Indian religious art

“The famous art historian, Kenneth Clark, sought to distinguish between the naked and the nude, where naked represented the vulnerable, undressed figure, the nude the confident ideal – a distinction that became popular in the history of art though more recently it has been questioned. . But in Christianity, however, the nude has remained the naked – the symbol of degradation, humiliation, sin (in depicting Eden) and brutality (with the flagellation). Christian art has avoided sexuality as in practice the religion has commonly had problems with sex.

Logically one would not have expected the nude in Indian art to have been a positive symbol of the good, in view of the belief in reincarnation, wherein the immortal ‘soul’ is imprisoned in the material world, while seeking release from rebirth so that the blissful state beyond the material might be achieved. But the body is not used in most Indian art to represent sin, degradation or humiliation. Instead, the human body is generally depicted virtually – if not completely – naked, almost always full of life, vigour, beauty and energy; indeed it often involves scenes on temple walls of ecstatic copulation – sometimes in pairs, sometimes in groups (maithuna). In the temples, the phallus and the vagina are common motifs in the sanctuary. How can this be? The nineteenth-century missionaries were disgusted at such scenes and interpreted them as evidence of the degradation of Hindus. For many Hindus, however, it is natural to use representations of the source of human life as symbols of the divine creative power. Happy copulating couples were symbols of the generation of life and of the love of God for the soul and vice versa. Despite contemporary Asian attitudes to displaying the body, much classical Indian art used the human form as the obvious religious symbol for the gods. Beauty is represented by wide shoulders, narrow waists and round pendulous breasts for the women. If Clark’s polarization were accepted, then one might say there are no naked, only nude, forms in virtually all Indian art. The individual identity of the deities depicted is not always clear, because many figures are depicted in a similar beautiful pose and virtually all follow the same canons of beauty. Instead, they are identified by the attributes they carry (for example a trident) or by their hand gestures (mudras), as they also are in Indian dance – an art form closely related to sculpture. Divinity dwells where it is worshipped, so it is thought that, when the worshipper approaches the image in purity and with devotion, then the gods indwell that beautiful form. As the devotee sees the image with the eye of knowledge the deity comes to dwell within the worshipper. When an image is made the last step is always ‘the opening’ of the image’s eyes by the priest, for not only does the worshipper see the image, so also the divine sees, and thereby blesses, the worshipper. It is impossible to understand Hindu devotion without studying the divine image bringing the divine into the person of the worshipper.”

(The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion)