ARCAVATARA: SRIVAISNAVA IMAGE-DESCENT AND ROMAN CATHOLIC EUCHARIST.
The doctrine of arcavatara (image-descent) within the Srivaisnava tradition presents difficulties for a Christian understanding of Hindu belief and practice. This essay provides an introduction to the history, ritual, and theology or arcavatara and suggests directions for a comparative approach to eucharist within Roman Catholic theology. It concludes that, while aspects of the Hindu conception resonate with a Catholic sacramental Imagination, fundamental differences preclude an easy comparison. The categories of transcendence, accessibility, relationship, and revelation gleaned from this Introduction offer points of entry for continued dialogue.
For the Srivaisnava tradition of Hinduism, the God of heaven becomes present in the temple. Arcavatara, the descent (avatara) of the deity as an image (arca), emphasizes both the transcendence and the accessibility of God. Worship takes the shape of devotion to a physical object, an image that is believed to be divine. For Christianity, so shaped by prohibitions against idolatry, arcavatara presents one of the great difficulties in understanding Hindu belief and ritual practice. What can the Christian gain from this view? Answering this question begins with an introduction to arcavatara within its historical, ritual, and theological contexts. In gaining an appreciation of the Srivaisnava conception of image-descent, a Roman Catholic becomes aware of parallels not earlier noticed, differences that highlight the particular claims of Christianity, and the challenges this different view of divine presence offers to the Roman Catholic's own belief and religious practice.
I. Early Development of Arcavatara
The Srivaisnava tradition of South India emphasizes exclusive devotion to the Lord Visnu and his consort Sri. This tradition of Hinduism became organized as a distinct and defined religious group around the eleventh century under the influence of its most important teacher, Ramanuja (ca. 1017-1137 C.E.). Not merely a fringe movement, the Srivaisnava community follows most Hindu groups in viewing the Sanskrit Vedas, the epic Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the Puranas as sacred scripture. However, Srivaisanavas also accept as revealed the poems of the alvars, who were twelve Tamil mystics of the sixth through ninth centuries. The alvars, who were "immersed" or "deep" in the love of God, sang about God (Visnu) mainly in God's manifestation as an image.  Later "Teachers" (acaryas), of whom Ramanuja is recognized as the most important,  commented on these poems, developing a distinctive theological and cultic tradition.
A simple view of the deity's local presence predates the elaborate poetry of the alvars. In the earliest sources, the so-called cankam literature, the deity was said to live "in the katampu tree," or Visnu was said to recline "on the serpent couch."  There was not yet an attempt to describe how the deity is present. The later Paripatal poetry showed a clear awareness that Visnu is transcendent and beyond space and time. However, the language of local presence remained simple. Visnu is the "owner" of the temple, "hold[s] on to it in affection," and remains "in close union." No elaborate ritual was described at this stage, nor is there any indication of a complex temple institution.
The poetry of the alvars (Divya Prabandham, or "Sacred Collect") reveals a significant shift to the temple. The alvars sang of many Visnu temples,  which had become special loci of Visnu's presence. For the alvars, "Visnu is in the temple."  Their poems coincided with what is often considered the "Golden Age of Indian Art."  During this time there was a flowering of Hindu divine imagery and temples in which to house these images. The alvars expressed their deep love for Visnu through praise of and devotion to the image (arca) of Visnu locally present in the temple. While the alvars emphasized that the local god is the very same universal and transcendent Visnu, they did not elaborate on the theological relationship between the two. They were simply not concerned with reconciling Visnu's transcendence and concrete presence in the image. At most, the alvars reflected on the problem of the many temples. The fact that the one Visnu is simultaneously present in many different places was attributed to Vis nu's eagerness to be as close to "as many people as possible." 
The notion of avatara offered a theological language for the practice of image devotion. Avatara, or divine descent, had earlier developed as a way of articulating the Hindu belief that the deity had come down to earth and lived among human beings. Visnu's appearance as Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita introduced a theme that evolved and expanded in Srivaisnava thought. Not only did stories surrounding Krishna become more elaborate, but Visnu was also seen to have become "manifest" in several different historical avataras.  Certain acaryas, searching for a more rigorous language in which to interpret the Divya Prabandham, spoke of Visnu 's becoming present in the temple image (arca) in the manner of the avatara. Just as the avataras were distributed temporally, the arcavataras were considered to be distributed spatially. While Ramanuja did not have a conception of arcavatara,  post-Ramanuja thinkers have accepted and developed this view of the deity's presence in the image.
