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Homa: Tantric Fire Ritual  

Richard K. Payne

The homa is a votive offering involving the construction of a fire in a hearth-altar, and the immolation of offerings in the fire. The altar is homologized with a mandala, and as with other ritual uses of mandalas, the deity evoked in the course of the ritual is located at the mandala’s center, and in this case identified with the fire itself. As a tantric ritual, the practitioner is also ritually identified with both the deity and the fire, and the offerings made into the fire are the spiritual obstacles that impede the practitioner from full awakening. Tantric homas are generally categorized according to different functions or goals, such as protection, subduing adversaries, and so on. As a form of individual practice conducive to awakening, the practitioner’s own inherent wisdom is identified with the fire, and just as the offerings are transformed and purified, the practitioner’s own spiritual obstacles are as well. Ritualized activities of maintaining and making fire are some of the most ancient forms of social coordination, which is essential to the development of the human species. Such ritualization would seem to be the basis for fire cults, forms of which are known throughout the world’s religions. In the scope of Indo-European religions, similarities of practice and symbolism provide a shared background to the homa per se. More directly, there appear to be both Vedic and Indo-Iranian traditions of ritual praxis that converge in the tantric homa. The homa is found in all of the Indic tantric traditions: Buddhist, Śaiva, and Jain. Once established as part of tantric practice, the homa was spread throughout Central, East, and Southeast Asia, particularly in its Buddhist form. This transmission of ritual practice engaged local traditions wherever it spread. Tibetan tantric traditions developed an extensive literature of homa rituals, and from there the practice also influenced Mongolian fire rituals as well. In China, interaction between tantric Buddhism and Daoism led to the creation of a homa devoted to the Northern Dipper, a figure unknown in Indian sources of Buddhist tantra. Two similar examples are found in Japan. The Shintō traditions of Yuiitsu (or Yoshida) and Miwa modified the tantric Buddhist form for the worship of a selection of Shintō deities. Similarly, the tradition of mountain asceticism, Shugendō, also adopted the homa and adapted it to its purposes. As a result of the repression of Buddhism in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the Shintō forms are no longer extant, though in the present many Shintō shrines perform rituals of various kinds in which fire plays an important role. In contrast, the Shugendō homa, sometimes as a prelude to fire-walking, remains an active part of Japanese religion into the present day. The tantric homa has been interpreted in a variety of ways, reflecting the multifaceted character of fire itself. There are two important strains of interpretation. One is the yogic interiorization of ritual found in post-Vedic Indian religion, more as a form of esoteric physiology than as a psychologized understanding of visualization. While closely related to yogic interiorization of ritual, the sexual symbolisms that are attached to all aspects of the fire rituals constitute a second strain of interpretation. These symbolic associations are important for their role in understanding tantric notions of ritual efficacy, which require greater nuance of understanding than can be attained by simply categorizing such practices as magic.

