Karine Lavallee Wlasichuk- 6371558
Professor Shital Sharma
RELI 225
December 5th 2012

″As he walks carefully around it he admires the beautiful lotus she is
creating. All around him the town is coming to life. He weaves among
countless other kolams as he moves down the street, waving to his
neighbor, an old man intent on milking his cow. Ramachandran is on his
way to the temple (Huyler, p. 33)″.
Throughout the history of Hindu traditions, many rituals and ceremonies have tied into
the creation of a belief that deities had a presence, at different levels, in all activities of the
peoples’ daily lives. The appearance, the knowledge of this presence and of its blessing was
actually the core reason of performing all these worship acts. In Hinduism practice, the divine
can be seen or felt in various ways for the divine is everywhere. But it does not always appear in
the same way for all. Depending on the tradition, some understand it more or less as immanent
and others as transcendent, while most rituals can portray both ways of divine presence. Certain
traditions show the divine as Nirguna, where the divine transcends language without attributes,
in which case any normal language cannot describe accurately. Other traditions will see it more
as Saguna, that can be comprehended and described with distinct attributes (Sharma, 2012).
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Through different case studies, it is possible to demonstrate how Hindus approach the
divine in both manners. This paper will describe the ways and contexts in which divinity is
understood as transcendent and immanent through both temple-based and domestic image
worshiping, the new type of poetry created by Bhakti Saints poets, examples of the Bhagavad
Gita, and other types of domestic worship such as fire rituals and the drawing of the kolam.
1. Image worship
Divinity can be understood as both transcendent and immanent through image worshiping using
concepts such as puja, darsan , bhakti and mantra. Image worship is described as an exemplifier
of the fluid nature of the divine through rituals of transformation (pranapratistha) in which there
is establishment of life force through mantras. There is an understanding that it is in fact the
living divinity that is the statue or the painting in front of you for the mantras, if well executed,
clearly and meticulously pronounced, have a transformative power through sound. It is also the
concept in which, although the statue or the painting may be imminent in front of you, the deity,
truly, is both. Wither it is of anthropomorphic, theriomorphic or aniconic type, the image is not
an icon, ideology, representation or a symbol but the actual divinity in front of you (Sharma,
Considering that there are multiple immanent forms such as Murti, Vigraha and Avatara
while we accept the abstract and the permanent such as Brahman, Paramatman and Bhagavan
that become the Non-Dual transcendent, image worship becomes the perfect example of both
concepts for you can make it present or understand it in a transcendent form. These exist
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simultaneously, in a very fluid way, being not the symbol but the breathing, living divinity in
front of you. It is therefore an example of Saguna, because it has attributes and it can be
approached and easily accessible for the person performing the ritual, having features and a
body. It is also so because people comprehend the simultaneous existence (Sharma, 2012).
There are multiple events and examples in Hindu traditions in which this simultaneous
existence is seen through image worship and the first discussed is puja. The act of worship
performed in public or domestic settings is a core ritual of popular theistic Hinduism. It is
modeled after the honouring of Kings or rajopacara (raja meaning king and upacara meaning
offerings) and is therefore a set of offerings treating the image as the living presence of the deity.
People practicing the religious rituals daily will have a constant contact with the living deity by
performing acts such as the awakening, feeding, bathing and adorning the image form of a God.
The classical basic upacaras, sodasa-upacaras, list around 16 steps while for carnivals and other
auspicious events there can be over 64 steps performed (Sharma, 2012). In Fuller’s 1992 book,
Worship, the steps are very well explained and described for many sentences: ″ (…) is typically
welcomed with a drink of water; it is undressed and bathed, and then clothed again, decked in
jewellery and garlanded with flowers (Fuller, p. 57) ″.
When preparing the images and statues for such events, it is important to paint the eyes
lastly for they are the tipping point. The eyes are the last step in all painting ceremonies because
they will create the pranapratistha, the establishment of the life force. It is desired that the first
sight of the divinity is itself, upholding a mirror to its freshly painted eyes, for only the divine
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can handle such strength. The fact that people would cover all the statues’ eyes before
ceremonies is an example of people seeing the God as not only present, but alive and accessible
through all art forms. The simultaneous view of the divine’s presence is once again proposed, for
the worshipers also understand that there is a transcendent element, in which the statue is also the
divinity. But what really creates this clear distinction is the very first step of puja that, once
performed, creates the link between devotee and deity. This step is called darsan (Sharma, 2012).
