What is divine?
The constellation of questions surrounding that big question “Who Am I?” from the last chapter is about us as individuals. We should also consider what connects us as groups and communities. We’ll explore communities and what they prioritize in the next chapter. For now, let’s go big. What unites everyone on this planet? Our humanity! We humans share so much, including the (somewhat disappointing) fact that we are not superheroes. We are not gods.
Our social and spiritual systems have developed over generations to answer other big questions like, “What is Divine?” What goes beyond human? What is super-human? To be very clear, this chapter will not be answering this question from a personal spiritual point of view. That question is yours to answer for yourself. Instead, we will explore how different cultures have approached this question from their unique point of view and how visual expressions have allowed the sharing of views of the divine.
We mostly know the expressions of divinity as deities. Many deities are represented in physical forms, often in anthropomorphic (human form), zoomorphic (animal form), or hybrid physical forms. In some spiritual traditions, deities are non-physical and/or cannot be represented in physical form. We will explore some examples of these non-physical forms later. To get a handle on physical deities, let’s take an interesting example at the literal intersection of art and divinity: divine artists of the ancient Maya! The brothers Hun Batz and Hun Chuen (Fig. 4.2) are the patron deities of Maya artists and scribes and are artists themselves.
The brothers sit cross-legged in the act of writing and/or painting. Each originally held an implement in their upper hand. They each have predominantly human bodies, and thus are primarily anthropomorphic, but the brothers are, in fact, hybrid deities. Did you notice the tail on the left? Their human bodies and limbs are complemented by monkey tails and in the case of Hun Batz (left), more so than Hun Chuen (right), exaggerated facial features related to primates. Hun Batz literally translates to “One Monkey” and probably references a howler monkey, one of the primate species endemic to the Maya region in eastern Mesoamerica (Fig. 4.1). Within the Maya tradition, monkeys are recognized as particularly intelligent animals, and thus became associated with intellectual pursuits like writing and artistry. In Maya mythology, hybrid human-monkeys became the divine representation of these activities and the traits required of skillful writing and art making. The lavish jewelry, headdresses, and garments worn by Hun Batz and Hun Chuen indicate their status and power. Their hybrid features (beyond that known for any human) indicate their superhumanity and thus divinity.
If we move northwest of the Maya region, into the central Gulf Coast region of present-day Mexico, we can explore the divine entities of the Olmec (aka Olmeca). The Maya and the Olmec have strong cultural connections but sometimes those linkages are exaggerated to suggest that the Olmec were a ‘mother culture’ to the Maya. In actual fact, the Olmec and the Maya were contemporaneous cultures, neighbors, and trading partners for a long period of time. They both influenced each other. Many ideas about the divine and deities flowed between these groups, such as one of the preeminent deities in both cultures: the Maize God.
As many of you know, maize is the Spanish word (though derived from the indigenous Taino language of the Caribbean) for corn. Along with beans and squash, corn was one of the most important food crops in Mesoamerica, and eventually throughout the Americas. A wild plant called teosinte was domesticated into maize in the Pacific Coast region of present-day Oaxaca, Mexico. Eventually, it was traded and spread across the Americas. Check out “Domestication of Corn” (Mangelsdorf et al. 1964) to learn how scientific archaeological investigations led to this understanding.
For both the Maya and the Olmec, the Maize God offers fertility, abundance, and life-sustaining foods through agriculture. Corn is his primary plant association but he is also associated with squash and bean crops, and plants generally. We’ll explore a couple examples of Maya expressions of the Maize God in “Will You Tell a Story?” later. Here, let’s consider the unique ways that the Olmec represented and honored their Maize God.
Adze of Divine Figure (Fig. 4.3) exemplifies many of the features of Olmec art. It is a groundstone object, meaning Olmec artists painstakingly reduced a raw piece of basalt by grinding it with a harder stone and abrasives like sand to produce this figural object. In particular, Olmec carvers are known for their drilling techniques, typically seen at the inner corners of eyes, nostrils, and outer corners of mouths. These are often the deepest cuts that took the longest to achieve, and may have been a way to start the carving of a face. To be clear, this carving was done without metal tools! That’s dedication! And that demonstrates the importance of this divine figure within Olmec society.
Do you notice how large the head of Adze of Divine Figure is in proportion to the body and how much more attention has been paid to detailing it compared to the body? This tells us right away that the head is the most important part. Check out the large eyes, probably originally carved in a typical almond shape (you can see the faint outline and indentation) and then blocked into rectangles for some unknown reason. Notice the furrowed brow, flat nose, and chubby cheeks, typical of such depictions. You’re probably wondering… “Okay but what about that mouth?” Yes! First, the mouth is open with top and bottom lips flared dramatically. Beneath the top lip, notice the bare gums, except for two huge curving fangs! This way of representing a mouth is typical of Olmec sculptures of divine figures. Most scholars suggest it reflects the mouth of a wailing infant, when a baby cries so forcefully and intensely that their lips spread widely and almost seem to curl back. The furrowed brow complements the image of a wailing baby. The infant suggestion also makes sense given the toothless gums. But, what about those fangs?
Most scholars attribute the fangs to a hybridization of this partly anthropomorphic deity with a jaguar, the primary feline predator of this region. In fact, some scholars think that these depictions represent a transformation of a baby/human into a jaguar. Scholars refer to this transforming hybrid entity as a ‘were-jaguar’ (drawing from the mythology of werewolves). Olmec shamans (spiritual and ritual specialists) are often depicted in a state of transformation and scholars think that the concept of transformation relates to this particular deity as well.
