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Episode 68 - Shiva and Parvati sculpture

Shiva and Parvati sculpture (made in twelfth or thirteenth century). Stone statue; from Orissa, India

There are many surprises about working in the British Museum, and one of them is that we occasionally find offerings of flowers or fruit reverently placed in front of the Hindu sculptures. It's a touching demonstration that religious objects don't need to lose their sacred dimension when they move into the secular museum, and it's also a reminder that in the census of 2001, nearly five per cent of the population of England and Wales stated that their family origins were in the Indian subcontinent.

It's all part of a long shared history that has sometimes been violent and conflictual, and always been intense. For centuries the British have been fascinated by the cultures of India, and they have struggled with greater or lesser success to understand them. For the eighteenth-century European, the most intriguing mystery of India was Hinduism, a faith that confusingly seemed to advocate both world-denying asceticism and riotous physical pleasure. Why were some Hindu temples, unlike English cathedrals, richly decorated with erotic sculpture? Where the Christian god endured unbearable suffering, Hindu gods seemed to rejoice in sex. But around 1800, one man, Charles Stuart, decided to explain to the British that Hinduism should be seriously studied and greatly admired. As part of his campaign, he collected and displayed pieces of ancient temple sculpture - and one of those pieces is the object of this programme.

"This Maharaja Chitraketu was passing by, and he thought it was very funny that Shiva himself was sitting there having a class on spiritual life and detachment, with his wife sitting on his lap, a very attractive wife, with his arm around her. And he just . . . he laughed!" (Shaunaka Rishi Das)

"Hinduism is about joy, but it never forgets the struggle." (Karen Armstrong)

This week we're looking at the world around seven hundred years ago, and how different religious traditions tried, through objects, to bring people directly into contact with the divine. In this programme we're in Orissa, a densely populated rice-producing state in north-east India, on the Bay of Bengal. Around 1300, it was a prosperous, sophisticated Hindu kingdom, which built thousands, literally thousands, of magnificent temples. This was the great period of Orissan religious architecture, and the buildings that were most admired were the ones that had the most extravagant ornamentation.

Most of these temples were dedicated to the god Shiva. For the people of Orissa, Shiva - one of the three central deities of Hinduism, the god of paradoxes, the god who forever creates and destroys - was the lord of their land. In Shiva all opposites are reconciled, and this programme's object, a sculpture, comes from one of the many Orissa Shiva temples.

It's a stone slab of about six feet (180 cm) high and three feet (90 cm) wide and, although it would originally have been brightly coloured, it is now a deep gleaming black. We don't know which temple it's from, but it was clearly from a very highly prized one, because you could hardly carve more decoration onto it. Dozens of tiny figures swarm around the edges and here, in the middle, on a much larger scale, is Shiva himself. We know he's Shiva because he's carrying his trademark trident, and he rests one foot on the back of the sacred bull that he often rides. The sculptor has carved the body of Shiva in very full relief, so as I approach it, I have a growing sense of a god who is physically present - and this is surely intended, because this sculpture is designed to bring me close to the god, to allow me in a sense to converse with Shiva, as the Hindu academic and cleric Shaunaka Rishi Das explains:

"The physical manifestation of the image is considered to be a great aid in focus of the mind, and in gaining what they call 'darshan' or the presence of God. So you practice the presence of God in your life by going to the temple, you see this image that is the presence, you bow down in front of the image, you offer food or incense etc, you say your prayers, or you just enjoy the presence of God."

Our sculpture was certainly made for a temple, a very public place, but it is very much about a one-to-one contact with God, and the experience of encountering this sculpture would be only part of a relationship with the divine, a conversation, as it were, that you might begin in the temple and then carry on at home. Looking at the sculpture is simply the starting point for a daily dialogue that will ultimately shape every part of your existence. Here's Shaunaka Rishi Das again:

"If you bought God into your home, for instance, then if God is right there in your living room, you don't have big blazing rows etc, you don't do things that you wouldn't do in the presence of God, which is quite a challenge - a challenge to the ego, our false ego. And what devotees of the deity would be developing is their real ego, that of being an eternal servant of God."

