About James Cook


Icons for Worship: Local Concentrations of Immanence

"Tameva bhantam anubhati sarvam, tasya bhasa sarvamidam vibhati" — "It shining, every thing happens to shine. By its light alone does all this appear." Kathopanisad.

Having limited perceptual and intellectual tools, human beings struggle to explore ontological questions. Signs or symbols expressed in material form, or as thought forms through language, have been employed to engage the noumenal. In diverse cultures globally, those who lay claim to transcendent experience have developed an extensive lexicon of symbol-tools to convey meaning. These symbols can be used to give ideational direction at the onset, and for the more advanced, they serve as transformative archetypal connections. Here, the iconic form within the Hindu paradigm will be examined as a means to penetrate to more essential levels of experience. The development of any specific icon includes its suprasensible formulation, its material expression by the sthapaka, its brahmanic consecration, and, finally, its use as a tool for archetypal integration, which includes the relationship between worshipper and the worshipped. The postulate that Immanence can manifest and amplified locally will be drawn out from particular Hindu ontological ideas pertinent to transcendence.

The Vedas, Puranas, and Upanishads are the core of Hindu literature that have generated a multiplicity of personified attributes as prosaic vehicles for the diverse manifestations of Consciousness. These literary images, coupled with mantram descriptors, ritual movement, and drama, have provided correlation and impetus for the development of plastic iconic forms. Two other ideas relevant to understanding the development of sacred space (the temple) and sacred objects (iconic/aniconic forms) are "darsana" (looking, being near) and puja (worship).

Ideally, a temple is constructed at a "tirtha" (sacred place). This potent site is "where the gods are seen to play, (and) in all these places, there is but one God engaged in eternal play".(1) The site is at once terrestrial and extra-terrestrial, for "Once heaven and earth were united. Separating, they said: Let what is suitable to the sacrifice be common to both".(2) At the most auspicious time a sacred diagram (Vastupurusamandala) is drawn on the ground to subtly regulate all activities pursuant to the substantiation of Purusha, universal Essence, in the form of the temple. The divine archetype is then provided a body form and is ritually invited to indwell the form, housed within the sanctum sanctorum (gharba griha), the nexus of the temple. The entire process of temple construction and image formulation is codified and ritually bound in order to establish a Sattvic resonance for Divine tenancy and to inspire the worshipper.

In Hindu cosmology, Supreme Consciousness essentially has no form (amurta) and is not determined by form (arupa), and is trans-form (para-rupa). However, for most, and even for those whose illumination encompasses the experience of Self without form, the contact derived from contemplating a divine image or reciting mantram warrants the use of images. The anthropomorphised iconic form (murti) and dhyana mantram are sensible formulae. They serve to bridge the phenomenal and noumenal rift which results from the tamasic obscurations of Prakrti.

Does worship of an icon need defending? The misconception that the icon is itself the focus of devotion is addressed in the Hermeneia of Athos, "All honor that we pay the image, we refer to the Archetype, namely Him whose image it is…In no wise honor we the colors or the art, but the archetype of Christ, who is in Heaven. For as Basilius, says, the honoring of an image passes over to its prototype." (3) Every Hindu, either sitting before an image or a phallic symbol, utters the word "soham" ("that am I"),—under the sastric injunction for a worshipper, "Sivo Bhutva Sivam Yajeta" ("becoming a Siva, one must worship Siva").(4)

In what manner can an iconic form be more than just a representation of a divine archetype? In Indian art it has been demonstrated that the artist is not recreating nature. The Greek penchant for the natural beauty of the human body and the European Romantic"s attachment to the natural beauty of the landscape are not those of the traditional Indian artist. Because plastic expression in India serves the worshipper, a unique system has developed to formulate images, originating from the epiphanies of the ancient rishis whose yogic experiences of Consciousness have been codified for the benefit of the sthapaka.

"Through the ages it is not the physical body of man, but the subtle body of his elevated meditation and spiritual advance (suksma sarira) which is taken as the ideal of human proportions in Indian art. It is on the basis of a disciplined bodily appearance and facial expression moulded by yoga and eloquent of suprapersonal dimensions of experience that the shapes of gods, angels, and higher beings are modeled."(5) The yogic disposition reflected in the inward gaze, pranically inflated torso and limbs, etc. has developed as iconographic and iconometric directives to guide the sthapakas, creators of icons.

