Holy lives of Hindu devotees

Devi the Great Goddess - Benares Seen from Within - Meeting God
December 10, 1999

These three books on Hinduism remind me why most non-Hindus find the religion so baffling. They can admire art inspired by Hinduism as manifested in architecture, sculpture, painting, dance, cinema and even literature and music, and may regard these as part of world culture. But, intelligent and perceptive as some of these onlookers are, they cannot fail to register the lack of genuine spiritual content in most of the ritual and practices in Hindu temples and shrines. The other classic contradiction they experience is the apparent incompatibility between the ascetic ideal in Hinduism and its obvious celebration of sensuality. How does one square a saffron-clad, bearded sadhu, with or without his bed of nails, with the erotic temple sculptures of, say, Khajuraho?

I thought of all this in October in London when someone took me to the annual (mainly Bengali) celebration of the festival of Durga Puja, which I have not attended for many years out of weariness with the whole business of organised religion. Some years ago, a traditional ten-armed idol, four foot by six foot, was flown free from Calcutta, courtesy of Air-India, and set up in a small theatre in north London. It consists of the ferocious goddess Durga, mounted on a lion, locked in battle with the buffalo demon, watched by Durga's four children: Lakshmi (goddess of prosperity), Saraswati (goddess of learning), Kartik (god of valour) and Ganesh (god of success). It is made of unfired clay from the banks of the Ganges, but after the four days of worship, instead of being immersed in the river as is customary in Calcutta, the idol is stored in a private home for re-use in years to come. There is nothing profane about this for a Hindu: sacred objects are only sacred when the "breath of life" is invoked in them by worship.

Standing on this hallowed ground, in front of the image in its makeshift shrine of tinsel and tissue paper (rather than the usual marigolds and other flowers), with joyful adults and children of all ages in festive clothes thronging around, I could feel myself shrugging off my indifference. The highlighted eyes of Durga in the act of slaying the evil demon shifted in my mind from being suitably violent to something rather benign. It was as if someone was opening my invisible third eye, as in the eerie dream sequence of Satyajit Ray's classic film about Bengali religious orthodoxy, Devi (The Goddess). For once, I seemed to have been seized by the ineffable experience known in Hinduism as darshan, "seeing": the mutual seeing between deity and devotee. In the film, an old man who is a lifelong devotee of Durga is tipped into madness and the tragic sacrifice of his daughter-in-law to the goddess by such an experience. The fine line between genuine spiritual realisation, and charlatanry (of the guru) and credulity (of the devotee) is perhaps nowhere finer than in Hinduism. Contrast the wisdom of the Upanishads with the images of Ganesh that "drank milk" worldwide a few years back; it is hard to imagine how both could have emerged from the same system of belief.

Meeting God is an attempt to help western readers - perhaps especially Americans - new to Hinduism to develop a deeper insight into the complexity of Hindu beliefs through the use of evocative pictures with an illuminating text. Stephen Huyler is an art historian, cultural anthropologist and photographer who has spent much of the past 30 years in India documenting Hindu rituals all over the subcontinent.

Each section of the book starts with stories of particular devotees. Huyler describes their lives during and around acts of worship. They come across as real, contemporary Indians, for whom religious faith is an integral part of their lives. After the stories come informed texts on rituals, festivals, ceremonies, deities, notions of devotion, elements of worship and so on. Sensitively, Huyler corrects some of the common misconceptions, such as the significance of the spot on the forehead, the bindi. This does not refer to caste, community or marital status; it is just a beauty mark evolved from the symbol for the Devi, the female Divine.

Huyler is also able to demonstrate with insight that even in our "postmodern" world in which nature is man-made and desacralized, inanimate things can remain sacred. The ordinary men and women portrayed by him begin the day with a dip in the Ganges or by pouring Ganges water over a sacred plant. But such acts can have genuine spiritual significance only when performed with total honesty by the devotee. Huyler evades this moral issue by accepting the actions of his chosen devotees at face value.

Nevertheless, I think this entrancing book does, in the words of its enthusiastic foreword by Thomas Moore, challenge us "to reconsider our own secularism". Are we not depriving ourselves of an enriched experience of the world by remaining indifferent to the devotion and contemplation and other modes of mental concentration found in Hinduism? Meeting God is a useful addition to the shelves of anyone even remotely interested in India or Hinduism.

Benares Seen From Within is also a photographic recording of everyday Hindu life, in Benares (Varanasi), the most sacred city of Hinduism. The photographs by Richard Lannoy are complemented by an impressive text, also by him, giving historical background and cultural insight, much of it based on personal observation. This self-published and self-designed book, containing more than 600 photographs, is a labour of love.

