The artist-as-anthropologist, as a student of culture, has as his job to articulate a model of art, the purpose of which is to understand culture by making its implicit nature explicit. . . . [T]his is not simply circular because the agents are continually interacting and socio-historically located. It is a non-static, in-the-world model.
Joseph Kosuth, “The Artist as Anthropologist” (1991)
Iconography is a hypocritical term. On the face of it, “iconography” simply denotes the critical study of images (Panofsky 1939; 1955). Yet, one must readily admit that iconography stems from the fear of images (Mitchell 1987). In fact, iconography can be defined as a strategy for writing over images. But why fear images? Iconography’s zealotry—from idols made in the likeness of God to fetishes made in the image of capital—stems from the terror of the material. Accordingly, to proceed in an analysis of iconography, one must make explicit what most religious discursive systems must by necessity leave implict religion is never just “spirit.” Whether iconophobia or iconophilia, whether iconoclastic or idolatry, what all religions have in common is that they rely on matter for their dissemination. Even speech, the most reified communication, relies on air and the physicality of the human body.
Accordingly, to write about, rather than write over, religious images, we need to return to the material. Stop and take a look at the god-image of Bhairava, a fierce form of Shiva from the Nepalese city of Bhaktapur. Bhairava is a stone-god (lohandyah)—a humanly constructed concrete deity. Lohandyah literally translates from the Newar as “stone (loha[n]) god (dya:)” and is the local idiom for the pan–South Asian notion of murtis. Murtis are concrete signs of gods and can be either aniconic or iconic. They are the ritually consecrated images at the center of the chief form of Hindu religious practice, puja (worship)
If you, like me, find yourself trained in and by “Western” academic discourses or if you have been trained in educational systems in other parts of the globe that gain distinction by modeling themselves on elite occidental pedagogy, it is difficult to face up to Bhairava’s materialty. This god-image challenges one’s understanding. When one gazes at his three fish-like eyes (two large, one small), sharp, fanged teeth, flaming orange-red lips, and elaborate, multicolored, snake-encrusted headdress, it is hard to escape one’s own historical, class, and geographic bias.
A look at Bhairava shows that there is no innocent “eye,” no naïve viewing. What you see is not always what you get. Instead, what we see depends on mediation. That is, because our descriptions of religious images are culturally located, our “naïve” descriptions are neither innocent nor objective. Rather, all social objects are mediated by intervening socially grounded, culturally generated, and historically particular mechanisms. Moreover, these intervening mechanisms are not only by necessity material, but are marbled through and through with power relations. For instance, the Bhairava image flickering on your computer screen holds a different social meaning than an image of the god in situ, and this digital image is not value-free but folds back and transforms how the god-image itself is viewed.
The desire to “write over images” occurs, because of the fear of the material. For instance, take a second look at Bhairava’s god-image. While many of us are outwardly too sophisticated to employ the nomenclature of idolatry and devil worship, the habit still lingers (Appadurai 1986; Eck 1981; Waghorne, Cutler, and Narayanan 1994). Not only is there systematic and widespread underemployment of the visual senses in every field of academic study (Arnheim 1969), but the field of religious studies creates patterns of knowledge by which all religious discourse is reduced to writing. This is especially ironic in the study of Hinduism, where god-images are the most obvious and empirically observable manifestation of religion in South Asia (Waghorne et al. 1985, 1994).
How can one look at god-images without being seduced by iconography’s pictorial hypocrisy? That is, how can one write about images, without writing over them? One method is to model’s one analysis on pictures rather than words. With this strategy in mind, to analyze the ideological distinctions made by different mediations of Bhairava’s god-images, I utilize a photograph of One and Three Chairs by the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth. One and Three Chairs depicts a “real” chair, with a photograph of a chair as well as a dictionary definition of a chair. Rather than employing this work as “fine art,” I am using it as a “readymade”(objet trouvé) pictorial analytic model to illustrate the distinction between different forms of mediation.
