Images and Darsan

This post is part of our ongoing series of reflections concerning “Conceptions of the Ultimate”, the ways in which various world religions conceive of and interpret the Ultimate Being of the cosmos.

Darsan in HinduismDarsan means “seeing the divine”, and Diana L. Eck’s book bearing the same name, she discusses the Hindu practice of seeing and understanding the divine image in various Hindu contexts. In this reflection, I focus on the nature of the divine image in the Hindu tradition, especially as this concept relates to Christian conceptions of divine nature and representation. Darsan offers numerous insights into the parallels between Hindu and Christian theologies, providing another useful source for thinking about the relationship between Hindu and Christian theologies.

Vital to understanding Hindu images of the divine is their functional importance and place of honor as “the very embodiment of the god.” Such embodiment is much more than mere representation. Images are not conceived of as symbols of something outside of their own essence, but rather partake in the nature of the divine. The classification of images as murti (a Sanskrit term meaning body, figure, embodiment, or manifestation) directs our attention toward the fact that these images are viewed as the “form” that a deity has taken upon itself. That is, images are incarnations of the divine. Eck notes that another common term employed in thinking about Hindu images is vigraha (meaning “body”) the form in which the gods are able to be understood by human minds. If one wants to see and understand the divine, you go to an image of that deity. Understanding vigraha is important because it signals that even when immanent in the concreteness of an image, the full essence of the Ultimate remains transcendent. A final conception of Hindu image that Eck touches on is their function as “visual scriptures,” the foundational sources of Hindu narrative, where the “many myths of the tradition are narrated in living stone.” Images are thus not only embodied divinity, but also the functional guides for Hindu belief and practice. From Eck’s presentation, we may conclude that images in the Hindu context 1) share in the real nature of the divine, 2) are the way in which human minds may understand the Ultimate, and 3) act as the visual scriptures that guide Hindu practice.

Darsan, EckThis language parallels a number of claims made by the Christian traditions concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Certainly the categories of “nature” and “incarnation” seem parallel, as do prescriptive and narrative aspects of images in both traditions. If one conceives of Jesus as “image,” then standard Christian claims about 1) his nature as the divine incarnate, 2) source of understanding God the Father, and 3) function as guide for Christian faith and practice, seem to fit right into the Hindu categories. Of course, a major difference between these traditions is the number of incarnations and anthropology of image. Christians argue for a single incarnation into anthropos (“man” or “humanity”), whereas Hindus advocate numerous incarnations into the iconic (anthropomorphic likenesses) and aniconic (symbolic forms). While Christians certainly affirm the use of icons and aniconic symbols, even in the Eastern Orthodox tradition (where us of icons is more prevalent) an image is not viewed as partaking in the essence of that which it represents, but rather pointing toward the reality beyond that image. While Hindu images fulfill this function on some level (as ways in which humans can understand the divine), there seems to be an ontological difference, as murti contain at least some of the “substance of divinity.” The parallels between these two traditions, along with their divergent understandings of these parallels, leads to a question of how do westerners (especially Christians) best understand the nature of the Hindu image? That is, are there appropriate “crossover” categories that allow us to effectively communicate our theologies of incarnation and image with each other?

Most useful in thinking about this question seems to be the parallel Eck notes between the Hindu ritual creation of images, including the rites of eye opening (netronmilana) and establishing breath (pranapratistha), and the Christian practice of communion where elements of bread and wine are consecrated as the body and blood of Christ. Here there are further ontological similarities, as Catholic and Orthodox Christians can affirm that the divinity of Christ exists in the elements in some real manner. While there are notable connections between the language of Hindu murti and the incarnation of Christ, the closest parallels seem to exist in Christian conceptions of the Eucharist and Hindu images, making this parallel the most likely option for fruitful further consideration.

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