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Beliefs made visible: Hindu art in South Asia

India's rich culture shines through its diverse religious traditions, Hinduism and Buddhism. Hinduism embraces a variety of beliefs, symbolized by many deities, each with unique attributes. Temples, filled with intricate sculptures, serve as homes for these deities. Buddhism, on the other hand, emphasizes personal spiritual development and the attainment of a deep insight into the true nature of life. Both religions influence India's architecture, sculpture, and painting, creating a vibrant tapestry of faith and art. Created by Asian Art Museum.

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Video transcript

India is a land of incredible diversity history and culture throughout the centuries numerous religious traditions have coexisted in this program we'll explore two of the great religious traditions of India Hinduism and Buddhism we'll see how Hindu and Buddhist beliefs are practiced and made visible through architecture sculpture and painting Hinduism may be described as a Museum of religions because you have every conceivable perspective you may be the father of yoga and you may be a Hindu you may believe in a personal God or you may believe in an impersonal absolute there's a wide variety of choices you know what we are confronted by in India is variety of images representing numerous deities and they are all the gods in one with another come from the same entity or idea which is sometimes called Brahman sometime is called the reality sometimes called truth but these are just the different manifestations you know there is this concept that we tend to categorize that religion must have only one day T but this concept of many in one is something that the Hindu accepts right from the beginning the different forms of Hindu gods arise to meet different needs and it comes out of Hindu mythology as well where you'll see gods emerging in different forms to defeat certain demons the most frequently represented deities that you'll find are probably the great gods of Hinduism and these are Shiva and Vishnu and the goddess will be represented in various forms the way to recognize many of these deities is via their attributes and very often the Hindu deities are represented with multiple arms and multiple heads and they primarily represent the aspect of the divine majesty of the gods and their superhuman qualities the god shiva can take many forms he can appear as a ferocious figure or he can also be depicted as a family man while Shiva has dreadlock and often he's shown with a third eye on his forehead and he often carries the Trident he is always shown his body smeared with ashes and his hair unkempt and disheveled and bearing a garland of cobras he is represented as the great yogi and the great teacher Shiva may be represented in his symbolic forms such as the Linga or the phallus the Linga is represents the creative power you would recognize that a temple is dedicated to Shiva by the image of the Linga that you would see in the temple sanctuary here we have got a very interesting object called three pure an taka that means the victory over the three cities and the Shuai is shown here in a as an archer in his victorious pose the legend tells us that by performing severe austerities three demon brothers received a gift of power so that they can build three indestructible cities one of gold in the heavens one of silver in the sky and one of iron in the earth thinking themselves invincible they ravaged both God and man but there was a stipulation that once in thousand years the three cities would join to become one and then it would be possible to destroy them if pierced by a single arrow so the man and God petitioned Shiva and when the three cities became united he discharged his mighty arrow and destroyed the cities thus rescuing the world from the evil tyranny now ganesh is the son of Shiva and Parvathi he's worshipped all over India and he is the remover of obstacles and the God of good fortune you recognize him by his elephant head and there is an interesting myth that tells us how he got his elephant head Parvati is alone feeling dejected and lonely Shiva as you know is the is the wild yogi the ascetic who disappeared into the mountains for eons so piratey decides to fashion a clay image of Ganesh and breathes life into him and lovingly she raised him one day before she went in to bathe she asked Ganesh to guard the entrance to the to the house and as luck would have it Shiva returns from one of his meditation trips and finds Ganesh barring entry into his own home Shiva doesn't recognize who Ganesh's and Ganesh has never seen his father before and so in his rage Shiva decides to chop off Ganesh's head far with thee when she realizes what has happened is horrified and asks Shiva to restore Ganesh so Shiva realising what happened walks out onto the street and grabs the head of the first creature that he sees which happens to be an elephant and so he decides to replace Ganesh's head with that of an elephant and here we have a wonderful 13th century stone sculpture of Ganesh you can see it is ornately carved and he holds his many attributes in his four hands in his upper right hand he holds an axe in his lower right hand he carries a broken tusk and in his lower left hand he holds a bowl of sweet meats and you can see from his rotund belly that he is very fond of each and it is tied with a cobra to prevent it from bursting you Vishnu's traditional wall in Hinduism is as the preserver of the