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Dualist Indian Tradions

Lakshmi Subramanian

By Heinrich Von Stietencron
Permanent Black, 2010, pp. 188, Rs. 495.00

VOLUME XXXIV NUMBER 12 December 2010

Max Weber spoke of man as a meaning making animalspinning constantly and being suspended in webs of meaning to make sense and give an orientation to the world that he lived in and wished to order. Such a formulation seems to lie at the basis of Heinrich Von Stietencrons study of the iconography of the Ganga and Yamuna on temple doors. Departing from conventional analysis of these icons that were largely interpreted within a political framework, he draws on a rich corpus of symbolisms that he interprets mostly textually to draw his own formulations on dualist Indian traditions. First a brief look at the iconographic landscape of India with relation to three divinities, the Ganga, Yamuna and Sarswati, the first two associated with very visible rivers and the last with a mysterious invisible stream, the history of which surfaces in unexpected ways. Stietencron himself is concerned primarily with the recurrence of the images of Ganga and Yamuna as divinities on their respective vehicles/mounts or vahana (the former on a crocodile, marker of strength and robust energy and the latter on a tortoise associated with both wisdom and time or kala that can have death associations as well) in a number of temples from the 6th century, not just concentrated in the nucleus of Gupta rule (in north India on the Doab) but scattered elsewhere including the Deccan as well. Conventionally, both art historians and historians have tended to explain this recurring motif by positioning the two divinities as essentially presiding deities symbolizing agrarian power and prosperity, and by emerging as emblems of Gupta imperial glory. For Stietencron, this sociological and social interpretation does not go far, and deeper symbolisms and meanings are required to make sense of the ubiquity of the images. This he attempts to do by reading a variety of texts to speak of the symbolisms associated with the riversthe lunar Ganga and solar Yamuna replete with signification. The lunar Ganga carried associations of death and fertility associated as it was with the waxing and waning of the moon while the solar Yamuna in addition to her association in legend with the sinister Yama was also a symbol of stability and beauty. From this reading, the author suggests that in both mythology and symbolisms, the link with death is overpowering and overshadowed the fertility idea and it was this idea that was grafted on to the temple ...

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