Article

Religion in Ancient Greece  

Ivana Petrovic

Ancient Greek religion was a polytheistic religion without a book, church, creed, or a professional priestly class. Due to the extraordinarily rich regional varieties in cult, fragmentary evidence and conjectural interpretations of it, conflicting mythological accounts, and the span of time treated, not a single absolute statement can be made about any aspect of Greek religion and exceptions exist for every general rule stated here. Since Ancient Greeks perceived all aspects of nature as either divine or divinely controlled, and all aspects of individual and social life were thought to be subject to supernatural influence, paying proper respect to the gods and heroes was understood to be a fundamental necessity of life. Since no aspect of individual or social life was separate from “religion,” scholars refer to Ancient Greek religion as “embedded.”1 The closest Ancient Greek comes to the English word “religion” are the noun thrēskeia (“acts of religious worship, ritual, service of gods”) and the verb thrēskeuō (“to perform religious observances”). Basic components of religious worship were the construction and upkeep of divine precincts, statues, altars, and temples, the observance of festivals, performance of sacrifices, bloodless offerings and libations, prayer, hymning, and observance of ritual abstinences and purifications. The closest Greek equivalents to “belief” were eusebeia (“reverent piety,” “respect”) and pistis (“trust in others” or “faith”).2 Both words could qualify a relationship between humans, as well as a relationship between humans and a supernatural entity. Since the Ancient Greeks did not have authoritative or divinely sent books of revelation, there was no script telling them what or whom to believe in and outlining the reasons why. The Greeks did not have professional priests who preserved, interpreted, and disseminated religious norms.3 However, Greek literature is brimming with gods, and the stories about the gods, which they (and we) call “myths,” were not only in all their texts, but everywhere around them: depicted on their pottery, painted on their walls, chiseled on the stones of their buildings.4 In the public space, there were countless divine statues, and the temples, altars, sacred groves, and divine precincts were everywhere around them. Ancient Greeks learned about the gods by hearing, watching, and doing: by seeing their parents perform a sacrifice, by observing them as they prayed, swore an oath, or performed libations, by participating in processions, singing and dancing in the chorus, eating the sacrificial meat in the sanctuaries, and by drinking wine, the gift of Dionysus. Ancient Greeks had no immediate need for theodicy, for the gods could be either benevolent, or angry, and their benevolence was perceived as a sign that the worship the community offered was appropriate, whereas natural catastrophes, crippling defeats in wars, or epidemics were interpreted as manifestations of divine anger, provoked by some human error or misstep.5 Ancestral gods and heroes and the traditional way of worshipping them formed the cornerstone of Greek religiosity.

Article

Religious Syncretism and Art in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries  

Ori Soltes

Religious and cultural syncretism, particularly in visual art in the Jewish and Christian traditions since the 19th century, has expressed itself in diverse ways and reflects a broad and layered series of contexts. These are at once chronological—arising out of developments that may be charted over several centuries before arriving into the 19th and 20th centuries—and political, spiritual, and cultural, as well as often extending beyond the Jewish–Christian matrix. The specific directions taken by syncretism in art is also varied: it may be limited to the interweave of two religious traditions—most often Jewish and Christian—in which most often it is the minority artist seeking ways to create along lines consistent with what is created by the majority. It may also interweave three or more traditions. It may be a matter of religion alone, or it may be a matter of other issues, such as culture or gender, which may or may not be obviously intertwined with religion. The term “syncretism” has, in certain specifically anthropological and theological circles, acquired a negative connotation. This has grown out of the increasing consciousness, since the 1960s, of the political implications of that term in the course of Western history, in which hegemonic European Christianity has addressed non-Christian religious perspectives. This process intensified in the Colonial era when the West expanded its dominance over much of the globe. An obvious and particularly negative instance of this is the history of the Inquisition as it first affected Jews in late-15th-century Spain and later encompassed indigenous peoples in the Americas, Asia, and Africa. While this issue is noted—after all, art has always been interwoven with politics—it is not the focus of this article. Instead “syncretism” will not be treated as a concept that needs to be distinguished from “hybridization” or “hybridity,” although different modes of syncretism will be distinguished. Syncretistic preludes to visual artists in the 19th and 20th centuries, suggesting some of the breadth of possibility, include Pico della Mirandola, Kabir, and Baruch/Benedict Spinoza. Specific religious developments and crises in Europe from the 16th century to the 18th century brought on the emancipation of the Jews in some places on the one hand, and a contradictory continuation of anti-Jewish prejudice on the other, the latter shifting from a religious to a racial basis. This, together with evident paradoxes regarding secular and spiritual perspectives in the work of key figures in the visual arts, led to a particularly rich array of efforts from Jewish artists who revision Jesus as a subject, applying a new, Jewishly humanistic perspective to transform this most traditional of Christian subjects. Such a direction continued to spread more broadly across the 20th century. The Holocaust not only raised new visual questions and possibilities for Jewish artists, but also did so from the opposite direction for the occasional Christian—particularly German—artist. Cultural syncretism sometimes interweaves religious syncretism—which can connect and has connected Christianity or Judaism to Eastern religions—and a profusion of women artists in the last quarter of the century has added gender issues to the matrix. The discussion culminates with Siona Benjamin: a Jewish female artist who grew up in Hindu and Muslim India, attended Catholic and Zoroastrian schools, and has lived in America for many decades—all these aspects of her life resonate in her often very syncretistic paintings.