From the Jacket:
The worship of Saptamatrka; the seven Mother Goddesses (or the seven Saktis, the divine feminine powers), is over a millennia and halfold, pan-Indian phenomenon. And, over the centuries, the Matrka concept has come to have varied ideational, literary, visual and ritualistic manifestations - which not just interconnect the tatality of Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical religious traditions, but are integral components of the diverse historical processes of Indian society.
A reputed scholar of art history here offers an insightful iconological study of Saptamatrka divinities : the Brahmanical goddesses found invariably as a single collective whole, consisting literally of seven (though sometimes eight or more) female deities, variably accompanied by different forms of Siva, and Ganesa or Skanda. Employing the multidisciplinary methodio-logies of art historical interpretation, including the recent feminist interventions, Dr. Panikkar's inquiry contexualises nearly the whole range of Saptamatrka icons within the larger historical evolution of accultured Brahmanical religion, mythology, theology and concomitant multifarious cultic developments. Also clarifying some of the basic principles of Brahmanical iconic tradition, his study has, for the firs time, exceeded the accepted Art Historical procedures by incorporating the questions of class conflict, gender 'representations' and ideology within the iconological discourse - and has, thus, advanced the frontiers of Art Historical practice.
It is a compelling, painstakingly researched work growing from the author's indepth survey of diverse Saptamatrka sculptures, and an astonishing mass of both primary textual sources and research publications of more recent years. And, yet more significantly it is enlivened with exquisite visual material: comprising nearly 200 photographic reproductions.
About the Author:
Shivaji K. Panikaar has had his specialized training and doctorate in Art History at the Department of Art History and Aesthetics, Faculty of Fine Arts, the M.S. University of Baroda. And has also had the UGC's (University Grants Commision's) 2-year Research Fellowship: 1980-82, for an ambitious research project, namely, Encyclopaedic Index of Vaisnava Myths, Symbols and Icons in Indian Painting and Sculpture : A Study in Meaning
Currently Reader in Art History at Baroda's M.S. University, Dr. Panikkar is indisputably an untiring researcher, with varied concerns: ranging from contemporary art practices to the issues of interrelationship of art, politics and ideology in both traditional and modern arts. Already his published work comprises a considerable body of writings that include exhibition catalogues and thematic articles - besides three volumes of edited works on different genres of art, in his capacity as an assistant editor and co-editor.
THE Devi Mahatmya, the early Sakta text, describes the Matrkas, Brahmani, Mahesvari,
Kaumari, Vaisnavi, Aindri, Varahi, Narasimhi, and Camunda as saktis (embodiments of the
potent feminine powers) of the respective Brahmanical gods, who are generically named as matr
or matri, and in a group as matrgana, meaning mothers. Etymologically matr derives from the
root ma, meaning to measure, or to be contained or comprised in.' Matr, thus means a mother,
who contains, obviously referring to the maternal potential. Monier Monier-Williams, based on
the Rgveda interprets matr as, to measure or to traverse, to be large or long enough to find room
or to be contained in." Rgveda interprets matri as one who measures across or traverses, and
as one who has true knowledge," obviously meaning that of regeneration. Matr also means a
mother as a term of respect or endearment.' When used generically, matrka means all kind of
groups. Matrka as used in the present work refers to the sakti embodiments of respective gods
as described in the Brahmanical literature, who in iconic sculptural portrayals are the divine
mothers and warriors, used for ritual worship.
The Matrka-worship and the related manifestations in plastic arts are a pan-Indian
phenomenon, the antiquity of which is considered to be as ancient as that of Siva and the fertility
goddesses of the Indus Valley civilization. The distinct, ideational, literary, visual and ritualistic
manifestations of the Matrka concept, are interconnected with the totality of Brahmanical and
non- Brahmanical religious traditions. And these are integral components of the multifarious
historical processes of Indian society.