universe as the world passes through cycle after cycle he keeps an observant eye on what's going on and he assumes these avatars as a way to descend down to earth and intercede when there is a crisis Vishnu is incarnations include the popular forms of Rama and Krishna but they also include half animal half human forms such as varaha and Narasimha the people still choose one deity that they feel are more comfortable and in my family it was Krishna which is the incarnation of Vishnu Krishna is easily represented by stories so you can see him playing flute and maybe he is also shown with cows and maybe the cow is Krishna's life story was a very popular subject for manuscripts in India and we see a number of painted versions of his life and many of these scenes will depict him demonstrating his strength and this is something that he demonstrates from the time he's an infant through adulthood Krishna and many of these paintings is blue in color is a reference to his name because Krishna means the dark one and this dark color is an aspect that's associated with Vishnu it represents infinity and eternity there was a snake a serpent called Kalia and he had become very powerful and he used to hiss and frighten the people of who lived on the banks of the Yamuna River and the people were afraid to go for their bath in the river so Krishna was a mere boy at that time so he climbed a tree on the bank of the river and from there he jumped on the head of the serpent and performed a dance there subdued him and then this happened beg for mercy and the serpents wives came and pleaded the krishna to let him go not destroy him so Krishna said well it's not very nice to frighten people like that go and live peacefully somewhere else do not bother us here all hindu deities are associated with their animal mounds and we have the goddess durga who rides astride a line or a tiger in her attempt to vanquish evil and suppress the demon mahisha there are many female goddesses but Durga is highly revered in Bengal and Bengal is all over India even if they're away from their homes come the month of October when it is time for durga puja or the festival of the goddess durga there will be ten days of celebration and there will be a statue with tray on the on a superstructure of straw the images dressed in beautiful saris and there are flowers operatives on super then it is put on a pedestal and often there is a procession of the goddess the moment that we see in the statue invariably is that durga mounting or standing on the a lion often there is a human figure emerging whose chest has been pierced by this trident held in Durga's one of her hands one of her ten hands and if you look closely you'll find she invariably has a kind of a beatific smile on her face she is doing it as an act where justice must prevail over injustice where righteousness must prevail over wrongdoing she would be eventually taken to the river say the Ganges River and immersed in the holy waters you the idea of immersion represents the idea of dissolution implying the idea of becoming one with the universe so as the image arises from play off from unfired clay it returns to Mother Earth when it is immersed in the holy waters it's not unusual to find grown people crying really really grieving and they will be kind of beseeching the mother to come back again next year our Hindu temple is a home for the deity and a sacred space where the worshiper can encounter the divine temples may vary from small forest shrines to very sophisticated ones with elaborate craftsmanship and they have evolved over centuries to accommodate the growing pantheon of Hindu deities many people circumambulate they walk around it as a show of piety and as you circumambulate the temple you'll see that there is sculpture placed on the walls you might see Ganesha for instance the figures placed earliest in the circumambulation because his traditional role is as a remover of obstacles so he would be removing any obstacles to the pious person and his religious goals the temple is centered on a sanctuary which is the innermost part of the temple a cave-like interior which we also call the wound chamber and they would there is generally a superstructure over the wound chamber but the boom chamber then opens into a hall which may be a gathering place very often these are pillared halls and then they lead out to open porches in the inner sanctum you would see the image of the main deity to whom the temple is dedicated the primary icon or the image is way deep into the very dark corner of the temple you can hardly see because only can you can see through the candle light so the flames that are fluttering it's like entering a cave in a mountain and the Hindu temple is most often likened to a mountain and mountains have a great deal of symbolism not just in India but in other countries as well and the reason for that is because the mountain is the world axis it connects the heaven in the earth and it's for this reason that is this dark inner chamber of a temple is so much like a dark cave one of the most elaborate temples ever produced in India is Kailash not it is dedicated to Lord Shiva drawing its name from the abode of Shiva which is Mount Kailash in the Himalayas the whole temple was cut from the natural rock cliffs at ellora it looks like a free-standing temple but everything you see here was carved from the rock from the top to the bottom it's like entering the womb of the earth when you when you enter a rock-cut temple deep inside who feel that sanctity that this is where the life