Monthly Archives: February 2013

Political and Magical? A Jain representation of Balarāma and Vāsudeva-Kṛṣṇa from Mathura

When I have not been surveying Buddhist and Jain texts over the last couple of weeks, I have been considering the issues that surround literary character, personhood and the various agendas that may accompany artistic representation, be it textual or visual cultural.

My ruminations began while reading an excellent article by Janice Leoshko (‘Inside Out?: View of Jain Art’ in Olle Qvarnström ed. Jainism and Early Buddhism: Essays in Honour of Padmanabh S. Jaini, Asian Humanities Press, Fremont, 2003, pp.249-267). I would like to focus on one particular image she mentions and on the critical issue that she raises in response to it. The image is labelled, ‘Standing Jina and Attendants, from Mathura c. C3rd CE’ (Leoshko p. 251). It is held in the Mathura Museum, Mathura, but was exhibited as part of the 1994 ‘Peaceful Liberators: Jain Art from India’ exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (and which travelled the world thereafter – I saw it as an undergraduate when it travelled to the V&A in 1995). I do not have an image to share with you of it, I am afraid; it consists of a standing Jina flanked by six, much smaller, attendants, two of which have been identified as Vāsudeva Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma. Leoshko criticises the simplistic reading of this image as indicative of pluralism in early Jain image manufacture (based on the fact that Mathura was a prominent seat of Vaiṣṇavism in the period). She suggests, instead, that it is possible that these figures are in a ‘subservient position’. She then comments that analyses of South Asian art tend to move between a reliance on externally-derived aesthetic norms and a preoccupation with ‘religious significance’ and the ‘usefulness of their iconography in demonstrating religious beliefs’. She states:

Instead of letting what is actually represented in visual works shape the questions to be asked, the perception of what is thought to be religiously significant often determines the importance accorded visual material. This long-standing practice also unfortunately separates issues of form from those of content, so that few questions concerning how meaning is conveyed are raised. (p. 251)

This paper put me in mind of an earlier one by Heinrich von Stietencron, which goes some way to addressing Leoshko’s concerns and might reinforce her analysis of the polemical intent of the Jina image in question. Leoshko calls for an ‘integration of an account of context and function in the discussion of iconography’ (p. 264), which von Stietencron provides in his ‘Political Aspects of Indian Religious Art’ (repr. in Hindu Myth, Hindu History: Religion, Art, and Politics, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2005, pp. 7-30 – the original version was published in 1985). Von Stietencron provides a detailed analysis of what he argues is the political subtext of a variety of religious images. For example, he contrasts two mid-C13th CE images of King Narasiṃhadeva I of the imperial Eastern Gaṅga dynasty on the Sun Temple at Koṇārka, which the king himself commissioned. The first relief shows the king in front of the three major deities of Orissa of the period (fig. 6 of Steitencron’s paper, p. 23), Śiva, Kṛṣṇa and Dūrga. In this relief, the king is fully twice the size of the deities that he stands before. The second relief shows the king kneeling on the proper right of a large image of the god, Sūrya (fig. 8, p.25, detail given in fig. 9, p. 26). The king is less than one fifth of the size of the image of the deity. Von Stietencron states:

The king’s personal feelings of devotion are clearly expressed in the Sūrya images, not in the image of the king in front of the three great deities of Orissa. The latter rather conveys his attitude as a statesman towards the major religious powers of the realm. (p. 25)

This analysis may perhaps assume too much, but it does address Leoshko’s concern with ‘context and function’. It also suggests that she may be on the right track in sensing an agenda of subordination in her Kuṣāṇa-period image of a Jina. However, I could not help but feel that Stietencron’s analysis, while stimulating in its ramifications for the reconstruction of the relationship between statuary and political discourse in early South Asia, did not quite go far enough in addressing Leoshko’s concerns (or perhaps raises new ones).

Von Stietencron addresses the issue of the meaning of an image, but not of its power. By this I mean, that he assumes a simple model of communication for these images: the king commissions images that each have a different political subtext, which is, presumably, well understood by at least the cognoscenti (and which is largely the product of the artist in dialogue with his patron). One might extend a similar sort of argument to the commissioning of certain types of text. Both texts and images also, of course, carry the capacity for their semantics to be hijacked by the person who actually engages in the act of artistic production, but that is another matter. Even if there is conflict between patron and artist, the basic model of communication does not change; it is the classic, ternary, sender-message-receiver model. For Von Stietencron, the critical issue for the historian is the ‘noise’ created by our temporal and geographical distance from the original work. What if this is not all that is going on? What if the presuppositions surrounding artistic production are different? What if they are the same, but our received understandings of artistic production are misleading? Von Steitencron is preoccupied with what he calls the ‘immaterial material’ (p. 29) with which artists play on behalf of their patrons (which is the name he gives to the ‘names and actions of gods and donors’). It might be that the power of an image (or a text) lies also in the material material that the artist uses. To consider this aspect of representation by image (or text) we must give some consideration to the work of Alfred Gell and his ideas of ‘distributed persons’ and the ‘magic’ of image production (as presented in his Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998). This will take us, at least for a while, rather a long way from my original topic, but bear with me.