Now, you’re asking, “okay, so what deity is represented?” Well, that’s a matter of debate. Most scholars focus on the lower half of this type of Olmec sculpture to make interpretations about this deity. If you were to look at the Adze of Divine Figure from the side (check out this photo of a similar object known as the “Kunz” Adze), you’ll notice that the base of the body comes to a point. This is why these objects are called adzes. An adze is an agricultural tool used to till the ground to prepare for planting (check out a photo of an intact adze from Hawai’i). The stone carved to a point is hafted (attached via string and resin) to a wooden handle for tilling. The choice of the adze form for a sculpture of a deity is not incidental. This agricultural reference makes most scholars think that this deity reflects the Maize God, or at least some specific manifestation of the Maize God within the Olmec spiritual system. It is important to note that the Adze of Divine Figure would not have been used by an Olmec farmer to till soil; it was a ceremonial object. But it may have been hafted onto a handle like a real adze. The neckline of most of these objects forms a deep groove that could serve to secure the string for hafting. These objects hafted onto a handle may have been used in ceremonies to simulate tilling.
Another common trait of these sculptures, not represented in Figure 4.3 (but check out this photo of another Olmec adze), is a cleft (an opening made by splitting) at the forehead. Scholars think this cleft represents the indentations that an adze makes in soil, the opening of the earth into which a seed is planted. If you look carefully at the neckline of Adze of Divine Figure, you’ll find the cleft imagery in this example. Furthermore, Adze of Divine Figure incorporates a decorative pattern on the lower body below that cleft, appearing like four dots surrounding a bar. Some scholars suggest that this motif is an abstracted depiction of plants (crops in rows) and thus offers another link to the Maize God attribution.
I know you are asking, “okay, so how does the baby/were-jaguar connect to the Olmec Maize God?” The answer is we don’t know. Some scholars suggest that the infant imagery reflects the larger realm of fertility (human fertility) over which the Maize God presides. Just because we call the deity the Maize God today doesn’t mean that the Olmec only saw them as an agricultural deity. Agriculture and the fertility of plants/the earth is one component of fertility of life and may have been directly connected to human fertility and infants for the Olmec. There’s more to learn about the complexity of Olmec Maize God. Check out “The Olmec Maize God: The face of corn in Formative Mesoamerica” (Taube 1996).
The practice of shamanistic transformation, hypothesized among the Olmec, was important to many cultures. Shamans would ingest substances, such as hallucinogens, or undertake other preparations such as starvation, that would induce otherworldly feelings. In art, these experiences are often represented as a process of transformation, whereby the shaman transforms from a human into a hybrid and/or zoomorphic deity. These practices demonstrate that the shaman (often political as well as spiritual leaders) has a connection with the divine that no one else in the community has. Gold Figure Pendant (Fig. 4.4) from the Tairona culture of Central America (Fig. 4.1) reflects this sort of divine connection.
The Tairona lived in the northern region of modern-day Colombia, within the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria mountain range (modern-day Magdelena), near the Caribbean coast. Relatively speaking, the Tairona are unknown to most people because cultures like the Inka of the Andes region are prioritized. You may have heard of the Tairona (and some of their neighbors like the Musica, check out this map to see their proximity) tangentially through the stories of ‘El Dorado,’ a myth developed by Spanish conquistadores and perpetuated by indigenous groups. Most scholars think that when the Spanish came in contact with groups like the Tairona and Musica, they noticed that gold was worked into objects like Gold Figure Pendant worn by shamans/chiefs. As the Spanish learned more about these cultures, they became enamored of the Musica ritual involving covering the chief in gold dust. The Spanish wanted to get their hands on that gold so they started asking where they could find it. Indigenous people told them, “oh, just travel a bit farther south and you’ll find it.’ This was the start of the myth of El Dorado. Eventually, the Spanish reached the Andes, observed the Inca Empire, and decided to invest their time subjugating those vast territories, despite the fact that they never really found their dream ‘city of gold.’
Tairona people wore these objects as pendants to demonstrate their status and their connection to the divine. Gold Figure Pendant features a hybrid figure with a human torso, penis, and muscular legs. Above the shoulders, notice the hooded, beady eyes, the snout-like diamond shaped nose, and long sharp teeth. These features may reflect the face of a bat, specifically the leaf-nosed bat species native to this region of Colombia. (Check out a photo of a leaf-nosed bat’s face. See the resemblance?) Above the bat face, the figure wears a massive headdress, laden with imagery of wings and birds. Notice the two decorative ovals above the eyebrows? Those ovals are hanging from the beaks of two birds with wings folded in at their sides. The bodies of these birds merge with the large profile face of a bird with a scoop-like beak in the headdress.
Bats and birds are notable imagery for divine figures because they can fly, and thus already have attributes that are super-human. Doesn’t every human want to be able to fly? Because of this almost ubiquitous unattainable wish, flight has often been taken as an indicator of sacredness and divinity. For the Tairona and several other cultures around the world, bats are particularly special, beyond birds, because they are nocturnal and associated with dark spaces like caves. This quality gives bats a distinctiveness. We’ll consider why caves are so interesting in “Will You Tell a Story?”
The figure in Gold Figure Pendant may be a bat-faced deity, a shaman transforming into a bat (or the bat-faced deity), or a shaman wearing a bat-faced deity mask and simulating the practice of transformation for a public performance. It is important to note that shamanistic transformation rituals likely were not public affairs. These would have been held in private spaces individually or in the company of other shamans. Regular people would not be privy to these rituals and experiences, except if a shaman or leader demonstrated the significance of these actions in a public place through performance. For the Tairona, there would have been a very thin line (or no line at all) between whether this is a representation of a deity or a shaman transforming into / merging with a deity or the way a shaman describes their practice to the public. European and Euro-American frames of reference often see these things as entirely separate, but they may not have been seen as separate to the Tairona. They are all part of a spectrum of divinity and the ways that certain people can connect with the divine and others cannot.
In most past societies, connections to the divine, especially to the most important deities, were not equally held by all people. Those relationships were reserved for the highest ranking members of society, such as the religious practitioners and political leaders. However, some religious traditions take a more egalitarian approach to divine connections. In the Yoruba and related traditions of West Africa, divine entities are called Òrìṣà, spirits and forces that guide humans towards success, morality, and balance as intermediaries. Thus, in this tradition, all people can have a relationship with the divine, according to their own needs for guidance. Òrìṣà reside in the spirit world (as non-physical entities) and are made anthropomorphically physical on earth as needed. Many Òrìṣà are deified ancestors (people of one’s lineage who have died and ascended to spiritual power), thus they are already linked with humanity. Òrìṣà have personalities and character traits such as gentle or assertive that relate to the types of actions they help us undertake on earth. They are usually represented with specific items or animals that reflect their characteristics. For example, Shango, a heroic Òrìṣà associated with thunder and lightning, usually wields the oshe, a double-headed ax.
