collaborates with composers, musicians, mask makers, dancers and actors. As part of the 500 years of Shakespeare’s birth celebrations, in collaboration with her long time Kathakali Guru, Sadanand Balakrishnan, she created Lady Macbeth, a mixed-media presentation, set in Rajasthan, which includes an original musical score, video and images. She has performed and lectured in theatres, art galleries and museums across Canada, USA, Netherlands, Greece and in Paris.

She has published three books: Bharata Natyam from Temple to Theatre (Manohar), Siva in Dance Myth and Iconography (Oxford University Press), Krishna=s Musicians: music and music-making in the temples of Nathdvara Rajasthan (Manohar). Another book, Bharatanatyam Evolves, will appear shortly. She contributed the chapter on ‘Embodied Movement’ for the Oxford Handbook of Sacred Arts, as well as numerous articles for academic journals. She is a Research Associate with InterCulture, University of Ottawa, Canada. In 2016 she was a member of their delegation to Chengdu, China for the International Conference on Matralineality.

She is the artistic Director of Cultural Horizons www.culturalhorizons.ca.

‘The lotus in the mire’: the Indian reception of Tājika astrology (TT17)

Tājika is the designation of the Sanskritized Perso-Arabic astrology that arose as an independent school following the second wave of astrological transmission into India in the early centuries of the second millennium CE. It is thus the form of Indian astrology most closely resembling western medieval and Renaissance astrology, which similarly rests on Arabic foundations. Although ultimately derived from the same Greek origins as classical Indian astrology, Tājika comprises many technical elements not included in the first wave of transmission about a millennium earlier. While the earliest known Tājika works in Sanskrit appear to have been composed by authors who were either Jains or members of the non-Brahmin Prāgvāṭa (Porwad) community encompassing both Jains and Hindus, the most influential of these authors was reinvented as a Brahmin by later Tājika tradition. Not all Brahmins were accepting of the foreign science, however, and many Tājika authors felt the need to defend their study of it by arguments that range from the mythological to the pragmatic. In today’s nationalist climate, where apologetic strategies are once more called for, Tājika is often subsumed under the modern paradigm of ‘Vedic astrology’, its extra-Indian origins largely forgotten, ignored, or even denied.

Dr. Martin Gansten is a Sanskritist and a historian of religion specializing in astrological and divinatory traditions. He received his doctorate from Lund University, Sweden, where he has taught since 1998 and is now docent.