The Gommaṭeśvara’s Grand Mahāmastakābhiṣeka Ritual

Published: 20.01.2011
Updated: 30.07.2015


The Gommaṭeśvara’s Grand Mahāmastakābhiṣeka Ritual

“Aisthetics of Religion” as a new Method of Research of Jaina Ritual

"Religionsästhetik" or "Religionsaisthetik" is the German term for a new development within the study of religion. It has slowly been evolving during the last decade in German discourses of studies of religion. This aisthetics of religion has already gained some popularity and is now reaching out to neighbouring disciplines such as Indology or Anthropology - but so far it seems to be a more or less purely German phenomenon.

In this essay I wish to share some results of my field work in South India using this new approach. Thereby I hope to show how the new research discipline of aisthetics of religion can have a new impact on Indian ritual studies by means of its focussing on perceptive categories (such as visual and acoustic perception, olfactory components and haptic components).

As an example for applying this approach on India studies, I chose the analysis of a famous Jaina temple ritual, the Mahāmastakābhiṣeka, for two reasons:

  1. ritual generally is a rather neglected aspect within Jaina studies, but a highly interesting one, combining pan-Indian elements with such that are particular to Jainism.
  2. Secondly, the Digambara Mahāmastakābhiṣeka, a large-scale anointing ritual, is particularly suited for showing the advantages of a religiously aisthetic research perspective.

Shravana Belagola

Shravana Belagola is a small village in southern Karnataka (Hassan District) with a population of about 5000 people, and is the location of the largest Digambara Jaina monastery. It is the most important pilgrimage centre of south Indian Jainism, and it is an important destination also for north Indian Jainas, next to the larger places of pilgrimage (kṣetra) like Shatrunjaya (in Saurasthra) or Mount Abu (in Rajasthan). Even among non-Jainas, the place is a favourite tourist destination on account of the monolithic statue of Bāhubali with its impressive height of 58 feet and 8 inches (17 m 88 cm), standing majestically on a high hill in an otherwise flat landscape.

Shravana Belagola looks back on a long history as a holy place of pilgrimage (kṣetra) and bathing place (tīrtha). The first historical evidence is a Jaina monk (muni) named Bhadrabāhu.[1] Bhadrabāhu is thought to have lived eight generations after Mahāvīra, that is to say, in the third century BC, and to have migrated with followers (a mythical number of 12.000 Jaina munis), from Magadha in northeastern Bihar to Shravana Belagola. He is supposed to have founded Shravana Belagola, which later was to develop into the most important centre of Jainism in southern India.[2] None other than the king Candragupta Maurya (died 297 BC) is said to have spent his final days in Shravana Belagola as a monk.

Shravana Belagola owes its striking landmark, the monolith of Bāhubali, to a minister of the Ganga king Rācamalla IV, Cāmuṇḍa-Rāya or Cāvuṇḍa-Rāya. Historically it is not certain what finally inspired the minister to have Bāhubali sculpted in stone, rather than one of the Tīrthaṅkaras;[3] but according to legend, the great Bāhubali statue owes its origination to the eager wish of Cāmuṇḍa-Rāya's mother, Kāḷalādevī, to see the first image of Bāhubali, made by his brother Bharata, in the town of Paudanapura. But Paudanapura, according to Cāmuṇḍa-Rāya's teacher Nemicandra Siddhāntadeva, was extremely difficult to reach, physically practically unreachable for humans, also when they set out for it with a deeply pious attitude. Cāmuṇḍa-Rāya's mother Kāḷalādevī had vowed not to touch any food until she had seen this image of Bāhubali, and therefore he undertook all possible efforts to purify his mind by attaining the ratnatraya (samyagjñāna, samyagdarśana, samyakcāritra), by keeping to the aṇuvratas (brahmacarya, asteya, aparigraha, ahiṃsā, satya) and by repeating the namokāramantra. He read all the versified accounts of the Tīrthaṅkaras to refresh his memory and to complete his religious knowledge. To be sure that he had understood everything correctly, he wrote down what he had read in Old Kannada prose, which he showed his guru, Ajitasena Bhaṭṭāraka, who titled the work the Cāvuṇḍapurāṇa. Thus prepared, Cāmuṇḍa-Rāya set out together with his mother and his teacher, the muni Nemicandra, from his capital city of Talakāḍu (45 km from Mysore) in the direction of Paudanapura. They struggled through the forest and, when night fell, they reached a valley with two hills and a crystal-clear pond: Shravana Belagola. In the shelter of a large boulder Cāmuṇḍa-Rāya lay down to rest and dreamed intensively about the life story of Bāhubali and his brother Bharata. The first image of Bāhubali appeared to him in full splendour, reaching high into the sky, and around it were only wilderness and dangerous snake-birds. The yakṣī Padmāvatīdevī shows herself to him and points out that in this kaliyuga, this unfavourable age of decline, it is granted to nobody to reach Paudanapura. Instead, he should shoot an arrow at the largest boulder on the top of the larger hill. Cāmuṇḍa-Rāya does this the next day. Small rocks and rubble fall down with much noise, and Cāmuṇḍa-Rāya recognizes the contours of Bāhubali. He calls his stonemasons and has them complete the granite structure.[4] On Sunday, March the thirteenth, 981,[5] the image is festively installed.

