When we look at a painting or sculpture in Western society, we don’t expect it to look back, unless we happen to be in a Scooby Doo episode — jinkies! — or walking back and forth in front of one of those paintings with “creepy eyes” that seem to follow you anywhere in the room, a phenomenon that has been the subject of academic research. A professor of psychology at Ohio State University partnered with Dutch researchers to study visual perception of painted images’ eyes; the study was published in 2004 in the journal “Perception.” The study concluded that the effect is — to oversimplify, and not surprising to an artist — in the eye of the beholder.
Visitors to “Seeing the Divine in Hindu Art” at the University of Missouri’s Museum of Art and Archaeology might have the sensation of being watched. This isn’t because there are badly disguised eyeholes cut into paintings for spying, or due to the abovementioned optical illusion. Curator of Collections Jeffrey Wilcox explained that images of Hindu deities are created to serve as vessels or conduits for an active divine presence — that can see the viewer — when ritually invoked. He pointed out one image, a silver plaque showing the eyes of the goddess Devi from 19th century India.
LOOKING BEYOND THE OBJECT
To appreciate iconographic Hindu imagery, it’s important to understand the visual culture of the religion as it relates to that of Western cultures. In the West, art provides a forum for creating visual allegory through symbol, ritual and writing, in order to teach, voice social and political ideas, create a psychological response in the viewer and/or alter perception.
Human perception is an imperfect means of gathering information about the world. Of the electromagnetic spectrum, for example, we are able to see only a tiny sliver of the information around us: visible bands of light. Many animals are known to have a wider range of hearing or smell. Our language is a symbolic and imperfect way of communicating thought and ideas. This list goes on. It makes sense to acknowledge that something exists beyond our limited range of perception and comprehension, and creating visual objects is one way to communicate information about that at a more fundamental level.
In “Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation,” Joseph Campbell asserted that “artists are magical helpers. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves … The artist is meant to put the objects of this world together in such a way that through them you will experience that light, that radiance which is the light of our consciousness and which all things both hide and, when properly looked upon, reveal.”
Meaning has surpassed formalism in importance in Western art, but not the artist’s elite persona and voice: the value of art is closely tied to the renown of the artist and his or her mysterious role. In Western culture, the artist and not necessarily the art object, is the conduit between humanity and a higher ideal.
Artworks are seen as inert, objects to be admired or intellectualized from a distance: behind glass and rope, but not usually used or interacted with. The idea of such a thing would horrify many a curator or art historian focused on preservation for future generations. Even intentionally interactive installations create a skittish reaction in a culture conditioned to keep its distance.
Through this lens, a Westerner might look at a non-Western object and see only the merits of its formal aesthetic, historical or anthropological value and symbolism. A Hindu approaches an image of a deity as a temporary vessel with the power to host an aspect of a greater divine presence, and through which the divine being may actively look back at, and personally commune with, the viewer — the statue or image essentially becomes the deity in a sense.
The communion between mortal and divine is not peculiar to the Hindu tradition; it’s similar, for example, to the Catholic or Orthodox concept of the transubstantiation of the Eucharistic host, in which the Communion wafer at a higher, invisible level, mysteriously becomes the body of Christ when invoked by a priest. A Catholic would be surprised to encounter sacred Communion wafers — which are often impressed with religious images that could be viewed as art to an outsider — on display in an art museum.
Signe Cohen, associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Missouri, explained the importance of the act of seeing in Hindu worship: “Seeing the deity is the most central act of worship in Hinduism. When worshippers come to a Hindu temple, it is not primarily in order to hear a sermon on the meaning of life or to listen to a priest explain the meaning of the ancient texts of the religion, or even to participate in a specific pre-set ritual. Rather, Hindus come to a temple in order to ‘take darshan’ of the deity who resides at that location.”
“Darshan or darshana is an ancient word from the Sanskrit language which literally means ‘seeing,’ ” she said in an email. “Some scholars have chosen to translate it into English as ‘sacred seeing’ to indicate that there is something about this act of seeing that goes far deeper than mere sensory perception.” She went on to explain that darshan is a two-way street. The seeing is a mutual exchange.
DEITIES ON DISPLAY
Both Cohen and Wilcox talked about the Hindu pantheon of deities and the idea that the multitude of entities can be perceived simultaneously as individual entities, and as aspects or “individual manifestations of the one divine force,” as Cohen put it. This makes sense in regard to limited human perception. If the divine is incomprehensible to the human mind, it is easier to identify, and connect with, one aspect of divinity at a time while recognizing that this one aspect is part of a much larger picture that humans cannot be expected to conceive of all at once. Perhaps this flexibility in understanding to address human need and capacity is why one of the world’s oldest — and third-largest — religions has survived upheavals in cultural landscape and the influences of other religious traditions.
Wilcox explained there is a Hindu triad or trinity “of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. … But in practice that’s not really how Hinduism works. All of the gods can create and destroy; it’s not really just one or the other.” This extends further in the idea that these deities have avatars; Wilcox explained the word avatar means simply “to descend, with the implied meaning that the god descends to Earth.”
Vishnu, for example, “comes to earth in times of need, or when worldly order is out of kilter,” explained Wilcox. “Sometimes he comes in his own form … when he’s depicted in color he’s always shown with blue skin, which is said to be the color of rain-laden clouds, which is a good thing.” There have been nine avatars of Vishnu, including a fish, turtle and boar that have lifted the world which was sinking into abyssal waters. He’s also come in the form of a dwarf, an anthropomorphic being and part animal, part man. There is a belief that he will come once more in the future, riding a white horse and wielding a sword.
Wilcox arranged the exhibition so that aspects and consorts of gods and goddesses are grouped together, and the stories and history behind each piece are briefly noted on nearby labels. Wilcox mentioned that it’s been eight years “since the museum last mounted an exhibition that focused on Hindu material,” and that show also included Buddhist and Jain works.
Museum Director Alex Barker commented on the long interval: “We try to keep the galleries fresh and to keep a wide range of works accessible to visitors, both by changing individual works in the permanent galleries and through temporary exhibitions. And, of course, some kinds of works can’t be on permanent display because they’re subject to light damage or are otherwise harmed by long-term exposure …”
“Few people, I think, understand either the richness of the Museum’s holdings or the amount of effort that goes into planning and mounting each exhibition,” he said in an email. “One of the challenges Jeff faced in mounting the current show was deciding what not to include, and we have that problem with a great many of our exhibitions,” due to limited space in the galleries and other factors such as educational needs and upcoming events.
by Amy Wilder
‘Seeing the Divine in Hindu Art’
Where: Museum of Art and Archaeology, Pickard Hall on the MU campus
When: Through Dec. 16; hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays, noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.