But in our sculpture, Shiva is not alone. Nestling in his lap, and lovingly encircled by one of his four arms, is his wife Parvati. Both are similarly dressed, with decorated loin cloths, naked torsos, and heavy necklaces and head-dresses. Husband and wife are turned towards each other, and look lovingly into each other's eyes, so engrossed in each other that they're oblivious to their swirling entourage. Their mutual devotion is mirrored by the animals at their feet, Shiva's bull echoing his master's doting gaze, while Parvati's lion smiles bashfully in response. There is such a strong erotic charge in this carving, that you might well imagine that Shiva and Parvati are about to move into a fuller, closer embrace. But no, or at least not yet, for this is a couple who are expecting guests or, more precisely, worshippers. Our sculpture would probably have been at the door of a temple, welcoming families as they approached, and offerings would have been made not just to Shiva but to Parvati, to the pair of them as a divine couple. Here's Shaunaka Rishi Das again:

"Parvati is a very good wife, who doesn't like people making fun of her husband. So worshippers have to be a little bit careful always to give respect to Parvati first, and then approach Shiva. That's considered to be the respectable thing to do, and the safe thing to do. But both of them are very, very munificent. You don't have to do much to please them, and they give [to] you very, very liberally."

This smiling sensuous image doesn't just show us a model couple that any earthly husband and wife might emulate, the sculpture of Shiva and Parvati is something more. It's a meditation on the very nature of God, for they are, as Shaunaka Rishi Das explains, the same person manifest in two different forms:

"God is male and female. And the thinking behind that is that God cannot be something less than we are. God cannot be 'not' female, because there are females here, so God has to have a female aspect."

It's the presence of Parvati, the female aspect of God, that's perhaps most disconcerting to a non-Hindu viewer, especially to one raised in monotheism, because this is a very particular view of the divine. A monotheistic god is, by definition, alone - cannot engage with other gods, cannot be part of a dynamic sexual relationship, and in Judaism, Christianity and Islam that monotheistic god is not just single but has, by long tradition, been male. In the Hindu tradition, by contrast, Shiva needs Parvati. Here's Karen Armstrong, historian of religion:

"In the monotheisms, particularly in Christianity, we've found questions of sex and gender difficult, and some of them that start out with a positive view of women - like Christianity and also Islam - get hijacked a few generations after the foundation, and get dragged back to the old patriarchy. I think there's a big difference, however, in the way people view sexuality. When you see sexuality as a divine attribute, as a way in which one can apprehend the divine, that must have an effect - you see it in the Hindu marriage service, where this is a divine act. Questions of gender and sexuality have always been the Achilles heel of Christianity, and that shows that there's a sort of failure of integration here, a failure to integrate a basic fact of life."

It was Hinduism's generous capacity to embrace all aspects of life, not least sexuality, that enthused and beguiled the man who collected our sculpture - Charles Stuart, an officer in the East India Company, who so vigorously embraced the values and virtues of Hinduism that he was nicknamed by his shocked compatriots "Hindoo Stuart". Stuart admired almost every aspect of Indian life. He studied Indian languages and religions, and he even urged English women to wear what he called "sensible and sensual" Indian saris. The memsahibs declined.

As part of his study of Indian cultures, Stuart put together a huge collection of sculpture - our relief was part of it - designed to include "examples of each deity as a kind of visual encyclopaedia of religions and customs". His collection was displayed to the public at his home in Calcutta. It was one of the first serious attempts to present Indian culture in a systematic way to a European audience. Far from finding Hinduism disconcerting, Stuart saw in it an admirable framework for living, that was at least the moral equal of Christianity, and in 1808 he published his views in a pamphlet, 'Vindication of the Hindoos':

"Wherever I look around me, in the vast ocean of Hindu mythology, I discover Piety... Morality... and as far as I can rely on my judgement, it appears the most complete and ample system of Moral Allegory the world has ever produced."

Stuart spoke out strongly against missionary attempts to convert Hindus to Christianity. He thought it simply impertinent, and his intention always was that his collection should be seen in England to persuade the British to honour this great world religion. Stuart would, I'm sure, be pleased that after two hundred years, his sculpture of Shiva and Parvati, made around 1300 to welcome worshippers to a temple in Orissa, is still on show to the public. And he'd be delighted that many of those who come to see it are British Hindus - part of that large population of Indian descent that now lives in the UK.

Although the stories of Hinduism are increasingly taught in British schools, some of us not brought up as Hindus struggle to master the complicated theology that embraces many deities in many manifestations. But it would be hard to stand in front of this sculpture, and not grasp immediately one of the central insights of this great religious tradition - that God may perhaps best be conceived not as a single isolated spirit, but as a joyous loving couple, and that physical love is not evidence of fallen humanity, but an essential part of the divine. This sculpture does indeed make God seem very close.

In the next programme, we'll be in Mexico, thinking about how a different religious system at the same date took a very different - and much less happy - view of the gods, of humanity, and of sex.

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