The initial inspiration for this came to pass incidentally in May-June, 1982, while assisting
Prof. Ratan Parimoo in documenting Vaisnava sculptures in Madhyadesa. A number of Matrka
sculptural portrayals in this region, including some of the earliest ones, prompted me to imagine
their cultic significance in the Brahmanical pantheon. The early Matrka sculptures at Badoh-
Pathari, Udayagiri, Besnagar and Deogarh, their iconographical and stylistic features, further
made me inquire about the possibilities of studying the evolutionaryprocess therein. Subsequent
research opened up the possibility of probing into the problem of origin, development and
diffusion of the Matrka concept and images at distant regional centres. At this stage assisting
Prof. Parimoo on the U.G.C. research project on Vaisnava art had greatly helped me in
formulating a methodology suited for such an iconographical study. Specifically, the research
carried out on the development, diffusion, regional variations, textual sources and sculptural
manifestations and meanings of a single iconographic form, that is of the Sesasayi Visnu,
provided valuable experience in this direction (Sculptures of Sesasayi Visnu, M.s. University
of Baroda, Baroda, 1983). Further, a valid ground was yet to be arrived at, in order to locate the
iconography, which lead me into the dialectics of political, social and religious histories. And a
theoretical premise evolved incorporating the gender issues as well, giving the work, I think,
extensive and intensive implications.
The pioneering effort of T.A. Gopinatha Rao discusses only the most obvious iconographical
features of Matrkas, where these are correlated to the myths and silpa sastra stipulations. J.N.
Banerjea's work which followed, traces in certain detail the linear chronological sequence of the
cult of goddesses from the Indus Valley civilization till the medieval times. Within this
background, the general descriptive analysis of the two important iconographic forms, namely,
that of Durga and Saptamatrkas have been undertaken. The later art-historical researchers
can be seen either resorting to the models set by these two scholars or merely adding up further
sculptural and literary data in the general fund of information regarding the goddesses
tradition. The main emphasis was trying to match the sculptural and literary data.
A more recent comprehensive work on Saptamatrka iconology, that of Katherine Anne
Harper, confines itself to the analysis of the religious and cultural meanings and evolutions of
symbols, while also presenting a chronology of the images." The scholar presents the
anthropological data of the worship of the seven goddesses in the folk cultures and proposes a
thesis of confluence of aboriginal and Vedic symbolism, but treats it as if these were part and
parcel of a monolithic tradition. The approach excludes a dialectical perspective of the wider
historical processes, and hence remains decontexualised from the larger frame of socio-politico-
economic and cultural meaning of art and religion. Methodologically, the correlation of the more
recent anthropological data concerning the worship of heptads with the ancient Vedic tradition
of the same, turns out to be faulty, since it excludes the possibility of the acculturation during
the in-between periods, putting forth a stationary model of an unchanging village India. ,
A large body of research publications of the more recent years analyzing the origin and
development of Devi worship in India using evolutionary models have been extensively used in
the present study. A major methodological facet of this study derives from the structural analysis
of Devi myths by scholars. These are incorporated in the relevant places of this book.
The major aspects of the Matrka concept can now be delineated. Inherently, the Matrka
divinities are dichotomous personalities- Though represented as goddesses, their identity and
attributes largely derive from the respective male deities. Theologically, this is explained in
terms of them being saktis, or the feminine power of the male gods, and hence imply a co-
existence of the principles of male and female in the one and the same. Further, Matrkas of the
Puranic myths are militant, ferocious, blood drinking goddesses of the battlefield, assisting
either Siva or Devi in their battle against asuras. Yet, in the sculptural portrayals, generally,
(at times, with the exception of Camunda), they are depicted as benevolent, compassionate and
aristocratic mothers. Their motherliness is often accentuated by the playful attitude towards
the children, with whom they are portrayed in certain regional traditions. But, the ayudhas, the
war props they hold, imply quite a different meaning level, and indicate conflations of and
resolutions of conflicts based on the socio-political and economic realities of ancient India. This,
validates the extended title of the book, 'Conflicts and Resolutions in the Storied Brahmanical
Matrkas embody syncretism between various principal sectarian Brahmanical cults and
other theophanies. Yet, the tradition proves the primacy of Saiva cult over others, considering .
the specificity of iconographic programme, and also since Matrkas form a significant component
in the iconographical layout of Saiva caves and structural temples.