A person becomes in direct contact with a deity when darsan occurs. It is the sight, the
vision of the God which brings karmic and spiritual merit. The good fortune, well-being and the
grace that emanate from this eye contact is very strong for it is the first contact with the deity in
any given context :
″ The priest waves a brass lamp lit with seven flames in a circular motion in front
of the Goddess. Looking into the shrine, Ramachandran locks his eyes with those
of the image : he has darshan with the Goddess. At that moment he is filled with a
feeling of well-being, of centeredness and belonging. His world is in balance ″
( Huyler, p. 36, about the Goddess Mariamman).
This is also a great example of temple-based worship, whereas an image can be in a public or a
domestic setting and the ritual linked with the understanding of the transcendent form of the God
can be as powerful. Another interesting example for Fuller’s book Worship is the description of
the double relationship between deity and image in the case of the human ‘image’, where a priest
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in South Indian Shiva temples needs to install Shiva’s powers in himself, for, according to the
Agamas, ‘ only Shiva can worship Siva’. The priest therefore worships himself as a form of God
as part of Shiva’s worship in the temple (Fuller, 1992). ″ Hence in these temple rituals, Shiva
assumes a form as the priest, but he is also the god whose power is in the priest, his animate
image (Fuller, p. 61)″. It is therefore also possible to identify a person as form of a deity,
implying that the person is an ‘image’ of the divine, as every image is also a form of the deity
(Fuller, 1992). This can also be seen as the localized deity concept, because divinity is bound
between transcendent forms and exists simultaneously. The divinity is everything: the breaker,
the maker, making everything eternally linked (Sharma, 2012). It is also linked to women as
embodiment of Devi, in which there is deity possession, and where the goddess, the deity, speaks
through an individual. Women are recipients of Devi’s presence and their trance state will speak
with both men and women who approach her with their problems (Sharma, 2012). These
concepts, based on images, proliferate the presence of the deity depending on the quality of the
rituals and the way mantras are being delivered.
The last example discussed for image worshiping is the idea of material culture, in which
people can experience the divine and transformation, once again, in their everyday lives by
seeing soap adds in which Kabir the weaver opens up his chest to show that the population is
inside the religion (Sharma, 2012). He sings his Bhakti songs as he does so, which conducts this
paper to the next element discussed, the Bhakti poets.
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2. Bhakti poets
Bhakti itself, being the description of the relationship between a devotee and a God by love,
sharing and devotion is another good example of contact with the divine. A pure devotion to a
God is the very root of contemporary Hinduism. It is what is seen, what people engage with on a
daily basis, it is the living and breathing Hinduism. Many Bhakti saints are known to be men,
women and even the Untouchables (Sharma, 2012). Thus, it reaches out to everyone practicing
Hinduism and, through literature and specifically erotic poetry, Bhakti becomes a primary
medium. This way, in different types of Bhakti-bhavas, the God may be addressed as a parent or
child, a servant, a friend, or a lover. The deity therefore takes multiple forms: Dasya- bhava,
Sakhya-bhava, Vatsalya-bhava and Madhurya-bhava and the union with the Absolute (Ishvara)
will be expressed in emotional or often corporeal terms (Sharma, 2012). It therefore relates how
it is immanent in that the person has the power within the physical world to gain connection with
the divine.
With time, there will be numerous poets writing the 12 Alvars devoted to Vaisnava and
63 Nayanars, by the devotees of Siva. But the later North Bhakti, written around the 15th and the
16th century by the poet saints of North India, developed a hybrid type of Bhakti, what is called
Nirguni-Bhakti, poetry without attributes or characteristics. Ravidas, Kabir and Guru Nanak
wrote poetry for a transcendant God, which would take the idea of using Bhakti as a medium to a
whole other level (Sharma, 2012). Another example of transcendent and immanent views
through text is the Bhagavad Gita.
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3. The Bhagavad Gita
The Gita is a great example of text in which a God is viewed as both immanent and transcendent,
as it can be abstract and made in the present moment. The story describes the great importance of
dharma and one’s own dharma, svadharma. It also explains how dharmal karma and renunciation
are compatible and that the Self (atman) is immortal, but is subject to multiple rebirths until
liberated. In one of the chapters of the epic, Beyond Life and Death, it is stated that the inner
spirit never dies and He or Him is said to be unmanifest, beyond thought, immutable. ‘Weapons
cleave Him not, fire burns Him not, waters drench Him not, wind dries Him not (Heehs, p. 151).’