Gell argues, eclectically, that the image of a thing is, in many contexts functionally equivalent, to the thing represented. In this way, people are ‘distributed’ in the visible traces they leave of themselves (an idea that finds reinforcement in practices as diverse as the burning in effigy of a politician to the power invested in a relic of an empowered being, be it saint, Buddha or media icon). Gell also puts forward an understanding of magic as a reading of the world in terms of conscious intentions. As Gell puts it ‘magic registers and publicizes the strength of desire’ (p. 102). He rejects the idea of magic as pseudo-science or confused physics and suggests instead that it is based on the fundamentally correct observation that most events in life are caused by intentions (that is to say it privileges the social over the physical explanation of the world). All magic does is to ‘apply’ this by seeking to formulate desires in such a way that they will inescapably lead to events. He combines his two ideas of the ‘distributed person’ and of ‘magic as desire’ in his analysis of volt sorcery (in which the image of a person, or their name, or some other aniconic representation – the ‘index’ in Gell’s terminology – is subjected to deliberate harm with the expectation that the person so represented will be harmed). For Gell, the essence of volt sorcery is the double appearance of the victim, ‘once as the prototype who causes the index to assume its particular form, and once as the recipient, whose injuries stem from the injuries that the index has received’ (p. 103). In this way, for Gell, the victim of volt sorcery is, ‘ultimately the victim of his own agency’ albeit by a ‘circuitous pathway’ (p. 103). He states:

Volt sorcery is not a more magical but just a more literal-minded exploitation of the predicament of representability in image form’. It does not take leave of the everyday world, in appealing to some occult force, some magical principle of causation; on the contrary, it unites cause and effect all too closely, so that the causal nexus linking the image to the person to the image is made reversible – the image can exercise a causal effect, in the opposite direction, over the person.

This makes images (iconic or aniconic) dangerous. Gell then connects this basic idea to the production of cult images. He suggests that images of deities are efficacious precisely in so far as they are parts of the distributed personhood of a deity or any empowered agent. He suggests that the agency of a divine being is ‘enmeshed in ours, by virtue of our capacity to make (and be) his simulacrum’ (p. 114). By ‘and be’ he refers to the fact that one need not always ‘make’ an image of something given that one may choose instead to use a human actor (such as when the goddess is worshipped in the form of a young girl amongst the Newars of the Kathmandu valley – an example Gell himself adduces, p. 150ff.).

What is my point? Leoshko raised the issue of the context and function of artistic imagery. Von Stietencron gave us a means of reading political intentions into artistic representations. Gell encourages us to consider more deeply the relationships between personhood, representation and power. A politically motivated image may be an attempt, especially when it is part of the decoration of a temple complex (which itself is a form of microcosm, which itself owes much to the microcosm of the ritual enclosure as conceived in earlier Vedic literature, at least in a Hindu context) to actualise that which is represented. The examples adduced by both Leoshko and Steitencron might then be a species of politicised image-magic, which is effected, not by means of the representation of a single figure (which may then be subject to injury etc., or indeed propitiation), but rather by – in each case – a tableaux of figures whose relationship to each other is precisely what is being magically enforced in the very act of representation (Gell, so perceptive in his analyses of the idol, is misled by his own brilliant parallel between it and volt sorcery; it encouraged him to think in terms of single images). To create an image of this type is an attempt to enforce a politics, a theology and a reality. In this regard the material form and physical context of the image (within a temple context, at its centre or periphery etc.) is quite as important as its context of production (it patron, its producer etc.). This is, I suspect, also true of religious texts and the characters within them (though their physical location is, of course, less fixed and their material form all too often lost to us). Just as physical images can subordinate, so too, of course, can texts. Major characters from one story tradition can be given bit-parts in another. Hallowed teachers can be presented as fools or charlatans. Propaganda is far too anaemic a term for such an activity (especially when it may be based on very specific understandings of the nature of artistic endeavour and its relation to language and reality). As this project progresses, it is my intention to consider the dynamics and underlying presuppositions involved in the creation and maintenance of religious images as germane to the study of character in early South Asian religious texts and vice versa (an important start in this direction, I should add, has been made by John D. Smith in a pair of articles published in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies in which he considers apparent contradictions in the behaviour of characters in the Mahābhārata to be evidence of different conventions of character construction in early Indian texts – using Feyerabend’s analysis of the archaic style in ancient Greek art – in which elements are piled one atop the other without a discernible hierarchy or attempt at integration – as a parallel. See his, ‘Consistency and Character in the Mahābhārata’, BSOAS 72.1, 2009, pp. 101-112 and his ‘Winged Words revisited: diction and meaning in Indian Epic, BSOAS 62.2, 1999, pp. 267-305).