The traditional murti is produced within a cosmology which views the ideal artist, poet, yogi, and aesthete as participants on a higher plane, who view the world in a contemplative way. According to classical Indian theory, they operate at a level of transcendent exaltation (or mahat), wherein there is no differentiation between the subject and object. Not moved by sensoral or mental distractions, unity with the absolute occurs. Conceived within states of Unity Consciousness the formulation of a divine archetypal image has a depersonalized authenticity. Its materialization as an icon is, ideally, unencumbered with the personalized signature of the sthapaka; rather, the image form should be filled with the inspired resonance of the deity archetype. And while its physical shaping will be unique to the skills and stylistic nuance flowing from the hands of the artist, all is governed by a disciplined connection with the deity archetype via meditation, mantram, and ritual.

The suprasensible formulation of iconic forms and their potential to manifest concentrations of immanence is supported by diverse sources in Hindu Literature. Kashmir Shaivism, particularly the ideas in the Pratyabhijnahrdayam, the Siva Sutras, the Spanda Karikas, the Vijnanabhairava, and the aesthetics of Abhinavagupta will be used here to reconcile the apparent material activity of icon worship with the ontological transcendental constructs of the Saivagamas.

According to Saiva Monism, the world experience is real, because it is the manifestation of the all-inclusive Universal Consciousness or Self. It is nothing but an experience of the Self. An aspect of the Pratyabhijna system is an exposition of this idea, and is called "Abhasavada". "Abhasa" is manifestation or appearance in a limited way. Everything in manifest existence is a configuration of "abhasas", which are emanations of theall-inclusionary Universal Consciousness (Anuttara: beyond which there is nothing). Anuttara here should be understood in the non-dualist framework to preclude "this-that" and "not this-not that".

According to Abhasavada this Ultimate has two aspects: transcendental (Visvottirna) and immanent (visvmaya); this is of the nature of Prakasa/Vimarsa, (Consciousness, Self-revelation/Self-conscious of the Supreme which brings about the world-process).(6) It cannot be grasped by the rational process of the intellect.(7) Neither the sensory self nor mind can reach there and know it.

Prakasa, the Self, is luminous and contains Samskaras (residual traces) within. The prakasic Self is likened to a sea having waves (samskaric abhasas) on its surface. All abhasas rise like waves in the sea of the universal Consciousness. Just as there is neither loss nor gain to the sea with the rise and disappearance of waves, even so there is neither loss nor gain to the Universal Consciousness with the appearance and disappearance of abhasas.(8)The waves are the manifestations of the universe, which are only apparently separated from the Self, as with the reflected object from the mirror. "Just as a variety of objects appears within a mirror, even so the entire universe appears within Consciousness or the Self. Consciousness, however, owing to its power of vimarsa or Self-consciousness knows the world, not so the mirror its objects".(9)

This paradigm of prakasa-vimarsa (the unmanifest-manifestation in unity) can be further described as macrocosmic-microcosmic. The implication is that the "individual self" and the "Cosmic Self" are one. What is so for the individual is so for the universal self—they are essentially identical (Yat pinde tat brahmande).(10) In this context "prakasa" refers to the Supreme Self as immanent Consciousness, the substratum for all manifestation, while "vimarsa" is the power of manifestation giving rise to its different aspects: ananda, iccha, jnana, and kriya.

