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.


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