What can Kosuth’s work offer to the study of iconography? While many have criticized conceptual art as being apolitical, works such as One and Three Chairs indicate that art works are not isolated images that can be understood as collections of symbols, but are part of a global process of mediation in which meaning is produced in the relation between producer and consumer. The potential for using art as an analytic tool is clear in Kosuth’s own writing. In “Art after Philosophy,” Kosuth develops a strong analogy between works of art and analytical propositions (1991 ). Staging his arguments from within the philosophy of language, he maintains that the collapse of idealism at the beginning of the 20th century created a moment in which art could be emancipated from aesthetics. Kosuth mantains that this aesthetic emancipation allows artists to shift their focus from appearance to an image’s conceptual implications.While his early writing is confined to philosophic explorations of “play within the meaning system of art,” Kosuth’s later work is concerned with how culture is made (1991 ). For instance, operating from a para-Marxist and postmodern stance, Kosuth’s “The Artist as Anthropologist,” maintains that “[a]rt must internalize and use its social awareness” (1991 ). That is, to maximize its analytic value art work must be contextualized and conceived within their sociohistorical circumstance.
For Kosuth sociohistorical awareness centers on the physicality of the artwork as it is embedded in the midst of the material process of production and mediation. Accordingly, key for Kosuth is that artists must grasp the social conditions under which they produce their objects and make purposive interventions in the artistic apparatus as defined within the institution of its discursive field. In short, the artist need not dismiss the potential of art as an analytic tool, but must contextualize it in a vision of art and culture that can be understood and criticized precisely because it is humanly made.
To form a pictorial understanding of god-images that moves beyond iconography’s hypocrisy, I model the remaining text on One and Three Chairs. To illustrate the dictionary description, I give an account of the god Bhairava’s symbolism. To reflect the effects of photographic mediation, I argue that iconographic mediation of god-images is composed of two “strategies, symbolism and idolatry, by which the “punctum” is squeezed out of photographic images. To depict the “real” chair’s embedded social use I argue that Bhairava must be understood as a murti: a humanly constructed deity whose material element dominates. The material image gains “power” (shakti) because it is brought to “life” (jivan) by being situated in an everyday net (janjal) of religious practices.
Bhairava is conceived of either as a wrathfulform of the god Shiva or as one of Shiva and his consort, Parvati, sons (Blom 1989; Doniger 1973; 1976). For the most part, Newars imagine Bhairava as an emanation of Shiva or, in prosaic practice, as a dangerous (gya[n]pumha) form of Mahadev who has released his shakti (Levy 1990; Toffin 1984). Sylvain Lévi estimates that there are five million Bhairavas alone in the Kathmandu Valley (Lévi 1905; Nepali 1988; Toffin 1984). Certainly, there is no place in Nepal not pervaded by the god (Nepali 1988). Newar Buddhists worship a form of him as Harkhandya, and Tibetan tantrism has adopted the god’s esoteric currents as Varjabhairava (Gellner 1993).
In his anthropomorphic form, Bhairava has fangs, bulging eyes, and dark blue or black coloring, carries a wide range of destructive weapons in his many arms, and has a garland of skulls. Indian and Nepalese iconographic manuscripts mention hundreds of Bhairavas. Each Bhairava in these iconographic manuscripts is listed with a short description, including the number of arms, heads, and eyes and types of ornaments and instruments. For instance, in the Sacitrapatrani (Nepal National Archives Catalogue ms. 1.1314, Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project, reel no. A 544/6), Bhairava is depicted with a grimace, garland of skulls, snake ornaments, and elephant skin. In his twelve arms he carries the threatening finger, arrow, axe, hook, sword, elephant skin, trident, and staff with skull at the top. In Newar model books, a four-armed Batuka Bhairava is shown standing on a demon that drinks blood from a skull. The god’s left arm holds a beautiful form of the goddess Vaisavi. He is adorned with all kinds of ornaments, skull garlands, a moon-sickle, and a tiger skin. The face is large and full with three large open eyes and a fanged-tooth grinning mouth. In his first two right hands he carries a skull and a knife; in the remaining arms he carries a skull staff and a trident. The paws of an elephant skin are hung over his body.