Shravana Belagola thus probably had the first temple with an image of Bāhubali, as previously only depictions of the Tīrthaṅkaras had been usual.[6] This and the founding of a monastery (maṭha) made the remote and inhospitable, beautiful yet wild place, which had all the qualities that are conducive for a monk to renounce his material existence, to a small town for the first time, which at first was called "Gommaṭapura".[7] The attractiveness of Shravana Belagola as a holy place grew further, and the heads of the monastery (bhaṭṭārakas) gained in influence in the religious and social life of the Jainas in Karnataka and in adjacent regions.[8]

Also in the middle ages Shravana Belagola remained in the focus of reigning kings; the rulers of the Ganga, Rashtrakuta and Hoysala dynasties[9] expanded the temple sites of Shravana Belagola, added many further images and temples, increased the wealth of the sacred place through gifts of land, and lended patronage to poets and scholars. Especially the Wodeyar dynasty of Mysore gave great importance to having the largest and most important ritual of Shravana Belagola, the Mahāmastakābhiṣeka, performed with their patronage. Since India became independent, Shravana Belagola, like all prominent Indian holy places of archeological significance, is under the supervision of the Archeological Survey of India. The government for the state of Karnataka financially supports the Mahāmastakābhiṣeka, which nowadays, also due to reasons of prestige and touristic economy, is among the main rituals of a site that by itself already is of great importance. The immense treasure of ancient stone inscriptions[10] and of manuscripts that have been preserved for centuries, now kept in the library of the National Institute of Prakrit Studies and Research, at Shravana Belagola, are among the most important sources for the study of south Indian cultural history. The present head of the monastery (maṭhādhipati) is Jagadguru Karmayogi Charukeerthi Bhaṭṭāraka Swāmiji, who has occupied this position since 1970.

The name "Shravana Belagola" of the present town has been known in this form since the beginning of the nineteenth century. A śravaṇa or śramaṇa is a wandering ascetic Jaina monk. The word "Beḷagoḷa" has been attested continuously for the period between 650 and 1889[11] and means "white pond". The earlier name of the holy place, "Gommaṭapura", after the installation of the Bāhubali image[12] refers to the same: "Gommaṭa"[13] is Bāhubali, "pura" is the town. The myth of Bāhubali will be summarized below.

The term "Religionsästhetik"

