Owe Wikström

Seendets teologi i Indien. Darsan (to see) Lord Shiva in Banaras, India

Visual religiosity and psychological understanding – seven riksha drivers narratives

In spite of its effort to be transculturally relevant, the psychology of religion is quite ethno- or rather Western-centric. This becomes very clear when one tries to “translate” indian folk religiosity into concepts taken from mainlines theories; i.e. social, cognitive or psychoanalytical psychology of religion. Not only do the norms and values differ, but the very ontological assumptions underlying the categories in which the researcher understand differs fundamentally from the internal hindu anthropological and epistemiological apriori. For example, their words of the psyche includes contextuality, from time to space, to ethics to groups. The subtle interrelatedness of the divine, spiritual and the mundane is obvious (Geertz 1973).  It includes the flows and exchanges of substances within and between persons with minimal outer bondaries.


The psychological makeup of persons in societies so civilizationally different asIndia, is embedded in fundamentally distinct principles of these cultures and the social patterns and child rearing that these principles shape (Marsella 1985). Therefore it is clear that a western scholar and an indian devotee are quite different, not only simply that they see things differently, coming from varied cultures, but that the very inner emotional-cognitive makeup is culturally constructed in different ways(Roland,1989). Of course this will “disturb” the interaction between interviewer and interviewee, the scholar and the pious man.  In order to understand the psychological dynamics in folkreligiosity I think that the researcher has to reexam and be aware of the the way he uses the theoretical models in crosscultural psychological hermeneutics. In the context of this conference on art and religion I would like to discuss the role of the visual and behavioral dimensions of the Indian religiosity which in my opinion so far has not been taken enought seriously in the psychology of religion(Devereux 1978).


There are profound intrinsic interrelationships between the cultural conceptualizations of human nature, the psychological makeup of the individual and the nature of interpersonal relationship in a given culture (Hallowell 1955, Spiro 1965).   The western impregnated concept “self”, identity”, “belief” or “faith” as scholarly terms for the religious man must in an Indian context be replaced or at least completed with other terms,  words that can do justice to the social, ritual and perceptual processes behind the  experienced reality character of Lord Shiva. In order to understand the reciprocal and dynamic relation between the believer and the god/ess, a researcher has to take into consideration the role of visual perception and movements inside the sacred ritual room(Eck,1985). To actually stand in front of a site or inside a temple in order to see and to be seen by the blessing face of the deity or a symbol for th deity is an integrated part of the worship. From a psychological point of view the sanskrit term Darsán  (to see and to be seen) is of interest.


The psychological makeup of persons in societies so civilizationally different asIndia, is embedded in fundamentally distinct principles of these cultures and the social patterns and child rearing that these principles shape. Therefore it is clear that a western scholar and an Indian devotee are quite different, not only simply that they see things differently, coming from varied cultures, but that the very inner emotional-cognitive makeup is culturally constructed in different ways( LeVine 1982). Of course this will “disturb” the interaction between interviewer and interviewee, the scholar and the pious man.  In order to understand the psychological dynamics in folkreligiosity I think that the researcher has to reexam and be aware of the the way he uses the theoretical models in crosscultural psychological hermeneutics. In the context of this Donner conference on art and religion I would like to discuss the role of the visual and behavioral dimensions of the Indian religiosity which in my opinion so far has not been taken enought seriously in the psychology of religion.

 Darsán Lord Shiva in Banares

 This paper is based upon six weeks observations and interviews with rikshadrivers of Banaras, who regularily came to the small Kashi Kedaratempel close to Ganges  to “take Darsán” of Lord Shiva and other deities (Eck 1983, Katz 1993).  I will limit this paper to just one aspect of their religious behaviour – the way they visually  interacted with a symbol of Shiva, during the working hours by stop for a few minutes outside small sites in town and evening in the temple.(original paper 1992 TEMENOS)

 Outside Hotel Pradeep, in central Banaras, I met ten rikshadrivers who allowed me to follow them to their daily puja,  to observe and interview them about their religion. Out of them I choosed to follow more close those seven drivers who regularily visited Ganga in the evenings. All of the drivers were living in or just outside Banaras, all had familys and were married. They had from two to six children. Five om them spoke good english. A translator, a student from the Department of Psychology at (BHU) Benares Hindu University joined the project. The interviews were undertaken  during the days – where I could follow one or two -  and in the evenings in relation to the arati,  where I could observe and talk to them collectively. I took a lot of notes. They  were written down later and presented for the drivers so they could be able to complete or change the interviews.  ( In a full report I will give more space as to methodological questions, hermeneutic perspectives and empirical findings.)

