The body: both sacred and profane: review of a book

Bronze sculpture south IndiaReview of

Dehejia, Vidya. The Body Adorned: dissolving boundaries between sacred and profane in India’s Art. (New York: Columbia Press, 2009), xii + 238 pp. hdbk.

Vidya Dehejia holds the Barbara Stoler Miller Chair in Indian Art at Columbia University. Other recent publications include: Chola: Bronzes from South India and Delight in Design: Indian Silver from the Raj.

In her Preface, Dehejia states the thesis of the book: “the primacy of the richly adorned human body.” She studies this primacy not only in the plastic arts but also in literature, inscriptions and devotional poetry. Indeed, “Word and image appear as twins so that it is difficult to say which was rendered into the other.” (p.10)

It is a “body-centre imagination” (p. 8) where the world itself is seen in terms of the body. While her study focuses on the post-Vedic period she finds the “body-centre imagination” in the Veda itself which depicts the absolute Purusha “in anthropomorphic forms as a glorious all-embracing body.” (p.18) This pluri-millennial tradition continues throughout the Muslim period, and it is only with the arrival of the British that a certain embarrassment is felt, who considered the sculpture of the partly naked forms as “indecent”. (p.11)

Dehejia ranges widely over bronzes, stone sculptures, architecture and painted manuscripts, from across the whole subcontinent and throughout its history, in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions. She does so in considerable detail, providing 72 illustrations as well as extensive notes, bibliography, and index. Her style is flowing and easily accessible. She is occasionally prolix, especially when quoting literary texts, but her observations are stimulating.

She importantly explains the meaning of ‘adornment’ (alamkara), which does not mean ‘superfluous’ but ‘effective’: a figure is all the more powerful through being adorned. It protects the viewer from the over-powering impact of the image. It also protects the wearer from outside danger. It is thus necessary. Even lovers, otherwise naked in their intercourse, are portrayed with their ornaments. In short, ornamentation enhances the object; it grants both auspiciousness and protection to sacred and secular spaces. Note also that both men and women are adorned.

She also considers those acts whereby various items – sacred places, temples, tilakas, mantras etc. – are ‘placed’ (nyasa) on the body; or how, in the course of worship, the statue is dressed in glorious robes, festooned with garlands etc. The king too, in order to show his power, must be adorned with jewels when he takes his seat upon the throne. The true Buddha is evidenced by distinguishing marks (lakshana): the webbed fingers, whorls etc. She considers also how the body is itself an adornment on temple walls.

The author gives interesting observations on the connection between women and trees, and on the mithuna couples which are found even in places of Buddhist meditation. “The auspiciousness associated with the themes of women, couples, and foliage was a common sentiment crossing religious boundaries and language barriers, and hence used to adorn a wide range of the monuments of India.” (p. 98)

Dehejia gives significant space to studying the Buddhist carvings of Sanchi and Bharhut and to the Jain architecture of Mount Abu and the recently (1986) discovered Queen’s Stepwell from the Hindu tradition.

She concludes that the distinction between ‘sacred and secular’, or ‘sacred and profane’ is blurred. “… sensuous beauty, delineated and emphasized in physical form, was an indispensable clue to the presence of the formless beauty and perfection of the spirit. … the experience of the one – external beauty of bodily form – would become the path to the other – beauty of the spirit and the inner self.” (p. 158)

In order to make her point all the more clearly, Dehejia then considers the Rajput painted manuscripts of the 17th century and the texts on which they are based. If the distinction between sacred and profane is blurred in the other arts, it is abandoned altogether in those manuscripts. The god Krishna is depicted entirely in terms of the courtly hero. She might have considered more fully whether this abandonment is in fact a loss of a spiritual sense.

Dehejia has shown how the ‘Western’ dichotomy between sacred and profane does not apply in Indian art. Her study, therefore, raises interesting issues for theology, spirituality and life-style. Her book is not just a fine study of the past but asks probing questions of the present.

John R. Dupuche,

Interreligious Dialogue Network,

Australian Catholic University


About interfaithashram

Rev. Dr. John Dupuche is a Roman Catholic Priest, a senior lecturer at MCD University of Divinity, and Honorary Fellow at Australian Catholic University. His doctorate is in Sanskrit in the field of Kashmir Shaivism. He is chair of the Catholic Interfaith Committee of the Archdiocese of Melbourne and has established a pastoral relationship with the parishes of Lilydale and Healesville. He is the author of 'Abhinavagupta: the Kula Ritual as elaborated in chapter 29 of the Tantraloka', 2003; 'Jesus, the Mantra of God', 2005; 'Vers un tantra chrétien' in 2009; translated as 'Towards a Christian Tantra' in 2009. He has written many articles. He travels to India each year. He lives in an interfaith ashram.
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