"Religionsästhetik" or "Religionsaisthetik"? These terms concerning the proper nomenclature of this rather new discipline are one of the points being discussed within the group of scholars who try a new perspective within the study of religion regarding that matter. As there is no differentiation in the English language between "Ästhetik" and "Aisthetik", the English term "esthetics" would cover both. To understand the question we have to go back to the old Greek term aisthesis (αἴσθησις), meaning sensory perception, which is especially interesting for the religious perspective, as we see in: αἴσθησις τῶν θεῶν, the usage as the sensory perception of the gods, and the verb being aisthanesthai (αἰσθάνεσθαι), to perceive. The German term "Ästhetik" reaches back to Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1741-1762) who in his "Aisthetica" (1750/1758) uses this term to designate the science of sensory perception, the memory, the concept of beauty and the fine arts.[14] Nowadays the term "Ästhetik" will generally mean the perspective regarding the beauty or harmony of an object, most often directly connected to a subject that will be traditionally treated by art historians. The disciplines of philosophy and literature will also have "esthetics" as one of their major fields of research. So we basically have to differentiate esthetics of "beauty" (however "beauty" may be defined), esthetics of (material) art, and esthetics of sensory perception. Esthetics of religion applies the question or the questions of esthetics not to objects or theories of art or the analysis of literary works, but on phenomena taking place in religious contexts which could include -- but certainly not exclusively -- art and texts. As "Ästhetik" in German refers only to the art historian and philosophical term, the use of the term "Aisthetik", which assumes the spelling of the Greek word, will hereby indicate a meaning that includes and goes beyond this established meaning of Ästhetik. Aisthetik includes a wider range of academic subjects and research, such as the body as instrument of religious performance, ritual in all aspects (including, for example, dance movements and the question of religious experience in terms of inner effects by outer stimulation), the interaction of form and content in religious presentation, self-presentation and constituation, and a look at all possible sensory perceptions which are rather seldom observed while looking at a religious phenomenon: not only texts and pictures, but observing, recording and including acoustic elements, haptic elements, olfactory elements that all contribute to a certain cultural performance. According to me, they contribute in a most interesting way to the analysis and understanding of a religious event. Very generally, the analysis and interpretation of a religious performance will gain in depth if the researcher, in field work and in hermeneutic processes at his desk at home, is able to include other sensory data into his considerations. This asks for a wider sensory perception by the researcher himself (to get an idea what to record, what to observe and perceive and to note down while doing his field work), but also for a more flexible theory or method of analysis; it means more and different recording media (not just the photo camera, but also a video camera, an audio recording machine, something to collect elements creating haptic perceptions, even if not all kinds of haptic perception can be caught into a researcher’s bag, and maybe a bottle to conserve some fragrant air?); and it means a wider acceptance of scientific means, methods and proofs at least such as audio and video documents, considering that the only traditional way of proving scientific quality is that of reading texts and publishing in form of written texts in scientific journals or books. This should not be a proposal to leave the boundaries of our established system of scientificness and to accept the most obscure theses without rational argument -- I rather wish to state that there are more perspectives to be taken into account while doing field research, namely, the full range of sensory perception and its cultural interpretations by the religious performers. This fact is not at all accepted in the study of religions, nor in its neighbouring disciplines like, for example, Indology, that still widely remains a pure philological discipline instead of accepting non-textual subjects or non-textual approaches or non-textual proofs of analysis of another culture, in our case Indian culture. There is nothing wrong about texts and their profound philological and hermeneutic analysis; all I want to stress is that our study of religious objects can gain in depth and thereby accuracy by adding additional perspectives. I plead for a concept of scientific approach to religious objects and phenomena in which all qualities of a textual study are combined and enriched with the observing and interpretation of sensory perceptible events.

So by keeping the Greek spelling in English as well, aisthetics of religion, as the study of religious phenomena under the aspect of their sensory perception, is to be differentiated from the term esthetics of religion, that customarily refers only to the artistically esthetic perspective.

Aisthetics of religion for a deeper study of Indian ritual

This new research perspective, by some authors even described as separate "discipline", of aisthetics of religion[15] can have a new impact on Indian ritual studies by means of its focussing on perceptive categories - not only the visual one but also the acoustic perception, olfactory components and haptic components. I wish to exemplify the wider spectrum of this by applying the method of aisthetics of religion on the Mahāmastakābhiṣeka ritual, the impressive large-scale religious ritual performed in honour of Bāhubali, the mythological Jaina king, who became an ascetic and is said to have reached liberation (mokṣa) as the first person in this cosmic world age. There are several huge monolithic Bāhubali statues in India, most of them concentrated in South Karnataka. But the oldest and most important one is located at a place called Shravana Belagola.

In Jaina literature[16] Bāhubali is known to be one of the 100 sons of Ādinātha, the first Tīrthaṅkara in this cosmic cycle. When Ādinātha or Ṛṣabha decided to become a wandering monk, he divided his realm among his sons in equal parts, of whom Bharata and Bāhubali were two. Bharata desired kingship of all the world, and he sent all his brothers the message that they should subordinate themselves to him.

