Deconstructing the Difference: Monotheisms & Icons, Judaism & Hinduism (Reading Diana Eck’s Darśan)

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On the economy of scale, I read Diana Eck’s short masterpiece Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image after Wendy Doniger’s colossal The Hindus: An Alternative History. Eck’s introduction to the visual tradition in India is a magnificent little primer. I’m getting two things from Eck’s book. I learned a lot about the image in India, formalizing and systematizing the very general things I already knew about how icons manifest or house the presence of the God. I’m also reading it for Judaism and for Jewish philosophy.  I’m looking for connecting lines. Most of all, I’m hoping not to abolish the difference between Judaism and Hinduism as much as to deconstruct the difference to which Eck herself is committed. Originally published in 1981 and appearing in at least three editions since, Darśan is probably the best introduction to the phenomenon of visuality and Indian religion; and it’s riddled with problems. A critical book, Eck’s study is not critical enough, and perhaps that’s why it serves so well as an important jumping point with which to better understand Hindu monotheism and Jewish iconicity.


Starting with the tension between icons and aniconism, we learn that in Hindu theology and ritual art, it’s not one or the other. Conceptions of a God without qualities, fundamentally imageless in its supreme form, sit side by side with emanations and avatar of divinity that take shape, as emanation and avatar, in the human heart, in the crystalized form of an image (p.45). This tension between iconicity and aniconism drills down into the image itself. The abstract and aniconic image form of fire, or of the linga, including those linga situated in the inner sanctum, are complemented by the figurative figures of the God in the emanated form (among so many others, primarily the Shaivan muscle-god, bright blue Krishna, and impish {?} Ganeśa). (But even this isn’t clear cut because some linga are sculpted into figurative, facial form)

Darśan means seeing and being seen. One goes to see the image, to see the God through the image, and to be seen in turn by the god who looks back through the image. A plastic image is not just an image as we typically understand it as an absolutely bounded physical object. Reading Eck, what strikes me is that the most important aspect of the images is its spatial situatedness. The so-called ordinary image is itself situated in temples, situated in cities, situated in the sacred geography of India. Indeed, it’s the city of Varanasi, also called Kaśi, or the City of Light, the entire city said to be a linga, the very embodiment of Shiva, that gets the last substantive mention before the book’s afterword, which moves darśan to the United States. What’s the upshot? There is the darśhan of the image, and the darśan of place. The temple is itself an image, and viewed from a certain perspective, the city is also an image, India is also an image (pp.59, 63).

Of course there’s a history to all this, about which I’m only now coming to learn. The history actually limits the form. What took me by surprise was how recent the plastic iconic tradition actually is. The Vedic rites were aniconic in their focus around a fire altar, but the texts are full of poetic images. (This almost already sounds like ancient Israel). The first plastic images appear in the Mauryan Period (3rd C. BCE-3rd C. CE), under the influence of Buddhism, and perhaps to Hellenism in the north and northwest of the country. But the major flowering of Hindu plastic art is late, in the Gupta period (4th-7th C. CE) (around the same time that one finds the flourishing of early Christian and even Jewish art in the Mediterranean Levant.) It’s then and after that we see in particular the building of big temples, and this accelerates with the spread of bhakti devotionalism in the south. When we thing about Hindu images, we’re mostly talking about the particular form of bhakti and bhakti theism –I think that’s what Eck is saying (cf. p.45)

The theology of the Hindu image, that the God inhabits the image, sounds more like Christianity as its theology of the image developed after John of Damascus. What draws to a connection to Judaism would be the temple character of the Hindu tradition and its locative position. As pure speculation, and only as such, one wonders about the Tabernacle in the Hebrew Bible or  what a Second Temple Judaism might have looked like had the Romans not destroyed the Temple, namely as a theology of the Temple, in whose edifice the God resides “within the children of Israel.” The aniconism of the Hebrew God in the spatial icon of the Temple, the city, and the land as visual form. Of course, the differences are vast, but I’m beginning to wonder if this has more to do with scale more than substance, or if the substantive differences have something to do with scale. I’m only playing around here, but the strongest point of connection would be the this-worldly focus of bhakti in relation to Judaism.


