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The Cult of Pūjā and the Genesis of Hindu Iconography

OCHS Library
Dr Natalia Lidova
Thursday, 2 November 2017 -
2:00pm to 3:00pm

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.