Relative to the idea of immanence, if Ultimate Reality were merely prakasa and not also vimarsa, it would be powerless and inert. "If the Highest Reality did not manifest in infinite variety, but remained cooped up within its solid singleness, it would neither be the Highest Power nor consciousness, but something like a jar".(11)

Pratyabhijna philosophy is also called "Isvaradvayavada", in which the characteristic of Brahman (Self) is both "jnatrtva" (knowledge) and "kartrtva" (activity). The kartrtva aspect (the power to act) is contingent upon "avidya" (primal ignorance); the activity of the Self desists when it is dissociated from avidya. In the highest sense, when all conditions are removed by "vidya" (spiritual illumination) from Atman, the use of potency would become inappropriate for it.(12) However, since the general condition can be said to be that of avidya, the Supreme is never thought of without the power to act. This activity is five-fold: emanation or projection (srsti), maintenance (sthiti), withdrawal (samhara), concealment of real nature (vilaya), and grace (anugraha). The condition of avidya or maya is not apart from the actual nature of Paramesvara (Self). Saiva philosophy considers maya to be siva-maya (an aspect of Siva) and all of the abhasas are real in the sense that they are aspects of Parama Siva (Self).

All of these ideas are pertinent to an understanding of the philosophic underpinnings for the worship of icons and the efficacy of their being worshipped. If the Self is all-pervasive, or conversely, if all "manifestations" are the Self, then why is the immanence of Self not perceived by all cognizant emanations (human beings) of the Self? Even though the individual self is, according to the Saivagamas, an abhasa or manifestation of the Universal Self and is thereby, one with the Self, the recognition of this unity is rendered difficult by diverse obscurations. The impediments to Self-recognition vary for each "individual" consciousness; however, if the Light of Prakasa is all-pervasive and self-illuminating, then there must be a commensurate impulse for the "individual" toward self-inquiry, or to seek connectedness with the Self. How does the "individual" discover that which essentially has no form (prakasa) and cannot be rationally comprehended, but which is (as vimarsa) manifest in all "things"?

Human beings have perennially used images and symbolic touchstones to bridge to the subconscious, the (Jungian) collective unconscious, the noumenal, the cultural mythos, Supraconsciousness, and so on. Images, whether as poetic or visual formulations, serve to focus the mind and to generate what is called "Rasa" in the Indian culture. The material reference to an archetype (sculpted image of Siva) must operate at a pre-lingual (Para Vak) level to excite the imagination toward the source of the image-idea. Pippalada, author of the VastuSutras, maintains that images have the power to elevate the soul and guide it towards final emancipation and that images can directly penetrate the vital centers of the beholder. The image form can give a synthetic all-embracing transcendent view; it can be "apprehended at one and the same time by all the organic and intellectual faculties without having to be mentally connected through a sequence of impressions". (13)

Indeed, the mental constructions (vikalpas) used by the Shaiva monists, collected in the Vijnanabhairava, are not the concretions of stone murtis, yet are mental formulations (concretions) used in creative contemplation (bhavana) to direct the awareness beyond the subtle material nature of the vikalpa toward I-Consciousness. Vikalpas may also pertain to the external world, like "tree" or "river" or various fancies of the mind. In a vikalpa the mind sets a limit to one particular thing or idea; that idea is differentiated from all else in the world. Vikalpas are concerned with particulars. Ultimate Reality is non-relational; therefore, vikalpas are unable to grasp Reality. However, there is the "suddha" or pure vikalpa, (viz. the "thought that I am Siva") By the bhavana (creative contemplation) of this type of vikalpa, all other vikalpas are eliminated. Finally, this vikalpa also disappears and one is landed in a nirvikalpa or thought free state which denotes the awareness of Reality. (14) In the context of worship the contemplation of the iconic deity archetype is also the bhavana of a "suddha", (pure vikalpa), thereby enabling the Self represented by the icon and the worshipper to have greater potential to have fusion.

Abhinavagupta in his writings describes knowledge to be like the rise of two waves in the ocean of consciousness. One of these has "Nairmalaya", (the capacity to receive reflection), and the other is without capacity to receive reflection and is called "Javabhasa" (limited sentient manifestation). When the rising of the sentient manifestation is affected by the simultaneously rising insentient one, the phenomenon of knowledge takes place.

Universal Consciousness expresses itself (Vimarsa) as movement (Kartrtva) and knowledge (Jnatrtva Sakti). Its power of knowledge (Jnanashakti) is that capacity of Universal Consciousness which is responsible for the rise of both waves, necessary for the phenomenon of knowledge. The individual perceiver, the object of perception, and the Supreme Self are therefore not separate. Because all abhasas are momentary, the aspect of jnantrtvasakti, called "Smrtisakti", is necessary so that a manifestation (such as an individual self) can retain the effects of the external stimuli received at the time of perception.(15) Smrti allows the cogniser with memory to unify past and present experiences.

