The Grammar of Jina Iconography II [Part 8]

Published: 14.03.2012

The essay was published in Berliner Indologische Studien No. 13/14. 2000, pp. 273-337.


§ 8. Text and Image

The present article is largely connected with text-image differences. We have mentioned the problem already at the end of § 4. Below we shall treat the issue again in a more general manner. We will distinguish between various forms of text-image differences.

There is - our first type - a difference between the yakṣī Ambikā as described in the texts and the yakṣī Ambikā as represented in art. In the whole body of YY literature there is no reference to an Ambikā like that shown in fig. 16. Those who advocate the basic unity of text and image will react in several ways. These authors can explain this specific difference away by assuming that we have not yet found the corresponding text or that the corresponding text got simply lost; they can argue that we are concerned with a purely local (oral?) tradition; they can finally maintain that there is a difference, but that differences of this type are too marginal to endanger the thesis of basic unity. In fact, the existing difference is based on close correspondence: Ambikā is Ambikā. The term “text-image difference“ here contains an element of identity (different hand-attributes held by one and the same deity).

There are also differences of a second type: some deity (figure, motif) is nowhere mentioned in the texts, the Jaina couple being a case in point. This is, naturally, disappointing for the advocates of unity. To maintain basic unity in such a case is difficult. In the case of the Jaina couple, attempts at identification have been made by many authors, but without success (§ 2). We can mention yet another case of radical disagreement. The śilpa genre has its limitations, and as a consequence the hair-dress of Ṛṣabha is nowhere described in the texts. The deficit is there, but here it is connected with the genre (how to describe strands?) and not with the individual case. We have to admit that the hair-dress of Ṛṣabha is ultimately based on a legend in the canon (or the legend was invented to explain the hair-dress). See JRM: 113 and Jacobi Ka: 283. Thus some authors may find the legend useful to establish at least a frail link between the images and the text. But basically, Ṛṣabha's hair-dress is an art motif and not a text motif.

Most differences, minor or major, may still belong to the familiar triple cosmos of

  1. images,
  2. śilpa texts and
  3. transmitted mythological texts.

But that is not always the case because there are further levels: lost myths of the classical type and lost mythological (and epic) corpuses of a non-classical type (independent bodies of tradition, probably oral). The early carvings at Udayagiri and Khandagiri are a case in point. D. Mitra writes: “... there is no early relief which can definitely be regarded as indisputably illustrating Jaina religious mythology“ (Mitra Ud: 16; there are no non-Jaina affinities either). A non-Jaina example of unexplained images and lost myths (lost religious traditions generally speaking) is the Viśvarūpa complex: “Sometimes it has been possible to find scriptural bases for the creation of this type of statuary, sometimes not“ (Maxwell Vi: xiv). The scriptural basis is also lacking if the deities are duly described in the śilpa texts but belong to iconographic proto-history without any textual references in epic/purāic literature (attributes of Viṣṇu, etc.).

The quantitative extension (more than three levels) is not without influence on the general attitude towards differences. The greater the field under consideration, the greater the pressure to acknowledge differences as an important element in the study of Indian art. “Lost myths“ (different from lost texts) have, for example, never been considered a self-contained theme, and their general importance has never been stressed. Radical differences were no acknowledged subjects.

Finally, we have to mention the hypothetical “lost key“ (Maxwell Śi: 8), consisting of the schemes of the unconscious (or insufficiently manifested) human mind. The lost key (or deep level symbology) is meant to connect, in this case real images with non-empirical realities. However, these sensed realities have to be reconstructed; they are not a “basis of induction“. In other words, the lost key is not a level in the sense of our realistic sequence of levels (images, śilpa texts, etc.), but it is a product of speculation and stands for something which is not mentioned in the texts. It shall help to fill an inconvenient gap. Old traditions no doubt existed, as mentioned above, but the lost key is a primeval, elusive entity.

The extent of differences (whatever their character) is best demonstrated by the different strategies of connection, some of which have been mentioned already. Leaving the recognition of the lost key to one side, we start with what we call in the present context “hermeneutic methods“ (in short “methods“). Our examples are mainly taken from the field of Jaina iconography.