So then let’s deconstruct (if only a little) the difference between Judaism and Hinduism, monotheism and iconicity. The first thing to say is to note the well-founded resentment among scholars of religion about the way Hinduism has been pilloried in the west as “idolatry.” But that in turn creates a new binary. Like this one. Eck’s view of India, at least in this book, is uncritical. India is imagined as actively embracing a diversity that unites rather than divides. Formed around a polycentric social structure, India is more like a web than a ladder. Entirely missing from this presentation is a sharp look at social and religious tension in India. It makes India look too easy, this notion that there is a “radically polytheistic” “way of thinking.” The contrast is posed as a rhetorical challenge to western monotheism, a putative “monotheism of consciousness” based on “One God,” “One Book,” “One Son,” “One Church,” “One Nation” (pp.24-5).

Part of the problem with this type of contrast is conceptual. I’m guessing that Eck belongs to a generation of scholars invested in symbolic anthropology according to which social structures “mirror” religious belief. She makes this claim explicitly about “patriarchal monotheism” (p.25). The idea is that a social structure can be explained on the basis of belief. This is an old idea, since supplanted by the opposite notion, the more Marxist one that belief mirrors social structure. The plurality of Hindu and other belief structures in India would reflect the immense human diversity of a sub-continent.

So how do we begin to deconstruct the difference? We do so on the basis of Eck’s own excellent scholarship.

Let’s start with images. There is nothing sui-generic about the religious art tradition in India. Eck own book more than suggests that it has nothing to do with some “radically polytheistic” way of thinking. Art in India reflects no timeless form of web-like consciousness. It has a history. Art in India begins to flourish at around the same historical juncture as an independent Christian art distinct from its original Greco-Roman prototypes. (The dread figure of “Hebrew aniconism” makes its appearance on p.18, but we could say the same about the emergence of Jewish decorative art happening at around the same time as Christian art, except, of course that there is not as much Jewish art as there is Christian art for reasons that have less to do with theology than with history.) Co-incident in time, the differences between the two emergent art traditions in the East and West are contingent. We’re not looking at an absolute difference based on radically binary belief structures, one which opens itself to art and the other which shuts it down, one which is open to the senses and the other which is suspicious and hostile. So-called Hebrew aniconism has nothing to do with any of this (p.18), especially since, as per Eck, there are aniconic strains in Hindu and Buddhist art in India.

To deconstruct the difference theologically would be to look for those points around which the Hindu God begin to resemble the Jewish or Christian God. No less than in the West, in India there is also One God, sort of (not really). I’m playing with this possibility based on Eck’s reading of Max Müller’s characterization  of Hindu theology as “kathenotheism.” As explained by Eck, this term means “the worship of one god at a time. Each is exalted in turn. Each is praised as creator, source, and sustainer of the universe when one stands in the present of that deity….Each is seen, by those who  are its devotees, as Supreme in every sense” (p.26). As pure speculation, one could wonder if there was ever a time, or under what future possibilities, Shiva, in particular, might have come close to or could possibly come close to usurping the other gods in terms of power and devotional status, as did one local, bronze-age deity in small corner of southwestern Asia.

Putting the two together, art and theology, the radical difference between Hinduism and monotheism finally deconstructs when we figure out, thanks to Eck, that image devotion is most prominent in bhakti and what Eck herself calls other “theistic” Hindu traditions. Careful readers should note that once Eck starts talking about bhakti, the whole language shifts from “the gods” to “God.” So it turns out that we are talking about God after all, at least when talking about bhakti. We’re talking about since all the gods are God, the Lord, who is not just supreme but also “graceful,” for the giving of Himself into an image. That this “God” is accessible in images is not so radically different in kind than the God in the west who gives himself to be seen (or encountered) in ritual by his devotees through different mediating or devotional bodies and structures (pp.45-51).

To see this, to deconstruct the difference between Hinduism and Judaism means that we need to look at things differently. I cannot speak for Hindu Studies, but I’d suggest we might look at Hindu theology, if not in the light of western theology, at least not in such stark opposition. About Judaism and Jewish Studies and Jewish philosophy, I’m a little more confident. We can see Jewish “things” in light of or at least not in such stark opposition to Hindu iconicity, things like the Tabernacle in the Bible or the Temple in Jerusalem, or Torah scrolls and other ritual objects, the visual tradition in Jewish ritual and Jewish theology. There’s no “reason” not to.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics.
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