Monsters or Bearers of Life - Giving Powers? (Trans - Religious Migrations of an Ancient Western Asian Symbolism)
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Monsters or Bearers of Life - Giving Powers? (Trans - Religious Migrations of an Ancient Western Asian Symbolism)

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Item Code: NAN677
Author: Sara Kuehn
Publisher: D. K. Printworld Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2016
ISBN: 9788124608890
Pages: 124 (32 Color Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 330 gm
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About the Book

This well-illustrated volume seeks to explain an enigmatic and paradoxical symbolism common to many of the world religions, both polytheistic and monotheistic - that of the cavernous maw of a great monster. Drawing on a broad array of comparative evidence, including examples from Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions, it delves on the cross-cultural points of contact that may have contributed to the spread of such zoomorphic hybrids from Turkey, the Caucasus and Iran to the Indian Subcontinent.

Straddling the boundaries between popular and textual traditions the gaping jaws of a great monster is a mythical paradigm of the bivalence of a deep- seated historic force: the yawning orifice of all-consuming death can as well symbolize the power of life or generative power. This dual force can also be reflected in an abbreviated conceptualization visualized on opposite sides of a common axis. The outcome of the symbolic synthesis, which axiomatically unifies such vast, inexorably linked, seemingly irresistible potent forces, thus may suggest different shades of meaning - daunting, and yet again singularly attracting, humbling and at the same time exalting.

This book should arouse keen interest among all those interested in the comparative perspective of religious, cultural and artistic history.

Trained as an art historian (PhD in Islamic art and archaeology, Free University of Berlin, 2008) and working on religious symbolism for more than 20 years, Dr Sara Kuehn studies religion from a cross-cultural comparative perspective. With a dual background of Islamic and Chinese/Japanese art histories (BA in Chinese and Japanese Art and Archaeology, International Christian University, Tokyo, 1991, and MA in Islamic art and archaeology, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1998), combined with a museum career, she specializes in the artistic and cultural relationship between the Islamic world and Western Asia and has conducted extensive fieldwork in these regions. In so doing, she seeks to synthesize grounded fieldwork and theoretical reflection in a broad multi- disciplinary setting. Her main research foci are religious visual culture in an interreligious perspective; cosmographies and imaginary journeys; angels and angelology; migration and cross-cultural dimensions of objects, ideas and images. Her recent book The Dragon in Medieval East Christian and Islamic Art won the 2013 World Prize for the Book of the Year of the Islamic Republic of Iran. She is presently writing her habilitation thesis on "Hybrid Creatures in Western Asia from 2500 BCE to 650 CE" at the Institute for the Study of Religions, University of Vienna.


The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), through its interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research studies, facilitates revisiting of perennial sources of knowledge. This exercise involves multidimensional approaches at many levels, including the different languages and different social groups that unite India into one single thread. That India has been always open to communicate with other civilizations becomes evident through the programmes of IGNCA, which focus on making manifest the quintessence of the holistic world view of India and other cognate cultures and traditions. By focusing in this direction, IGNCA has already brought out some major works.

Barabudur, published in 1998, presents a survey of the Buddhist religious and philosophical concepts in the background of earlier religious and metaphysical traditions of India as revealed in the Vedic and Upanisadic treatises. Rama-Legends and Rama-Reliefs in Indonesia, published the same year, is the English translation of the original published in German. Opening up many new vistas for exploration, this volume invites attention to re-explore the sources of the Gujarati version of the Ramayana, as also the Panji stories of Java. It also stimulates discussion on the relationship of text and image, the adherence, the interpretation and the deviation.

Himanshu Bhushan Sarkar was a well-known scholar who worked on the classical period of Southeast Asia with special emphasis on Indonesia. He has done a commendable work in the field of epigraphy. In 2001, IGNCA brought out a collection of his research papers in the volume entitled Glimpses of Early Indo- Indonesian Cultures. One more volume was published recently in 2012itled Recent Studies in Indonesian Archaeology. It contains research papers contributed by eminent scholars of Indonesia. These studies focus on Balinese and Javanese archaeology and discuss various aspects of Indonesian culture. Stylistics of Early Khmer Art (in 2 vols.), published by IGNCA in 2003, contains translations of the major writings of a French scholar, a researcher on Khmer Art and Comparative Indian Art and Iconography. Mireille Benisti in her main article on the study of the relations between early Khmer and Indian Art has referred to the process of transfer of concepts and motifs, movable objects such as statues, caskets and ritual objects, and their decorations, transported from India to Khmer country which could have inspired local artists. Art and Archaeology of South-East Asia, published in 2011, contain the proceedings of two successive seminars organized by IGNCA. Exploring common narratives and the aesthetic and iconographic links between India and Southeast Asia, the volume has information on sculptural, architectural and monumental art forms of Southeast Asia and their contemporaneous art forms in India.

