|| Desire & Devotion || Exhibitions

Introduction by Pratapaditya Pal


There he would wish for delight,
Having discarded sensual desires - he who has nothing. The wise one would purify oneself
Of the defilements of the mind.

 Dhammapada 1

Higher than a kingdom, than heaven, than moon, than the status of Maghavan
[= Indra, king of gods] and even the delight that arises in making love with one's
beloved is the happiness proceeding from the extinction of desires.

Yogavasishthamaharamayana 2

While the Bhagavadgita (Song of the Lord) is probably the most frequently translated religious book written in the Sanskrit language, the most widely known is the Kamasutra. Although generally regarded as a book on erotics, the Kamasutra has a broader aim: it is a manual of life with behavioral instructions, not only for sex, but also other mundane duties and pleasures. Its author, Vatsyayana, probably lived in the early centuries of our era. The Bhagavadgita's author is unknown, but it is an earlier composition and consists of a dialogue between the god Krishna and the mortal hero Arjuna on a battlefield. It is a text about morality, social duties, and philosophy and is the quintessential summation of Hindu theology. Notwithstanding their differences, both works are characterized as sastra, meaning a book of authority or a sacred treatise.

The word kama basically means "desire," and, hence, the Kamasutra is a book that helps facilitate the fulfillment of human desires. The essential message of the Bhagavadgita is devotion - complete and unconditional devotion to God - as the principal mode of attaining salvation. In order to gain salvation, however, one must first be motivated and, therefore, behind devotion lies the impetus of desire. The urge or the yearning to unite with the divine is no less passionate and intense than the desire of two lovers to unite. Hence, Indian religious thought has always recognized the parallel between sexuality and spirituality. Quotations from two authorities will suffice.

The Italian Giuseppe Tucci was one of the pre-eminent scholars of Indo-Tibetan religion and culture in the twentieth century. He is a particularly appropriate authority to recall in order to understand the religious underpinning of a collection that has concentrated on the arts of the Indian subcontinent, Nepal, and Tibet. The following comments, written in the context of the profusion of erotic motifs adorning the temples in Nepal, are valid for India and Tibet as well:

The universe is the sport and the respiration of God, an ebb and flow in which all created things appear and disappear, the endless pulsation of time, the desire to exist which is nourished on its opposite. These are the foundation of Indian sensibility and thought [Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain], expressed in lively variety of indulges and symbols. The eternal creation is represented with the instruments of its realization; the duality of the sexes finds its way into the temples and is sublimated in speculation; the world is sexuality in action.

The second scholar, Sudhir Kakar, is an Indian and a distinguished psychologist. In a book examining gender relationships in India, he gives a brilliant analysis of Mahatma Gandhi's psychosis:

To place Gandhi's preoccupations in their cultural context, we should remember that sexuality, whether in the erotic flourishes of Indian art and in the Dionysian rituals of its popular religion, or in the dramatic combat with ascetic longings of Yogis who seek to conquer and transform it into spiritual power, has been a perennial preoccupation of Hindu culture.4

It should be pointed out that the word "Hindu" here really means "Indian," as was once the case. The sublimation of sexual desire into spiritual power through meditation and yogic praxis is common to all three religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

In Hindu ideology, the conflict between the ascetic and the erotic, between passion and indifference, between birth and death, is best expressed by the myth of the burning of Kama, the god of desire, by the ascetic god Shiva, and in Buddhism by the episode of the Buddha's conquest of Mara (= Kama), the god of both desire and death. Shiva's resolve to remain an ascetic was considered inimical to the continuity of life and, hence, Kama had to distract him. Buddha's ascetic powers posed a similar threat -thus, the temptation by Mara and his entourage while Buddha sat meditating beneath the bodhi tree. The dichotomy was resolved not by denying the existence of sensuality or the importance of sexual pleasure but by sublimating it into a transcendent, blissful state. While the immediate goal of all sentient beings is to seek sukha, or happiness, the final beatitude is characterized as mahasukha, literally, "great happiness" but better described as bliss. In fact, the Buddhists favor the term mahasukha, while the preferred Hindu designation is ananda, a word also used to describe Parabrahma, or the supreme being.5 And this blissful state (anandaghana) can be achieved through both mystical and aesthetic experience. Just as one must "purify oneself of the defilements of the mind" in order to attain the state of maha­sukha, as instructed by the Buddha in the Dhammapada verse quoted as an epigraph on page 13, so, also, according to Abhinavagupta (tenth century), probably the greatest tantric philosopher and theologian India has produced, aesthetic pleasure should be understood as "consciousness that is devoid of all obstacles." Abhinavagupta leaves no doubt as to his conviction that the major purpose of art is pleasure. Although knowledge and pleasure for the reader are both present, Abhinavagupta invokes Bhamaha's assertion that

