Experts meet to examine artifacts of Indian gods

Dozens of experts on Indian religion came to Yale from every corner of the globe over the weekend to discuss a large body of religious artifacts the academic community has had access to for 200 years but has ignored — until now.

From Friday to Sunday, about 50 professors, archaeologists, textual experts and collectors gathered in Luce Hall to participate in moderated discussions about Bengali artifacts that were previously dismissed as images of “minor deities.” Phyllis Granoff, a Yale professor who studies Indian religions, said scholars have long known about the classical Hindu pantheon — which includes gods like Vishnu, Ganesh and Shiva — and the more ancient Vedic deities. The purpose of this weekend’s conference, she said, was to determine whether the artifacts might connect these two pantheons. The conference marked the first organized attempt to examine these artifacts, Granoff said.

Granoff said she and co-organizer Naman Ahuja, professor at Jawaharlal University in India, gathered a diverse group of scholars to discuss the artifacts’ religious significance and authenticity.

“We each come at this from a very different perspective,” Granoff said. “We’re going [to look] at this in different ways to see if we can make any sense of it.”

In his keynote address Friday, Ahuja said the artifacts are evidence of an Indian cult that lived around 200 BCE until 200 CE, came from an area stretching from Afghanistan to Bengal and consisted of women and children.

Experts at the conference agreed that this religious group’s focus on women is unusual, but not without precedent.

Rama Misra, an expert on ancient Indian iconography at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, noted that women can be found in many genres of ancient Indian art, from that intended for commoners to the nobility.

Ahuja said the artifacts indicate that an unnamed goddess with weapons in her hair was central to this cult. He suggested that the goddess might be associated with life and death, notions that are closely tied together in Hinduism.

Doris Srinivassan, professor of art history at the State University of New York, said she believes the deity is a destructive mother goddess, with the power to make children ill.

But all scholars at the conference said these ideas were just guesses.

“I don’t think we’re going to find solutions, but maybe over the next few days we’ll ask many more questions,” Ahuja said.

In his lecture on carbon dating, artifact-dating scientist Pieter Meyers said the large size, elaborate carvings and fragility of these sculptures have led many to question their authenticity. But Meyers said that carbon-14 dating and thermo-luminescence revealed the artifacts to be 2,000 years old, which fits in the archaeologists’ estimated date range.

Much of the conference reevaluated the early Hindu pantheon, separate from the artifacts’ goddess cult.

Osmund Bopearachchi, of Paris’ National Research Center, said the earliest Indian gods have attributes of Greek deities.

For example, he said, coins featuring the Hindu god Shiva share many characteristics with the Greek Heracles, such as his war club, draped antelope skin and exposed genitalia.

In the conference’s concluding statements, Romila Thapar — whom many consider the world’s premier Indian historian — said she would be interested to hear an explanation of how this goddess cult affected the trajectory of Hindu history.

Ahuja said he thinks the identification of ancient texts and other resources that correspond to these artifacts will be helpful in learning more about them.

Students interviewed said they came away from the conference knowing more about the artifacts and archaeological methodology.

“I learned a lot about the art-historian approach to Indian history,” Lang Chen GRD ’13 said.

Marko Gelsani GRD ’11, who studies ancient Indian Sanskrit texts, said this past weekend’s discussion could change the way people view ancient India.

“I think the conference made great strides in legitimatizing a body of material that could significantly reorient the way we study the history and religions of early India,” he said.

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