 The Kashikedara temple in the southern sector of the city of Banaras, is called Kedara Khanda. It is is a river temple sitting in the top of an impressing ghat high above the waters edge on the long hill. From the river the temple is distinguished by its vertical red and white stripes, which indicate the South Indian hand by the temple´s managment, and by the many morning bathers. After bathing  in the Ganges, people climb the broad steps into the riverside door of the temple, carrying the brass pots of Gangeswater which they will offer in the worship of Kedareshvara. There are a lot of Shiva lingams outside and on the threshold of the temple.  Inside it is a dark interiour court. Around it there is a multitude of tiny shrines, most of them to Shiva lingas. Guarded by Shiva´s bull Nandi is the sanctum sanctorum. The Linga of Kedara contained within this dark chamber is not an ordinary linga but rather a lumpish outcropping of rock with a white line through it. According to the tradition, this was not established by human hands, but was an unusual, “self manifest” appearance of Lord Shiva. To this very temple my drivers came regularily, every afternoon for 20-25 minutes puja. They brought flowers, water and butter and from the tempelpriest they recieved their tika.

 According to my informants, the main reason to visit the temple was to “to take” Darsán. The same concepts was used for the small glance  they made to a site or a Nandi or a Lingam  waiting for a customer or after the midday rest. A common theme for my informants was the importance of regularily and very concrete perceptully see the images of the deity – either Krishna, Durga, Visnu or Sarasvati that was as paintings or statues – present close to the sanctum of the temple. The central part of their ritual therefore was to stand in the presence of the god and to behold the image with one´s own eyes, not only to look at, but above all to be observed. Psychologically speaking this seemed to be an opportunity for the driver to be confirmed as religious individual and thereby to strengthen his spiritual identity.  This identity is not related to customers, friends, family roles linked to the social status of their society, but to a reality that transcended ordinary life – very often the object of reverence was Lord Shiva, the god of Varanasi and especially of Kashi Kedara temple.

 Through the eyes one gains the blessings of the divine and that blessing followed them through, but was also reinforced in their daily life. When the drivers stopped working, waiting outside the hotels or the center when they bought some flowers or poured some waters on Shiva lingam they went to take darsan. 

 But seeing the Lord is not initiated by the worshiper. Rather, the deity presents itself to be seen in his image as a sacred perception. The prominence of the interaction of man and god through the eyes instead of through the ears as in western tradition like christianly, jewish and muslim of hindu deities, also reminds us of the reciprocal character of this experience.  It is not only the worshiper who sees the deity, but the deity sees the worshiper as well. For example, the gaze which falls from the newly opened eyes of the statue of a deity is said to be so powerful that it must first fall upon some pleasing offering, such as sweets or upon a mirror where it may see its own reflection. The gaze is filled with power.

 The experiental part of this Darsán indicates clearly that “seeing through the eyes” has not only perceptive but also cognitive and tactile dimensions. Darsán is described both a form of touching as well as a form of knowing because God is eminently visible. Thus, it is a sensous piety. One touches the imge of deity with ones hand (sparsa) and one also touches the limbs of ones own body in order to establish the presence of various deities (nyasa). One hears the sacred sounds of the mantra (sravana).

 In the ritual the drivers have the gestures of humility, bowing, kneeling, prostration, and also touching the feets of the statues or of the holy men. One utilize the whole range of intimate and ordinary domestic acts, which is simple but an important part, to cook, eat serving, dressing undressing, parfumes, putting to sleep. It is not only an attitude of honour but also an attitude of affection in the range of ritual act and gestures utilized in the treatment of the image – either the statue or the lingam. In that way this is a kind of empirical theology.

 Ordinary in puja was offering flowers and water, to take prasad, to get some food prepared by the priest (pujaris) who are designated for that purpose. Upacaras i.e offers can also be the waving ot the fan and the flywhisk and the rite of circumambulation is also an upacara, since it shows  honour to the deity. But especially the flame, a camphour ligh a five wicked oil lamp was important before one was put aside after a day (Fuller 1992).

 What was also interesting was that the drivers claimed that through their Darsán Lord Shiva in his turn was kept alive. It was an obligation to see him at least once every day, otherwise he was not only disappointed but he could even disappear.  During my visit, Banares was visited by a famous Sanyasin and all the drivers went to see him. Also he was a living symbol or an incarnation of the value placed upon renunciation.



