Hindu Iconography from Far Central Asia

I already made a post about Hindu iconography in Japan, as expressed primarily in Shingon Buddhism. Now I’ll look to the west. As in the east, Hindu iconography appears in an ancient and intermixed state alongside other forms of iconography. In this case the context is Manichean, Zoroastrian, Greek, indigenous, and Buddhist. In many spots it gets hard to distinguish the border between iconographical forms as they tend to blend together into syncretic representations. It really is a historically unique scenario which produced such a melting pot of aesthetic trends. In any case the locations of these images, in a loose sense, define the high water mark of Hindu cultural expansion into Western Asia (Irredentists eat your heart out).

For the purposes of this exercise, I’ll ignore the art of Gandhara (inner Afghanistan/Peshawar region) which is already well known and should really be considered Indian art rather than an export. I’ll only be looking at art from north and west of Gandhara I’ll also be ignoring images of the deity Mitra/Mithra, because there are simply too many of them as this deity became very popular in the west and evolved its own well developed cult in Europe which is really a very different phenomenon than the diffusion of Shiva, Ganesha, or Parvati imagery in Western Asia. Due to the nature of the subject, some of the sourcing on these images or information is sketchy, but I’ll flag that when it is relevant.

Kushan Culture



Bactria, 320 BC. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The following pieces are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They are all from the same archeological find, so I’ll only list that information in the first caption.


Panel fragment with the god Shiva/Oesho. Period:Kushan Date:ca. 3rd century A.D. Geography:Bactria, Culture:Kushan Medium:Terracotta, gouache Dimensions:H. 57.2 cm, W. 41.6 cm, D. 5.7 cm Classification:Ceramics-Paintings. Source: The Met

Company Painting

Here is an example of the style of painting which emerged in India under the British East India Company:

Great Indian Fruit Bat

Date: ca. 1777–82
Geography: India, Calcutta
Culture: Colonial British
Medium: Pencil, ink, and opaque watercolor on paper
Dimensions: Mat size: Ht. 27 1/4 in. (69.2 cm)
W. 35 1/2 in. (90.2 cm)

“In 1777, Sir Elijah Impey, chief justice of Bengal between 1774 and 1782, and his wife, Lady Mary, hired local artists to record the specimens of Indian flora and fauna they collected at their estate in Calcutta. Over the next five years, at least 326 paintings of plants, animals, and birds were made for the Impeys. On most of these works, the name of one of three artists—Bhawani Das, Shaykh Zayn al-Din, or Ram Das—appears along with the Hindi name of the animal and the phrase, in English, “In the collection of Lady Impey at Calcutta.” Although this painting bears no such inscription, it is closely related to another painting of a bat by Bhawani Das, and it has always been associated with Impey patronage. One can imagine Bhawani Das and the anonymous artist of this painting working side by side, observing the animals, but whereas Bhawani Das’ painting depicts a tawny-colored female bat centered on the page with both wings outstretched, his fellow artist has created an asymmetrical composition in shades of gray and black of an emphatically male bat with one wing dramatically unfurled.” (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Quite a looker isn’t he? I recently saw an interesting corner of the Metropolitan Museum of Art which I hadn’t seen before. It was a room labeled “Company Painting in Nineteenth-Century India.” For some reason I just hadn’t come across this room in prior wanderings. I decided to show you all some of the drawings and paintings I saw, with some historically related works interspersed for comparison.

The Company paintings are worthy of our notice because they reflect Indian aesthetic culture in this fascinating, relatively narrow slice of time between the Mughal state and the British state, when India was under Company rule. Mughal trained painters were able to modify their craft to suit British tastes, but this slight change  put them (generally speaking) out of the genre of imaginative, decorative court art and into the genre of scientific sketches, administrative records, or more rarely, a sort of elite tourist kitsch. The Indian artists in this collection have been forced by circumstance to depict less conventionally beautiful plants and animals, and in a more realistic style. The cultural change from luxuriant Mughal court system into the impersonal knowledge aggregating machine of the colonial period is reflected in painting. Its pretty cool.

