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Iconology Of Shiva: A Seminar By Dr. Kalyan Kumar Chakrabarty

Jaidev Dasgupta

In this day and age, when new scientific and technological knowledge is growing at an ever-increasing pace, what can one expect to learn from a 1,500-year old statue unearthed from a forested, tribal area in India?

Well, the answer is - it depends on how one looks at the statue. Dr. Kalyan K. Chakravarty is among a handful of people for whom such statues and artefacts are of immense interest and great value - they try to read what these images from antiquity are saying to us, and what we can learn from them.

Dr. Chakravarty was an officer in the prestigious Indian Administrative Service (IAS), but followed up his passion for art history, religion and symbology in Indian religion despite being immersed in administration in troubled spots in India. He has produced a massive, scholarly two-volume book called Walking with Shiva. On August 11, 2018, the India Discovery Center of Lincoln, Massachusetts, hosted a talk by him on the “Iconology of Shiva”.

The seminar was held at the Learning Center of Cary Memorial Library in Lexington, MA. Many distinguished scholars were present in this informative presentation and a detailed Q&A session.

After a brief introduction, Dr. Chakravarty delved into the question “Who is Shiva?” Shiva is one of the gods in the Hindu Trinity of – Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh (or Shiva). In the Rig Veda, Shiva is known as Rudra, who has two contrasting natures: on the one hand, he is feared for his wild and destructive nature, and for bringing disease; hence prayers are offered to him, to keep his ill-will away. On the other hand, he is worshipped as a wise, beautiful, bountiful god, the Lord of beasts, Pashupati, who brings healing to men (RgVeda 1.114.1-10; Griffith).

Dr. Chakravarty showed a number of statues and engravings of Shiva from different periods, unravelling the narratives and the cognitive roots of these figures, which display both the merciful and ferocious aspects of the deity, as well their philosophical significance. For instance, a seal from the Harappan culture shows a human figure sitting in a cross-legged, yogic posture, surrounded by various animals, believed to be the image of Pashupati, or “the Lord of beasts”, discussed in the Vedic tradition.

Splitting the term Pashupati into two - Pashu (animal) and Pati (master) - Dr. Chakravarty explained the term to mean a being wherein the animal (or the so-called lower) side of our being meets the master (or the higher) side, leading to real joy or bliss descending on us. This realization goes beyond the subject-object or the mind-body dichotomy – and the resolution of this results in cessation of pain, grief, anxiety and suffering in life.

Along the same lines, Dr. Chakravarty also briefly touched on the idea of Saguna-Nirguna Brahman, suggesting that when the Saguna (with attributes) is taken away, or when one rises beyond attributes (gunas) – the manifested aspect of creation –one meets the Nirguna or the attribute-less Brahman. 

With this framework of duality or of two opposites in one, Dr. Chakravarty set the stage for sharing his understanding of the 14-feet tall statue that was excavated in 1987 at Tala, in a tribal area of Chhattisgarh (see attached image). This is a 5th century image of a being with animals and dwarf heads carved on it. Several international as well as Indian scholars have been baffled by this enigmatic statue, consisting of so many images in one: they have interpreted it as the figure of a demon, or even stated that it is a visual conundrum, without any metaphysical meaning.

But Dr. Chakravarty explained that these scholars did not have the advantage of access to many supporting texts, inscriptions, and the knowledge of current practices in the area where the statue was found, nor did they scrutinize this information to decipher the meaning of the image. He was referring to the numerous 5th to7th century A.D inscriptions. Brahmanas, Mahabharata and Vedic texts that describe various animals and dwarf figures carved on the body of the main figure: these inscriptions are present throughout the area where the statue was excavated, including Vidarbha, Dakshina Koshala and Kalinga.

An important factor that supports the interpretation of this statue is that the Pashupata cult is predominant in the tribal area. Multiple versions of Shiva-Shakti or Shiva-Parvati (the local names for Shiva and Parvati vary) are worshipped in this area, using fertility rites. The long-term presence of the associated cults in this region lends credence to the possibility that the statue displays the multivalent aspects of Shiva simultaneously and reconciles them.  

Thus, based on a massive amount of information, the underlying thesis of Many-in-One, and the knowledge of the Pashupat cult in the tribal area, Dr. Chakravarty deciphered the symbology of the ancient statue.

Two categories of creatures – malignant and beneficent, or poisonous and non-poisonous – are carved on the body of Rudra. Harmful creatures such as the lizard and crab are in juxtaposition to the harmless creatures such as the peacocks and fish. For instance, Rudra’s nose is a lizard, his chin a crab, his moustache is a pair of fish, his ears are two peacocks, and so on. Likewise, the faces of dwarfs or ganas – the cohort of Shiva – display either ignorance and obtuseness, or happiness. The gradually increasing happiness reflected on these faces, starting from the lower part of the body and moving upwards, with the final gravitas on the face of Rudra, represents an increasing realization of oneself being the same as the ultimate reality; or the Saguna (manifested) coming to realize that it is the same as the Nirguna (unmanifested). The changing expressions of happiness go along with the ascent of consciousness. While ignorance leads to experiencing separation and alienation from the ultimate reality, bliss culminates in the realization of being one with the divinity, or of the divine within oneself. Thus, the statue of Rudra represents the composite of opposite polarities of both good and bad, ignorance and enlightenment, suffering and joy - all in one universal Being, the Merger of being with the Being.

Interpreting ancient texts and images is a challenging task, as the interpreter must look at the past through the lens of the present. The inability to transpose oneself to an ancient culture in the past is a roadblock to such interpretation. In the process of such interpretation, the availability of other related, contemporary texts and inscriptions help to keep us from injecting and imposing the present view on the past, thus allow us to offer a more reliable understanding of the views of the artist and of the people around him or her in that era.

Dr. Chakravarty believes that separation of art from life, in order for the art to be preserved and enjoyed in museums is unnatural and unwarranted. For him, art is life and living life is art. Life or living entails doing, which involves art. Life divorced from art is dull – focusing merely on the material, mechanistic and economic aspects of it, devoid of any metaphysics or the possibility of realization of who one is, the cause of one’s alienation and suffering, and the prospect of achieving joy from oneness with reality. According to him, tribal people do not separate art from life, perhaps they do not even understand art outside of life. They build a statue based on the way they see and experience life.  Rudra’s image is a clear example of it - portraying their vision of the convergence of nature and culture.   

Various questions from the audience added information on the local cultures and village life in the area. Such indigenous cultural artifacts have not yet been discovered elsewhere in India yet. The speculation about the influence of Buddhism into the popular belief systems also needs exploration.  Dr. Chakravarty suggested that the entire track of Mahanadi River from lower Chhattisgarh to Bay of Bengal is a fertile area for archaeological research.


India Discovery Center, a local non-profit volunteer group, is dedicated to the creation of educational initiatives on Indian culture and traditions for youth and the public. For more information, please visit http://www.indiadiscoverycenter.org

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