In Bhaktapur, there are at least twenty-eight major manifestations of Bhairava. The most important anthropomorphic Bhairava is Sky Bhairava, whose temple in the city of Bhatkapur’s Taumadhi Square is frequented by over 750 people on a typical day. Sky Bhairava’s temple is not only the pivotal point for Bhaktapur’s Biska festival, one of the city’s three largest annual events, but also a major focus of all major festivals in Bhaktapur. Sky Bhairava’s temple enthrones three forms of the god. In the front, facing the square is a small six-inch-tall god—the Death Bhairava—who receives most of the public worship. Inside, on the second floor, is Sky Bhairava’s actual god-image. This image, however, is only a head. Myth has it that this is the head of a decapitated image of the god in Varanasi, India. Behind the temple is an image of Vetala, who in Puranic accounts is Bhairava’s brother (Doniger 1973). Vetalas are also a class of demons, ghouls, and vampires who live in burial grounds. In Bhaktapur, Vetala is thought of as Bhairava’s henchman or even his vehicle, and he rides on the prow of Bhairava’s chariot during the festival of Biska. Vetala’s appearance, with a mustache and a more human face, approximates Indian iconographic representations of Bhairava. In other Bhairava temples in Nepal, it is often Vetala who takes blood sacrifices (Nepali 1988).
Other “semianthropomorphic” images of Bhaktapur’s Bhairava are Funeral Mat Bhairava (Pulu Bhairava) and the Bhairava God in the Shape of a Cow (Baila Dyah Yagu Su), which is used in Bhaktapur’s Cow Procession Festival. Beyond Bhaktapur, Bhairava is one of the most important gods of Nepal (Gellner 1993; Nepali 1988; Slusser 1982; Toffin 1984; Vergati 1995). Besides the numerous large centers of worship—Kala Bhairava, Pacali Bhairava, Sveta Bhairava, Tika Bhairava, and Vyaghreshvara Bhairava—are the iconographic manuscripts that depict him, as well as the tantric manuscripts that record his dialog with the yoginis. On a prosaic level in Bhaktapur, “impurity eating deities” are imagined as a form of Bhairava. Usually found at major crossroads in Newar cities, these deities are stones for the disposal of objects exerting a magical threat, such as clothes of the dead, umbilical cords, and the ashes of the torch used to exorcise evil spirits from a house. They are considered to “eat” ritual pollution as well as protect the area from thieves, illness, and misfortune caused by evil spirits. After every major feast or rite of passage, an offering must be made to these stone aniconic Bhairavas, lest they become neglected and troublesome. Similarly, Bhairava is also imagined to inhabit the wood block forming the base of the threshold of the main door of every house. Conversely, Bhairava is imagined as the god of locomotion. His image can be seen on the tongue of Matsyendranath’s chariot. Even the three eyes on each of Sky Bhairava’s chariot’s wheels are themselves considered forms of Bhairava who are concerned with locomotive force. His locomotive aspect explains his logo on the Royal Nepal Airlines jet plane.
The god’s most significant aspect, however, is as a guardian of the directions. In his eightfold manifestation of Astabhairavas, Bhairava presides, either alone or paired as consort with the eight mother goddesses, over the spatio-ritual organization of sacred cities. Each of the eight Bhairavas—Asitanga, Ruru, Canda, Krodha, Unmatta, Kapala, Bhinada, and Samhara—is chief of seven other Bhairavas, all together sixty-four of whom are the companions of the sixty-four yoginis. The Bhairavas and yoginis are associated with tantric religious practice. Their fullest account is given in the Srimatottaratantra from 1609 C.E., which is a verbatim copy of a section of the Kulalikamnaya from the Kubjikamatantra (Blom 1989). The eighteenth chapter, called “Circle of Yoginis,” gives a detailed description of each of the eight Bhairavas, starting with Asitanga. All the gods are either cruel, frightful, or very cruel. All have ornaments, garlands, multicolored crowns, earrings, and bracelets. In the manuscript Nanastotracitrasamgraha, each of the eight Bhairavas—such as Unmatta Bhairava on his deer vehicle with the boar-headed consort Varahi—is depicted in turn. Starting in the eighteenth century, there is evidence from temple struts and from model books in Bhaktapur that the Astabhairavas are of great importance (Blom 1989; Macdonald and Stahl 1979).
