AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 743

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Session 743: Portraying the Power of Ascetic Practice in Indian Art

Organizer and Chair: Lisa N. Owen, University of North Texas, USA

Ascetic practice is a well-known and important characteristic of Indian religious traditions, but the visual strategies used to depict ascetic beings has not been fully studied. This panel presents four distinct views of Indian ascetic imagery in order to clarify the complexity of such portrayals. Typical definitions of ascetics emphasize the performance of certain practices that highlight both bodily and mental austerities. As in other parts of the world, these often include fasting (or restricting one’s diet) and meditation. Although the physical impact of such actions on the body may indeed be emphasized in visual imagery, ascetic practices can include other types of transformative acts that are articulated in visually compelling ways. This panel explores how depictions of ascetics express notions of power, both spiritual and sometimes institutional, in a manner that goes beyond a normative sense of restraint or deprivation usually emphasized in scholarly discussions. Through papers that range in date, medium, region and religious affiliation, this panel raises new questions about the implications of ascetic practice and its visual expression in Indian art. In their in-depth analyses of representations of Shirdi Sai Baba, medieval Buddhist figures, select individuals from the Ramayana, and a 10th-century lineage of Shaiva sages, these papers explore how the power of ascetic practice is expressed not only in human terms but also in ways that correspond to artistic and/or literary constructions of the divine. By considering the significance of what is being portrayed, these papers challenge traditional ways of thinking about representations of ascetics.

Ever Active and Vigorous: Images of Shirdi Sai Baba as an (Inter)Active Ascetic
Karline McLain, Bucknell University, USA

“I shall be ever active and vigorous even after leaving this earthly body.” This is one of the Eleven Sayings attributed to Shirdi Sai Baba, an ascetic who lived in western India and died in 1918. Revered by both Hindus and Muslims, he is worshiped through posters that are displayed in his devotees’ home altars and in street shrines and temples throughout South Asia. This paper analyzes these posters to argue that popular portraits of Shirdi Sai Baba present an (inter)active form of asceticism that has been underrepresented in studies of asceticism in South Asia. These images do incorporate many hallmarks of asceticism as a world-renouncing practice entailing bodily and mental austerities by featuring Shirdi Sai Baba’s tattered robe and begging bowl, his seated yogic posture, and his thin bodily form. Yet these posters simultaneously incorporate elements to suggest that Shirdi Sai Baba remains both an active force in India and an interactive force in the lives of his devotees: his eyes gaze directly at the viewer to allow for darshan, the auspicious exchange of glances between devotee and sacred figure that is central to South Asian worship rituals, and his ashirvad, or blessing power, is depicted radiating outward from his upraised hand to the viewer in a golden band, bringing with it food for the poor, health for the infirmed, or peace and unity for India. This (inter)activity is central to the rapidly growing afterlife appeal of the ascetic Shirdi Sai Baba throughout South Asia today.

Ascetic Buddhist Imagery in Eastern India
Janice Leoshko, University of Texas, Austin, USA

Ascetic practice in the history of Indian Buddhism occupies an important if complex place. It is well known that early Buddhism in part distinguishes itself from other prevailing modes of religious behavior by its critique of severe asceticism. At the same time, as various scholars have lately demonstrated, it was also valorized by some early Buddhists. Later Buddhist activity in India continues such negotiation among proponents of variant practices, and one aspect of Buddhism’s history could even be viewed in terms of the strategies that emerged to accommodate severe asceticism yet also curtail the questions it might raise about the authority of monastic institutions. So far, views of this complex role of asceticism have largely emerged from those studying textual records. However, visual material provides much more than simply illustration of that discerned from verbal accounts. For instance, an impressive image of a male figure made in eastern Bihar in the eleventh century might be identified as an ascetic through his dress and meditation band (yogapatta). But the sculptor also combined elements otherwise distinctly used to portray either human or divine beings. Such imagery then can raise interesting questions about the very definition of asceticism. This paper focuses on what defines ascetic imagery in late Buddhist activity in eastern India as well as what that reveals about prevailing attitudes toward ascetic practice and the concept of power it may engender.

States of Being: Depicting Ascetic Powers in Kerala Painting
Mary Beth Heston, College of Charleston, USA

The epics of South Asia are populated with countless ascetics, who by virtue of their practices may facilitate, complicate or even obviate the actions and quests of the chief characters. Wall paintings (probably of the eighteenth century) depicting the epic Ramayana at Mattanceri Palace, once the ruling palace of the former kingdom of Kochi in central Kerala, are replete with ascetic figures. Most ascetics depicted in the Mattanceri murals conform to well-known and long-established conventions for such renderings in South Asian visual culture – their hair in matted locks, wearing the barest of garments, often bearded - but a few instances stand out as extraordinary. In these exceptional instances, the manner of depicting the figures follows conventions generally reserved in Kerala for depicting deities. These examples, furthermore, all involve a fire sacrifice. Most surprising is Sita’s transformation during her fire ordeal. That is, this rendering seems to imply that Sita’s practices during her time in captivity have imbued her with powers usually associated only with deities or the spiritual authority of the ascetic. By analyzing how various kinds of beings and states of being are depicted in these paintings, the paper asks how states of spiritual power and transformation may be communicated in visual terms.

Building Ascetic Presence: Power and Penance in Shiva's Forest of Pines
Tamara I. Sears, Yale University, USA

In 973 A.D., a sage named Prabodhashiva built a “lofty monastery” along the Son River in the forested wilderness of ancient central India. To commemorate his act, he commissioned a long inscription that was affixed at the entrance to his building. Rendered richly in stone, Prabodhashiva’s monastery firmly established the presence of the resident ascetic community and transformed an earlier hermitage into an institutional outpost of a larger network connected with significant royal patronage. At the same time, the inscriptional text idealized Chandrehe as a rural enclave where monkeys, lions, and deer co-existed peacefully, and ascetics realized God by adhering to a strict diet, by performing intensive religious austerities, and by practicing meditation. This paper examines the resulting dissonance between monument and text, in which assertions of ascetic practice were undermined by the sheer mass of monastic buildings and the materiality of their inscriptions. It focuses on a lineage of Shaiva sages, who became known as the Mattamayuras and who controlled an extensive network of monastic sites in central India. I suggest that the monumentality of their monasteries indexed the bodily presence and power of living ascetic practices. At the same time, the literary text of the inscriptions performatively produced a world filled with transcendent possibilities. Together, text and monument may have effectively transformed the realm of institutional monasticism into that of ascetic power that was located not in the physical world but in the mythical realm of Shiva’s Pine forest, imagined as the Mattamayura’s point of origin.