According to the Digambaras, Bāhubali, not accepting subordination under his elder brother, decided to fight with Bharata. In a triple duel, the brothers fought by staring at each other, by splashing water at each other until one would fall, and by wrestling. Bāhubali, the one with the strong arms, was victorious in all three parts of the duel. In blind rage Bharata threw his cakra at Bāhubali. But this sharp miraculous weapon does not kill relatives, hence it flew around Bāhubali three times and returned to its master. Bāhubali then lifted up his brother; but then he realized that he wanted to harm his brother out of desire for worldly power. He gently put down his brother and decided to devote the remainder of his life to meditation and asceticism. In this way Bāhubali had lost almost all his karma. But his knowledge was still limited on account of his ego. When Bharata humbly came to him and explained this to him, Bāhubali also lost his remaining karma and attained omniscience.

The Mahāmastakābhiṣeka

Mahāmastakābhiṣeka literally means "the great anointing of the head". This refers to the common Indian ritual practice of pouring various fragrant and valuable substances over a statue (mūrti) in an act of worship. An abhiṣeka, in its most simple form using only water (jalābhiṣeka), is regularly performed to the small festive statue (utsavamūrti) of Bāhubali. As in the case of all very large and unmovable mūrtis, there is also a so-called utsavamūrti for Bāhubali in Shravana Belagola, a miniature version of the large figure that also carries the presence of the great mūrti in itself and is carried around in processions and worshipped in stead of the large one. With the help of this small version, Bāhubali is ritually worshipped every day. Only during the Mahāmastakābhiṣeka is the large image of Bāhubali the object of the complete anointing ritual.

The history of the festival

The installation of Bāhubali on the large hill on March 13th, 981[17] was at the same time the first Mahāmastakābhiṣeka. The base of the ritual is the pañcāmṛtābhiṣeka, the anointing with five nectars, i.e.. milk, curds, clarified butter, saffron water and water. Because of the various complications involved, the Mahāmastakābhiṣeka has always been performed once every 10 to 15 years[18] and partly also at larger intervals (in any case historical records are not found). As a rule, it is performed once every 12 years. The last time, Shravana Belagola organized the big celebration in 2006, that is to say, 13 years after the previous Mahāmastakābhiṣeka. The first inscriptional record is from the year 1398, when the ritual had already been performed seven times.[19] The dates for the performance of a Mahāmastakābhiṣeka are determined according to exactly calculated astrological criteria. Mahāmastakābhiṣekas are performed also in other places with large Bāhubali images, such as Dharmasthala and Karkala in southwestern Karnataka. This custom seems basically southern and Digambara, but Jainas from all denominations gather for the celebrations, which receive increasing attention and appreciation in northern India.[20]

Religious dimensions of the Mahāmastakābhiṣeka

A description of the Mahāmastakābhiṣeka opens different dimensions of a religious happening, that reveal themselves to the observer stagewise, but the participant is subject to all of them simultaneously. I wish to distinguish five dimensions of the religious event: the ritual aspect, the aisthetic, the social, and furthermore the economical component and the spiritual aspect.[21] In the following, I deal with the ritual aspect to give a frame of this religious performance for those who are not familiar with this ritual, and will come then to the aisthetic analysis.

The ritual dimension

Although all Mahāmastakābhiṣekas are basically the same, namely, a Mastakābhiṣekapūjā, each individual Mahāmastakābhiṣeka can vary according to the kinds of substances used and the exact order in which the anointings take place, as well as in the number and size and material of the so-called kalaśas, the vessels in which the liquids are transported and poured out over the head of Bāhubali, and finally also in the number of days the ritual is performed. In what follows, I rely on the last Mahāmastakābhiṣeka in Shravana Belagola in the year 2006.[22]

About two weeks before the main part of the Mahāmastakābhiṣeka,[23] the first of a series of major anointings, the first initial rituals take place. Among these are the first preparatory pūjā ceremonies for small utsavamūrtis, the festive statues of Bāhubali, as well as for the Tīrthaṅkaras, the 24 liberated great teachers and idols in Jainism, yakṣas and yakṣīs, lower deities accompanying the Tīrthaṅkaras, and the guardian deity of the kṣetra, Brahmappa. The most important ceremony is the Pañca-Kalyāṇa ritual, in which the stages of the life of one of the 24 Tīrthaṅkaras are revered. The five kalyāṇas are the conception (garbhakalyāṇa), the birth (janmakalyāṇa), the religious initiation (dīkṣākalyāṇa), the highest wisdom (kevalajñānakalyāṇa) and liberation from the cycle of births (mokṣakalyāṇa).

