Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Arcavatara: Srivaisnava Image-Descent and Roman Catholic Eucharist

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Arcavatara: Srivaisnava Image-Descent and Roman Catholic Eucharist

Article excerpt


The doctrine of arcavatara (image-descent) within the Srivaisnava tradition presents difficulties for a Christian understanding of Hindu belief and practice. This essay provides an introduction to the history, ritual, and theology or arcavatara and suggests directions for a comparative approach to eucharist within Roman Catholic theology. It concludes that, while aspects of the Hindu conception resonate with a Catholic sacramental Imagination, fundamental differences preclude an easy comparison. The categories of transcendence, accessibility, relationship, and revelation gleaned from this Introduction offer points of entry for continued dialogue.

For the Srivaisnava tradition of Hinduism, the God of heaven becomes present in the temple. Arcavatara, the descent (avatara) of the deity as an image (arca), emphasizes both the transcendence and the accessibility of God. Worship takes the shape of devotion to a physical object, an image that is believed to be divine. For Christianity, so shaped by prohibitions against idolatry, arcavatara presents one of the great difficulties in understanding Hindu belief and ritual practice. What can the Christian gain from this view? Answering this question begins with an introduction to arcavatara within its historical, ritual, and theological contexts. In gaining an appreciation of the Srivaisnava conception of image-descent, a Roman Catholic becomes aware of parallels not earlier noticed, differences that highlight the particular claims of Christianity, and the challenges this different view of divine presence offers to the Roman Catholic's own belief and religious practice.

I. Early Development of Arcavatara

The Srivaisnava tradition of South India emphasizes exclusive devotion to the Lord Visnu and his consort Sri. This tradition of Hinduism became organized as a distinct and defined religious group around the eleventh century under the influence of its most important teacher, Ramanuja (ca. 1017-1137 C.E.). Not merely a fringe movement, the Srivaisnava community follows most Hindu groups in viewing the Sanskrit Vedas, the epic Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the Puranas as sacred scripture. However, Srivaisanavas also accept as revealed the poems of the alvars, who were twelve Tamil mystics of the sixth through ninth centuries. The alvars, who were "immersed" or "deep" in the love of God, sang about God (Visnu) mainly in God's manifestation as an image. [1] Later "Teachers" (acaryas), of whom Ramanuja is recognized as the most important, [2] commented on these poems, developing a distinctive theological and cultic tradition.

A simple view of the deity's local presence predates the elaborate poetry of the alvars. In the earliest sources, the so-called cankam literature, the deity was said to live "in the katampu tree," or Visnu was said to recline "on the serpent couch." [3] There was not yet an attempt to describe how the deity is present. The later Paripatal poetry showed a clear awareness that Visnu is transcendent and beyond space and time. However, the language of local presence remained simple. Visnu is the "owner" of the temple, "hold[s] on to it in affection," and remains "in close union." No elaborate ritual was described at this stage, nor is there any indication of a complex temple institution.

The poetry of the alvars (Divya Prabandham, or "Sacred Collect") reveals a significant shift to the temple. The alvars sang of many Visnu temples, [5] which had become special loci of Visnu's presence. For the alvars, "Visnu is in the temple." [6] Their poems coincided with what is often considered the "Golden Age of Indian Art." [7] During this time there was a flowering of Hindu divine imagery and temples in which to house these images. The alvars expressed their deep love for Visnu through praise of and devotion to the image (arca) of Visnu locally present in the temple. While the alvars emphasized that the local god is the very same universal and transcendent Visnu, they did not elaborate on the theological relationship between the two. …

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