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Some days, I will admit, my mind just sort of wanders off.  Right now, it has wandered off here:


I don’t actually know if you can get there by clicking on that, but what you should find, if  you can, are images from Bodh Gaya, the Place of Enlightenment, in central India.

Bodh Gaya is, at least theoretically, the place in which the Buddha achieved wisdom.  The tree he is supposed to have sat under while doing it is no longer there, but the tree that is in the same place is supposedly a direct descendent (via a cutting that went to Sri Lanka and then came back). 

What interests me about this place is not the tree, however, but the temple, that enormous pyramidal thing with the intricate carvings all over the outside of it.

I have a rather complicated mental relationship with the arts of India, and especially the Hindu and Buddhist arts.  The Islamic stuff is largely what you’d expect if you’ve seen Islamic architecture in other places. 

What came out of Hinduism and Buddhism is a lot more complicated, and I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of the day trying to figure out why.

First, a disclaimer: I am not an admirer of Hindu painting or sculpture.  Too much of it is primitive in a technical sense–it lacks sophistication in the best sense. 

This is obviously not a matter of “development” or evolution over time.  The French cave paintings are more sophisticated than most Hindu statues or paintings of, say, Ganesh.  They are more finely detailed, more realistic, more compelling in almost every way.

Hindu and Buddhist architecture, however, is something truly astonishing.   And it gets more astonishing the longer you look and it, and the more you think about it.

The Hindu temples, at least, make a certain amount of sense to me.  There is so much elaboration here, and so much ornamentation.   Every surface is carved, and the carvings are elaborate and repetitive and varied all at the same time. 

And that is what Hinduism is like as a religion, at least as it is viewed from the outside.  There are gods everywhere, except that they aren’t really gods, they’re all avatars of the one great god. 

Hinduism always seemed to me to be an expression of the multifareousness of the world, and Hindu temples are like that, filled with realities and imaginings and the products of both, procreating.

But Buddhism, as I’ve always understood it, is supposed to be a very different thing.  It claims that life as we see it is an illusion, and that wisdom (and peace) come from understanding that and detaching ourselves from the chains of the particular.

Well, go back and look at that temple for a moment.  It’s one of the busiest pieces of architecture ever created.  Every inch of it is carved, inside and out.   There are forms upon forms, endless different kinds of forms, moving up and down and back and forth, in repeating shapes and evolving shapes, going everywhere, doing everything, never resting, even for a split second.

I have a vague understanding, at least, of how Christianity in its Medieval phase was a set of ideas that produced the Gothic in architecture.   I know a little about the theory of drawing the eye upward to God, and expressing the majesty of God, and encouraging interior silence in order to hear the voice of God.

And probably my confusion about this temple, and the many others like it, comes from the fact that I know so little about Buddhism. 

But I still find myself endlessly puzzled about how you get from a religion of denial–denial of self, and of the world, and of individuality, and of multiplicity–and end up in these elaborate places. 

But I like looking at them.

I was in India many years ago, in Kolkata for a while, and in New Delhi.  I took a train across most of the country from the Pakistan border back in the days when a young woman could do that without getting acid thrown in her face.

I never saw Bodh Gaya, but temples like it–if less spectacular–are dotted across India, and I did see some of those.

I could get lost in those place for days and never notice the time.

But I would like to understand what it is in Buddhism that inspired them, since they are temples, after all.

Written by janeh

April 18th, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Busy'

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  1. In Indian art, fashion and home decoration, every surface is embellished, and then the embellishments are embellished. Sometimes to western eyes it seems nothing more than visual noise with no resting place for the eyes or mind, the utter opposition to “less is more” visual art like modernism, or the functional perfection of Shaker design.

    But if you immerse yourself in the Indian tradition, after a time the nearly-fractal effect of shape inside shape on top of curlicue inside border, ad infinitum can become a metaphor for the way the universe itself is built, entities made of parts, made of molecules made of atoms made of particles made of quarks, etc. The contemplation of this can lead to mental calm, and a feeling of one-ness, for some.

    Or not. At some points I feel like I nearly get it. But personally I prefer more space for *me* in my space, more form following function than decoration for elaboration’s sake. If you stand far enough back, the Taj Mahal is perfection of form. Up close, it’s overwhelming in detail.

    It always makes me think that there are billions of man-hours going into this decoration stuff. Making art with my hands *is* a contemplative process for me, so maybe that’s another thing the artisans get out of it. Painting several thousand little doodads on fabric or a wall would be calming and soothing, if you really wanted to paint doodads, and didn’t have anything better to do or elsewhere to go.


    19 Apr 11 at 12:14 am

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