Many Yoruba communities see Ìyá Nlá (Great Mother) as one of the most important Òrìṣà (who may have strong connections to another Òrìṣà named Yemọja, a primary water spirit and protector of women). Yoruba scholar Dr. Babatunde Lawal (1996, xiv) notes that “the female principle in nature has been personified as Ìyá Nlá (The Great Mother), whereby human beings can relate to one another as children of the same mother and so think of less malicious acts.” The term ‘Our Mother’ is also used in reference to Ìyá Nlá to cement this feeling of connectedness and moral duty to treat others well. The Yoruba honor Ìyá Nlá and all mothers, including deified ancestors of particular value, by wearing Gẹlẹdẹ Helmet Masks (Fig. 4.5) in a performance known as the Gẹlẹdẹ spectacle. By putting on the helmet mask and performing the personality of Ìyá Nlá, the performer becomes her.
Gẹlẹdẹ Helmet Masks prominently feature a calm woman’s face with large eyes and markings of status on the cheeks and forehead (probably referencing scarification practices). The most dramatic features of the masks are the projecting scenes of animals and plants. The mask on the left in Figure 4.5 incorporates two brightly patterned snakes on either side of the main head and a projecting stalk of a banana tree. The mask on the right also incorporates two snakes, twisting around the forehead and top of the main head. The heads of these snakes project up towards the hindquarters of a frog, who will be consumed by the snakes. This natural imagery of subsistence crops and powerful animals references the natural power and importance of women in Yoruba society. In particular, the banana stalk imagery helps us to link the head at the base of the mask to Ìyá Nlá, because this mask represents the fruiting/childbearing ability of women, which sets them apart from men. Importantly, the performer who wears this mask is always a man whose face is covered by a veil attached to the bottom rim of the mask. The performer takes on the identity of Ìyá Nlá.
The festival goers who see men perform as Ìyá Nlá (and the other characters of the Gẹlẹdẹ spectacle) are supposed to learn from Ìyá Nlá, as a mother teaches her children, about upstanding moral behavior and good character. The Gẹlẹdẹ dances are also performed to honor mothers, their ability to procreate, and the power they have to influence society. Gẹlẹdẹ Helmet Mask with Twins (Fig. 4.6) highlights the significance of procreation that results in multiple births among the Yoruba. Instead of the natural scenes of the masks in Figure 4.5, Gẹlẹdẹ Helmet Mask with Triplets features a standing mother (possibly Ìyá Nlá herself) touching the heads of two sets of triplets. Mothers who have twins or triplets are seen as particularly blessed and fertile, thus demonstrating strong connections to Ìyá Nlá. As part of the many divine forces within the Yoruba tradition, Ìyá Nlá and the Òrìṣà related to women serve important needs in Yoruba communities to procreate and protect future generations.
Vedic traditions of divinity
Vedic deities and divine leaders, including Shiva, Krishna, and Buddha, are often quite recognizable to most people today. Yes, you read that correctly. Shiva, Krishna, and Buddha all relate to the ancient Vedic traditions of the Indian subcontinent. The global religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, with which you are probably more familiar, as well as the lesser known religions of Jainism and Sikhism, derive from the developments of the Vedic period. Let’s trace this history of religious development before diving into specific deities.
Between 2000 and 1500 BCE, many peoples were migrating out of Central Asia, probably from the region of the Ural Mountains in present-day southern Russia. These groups all spoke Indo-European languages, from which most European and Western Asian languages derive. If you’re interested in language and linguistics, check out An Introduction to the Indo-European Languages (Baldi 1983). The speakers of original Indo-European are generally called Indo-European cultures. From their Central Asian homelands, many of these folks migrated west into present-day Eastern Europe or south to the Mediterranean. Other peoples went southeast to Persia. The group we’re interested in for this discussion is the large group of Central Asian migrants, known as the Indo-Iranians or Indo-Aryans, who settled in the Indus River Valley (Sindh), spanning present-day Pakistan and northwest India.
The term Indo-Aryan may jump out at you. The term derives from the culture’s use of the Sanskrit term ā́rya to describe themselves. ‘Aryan’ is a word created in the 1850s CE by European scholars to describe this group and distinguish them from the larger category of Indo-European cultures. As you know, ‘Aryan’ was also used to build an ideology of European racism, focused on the attempts to prove that Europeans were superior to others. Eventually, this racist scholarship influenced the anti-Semitic ideology of the National Socialist Party (Nazi) of Germany and the atrocities of the Holocaust. Nazi ideology was founded in inaccurate and biased understandings of history. The Nazi understanding of Aryan, as pale-skinned, blond-haired, and blue-eyed people of central and northern Europe, does not align at all with what we know of Indo-Aryan migrants to the Indus Valley. This demonstrates how history shapes the present, sometimes in ways that should have been prevented. Many scholars today are still trying to unpack what ‘Aryan’ is and how it has been used in the past. For example, check out Romila Thapar’s (2008) book The Aryan: Recasting Constructs.
The Indo-Aryan culture entered the Indus River valley to find that a previous culture flourished there but had reduced in population significantly. That original culture is known as the Indus (River) culture (formerly known as Harrapan). Indus peoples are known for building huge urban centers with public infrastructure like sewer systems, as well as ritual bathing facilities. They are also known for their trading systems, which we will discuss in “What Will I Get Out of It?”