Thousands of pilgrims gather on the hill for the great abhisheka, they stand or sit at Bāhubali's feet or on plateaus that are constructed especially for the celebration, or outside the immediate temple premises on the hill, wherever any place can still be found. Already in the early morning hours, long before the commencement of the actual ritual, pilgrims begin their ascent of the large hill; they sing, pray and, in the case of many women, lay out typical auspicious symbolic patterns in rice in front of themselves while reciting mantras. There is a fixed dress order: all, especially those who participate in the anointing with a small kalaśa, must wear new, unused clothing in white or orange; men must wear a traditional garment such as a dhautra or lungi, and women must wear a sari.[24] An ocean of white and orange waits at the feet of the Gommaṭeśvara, while directly in front of the statue the priests begin with the pūjā.

In the open courtyard of the temple in front of Bāhubali, a square surface is laid out in wheat. The beautifully ornamented kalaśas, that are used in the ritual, are placed on it. The kalaśas are traditional bellied metal jugs, decorated with white or yellow cotton threads. They contain the ritual liquids,[25] and they are closed with a coconut. A ring of mango leaves is inserted between the coconut and the mouth of the vessel, and also a rice straw, and they are further decorated with a white or yellow flower. There are different kinds of kalaśa fillings, and there are also different kinds of kalaśa materials and positionings.

The kalaśas are filled with water (jala), coconut water (narikela), sugar cane juice (īkṣurasa), milk (kṣīra), rice powder (śveta-kalaka-cūrṇa), kurkuma powder (harita kalaka-cūrṇa), a mixture of herbal extracts (kaṣāya), sandal paste water made of Mysore sandal (śrīgandha), coloured sandal paste water (candana), sandal paste water made of eight varieties of sandal wood (aṣṭagandha), and saffron water (kesaravṛṣṭa).

Between the "kaṣāya" and "śrīgandha" kalaśas stand four corner kalaśas (kōṇa kalaśa), particularly large kalaśas that are filled with water, standing at the corners of square arrangement of kalaśas. Additionally there are also special categories of kalaśas, such as the "first kalaśa" (prathama kalaśa), the "gem kalaśa" (ratnakalaśa), "gold" or "copper kalaśas" (suvarṇa / tāmra kalaśa) or "Gullakāyajji kalaśa"[26] (after the story in which Padmāvatīdevī as a poor woman humbles the pride of Cāvuṇḍarāya, because his majestic outpourings do not reach below the navel, but she with her little vessel breaks the spell). In more than one respect these kalaśas are a focal point of the event. They contain the anointment substances, in other words, spectacular elements of the pūjā, and are basically the only vessels which the pilgrims clearly see; the other important ritual actions, which are carried out by priests at the foot of the image, remain practically invisible and are not explained. Totally different in this respect are the kalaśas that are individually and clearly announced through a public announcement system. Not only are they an impressive and clearly understandable part of the ceremony, but they are also the central point where the religious individual can actively participate in the common ritual. The individual becomes active and a part of the collective, in which the entire community participates. The person who is called goes to the kalaśa reservoir, identifies himself with his previously acquired pūjā slip, receives his kalaśa from the priest, carries it on his head to Bāhubali and climbs the many steps of the scaffolding. At the sign of the priests above and below (who communicate with each other by means of red and green flags, so that the anointings take place at the ritually correct moments), the carrier of the kalaśa slowly pours out its contents over the head of Bāhubali while pronouncing mantras, while the crowd cheers.

After the saffron kalaśa six more elements of the Mahāmastakābhiṣekapūjā follow: large basketfuls of yellow and white flowers are scattered over the image (suvarṇa-ratna-puṣpavṛṣṭi) and then white flowers (puṣpavṛṣṭi). Then follows a rain of colourful flowers, as well as a skilful hoisting of a gigantic flower garland, such as ordinarily is given to deities of smaller sizes (pūrṇārghya). Finally there is the pouring of water from the great kalaśa that stood in the centre of the collection of kalaśas, and the scattering of coins and gems such as rubies, pearls, pieces of gold etc. The pūjā ends with an ārati done by means of a huge pendulum with burning clarified butter, which illuminates the honoured mūrti from below to the top and downward again (mahāmaṅgalārati). Thus, after approximately six hours, the end of the Mahāmastakābhiṣekapūjā is reached, the gathering dissolves, devotees bow at the feet of Bāhubali in order to just once be at the forefront of things and to receive a bit of blessed water and flowers.