We are used to treating the history of art, of literature and of human society in different ways (while admitting that the first two are sub-domains of the last one), but we are unused to considering the ways in which literary characters are like, or created according to similar presuppositions and desires as, visual images. We tend also to ‘localise’ presuppositions and desires that are associated with creative acts: these acts are not normally conceived of as, for example, ‘magical’, and, when ‘political’, they are the poor cousin of the direct statement (indeed, their very indirectness is normally explained away in extrinsic terms: such as when direct expression is advanced as being ill-advised or dangerous). We are even less used to considering how human beings behave like visual images or literary characters as specific strategies in everyday life. The latter may be beyond the scope of our project, but might conceivably inform the nature of our enquiry. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that the isolated study of a particular form of representation is potentially as ill-advised as the isolated study of a religious tradition (though this, in part, depends of course on the questions one is asking). I am equally certain that such a research agenda is rather a challenging one.


Versions of the same myth? Brahmā and Vyāsa / Vālmīki / Buddha

by Naomi

In his book The Mythology of Brahmā (OUP 1983) Greg Bailey points out that Brahmā encourages Vyāsa and Vālmīki to teach their compositions (the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa respectively) to others. Similarly, it is Brahmā who convinces the Buddha to teach the dharma to others. Bailey suggests that these three examples of Brahmā inspiring the transmission of teachings ‘are really versions of one myth’ (p.175). This view is echoed, without reference to Bailey’s work, in Bruce Sullivan’s Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyana Vyāsa and the Mahābhārata (Brill 1990: 13): ‘Brahmā has the same role in relation to the dissemination of the dharma in these myths, which are so similar that they may be regarded as versions of the same myth.’

Many scholars have seen the involvement of Brahmā in encouraging the Buddha to teach as an anomaly: Why would the Buddha be reluctant to teach? How was he unaware of the benefits his teaching would bring? By way of solution Bailey argues (p.181) that ‘this myth is really about Brahmā and only secondarily about the Buddha.’ In other words, seeing it in the light of other versions of the myth helps to explain why it was included in the Buddha’s lifestory.

While I find Bailey’s analysis helpful, and agree that the parallel episodes can be usefully taken into account when assessing Brahmā’s role in initiating the Buddha’s teaching career, the issue of Brahmā’s involvement still seems to me to be unresolved. It is not enough to say that this episode was included because the redactors were aware of other versions of the myth. One still has to ask why the redactors felt it would be beneficial to the story to include it at all. Perhaps it was motivated by a desire to show Brahmā as supportive of and subservient to the Buddha, or to justify Buddhist teachings to a Brahmanical audience. Nonetheless it comes at the cost of showing Buddhism as dependent in some way on Brahmā. The redactors must have been aware of such considerations.

The treatment of this episode by Bailey and Sullivan raises a broader question for our project. Both scholars talk about these three episodes as different versions of the same myth. I am uneasy with such a description, since in each case the characters and context (including the content of the teaching) are quite explicitly different. I would prefer to talk about a shared motif, which grows out of – or perhaps contributes to – a stable element of characterization, namely Brahmā’s role in inspiring the communication of dharma.

It may help to introduce a comparison – Indra’s association with bringing rain. In many stories Indra brings rain, and this is often as a result of the virtue of the king, or the command of a sage (including the Buddha). However, it is unlikely that we would be tempted to describe such episodes as different versions of the same myth. Rather they are evidence of an element of Indra’s characterization: he is a rain-bringer, and he is subject to the superior powers of virtue or asceticism amongst humans. Thus the narrative motif is commonplace.

As these examples concerning Brahmā and Indra show, the lines between character and narrative motif are blurry to say the least. We understand characters largely through their actions and therefore through the plots – large or small – in which they are involved. Similarly we make sense of events in relation to the key players. Thus although we are not explicitly addressing shared narratives in this project, our research is clearly going to involve motifs and whole stories that are common to more than one tradition. Using the notion of character as an analytical tool will, I hope, help us to better understand stories and episodes such as the Buddha’s encounter with Brahmā.

