Soulful Objects, Selfless Objects: The Nature of Figures and Images of Hindu Gods

Most Hindus today inhabit a world filled with divine presence. In this world, one god (Bhagawān) takes many forms, from trees, to cows, to a pantheon full of personal gods and goddesses. One of the most pervasive forms is a mūrti, a sculpted figure of a deity. Most devotees agree that the ātman (self) of the deity represented is literally present in his mūrti. It is widely-recognized that once the deity’s presence is formally invoked in a mūrti, it becomes an embodied form of the deity, requiring honor, care, and protection in perpetuity. In contrast to these protected forms, many devotees possess photographs and mass-produced replicas allowing them to take their preferred temple form out into the world. While devotees indicate they recognize Bhagawān’s presence even in these mass-produced forms, at the same time such forms are not and cannot be protected from the weathering forces they face outside the temple. Because of this, these forms are “selfless”: they do not embody the deity’s ātman, or at least not in the same way as temple forms. Furthermore, these mass-produced replicas are “selfless” in the ways they sacrifice the integrity of their forms to remain close to their devotees. Based on field research in Jaipur, Rajasthan, this talk compares Hindu perspectives on the substantial presence of temple forms with the kind of “selfless” presence of mass-produced forms to illuminate the different ways divine presence manifests for Hindus in their daily lives.  

Amy Hirschtick as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Her research interests involve the visual and material culture of contemporary Hinduism and are primarily driven by questions of the place of religion in the modern world. Her current book project is an ethnography titled In the Company of Krishna. Countering the tendency of modern theories of religious imagery to emphasize absence, this study examines figures of Krishna as substantial, relational beings who are immanently present in the lives of devotees in the contemporary world.