They are also fascinating because it shows us a period in Indian history where British artists suddenly join Hindus, Muslims in a shared aesthetic genre depicting the Indic subject matter. Take a look at these scientific drawings of plants for example:

Ashoka Tree Flower, Leaves, Pod, and Seed

Date: first half 19th century
Geography: India, probably Calcutta
Culture: Colonial British
Medium: Opaque watercolor on paper
Dimensions: Page: H. 23 1/4 in. (59.1 cm) W. 17 5/8 in. (44.8 cm)

Continue reading

Hegel on India and Hinduism

I was reading Hegel a while back and I thought my dear readers might want to see some of his content. At the end of this introductory bit I have just excerpted in total “Section II: India” and “Section II: (Continued) India Buddhism”  from “Part 1: The Oriental World” of G.W.F Hegel’s The Philosophy of History. So if you’d like to skip my blather, go down to the section “On India” right below the winged Zoroastrian symbol.

Introduction and preliminary analysis: 

Everyone seems to dislike that Hegel is overly obtuse and abstract, but when he discusses history he is actually taking in very concrete terms most of the time. This is not exactly a reliable source for specific information about Indian history or philosophy. In some ways it is a better study of how Europeans see India than it is a study of India. It suffers from a caricatured view of India as a land of contradiction, chaos, and conflict. For the most part his characterizations of India aren’t totally baseless though, as stereotypes often have a basis in reality. They are just stereotypical exaggerations or generalizations which lack any sort of nuance or qualification. He also seems to uncritically accept very early orientalist insights in Sanskritic culture as fact, and as reflective of the Indian society of the 1800s. To some degree this is excusable because Sanskrit translations and real detailed historical knowledge of India were still undergoing development in Europe. He had to have been over reliant on early translations of the Vedas, the Dharmashastras (particularly Manu), the Pali canon perhaps, and the writings of some few high-philosophers. Given his time period, his knowledge of Indian philosophy is actually impressive. He writes some rather detailed information here about the Samkhya, Nyaya, and Vaisheshika schools, so he at least knew that much. Yet perhaps I am being too generous to Hegel here. It is somewhat baffling to me how he derives an extreme idealist worldview from these three schools, Vaisheshika in particular. It was reading those philosophical schools which persuaded me that India has a sublimated tradition of naturalism. I feel that if he was also familiar with them it should have occurred to him that Hindu idealism is at least alloyed with a rationalistic form of naturalism.

Continue reading

The Islamization of Bengal

bengali final8 1

The cover of Richard Eaton’s book, upon which this post is premised.

I just reread Richard Eaton’s book The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760, and thought I’d make some observations on the theory it purports, and some of the implications. The entire book is available for free: Here.

The Theory

Eaton’s theory of Islamization rests on a much broader theory of how Bengali religion; both Hindu and Muslim was transmitted. It goes more or less as follows: New agricultural technologies, systems of land tenure, and legal/governing institutions were the main drivers behind the spread of both religions. Initially Brahmins, but later Sufis would head into a new region of the delta and establish themselves as local elites responsible for agricultural management (a similar pattern can be seen in the Deccan). Often the Sufi leader and his institution, or a temple institution would get a land grant from the state for this purpose, but this was not always the case. These religiously affiliated colonists brought with them new agricultural technologies from the west, which they would then implement locally. By some arrangement, religious elites became aligned with political elites. This was either because a preexisting regime sent out the Brahmins/Sufis in the first place, or because the regime sought to co-opt them once they had gained a following, and increased local agricultural productivity. Along with religion, the Brahmins and Sufis would bring in with them notions of law, languages, trading customs, etc. which brought eastern regions into the orbit of Indic civilization. In western Bengal this happened in the Epic period. In north Bengal, this happened in the historical period just preceding the Mughals. Due to its lateness, the land tenure system in the north was more primitive, relying on corvée labor rather than taxation in the form of crops or currency which existed in the west of Bengal. In the east and south of the delta however, no organized system of agriculture, government, or religion existed prior to the Mughal period. It was what we would call “aboriginal.” The main driver of this entire pattern was the eastward shift of the Gangetic delta between ~1400 and 1800, which rendered old land less productive, and forced people to confront the task of clearing and farming the forest. This moving river system thus constitutes a frontier in multiple dimensions; ecological, political, technological, and religious. All of these frontiers long predate the presence of Islam in the subcontinent, and can be easily discerned in earlier Sanskrit depictions of the region. Most of Bengal is described as mleccha territory outside the domain of “Aryavarta” in Sanskrit texts like the Baudhayana Dharmasutra (5th c BCE). Thus, Islamization is just the most recent episode in a phenomenon, which has roots in the Bronze or Iron Age.

bengali final8

From the book. Maps illustrating the eastward migration of the Bengal delta.