Study of good poetry confers fame and pleasure, as well as skill in dharma, artha, kama and moksha, and skill, too, in the fine arts, nevertheless pleasure is the main thing.... And so delight has been mentioned (here) primarily (as the purpose of poetry [as well as the arts]). Even of  instruction in the four goals of life delight is the final and major result.7

The four goals of life for an Indian householder are to desire (kama), to attain the means (artha) to fulfill that desire, to observe social and religious obligations (dharma), and, finally, to seek liberation (moksha) from the chain of rebirth. There is an interesting discussion in the Mahabharata, the great epic and law book as well as scripture of the Hindus, which is of unknown date, as to which of the first three goals is the best. Bhima, the second of the five Pandava brothers, who are the protagonists in the epic, unequivocally asserts:

Without kama a man has no wish for worldly profit [artha], without kama a man does not strive after the Good [dharma], without kama a man does not love; therefore kama stands above the others. For the sake of kama the Rishis [ascetics, seers] even give themselves up to asceticism, eating the leaves of trees, fruits, and roots living on the air and wholly bridling their senses....Traders, husbandmen, herdsmen, craftsmen, as also artists, and those that carry out actions consecrated to the gods, give themselves up to their works because of kama.... It is the innermost core (or the world), O king of righteousness; on it is founded dharma and artha.... As honey is the sweet juice from the flower, so kama is from these two, according to the teaching of tradition.8

Clearly, in such passages, we see the source of the earliest allusions to the later claims of rhetoricians and aestheticians that sringara (generally understood as the erotic sentiment but more appropriately defined as the feeling of blissful satisfaction in lovemaking) should be the predominant rasa that permeates a work of art.9 The term rasa literally means juice, but juice with the correct flavor or taste. In the aesthetic context, the word is used to denote the essential sentiment that is communicated through the work of art by the artist to a connoisseur (sahridaya). Just as kama, or desire, is considered to be the foundation of life, so also sringara (that which provides an acme or peak of pleasure) is the bedrock of the aesthetic experience and, metaphorically, of the mystical experience.

Most of the works of art in the Ford collection are the result of both desire and devotion, even the Indian paintings. Although the majority did not have a religious function, these paintings, especially those made for Hindu patrons and known as Rajput paintings, often had religious or mythological subject matter. Even in the case of such themes as nayika­bheda (differentiation of heroes and heroines, a vernacular literary genre) or ragamala (garland of musical modes, dealing with structural melodies or melodic themes), desire and devotion are combined in ingenious ways. Thus, the god Krishna is the archetypal hero and Radha the ideal heroine, whose physical yearning for each other is regarded as a metaphor for the human soul's craving for union with the divine. Their desire and long­ing for one another was, in fact, the inspiration for one of the great gems of Sanskrit literature, the Gitagovinda (Song of the Lord of Cows), which inspired some beautiful paintings by Pahari (Hill School of Rajput painting) masters in the eighteenth and nine­teenth centuries (no. 67). Composed by the Sanskrit poet Jayadeva (twelfth century), it is a poem that without any reservation or apology extols the physical love between Krishna and Radha. Yet it became the song celestial, a hymn that is sung daily in the temple of Jagannath (= Krishna) at Puri.