The differentiation experienced by the individual perceiver and the perceived, as well as the separateness experienced between the individual and the Self, is explained by the Pratyabijnahrdayam to be another aspect of Jnatrtvasakti, "Apohanasakti". This aspect manifests each abhasa, whether subjective (jiva) or objective (jada), as separate from Universal Consciousness and from one another, although at the time of such manifestation, they are one with their common substratum. The Bhagavadgita also recognizes these three attributes of the Universal Self, (Mattah smrtirjnanamapoham ca, 15.15, "I am lodged in the hearts of all; from Me are memory and knowledge, as well as their loss").

Again, within this philosophic system the manifest and unmanifest are merely perceived to be separate. The jnana and bakta experienced through image worship can be described as the process of the jiva (abhasa as individual worshipper) contemplating Mahesvara (Consciousness) through jada ( abhasa as sculpted deity form).

Rasa is another important component in both the creation of an iconic form to be worshipped and the dynamic of worshipping. In the Abhinava Bharati by Abhinavagupta the term "Rasa" has been used in two different senses: At the transcendental level of realization of the universalized object by the universalized subject, Rasa means "object of relish" (Rasyate iti rasah). The basic mental image is being relished. The second sense occurs when the basic mental image sinks into the subconscious, consisting of introversion and rest within itself, whereupon Ananda rises. Rasa here means the "act of relishing" (Rasanam Rasah).

One of the earliest Indian works in the area of aesthetics is Bharata"s NatyaSastra, which although it is basically concerned with drama, is relevant to the sthapaka"s (artist"s) state of mind, as well as that of the worshipper. He describes Rasa as an aesthetic object which, as a configuration, is different from the basic mental state. According to Bharata, Rasa is the organic unity of four elements: "vibhava" (situation with a human focus), anubhava (evidence of emotion), vyabhicaribhava (transient emotions), and sthayibhava (basic emotions).(16) The vibava is the emotional situation, (in the context of iconic forms an example is Durga as Mahisasuramardini: fierce, powerful, dynamic), which is presented to the audience (worshipper). Particularly relevant regarding worship are the two aspects of vibhava: one is "Alambana", the object responsible for the rise of emotion (the iconic form). The second aspect is "Uddipana", or the environment (the temple and grounds) which enhances the emotive effect of the focal point.

Bhatta Nayaka, a commentator on the Rasa Sutra, rejects the idea that Rasa is "suggested" by an aesthetically charge situation. According to him, the aesthetic experience is due to the objective cognition of the presented (emotive situation). Both the perceiving self and the perceived object are free from all limitations of individuality.This ideally results in a subjective state wherein the self resides in perfect rest with the Self. This state is predominantly "Sattvic" (Essential Being), with the relegation of the rajas (flux of activity) and tamas (delusion) to the background. This state is characterized by an absence of all physical, psychological, and volitional activities, and the self is free from all attachment to and aversion from all that can enter into the consciousness.(17)

Regarding the sthapaka who, with the assistance of dyanaslokas (verses of deity attributes) and other meditative techniques, attempts to fully identify with a particular divine archetype, this sattvic, detached state of consciousness is requisite to the formulation of the iconic image. This is the highest degree of Rasa, called "bhojakatva", where the aesthetic object (the murti) is freed from all relations in which similar objects stand in ordinary life, thereby universalizing it. (18)

Abhinavagupta, whose thinking emanates from Shaiva Monism, is generally in accord with Bhatta Nayaka"s commentaries on the Rasa Sutra . He views the aesthetic experience to be contingent upon the identification of the spectator (worshipper) with the human focus of attention, rather than its resulting from the objective presentation of the presented (icon in this context). Abhinavagupta admits that the cognitive process leading to the ultimate aesthetic experience is different from that involved in ordinary perception; however, he prefers to account for it psychologically, rather than with the construct of bhojakatva.