Much earlier, in the year 1988, IGNCA published The Thousand- Armed Avalokitesvara, a fundamental work based on original Sanskrit, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Sogdian and Tibetan works, on the origin of Avalokitesvara. Another volume on the same theme was published in 2002. It contains a study on the concept and configuration of the most revered religious figure in Asia, i.e. Avalokitesvara. Iconography of Avalokitesvara in mainland Southeast Asia is based on the data extensively acquired from inscriptional and other archaeological evidences.

India and China are two ancient world civilizations. Both have made great contributions for the welfare of mankind. To encompass the achievements of humankind's art and culture, IGNCA brought out a volume on Dunhuang Art. Published in the year 1994, Dunhuang Art - Through the Eyes of Duan Wenjie provides an English translation of selected writings of Prof. Duan Wenjie, (then) Director of the Dunhuang Academy. Presenting a chronological study of the contents inside the Magao Caves covering several decades of research of the Dunhuang Academy under his leadership, the volume places before the English-speaking world first-hand information about this unique art gallery, going back to one and a half millennia. A large number of eminent priests, monks, scholars from both Irtdia and China have traversed difficult terrains to establish valuable cultural connections. Faxian, Xuangzang and Yijing have been the pioneers among the cultural emissaries from China. In modern times, Tan Yun-Shan made great contributions in establishing the Sino-Indian Cultural Society in China in 1933 and in India in 1934 as well as the Cheena-Bhavana in 1937. To commemorate the birth centenary of Tan Yun-Shan, IGNCA published a volume titled In the Footsteps of Xuangzang Tan Yun-Shan and India. This volume, containing contributions by both Chinese and Indian scholars, was released at Shantiniketan by Shri K.R. Narayanan, the President of India while inaugurating the Tan Yun- Shan Centenary Celebrations in November 1998. The volume opens with a warm "Message" written by Shri Narayanan. Presenting a good view of how Indian intelligentsia has looked at China and reflecting their concerns was the subject of yet another volume that was published during the same year (1998). Across the Himalayan Gap: An Indian Quest for Understanding China contains writings which throw significant light on the Indian perspective on China, on her civilization, history, society and present development.

The present monograph contains an extensive study carried out by Dr Sara Kuehn from the University of Vienna. Monsters as Bearers of Life Giving Power? Trans-Religious Migrations of an Ancient Western Asian Symbolism shifts focus towards West Asia. It is essentially the outcome of an illustrated talk delivered by Dr Kuehn at IGNCA, New Delhi in February 2014. The study seeks to explain a symbolism common to many religions across the world. The author has drawn up an array of comparative evidence and she has culled relevant examples from Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions, trying to identify cross-cultural links behind the idea of an enigmatic and paradoxical symbolism. It reflects upon the paradox of the human mind. An individual being find itself entangled in a peculiar predicament of being largely determined by forces beyond its control. At the same time, one is also aware of the freedom that can be enjoyed by an individual self is a combination of freedom and determinism, but freedom is unique to an individual self and that is where the essence lies.


The beauty of the outer and of the inner world which is more perfect and greater creates a contrast of two aspects: the outer and the inner. The light of inner vision is contrasted with what is seen by the bodily eye. Al-Ghazali says: "There is a great difference between him who loves the painted picture on the wall on account of the beauty of its outer form and him who loves a Prophet on account of the beauty of his inner form". In the jonah cycle the inner world is sought in a non-human symbol of the womb of the monstrous fish, an uncorporeal centre of ecstatic experience. Dr Sara Kuehn rightly says that belly is not used in an anatomical sense, but as "womb", which denotes an esoteric inner world expressed in zoomorphic terms. She discusses the jonah cycle in the context of the comparative study of world religions, unavoidably conveying multivalency. The Book of jonah deals with penitent pagans and their salvation from the wrath of Israel's God, and the theological lessons of the prophet Jonah. The swallowing up and regurgitation of jonah by a fish dramatize the inner transformation and spiritual rebirth of this prophet.