The book is iconological, since the interpretations of the icons are contextualised within the
larger framework of historical evolution. Thus, the socio-politico-economic and religious
contexts of art receive an equal importance as the art itself, and is treated as an integral part
of the sculptural manifestations. The particular iconographical tradition which begins during
the Gupta period, presents highly complex meaning levels as it goes through varied sculptural
interpretations in the subsequent centuries at different regional centres. In the medieval times
the importance of Matrka divinities recedes considerably, but lingers on faintly in the Hindu
pantheon till today. During the medieval times cultically and iconographically a more elaborate
tradition of Causat Yoginis are invented, possibly based on the Matrka tradition, which by itself
is a separate area of study.
The book is also an attempt at transcending the limitation of fragmentary understanding
of the Saptamatrka iconography, since it takes into consideration temporal and spatial
developments in the pan-Indian context. Further, the book also throws light on the significance
of Matrka images in the wider context of Brahmanical art (of Saiva, Vaisnava and Sakta
denominations) which had been overlooked at least by some scholars.
Before going into the theoretical framework and the methodology employed, a few explanations
of the terminologies may be useful. The terms Aryan, non-Aryan or Dravidian are not used with
any implication of races, but imply only the class differences, or at times with an intent to
distinguish the orthodox and heterodox social spheres. Brahmanical denotes the religion
essentially practised and propagated by the brahmana varna, including the other varna groups
who came under this hegemony. This accultured realm is denoted by the use of the term neo-
Brahmanism, which is differentiated from the orthodox Vedism/Brahmanism. The use of the
term Hinduism is purposefully avoided in these, since it is an invention of the European
colonizers, and may be more appropriate for the modern Hinduism.
Theoretical and Methodological Framework
Apart from the prime concern with the sculptural materials, the Brahmanical religion in
totality, particularly neo- Brahmanism, with the sectarian import of the latter and the historical
issues of class and gender, are the primary foci of this study. The heterogeneity, inconsistency
and contradictory conflations noticed in the primary materials are very many. This is so, since
the catholicity of neo-Brahmanism "denies nothing and is intolerant of no level or phase of
religious consciousness". Considered theoretically, acculturation is viewed as a historical
strategy ofthe evolving dominant power nexus between brahmana and ksatriya. castes, effecting
subordination of the 'lower' classes and female gender, through assimilation. The co-existence
of disparate elements and stages of religion from the primitive to the sophisticated; the
mythological, theological and philosophical rationalisations, and the absorptions and re-
interpretations of these were contained within an overall system, which allowed adequate space
for conflict and resolutions of sustenance among the dominant power groups. Symptomatically,
it can be read within a colonizer-colonized mode of discourse.
The divine feminine in the Brahmanical tradition, throughout its history, has remained a
male construct, deriving its validation, legitimation and 'representation' within the patriarchal
kinship relations of the higher varna groups, and having socio-political implications on all the
different sections of the larger Brahmanical society, which is composed of conflicting classes.
However, such a theoretical proposition needs to be validated while dealing with several such
highly complex constructs. For example, there exist in the tradition a conceptual differentiation
between the consorts and the sakti; the feminine power of the male gods. While the power
position of a female consort is absolutely determined by the respective male gods, sakti suggests
a relatively 'autonomous' power position. Yet, in different contexts of Brahmanical mythology
consorts figure-in as sakti, making the anomalous power position of the goddesses a complex
problematic. A very good example is the case of the subordinate power position of sakti in the.
Ardhanarisvara myth and icons. Hence, the theoretical premise adopted for the interpretations
pertains to the relative nature of the power of the female to that of the male, especially while
considering myths as reflections of societal relations. The questions of relative gender power is
viewed as located within the power conflicts and resolutions of classes. In other words, the
relative gender positions criss-cross with the relative class positions and need to be viewed in
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