As I walked into my favorite restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee, I was greeted immediately by a golden Buddha statue, its sparkling gem eyes looking at me as I made my entrance. As I was being led to a seat, I couldn’t help but think about the glinting gemstone eyes.
There are sacred objects everywhere. Statues of gods and paintings depicting them adorn museum galleries and catalog pages. They may also be found in a friend’s house or on an altar.
Some sparkle in jeweled splendor. Some may seem more modest, with their luster softened by generations of hands. It can sometimes feel like sacred images are watching back.
I investigate the ways that objects in Asian religious contexts express the power and presence of God. By studying different perspectives on sacred items, we can think beyond religious contexts. We can also rethink the role that objects and images have in our daily lives.
The sacred visual culture
Hinduism is defined by the ” Darsan ” – a visual ritual that allows Hindus to interact with the divine. In her seminal work on Indian visual culture, ” Darsan,” Diana Eck describes the interaction as follows: “to be in the presence and to see the image of the deity with one’s eyes, to both be seen and to be seen by the god.”
A family prays for the Hindu god Ganesha. IndiaPix/IndiaPicture via Getty Images
Theravada Buddhism rituals include all-night sessions of chanting to recharge statues. In ” Being the Buddha,” Donald Swearer, a scholar of Theravada Buddhists, notes that monastics and laity in northern Thailand gather to recite Buddhist Sutras while holding cords connected to an image. This forms an intricate web between the image and the Buddhist community.
These chants are understood to recharge the statue’s karmic energy and reanimate it so that it can once again interact with the community.
Japanese Buddhist Statues have multiple items placed in their wooden cavities. These include bones from saints, robes worn by eminent Buddhist monks, and even silk replicas of organs such as the lungs and kidneys. According to art historian James Dobbins, certain Buddhist rituals can be performed in order for a statue’s body to become a living one.
In such cases, it is believed that inanimate objects can transform into active, living creatures who can hear, see, and taste, as well as respond to those who worship them.
Ritual of ‘Eye opening’
Each ritual tradition has its way of bringing life to an image. The most popular ceremony in Asia is the ” Eye-Opening” Ceremony. The name “eye-opening ceremony” comes from the culmination ritual where the monk paints the pupils on the statue, opening it to sight.
In Sri Lanka, Buddhist Monks perform the netrapinkama, which is loosely translated as “meritorious actions of the eyes.”
opening up the radiance.” The rite is performed by monks, Daoists masters, and even artists who carve statues on behalf of individuals or temple communities.
Shops will then wrap a red piece of paper around the eyes of the statue to make sure that the image only sees the face of whoever requested it. It is important to keep sacred vision under wraps.
After its eyes are opened, it becomes a living being capable of powerful deeds. People may act differently, making incense offerings and following social etiquette to avoid offending others. These objects have a deeper meaning than they first appear.
Eck’s observation attests that being seen is crucial to understanding what images can do. Sacred images, which appear to be looking at us, remind us that we’re not alone in the world. They also convey the message that we are not alone in this world.