Of Graven Images

OF GRAVEN IMAGES

It is a fallacy of our narcissistic age to expect images of what supreme leaders of thought may have looked like; their teachings and deeds are unaffected by our erroneous expectations

By SUBROTO ROY

First published in The Statesman Editorial Page Special Article, Feb 5 2006

IT is hard for us in our narcissistic age of photography, cinema, TV and the Internet to imagine older worlds and cultures where men and women (especially named historical figures) lived and died without any images whatsoever being left behind of what they may have looked like. Few of us know what our own great great grandparents looked like, and they died only a century ago. In Indian religious and philosophical thought, we hardly even know any names.

Eliot in his monumental Hinduism and Buddhism said, “In reading the Brahamanas and older Upanishads we often wish we knew more of the writers and their lives. Rarely can so many representative men have bequeathed so much literature and yet left so dim a sketch of their times. Thought was their real life… we hear surprisingly little about contemporary events.”

In Jain tradition, the first saint, Risabha, son of a king of Ayodhya, was born 100 billion sagaras of years ago, where one sagara is 100 billion palyas, and a palya is the period in which a well a mile deep filled with fine hairs can be emptied if one hair is withdrawn every one hundred years. That is a long time. Risabha lived 8,400,000 years, exceeding all the enormous longevities mentioned in Judaeo-Christian scriptures.

Fortunately for the cause of logic and natural science, “the lives of his successors and the intervals which separated them became shorter”. In Asoka’s edicts, the Jains find their first definite objective mention outside fable, myth and legend. Mahavira, the 24th and greatest Jain saint, whose personal name was Vardhamana, was a contemporary of Buddha though somewhat older. His parents lived in a suburb of Vaisali. When he was 34, “they decided to die by voluntary starvation and after their deaths he renounced the world and started to wander naked in western Bengal, enduring some persecution as well as self-inflicted penances.” Thirteen years later, at age 47, Mahavira had attained enlightenment and appeared as the head of the Nigantha religious order, i.e. the “unfettered”, and it is by that name that the Jains are known to the Buddhists. No image of the historical Mahavira is available, which should not surprise us given the great length of time that separates us as well as the simple fact that the art of realistic portrait-painting is but a few centuries old — starting with, say, Rembrandt and the Dutch Masters — and of course the arts of photography etc are all wholly recent.

Of Gotama, the Buddha, the Sakyamuni of Mahayana tradition, there have been countless images made over the millennia though none may bear any recognisable likeness to the actual man. During his period of fruitless self-mortification, we have his own words “When I touched my belly, I felt my backbone through it and when I touched my back, I felt my belly”. After his enlightenment, wanderings and teachings, the “beauty of his appearance and the pleasant quality of his voice are often mentioned but in somewhat conventional terms which inspire no confidence that they are based on personal reminiscence, nor have the most ancient images which we possess any claim to represent his features, for the earliest of them are based on Greek models and it was not the custom to represent him by a figure until some centuries after his death.”

It is possible “the truest idea of his person is to be obtained not from the abundant effigies which show him as a somewhat sanctimonious ascetic, but from the statues of him as a young man such as that found at Sarnath, which may possibly preserve not indeed the physiognomy of Gotama but the general physique of a young Nepalese prince, with powerful limbs and features and a determined mouth. For there is truth at the bottom of the saying that Gotama was born to be either a Buddha or a universal monarch: he would have made a good general, if he had not become a monk” (Eliot).

In case of Yeshua ben Nazereth, the founder of Christianity, the controversy has become most intense in recent times. A trial has begun in an Italian courtroom on 27 January 2006 as to whether Jesus existed at all, whether the Roman Catholic Church has violated Italian law by teaching about him. An atheist plaintiff, Luigi Cascioli, has alleged “The Church constructed Christ upon the personality of John, the son of Judas of Gamala”, and claims it is up to the Church to prove in court that Jesus did exist. A priest, Enrico Righi, representing the Church in court, has been accused of breaking two laws: impersonation and abuse of public belief, for having published in a parish bulletin that Jesus was born of a couple named Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem and lived in Nazareth. Judge Gaetano Mautone initially refused to hear the case but was forced to do so after being over-ruled by the Court of Appeals.

As for what the historical Jesus may have looked like, The Bible gives no physical description other than in Isaiah 53:2b, “he hath no form nor comeliness, and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.”As a Palestinian Jew, Jesus was likely to have been dark, not the blue-eyed Nordic Jesus of modern American imagination with Presbyterian nose, long blonde hair and height of six feet (Fig. 1). For centuries, the Shroud of Turin was believed by many to have been the actual burial cloth of Jesus — until modern scientific techniques of carbon-dating have conclusively proved that the Shroud was probably of a medieval nobleman and had nothing to do with the historical Jesus. Out of respect as well as sheer ignorance of what he may have looked like, modern cinematic productions traditionally did not show Christ’s face. But based on the Shroud of Turin image (Fig 2), the actor Jim Caviezel recently acted the role of Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ” (Fig. 3). Jean Claude Gragard, in a 2001 BBC documentary “Son of God” chose a different way. “Using archaeological and anatomical science rather than artistic interpretation makes this (Fig 4) the most accurate likeness ever created. It isn’t the face of Jesus, because we’re not working with the skull of Jesus, but it is the departure point for considering what Jesus would have looked like.” They “started with an Israeli skull dating back to the 1st century. They then used computer programs, clay, simulated skin and their knowledge about the Jewish people of the time to determine the shape of the face, and colour of eyes and skin.” The result is “a broad peasant’s face, dark olive skin, short curly hair and a prominent nose, about 5’ 1” in height, 110 pounds in weight.” We do not and cannot in practice know what Jesus looked like but this might be closer to the truth than the work of great artists.

And of course, Jesus’ Divinity to Christian believers, and his teachings and deeds for all mankind, like those of Mahavira or Buddha or other supreme leaders of human thought like Aristotle, Zarathustra, Confucius, Muhammad and Nanak, are unaffected by whatever image people have erroneously made of them.

see also my Twitter Wall on the CharlieHebdo controversy; also https://independentindian.com/2001/12/22/the-case-for-and-against-the-satanic-verses/ and https://independentindian.com/science-religion-art-the-necessity-of-freedom-2004/

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