Indo-Aryan migrants encountered the descendants of the Indus culture. Over a long period of contact and cultural merging, Indo-Aryan peoples incorporated elements of the Indus spiritual traditions into their own religious system. This hybrid spiritual tradition started to emerge around 1500-1200 BCE with the oral composition of the Vedas, a collection of mantras (sacred sayings), songs, ritual instructions, and philosophy in Sanskrit (an Indo-European language, btw). This was the beginning of the Vedic tradition. It is difficult to know what portions of the Vedic tradition derive from the Indus culture or from Indo-Aryan heritage. Scholars suggest that the practices of meditation, yoga, and some deities (or aspects of deities) may derive from the Indus. However the merging played out, most scholars think that the Vedas were formally written down around 500 BCE, after the practices and beliefs had been firmly established.
There are several principal gods within the Vedic tradition, including Indra (god of rain, storms, and rivers), Agni (god of fire), and Soma (aka Chandra; god of the Moon, night, and plants). Vedic rituals included sacrifices, veneration of fire and/or trees, and marking important life experiences (birth, marriage, childbirth, death, etc.). In addition, a cosmology (understanding of the physical and metaphysical composition of the world/universe) was developed in the Upanishads (one component of the Vedas). This cosmology is founded on the oneness of everything. Ātman is the self, or soul, that is our individual being/essence. This Ātman derives from and is always part of Brahman, the infinite and eternal unity that binds everything together. All deities derive from Brahman. This cosmological unity is the foundation of the concept of saṃsāra (cyclical rebirth/reincarnation). All Ātman derive from Brahman, and reintegrate with Brahman after the temporary period that we call a lifetime. It is the nature of this relationship that Ātman will continually be ‘reborn’/emerge from Brahman until the Ātman can release itself from the cycle of reincarnation. It is through the understanding of the nature of Brahman and Ātman that moksha (release, freedom) can be achieved. This is the ultimate goal of the Vedic spiritual system.
The Vedas, particularly the Rigveda, also outline the system of varnas, commonly known as ‘castes’ today. This ancient system of differentiating segments of society hierarchically and based on heredity incorporated four broad segments, including (from highest status to lowest): Brahmin (priest), Kshatriya (nobles/ruler), Vaishya (commoner), and Shudra (servant) castes. (Hint: Don’t confuse Brahmin [priest] with Brahman [unifying cosmic principle] discussed earlier, or Brahma [Hindu deity] discussed later.) You may be aware that another group of people called Dalit, commonly called ‘Untouchables’ in English, segregated from the four castes because of perceptions of behaviors like meat-eating or ‘unpure’ practices. DISCLAIMER: This is a very short and simple description of a profoundly complex tradition. To learn more, start with Discovering the Vedas: Origins, Mantras, Rituals, Insights (Staal 2008).
Hopefully you have realized already that the Vedic religious system is not the same as Hinduism today. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and later Sikhism developed out of the ancient Vedic religion. They incorporate many Vedic concepts, deities, and philosophies and they reject or modify some, too. Hinduism has the strongest links to the Vedic tradition, so we’ll start with it.
Between 400 and 200 BCE, another set of religious texts, the Puranas, developed alongside several epic Sanskrit poems, including the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The epic poems focus on heroes and political leaders, including the Bharata Dynasty and Rama, and form the basis of much of the mythology of Hinduism. The Puranas were probably written by Brahmin priests, the literate, learned knowledge holders of Vedic philosophy. Through their experiences as priests, Brahmins learned all the expectations of rituals, were considered ritually pure themselves, and understood the inner workings of deity worship. They knew all the important stories about each deity. In fact, the Puranas are primarily stories about deities, with each Purana (totaling 18 by most accounts) dedicated to a particular deity. The Brahmins held this information as part of their status and duties in society. These new texts form the basis of Brahmanical Hinduism (aka Brahmanism). This early form of Hinduism, derived from Vedic foundations, was maintained for a millennium, with a ‘Golden Age’ during the Gupta Period (320-650 CE). To learn more about that period, check out The Gupta Empire (Mookerji 1989).
Most textbooks today indicate that there are three primary deities of Hinduism: Vishnu (the preserver/protector), Shiva (the destroyer/procreator), and Brahma (the creator), ignoring the importance of Shakti or Devi, the goddess, within the tradition. This is a poor simplification of the true nature of modern Hinduism, better referred to as Devotional, or Bhakti, Hinduism (in contrast to Brahminical Hinduism). The Bhakti movement (ca. 700-1400 CE) encouraged the selection of a single deity for personal worship to achieve moksha. There is a strong debate in the scholarship whether the Bhakti movement was a rejection of Brahmin dominance in Hindu society and a way for non-Brahmins to develop divine connections.
Today, the worship of Vishnu (Vaishnavism, including Krishnaism and Ramaism), Shiva (Shaivism), and Shakti (Shaktism) are the most prevalent. The most prominent Hindu deities have many manifestations, or avatars, through which they can anthropomorphically and/or zoomorphically manifest on earth (e.g. Krishna and Rama are manifestations of Vishnu). Devotees typically target their worship to one particular manifestation. Personal devotion to one deity, be it a form of Krishna or Shiva, does not mean that devotees reject the existence and power of other Hindu deities. For example, the hijra community discussed in “Who Am I?” are particularly devoted to one manifestation of Krishna while the primary mythology of Aravan also relates to the goddess Kali (a form of Shakti). In contrast to Bhakti Hinduism, the Smarta tradition focuses worship on all deities equally.
As an example of a Bhakti visual expression, let’s look into Shaivism. Devotees to Shiva recognize his cosmically important dual roles of destroying what must be destroyed and procreating anew in the wake of that destruction. He is not just a destroyer, as many pop culture venues suggest. This duality of Shiva is exemplified in Shiva Nataraja (Fig. 4.7) from the Chola Dynasty of southern India (Fig. 4.1). You may have encountered this representation of Shiva before, known is English as Shiva ‘Lord of the Dance.’
Shiva elegantly performs a cosmic dance within a halo of fire. Shiva’s supportive leg presses upon a small figure, usually described as a demon in the form of a dwarf who represents ignorance and other negative aspects of the world. Through his dance, Shiva ‘stomps’ out ignorance, thereby destroying it. Shiva’s lifted leg demonstrates his prowess at this dance and in his duties as a cosmic tinkerer. As in many depictions, Shiva Nataraja is represented with more than two arms, thus instantly conferring superhuman status to him. Don’t you wish you had four arms sometimes?
