Ramachandran discusses appropriation of Hindu imagery

Iconography, idolatry and nationalism are just a few of the stages that Tanisha Ramachandran used to describe the evolution of Hindu imagery.

Speaking Thursday from the Hall of Philosophy, Ramachandran, a professor of South Asian religions at Wake Forest University, delivered her lecture, “Idol, Art, Murti: The Multiple Identities of Hindu Images.” She spoke of the evolution of Hindu imagery, its historical interpretations and their contemporary implications.

“The power to represent allows dominant groups to determine the parameters of how a religion or culture is characterized and becomes an important determinant in the construction of identity of the peoples belonging to that religion or culture,” Ramachandran said.

Beginning her lecture, Ramachandran said that images must be held under the same scrutiny as text or other rhetoric. They must be analyzed, she said, but those inspections should be understood as coming from a specific point of view or cultural understanding.

“The way we understand what we’re seeing depends on objects, people, events and ideas to which we correlate them with,” Ramachandran said.

Narrowing her ideas to focus on Hinduism, Ramachandran explained the basic principles of Hinduism and its form of worship. While outsiders see the different depictions of gods and understand them as individual deities, she explained that Hinduism is actually a monotheistic religion, and the different images are just different depictions of the same god.

However, she said during the British occupation of India, foreigners and missionaries reduced their depictions to “idolatry” and seized or destroyed them.

“Hindu religious imagery, in this case, were captured rather than collected in a museum to demonstrate the victory of Christianity over Hinduism,” Ramachandran said.

Following the disrespect coming from the occupiers, the advent of the printing press allowed for mass circulation. Hindu imagery thus took on a role of increasing nationalistic pride and building the framework for an anti-colonial movement.

“The images provided the common Hindu with access to the divine regardless of literacy, caste, gender or economics,” Ramachandran said. “Another important fact was its linkage to the anti-colonial movement, the secular nationalist movement, and eventually — in more modern times — the Hindu nationalist movement.“

Moving centuries forward in history, Ramachandran then explored the modern issues of Hindu imagery. She specifically cited two unusual products sporting the religion’s sacred motifs: toilet seats and shoes.

When the toilet seats were released into the free market, various Hindu groups rose up in protest, obviously inflamed by the use of Hindu symbols on human waste infrastructure. The presence of sacred images on shoes produced similar results, along with provocative discourse on the limits of usage to imagery, especially on disposable and commercial products.

Ramachandran said the two case studies must be analyzed with an understanding of the history of Hindu imagery and how it was disrespected and negated by the colonists.

“These two examples demonstrate how previously colonized groups reclaim their symbols and establish a sense of ownership by asserting the power to control the identity of the Hindu god or goddess,” she said. “The protests regulate what is deemed misrepresentation of sacred symbols.”

Closing her lecture, Ramachandran reiterated the importance of conscious analyses of images, especially religious ones, the need for groups to claim their own rights to images, as well as their ability to reclaim their own rightful sacred depictions.