Ritual Visualization and Imagination: Representation or Reality (TT19)

Location: OCHS Library
Speaker: Alan Herbert
Date: June 6, 2019
Time: 2.00pm – 3.00pm

In his treatise, Ṣaṭ-sandarbha, the sixteenth century Indian religious thinker Jīva Gosvāmī presents a brief description of a set of pan-traditional ritual visualization practices. Whereas in traditions other than his Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism the visualizations in these rituals are often accepted as being imaginative, his description couches their imaginative content in a paradox, namely: practicing them involves visualizing an imaginal of an object that is non-imaginative. Determining the reasoning for Jīva’s inclusion of this paradox and reconciling it in this way is the strategy I use to illuminate an underlying positive role for imagination in his expression of meditation on a real object. A seemingly straightforward resolution would be to distinguish the mind-dependent image, or imaginal, of this ritual visualization as representing a mind-independent object insomuch as the latter need only be considered real. However, this route to reconciliation is insufficient because Jīva further classifies the mental-image as a non-visually manifest reality. For clarity on this issue, I subsequently turn to the relationship between the mental-image and the real object of this ritual praxis. A relationship of representation between the two cannot be discounted since this is implied in Jīva’s writing. However, what turns out to be important is that reality also applies to the relationship itself. The exploration of this relationship will take us beyond mere mental-images. It leads us to Jīva’s appeal to an ancient dramaturgical theory which his tradition has mapped onto his theology. This theory defines imagination in terms of an aspect of the real participation of audience and actors in a play. For Jīva, this real participation is in an imaginatively enacted cosmic play, the object of which is the deity’s original theatre of activities.

Alan Herbert is a D.Phil. Student in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford.