Erotic sculptures on Jagannath temple
This was written on the basis of Sundarananda Vidyavinode's Sri Kshetra and intended for a devotee audience, as it was done on a commission by disciples of Bhakti Promode Puri Maharaj. It has never been published. I decided to put this on line since there was a discussion on Facebook on the subject and I thought I would revisit what I wrote here nearly twenty years ago. This is from chapter ten on temple renovations.
For a devotee, the erotic depictions that cover the temple present something of a problem. If God is transcendental to this world, and if sexuality is the aspect of the material creation that most strongly binds us to it, then how can it be so explicitly glorified on the house of the Lord? As one scholar, A. P. Singh, comments, these sculptures appear to be “an apparent contradiction to the spiritual and religious fervor noticeable in the sacred precincts of the temple." He goes on –
Could our sculptors, who were seemingly well-versed in Hindu mythology as well as the tenets of Hindu religion, stoop so low as to depict highly provocative mundane figures engaged in sex with the most vibrant erotic impulses side by side with the divine images of our gods and goddesses? Is this not a mockery of the sacred rites performed at the altar of the presiding deity of the temple?When British Christians first came to Orissa and saw such explicit depictions of the Kāma-sūtra on the outside of religious buildings, they were shocked. It added fuel to their prejudices against Hindu society as decadent. They considered these sculptures to be pornographic representations mirroring the degeneration of moral standards in Orissa, reflecting the perverted tastes of the patrons of the temple. They even took them as proof that ritual activities of a fertility cult, so-called “sacred prostitution,” took place in the temple – even though there is no proof of the existence of any such lewd rituals.
Sundarananda Vidyavinode suggests that such opinions are the expression of an overactive imagination, misled by the presence of the six enemies of spiritual consciousness – lust, anger, greed, illusion, intoxication and envy. The fact is that such sculptures are a generalized feature of Hindu architecture and are found not only on the facade of the Puri temple, but on many other temples throughout India, and not just in Orissa. They are even present on one Roman Catholic church!
Ancient architectural texts ordained the carving of such figures on temples as a way of warding off lightning and other natural calamities. The reasoning given is that such figures protect the temple from lightning since Indra, the wielder of the lightning bolt, is himself a voluptuary and would not damage a replica of his own heaven and its sensual sports. Indra once blessed all women that they should never be disturbed when engaged in sexual union; his vajra would thus never strike a structure upon which the mithuna figures have been carved.
Indeed the Utkala-khaṇḍa contains the following verses:
adhaḥ-śākhā catuṣṭāṅgo pratihāro niveśayet
mithunair atha vallībhiḥ śākhāśeṣaṁ vibhūṣayet
mithunaiḥ patra-vallībhiḥ prādhaś copaśobhayet
These verses say that the mithunas are supposed to be carved all around the lower part of the temple structure, along with floral designs, in order to ward off the fear of thunderbolts.
However, this is not the only explanation of these sculptures. After all, temple ritual does include a tradition of worshiping these sculptures on Ananga Trayodasi, when Kamadeva or Cupid is feted. On that day, the first mithuna worshiped is Anangatura, which is found on the outer northern wall of the Jagamohan. The Bhagavatam tells us that Kamadeva is a portion of Lord Vasudeva (kāmas tu vāsudevāṁśaḥ, BhP 10.55.1).
Does this mean that these sculptures are glorifications of Tantric sexuality, where sex seen as a spiritual path in its own right, in which man and woman in erotic embrace symbolize the ultimate union of the soul with the Divine? Some say that such erotic pictures are graphic equivalents of the mystical syllable om. There is little doubt that Tantric attitudes to sexuality form an undercurrent throughout Hindu society, but there is no evidence that such esoteric practices were ever promoted in the mainstream of that society or ever held in anything but suspicion by the orthodoxy.
For some, the sculptors who decorated the outside of Lord Jagannath’s temple were trying to depict life of in all its manifestations, both realistic and ideal. Many scenes reflect various aspects of life, from the ordinary life of a cultivator to that of kings and gods. The erotic carvings were thus simply a part of this realistic depiction. Some say the temple represents heaven on earth, and since heaven is the abode of apsaras, the place of sensual delight, erotic sculptures have also been placed on the temple.
Lord Jagannath is the national deity of Orissa as well as its king. As such, He is not only there to provide liberation to his progeny, but to assure them the possibility of experiencing the fullness of material life as well. In general, the agricultural society of Orissa relies on reproduction; economic development is based on “going forth and multiplying.” Its success is achieved in enjoying human life, the pinnacle of which is sexual enjoyment, which in turn leads to reproduction and the continuation of the cycle of life.
Dharma, artha, and kama are also goals of human life that are not to be discarded. This then is symbolized in the temple structure: it is there for all the people, regardless of their level of spiritual advancement, their desires or their objectives in life. Lord Jagannath is the God of all these beings as well as being the God of His exclusive devotees. He does not exclude anyone, but takes the desires of His devotees seriously.
ye yathā māṁ prapadyante
tāṁs tathaiva bhajāmy aham
manuṣyāḥ pārtha sarvaśaḥ
As one surrenders to Me, so do I respond to him. All men follow my path in every way, O Partha. (Gita 4.11)
The way of salvation passes through the material world with all its charms and attractions. Unless a devotee overpowers the captivating charms of the flesh, he cannot have access to the divine spirit. One must first come to realize the futility of the flesh and its charms in order to have a clear conception of the way that leads to the Divine. Thus some people hold that these erotic carvings serve as a reminder of the potential pleasures of the material world to the sa-kāma and also tests the sincerity of the niṣkāma sadhaka who seeks liberation from material desire.
akāmaḥ sarva kāmo vā
mokṣa kāma udāra dhīḥ
tīvreṇa bhakti yogena
yajeta puruṣaṁ param
All people of expansive intelligence should worship the Supreme Person by the process of intense bhakti-yoga, whether they are pure devotees without any personal desire, or whether they are filled with all kinds of desires, or seek liberation (SB 2.3.10).Thus, the temple represents the five koshas that one has to pass through to reach the stage of pure spirituality. One has to symbolically overcome Maya by circumambulating the temple before one can enter the innermost sanctum. They are meant to test the devotion of the pilgrims and the sincerity of their prayers. But whatever the case, a devotee who enters the temple to pray to Lord Jagannath receives the Lord’s mercy –
satyaṁ diśaty arthitam arthito nṛṇāṁ
naivārthado yat punar arthitā yataḥ
svayaṁ vidhatte bhajatām anicchatām
It is true that Lord Krishna fulfills desires whenever someone petitions Him to do so. However, He does not award anything that, once having been received, will be asked for again and again. Even if such worshipers show no desire for His lotus feet, the Lord personally bestows the benediction on them whereby they will forget all their transitory material desires. (SB 5.19.28)Another way of looking at the temple structure is as a glorification of the Lord’s pastimes. Jagannath is the king, not only of Orissa, but of the entire universe. Every aspect of His life is to be glorified, including his conjugal pastimes with His divine energies and consorts, His Lakshmis.
The divine śṛṅgāra-rasa is the basis of Lord Krishna’s pastimes in Vrindavan. It is the basis of the concept of beauty. Lord Jagannath is Madan Mohan, the enchanter of the mind of even Cupid. He is the supreme emperor and exclusive enjoyer, the transcendental Cupid. Those whose eyes have been daubed with the salve of divine love will recognize these sculptures as depictions of that reality.