Other Theories

This general pattern explains the population drift, and the transmission of new religion and technology eastward over time. But here it might be necessary to back up a step. The broadest problem, which Eaton is trying to solve, is the uncanny distribution of Muslim populations in the subcontinent. It is striking on a demographic map that Muslims are concentrated on the eastern and western flanks of north India, but are thinly spread out in the middle. Eaton lays out the prior 4 theories to explain Islamization before presenting his own. They are as follows: Continue reading

How Rammohan Roy Broke Into Liberal Discourse

A bust which Roy actually had the patients to sit for (unlike many portraits of him). Image Source

A bust which Roy actually had the patients to sit for (unlike many portraits of him). Image Source

The Problem

When entering the realm of European liberal discourse, Rammohan Roy was faced with a double sided problem. Firstly, liberal thought at the time considered India to be in a state of backwardness, and therefore inherently unfit for political autonomy. Secondly, it was thought that a culture lacking a tradition of liberty couldn’t produce individuals worthy of entering the public discourse. Thus, Roy had to simultaneously challenge liberalism’s notions of civilizational advancement and backwardness, and also convince his opponents to stop seeing him as a primitive who lacked the right to participate in the intellectual arena.

Roy’s solution to this (consciously formulated or not) was to create a new paradigm within liberalism based on some concept of “class” instead of race or culture. In this paradigm elites across cultures have more in common with one another, than they do with their respective sets of commoners. This is why elites everywhere practice forms of religion closer to monotheism, and also why idolatry and trinitarianism are practiced by the masses of ignorant commoners. Based on this logic, the British elites in India should support and cooperate with their Indian counterparts, as they constitute the same in-group. Educated and mercantile elements of both societies should engage in commerce and cultural interchange, and work for the upliftment of the ignorant underclass of both British and Indian populations. In this new model, the relationship of liberal upliftment is shifted from something akin to the “white man’s burden,” to something more akin to the “bourgeois monotheist’s burden.”

Liberalism was indeed universal in regards to the equal capacities of all human beings. However, liberals saw those who came from “despotic” societies as inherently primitive in social development, and therefore unworthy of political representation. Furthermore, liberals looked for certain social indicators, which would identify people as worthy of political inclusion, and deserving a voice in the public sphere. These indicators included language, dress, education, and religion which were easily recognizable as civilized by Europeans.1

Continue reading

Subversive Hindu Thought

“In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent….If a wife obeys her husband, she will for that (reason alone) be exalted in heaven.” –Manu Smriti[1] ***

“I have nothing to do with the husbands of this world”- Akka Mahadevi

Akka Mahadevi. Image source.

Akka Mahadevi in samadhi, nude but draped in her flowing hair.  Image source.

I’ll try to reserve most of my comments for the end of this post. The following is a collection of verses by female, often low caste Bhakti (devotional) poets which I’ve collected from various books and journal articles. They challenge the way we normally think about women in Hinduism. Caste rules to gender norms, and even the Vedas and Brahmins all are opened up for fiery criticism. This is a part of the Hindu tradition, which often doesn’t get much press. You normally read about how caste is inherent to Hinduism, and how if one Brahminical texts says it, then it is the official, textually certified Hindu position on the matter. Not so. Hinduism is a much more anarchic tradition than that.

The Role of Women:

By Akka Mahadevi (12th century AD):

“The preceptor became the giver;

The Lord Linga became the bridegroom;

And I became the bride.

