Honoring a Master Architect Who Changed the Landscape of India
Dr. Vaidyanatha Ganapati Sthapati passes away at age 84 in Chennai
Sthapati passed away September 6, 2011, at a hospital in Chennai, after several years of failing health. He is survived by his wife, G. Dakshnavathi, who now serves as founder trustee of the trust . His nephew, K. Dakshinamoorthy Sthapati, is the managing trustee. Additional trustees are M. Palaniswamy Sthapati and S. Perumal Sthapati. All worked closely with him during his lifetime. In addition, his legacy is carried on by several trained sthapatis, including his nephew and life-long apprentice, R. Selvanathan of Chennai, and hundreds of architectural graduates and stone carvers.
V. Ganapati Sthapati hails from 30 generations of stone carvers and builders of the Vishwabrahmin family. He is a lineal descendant of Kunjara Mallan Raja Raja Perunthachan, who was commissioned by Rajaraja Chola I to build the Brihadisvara Temple to Lord Siva in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. That temple, completed in 1010 ce, remains one of the largest in all of India.
Sthapati's accomplishments are famous and many. The Valluvar Kottam in Chennai and the Valluvar statue at Kanya Kumari honor the great Tamil saint who composed the Tirukural. Working closely with Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami for several decades, Sthapati designed Iraivan Temple here in Hawaii at the headquarters of Hinduism Today, one of only two all-stone Hindu temples built anywhere in the last hundred years. (The other is Sthapati's temple to Subramaniam in Delhi.) In addition, he designed and built the Tamil University in Thanjavur and other secular buildings.
In 1961 he followed his father as principal of the Government College of Architecture and Sculpture, Mamallapuram. The college had been founded just four years earlier to issue degrees in Vastu Shastra under the auspices of the University of Madras. This formal recognition of the traditional arts within the modern education system has done much to restore and elevate the status of Hindu architecture in today's India.
For 27 years Ganapati Sthapati meticulously trained three generations of temple architects, sculptors and carvers. He taught them, too, the profound mystical side of the silpi tradition--how to create not just sculptures, but the very body of God. During his tenure, he oversaw the construction of dozens of temples and the carving of thousands of sculptures. He authored books on the philosophical principles of Sthapatya Veda and Saiva Agamas and offered practical examples of, as he termed it, the creation of rhythm-bound forms that give rise to structures.
After retiring in 1988, he launched a private practice and was commissioned to build temples--not only in India but everywhere Hindus had settled in the past few decades--in America, England, Singapore, Malaysia, Fiji, Sri Lanka and Canada. His lifetime of work earned him the Padma Bhushan, one of India's highest honors, in 2009.
Accomplished artist, sculptor, designer and project manager, Ganapati Sthapati also succeeded at a broader and more meaningful goal: to establish India's ancient construction arts as an important and useful field of knowledge in the 21st century. In the process, he evaluated each aspect of the ancient art in terms of modern methods. The silpis, for example, use simple iron chisels made and maintained by on-site blacksmiths. Sthapati experimented with various metals to replace these iron tools, but ultimately found none an improvement over the traditional, cheap and easily created iron ones. As an alternate to breaking out stones with hand methods, he tried blasting them loose with dynamite. But stones so quarried, he discovered, were subtly shattered by the blast and "lost their tone," making them unsuitable for sculpting.
Noticing the trend toward simpler and simpler sculptures, Sthapati brought forward clever and delicate demonstrations of the stone carver's art, such as the remarkable stone bell and clapper on a stone chain, all carved from a single rock. He made stone chains with large, loose links and created sets of musical pillars, each column designed to ring at a certain tone when struck.
Sthapati avidly explored the philosophical, theoretical and historical traditions of stone carving. This field encompasses all dimensions of architecture, from sculpture design to town planning. He generated renewed interest in the Vastu Shastras, the scriptures of this art, which he had translated into English from the original Sanskrit and ancient Tamil.
