For the iconoclasts of India, the idols that the conformists worship are the true images of the transcendental Absolute. There were many cults and many manifestations of gods, worshipped by various strata of the society. For several thousands of years, these groups interacted among themselves at various levels and exchanged ideas, including that of religion and gods. So much so, there appeared to happen a massive process, covering all over India, in which the gods were integrated and metamorphosed into one cult. As a result, we have a pan-Indian concept of manifestation of gods. It is very likely that many gods, with distinctive regional roots, were syncretised with gods from other regions.
In this scenario, the roots of the gods of the Hindu pantheon have to be obviously in the Vedas, being the oldest collection of hymns propitiating the divinity. In the initial stage of study of the significance of these idols, western scholars recorded their limitations in correlating the texts with sculptures. It was exactly 100 years ago, T. A. Gopinatha Rao, under the patronage of Travancore rulers, published Elements of Hindu Iconography and opened the way for proper interpretation of this most pressing desideratum.
Now, R. Nagaswamy has come out with an excellent book tracing the Vedic roots of Hindu iconography. Among the scores of books he has authored, this stands out to be the book where his extraordinary knowledge on India’s past is brilliantly revealed.
There are 33 articles in the collection of essays on various gods like Agni, Linga, Siva, Sakti, Muruga, Varaha, Rama, Krishna, and Balarama besides on the rituals associated with Agni and other miscellaneous subjects. In the opening article on Agni, he delineates the prime position accorded to him in the Vedic hymns. Relying on passages from various hymns and quoting them, he proposes that Agni is the embodiment of various manifestations including that of Siva and Vishnu. Later he proceeds to define the importance of the great purifying ceremony punyahavacanam. He cites the texts to show that the purification is not only for the body but for the space around human beings and the prayer includes prosperity and peace for all.
After a few articles akin to rituals, he goes on to explain how the ‘whole human body has always been praised as the temple and pulsating prana is the divine deva’. The temple is conceived in general parlance as the universe and Narayana-sukta, the mystical appendix to the Purusha-sukta of the Veda, played a vital role in the evolution of concepts relating to all temples.
In fact he effectively records that the Narayana-sukta bridged the gap between the Vedic texts and agama tradition. Again, the relevance of these agamas even today was demonstrated when it helped in retrieving the lost idol of Nataraja from overseas and shows the authority of these texts. He deals in detail how these texts helped him during the trial in a London court in establishing the origin of the icon in general and the ownership of it to the temple in particular.
The article on Linga contests the theory that the worship of Linga as Siva originated from the worship of phallus. He shows that there are many aspects to the worship of Linga. In fact Vedic passages reflect the inseparable unity of Siva and Vishnu in Linga. Nammalavar’s quotations are shown as authority to prove that clearly demarcated cult of Siva and Vishnu were not professed by great saints. They always considered them as the manifestations of the supreme god.
In a classic article on Sandhya Vandanam, he concludes that the nature of the dance of Siva is the dance of Surya who performs the samasta samhara by entering the solar orbit and it is adoration of Sun in all his Vedantic form that flowers into the dance of Siva.
The article on the meaning of Khandariya Mahadeva Temple at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh is an example of the author’s scholarship in interpreting the great Indian temples through the texts and other temples such as Lakshmana, Jaina, and Yogini temples at that place. He declares that the temple belongs to the Bhairava cult. The representation of matrikas in the base of the temple, according to him, represents syllables and the adhishthana of the temple is the Vidyapitha. For young research scholars, the documentation of various evidences is the methodology of the analytical study of Indian art.
Then he delves into the Tamil literature, by critically analysing the position of various gods in the ancient and medieval Tamil works, beginning with the Sakti worship in Tamil Nadu and moves on the status of Murgan, and Balarama. To the critics on the role of Ramayana in Tamil Country, he has proved emphatically that it was not a new introduction, but is known even from the Tamil Sangam literature and Tamil epic Silapadikaram. The work on Vedic traditions in the Tamil epic Manimekalai is another example of his understanding of both Tamil and Sanskrit works.
To encapsulate, this monograph highlights the role of religion in understanding India’s past. It is also apparent that one has to undertake relentless research to co-relate the literature of the past with the present.
VEDIC ROOTS OF HINDU ICONOGRAPHY: R. Nagaswamy; Kaveri Books, 4832/24, Ansari Road, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 2500.