Visual religiosity and psychological understanding

 Both interwievs and observations confirmed to a very high degrepp that the behavioral/ritual,  the olfactory, dramatic, the tactile  and  the perceptive dimensions of the ritual is of immence importance. When one search for valid models to a psychological understanding these not-cognitive dimensions  of the religiosity must be taken seriously.  The sanskrit term Darsán – to see and to be seen – as an emic religious concept – must be linked to the more social scientific language of visual hermeneutic and  psychological semiotic. In terms of D W Winnicott and E H Erikson the symbol of the god and the regular returning to be seen be the god is one of the psychological wellsprings of  the dual character of the religious experience; the ritual of confirmation of a relation to an aspect that transcends ordinary life on the transitional  space (Pruyser 1974, Rizutto 1979).

 One crucial observation stemming from theories of psychology that elucidates the folk religiosity, especially the role of arati or puja of many Indians, is -  what I would like to label – the visual  dimension of theology. The rituals in the Kashi Kedara temple provide stylized behavoral patterns where partipators act and react in relation to the symbol for the transcendence, in my examples  the Shiva Lingam, his bull Nandi or a statues.

 In western verbal religious traditions these visual and behavioral elements always have to compete – so to speak – with the cognitive content of the dogma, a preaching of a priest or the systematic thoughts of the theologians. In the puja or in the arati, and above all – in the informants stories of why they undertook the puja – there is a clear experiental interplay between both the iconic an un-iconic symbols of Shiva (especially the shiva lingam) and the individual coming to the temple for to take Darsán (Wulff 1982). The visitor come to see, to  smell, to touch, to dress, to feed etc Lord Shiva. But  at the same time Lord Shiva sees, blesses and comforts the visitor of the temple without a mediating preacher or priest explaining things in a cognitive manner. In that way symbol of Shiva simultaneously is both a reciever of the reverence from the pious man and the giver of blessing. This interaction in the meeting with the deity is to a very low degree talked about or reflected over during the rituals but instead it is dramatized and experienced through all the senses. Thus, the rituals  are to a high degree a dramatic, visual or a perceptual undertaking more than cultivating or reformulating of “inner beliefs”(Wikström 1990). And therefore I  think it is wise to relate a emic hindu term for what is going on in the temples and shrines to the ethic  concepts of psychological theory.

 The Sanskrit conceptDarsán thus can be understood as a kind of theological/mythological expression of what a psychologist can interprete as a role interaction between a symbol for transcendence  and  the individual. Darsán is therefore important, not only on a historic,  semantic or a descriptive level, but as an term for a basic psychological condition for the experience of and the maintanence of the reality of the deity in the religionsity of these drivers.


Many gods in one mental representation

 In my interviews I found a radically polytheistic religiosity. At virtually all level of life and thought, there seemed to be a cultural and religious multiplicity. It is not monotheism and it is not polytheism, at least if we label polytheism as the worship of many gods, each with partial authority and limited sphere of influence. Instead the way the drivers prayed and decribed their beliefs indicates a kathenotheism – the worship of one god at a time. Each god is excalted in turn. Each is praised as a creator, source, and sustainer of the universe when one stands in the precence of that very deity – often Shiva. There are many gods but, but their multiplicity does not diminish the significance or power of any of them. Each of the great gods may serve as a lense through which the whole of reality is clearly seen. This could be seen especially outside the Kedara temple.

 In addition to the central sanctorum – dedicated to Lord Shiva – there were a dozen shrines to other deities. Asked about how many gods there are all are answering something like; of course there are many gods. There is Shiva there and Ganesha, Hanuman, Ganga, Durga, Kali  and the others, but at the same time there is really only one.  The differences of name and form (nama rupa) was a common phrase, used often to describe the visible, changing world of samsara and the multiple worlds of the gods. Thus, there is only one reality, but the names and the forms by which it is known have to be different. It is like clay, which is one, but which takes on various names and forms as one sees it in bricks, vessels pots and dishes.   Formost the manyness is not superseded by oneness. Rather two are held simultaneously and are inextricable related.

 The drivers inner representation of Lord Shiva as a psychological reality is not glued together so much in terms of early experiences in relation to a particular mother or father figure (McDargh 1982;Kakar 1982) – a reductionistic simplification -  but it must instead be understoood more as a continious social construction through the daily puja or arati. The faith in or the reality of Shiva is thus not a relation to a clear cutted “inner object” but more a result of a daily ongoing dynamic process.  A visual and behavioural hermeneutic is therefore important means for the psychological understanding of the conditions behind the reality character of  the religious experience.