The aisthetic dimension

Religious aisthetics is, as defined, the study of religious phenomena under the aspect of their sensory perception. The Mahāmastakābhiṣeka is a ritual which, like hardly any other, appeals to the senses of the participants and thus impresses not only through its sheer size, but also, through its intensified perceptibility, makes the otherwise distant relationship between pūjā participants on the one hand and priest and deity on the other, to a conscious, holistic experience. The mise-en-scène of the Mahāmastakābhiṣeka grabs hold of the devotee in his entire aisthetic capacity.

Here we come to the perceptive categories:

  • Vision is most obviously appealed to, due to the size of the worshipped image, over which various colours are poured out: the glistening water, the white milk, the yellow kurkuma powder, the brownish red mixture of kaṣāya, to name only a few. When the liquids reach the head of the image, they spout in all directions, like a gigantic fountain, and the water drops appear against the background of the deep blue Indian sky as a rain of diamonds. The sheer unending rain of colourful fluids, powders and flowers offers a colour ocean to the eyes which might be unpreceded for most of the participants. The theatron-like architectural structure of the temple area, intensified by the mobile stages constructed just for this event, offers an all-surrounding colour bath for the participants. But also the strict dress code and the festive decoration of the hill, as well as in the main street of this temple town contribute to the effect. If taken into account that the landscape of India is basically just yellow or only green as far as the eye reaches - and leaving aside the proportionally small city areas and the TV and film revolution of the last decades - this ritual must have been one of the most colourful events in the life of the Jaina participants, marking this religious event as one of the most festive and most desirable feasts in their lives, topping even the most lavish wedding ceremony.
  • Acoustic perception contributes greatly to the emotional atmosphere. Already long before the first abhiṣeka many electric amplifiers provide live music: well-known Jaina devotional songs are sung and played. Some of these become something like "abhiṣeka hits", whose choruses are sung along loudly by all who listen. The most popular song was according to my observances "Bāhubalī Mahāsvāmiya Mastakābhiṣēka" -- "(This is) the head anointing worship of the great Lord Bāhubali" etc., telling the story of his worship. The function of the songs is to shorten the breaks for those participants who are 'bored' by the intermissions that are necessitated by the ritual, unseen by most, taking place at the feet of the statue. The priestly activities like reciting religious formulas and operating with the pūjā elements can cause longer "breaks" in the view of the participants who are hardly familiar with the complicated rites performed by the priests and are more interested in the spectacular parts of the performance. Certain phases of the ritual are announced and described (for instance by the song "kesa­riya, kesariya...", that announces the employment of the saffron and also yellow kurkuma kalaśas). Toward the end of the pūjā many women and men begin to cheer and dance.
  • The olfactory component is not to be overlooked. Many of the substances that are poured out have an intense smell and delight the devotees. This is especially so with the penetrating smell of kurkuma and the gentle one of sandal, of which waves envelop the hill in a cloud of fragrance. These fragrances leave a deep olfactory impression in the mind of the participants, connecting it like in a outward syn-esthetic performance together with certain songs with certain stages. So as just mentioned the yellow colours will for example come with live music repetitions of the song "kesariya, kesariya..." -- singing "oh Bāhubali, you are the one being of saffron...".
  • The taste element comes into play when receiving prasāda, the graceful "left-overs" of the ritual -- food that comes back filled with what are considered holy vibrations after having been used in the ritual. In these mass events there cannot be actual prasāda for everyone, of course, but having the free meals that are offered to every pilgrim in the monastary compensates for that. In another famous Jaina kṣetra with Bāhubali worship, Dharmasthala in southwest Karnataka, the temple food is so famous for its excellence in tastefulness and quality that people from afar, and even adherents of other religions, come rather to enjoy the food along with the worship rituals!
  • The haptic component is particularly there for those who have the honour of being permitted to pour out a kalaśa over Bāhubali. After buying a so-called pūjā slip the pilgrim is allowed to carry one water (or otherwise filled) vessel on his head over many steps up to the head of the Bāhubali statue. Touching the vessel with holy water is believed to offer spiritual powers and cleaning effects, it has for the performer a cathartic meaning which is expressed by the white and orange colours of the clothes. The contact between skin and vessel, and later the fluid and the touching of the carved stone head of Bāhubali -- which is possbible only at this time -- is a golden opportunity for collecting religious purity and merits which at the best may take place every 12 years.

