William S. Sax Performing God’s Body
How can one describe the body of god? In some non-literate religions, god’s body is identifi ed with the earth. For Christians, god’s embodiment is the central event in history, offering the possibility of human salvation. For mainstream Judaism and Islam, the idea of god’s body is nonsensical, unthinkable, even blasphemous. But in the numerous religions that make up what we call “Hinduism,” god is frequently embodied, or, to put it more precisely, the numerous gods, goddesses, and demons of the Hindu pantheon have a startling variety of embodied forms, ranging from the zoomorphic (Vishnu’s fi sh-, turtle-, and boar-incarnations; the “monkey-god” Hanuman), to the anthropo-zoomorphic (Narasimha the “man-lion:” Ganesha with his human body and elephant’s head) to the human (Rama, Sita, Krishna), and the hyperhuman (Durga with her eight arms, Brahma with his three heads, Ravana with his ten heads). In many Hindu temples, iconic representations of god are treated like human beings: fed, clothed, bathed, serenaded, and put to sleep (WAGHORNE/CUTLER 1985). Indeed, the sheer exuberance and fantastic variety of Hindu representations of divine embodiment contributed to the rejection of the very notion of embodiment by the various nirguna bhakti movements of the medieval period, who elevated the recitation of god’s ineffable name over the worship of his embodied form (HAWLEY/JUERGENSMEYER 1988). The boundaries between divine, human, and demonic realms are quite porous in popular Hinduism, with humans often achieving divine embodiment, in myths as well as in popular practice (i.e. the striving to achieve an immortal, divine body through yoga, or alchemy, or meditation; the embodied performance of god’s body that is the focus of this article), while the gods take on human bodies either to save human beings, as in the incarnations of Vishnu, or to enjoy more earthly pleasures, as for example in the Mahabharata where Kunti summons various gods to impregnate her, resulting in the births of Karna, and four of the fi ve Pandava brothers.