The Character of Indra in the Mahābhārata and the Jātakas

I am continuing in my quest to get to know the gods better, and my attention has turned to Indra, largely because I have started systematically reading the Mahābhārata and he keeps turning up in surprisingly familiar contexts. I mostly know Indra from Buddhist jātaka and avadāna literature, as well as from some Jain stories, and I have long been aware of his presence in Brahmanical literature as king of the gods, warrior, and seducer. However, I was not – until recently – aware of just how much of his characterisation is shared across the traditions. Since I am yet to fully investigate his role in Jain literature I will here comment only on the Buddhist-Brahmanical parallels.

Rather unsurprisingly, in Buddhist texts Indra is king of the thirty-three gods, though his heaven (Trāyastriṃśa – the Heaven of the Thirty-Three) is but one of many, and by no means the highest. He is called Śakra (or Sakka in Pāli) and often termed the king (Indra) of the gods. He leads the devas into battle against the asuras. He brings – and witholds – rain, and when he is witholding the rain and causing drought the Buddha or Bodhisattva may command him to let the waters flow.

There is much here that is familiar from the Brahmanical context, with the addition of an unmistakably Buddhist emphasis on Śakra’s impermanence and status lower than the Buddha. However, there are two specific motifs concerning Indra that I was not expecting to find in the Mahābhārata: his concern that a human may oust him, and his testing of a person’s virtue and generosity.

In Mahābhārata 1, 57 Indra visits a king who has been practising austerities and who he worries may well aspire to become Indra himself. He tempts him away from his asceticism with tales of a wondrous kingdom and the gift of his own divine chariot. This narrative motif has many parallels in Buddhist literature, in which Śakra often feels concerned that the extraordinary virtue of a human being (usually the Bodhisattva) may lead to him becoming a new Indra. In such stories the god’s throne heats up at a great act of virtue and alerts him to the threat. Seen in the context of Buddhist cosmology, this motif makes perfect sense, for it is acknowledged that every Indra is a temporary (albeit long-lived) Indra, and will eventually die and be replaced by another. The replacement will naturally be someone of extraordinary virtue, since this is the cause of a divine rebirth. The Bodhisattva himself is said to have been reborn as Indra in the past. In the Mahābhārata the motif parallels the many occasions on which humans perform great austerities that earn them divine boons or near-immortality. However, the implication in this one example is that such austerities might lead to the replacement of Indra himself, rather than simply the attainment of Indra-like qualities.

Indra appears particularly vulnerable to being replaced. Elsewhere in the Mahābhārata (1, 27) some ascetics are offended by Indra’s lack of respect and perform a sacrifice to create a new Indra. After Indra begs the sage Kaśyapa to intervene, the ascetics are persuaded that this new Indra will not replace the current Indra, but will instead be a Indra for the birds, in other words Garuḍa. Later on, when Dvaipāyana is justifying Draupadī’s marriage to five husbands, he tells the story of five Indras (1, 189): Indra once again causes offence and is trapped inside a mountain with four previous Indras, until all five are able to take rebirth as the Pāṇḍavas. Other gods seem not to be so prone to multiplication. One has to wonder why Indra should have this nature even in a tradition that allows for the immortality of the gods.

The second narrative motif that I was surprised to find in the Mahābhārata was Indra’s testing of a human’s virtue. In Buddhist jātaka stories this is often linked to the previous motif: Indra, fearing that the Bodhisattva is going to oust him from his throne through his great generosity, takes on a disguise and requests some impressive gift from him. When the Bodhisattva willingly makes the gift – of his wealth, family members, or even parts of his body – Indra usually returns the gift, restores the Bodhisattva’s health, and praises him greatly, comforted by the Bodhisattva’s statement that he is aiming for Buddhahood rather than Indrahood. In Mahābhārata 1, 104 Karṇa is displaying his virtue and dedication to brahmins and gods. Indra visits him in disguise as a brahmin (his typical disguise in the jātakas too) and asks for his armour and earrings, which Karṇa has been born with. Without a second thought Karṇa cuts off his armour and earrings and, bleeding profusely, gives them to the brahmin. Karṇa here parallels the Bodhisattva in his great generosity that even extends to bodily parts, but the real parallel is in the behaviour of Indra as tester of virtue.

I look forward to all sorts of other comparative nuggets as I continue to work my way through the great epic…