The abhiṣeka would remain incomplete if one does not touch the blessed liquids that flow down from the Gommaṭeśvara or touch the maṅgala flame with one's hands. Some will put blessed, red-dyed flowers in their hair, others carry a little of the precious liquid mixture in a piece of newspaper, again others try to fill entire bottles with the Bāhubali potion, so that this may be carried home to an extended family. Whoever has not been besprinkled involuntarily, because he had a place near to the colossus, will not hesitate to join others in a joyful game of besmearing each other: the holy paste of powders, spices and flowers is not something that stains, but is a blissful sign of closeness to Bāhubali and his community. As one of the greatest haptic blessings is believed when a layman is being touched by the peacock-feather brush (piñcha) of an ascetic.

Another haptic event is -- connected with sound -- the vibration. Especially the intruding sounds of the wind instruments such as the nāgasvaram, and the loud drums, make the bodies of the participants vibrate in a certain rhythm. That might have a more intuitive effect on subconscious levels, according to the reflective perceiving capacity of the individual; but in any case these powerful sounds touch not only the ears but go through the body and deepen the experience of the event in an unforgettable mind impressing way.

All these observations have to be analysed together with information we get from studying the Jaina ritual of worship (pūjā) in general, including mythological connections, theoretical considerations and beliefs about the meaning of colours, stones, godly sounds and vibrations, plants and so forth. So far I have dealt with aisthetic dimensions accepted by Western science. If we include the well-known Indian concepts of inner organs of perception, like the inner eye, the inner ear, the inner tongue etc., and make interviews with religiously advanced practitioners such as nuns and monks, the interpretational possibilities multiply, because there is an extra interpretation and concept for every sense organ for which the researcher has made his "outer" observations. These might also not be the same as for Indian participants just traditionally living their culture and religion, and not seeing the ritual in agreement with these more philosophical categories but just living their "normal" way of performing or watching or experiencing the ritual.

This becomes clear when looking at the "spiritual" dimension, that means the description of how the participants experience and interpret the "outer" sensory perceptions according to their mental capacity of experiencing. These might also include (according to Western academic standard) scientifically not provable notions and ideas of mental perception and transformation. These observations would, according to the general Indian understanding of science, be called scientific on the base of their supposed repeatability, but here I wish only to mention that these inner experiences are claimed and interpreted in a certain way.

This spiritual satisfaction is the main reason for coming to the Mahāmastakābhiṣeka, especially for the monks, nuns and novices, in other words: for the professional religious experts and performers. Most of the laypeople feel religiously elated and harmonized by the extraordinary sight of the gigantic ritual, purified by the travails of travel, by the presence in the pilgrimage centre (kṣetra) as such, and as already mentioned, in the case of those who were so fortunate, by the blessing touch of the peacock-feather brush of an ascetic; for the monks, nuns and novices especially the inner participation is an element of their spitirual path (sādhanā). For instance, the colours have further, deeper, symbolic meanings for the ascetics: white stands for the purity of the soul, gold for the shine of correct knowledge.[27] Whereas the laypeople express their joy in dance and song, the ascetics remain quiet and experience the elaborate worship of their ideal Bāhubali in peaceful meditation.

In this way Indian ritual, as exemplified here with the great Jaina Mahāmastakābhiṣeka pūjā, is a hitherto untouched field of research under the systematic and methodological reflected perspective of aisthetics of religion. In the short span of this article it is of course not possible to give a thorough analysis according to the aisthetics of religion; rather, through the example of this especially impressive Jaina ritual it should be shown here, which possibilities of analysis in the field of South Asian religions are possible by means of this approach through aisthetics. I want to invite scholars of religion to discuss the possibilities of this aisthetic approach to the immensely old and rich field of Indian religious culture, that until now is heavily under-researched and under-represented in academic discourse.


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SVASTI - Essays in Honour of
Prof. Hampa Nagarajaiah


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