The divine is therefore seen as transcendent for He is not to be touched or seen in a sensorial way
in the physical world but, at a certain point in the story, the immanent form of the divine shows
and shocks the characters for the strength of such a presence is practically unbearable. The entire
page 158 of the book Indian Religions is dedicated to the descent of the divine into a human
body and how, through its human form, the divine is not too strong to handle, but as it shows its
true divine form, no one can face it without being horrified, and the divine is begged to come
back to a human form. The strength and greatness of such an apparition quickly becomes
″ Seeing You reaching the sky, blazing with many colours, mouth wide
open, with large fiery eyes, I am terrified at heart and find no courage or
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peace, O Vishnu!
Seeing Your jaws terrible with tusks flaming like the fires of Cosmic
Death, I find no directions of space and know no peace. Be gracious, O
Lord of gods, refuge of the worlds! (Heehs, p.159)″
This epic, among others, is an appropriate example to describe that the Hindu traditions
accept both immanent and transcendent forms as representations for the divine, for the divine is
everywhere and can be seen in so many ways, various forms, and through different time scales.
4. Domestic Worship
Fire is seen as a purifying substance that is used in many Hinduism rituals, such as fire sacrifices
called yajna or homa. Fire is also believed to help in removing the evil eye by purifying new life
events, such as weddings, people coming back from trips, first day of school, etc. Vedic culture
has always been largely focused on the worship of Agni, the divine in the form of fire, which
became a ritual efficacy, for the divine became portable and accessible to all (Sharma, 2012).
This created different new ways to understand the nature of the divinity, since it comes with you,
and it goes with you. This mobile form of ritual showed that, not only Agni is being worshiped
through fire rituals, it is the fire. Agni is actually the portal between the earth and the divine
world and is the witness of the ceremony or ritual. Thus, the physical, present fire that is being
worshiped is also the divinity itself. It can be domestic, ghrya, or public, srauta. Agni is seen as
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the mouth of the God, a medium between divinity and human beings because it is at once the
material used and the God being worshiped (Shital, 2012).
Another example that can be used to describe a domestic worship ritual that welcomes a
deity’s presence in homes is, as seen in the introduction, the daily drawing of kolams by women
at the threshold of the home in the early morning. Drawn with rice flour, a kolam is a beautiful,
continuous image done in the transition space, between the world and the famiy’s secret space. It
is a sacred, protecting amulet against the evil eye that is considered to attract well-being,
auspiciousness and purity to the members of the family (Sharma, 2012). It is another kind of
portal with the divine world, where the hand-made image becomes a seat for goddesses. It is a
worship to Bhumi, the goddess of the Earth, to show that her caring is not taken for granted and
it naturally vanishes everyday (by rain, wind and creatures eating the rice flour) and is therefore
recreated, in a continuous cycle of purity and good health wishes. It can also be created in
auspicious events such as weddings and carnivals (Sharma, 2012). And through these concepts
were learn that Hinduism traditions share with religious backgrounds all across the world
worship rituals such as fasting celebrations (for Hindus, Vrata-Nonpu), and preparing blessed
food (for Hindus, Prashad) all to show their devotion to Gods for their family’s well-being
(Sharma, 2012).
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In conclusion, it is through temple-based and domestic image worshiping acts to respectfully
honour powerful deities, religious epic texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, domestic worship rituals
through different art forms and the Bhakti poets’ timeless literature that the people practicing
Hinduism traditions can, among countless other examples, approach the divine in both immanent
and transcendent forms. The divine can also be seen and felt through fire rituals, welcomed in
houses through kolam drawing, adorned through various puja steps of domestic worship,
offerings and services and can also be found when localized in a human body. These various
case studies are only examples of the tremendous possibilities of Hindu Gods’ presence in
peoples’ everyday lives of both immanent and transcendent forms. The achievement of identity
between deity and worshiper as much as the finding of the Self are both accomplished through
well planned and performed rituals and common participation in worship keeps the religious
practice strong and vibrant. Fuller’s words are very strong on describing transcendence at its
simplest, purest form:
″Through worship, an inferior, less powerful mortal here on earth
potentially transcends the human condition to become one with a deity
present in its image form. (…) But the ritual simultaneously – even if only
temporarily- can also overcome the relative separation between divinity
and humanity (Fuller, p.82).″
Works Cited
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Fuller, C.J. 1992. ‘Worship’. In The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India.
Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Heehs, Peter. 2002. ‘ The Bhagavad Gita’. In Indian Religions: A Historical Reader of Spiritual
Expression and Experience. Ed. Peter Heehs. New York: New York University Press.
Huyler, Stephen P. 2007. ‘The Experience: Approaching God’. In The Life of Hinduism, eds.
John Stratton Hawley and Vasudha Narayanan. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sharma, Shital. (Fall 2012) RELI 225: Introduction to Hinduism, class notes.


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