Shiva’s hands are also important. His lower two hands (both at the left of his body) form mudras, meaningful hand gestures seen across traditions with Vedic roots. His upper two hands hold items. At the left, Shiva holds a small drum, a reference to the musical beat of his cosmic dance. At the right, Shiva produces a flame, as if lighting the surrounding halo ablaze from his palm. This fire is the demonstration of his procreative aspect. He does not just destroy for the sake of destroying. He remakes the world from what he destroyed. (Shiva is the ultimate recycler!) Shiva’s movements in such sculptures are important within the Hindu tradition but have also been influential elsewhere, such as in the art of Auguste Rodin (one of the most celebrated French sculptors). Learn more about Rodin and his interest in Shiva Nataraja in Rodin and the Dance of Shiva (Manochhaya 2016), including the full text of Rodin’s own essay called “The Dance of Shiva.”
Shiva’s flowing locks of hair probably catch your eye as well. He is often depicted with dreadlocks to indicate that he lives an ascetic lifestyle, eschewing social life and material comforts (including hair care routines) in favor of self-discipline and meditation. Shiva is the ultimate ascetic within the Hindu tradition. His cave home in the Himalayas is the site of his deep and profound meditations that rejuvenate and bring renewed fertility to the world. We’ll consider Shiva and his procreative aspects again in “Where Do Babies Come From?”
Objects like Shiva Nataraja are displayed in shrines and used in festival parades. In these venues, these bronze sculptures do not typically look just as presented in museums or in Figure 4.7. Check out this photo of how such sculptures transform over time. Like the festival object Aravan God Image in the Koothandavar (Fig. 3.4), garlands of flowers, leaves, and various floral arrangements are offered as adornments that provide a living and fresh component. These offerings are regularly renewed, each new garland presented as an offering to Shiva Nataraja as a demonstration of personal devotion and connection to him.
As the modern photographs of flowers at Hindu shrines and festivals attest, devotional Hinduism is not a thing of the past, but very much part of the present. Devotees of Vaishnavism or Shaivism today are just as devoted as people of the Gupta or Chola eras. Contemporary artists often explore ways to update the imagery of Vishnu or Shiva so that worship doesn’t feel stuck in the past. For example, photographer Nandini Valli Muthiah offers captivating contemporary imagery of Vishnu and Krishna in her “The Definitive Reincarnate” and “The Visitor” series.
Muthiah draws inspiration from historical representations of these deities, as well as Bollywood aesthetics, fashion photography, and popular calendars that feature a Hindu deity each month. As journalist Vaibhav Mathur (2018, para. 2) notes in an article about Muthiah’s work, these photographs “raise questions about the nature of worship, the relationship of the God to his devotees, and the areas in which celebrity-worship and the worship of deities overlap.” This last contemporary notion of celebrity-worship and its effects is exemplified in Muthiah’s Disillusioned 1 from 2010 CE (sketched in Fig. 4.8; original here). Vishnu’s blue skin, typical of the deity, contrasts with the gold adornments he wears and the stark white backdrop of a luxury hotel room. We see an emotional moment where it seems that Vishnu reflects on the burdens of his positions as a deity/celebrity. Muthiah’s approach offers a different way for devotees and non-Hindus to view Vishnu, perhaps from a more human perspective.
As noted above, Hinduism and the Vedic tradition are not the same thing and Hinduism is not the only distinct tradition to emerge from the ancient religious system. Buddhism is probably more familiar to European and Euro-American audiences, though the many different forms of Buddhism thriving today are often conflated. Where Hinduism is seen primarily as a continuation of Vedic traditions, Buddhism is seen as a reaction to and divergence from them. Let’s consider the Buddha and his story first, then dive into the tenets of the religion derived from his experience. Watch Asian Art Museum storyteller Leta Bushyhead tell Siddhartha Gautama’s (the Buddha’s) story in How a Prince Became the Buddha (Fig. 4.9).
Siddhartha’s Shakya clan was part of the Kshatriya noble caste of the Brahmanical traditions of the late Vedic period around 500 BCE (the exact date of his birth is uncertain). The city Siddhartha explored was probably Lumbini of present-day Nepal. Investigations in Lumbini found that Vedic tree worship was important during Siddhartha’s lifetime, as discussed in “The earliest Buddhist shrine: excavating the birthplace of the Buddha, Lumbini (Nepal)” (Coningham et al. 2013).
Leta describes the sannyasin (‘seeker of the spirit’ through asceticism [non-materialism/self-deprivation]) whom Siddhartha met on his first excursion outside his palace. When Siddhartha chose to leave his noble life to become a sannyasin himself, he first practiced an extreme form of asceticism which amounted to severe self-deprivation through starvation, sleep deprivation, and constant meditation. Sculptures such as the Starving Buddha in the Lahore Museum of Pakistan illustrate this time in Siddhartha’s life.
After years of this extreme deprivation, Siddhartha realized this approach was not getting him anywhere. He decided to take food generously offered by local people and settled for a calm meditation beneath a pipal fig tree, also known as the bodhi tree, at a place now known as Bodh Gaya, India. With enough nourishment and a mind calmed from the extreme pressures he endured before, Siddhartha’s meditation at Bodh Gaya was deeper than ever. According to the stories, as he meditated Siddhartha was tempted by Mara, a demon in the guise of beautiful women and other excesses. Like in our everyday lives, Siddhartha battled the forces of the material world, what he realized are the causes of our suffering, and overcame them through a calm mind and spirit. This was his enlightenment, under the bodhi tree.
