A speech delivered as a chief guest at the inaugural session at a National Conference on the Iconography of Hindus,Buddhists and Jains on January 8, 2016.
Art history is history with a difference. While the modern genre of history is considered more of a science dealing with the material world, Art history takes one to abstract heights, into a different realm. Art history is the finest amalgam of both science and art. Among various forms of art, iconography needs a special mention. An ‘icon’ is a clear symbol of a concept or a phenomenon.
Especially Hindu iconography has evolved purely out of the cosmological, philosophical and metaphysical knowledge that have emerged from the Vedas. Therefore Hindu iconology is considered Veda (the knowledge) by itself. The Veda in a literal form gives a graphic description of the cosmic phenomenon whereas the iconography presents a visual description of the same phenomenon. The iconography is thus meant to convey the abstract, subjective truths realized by the philosopher or Rishi, to the common man. Thus, Hindu iconography since times immemorial has been inseparably associated with the spiritual pursuit and elevation of the people in this culture.
In India, the earliest icons, dating back five millennia, clearly convey such philosophical and metaphysical concepts. The images of the Yogi and the Dancing Girl from Harappan times reveal the secret of their transcending link with spirituality. Vedic background of Hindu iconology is quite evident in the development of the science of Art in the later phase of Vedic period. The figurines of gods and goddesses in metal or stone are designed according to the dhyana slokas adopted from the Veda. The dhyana slokas are literary descriptions of the godheads. Thus, Hindu icons are not idols or mere art pieces.
Aesthetics are added to the science of this art, probably after Harappan times, to please the eye as the civilization matured. The relevant sastras, sutras and other scientific literatures came up in the course of time. Considerable scientific and mathematical applications (such as Iconometry) are involved in the making of divine icons as intrinsic as the yagna vedikas according to Vedic injunctions. In Hindu iconology, the base of art is science, which in turn is based on the Vedic knowledge. Its aim is spirituality. This could be found as a general characteristic feature of all Hindu classical forms of Art.
The nature of Indian (Hindu) Art is transcendental, from matter to non-matter. Music, dance, painting, sculpture, poetry etc., are treated equivalent to dhyana, tapas and yoga for realizing the Ultimate. The Hindu iconography is placed on a high pedestal among all other forms as a path of realisation of Self not only for the artist but also for those who are attracted to his piece of art and meditate on its form. This has become a popular form of Hindu worship within reach of the common man.
The icon, though it is in human form, should not be treated as a mere idol. The iconic worship is directed to a cosmic phenomenon. Others may understand this as idol worship. Common practitioners of Hinduism must also be educated to know what icons mean in their religious practices. We need authoritative and simple popular writings to familiarise people with the significance of Hindu Iconography. In this regard, I can cite one such effort by Pandit Rama Ramanuja Achari’s recent work, Hindu Iconology (Simha Publications, 2015).
Hindu iconography, besides depicting the tattvas of divine manifestations, includes the symbolic representation of mythological legends like avataras, cosmic phenomenon like Manthan, Puranic stories, events and personalities etc. In all these depictions, the spiritual underpinning is found prominent. The Hindu iconology has influenced the art of later religions like Jainism and Buddhism.
Therefore, the Hindu Art historian shoulders great responsibility while interpreting an icon to the general readership. He has to be well acquainted with the traditional scholarship. John F Mosteller reiterates the significance of ancient texts for interpreting a piece of art in the Indian context. (Mosteller, The Future of Indian Art History, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 109, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1989, pp. 597-602).
I am glad that very distinguished scholars of Hindu Iconography have graced this Seminar, to share their rich understanding on this special and intricate subject of Indian Art with all of us. I earnestly hope that this seminar would remain a prominent milestone in the history of Indian traditional art.