 If we translate these observations to the objectrelation theory we must say that the concept “the” god representation – in singular – that has been in the center of the last decades debate in psychology of religion (Jones 1991) must be elaborated a lot in order to do justice to the Indian folk religiosity where a multiplicity of god dwells in the same family and in the same individual. Where the god in a specific  cultural space is both one and many, male and female,  both evil and good, both destroyer and sustainer there must be an other kind of inner psychological representation of the beliefsystems than in west. Thus, Lord Shiva as a mental representation in my drivers and his psychological genesis, maintainance, function and content must be understood distinctivly different from the godsrepresentation in ordinary western mono-theistic religions.

 Of course the content of a beliefsystem is taken from hindu mythology and narratives where kathentheism is common, but  the genesis  of this inner representation must be understood as a cultural construction (Sakala 1981). The function of this Shiva representation is not only to provide and psychodynamic emotional equilibrium, but also to allow the individual to be a part of a social constructed worldview. By means of this he reaches the realms of transcendence and  creates a innerspiritual Self  or identity that is supported by the individual and the familial Self.


The spiritual Self – maintained through Darsán


My perspectives of the self is related to Hallowell´s contributions on the Self (1965) as  profoundly interrelated with its social and cultural environment. One of his important orientations – that the use of indigenous conceptions of the self -is at the base of a scientific understanding – is closely related to my observations and interwiews with the ricksha drivers on the role of Darsán.

 In terms of objectrelation theory applied to religion the rikshadrivers did not seem to have a strict border between their personal “inner godsrepresentations”, their family representations (ancestors and relatives) and the spiritual representations, i.e. the aniconic (the Shiva lingam) or iconic images of Shiva (statues) in the Kedarar temple or elsewhere “used” in arati and in puja.  ( I will discuss this in a theoretical paper where I analyze how the drivers used relational words when they described themselves, the families and the deities).

 This brings me to a general discussion of how the regular Darsán of Lord Shiva relates to the informants three selves: the individual, the family and the spiritual self. This spiritual self is often ignored in psychological studies or reduced, but as I found it, it is the central system in my informants identity formation and identity maintenance. The visual and ritual “use” of the shiva lingam or statue and the regularity of rituela offering kept their spiritual self in the center of their personality. All of these three selves were linked to significant religious objects which in their turn were incorporated and nourished their self esteem(Satow 1983).

 From a crosscultural perspective  the distinctions  between these  three broad categories of self are of value in various ways. With familiar self I mean a basic inner psychological organization that enables women and men to function well within the hierachical intimacy relationship of the extendend family, community of groups. The familial self encompasses several important sub-organizations that involves intensely emotional intimacy relationships, with their emotional connectedness  and interdependence. In relationship centered cultures likeIndia  there is a constant affective exchange through permeable outer ego boundaries, a highly private self is not maintained, high levels of empathy and reciprocity to others are cultivated, and the experiental sense of self is of “ness”.  Here we have socially contextual ego ideas.

 The individualized self, on the other hand, is the predominant  inner psychological organization enabling a person to function in a highly mobile society  were considerably autonomy is granted if not even imposed upon the individual. The individual must choose from a variety of options in contractual, egalitarian relationsship, governed by a predominant cultural principle of individualism. The individualized self is characterized by  inner representational organisations that emphasize; an individualistic “I-ness”, with relatively self-contained outer boundaries, sharp differentiation between inner images of self and other. It is built a modes of cognition and ego-functioning that are strongly oriented towards rationalism, self-reflection, mobility and adaptibility to extrafamilial relationship (Roland 1989).

 The spiritual self is the inner spiritual reality that relates man to an transcendent realm. It is realized  and experienced to varying extents by a number of persons through a variety of spiritual disciplines(Hawley 1990). The spiritual self, is usually expressed through a complex structure of gods and goddesses as well as through rituals. According to my interviews this spiritual self seems to be a basic assumption in the broad Indian culture and is psychologically engraved  in the preconscious of nearly all Indians.

 I therefore think it is impossible to understand the indian psyche without to understand the psychological function of this inner spiritual self. The assumption of an inner spiritual reality  within everyone and the possibility  of spiritual realization through the many paths are fundamental to the understanding of the consciousness and preconsciousness of the indian.  Within the indian context, these assumptions have to be explicitly denied when they are not implicitly adhered to  – in contrast to the dominant rational scientific culture of the contemporary secular West, where they are usually ignored or denigrated.