The Gitagovinda comes out of the same cultural milieu that produced the temples at Puri and Konarak, as well as those in Khajuraho. Their walls are adorned with sculptures that together may well be the visual transformations of passages from the various Kamasutras and other texts. Modern writers have often wondered how and why such extraordinary complex sexual postures are depicted on the temple walls and sought explanations in sexo-yogic practices. However, the players on the temple walls are not mortals, but divine beings and, hence, their sexual posturings (known broadly as Iila, sport or play), should not be judged by human stan­dards. Just as worldly consideration and norms cannot always be used to judge the situation in a drama, a kavya, or an epic, so also one should not seek "rational" explanations for what goes on in the divine realm as projected by artists on the temple walls. Otherwise, we will have problems with the greatest Sanskrit poet Kalidasa's (fourth-fifth century) explicit description of the love­making of Shiva and Parvati for a thousand years in the Kumarasambhava (The Birth of the Prince).

Indeed, in contrast to the uninhibited expression of sexuality in literature, both secular and devotional, the visual arts are rather discreet. Despite the linga, or phallus, being Shiva's symbol and the abundant use of the sexual metaphor to express the mystical union of tantric yogic theology, Hindu deities are rarely shown in the act. Shiva and Parvati are the only couple who display tender feelings of intimacy (no. 48). By contrast, tantric Buddhists, especially in Nepal and Tibet, frequently portray the idea of enlightenment - ­the complete integration of compassion (male) and wisdom (female) by a close sexual embrace known as yuganaddha in Sanskrit and yab-yum (meaning father and mother) in Tibetan. However, it should be noted that the open display of such works of art is strictly forbidden. They are meant to be used for visualizations and in rituals only by one initiated in the tradition, with a qualified mentor, known as a guru, as a guide. This is clear from the following typical admonition to the goddess by Shiva in the Hindu Kularnavatantra (17,104) when he tells her,

This sastra [that resides in the heart of yoginis] must be known directly from the guru and must be worshipped every day with devotion. It should never be revealed to one who is not a son or disciple.

The Indian attitude to the human body - the model for the divine form - was always a positive one until the introduction of Semitic ideas, first through the arrival of Judaism and Christianity in the early centuries of our era, and then Islam, and, finally, the British with their Victorian prudishness. In both classical Sanskrit poetry and more earthy folk literature (mostly oral), there is no inhibition in describing the body or physical situations. In the visual arts, humans and gods are always represented as semi-nude. Even in more recent times, tribal men and women in India went around freely with bare torsos, until their conversion to Christianity with its concept of "shame," although in the West now semi-nudity is openly flaunted. Indian literature has always extolled diaphanous garments (the finer the cotton the better), which when draped around the lower body would have obscured very little, for no undergarments were worn, as is clear from the sculptures in the collection. Indian figural sculpture thus accurately reflects the sartorial habits of society, albeit of the elite.

Gods of Indian origin are generally depicted in the same fashion in the arts of Nepal and Tibet as well. However, in later Nepali paintings from about the fifteenth century, the preference for figures of donors and of mythological characters was to drape them in contemporary local attire. Similarly, in Tibet, the Indian gods continued to be portrayed in the semi-nude Indian mode, but local deities, and also those borrowed from Central Asia, are heavily clothed. Appropriately, Tibetan monks, and even Indian monks after the thirteenth century, are clad in Tibetan fashion. From the earliest times, the Tibetans have been represented in the arts in their own attire. Generally, until about the twelfth­thirteenth century, both the Newar and Tibetan sculptors continued to reveal the same joyously uninhibited attitude in depicting the body, as was the case in India. They had little choice, for the texts used to evoke the deities mostly originated in India and are explicit in their allusions to their physical charms, especially in the case of the goddesses.