Shakyamuni Buddha (Fig. 4.10) represents this moment of enlightenment, with the Buddha seated in padmāsana (‘lotus position’; cross-legged with soles of the feet facing the chin). Buddha, like Shiva Nataraja, performs mudras. One hand is raised in the abhaya mudra, signifying reassurance, as if Buddha is saying ‘fear not.’ His other hand rests near his knee, with fingers pointed down towards the ground. In other examples (like the sculpture behind Leta in How a Prince Became a Buddha [Fig. 4.9]), his fingers actually touch the ground. This is the bhumisparsha mudra, signifying that Buddha is ‘calling the earth [by touching the ground] to witness’ his enlightenment. It is also related to the process of subduing Mara, or the personified temptations that we all experience in life and lead to suffering. When you see the bhumisparsha mudra, you know the artist is depicting Buddha’s moment of enlightenment. At the corner of the sculpture, do you notice the branch of a tree with pointy leaves? That’s the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya!
Popular understandings of the Buddha’s life often misconstrue what happened next. Buddha’s enlightenment did not immediately result in nirvana (the release from suffering and the cycle of rebirth; a concept quite related to the Vedic notion of moksha). Scholars reconstruct that Buddha Shakyamuni reached enlightenment in his 30s and then went on to teach his ‘Middle Way’ to others until he was around 80 years old. He taught moderation between the extremes of starvation and material excesses. He rejected the basic Vedic assumption of Ātman and Brahman, suggesting that the personal soul and the cosmic soul principle do not exist. He rejected the dictates of the Vedic caste system that offered him more opportunity and creature comforts because he was born a Kshatriya and allowed only some to pursue spiritual matters if they happen to be born a Brahmin. According to Buddha’s teachings, enlightenment and spiritual devotion were open to anyone willing to devote themselves to the ‘Middle Way.’ Shakyamuni Buddha died of natural causes and upon the moment of his death, he achieved nirvana. Eventually, Buddha’s teachings were written down and spread into Southeast and East Asia.
Buddhism transformed significantly as it traveled, merging with indigenous spiritual traditions of East Asia and elsewhere. There are now many Buddhas, such as popular images today that feature a large belly and a smiling/laughing face. This so-called ‘Laughing Buddha’ does not depict the founder of Buddhism, but is probably inspired by a Chinese monk of the Chan Buddhist tradition (known as Zen Buddhism in Japan). The founder of Buddhism cannot be accurately represented with a smiling face and rotund form. Most traditional representations of Buddha comprise a series of signs, called lakshanas, that indicate the figure represented is Shakyamuni. You’ll notice many of these in Figure 4.10.
- Elongated but empty earlobes (from all that heavy jewelry he wore as a young man in the palace)
- Ushnisha (bun of hair or cranial bump symbolizing his superior knowledge)
- Urna (mole or ‘third eye’ between the eyebrows symbolizing his ability to ‘see past’ the mundane)
- Monk’s robe (referencing his choice to become an ascetic)
- Fleshy belly (visualizing his eventual path of moderation including eating enough to be comfortable for meditation)
- Mudras (hand gestures that offer meaning to the viewer, who may or may not have been able to read written inscriptions included on the object)
- Lions, usually present in the surrounding architecture (symbolizing his birth into the Shakya Clan of Kshatriya rules of Lumbini. ‘Shakya’ means lion).
- Halo (signifying a special presence)
- Bodhi tree and/or leaves (aka the pipal fig tree under which Buddha reached enlightenment)
- Spoked wheel often seen on the heel or in a footprint (symbol of the cycle of reincarnation and/or ‘The Wheel of the Law’ of Buddhist doctrine)
Shakyamuni Buddha was made more than 500 years after Shakyamuni Buddha is thought to have lived. Over that time, Buddhist monks, following from Shakyamuni Buddha, were traveling around India and teaching. As religions spread, groups who are receiving the new information need something to grasp onto, something familiar that they can see as a guide post as their beliefs transform. As Buddhist imagery started to develop, artists started incorporating imagery tied to the Vedic religious system and Brahmanical Hinduism to build that familiarity that new converts would be seeking.
One example of this can be found in Shakyamuni Buddha. Did you notice the second figure, smaller and positioned behind and to the left of Buddha? That figure is a Yaksha, a male-bodied anthropomorphic fertility spirit often paired with a Yakshi, a female-bodied fertility spirit. These fertility spirits are ancient Vedic deities often associated with vegetation and fruits that continued into Brahmanical Hinduism. We’ll explore Yakshi imagery in “Where Do Babies Come From?” They are often incorporated into the visual representation of Buddha’s life as observers of important occasions or as attendants. It is important to note that Shakyamuni Buddha’s tenets held that there are no deities or spirits. His philosophy rejected the Vedic tradition of Ātman and Brahman, from which any divine entity would derive. Thus, later artists who chose to incorporate Yakshas or Yakshis were doing so not to represent the original Buddhist tradition accurately but to offer familiar imagery to followers of Vedic and Brahmanical Hinduism as Buddhism was spreading. Many scholars think that Vedic Yakshas inspired Buddhist bodhisattvas, people who have reached enlightenment on earth and choose to delay nirvana, to help others reach their own enlightenment. We’ll encounter bodhisattvas with a distinct manifestation of Buddha in “What Happens When We Die?”
This spread of Buddhism led to the rise of distinct traditions based on Shakyamuni Buddha’s original teachings but diverging from them to various degrees. One later tradition that remains relatively close to the original teachings is called Vajrayāna, or Tantric Buddhism. This is the predominant religion in Tibet today, where it is called Tibetan Buddhism, and traces its roots to the 400s CE in northern India. Tibetan Buddhism has several different sub-traditions, including the Gelug school of which the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader.
The terms tantric or tantra may have (sexual) connotations for you that aren’t necessarily reflective of the original ideologies. Tantrism, as applied in both Hinduism and Buddhism, refers to practices and beliefs that focus on the body (such as yogic practice) and attaining enlightenment through attention to one’s body, and do not solely relate to sex. In some Tantric traditions, practices focus on the acceptance and overcoming of bodily desires, including hunger, sex, etc. Most importantly, any negative feelings or thoughts that one experiences are not to be banished but to be embraced and transformed according to one’s goals. In Tantric Buddhism, all people have a ‘Buddha-nature,’ a seed out of which enlightenment will sprout if they are able to harness their mind and body towards that goal. Vajrayāna means ‘the path of the fruit’; one seeks to grow the fruit of enlightenment from the seed within.
