The Muse

The sheer variety of symbols and artefacts in use across the ages and geographies does not necessarily point to a multitude of assumptions and values from which they spring. The study of mythology and folklore then, is a reverse approach to anthropology. This blog is dedicated to my favourite symbols, tales and artefacts - both ancient and contemporary.

Animist iconography

Although the Purusha Sukta in the Rig Veda firmly establishes a notion of creation from a primordial human male, Indic tradition has always considered animist and aniconic representations of deities superior to what the Bible calls "graven" images.
Indeed, there is considerable evidence that 'Hindu' deities were rarely depicted in human form prior to the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism
  1. There is very minimal description of the physical form of deities in the Vedas. If at all a description was made, attention was drawn to their essential non-human nature e.g. exotic colour of skin, presence of multiple eyes (only eyes, never heads or limbs), animal motifs, abstract imagery etc.
  2. In practice, most ancient shrines either worshipped nature directly e.g. rivers, trees, cows, etc. or had natural geological formations in their sanctum sanctorum,

    e.g. all the jyotirlingas and most shakti peethas are natural uncarved rock, whereas the rest of the shakti peethas worship interesting phenomena such as underground river (Kamakhya, Assam), natural gas flares (Jwalamukhi, Himachal Pradesh), cinnabar (HgS) deposits (Hingalaj, Pakistan)
    BaidyanathDeogarh, Bihar - a typical Jyotirlinga.
      Kalika, Kolkata, West Bengal - one of the typical Shakti Peethas. The tongue, eyes and hands are attachments made of solid gold and underneath the sarees and garlands is a plain and uncarved dome shaped stone.

      Siddhida, Jwalamukhi, Himachal Pradesh- a Shakti Peetha worshipping other natural phenomena. The flame is the object of devotion, it is fuelled by natural gas deposits in the region.
    1. Even in the case of Vaishnavism, worship of ammonite fossils (shaligrama) was and still remains superior to 'murti' (icon/idol) worship
      Two Shaligrama stones. The indentations on the central stone resemble a smiling face, while the ammonite shell patterns are clearly visible on the stone on the right.
    2. This aversion to the depiction of God in human form is also especially visible in the so called 'village deities' and famous temples of tribal/rural origin such as Jagannatha Temple, Puri
      Hanuman, Lambhvel, Gujarat- typical 'swayambhu' murti. The columns are solid gold.
      Jagannatha, Puri, Odisha - Originally a tribal deity, was co-opted into Vaishnava tradition about 1000 years ago. Notice the abstract nature of the image

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