Lannoy is the author of several books on Indian thought and ways of life, and he has worked as a photojournalist. His best-known book is the admirable The Speaking Tree: A Study of Indian Culture and Society , published in 1971 by Oxford University Press. In the new book, he tries to "evoke the multitudinous diversity of Benares" as vividly as he can. He wants to share his vision with his "viewer-reader" without falsification or sentimentality. Mostly, he succeeds in this. Moreover, his photographs manage to capture the interplay of the sacred and the mundane in the drama that is everyday life in Benares. In his jacket photograph, for example, showing the bathing ghats crowded with religious pilgrims, there is a clearly visible sign on a parapet written in Hindi that translates as: "Beware of thieves. Keep an eye on personal belongings." Even during the sacred act of ablution in the holy Ganges, devotees must not lose sight of mundane matters; furthermore, ever watchfulness is an attribute of God.

Most of the photographs date from the 1950s, when Lannoy first began to photograph India. The remainder - about 100 or so - were taken in 1998; these mainly show important sites and shrines. The earlier images are the most interesting because they were taken without a book in mind, simply driven by an urge to capture the spirit of the place.

Though it is responsive to the unique atmosphere of Benares, the text is rather heavy on western literary references. Lannoy is keen to increase our understanding of Benares - but to see the city "from within" and to share that insight with others demands more than enthusiasm. For example, Benares is the home of an ancient and still living musical tradition, the Benarasi gharana , which the book seems to pass by. That said, unlike other photo-books on Benares, the book is written by someone who has mentally resided there for more than 40 years through his holistic outlook and way of life. Like-minded readers will find it engaging and often enlightening.

Devi the Great Goddess is the large-format catalogue of an exhibition on the goddesses of India organised by the Smithsonian Institution's Sackler Gallery in Washington DC. It contains 12 essays and several hundred colour illustrations ranging from terracotta figurines of the mother goddess to a contemporary sculpture by Anish Kapoor. All ancient cultures worshipped mother goddesses, but India seems to have been the first to stress the divine power of women in works of art and literature.

The exhibition and catalogue were devised and edited by Vidya Dehejia, a curator of South and Southeast Asian art in Washington and the author of several considerable books on Indian art, including gender issues. Her introductory essay recounts the various developments in, manifestations of and interpretations about the concept of the great goddess over the centuries. Although the full-blown cult is found in Indian literature only after the 6th century AD, its roots lie in the Indus valley civilisation of 2500 BC and earlier.

Among the essayists, Thomas Coburn provides textual sources in translation that are helpful in understanding the iconographic elements in classical and later Hindu art and aesthetics. George Michell contributes an informed piece on the range and regional variation within the architectural styles of the temples to the goddess. In north India, he reminds us, there are temples exclusively dedicated to the Devi, while in the south, shrines to the goddess are incorporated within larger temples to the male deity. An essay by Dennis Hudson introduces readers - in the manner of Huyler's book - to the mysterious processes of ritual that invoke the sacred spirit in the material form of an idol. Other essays deal, not always impressively, with tribal and local goddesses, cult hymns in translation and contemporary sociological interpretations of the goddess. It was a mistake to include a piece by the literary theorist Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak, who herself admits to feeling out of place in the collection.

There are some curious statements, factual errors and omissions. Rabindranath Tagore, as a thoroughbred Brahmo, did not compose hymns to the goddess Kali (except two in an early opera), and it is therefore strange to describe him as a "latter-day composer of Kali songs" and to discuss him alongside devout composers of Kali hymns such as Ramprasad Sen.Where is the work of the scholar T. Richard Blurton in the catalogue's bibliography? His Hindu Art , published by the British Museum in 1992, contains a major essay on the great goddess. And it is astonishing to find no reproduction of the goddess Durga as a "Bollywood" heroine facing Sten gun-toting demons, which was a popular image in India in the 1980s and 1990s - undoubtedly an interesting sociological phenomenon that should have found a place in a catalogue devoted to the great goddess.

In sum, the catalogue is a highly attractive coffee-table book ideal for multiculturally conscious homes, university libraries and staff rooms, but it is not the major work of scholarship it could have been.

Krishna Dutta, a writer specialising in Bengali culture, is the editor (with Andrew Robinson) of Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore .

Devi the Great Goddess: Female Divinity in South Asian Art

Editor - Vidya Dehejia and Thomas B. Coburn
ISBN - 3 7913 2129 3
Publisher - Prestel
Price - £55.00
Pages - 408

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