All this the world knows

The innumerable devotees are my parents

Hence Chenna Mallikarjuna is my husband,O Prabhu,

I have nothing to do with the husbands of this world” [2]

 This is an inversion of Manu’s claim that a woman should treat the husband as God. She treats God as her husband.

“On a frame of water, raising a roof of fire,

Spreading the hailstones for the bridal floor-bed,

A husband without a head, married a wife without legs,

My parents gave me to an inseparable life,

They married me to Lord Chenna Mallikarjuna” [3]

Verses such as these can be read as conservative, but remember that this poet, like many others Bhakti sants, did refuse to get married to any man. This wasn’t just talk. Given the stigma attached to unmarried women in Indian society, this was a radical statement. In Akka Mahadevi’s case, she rejected a Jain king named Kausika rendering it an even more powerful act of defiance.

Continue reading


“I warned you once that

Duryodhana’s mischief

Would be the cause of

The annihilation of the kingdom.”

–Vidura in Mahabharata (207.30)[1]

This post will be shorter than normal.

I was shocked to discover that there didn’t exist online any approximate charting of the opposing alliances which fought at the battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata, according to the mythology. I’ve decided to fill that gap. This map is based on the information in F. E. Pargiter’s article called “The Nations of India at the Battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas,” and the “Races, Tribes and Castes” section of the Samsad Companion to the Mahabharata.[2] I used the map located on AncientVoice as the basis image.


Let me be clear that the position of several of these names, particularly those outside the subcontinent, and the “borders” themselves are speculative. Not to mention that the historicity of the war’s events are questionable, though the story is most probably based in fact.

The most useful section of Pargiter’s article lists the alliances as follows (unfortunately I could not include his diacritical marks):

“We may sum up these results in the following way, leaving out of account all the insignificant tribes which merely furnished contingents to the larger kingdoms, that were near them and that claimed some overlordship over them.

“On the Pandava’s side were these: ––

Continue reading

The Westernization of Hinduism and its Alienating Consequences

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,  –a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” -Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay

“Sexual pleasure is not pleasure. Sex-pleasure is the most devitalizing and de-moralizing of pleasures. Sexual pleasure is not pleasure at all. It is mental delusion. It is false, utterly worthless, and extremely harmful.”  -Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Kali. Image Source.

An old painting of Kali in Kalighat painting style. This is a blend of traditional Bengali folk styles, and European painting. An in-between version of this scene, not as sexualized as ancient depictions, but not as tame as modern ones either.  Image Source.

Westernized or Anglicized Hinduism describes the religious system which is adhered to by most Hindus living in the United States and Britain, as well as by those in the modern Hindu urban elite, middle class, and urban working class. Essentially, any Hindu population which has experienced the impact of a modern education system for a few generations now subscribes to a Westernized variant of the belief system.

Initially I was planning on titling this piece “The Anglicization of Hinduism,” as that is what the bulk of this article pertains to, but that would entail a slight misnomer. This is because aside from morphing under British pressure, the most ancient substratum belief of the Hindu philosophical tree– namely Tantra– has been under a far longer lasting, but less severe morphing due to the influence of Vedic Brahminical tradition which arose in the Western part of the Indian subcontinent. Then, in the British period orthodox Vedic Brahmins eagerly collaborated with the colonial regime. Using it as their vehicle, both the Brahminical and Victorian worldviews, began to permeate the Hindu cultural landscape in unison.

Thus, Hinduism has been “westernized” in two senses: Recent, and rapid influence from Britain, and ancient, gradual influence from Western India. Anglicization and Sanskritization.

Basic Characteristics of Westernized Hinduism in Hindu terms: Modern, Westernized Hinduism is essentially a modified form of Advaita Vedanta, though ISKON (a dualist sect), the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Gandhian Hinduism, and indeed nearly every major Hindu religious movement since 1800 can be characterized as Westernized Hinduism, Anglicized Hinduism, or Neo-Hinduism. It is normally highly monistic, and places an emphasis on Bhakti and/or Karma Yoga. Tantra, especially left-hand path Tantra is conspicuously absent. Most Neo-Hindus see Hinduism both as a specific religion, and also as a meta-religious framework, which encompasses all religions. The most popular text in this branch of Hinduism is the Bhagavad Gita.  More on all of this later.