Outside of Nepal, in the rest of South Asia, Bhairava’s wrathful forms are an important point of conjuncture between “folk cults” and “high” Hindu gods (Visuvalingam 1989). Although there are specific local features, Bhaktapur’s Bhairavas are not an isolated phenomenon. There is no doubt that there is a continuing conversation between Bhaktapur’s Bhairava and his larger constellation. For instance, in the Hindi film Bhairavi and the Underworld, which played all over India in 1985, a tantric adept seeks magical powers through human sacrifice. This depiction corresponds closely to one of the founding myths of the Navadurga cult in Bhaktapur (Visuvalingam 1989; Toffin 1984).
What’s in an image? If one follows Roland Barthes’ logic in Camera Lucida, the minute one snaps a photograph of a god-image one kills it by freezing it in time: the image is “absolutely irrefutably present, and yet already deferred” (1981, 77). How is it that photography kills the god-image? Or maybe even more important, how can one bring the image back to life? What makes a photograph “living,” according to Barthes is not the referent—which is always already dead, but how one views the physical image. Barthes argues that two elements are involved in such viewing. One element is studium, which is the banal exposition of information: “I glance through them, I don’t recall them; no detail ever interrupts my reading”(Barthes 1981, 41). The second element is punctum. These are unintentional details whose viewing “reverses the order of the things” (Barthes 1981, 118).
Iconography reduces all god-images to studium through two mediating strategies: symbolism and idolatry. By mediating strategy, I mean to gloss no particular school, method, or theory, but rather the wider tactics by which god-images are “written over.” The first interpretative strategy, symbolism, erases the materiality of god-images by positing them as material signs of spiritual transcendental categories. In “Images and Symbols,” Mircea Eliade writes that “images, symbols and symbolism have now become current coin” (Eliade 1969). Some fifty years later this symbolic “coin” has circulated for so long and through so many hands that its human-made character has been all but forgotten. Like an overused trademark, “symbol” has passed into the background of the tacit taken-for-granted reality of not only what it means to practice religious studies, but religion.Because symbolism is such common currency, the implications of its use have become obscured.
In symbolic mediation worship is conceived as being given to the spiritual essence that the material image is perceived to actually reveal (Eliade 1959; Ricoeur 1970). In the broadest sense, the symbolic function has been posed as the general function of communication by which consciousness constructs all perception and discourse (Cassierer 1946). In the narrowest sense, it means something other than what is said (Ricoeur 1970). Always, however, the symbol is a vehicle at once universal and particular. Moreover, because symbols’ referents are often vague, the symbol is crucial for bringing together abstract scriptural concepts and concrete signs (Firth 1973; Ricoeur 1976).
The second mediating strategy, idolatry, interprets concrete gods such as Bhairava as material objects of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion. In the simplest sense, an idol is an image or statue of a deity fashioned to act as an object of worship. Yet often such worship is perceived as immoral because idolatry gives the name of God to that which is not God. For instance, all three religions of the Book—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—condemn idolatry because it is the worship of a humanly manufactured signifier rather than the uncreated divine. Because all signification is dependent on material signs, however, all religions must worship matter to some extent. Accordingly, “idolatry” is not simply the worship of matter, but the accusation of another’s “strange worship” (Halbertal and Margalit 1992). Lingering in the rhetoric of the idol is one of the most persistent forms of orientalism. Historically, idolatry’s condemnation differs in the form it takes and towards whom it is directed, but in every situation idolatry is a strategy by which a community creates self-identity by othering others (Halbertal and Margalit 1992).
Idolatry has become an important academic strategy in the discipline of religious studies. Idolic reduction is not a critique about subjugating material signs to abstract ideals, but about accusing others of worshiping the wrong abstract ideals. Accordingly, idolic reduction is usually not used in its purely critical form, but rather in a twofold maneuver. First, the interpreter accuses the worshipper of misrecognition (the false worship of idolatry). Second, the interpreter introduces an abstract category that is given as the real addressee of the worshiper. The idolic reduction then is not merely the critique of idols per se. Like any accusation of idolatry, it alleges incorrect worship while implying the existence of a correct form of worship.