It should be clear to anyone even slightly familiar with art that an ideal beauty should have expansive hips and prominent breasts joined by a bridge of slim waist. Here is a description of the celestial nymph (apsaras) Urvasi on her way to a tryst with the hero Arjuna from the Mahabharata:

When the moon had risen, and early night had come, the broad-hipped one went forth.... As she went along, her breasts, scented with a heavenly salve, black-nippled... were shaken up and down. Through the upborne burden of her breasts, and the sharp movement of them she was bowed down at every step, she with the surpassing splendour of the centre of her body, gloriously girdled around by the three folds. Below shimmered, spread out like a mountain, swelling on high like a hill-side, the place of the temple of the god of love, ringed by dazzling splendor, adorned lay the girdle's band, tempting with heart-stirrings even the divine Rishis, the faultless seat of shame, wrapped in thin garb.10

This heated description of the ideal female body remained a perennial model that artists over countless generations drew on or embellished with their own improvisational skills, just as a musician does with a structured raga, a melody of fixed notes.

Indeed, the Indian poet and artist's fixation with female breasts is evident from a perusal of the sculptures in the collection, whether of the Kushan period (no. 2), the ninth-century celestial nymph (no. 4), or Nepali and Tibetan goddesses. The goddesses are always described as sixteen years old and invariably have elevated or high breasts (uttunga-kucha or samuttungakuchayuga). Interestingly, in one meditational visualization of the goddess Prajnaparamita she is described as young with high breasts (pinonnatakucha), large eyes, and pleasant speech, and holding two lotuses on which rest, not the Prajnaparamita text of which she is the embod­iment, but the Kamasastra.11 It should be noted that prajna, meaning wisdom or insight, is also the expression used for the female consort in tantric Buddhism, while sakti, meaning energy, is preferred in Hindu tantras.

It need hardly be stated that the male body does not receive the same explicit anatomical attention from the theologians and iconographers, or for that matter the poets, as does the female body, primarily because the writers were generally men. Clearly, the woman is perceived as the source of all sensual desires. In early Indian art, whether in Mathura, Gandhara, or Armaravati, the male body reveals a robust, heroic quality with strong, well-formed limbs. In the Mathura and Amaravati schools, the generative organ is given noteworthy prominence to emphasize the virility of the figures, as described in the epics. By the Gupta period (ca. 300-600), however, this "manliness" is eschewed for a softer and smoother body with a distinct "effeminate" characteristic that seems to reflect the more modern idea that androgyny is an intrinsic trait of both the male and the female, that "each is both." There is a suggestion of gender ambiguity in the male figure, even in the ithyphallic Shiva, as one finds in some of the males of Leonardo da Vinci, such as John the Baptist. The peaceful male deity in Indian art, as well as his counterparts in Nepal and Tibet, is physically not as masculine or muscle-bound as in the Greco-Roman tradition, except for a brief spell in ancient Gandhara in the first three centuries, but are gentle and relaxed, free of tension and torsion.

This, however, is not the case with forms where the gods display their anger and engage in violent actions. In the Hindu pantheon, these forms are limited to some of the avatars of Vishnu and to the destructive aspects of Shiva, such as Bhairava (nos. 15, 117, and 122-23). Militant and aggressive divinities are more prevalent in Vajrayana Buddhist art, as is evident from a wide selection in the Ford collection. In all these instances, the deities are portrayed as enormously powerful and dynamic figures, awesome in appearance, their sheer physical energy emphasized frequently by both distortions and exaggeration of flesh and limbs. In Tibet, even more than in India and Nepal, the wrathful deities have been reduced with greater imaginative flair, aesthetic aplomb, and technical virtuosity. However, images of female deities, such as Durga in the Hindu pantheon (no. 130) or Vajravarahi of the Buddhists (nos. 116 and 126), rendered equally forcefully and with extraordinary vitality and zest, always retain their sensual charms. No less visually compelling are the yab-yum images where the divine couples engage in a sexual embrace (such as nos. 138, 141, and 177). Rather than Dionysian frenzy, they are embodiments of both passion and grace and are clearly in a state of bliss where the sexual and the spiritual become blurred.

