Meaning of Ancient Indian Images and Icons Research Proposal

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¶ … Richard Davis: "Trophies of War," in Lives of Indian Images

In his chapter "Trophies of War," Davis makes a very clear argument that certain kinds of Indian art were at least as much functional as they were purely aesthetic (setting aside the question of whether art is ever purely aesthetic). He writes that beginning in the sixth century, religious icons were one of the most prized trophies that could be captured during wartime. If a leader was able to capture an icon during battle, he gained almost as much power and prestige as if he had captured an opposing royal leader in person. These icons were seen as being at least in some ways embodiments of the gods themselves and as symbols of the protection and favor that the gods granted to a leader.

The ability to capture a religious icon belonging to a rival or enemy and to parade it before one's own supporters was thus tantamount to making a declaration either that one's enemy had been deserted by his divine protectors or that the gods in question were simply not powerful enough against one's own might, and whichever divine forces that one claimed for oneself. Holding up a captured religious idol was essentially the same as holding up the body of one's enemy, seizing from him (or her, perhaps) both secular and divine power at the same time.

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One interesting implication of Davis's description of the ways in which icons were used is that one can interpret the destruction of Hindu art by Muslim armies primarily in political terms. Muslims, of course, believe that one should not create images and should confine artistic activity to the abstract or the calligraphic. Because of this Muslims (and especially fundamentalist ones) can be iconoclastic: The 2001 destruction of the Buddhas of Bamya by the Taliban is (of course) the most recent example of egregious Muslim iconoclasm.

TOPIC: Research Proposal on Meaning of Ancient Indian Images and Icons Assignment

Davis's linking of the political and the artistic and the ways in which religious icons were seen to be as least as much political symbol as they were cultic ceremonial objects provides an alternative way of reading the destruction of so much of Hindu holy art. (Of course, Muslim armies could have been acting with both motivations: They could have been intent both on smashing idols and humiliating opponents.) Davis convincingly argues that it is misguided to focus on the iconoclastic aspects of Islam as the chief rationale of Muslim destruction of Hindu art.

Contemporary Islamic sources did urge devout Muslims to destroy Hindu idolatry (and, one assumes, any other religions images that they found). But more fundamental to the motivation of Muslim forces (as well as Indian ones) was the complete integration into Indian political ritual of the destruction of temples and religious art. By the sixth century, the concepts of lay and divine power and authority were so intermingled as to be essentially indistinguishable from each other: Religious art and the human royal body had in essence become transubstantiations of each other.

One of the key ways in which religious art and royal authority were entwined with each other was the fact that religious art existed primarily in the form of temples and temple art, and these temples were themselves royal. An analogy would be if Notre-Dame were the personal chapel of the royalty of France. The physical meshing of palatial grounds, religious art, and temple duties presented a powerful symbol (and reality) of the ways in which secular and religious power were bound together in the body politic. Temple imagery entwined depictions of royalty and gods and goddesses.

Most potent of all conjoined symbols of state and divine power, Davis notes, was the "womb-chamber" of the royal temple, a lacuna filled by the state deity served by the royal patron of that temple. In this room came together all of the forces of society: God, state, and wealth. Given how completely these were woven together in religious art, it is quite clear why they should be such prized trophies in wartime -- analogous to being able to seize the Magna Carta, the Crown Jewels, the Stone of Scone, and a splinter of the Holy Cross in one object.

Another aspect of the religious art so valued as martial trophies was that the art works conveyed both the universality of Divinity itself (in an essentially Platonic sense) as well as being linked to and rooted in the specific site of the temple. Thus both royal and divines power were linked through art to a locale. (This idea parallels the Roman concept of the localized genus.) Even when a piece of art was removed from its original site, it maintained a connection to that slice of the earth so that possession of the art gave its owner some power over the original site. Thus even at a remove, the person in possession of the art had a significant amount of power over the site of the king's most personal holdings. To seize a religious icon was therefore to threaten the roots -- literal and figural -- of royal power.

Davis's argument is a convincing one and demonstrates how important it is not to assume that the most obvious art historical argument (in this case that Hindu religious art was destroyed primarily as a result of Muslim iconoclastic tendencies) is not necessarily either right or sufficient.

Padma Kaimal's "Shiva Nataraja: Shifting Meanings of an Icon"

Kaimal's essay is a significant one on two levels. The first is what I would call the focus on the art history of a particular of genre -- the rich plethora of statues of Shiva Nataraja as he dances within a ring of fire. This image -- in its various incarnations -- is one of the most (and indeed probably the most) iconic of all of Indian art, and as such deserves serious attention, which Kaimal certainly gives it. However, her essay is equally important for its meta-art historical content, for her focus is truly on the ways in which a single critical text can affect the way in which generations of audiences "read" a form of art.

Kaimal's essay argues primarily that Coomaraswamy overemphasized the connection between the image of Shiva entwined by flames and texts from the thirteenth century. She argues that it would be more historically accurate to consider the image in terms of writings from the tenth century, the historical period during which this type of image appears in its mature form. If one uses these earlier texts as an aid in understanding and (indeed) in contextualizing this image, then other connections become at least as clear and we can now see (as Kaimal urges us to) Shiva Nataraja both as a political symbol of the Chola Dynasty and as the fiery lord of crematoria.

Coomaraswamy sees in Shiva Nataraja an explication of the god's core five identities and activities. These core elements of Shiva are pancakritya, or his ability to bring forth, to create, to oversee and support that which is new and which being given life to, that which is developing or evolving; samhara, which is also the idea of development or evolution, but is at the same time destruction for the purpose of allowing for a rebirth; sthiti, the ability that Shiva has to preserve and support that which has already been given birth to; anugrahaa, which is Shiva's power to grant release from suffering or something like the Christian concept of grace; and finally tirobhava, which is the connection between Shiva and the idea of illusion as well as embodiment, which is connected for Hindus.

This is a complex interpretation of the image -- an overly complex one, Kaimal agues. Not that over-complexity itself would necessarily disqualify Coomaraswamy's interpretation, for both Hinduism itself and Hindu art are complex enterprises. Rather, what Kaimal is arguing is that Coomaraswamy's interpretation is temporally too far away from what we might call (with some heterodoxical fiddling-about) the chthonic forces that Shiva embodies. This results from Coomaraswamy's looking to texts that are centuries younger than the image itself and so may reflect a certain amount of over-interpretation or even sophistry that developed over time.

The image of Shiva buoyant in his ring of fire achieved artistic maturity in the Tamil Chola Dynasty in Southern India in the tenth century, although archaeological evidence suggests that its origins may have been several centuries earlier. (The Chola Dynasty itself dates from the ninth century rather than the tenth.) Kaimal argues that it is important to understand that the Chola rulers designed temples that combined temporal and divine authority. (An argument parallel to that made by Davis above about a different era.)

Because of this -- because the Chola rulers created structures and icons that unified political and clerical power -- the centrality of Shiva Nataraja to religious art of the time must also be considered to entail the centrality of the image of Shiva Nataraja to political iconography and political power as well. Given that this linking of… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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