Tantric Buddhism is distinct from other forms of Buddhism because it is primarily taught via practice, not reading or listening to group lectures/sermons, and direct student-teacher relationships. A young Tibetan monk will undertake ritual practices in collaboration with a teacher to learn the lessons embedded in these practices. Practices can include mantras (repetitive recitations), yoga (including the practice of mudras), and mandala production. Mandalas are symbolic representations often formed via repetitive geometry. As you produce a mandala, you contemplate its layers, relationships, and complexities. In Vedic-based traditions, mandalas often serve as maps or spatial representations of the universe, including where deities reside. Mandala mediation is often seen as a journey through the space one has visualized. You may have encountered the traditions of mandala sandpainting.
Figure 4.11 illustrates a mandala created from Tsakalis, initiation cards from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Each card depicts a deity, divine couple (male and female deity pair who are considered paired in the mythology), or spiritual realm. These deities derive from the Vedic tradition and offer a different dimension to Tantric traditions of Buddhism that are not found in the original teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. The back side of each card features an inscription detailing a particular mindset to be overcome and instructions for mantras one should practice while laying the card in the mandala.
As highly portable objects, these cards can be carried while traveling. Thus, they can be used to undertake spiritual practice anywhere. When laid in this pattern and accompanied by the proper mantras, a sacred space is created, even where there is no temple. Thus, not only can an already devoted practitioner use these cards for their own personal practice, but they can use them to teach others anywhere they happen to travel by creating a sanctuary for learning. These cards are an example of portable connections to the divine, such as symbolic jewelry or pocket texts, that support devotional and/or meditative practice in all areas of life.
Let’s move to examples of established sacred spaces that offer permanent, and often monumental, connections to the divine. The first example, the Naikū of Ise, Japan (sketched in Fig. 4.12; original here), is the innermost shrine of the Ise Temple complex and is dedicated to Amaterasu, the Shintō kami of the sun, in fact the Ōmikami’ (most important kami). Shintō spirituality is focused on the worship of kami, non-physical spiritual entities that are primarily related to natural phenomena and elements, such as trees, rivers, astronomical bodies, etc. Kami also include honored ancestors. For example, Amaterasu is considered the ancestress of the Yamato imperial family that eventually came to rule over all of Japan. Because of this human connection, kami like Amaterasu can be represented in anthropomorphic form. But most kami are non-physical and not visually represented except when a marker is placed to recognize the presence of a kami in the landscape. For example, you may have seen images of large trees in Japan wrapped with impressive ropes and adorned with decorative paper. These shrines develop when natural places are recognized as a kami dwelling place. You may have also seen large red gateways in many iconic travel images of Japan. These are Shintō torii that represent a transition from mundane to sacred space, occupied by kami.
The Naikū shrine comprises an entrance torii that offers access to a rectangular complex. The complex is sparsely designed with only three buildings. The largest is the abode of Amaterasu and the others store precious items and offerings provided to her by Shintō priests. The architecture of these structures reflects an ancient tradition of building in Japan and the very foundation of sustenance: rice agriculture. Each Naikū structure resembles a traditional rice barn, elevated off the ground and protected with a large thatch roof to reduce the infiltration of moisture to the crop.
But the Naikū buildings certainly don’t look like any old barn! They feature a ceremonial style inspired by the types of building associated with the very mundane, but incredibly important, labor of rice farming. Without rice, no one eats well. Without the sun, there are no rice plants. Thus, rice agriculture has a direct tie to Amaterasu. Along these lines, it is also significant that the abode of Amaterasu is designed with the uppermost components of the roof covered in gold. This gold brilliantly reflects the sun and thus ensures that Amaterasu is at the forefront of our minds as we consider this structure and its surroundings.
There are many rituals associated with Amaterasu’s Naikū shrine, including the daily offering of rice at the door of her abode. These rituals are only undertaken by high-ranking priests. And only the imperial family, Amaterasu’s descendants, can ever see inside the shrine. As legend has it, the Yata no Kagami (Sacred Mirror) is housed in the shrine. This mirror played a role in the mythology of Amaterasu, luring her out of a cave, and thus bringing sunlight to the world.
One of the most unique rituals that occurs at Ise includes the Naikū shrine, neighboring Gekū shrine, and the nearby Uji Bridge. Shintō is founded on the concept of death and renewal, constant change (a lesson learned from all those nature kami), and therefore, impermanence. This means that the Shintō approach to architecture is quite distinct to traditions that prioritize permanence and choose to build out of long-lasting materials like stone. Shintō architectural tradition dictates that instead of long-standing, and decaying, architecture, the most important buildings must be renewed to honor the deities they serve. That’s the more spiritual explanation of the ritual. A more political explanation relates to the imperial family. Having the resources and power to have your ancestral shrine renewed on a regular basis (even though the old one could last much, much longer) demonstrates a great deal of political authority. Both explanations can be true simultaneously.
This goal of rebuilding is achieved through the Shikinen Sengū, whereby the two primary shrine complexes and the bridge are rebuilt every 20 years. Importantly, they are not rebuilt directly over the previous one, but in an adjacent enclosure. The new shrine is built right next door to the old shrine over the last 8 years of the 20-year cycle. During this time, the old shrine continues to serve the kami. Once the new shrine is complete, the final Shikinen Sengū ritual can take place, moving Amaterasu from her old shrine to the new shrine. This ritual is undertaken with the utmost respect and secrecy. Many artists have depicted portions of this ceremony, as in Ise Daijingu sengyo no zu (伊勢太神宮遷御之図) (Fig. 4.13).
Scholars think that the Shikinen Sengū 20-year cycle began around 690 CE. It continues to this day, with the most recent rebuilding completed in 2013 CE. The next 8-year construction process will begin in 2025 CE. The connection to kami in Japan is strong, even though foreign-derived religions such as Buddhism and Christianity have become popular. Many contemporary Japanese people, no matter their faith, visit Shintō shrines on special occasions, seeking connections to the natural divinities of Japan.
