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Exploring Aniconism in Hinduism and Buddhism

Panel Chair: Milette Gaifman | Tuesday, August 25, 3:30-5:30 p.m. | Venue

Anicionic objects together form a broad category of religious material sources – a category which in fact seems both too broad and incoherent. It includes clearly recognizable depictions of wheels, fish, phalli, unmanufactured objects and elements in the natural environment such as unwrought stones, trees, rivers and mountains, fashioned objects, such as stelai and logs, as well as empty spaces, such as vacant seats, and empty rooms. While all of these objects are described as ‘aniconic’, they differ dramatically in their religious agency and manner of mediating divine presence. Based on empirical data from different traditions this panel discusses aniconism from three perspectives: Classification (what are the criteria for distinguishing between different types of aniconic objects?), historiography (what are the historical relations between aniconic and iconic representations within single traditions or in general?) and mediality (how do the sensory properties of aniconic objects generate notions of ritual agency?).

David L. Haberman

Drawing Out the Iconic in the Aniconic

Rivers, trees and mountains are often directly worshiped in northern India as natural forms of divinity. For the past couple decades I have been researching Hindu worshipful interaction with three such natural phenomena: the Yamuna River, sacred trees of Varanasi, and Mount Govardhan. Although all three would be considered aniconic religious objects, they all have iconic forms as well, typically personified as various gods or goddesses. Religious conceptualization of and ritual interaction with these natural phenomena, therefore, are an ideal context in which to explore the relationship between aniconism and iconism. There is often a historical relationship between aniconism and iconism, but they often exist simultaneously side-by-side. A major aim of this presentation will be an examination of the devotional tendency to anthropomorphize aniconic objects as a way of manifesting their full being and bringing out their personality – in other words, to draw the iconic out of the aniconic.

Richard H. Davis

Icons and Aniconism from a Priest’s Perspective: Manifestations of Śiva in a Temple Festival

“It is only to the extent that You possess a visible form that one is able to approach You,” states a medieval Śaivasiddhānta text. This idea provides the foundation for the many anthropomorphic manifestations of Śiva that we see in South Indian temples. The central icon in such temples, the Śivaliṅga, represents Śiva in an aniconic form. Thus a Śiva temple contains both iconic and aniconic forms, for Śiva to inhabit and for human devotees to worship. I will consider the varied forms that are transformed ritually into manifestations of Śiva during a Saiva temple festival, as spelled out in medieval priestly guidebooks. Apart from the aniconic Śivaliṅga and the anthropomorphic processional icons, these also include a flagpole, a sacrificial fire, a trident, a pot of water, a drum, and a temporary liṅga made of rice and yogurt. The festival provides a demonstration of Śiva’s divine ubiquity.

Klemens Karlsson

Shifting meanings of “aniconic” signs in the Buddhist tradition

Meanings attributed to objects are not inherent to the objects themselves. Instead, meanings are the result of cultural and historical processes and are constantly changing. The same applies to “aniconic” objects. Early Buddhist cultic sites in South Asia were covered with signs that have been interpreted as “aniconic” representations of the Buddha. This study will focus on the shifting meanings of these signs from the early “aniconic” phase to the time when these signs exist side by side with anthropomorphic presentations of the Buddha and became symbolic signs that serves as vehicles for Buddhist doctrines. It will discuss the varied significances of these signs during Buddhist history, in different cultural traditions and according to different interpreters (artists, sponsors and beholders). This will also lead to a discussion about the meaningfulness to use concepts like “aniconic” and “aniconism”.


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