 This it not to say that all my drivers are actively engaged in or even interested in spiritual pursuits and disciplines. From a psychological standpoint, however,  phenomenologically one can observe an inner experiental ego state or a kind of consciousness separated from everyday waking and dream consiousness, with a different sense of inner being. This is activated and nurtured in the puja. Seen from a psychoanalytic perspective we can call it a transitional sphere (Pruyser 1974). Perhaps esthetic experiences are experientically closest to the kinds of inner ego states present in various ritual practices, like the arati.

 The relation between the familial self and the spiritual self is complex.  The spiritual self simultaneously encompasses both continuity with (see above all Fuller 1992)  and counterpoint to various aspects of the familial self. The drivers recognized the psychological phenomenon or experiental duality of the phenomenological self (jiva), particularly in the everyday conscoiusness of I-ness (ahamkara) versus the inner experience of spirit or Atman. Simultaneoulsy hindu thinking is profoundly monistic  in its positing various aspects of the phenomenological world, including the phenomenological self, as essentially a manifestations of Brahman.

 Experientially a person may not be aware of this. Further, the fundamental goal of all relationship and living is the gradual selftransformation toward finer and subtler  qualities and refined aspects of power in the quest for self relaization. This cultural view is formalized in Sankyan philosophy in its emphasis on the different qualities ( gunas).  Thus it exists a paradoxical assertions that the spiritual self is simultaneously on a continuum with the familial self and at the same time a counterpoint to it. In the hierarchical social relationship and in the spiritual self,  the hindu cultural world-view givs religious meaning to interpersonal transaction.

 In hierarchical social relationships governed by the quality of the person, there is a marked veneration of the superior, with strong efforts to subordinate oneself, to be as close as possible to a religious symbol or a sannyasin in order to incorporate, identify with and share the superior qualities of the other for the self-transformation. These focal attitudes of attention by quality, origination in childhood are later extended  to more and more venerated beings – from highly respected family and community members  to gurus and to the worship of various gods, godessess and avatars or incarnations. i.e. it exists a continuity  between the familial self and the spiritual self.

 In bhakti devotional worship, various facets of symbiosis-reciprocity involved in hierarchical intimacy relationsships becomes clearly accentuated. Intense emotional connectedness and reciprocal affective exchanges, a sense of we-ness, and permeable ego boundaries are all intensely involved in bhakti. The devotee seeks through emotionality be merged with the god, goddess, or incarnation – whether Shiva, Durga,Krishna or whomever – and in turn through the merger expects the reciprocity of the divine bless.  In the worship of Krishna, the most frequent of Bhakti cults, men draw upon their early identification with the maternal-feminine to identify consciously with Radha in her divine passion withKrishna.  However, these experiences are in psychoanalytical theories often reduced to regressive traits or searching for an omnipotent union in the early mother-infant symbiotic tie (Kakar 1983,151-190).The psychological reality is however, not that the path of bhakti is a regression to more symbiotic modes of relating,  but the the devotee use their internalized symbiotic modes in the service of their spiritual practice. Further, the imagery of a symbiotic, familial mode of relating becomes a metaphore for another level of union, or at minimum a complex interplay of different levels of monistic reality with an intentional ambiguity.

 What has been profoundly overlooked is that however much these religious modes of worship and experiences are related to the intense mother-child symbiotic relationship, the actual religious experience enables the person to become increasingly individuated, differentiated and separated from the emotional familial involvment. This experience thus becomes an essential counterpoint to the familial self and in this process the concept of Darsán will be helpful.  



Psychological studies of indian folk religiosity is not well developed. It is argued that the focus of intrapsychological and emotional processes – so far very popular – must be replaced or at least completed by underlining the role of visual perception and behaviour during the rituals. By a psychological elaboration of the sanskrit term Darsán in relation to an empirical investigation of rikshadrivers “use” of their rituals one can demonstrate the necessity of letting the scholarly psychological-scientific language (ethic) be confronted by an internal religious concept of experiental character(emic).  In that way a theoretical development  occur simultanelously with a more phenomenological close-reading of the pious  interwiees selfunderstanding. 



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The deconversion  from belief systems  ad symbols of traditional positive communities to a less culturally nd socially integrated society  that shares only the symbols of science, where each individual must create his och her own peronal world view of symbos and meaning. This is the prevaling situation in west, where there is a bad integrated national culture and where a militant individualism  has been  combined with enormous social mobility. InFrancea unique synthesis of state, society and the indivudl har recently been crumbled , a deconversion that has thrown the person back upon himself, thus enabling a psychoanalytic orientation to become enormously influential.





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