Therefore, He places the aesthetic experience at the level of Sakti, where there is the capacity of the awareness of Self. The authentic aesthetic experience, according to Abhinavagupta, involves the complete elimination of objective consciousness and is characterized by the predominance of Vimarsa in continuous relation with Universalized consciousness.

Rather than being an aesthetic experience, it is a transcendental one for Abhinavagupta. Because it is consciousness free from all external references, resting in its inseparable aspect of the Self, it is Ananda. A genuine aesthetic (transcendental) experience primarily stimulates the imagination upon encountering the aesthetic object (murti). The individual is no longer in the mundane world, but in a world created with some detachment. The spectator (worshipper) personality is replaced by a focus of identification (with the deity archetype). At its highest level it is the experience of the Self, as pure and unmixed bliss, or "Maharasa". Here, all elements of individuality disappear. And in the case of the worshipper sitting or kneeling before a divine image, body consciousness recedes as the devotee merges with the Divine; the individual does not distinguish between the self, the icon, or Consciousness. The predominant experience is Ananda. According to Abhinavagupta the aesthetic experience here belongs to the Vyatireka Turyatita, in which all activity merges in the subconscious, while subject, the self, shines in its Ananda aspect.

In the Sahityadarpana the ideal aesthetic experience and spiritual sublimity are characterized to be intrinsically the same, "Aesthetic experience is tasted by those with an innate sense of absolute values; it is experienced in a state of pure consciousness as self-luminous, in a mood at once of ecstasy and enlightenment. Such experience is dissociated with anything knowable. It is a twin brother to the experience of the unity of Brahman. It is indivisible and intrinsic and appears in a super mundane lightening flash".(19)

The Hindu spiritual system is based upon the Essential Unity of all experience. Although this implies Cosmic immanence in all experience, (all "things"), the condition of avidya obscures recognition of this. Hinduism has developed elaborate strategies to use specific manifestations of this phenomenal world as preferred tools to enable recognition of this Unity by the individual.

For instance, to help resolve questions of the perceptually furcated phenomenal experience the individual is assisted by diverse methods under the rubric of Yoga. These yogic disciplines are designed to cultivate the body, mind, and heart toward the ultimate Self-recognition, and include such tools as meditation, contemplation, mantram recitation, forms of puja, selfless work, and so on. Hindu literature supports the concept that certain locations (tirthas) are more "charged" than others, that specified ritual processes are preferred for particular sacred invocations, and that special image and word directives (icons and mantram) can evoke essential experiences of the Self. Immanence is more concentrated in particular locations (space) and associated with particular processes (time), than with others generally. These locations, objects, and processes are generally perceived to be "immanently concentrated" or "cetana", filled with "Citi" (vitality or Consciousness). The transformative potential of these devices has evolved according to the perceptual dispositions and needs, (including psychological, emotional, and intellectual), of the collective worshippers (aspirants) over time.

The icon and temple space are an invitation for Divine habitation. The invitation for deity habitation is not complete, however, without the worshipper. Prakasa without Vimarsa would "remain cooped up in its single solidness…something like an empty jar" (see 11). If the quality of worship (the selfless focus and Rasa) is high, a divine corridor for Consciousness is generated.

Following is a passage from Stella Kramrisch"s Indian Sculpture, "The indivisible form of the image and its indwelling power are now consciously seen by the devotee. Such seeing with the eye of knowledge requires and brings detachment from everything whatever, but the presence of the image. Towards it the devotee has the most intense attachment, for he ritually touches with his gaze the part of the image on which he concentrates, and…is oned with the deity. Man becomes what he worships".(20)

Does the iconic form, whether a carved stone, a panca-metal murti, or a painted mural, embody concentrated Immanence? Not according to Coomaraswamy, "the material image must be prepared for worship by ceremony of invocation (avahana); and if intended for temporary use, subsequently desecrated by a formula of dismissal (visarjana). It should not be supposed that the deity, by invocation and dismissal, is made to come or go, for omnipresence does not move; these ceremonies are really just projections of the worshipper"s own mental attitude toward the image".(21)

While it appears that Coomaraswamy gives to the worshipper complete responsibility for the "vitality" of the image as a psychological state, he in the same breath confirms that a particular image is used over other images, and that a special ritual process is performed to enable the worshipper to worship the image. This supports at least the underlying premise of an intimate correspondence between the worshipper and image, and leaves open to question the use of particular images and rituals (which are themselves abhasas or manifestations of Prakasa), when, according to Coomaraswamy, "omnipresence does not move".