The following passage from a text devoted to the worship of Vajravarahi from Nepal, where she has remained an important local deity, is a classic instance of the intimate relationship between desire and devotion:

Obeisance to the goddess Vajravarahi. The best eulogy of Varahi is formed of these twelve names: Kolasya, Vajravarahi, Ghrnivaktra, Subhadrika, Guhyakhya, Vajravani, Vajradadhi, Javvalaguga, Isvari, Parama, Maya and Kalpantanarttaki. He who recites these names thrice daily gets good results. He becomes beautiful, wise, free from diseases, and gets hundred years longevity. By reciting this stotra [eulogy] he can become respectful, rich, and can have pleasure. He can become religious, intelligent, and truthful. It was really said in ancient times that it gives benefit of the results of the rajasuya [coronation] and the asvamedha [killing the horse] sacrifices, and also the merits of the sixteen great charities like the gift of a daughter. This is the end of the Vajravarahivadasatantra.12

In most of the inscribed objects from Nepal and Tibet in the Ford collection the donors desire spiritual blessings, but it is not uncommon for them to seek material benefits as well. For instance, a common motivation for the worship of the transcendental Buddha Amitabha or Amitayus is to gain longevity. Similarly, Kubera, the god of wealth, is venerated by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains alike for mundane objectives such as wealth. The Buddhists even created a Buddhist counterpart called Jambhala. In addition, the Hindus adore the goddess Lakshmi for good fortune and material prosperity, while the Buddhists have their Vasundhara (no. 119), who is one of the most popular deities in Nepal. She is imprecated both for mundane and spiritual benefits, as is clear from her attributes. Protection from the eight earthly dangers, such as fire, animals, rough seas, etc., appears to have been the principal reason for the growth of popularity of both Avalokiteshvara and Tara among Buddhists, rather than the desire for moksha (release) or nirvana (cessation).

Metaphysical issues and philosophical discourses were for the learned and the teach­ers, who were and still are a minority. The majority of the population, whether Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain, was more interested, as they are still today, in getting through an ordinary day, in earning a living and avoiding illnesses, and in meeting the often difficult demands of daily existence. Survival is the strongest impulse in all creatures, but Indians also desire to be free from the chain of rebirth. For the majority, the principal way to achieve that end is through devotion (bhakti).

So, while the learned monk memorizes and recites repeatedly the Prajnaparamitasutra (no. 137), whether he understands it or not, the ordinary Buddhist worships the embodi­ment of the text in the form of a goddess. The text itself encourages this by addressing the book as the "mother of all Buddhas" and with the following statement at the end of the book:

When, through the Tathagata's sustaining power it has been well written, in very distinct letters, in a great book, one should honour, revere, adore and worship it with flowers, incense, scents, wreaths, unguents, aromatic powders, strips of cloth, parasols, banners, bells, flags, with rows of lamps all round, and with manifold kinds of worship.13

Interestingly, in the Bhagavadgita, Krishna encourages Arjuna to go in battle with the following reassurance:

Merge your mind in me, be my devotee, offer me sacrifices, prostrate yourself before me (18,65)....Abandoning all duties (dharma) come to me alone for shelter. Grieve not, I will liberate you from all transgressions (18,66). The person who simply hears this discourse with respect and faith even he will be freed from evils and will acquire spiritual merit (18,71).

Thus, no matter what the philosophical differences between Hinduism and Buddhism, both religions recommend the path of devotion as the best means to acquire liberation, but even devotion must be motivated by the desire to achieve the goal. Ultimately, however, in the state of nirvana or moksha, there is neither desire nor devotion.

Carter and Palihawadana 1987, p. 27. [back]
Mason and Patwardhan 1969, p. 31. [back]
Tucci 1969, p.144.
Kakar 1990, p.118. [back]
Mason and Patwardhan 1969, pp. 41 - 42. The word is also used to characterize the soul, as in atmananda. [back]
Ibid., p. 46.
Ibid., pp. 55 - 56. [back]
Meyer 1930, pp. 331 - 32. [back]
See Goswamy 1986 for a discussion of the rasa theory. However, the use of the term "erotic" is not really appropriate, as is clear from such passages as sringara eva madhurah. [back]
Meyer 1930, pp. 335 - 36. [back]
D. C. Bhattacharya 1974, p. 33. [back]
 Ibid., p. 39. [back]
Conze 1958, p. 224. [back] || Desire & Devotion || Exhibitions