Mirrors in Hindu Consecration Rituals and Image worship: Naman P. Ahuja
Time & Location
About the Event
The concept of reflection and the tool and metaphor of a mirror, have played a major role in shaping the theoretical basis for art history in almost all cultures. Bimba, and pratibimba, which explain art as reflection, are two major aesthetic concepts in India. A mirror is called darpana in Sanskrit, and is an attribute of many deities referred to in many ancient texts. What does this attribute mean? And can it help us understand the larger aesthetic philosophy?
Sculptures and paintings are informative: A mirror in the hand of Pārvatī symbolizes Prakṛti, to reflect Puruṣa, Śiva, the Absolute to him. For any absolute cannot, logically, know itself as it is unable to compare or to be aware of itself in relation to anything else. The mirror becomes a widely used metaphor for expressing the sāṅkhya philosophy of dualism, and the nature of cognition. The mirror enables other visions, Rādhā is shown holding a mirror in which she captures an image of herself with Kṛṣṇa, who might be standing somewhere far away from her—creating in the reflection, a condition she aspires to.
Rituals, within sacred architecture are also illuminating: The abstract idea of a deity is found powerfully expressed at some of the Bhagavati temples of northern Kerala. There need not be an icon in the sanctum in these temples. Instead, what is enshrined is a mirror. There will be images outside of course, but inside, right in the garbha gṛ̣ha, the devotee wouldn’t get darśan of some image or deity, but would encounter a mirror—a device that urges the devotee to look at or rather within herself or himself. You get darśan of yourself, encouraging meditative interiorisation—a looking within—the depiction manages to communicate that abstract idea of what the god does, without making a body of a god. The animation of coming towards the image of the self, was, however, paradoxically, recognized in Indian philosophy as only māyā, a reflected self, the visage, which is the greatest alienation of the self. Aestheticians came up with an extraordinary abstracted sculptural form to counter that and facilitate a reanimation of the connection with the self.
Naman P. Ahuja is Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Co-Editor of Marg Publications. He has curated a number of exhibitions on classical and contemporary art; most notably – The Body in Indian Art and Thought (2013: Brussels and Delhi). In collaboration with the British Museum, he recently co-curated India and the World: A History in Nine Stories (Penguin, 2017) at the National Museum, Delhi and CSMVS Mumbai. His writings have been translated into various languages, and have drawn attention to the foundations of Indian iconography and transcultural exchanges at an everyday, quotidian level. His latest book is The Art and Archaeology of Ancient India, Earliest times to the sixth century (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 2018).