From the overall foregoing discussion, couched within the cosmology of Hindu experience, the answer to the question of iconic immanence might also be "yes". The iconic form has the double fate of living in the world of differentiated manifestation, while hosting Prakasa, the divine substratum of all manifestation, and acting as interlocutor between the phenomenal and noumenal.The icon, like a stone or a pencil erasure, is divinely immanent. However, the icon has, ideally, been suprasensibly formulated and subsequently articulated into iconic form to clearly reflect qualities of a particular aspect (archetype) of Anuttara. The perceiving self is thereby more efficiently delivered towards Self-awareness. To amplify its sanctity and presence the deity image is usually ensconced within the cave-like introvertive atmosphere of the garbha-griha. The resonance is further intensified by temple alignment with the subtle power of the tirtha location. This specialized orchestration of manifested forms (icon and temple) has greater potential to stimulate the worshipper"s contemplative focus and to give rise to Rasa, than do generally encountered manifested forms. They are cetana, filled with Consciousness.

The worshipper is the Self is the icon is the Self.


  1. Radha Upanisad IV, cited in The Hindu Temple, by Stella Kramrisch, page 5
  2. Taittiriya Brahmana, I, 1.3.2-3, cited in The Hindu Temple by S. Kramrisch, page 7
  3. Cf. Hermeneia of Athos, cited by A.K. Coomeraswamy in The Transformation of Nature in Art. page 213
  4. Indian Images, The Brahmanic Iconography, by B.C. Bhattacharya, Prolegomena VI.
  5. The Cosmic Art of India, R. Mukerjee. page 55
  6. Pratyabhijnahrdayam, commentaries by J. Singh, page 6
  7. Tavalakaropanisad (Kenopanisad) 1.3, cited by G.T. Deshpande in Abinhavagupta, page 39
  8. Ibid, page 19
  9. Paramarthasara, p. 39, quoted by Yogaraja, cited in Pratyabhijnahrdayam by J. Singh. 10. Isvara-Pratyabhijna-Vimarsini 9, cited with commentary by G.T. Deshpande in Abinhavagupta, page 43
  10. Tantraloka, III.100, cited in Pratyabhijnahrdayam by J. Singh,page 6
  11. Brahmana Sutra 2. 1.14, cited in Pratyabhijnahrdayam by J. Singh, page 22
  12. Vastusutra Upanisad, by Boner, Sharma, and Baumer, page 9
  13. Vijnanabhairava, trans. by J. Singh, page xxii
  14. Abhinavagupta, by G.T. Deshpande, page 48
  15. Ibid., from Abhinava-Bharati by Abhinavagupta
  16. Ibid. page 75
  17. Ibid. page 76
  18. Sahityadarpana, cited by R. Mukerjee in The Cosmic Art of India, page 162.
  19. Indian Sculpture by Stella Kramrisch, page 40
  20. Transformation of Nature in Art by A. Coomaraswamy, pp. 168-69


(beyond footnoted sources)
  1. Principles of Composition in Hindu Sculpture by Alice Boner.
  2. The Presence of Siva by Stella Kramrisch
  3. Architecture of Manasara by Prasanna Acharaya
  4. Hindu Iconography by S.P. Tewari
  5. Silpa Sastra by D.N. Shukla
  6. South Indian Bronzes, by O.C. Gangoly
  7. Brahmanic Iconography by Brindavan Bhattacharya
  8. Mayamata, trans. by Bruno Dagens
  9. Siva Sutras by Jaideva Singh
  10. Bhagavadgita by Radhakrishnan
  11. Spanda Karikas by Jaideva Singh
  12. Traditional Art and Symbolism by A. Coomaraswamy
  13. Lives of Indian Images by Richard Davis
  14. Art: The integral Vision, Eds. B.N. Saraswati, S. Malik, and Madhu Kanna