Hindu images have been used for every sort of commercialism, from being put on shoes in France to even toilet seats in the US. Hindu sacred chants have been used as the background for erotic scenes in modern movies. Yet it was only after making significant protests that Hindu concerns have even registered in the media. This is largely because the world media, dominated by western religious views, did not even consider a Hindu point of view as existent until Hindus began their protests.
In the past this issue had become highlighted relative to the works of the Indian artist MF Hussain. Hussain’s work had been criticized by Hindus for portraying Hindu deities in a disrespectful manner, by showing them naked and in non-sacred poses, much like nudes in western secular art.
Those in defence of Hussain have argued that since Hindu deities have been portrayed at times in some ancient Hindu temples as naked, one should not complain if others do so. This argument is very weak. Europeans have also used Christian images at times in non-sacred ways, for that reason should non-Europeans be encouraged to do so?
However, to really understand this issue, we must understand the Hindu view of art and how representational images are used in Hindu worship.
The Hindu View of Art
The Hindu tradition embraces art in a much broader way than orthodox Christianity or Islam have done so historically. Hinduism contains extensive traditions of music, drama, dance, sculpture and painting, honouring the Divine in all forms of nature as well as beyond all form. It views art and religion as two aspects of the same human pursuit of the sacred.
Yet Hindu thought does discriminate between sacred and non-sacred art. The portrayal of Hindu deities rests upon a vast ancient literature that outlines the nature of the depictions involved and how to use them.
Hindu art follows a strict tradition. There are specific rules as to how deities should be portrayed, what their form is in terms of how many arms, what gestures they make, what ornaments or weapons they might have, the colour and type of their clothing, and other factors. There are specific rules as to how a representational form should be used, the type of temple or room it should be installed in, which direction it faces, the time of the year for its installation, and other factors which show it is a very carefully thought out process. The work of the artist is also part of a daily spiritual practice, not a mere commercial enterprise.
Most important to understand for the western mind is that the Hindu tradition does not worship images in themselves, but uses them only as symbolic means of connecting to the deity. In the Hindu tradition, it is never considered that the Deity can be actually represented in a material form. The deity can enter into a representative form for a time for the purposes of worship. This requires special ritual worship of the deity and bringing its spirit into the form. This installing the spirit of the deity into the form is obviously something that commercial or secular interests of Hindu deities is not likely to consider. While the form is regarded as sacred, it is not by way of idolatry or sensationalism but part of an entire science of bringing down Divine energies into the world.
In addition, Hindu deities are not meant to be glorifications of the human form. They are in many ways supernatural, whether in having extra arms or special powers or other factors. They are symbolic of higher powers that their portrayal is meant to connect us to and not an end in themselves. They are not portrayed to express the beauty or the eroticism of the human body.
In Hindu thought, the human body is regarded as a replica of the entire universe, which is reflected not only in the physical structure of body but in the subtle body or the chakra system. The human body is regarded as sacred, yet its universal implications are what is important, not the mere outer beauty of its forms or gestures. The purpose of viewing deities in human forms is not the enjoyment of the human body but connecting the deity to our human world.
We must also remember that Hindu art is never simply representational. The representational form of the Deity, as appears in painting or sculpture, is just the outer form of the deity. The deity also has its geometrical form or yantra, its name or mantra and higher principles that go with it. For example, Sarasvati is not only a young woman clothed in white, riding a swan and carrying a vina, she also represents the power of wisdom and the Divine creative energy behind the universe. To portray her naked as an erotic artistic image, cannot be equated with how she is used in Hindu worship and iconography.
So-called Hindu Erotic Art
There are a few examples of Hindu erotic art, in which human figures, sometimes deities are portrayed in ways that are sexual. There are sects of Tantric Hinduism which have practiced sacred sexuality and have used erotic images in their worship, like the famous images of the temple at Khajarao. Yet such sects are rare and do not represent Hinduism as a whole. Even such erotic images occur along with forms that are not. Naked erotic images are hardly the main characteristic of Hindu sacred art.
Erotic sects have also existed within Christianity. Hinduism as a broad, inclusive and ancient tradition has accepted the existence of many paths and not tried to suppress any of them. Hinduism did not attempt to destroy such sects as the Christians did, which it often accused of practicing forms of eroticism like the witches of medieval Europe.
We must recognize that these erotic images constitute a very small portion of Hindu art. To emphasize them as a license for non-Hindus to portray Hindu deities in an erotic way is absurd. The great majority of Hindus do not portray or worship their deities as naked, much less use them as erotic images.
In some Hindu artistic traditions, deities can be portrayed as scantily clothed, but no eroticism is intended in that, just the fact that India had a hot climate and people often dressed lightly. Hindu yogis and ascetics are often clothed only in loin clothes. Jain ascetics have an entire sect, which for purposes of renunciation, does not wear any clothes at all. That is no reason to turn such figures into artistic nudes!
There is a related tradition of Buddhist Tantric art, such as is found in the Tibetan tradition that uses naked and sometimes erotic images. Yet this has not been used as a license to portray the Buddha or Buddhist deities in the nude. Even classical Indian Buddhist art as in Ajanta and Ellora Caves shows women nude above the waist. This was just the culture of the times.
Even Hindu statues that are made naked are usually clothed when installed and used in temples, just as many dolls in the West are made without clothes.
The western mind likes to focus on the erotic side of Hinduism and ignore the rest of its great spiritual traditions of yoga, meditation and its Vedantic philosophy of Self-realization as the supreme goal of life. Worse, it likes to use Hinduism for its own erotic entertainment. And to use a few erotic temple sculptures to justify non-Hindus portraying Hindu deities in an erotic matter is just an excuse for such insensitive behavior. The western mind has also looked at many native cultures for their erotic or sensational value and has not been sensitive to their real cultures. Hindus are but one glaring example of that.
Modern India has produced many great gurus and yogis that have influenced the entire world and founded centers in most major cities in the West. We don’t find any of them promoting the worship of Hindu deities in the nude as part of their teachings! Yet it is such erotic images that people like to promote as representing Hinduism.
It is time for the western world to recognize the sensitivities of non-western religions as well as western religions, which still suffer from many missionary and colonial stereotypes and denigrations. Hinduism, as the world’s largest non-Biblical tradition, has not surprisingly been the main victim of these. Like the idea of Hinduism as the religion of the poor and backward that affluent and educated western Hindus are contradicting by their success in the western world, the idea of Hindu images as unsacred and not worthy of respect, must also be rejected.
This is not some morbid Hindu fundamentalism, but a Hindu demand for the same human dignity that is afforded other groups. The deity is often said to be like one’s mother and father in Hindu thought. Naturally Hindus will not respond kindly to those portraying those they are devoted to in a sensationalistic manner for their own self-glorification.
Hindu Human Rights successful protest at Minneli Ram Shoes(2005)
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