The fish symbolism is very ancient and its spread is universal. There were sacred fish in the temples of Apollo and Aphrodite at Myra and Hierapolis. The fish of Chalus is regarded as divine in Xenophon. The Syrians looked on fish as holy. In Egypt a pair of fishes symbolized the life-giving River Nile. The state emblem of Uttar Pradesh is a pair of fishes as one of the eight auspicious symbols, as well as the main rivers, Ganga and Yamuna. In Christian art, paired fishes represent Christ "the fisher of men". The fish served at a Sabbath meal may itself be rooted in Jewish messianic expectations and later Jewish tradition - eating of the two great Biblical monsters Leviathan and Behemoth - connected with the inauguration of the messianic age. God is depicted as the host of a banquet, slaughters the two monstrous fish, cooks them and serves them to the pious remnant at the eschatological banquet. The Book of Jonah makes a natural parallel telling the story of another great marine monster. For both Jews and Christians the tale of Jonah had eschatological significance and some early Christian writers may have been aware of the Jewish prophecy that the Biblical marine monsters may be eaten at the blessed banquet. Their consumption may have the force of prefiguring the Christian feast following the resurrection.

Matsya-yugma (pair of fishes) originated as a symbol of the flow of sacred rivers. In yoga, they represent the lunar and solar channels in meditation to carry the alternating rhythms of breath. The fish and yoga: what a surprising linkage.

Matsyavatara (Fish Incarnation) of Vishnu is the first avatara of the Age of Truth (Satya-yuga). The fish saved the seventh Manu Satyavrata from the deluge. Visnu had informed Manu of the approaching deluge and directed him to build a ship, and to embark on it when the deluge came. The fish of a prodigious size swam to Manu who fastened the ship to it and emerged safe when the waters subsided. Bhagavata Purana relates that the fish sought in the ocean the demon Hayagriva who had stolen the Vedas from the sleeping Brahma. He gave the Vedas to Manu and taught him the principles of the knowledge which should guide the human race during the present cycle of the four aeons (yuga), the doctrine of the Self (adhyatma or metaphysics), of Immensity. The Fish Incarnation is first mentioned in the Vedic text Satapatha Brahmana and repeated in the epic Mahabharata 3.190.2-56. Matsya Purana is so called because it was communicated by Visnu in the form of a fish (matsya) to the seventh Manu.

In Mahabharata the fish is represented as an incarnation of Brahma the Immense Being. The Vedas and the Eternal Dharma spring from Brahma. He is the first Seer, the source of all knowledge. King Matsya or Virata of Mahabharata was found by fishermen, along with his sister Matsya or Satyavati in the body of the nymph Adrika, metamorphosed into a fish.

The fish pair is one of the eight auspicious emblems (astamangala). In Buddhism, these golden fishes symbolize happiness as they have full freedom in water. In China, the fish represents conjugal fidelity and a fish-pair is given as a wedding present. The Chinese word yu means both "fish" and "great wealth".

The spiritual ambience of India was connected with rivers in their perennial flow and alive with fishes. The texts prescribe that places of natural charm be chosen for meditation, like a beach, a forest, or a hermitage. Mahavairocanasutra specifies the spots to be selected for yoga, e.g. site of pure and pleasing water, lotus ponds, waterfalls, etc. Water and wisdom, the transcendent word and creativity were symbolized as the Goddess Sarasvati, the flowing (saras) dimension of human thought and visualization of the Divine. The fish represented the waters; the waters were the flow of creativity and its interior of belly the substantive ground of resplendent vision. In the mysterious and dangerous darkness of the belly of the giant fish lay the joy (ananda) of mystic experience. In the long journey of India's time we can see the evolution of the inner life in the external forms of human and animal sentience. The righteous and iniquitous, the good and evil, the true and false coexist and coact. Opposites are also complimentary, and so is the bipolarity of the present life and its destruction in the dragon- like monster devouring or disgorging a prophet detailed in this fascinating monograph by Dr Kuehn.

Situated primarily at the interface of religious studies and art history, these various trans-religious migrations reveal a many-layered thought world shared by Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists. Ideas have always been shared across space and time undergoing morphological and ideational changes in the perspective of the borrowing culture or spirituality.


Prologue 7
Foreword 9
Preface 15
Author's Preface And Acknowledgements 19
List of Illustrations 25
Monsters or Bearers of life- Giving Powers 31
Appendix 75
Illsutrations 81
Bibliography 105
General Index 117
Sample Pages

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