The Divine Image: Hindu Murti and Byzantine Iconography

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PRECIS

This essay seeks to compare the religious art forms of Hinduism with those of Byzantine Christianity. While the traditions behind the Hindu murti and Byzantine icons have developed independently of one another, a side-by-side analysis of the two reveals surprising areas of similarity as well as sharp disparities. It begins with an investigation of the history of the artistic forms and practices, moves on to the theological explanations behind the respective religious traditions' usage of art, and ends with descriptions of how the images are used in popular devotion. The essay highlights what these two religious traditions share by way of the veneration of art in religious practice, while also elucidating the divergent theological commitments undergirding each faith.

When it comes to Abrahamic religions, Christianity is something of an oddity. Whereas Judaism and Islam adhere to a strict interpretation of the Mosaic prohibition against graven images, Christianity has long adopted images not only as didactic tools but also as instruments for worship. In particular, the Byzantine (1) tradition of iconography has developed into a profound ritualistic and theological system that, both in appearances in popular devotion as well as theologically, shares much in common with image-worship commonly found in Hinduism. (2) Although many characteristics serve to distinguish the two systems, a remarkable kinship exists among the artistic forms, the expression of piety, and even the theological explanations of the usage of images in Byzantine churches and Hindu temples. First, we will look at the respective histories of image veneration for both traditions and the typical forms those images take, then explore the theological explanations for how the image is in relation to the one it represents, and, finally, turn to an analysis of popular devotion toward images in both Hinduism and Byzantine Christianity.

History and Form of the Image

First, before turning to a theological exploration, we will analyze the particular forms of style and construction of the Hindu murti ("embodiment," an image) and the Byzantine icon (3) as they developed in their respective histories to see whether and how the images themselves can be compared in any constructive way. We will be analyzing iconic images, as opposed to aniconic images, which are symbolic of the deity but "do not attempt any anthropomorphic form or any representational likeness." (4) While the aniconic images of Hinduism, such as the sacred round stones of the Narmada River or the phallic linga, and those of Christianity, such as the blank cross, are noteworthy for religious expression, it is the iconic images that allow for greater comparison as they constitute a tangible image of the divine's "form."

It is difficult, however, to identify when the ritual usage of images began in Indian religious traditions. Diana Eck has suggested that the ritual tradition of the Aryans and the Vedic period were largely aniconic, with the cult focused primarily around the sacred fire. (5) There is some debate among scholars about this issue, but, due to the paucity of positive evidence, we cannot say there is any "allusion to the making of images of the early Vedic gods and worshipping them." (6) It seems most likely that the emergence of iconic images is intimately bound to the bhakti movement of devotional worship: "The rendering of one's homage was done by various acts of puja in which images were absolutely necessary; these were abhigamana or going to the temple of the deity with the speech, the body and the mind centred on him, upadana or collecting the materials of worship such as flowers, incense, sandal paste, offerings (naivedya)." (7) The popular piety of the bhakti movement is in many ways coextensive with image worship within Hinduism. (8)

The manner in which an image is made is subject to "very definite rules with regard to proportions, positions, gestures," which are found in various places in Hindu scripture, such as the Puranas, the Agamas and the Samhitas. …