  1. The tabulation, time and again, of the 48 YY is such a method. Until now, these tables have been presented and accepted as an indispensable instrument of interpretation.
  2. Another method is the translation of the static or “heraldic“ concept of the Jina image into a depiction of action. Compare the language of Kramrisch Hi in the description of a fragment of the aṣṭa prātihārya.s (Vol. II: p. 397, pl. 55). This topic of action is often linked to symbolical interpretations (and to psychological interpretations of the meditating posture of the Jina). The connection can also be created or reinforced by the description of legends which are at the background of the compositions without being actually reflected in them. To sum up: in Jaina literature there is mostly life, action and meaning, whereas Jaina art is often abstract and unfamiliar. Hence the wish to assimilate the latter to the former.
  3. A third method is the emphasis on identification. Identification of Jinas (to start with this subject) introduces a logical problem: if we identify a Jina as Ajita on account of the elephant cihna, we have to ask what we have actually learned by this identification. The identification is useful if it helps to read a partially illegible inscription giving the name of the Jina. The identification is also useful if we find other Jinas with cihna.s at the same site. As this is on the whole rare, we can in such a case isolate a local peculiarity. But if neither the one nor the other is the case, the identification remains empty. The identity established is strictly speaking only the identity of the cihna as the instrument of identification, not the identity of the “Jina himself. Emphasis on identification thus demonstrates the ardent wish to connect the images with the texts. In the texts the name is a sine qua non, in art the name is often of limited importance. The problem concerns mainly, but not exclusively the iconography of the Jina.
  4. The frequent use of names (“Ambikā“, “Durgā sihavāhinī “, etc.) which are not coterminous with well-defined types should also be mentioned. A similar terminological expedient are the frequent references to the popular religion and to the categories of yakṣas and yakṣīs. Images without clear identities and affinities can in this way be “lodged“ in the cosmos of Indian iconography.
  5. An undervalued subject is the frequent lack of logic or clarity. The spread of certain motifs (ascetics, nāgas, etc.) mirrors their popularity, and this is a subject of general historical interest. But attention is normally not focussed on the manner of occurrence, which is the more immediate responsibility of the ancient authorities. Why are precisely Jinas nos. 7 and 23, and not, for example, nos. 16-18, provided with hood-circles? Why is there so little connection between the different forms of multiplication and the system of the twenty-four Jinas (why are chaumukha.s not always idols of four connected Jinas, e.g. nos. 1-4 or nos. 21-24). Why has Sarasvatī (unlike K-and-A) no place in Jina iconography? Attention is also not focussed on the strange presence of the god of riches (Kubera), of a mother-goddess (Ambikā) and of females studded with weapons (Cakreśvarī, etc.) on the image of a great ascetic (the Jina) “absorbed in deep meditation“.

The list of methods (positive methods and omissions) must be taken for what it is worth. Introducing a critical idiom (criticism of interpretations) in a systematic manner is more than can be attempted within the limits of an article like the present one.

Naturally, we criticize in the discussion of the text-image issue only the effort to connect the unconnected, and not the search for existing connections. That there is not always a clear-cut line of demarcation goes without saying. The necessity to identify a figure or a type with the help of the texts whenever possible produces, however, in the study of iconoplastic art a certain tendency to exaggerate the importance of this element of research.

An open question is the part the unidentified figures played in the life of the community. Why were images of the couple commissioned and how were they explained to the public? The problem is specially obvious if we consider that many temples were visited by large numbers of pilgrims who expected information about the sculptures from their leaders or from local experts. To quote an example from non-Jaina art: an ancient guide explaining the great three-headed Śiva image at Elephanta was not in a position to quote a long epic or purāṇic stuti directed to this singular sculpture. He could not even answer in a convincing manner the very first question: “what are we seeing now, who precisely is this Śiva, what is his name?“. The great number of modern interpretations is well-known. For example, compare Huntington Ar: 279b (“the three countenances might symbolize the three fundamental qualities [guas]”). W.D. O'Flaherty stresses the “simplicity and comparative lack of detail“ and proposes a very general explanation of the place of the image in the “context of the overarching structure of Elephanta“. She sees in the image “the ineffable state of god in his totality, gathering into himself all the myriad of forms and functions that are depicted in the surrounding panels“ (O' Flaherty El: 37-38).



Berliner Indologische Studien

Compiled by PK


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