Intrigued by the Mayan architecture of South and Central America, Sthapati traveled to that region in 1995, visiting ancient monuments and meeting Mayan representatives. He was astounded by similarities between Mayan and Hindu construction design, right down to the use of the same measurements and proportions (see Hinduism Today, June 1995). Visiting the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, he measured two ancient structures, a residence and a temple. He confirmed that the floor plans, location of doors and windows, proportions of width to length, roof styles, column sizes and wall thicknesses were identical to those prescribed in the Vastu Shastras. It was an astonishing and as yet under-appreciated discovery, still to be explained by modern science; the Mayans and Incas were never known to have been in contact with India. Sthapati believed that Maya, the founder of Hindu architecture, was directly related to the Mayan people in some way. Sthapati built what is believed to be the first temple to Maya at his home in Mahabalipuram.
M. Karunanidhi, former chief minister of Tamil Nadu and a supporter of several of the master's major projects, lamented Sthapati's passing: "His death is a great loss to the world of architecture and sculpture."
At Iraivan Temple in Hawaii, Sthapati will be a central figure in the "Temple Builders' Memorial," set in a nearby garden. Life-size bronzes of the temple's founder blessing Ganapati Sthapati, shown holding the temple plans, are surrounded by the artisans and craftsmen performing the various tasks of creating the temple. Thus we honor a man who, fulfilling his duty, preserved and passed on the art of Hindu temple construction to a new generation of skilled craftsmen.
Rejoice in Deities' Diversity
Hindus don't need to remold our theology to fit an Abrahamic monotheistic model. The concept of one God and many Gods are not mutually exclusive.
By Ramdas Lamb
No human has demonstrable or irrefutable proof of the existence in a Divinity or a lack thereof. All theories regarding the Divine are based on faith, supposition and individual experience. That being the case, we should focus instead on the ramifications and practical usefulness of the various theological conceptualizations on the people who hold them as well as on the rest of the world. Among the most ancient of these concepts is polytheism.
Polytheism (from the Greek polutheos, "many Gods") denotes a theological system involving a belief in and worship of multiple Divinities. The term was first popularized in the writings of eighteenth century European ethnographers as they encountered, then sought to identify and label, the religious beliefs of "primitive" peoples they studied. Polytheism was used to contrast these beliefs with Judeo-Christian monotheism. Nowadays, the term is essentially used to refer to any belief system in which multiple spirit beings are worshiped. These may include Gods, Goddesses, semi-divine beings, good or evil spirits, or the spirits of departed ancestors. Depending upon the tradition, there may be an established and recognized hierarchy of worshiped beings, or they may be seen to act independently. They may work in conjunction with one another or at cross purposes.
There are several significant characteristics typically found in nearly all polytheistic traditions. Among these are a belief that each Divinity or spirit being has a specific function (such as healing, protection in travel, etc.), that it controls a particular realm (such as a spirit realm or a specific location in the physical world), or that it possesses a specific power or range of powers. The latter can include forces of nature, such as rain, thunder, a celestial body, the seasons, or may involve dominion over characteristics of human personality, like love, devotion, compassion, jealousy, revenge and so forth. Another common belief is that spirits possess or adopt a specific form, often human-like, and are endowed with human-like characteristics, such as love and compassion, but also jealousy and revenge. Other forms that spirits may embody include those of animals, of aspects of nature like a volcano, or a combination of several, thus making reverence toward and worship of both human-like and non-anthropomorphic forms commonplace. Finally, singular devotion to one specific Divinity is not necessary. Simultaneous propitiation of several Deities tends to be common and accepted. In some cases, this is seen as practical and necessary, since different spirits control different realms or powers.
Reflecting on how this approach can be understood on a human level, it parallels in many ways the functioning of democratic society, in which power exists in the hands of various individuals who can be approached in turn or simultaneously for assistance. In conceptualizing such a theology, then, the adherents obviously drew upon their own human experiences. In the Jewish creation story, the Gods (elohim) say, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness." What may be more accurate is that humans create the Gods in their image and likeness, believing that what happens on Earth must be a reflection of what happens in the heavens.
Polytheism, then, often mirrors the human experience of family, village and state. It is frequently found in cultures with a clearly stratified social and/or political hierarchy, where power is held in the hands of different individuals based on their position within the hierarchy, and that these powers are there to benefit those who approach the various Divinities seeking assistance. Different Divinities, like different bureaucrats, have different powers. One then approaches and propitiates the being with the requisite power to fulfill his or her needs or desires. Additionally, one can choose to focus exclusively on a Divinity who appeals to one's own personality. Alternatively, one can choose to ignore all Deities. While such individuals are then believed to not receive divine assistance, they are typically not understood to be punished for this choice. Thus, in many ways polytheism is a pragmatic theological view that, as mentioned above, reflects aspects of a democratic style system.