How does this material become divine? How do you turn a stone into a stone-god? As I argue elsewhere two aspects are necessary: a relational component and a physical sign. These two components are summed up in a statement by Mangal Laxmi Sahi, a souvenir seller with whom I often sat and chatted. When I asked her what a god was she answered, “A god is that which all people respect. Normally we say a god is a stone-god” (personal interview, July 16, 1999).
Let me reverse the order of Ms. Sahi’s sentences and take her second point first: “Normally we say a god is a stone-god.” Ms. Sahi’s words stress the importance of the material aspect of the god. If asked to differentiate between the concept of a god and its material depiction, people in Bhaktapur will call the depiction a “stone-god.” In the words of Durukaji Suwal, a farmer and laborer, “A god-image is a stone, which has been made into a god” (personal interview, July 16, 1999). However, all rocks are not god-images. As Mr. Chitrakar voiced, “There are rocks in the river, there are stones on the road, but they are not god-images until life is given to them” (personal interview, August 13, 1999). So while one needs material signs to signify god, not all material signs will do.
Stones are constituted as stone-gods in two ways: descriptively and through ceremonies and continuing rituals, which give the stone life. Descriptively, god-images depict the deity. As Lilabhakta Munikarmi said, “If you believe in (the god) Vishnu then you need a god-image describing what he looks like. You know him the same way you would know by seeing your father’s photograph. That he has two arms, hair and also you can see the fashion of the time” (personal interview, June 10, 1999). In this sense, the carved image is seen as an aid to visualizing the god. Not only are there carved statues that are not god-images, however, there are many aniconic stones that are worshipped as gods. The symbolic signification is secondary to the stone-god’s power (shakti) that is created by its life force.
God-images can be both symbolic and have “power,” but it is the life force that transforms the stone into a stone-god. As Krishna Pradhananga voiced, “A god-image is something that has been given tantric power. And that can give us power. But something else is just a symbol” (personal interview, June 6, 1999). Hence, while the descriptive quality and conceptual levels of a god-image are important, they are not the defining features, because, as Mr. Pradhananga went on to say, “a statue has not been given power, but a stone-god has” (personal interview, June 6, 1999). The material aspect is especially significant for Bhairavas, most of which are anionic. What the materiality demonstrates is that instead of an iconic symbolic representation, a god-image’s signification comes from giving life to a stone. In fact, a god-image is “dead” until life is put into it through ceremonies. Thereafter the image is not merely a symbol of that deity, but it is that deity. For instance, when I asked Keshab Hada the difference between a statue and a god-image, he said, “A god-image is when you give life to a statue, it becomes a god. If you don’t it is just a statue” (personal interview, May 5, 1999). Similarly, as Ramesh Joshi voiced, “If we don’t give life to a god-image, it won’t be a god” (personal interview, June 6, 1999).
There are two pieces of evidence that god-images are signified as “alive,” one embedded in linguistic practice and the other in visual practice. Linguistically, a stone-god (lohandyah chamha) is placed linguistically in the same category as living beings. That is, “loha[n]dya chamha” signifies a murti (literally—“stone-god one-animate marker”). Newar, the local language of Bhaktapur, has one of the world’s most complicated classifier systems. English, on the other hand, has one of the least complicated, and only a few items—such as a “glass” of water or a “book” of matches—require a classifier. Newar, however, requires a classifier morpheme in order to code the quantity of every noun (Shakya 1997). These classifiers both differentiate between categories of inanimate nouns and also between animate and inanimate nouns. Animate nouns—a woman (misa chamha), two dogs (khicha nimha), six bugs (ki khumha)— require “mha.” Or more to the point, a “khwa: chapa:” is just a flat mask, while a “khwa: chamha” is a god (Daya Shakya, personal communication, February 20, 2005). Inanimate nouns receive a classifier depending on the shape of the objects and usage in the sentence; the general classifier is “gu.” Plants get their own classifier, “ma”—cho chama is a a wheat plant. For native speakers of Newar these categories are intuitive and obvious.
