A historical look at Hindu rituals

I have finished reading the book The Archaeology of Hindu Ritual: Temples and the establishment of the gods by Michael Willis.  Here is the blurb:

In this groundbreaking study, Michael Willis examines how the gods of early Hinduism came to be established in temples, how their cults were organized, and how the ruling elite supported their worship. Examining the emergence of these key historical developments in the fourth and fifth centuries, Willis combines Sanskrit textual evidence with archaeological data from inscriptions, sculptures, temples, and sacred sites. The centrepiece of this study is Udayagiri in central India, the only surviving imperial site of the Gupta dynasty. Through a judicious use of landscape archaeology and archaeo-astronomy, Willis reconstructs how Udayagiri was connected to the Festival of the Rainy Season and the Royal Consecration. Through his meticulous study of the site, its sculptures and its inscriptions, Willis shows how the Guptas presented themselves as universal sovereigns and how they advanced new systems of religious patronage that shaped the world of medieval India.

By the way, you can order a paperback, South East Asian edition at Flipkart which is not as costly as the hardbound above.

Here is a review for the book from The Hindu:

The whole work is very scholarly and refreshingly provides a new treatment of the records both textual and epigraphical. His conclusions have a direct mooring both in the modern theoretical framework and in the ancient texts. The exhaustive footnotes and references add to the scholarship. In all, this book is a very erudite work in the field of ancient Indian history. It is quite true that such excellent works appear not too often.

It is not often that one agrees with the blurbs of the books or with high praise such as the one above in reviews. This book is one of those rare exceptions. I strongly recommend it.

WIllis’ book consists of three chapters — apart from the introduction and a couple of appendices: The archaeology and politics of time at Udayagiri, The establishment of the gods, and Ritual action and ritual actors. The issues discussed in these chapters parts are as follows (in Willis’ own words):

These parts of Udayagiri, contiguous and thematically related, provide enough material to elucidate two important topics for the history of India: (a) the archaeology and politics of time and (b) the establishment of early Hindu deities as juridical personalities. The first involves a reconstruction of the Indian methods of time-keeping and calendar-making, the ritual cycles that were built on this calendar, and the ways in which the early Guptas used this system to promote their  vision of kinship and dominion. The second involves the legal and social justifications for the creation of permanent religious images, the ways these images came to be installed and worshipped in temples, and the mechanisms whereby temple gods were furnished with endowments for religious service. These are my themes in Chapters 1 and 2. The arguments in these chapters are self-contained but prompt important and directly related questions. In their simplest form, these questions may be phrased as follows: Who were the key religious leaders and ritual actors of Gupta times? And what was their role in shaping Gupta kingship? I have attempted to answer these questions in Chapter 3.

Finally, what makes reading this nearly 250 page book interesting, at times frustrating and very slow are the notes — running into 88 pages.

I also liked Willis’ writing style; he has his favourites and his not-so-favourites and his writing communicates this information directly to the reader; here are a couple of examples:

Although I am distressed to find myself in agreement with Bhandarkar, his suggestion that the eponymous name of the deity was “KumArasvAmin” seems justified. (p. 244)

The historical career of Sanskrit, in Pollock’s view, is that it “only slowly and reluctantly … emerges as a political language … from the sacredotal environment in which it was most at home.” This is nothing more than the old division of church and state in fancy dress, … (p. 7)

Fleet, with characteristic genius and brevity, was the first scholar to note the point, … (p. 258)

I have also learnt several interesting facts and new ideas which I have not had a chance to learn till now: here are a few examples:

There were once brackets, the design indicating that a gate akin to those at sAnchI once stood at Eran. Gates of this variety were not exclusively Buddhist. (p. 194)

We hasten to add that the practice of temple destruction was not unique to the Sultanate. Aside from carrying away of idols as noted in Davis, Lives of Indian Images, pre-Islamic dynasts are known to have destroyed temples; for example the rAshtrakUtas desecrated the Sum temple of PratIhAras; … for a Gupta-period example, see Sircar, Select inscriptions, 1:306, n.2; … The rAjatarangini records that the kings of Kashmir broke up temples and temple-estates to fund their military exploits. Motivations were thus political (destroying the deity that served as palladium of a royal house) and economic (seizing property belonging to the god). The destruction of temples was not “religious” in the modern sense. (p. 297)

… devotee was not absorbed and lost forever in Siva after death. Neither did the devotee’s soul dissolve with the body, entering again the manifest cosmos as some of the Upanishadic thinkers proposed. The Saiva soul, au contraire, was released from the fetters of existence to become an independent Siva. The soul that has attained perfection becomes a siddha equal to Siva, an autonomous theomorphic entity, separate from Siva as MahAdeva but with all his powers and qualities. This theological vision is poignantly illustrated by the sahasralinga, … The point here is that Siva is surrounded by hundreds of devotees who replicate him but have not lost their individual identities in him. (p. 137)

The juxtaposition of the domestic world of thr sUtra-tradition with the public cult of the temple may be overdrawn — the two overlapped for centuries — but it highlights the degree to which ritual, social, and economic relationships were changing in the time of the Guptas.  As already noted this was a change of configuration rather than components. The new relationship between pUjA, priest, image, patron, and land was a powerful synergism that produced temple-based Hinduism. This world — in part Vedic but radically different from what went before — did not emerge in an organic, subconscious, or accidental fashion from some sort of socio-religious plasma; it was consciously created by members of the priesthood — an intellectual and religious elite with clear aims and certain purposes. As Giles Tarabout has discovered through his diligent ethnographic labours: “it becomes very difficult to subscribe to any theory that would explain the development of image worship in terms of Brahminic concession to the masses”. The temple priests of Gupta India established the images in increasing numbers, accumulated endowments to support their work, and grew ever more powerful. As they did so, ancient forms of worship and everything they represented were displaced. By the early sixth century, these priests and their temples had changed the religious landscape of India forever. (p. 122)

Personally, the experience of reading this book is one of the most exciting I have ever had; it had convinced me that I should do a more methodical reading of Indian history and that I should pay closer attention to the archaeological sites when I visit them. Of course, there are more questions that open up as there are some which are answered. There are also speculations that come to my mind, and new interpretations that are possible — for example, at home, we have always been told that Vishnu is to be treated like a King during worship at the temples — which takes a distinctly new meaning after reading the book. May be if the early Guptas were Saivites, Siva would have been the King? Or, as to why Sankara, after all his commentaries on Vedic literature, would still write Bhaja Govindam at the end — may be he was catering to one class of priests, and so on. On the whole, a good reading experience that I strongly recommend; and, a book that is worth returning to for a re-read in years to come.

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