If, on the other hand, one looks at the monotheistic concept in which there is a solitary omnipotent Divinity, we find a very different approach to the Divine and also to the likely world experience of those who formulated it. In monotheism, especially as expressed in the Abrahamic religions, ultimate power is in the hands of a single male Divinity. He is all knowing, all powerful and ever present. As with the Gods in polytheistic traditions, he has human personality traits. Unlike what is found in most polytheistic traditions, he demands allegiance and punishes those who do not worship him exclusively. On the human level, one typically finds such a being in monarchies, dictatorships and societies run by a ruling tribal leader or warlord, like those currently found in many Middle Eastern countries. While such systems may be comforting to those who belong to the right tribe or belief system, a solitary all-powerful ruler is a threat to those who do not. The vast majority of individuals in such societies remain weak and powerless unless they observe strict adherence to the being in power and do whatever they are told. This is seen as the only means of survival.
In Hinduism, polytheism and monotheism coexist in a relationship much like the parts of a wheel. The many Deities are like the spokes, all of which emanate from the hub with each playing an important role. The more common of these Deities to be propitiated by rural agriculturalists Bhudevi (Mother Earth), Surya (the Sun God), Ganesh (Lord of Auspiciousness and Success), regional Deities, and various river Goddesses. Among the myriad of others who receive attention and reverence are Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth), Sarasvati (Goddess of Knowledge and Learning) and Hanuman (Devotion Incarnate), to name just a few. Countless Deities are regularly propitiated, often together.
Then, there is the Hindu form of monotheism, in which the Divine is formally referred to as Brahman (not brahmin, the priestly caste). It is said to be the source, the hub, from which all Deities are manifest. It transcends all attempts at defining or qualifying it. It is not male or female, has no form or description. It takes on apparent form or characteristics solely to allow humans the ability to relate to it. In that state, it may be called Ram, Krishna, Shiva, Devi, etc. All these names thus refer to a Qualified Absolute that is simultaneously beyond qualifications. For Hindus, this makes total sense. With characteristics, the Divine can love, protect and show compassion; beyond qualifications, it is all-encompassing. It is not only the source and reality of all other Deities, but also of all creation, both animate and inanimate. Because of this all-encompassing nature, it is the One to whom all prayers are offered. This is why it is commonplace for Hindus to be seen in Buddhist or Jain temples, in Sikh gurudwaras, and in mosques and churches. The Deity worshiped in each is seen by Hindus to simply be a different manifestation of the Deity they already worship.
In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, an important Hindu sacred text, a man asks a great teacher, "How many Gods are there?" To this he is told, "Three thousand and three." When he questions this answer, he receives the reply, "There are thirty-three Gods." He asks again and is told, "There are six." Not satisfied, he continues to ask and gets the response, "There are only three Gods." Again he asks and is told, "One and a half Gods." After one final query, the teacher says to him, "There is one God." In the explanation that follows, the teacher tells him that the many are all ultimately manifestations of the one indwelling presence. In the process, he alludes to a concept found in various Upanishads that equates the unchanging reality that exists in each individual with the Supreme, Changeless Divinity. In Sanskrit, this concept is "Tat tvam asi," which can be translated as "You are that" or "That you are."
The merging of polytheistic and monotheistic concepts in this way is unique to Hinduism. It allows people to believe in and pray to their own conceptualizations of the Divine in whatever form they choose, while at the same time elevating all of them to their ultimate reality, which is the singular omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient Divinity, who demands no allegiance, punishes no one for lack of belief, yet provides wisdom, comfort, compassion and freedom to those who seek it. All they need to do is look within.
Professor Ramdas Lamb is an Associate Professor at the University of Hawaii, specializing in religious studies, mysticism, Indic religions, the interface between religions and society and field studies.
Om Tat Sat
(My humble salutations to Sadguru Sri Sivaya Subramuniyaswami ji, Satguru Bodhianatha Velayanswami ji, Hinduism Today for the collection)
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