Besides the linguistic level is that of visual signification. One of the ways that people in Bhaktapur indicate that they are going to worship a god is through the notion of darshan, which literally means “to see.” People go for darshan (darshan) for a number of reasons. Durukaji Suwal said, “Darshan is for the heart’s contentedness” (personal interview, July 16, 1999). And Bashula Dyola voiced, “It gives you religion (dharma)” (personal interview, July 20, 1999). Krishna Pradhana(n)ga said, “Darshan is done for the benefit of the universe” (personal interview, June 6, 1999). And as Ramesh Joshi said, “for bliss” (personal interview, June 6, 1999). But while people go for different reasons, they practice darshan in a similar fashion. As Damodar Gautam said, “To go to the temple and have a face-to-face with the god’s image—that is darshan” (personal interview, June 21, 1999). Yet when one goes and has a “face-to-face” with the god, it is not just that the worshiper is seeing the god, but that the god looks back at the worshipers (Eck 1996). In fact, one of the most prevalent features of the Newar landscape are the eyes that are painted on everything from the largest temples, such as Swayambunath stupa, which gazes down on the entire Kathmandu Valley, to door frames that overlook courtyards, down to small dristi eyes that one can buy at a local painter’s house for plastering on household utensils. The seeing and being seen between worshiper and god, the investing a god-image with the ability to look at us in return, is a tactic for bringing it into social relations and thus animates it.
Can one write about god-images without being hypocritical? As our "reading" of the god Bhairava through Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs demonstrates, conceptual art offers a dynamic analytic for demystifying the ideal treatment of religious images. The key to such praxis, as Kosuth suggests in the introduction to the Sixth Investigation: Proposition 14, is that “art only exists as a context” (1991 ). As he argues in a latter essay, this context is not just about ideas, but consists of a “concrete presence.” That is, that images are contextualized in relation to a complex matrix of information, received, revolved and mediated by a host of material systems of communication (1992).
There is not one “Bhairava” that can be revealed through an iconographic reading. Instead, as illustrated by Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, there is a constellation of god-images which are always already physically mediated and embedded in concrete social relations. Foregrounding the materially of religious discourse interrupts iconography’s hypocrisy, which rests upon a transcendental understanding of the divine as supersensible, nonmaterial, dichotomous, and self-creating. Far from being a neutral taxonomy, iconography’s hypocrisy tends to structure knowledge not only to benefit the West, but also elite educated males. In the human sciences, iconographic readings have tended to privilege the linguistic, the discursive, and the cognitized over the visceral and tacit. It tends to lead to words about words, to books about books. As we have seen, the cautions about iconography are even more apt for religious studies; the subtle knowledge modeling of iconography transforms all religion into a poor reflection of a Protestant-based Christianity. The concern is not just with content, but with strategies of mediation. These paradigms emphasize a series of hierarchical dichotomies between such categories as sacred and profane, belief and practice, doctrine and law, individual and community, universalizing and particularizing, as well as tradition and modernity.
The danger with an iconographic reading is not that Bhairava’s god-images are being mediated through writing. The peril is that iconography perpetuates discourses that systematically operate to benefit the already privileged members of society at the expense of others. For instance, rather than being an essential object, Bhairva’s god-image is created by a constellation of discourses by which the material is high-jacked to reveal an ideal transcendental signified and to reinforce a dominant view of the world. In both cases, Bhairava is defaced. He is no longer situated in his own domain of social practices, but becomes a signifier of written transcendental categories which are hypocritical because by hiding behind the ideal they mask the material. This is even more damaging for the study of South Asia. Not only has iconography forced Hinduism to conform to a Christian theological model, but it has inadvertently strengthened Hindu fundamentalisms. As Joanne Waghorne has argued, what orientalists "once argued with words," fundamentalist groups now "fight with bricks and blood" (1991, 16).
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WAGHORNE, Joanne Punzo; Norman CUTLER, and Vasudha NARAYANAN. Gods of Flesh/Gods of Stone. Chambersburg, Penn: Anima Publications.
WAGHORNE, Joanne Punzo. 1994. The Raja's Magic Clothes: Re-Visioning Kingship and Divinity in England's India. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State UP.
 Joseph Kosuth's biography - http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_bio_79.html
 Bhaktapur - http://www.catmando.com/bkt-municipality/intro.htm