Nowadays, there seems to be a yoga studio on almost every corner, and one can be almost certain to find an image or sculpture of at least one form of a Hindu deity inside the studio. Claiming that they are teaching a practice that can be traced back tens of thousands of years ago, the studio’s logo might even include a small depiction of a Hindu figure. Inside these studios and on the street Westerners sport t-shirts and tight pants with pictures of Ganesha or Siva, and even permanently adorn their bodies with images of Hindu deities and Sanskrit writing.
I’m not necessarily knocking these trends, but I do find the situation interesting. Displaying images of deities in many different kinds of locations has been a recorded practice in Indian history but treatment of these religious images in the East is incredibly different than how Westerners approach these images in the modern world.
In India, an image or sculpture of a deity is not simply an artist’s rendition of his idea of the deities appearance. Upon completion, the image is the deity itself. This is why sculptures of Hindu deities are given food and water daily, and are bathed with the utmost care and respect. While devotees perform these duties ungrudgingly, if the image or statue were to be left without care and respect, the deity may become angry and bring about unwanted outcomes for those who have failed to take care of him correctly. Alternatively, correct or exceptional care of the image of the deity may result in positive outcomes for the devotee.
This makes me worry for the West. Countless sculptures and images of deities rest throughout homes, studios, offices, and even restaurants that sit hungry, without food offerings, collecting dust, perhaps being wiped down with a Lysol wipe from time to time if they rest within reach of the hurried housekeeper.
After being ignored for so long, do these deities still rest within their images, cursing each passer-by? As negligent Westerners house these images and sculptures, are we accumulating years upon years of afflictions?
Probably not. In fact in order to truly house the deity within the image, the image must be blessed and ritualized upon it’s completion. However, if one did splurge or was “lucky” enough to come into possession of an authentic, enlivened image, I have to wonder how the image might affect the owner, most likely unaware of his negligence.
And what does it mean to live in a world where a foreign holy image is now commonly placed on t-shirts worn to sweaty gym sessions and wild pool parties? Raised in a part of the world where images have commonly been shunned in religious history as a place for shallow reverence, can one even relate to the idea of an image as something capable of possessing God himself?