Formation of Westernized Hinduism: That covers the Hindu lineage, but there is of course a Western lineage as well. it is also the product of a violent and rapid change in the Indian social order– namely the advent of British colonialism, and eventually modern capitalism. The British Raj accorded a privileged role to Christian values and Western concepts. Starting in about 1858, when the British East India Company was forced to transfer power to the British monarchy, the British began to more actively inject their civilizational model into the subcontinent. The imposition of British political institutions and laws on Indian society, the state the support of British missionaries, the state encouragement of convent education and other forms of British education, and the selection of conservative, orthodox Brahmins for use in writing and interpreting what became “Anglo-Hindu law,” and the uniform application of that law to all of Hindu society, are all examples of this sudden change in traditional Hindu society.

Continue reading

Gandhi Was Not a Theorist

Mahatma Gandhi portrait, 1931. Image Source: Wikimedia

Mahatma Gandhi portrait, 1931. Image Source: Wikimedia

In much of what I’ve recently read on Gandhi, there exists the impulse to find a unifying structure which underlies his thought. Most recently I’ve been reading Faisal Devji’s The Impossible Indian, and various essays by Akeel Bilgrami on Gandhi, which exhibit this trend.[1]

I think this recent impulse might be a reaction against an older mode of thought, which is now perceived as either outmoded, or unsophisticated. In the old paradigm, Gandhi was framed either as a shrewd politician, or an irrational mystic. Both these stereotypes lend themselves to portraying a disunified view of Gandhi’s thought in which either he is inconsistent for political or philosophical reasons.

The problem for me is that the old way of thinking about Gandhi, passé and rigid though they may be, contain much which is valuable. Given his triple identity as a political philosopher-politican-mystic, I’m not sure that we, even under charitable conditions, should expect a consistent system out of Gandhi.

Gandhi was a philosopher-politician: This is perhaps the most obvious fact about Gandhi. But as of late, he seems to be treated differently from other philosopher-politicians. Consider the following names: John Stuart Mill, Woodrow Wilson, the American Founding Father, Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin. It is completely normal for academics to acknowledge that these people had contradictions between their political theories, and their stated/enacted policies. Rather than doing intellectual gymnastics to explain how Gandhi can simultaneously support and decry fighting in World War 2, fighting in Kashmir, and a hypothetical Indian civil war, can we not just acknowledge that Gandhi often wrote with an eye towards political strategy?

Continue reading

Bengal in Global Concept History: Book Response


Purchasable on Amazon

(Skip the first 4 paragraphs if you don’t care about the book, and just want the general narrative of how Bengali culturalism evolved and declined)

For those who are tempted to pick up this book as a primer on Bengali cultureput the book down. This is really a book not on culture, but culuralism, that is to say the social and political ideology that encompasses most of the Bengal Renaissance.

Without reservations I applaud Andrew Sartori for making good on his promise to deliver a explanation of the rise of Bengali culturalism and related thought systems such as Bengali classical liberalism, and to a lesser degree, early Bengali Hindu nationalism, Bengali Muslim nationalism, and Bengali Marxism. His analysis is grounded in the particular local intellectual and economic changes taking place in Bengal. He does not place a disproportionate weight on formal chains of intellectual influence, nor does he fall into the vulgar Marxist trap of economic determinism. Kudos!

However, in the first two chapters of the book, he lays out (in excruciatingly jargon laden and difficult to read prose) several other promises, which are either unelaborated and/or left unproven. I’ll zero in on one illustrative example, which he phrases as a sort of thesis for the whole book: Sartori claims to show that Bengali culturalism is rooted in a fundamental “misrecognition” of the structures of global capitalist society.

This perplexes me, as the main thrust of his work seems to imply the opposite. He broadly argues that culturalism was in essence, a rational permutation of Bengali liberalism, in response to the altered conditions of capitalism in Bengal after the collapse of the native bourgeois class. How could such a natural ideological evolution rest on fundamentally misrecognizing the surrounding economic structures? The following is his basic narrative, with my own interpretive spin put on it of course:

Continue reading