sustains itself I would imagine that is what it was intended that when you go into one of the rock art or cave temples this is what you feel tene Indian art architecture and sculpture are inseparable there are no freestanding sculptures in India except a few bronzes otherwise all sculpture is a part of the architecture that is why the figure never really completely emerges from the wall or the column this can especially be seen in the temples in central India at Cairo which emerged in the 10th and 11th centuries and adorned with sensual sculptures of loving couples we call me Tina there are many interpretations of the meaning of these carvings the symbolism here is that the union of the male and the female is a symbol of the union of the individual soul with the supreme soul you know you go round the temple from the outside and you see the world of material reality and worldly pleasures and then you transcend them when you go down into the garbha Griha or the main sanctuary the sanctum sanctorum and you realize that these were merely appearances the reality is inside we have the wonderful ornamental temple at Cana Rock in eastern India in erisa and here the whole temple is conceived as a sky chariot as the chariot of the god Surya the Sun God equipped with horses and standing on on elaborate wheels elaborately carved wheels what actually survives today is only part of the original temple which used to have a much taller Tower ah ah in southern India at mother I are huge Cobras or gateways that tower above the temple complex these gateways are filled with statues of the deities during elaborate festivals the enshrined bronze statues of the Lord Shiva and the goddess Meenakshi are carried before the public in a procession of chariots being Indian and having traveled to India so many times I never really considered all of the art that I saw in the pilgrimage temples that I would visit with my parents as art it it was just part of the whole temple fabric we don't have a concept of going to a temple on a particular day of the week unlike say the Christians go to church on Sundays you could go any day or not go at all there is no idea of a Hindu sermon where people have to congregate because in Hinduism there is no particular time that you go to the temple you can go if you are an exam you can go before you do the exam and pray for good grades or you can for a marriage or so many other whatever reason it is before the temple even you'll see many stalls we should be selling different items that you may need before to worship and pray like flowers incense coconut that powder and so forth they will go barefoot into the temple there is a bell they will probably ring once seeking the permission of the God - may I now enter your temple priest general generally play the role of a ritual specialists they are trained in Sanskrit texts in offering prayers and in making sure that that the ritual is performed in the correct way and all offerings to the God are channelized through him so invariably he will recite some incantations which in which is the word which has already come into the English language now our mantra and the person who is making the offering his name will be introduced somewhere in this process of incantation and well you earn some merit on account of that maybe the gods will smile upon you each portion tries to have a darshan what we call or this eye contact with the deity because it is felt that looking personally or into the eyes of the deity you can get energy and the blessing directly from the particular statue Hindu worship can also involve the lighting of fire and and offering these lit lamps to the God embodied in the sculpture one of the most important rituals in worship is the performing of the Aarti now this RT comprises of lighting a lamp placing it in a flat tray and then waving the tray and the flame around the deity thus honoring the deity with light by placing their hands over the flame and touching their eyelids with the fingertips thereby absorbing the divine presence because the deity is believed to be present in the image and then the worshipper honors him with flowers with incense gifts of food and treats him like an honored guest the idea is you must not always possess you must also give up so if you give up you know if you give flowers or honey or whatever milk it's a gesture of saying well now I am surrendering to these are things that I'm giving you no it's not that I am only taking I must give you rivers in India are sacred especially the Ganges River and Varanasi located on its base is like a huge shrine to Shiva with no fewer than 2,000 temples mm-hmm they say that just to live in Varanasi is sacred and all these are considered sacred spots and for pilgrimage because according to the legends and the sacred texts gods have visited them have been there well there are many carts that used to say paved stones steps leading to the river and each has some historical Association and some religious Association devotees immerse themselves in the water facing the Rising Sun and chanting mantras to the Sun God Surya when you have become disenchanted with the world and you have a sense of futility then you pass your last days of the bank of the holy river in the sacred city waiting for the last moment to come the very elderly come to varanasi to die in the hope of achieving liberation and peace a release from the cycle of rebirths the dead are cremated along the riverbanks and their ashes strewn across the river to become one with the goddess and one with the universe who you you