Distinguishing between “religious” and “secular” in terms of activity (worship), setting (temple), content (deities), intent (edification) is problematic in Hinduism, whose aesthetics often hovers ambiguously between transcendent values and worldly pursuits, while sometimes claiming to constitute a third and distinct domain. Sacred and profane are often superposed, such that the artistry may consist in playing upon the opposed registers, holding them together even while keeping them apart, or refusing to recognize the very distinction. This is best illustrated by the deployment of “humor” around the clown of the Sanskrit drama, whose obvious purpose is vulgar entertainment though his stereotyped role and characterization is intelligible only in terms of a “religious” function. Six fundamentally different approaches to the “sacred” are distinguished: sacrifice (Veda), renunciation, secularization (kingship), possession, devotion (bhakti), and transgression (tantra). This chapter extends the vantage point of Abhinavagupta’s poetics of rasa to the art of storytelling, riddling, and joking.
Hindu culture possesses unique ways of seeing and shaping religious art; this chapter explores the “keys” that are needed to interpret some of its characteristic art-forms. The visual arts, like music, provide a universal language that unites the immensely diverse regions of South Asia. Hindu art, in particular, reflects the belief in a polycentric and pervasive divinity that becomes visible in the plastic arts. Rooted in medieval traditions of aesthetic philosophy and ritual divinization, Hindu Art pervades the daily experience of the community, encountered in elaborate ornamental styles, spirits and gods crowding the temple-towers, ritually consecrated sacred architecture, statues and posters that are “alive” with the god’s presence, and evocative films that help the viewer to stay receptive to the effect of these intense art forms.