The idea of non-physical deities is not unique to Shintō. In fact, one of the primary tenets of Islam is that Allah (God) cannot and should not be represented in human-from, or in any form. Further, the Islamic Prophet Muhammad is not supposed to be represented anthropomorphically, though some Islamic traditions do not necessarily follow this prescription. The non-physical nature of Allah derives from the fact that he is defined as so far beyond human and what humans can imagine that it would be impossible to represent him effectively. The prohibition against depicting Allah and Prophet Muhammad, referred to as aniconism (a non-figural approach to art) by scholars, extends to a prohibition against human or animal representations in the sacred spaces of Islam.
This aniconistic approach only applies to masjids (mosques), tombs/mausoleums, and madrasas (schools) attached to masjids. The prohibition of such imagery is described clearly in the Qur’an and Hadith, centering on the rejection of any attempts to imitate Allah’s creation or compete with his mighty abilities. Whether a grand royal edifice or humble community space, the masjid is a place for reflection, personal devotion, and attention to Allah. Similarly, tombs and madrasas (focused on religious teaching) are spaces meant to honor those who have passed and the teachings of Allah and the Prophet Muhammed.
These spiritual tenets related to imagery and design have meant that Islamic art has focused on architectural design, space, form, geometry and monumentality as opposed to figural decoration. As an example, one of the most iconic masjids in the world today is Hagia Sophia (Fig. 4.14) in Istanbul, Turkey. This structure was originally built in 537 CE as a Byzantine cathedral of Constantinople. In 1453 CE, the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople from the Byzantines, renamed the city Istanbul, and converted Hagia Sophia into a masjid. This conversion required the building of minarets (towers used to announce the five daily calls to prayer), four on each corner of the complex that was also expanded to include a large sahn (courtyard), madrasa, and suq (marketplace).
A larger transformation occurred inside Hagia Sophia. The Byzantines had decorated the spacious interior with elaborate mosaics, such as The Imperial Gate mosaic (Fig. 4.15), focused on the figural traditions of Christian arts. The central figure is Jesus Christ, particularly the Christ Pantacrator depiction, who is enthroned and being honored by a kneeling emperor, probably Leo VI or Constantine VII. Jesus holds a book facing the viewer with an inscription of several short biblical phrases including “Peace be with you.” Other Christian deities are depicted anthropomorphically here and throughout the Byzantine mosaics of Hagia Sophia, including the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel.
Given the Islamic focus on aniconistic imagery, when Hagia Sophia was converted to a masjid, new interior non-figural decoration was required. Mosaics like that in Figure 4.15 were plastered and painted over with decorations typical of masjid interiors. Figure 4.16 illustrates how the main domed space of Hagia Sophia looks today, including geometric, arabesque (curvilinear floral patterns), and calligraphic ornamentation. The large roundels attached to the massive pillars that support the dome offer beautifully designed calligraphic inscriptions of the name of Allah (center), the Prophet Muhammad (left), and Abu Bakr (right; the first caliph [“successor” / rightful political leader] to succeed the Prophet Muhammad after his death). Calligraphy and geometric patterning are some of the most common decorative motifs employed in masjid decoration. Designers create entrancing and awe-inspiring ornamentation that inspires the worshipper to think beyond the physical, to the world of the divine. Calligraphy is the most important form of decoration in sacred Islamic spaces. We’ll explore smaller-scale calligraphy in “What is Beautiful?”
The prohibition against figural imagery in spaces such as Hagia Sophia and other masjids does not extend to secular spaces, such as family homes, marketplaces, and palaces. The art produced in some regions of the Islamic world, such as Ottoman Turkey, incorporates a rich history of figural imagery, especially that produced by royal and elite workshops. We’ll encounter several examples of figural arts produced for Muslim audiences beyond Istanbul as well as awe-inspiring non-figural arts in the chapters to come.
Hopefully, this chapter offered some interesting insights into how cultures around the world consider the divine. These insights do not need to influence your own vision of the divine but should be respected. Every human being and every culture has their own way of seeing the world. As you explore more about “What is Divine?” consider the resources from the wide world of popular media and scholarly literature below.
- Check out the Hagia Sofia Cats Instagram, documenting the cats living around the complex! Thanks to student Erika for sharing this one!!
- Check out the video game called Overwatch to find and play with a character called Orisa, inspired by Nigerian Yoruba traditions! Thanks to student Allie for sharing this one!
- Disney created a film called “The Road to El Dorado” based on the El Dorado Spanish myths. Check it out but take it with a grain of salt!
- Clover Studios and Capcom produced a video game called “Okami” loosely based on the Shintō tradition and featuring the character of Amaterasu. It’s fun but take it with a grain of salt, too!
- The video game “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” incorporates several art history references, inducing an Olmec colossal head that shares several features with the Adze of Divine Figure.
- Tibetan Buddhism is featured in the Hollywood film “Seven Years in Tibet” from 1997.
- Watch Tibetan monks create a sandpainting in a video from the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas, Texas.
Where Do I Go From Here? / The Bibliography
Coningham, R.A.E., K.P. Acharya, K.M. Strickland, C.E. Davis, M.J. Manuel, I.A. Simpson, K. Gilliland, J. Tremblay, T.C. Kinnaird, and D.C.W. Sanderson. 2013. “The Earliest Buddhist Shrine: Excavating the Birthplace of the Buddha, Lumbini (Nepal).” Antiquity 87 (338): 1104–23. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00049899.
Das, Subhamoy and Manoj Sadasivan. 2020. “What You Need to Know About the Vedas — India’s Most Sacred Texts: A Brief Introduction.” Accessed July 28, 2021. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-are-vedas-1769572.
Mathur, Vaibhav. 2018. “Nandini Valli Muthiah reimagines Vishnu with stunning photographs.” Accessed July 28, 2021. http://www.curiousindia.com/nandini-valli-muthiah-reimagines-vishnu-with-stunning-photographs/.
Thapar, Romila. 2008. The Aryan: Recasting Constructs. Three Essays Collective.