The later Srivaisnava theologians employed the avatara notion to emphasize that, although a human being creates the image for Visnu, it is Visnu's free will that decides on Visnu's abiding there. This presence in the arca is not merely the lowest form of divine manifestation but is "a complete representation of Visnu's essential nature."  Here Visnu reveals most clearly a deep concern for humanity and the desire to be as near as possible to the devotees. Ramanuja and theologians after him distinguished between Visnu's "transcendence" (paratva) and "easy accessibility" (saulabhya).  Arcavatara emphasizes saulabhya, Visnu's intimacy with and love for the devotee. The divine beauty of the arca links Visnu's various fonns of existence, for beauty inspires the devotee and arouses love within for the Visnu beyond (paratva). In arriving at the concept of arcavatara, the Srivaisnava tradition developed a theologically sophisticated articulation of the belief that Visnu is in the temple and grounded a practic e centered around this belief.
II. Ritual Use of the Arca
The discussion of image-descent evolved out of, and in turn, fed into the concrete practice of image-worship within the Srivaisnava community. Understanding arcavatara requires a knowledge of the rituals surrounding the divine image, for arcavatara is a theology inextricably intertwined with practice. The following will explore the types of images, the creation and consecration of images, and the actual worship of images.
A. Classifying Images
The categories of "iconic" and "aniconic" offer one way of classifying religious images.  Images that are iconic attempt to present a likeness of the religious subject. Aniconic images do not attempt any such likeness or anthropomorphic form. Paintings or statues of humans or deities in human form are classic examples of the former; geometric shapes or simple natural objects are characteristic of the latter. Hindu arcas include both types.
Diana Eck has noted that, long before artists attempted to picture the divine in paint or carvings, natural symbols such as stones or earthen mounds signified the presence of the deity.  Several of these aniconic images continue to be important to Hindus today. Perhaps most famous is the bana linga, which is considered by Hindus to be a natural form of the god Siva. The vertical shaft of the linga and a circular base (pitha or yoni) symbolize the dynamic, life-giving unity of reality--male and female, Siva and Sakti. More important to the Srivaisnava community is the salagrama stone, which is considered the natural form of Visnu.  These stones, found in various shapes primarily in Nepal's Gandaki River, are particularly important in the household worship of Srinisnavas. As natural, the salagrama simply is Visnu; no consecration rite is necessary, and no particular divine name is given to it. These are features uncharacteristic of Hindu iconic images.
The Hindu iconic image is most commonly called murti, that which is manifested or embodied in a definite shape, with limits and form.  For Hindus the murti is not simply a likeness of the divine, but it is the deity itself taken "form." These images often take fascinating shapes, presenting creatures with multiple heads and limbs and creating collages of colors, animals, and body parts. They do not attempt to image earthly realities but serve theological and narrative ends. The particular form of the deity points to divine attributes and powers, and it recalls the ancient stories of the deity's action in the world. While such images have been important to Hindu worship for over 2,000 years, the fourth through the seventh centuries C.E. saw a flourishing of temple architecture, providing both a place and an institution for the worship of these images.
Today, the iconic images worshiped in Hindu temples can be divided into immovable (mulavar or mula murti) and movable (utsavar or utsava murti) arcas. The immovable arca is the primary deity of the temple and is permanently established in the innermost room of the temple (garba grha or "womb house"). The smaller, mobile arcas are called "festival images" and are used for processions and particular rituals. Often the immovable and movable images have distinct identities and are given different personal names. However, the conviction remains that Visnu is fully present in each divine arca. The one eternal Visnu becomes manifest in a way fitting to particular occasions. The arcavataras are comparable to the avataras, in which Visnu appears as Rama, Krishna, or Narasimha--one Lard in a variety of manifestations. 
B. Creation and Consecration of Images
Hindu images are created by special artists (silpins), who are guided by special texts (silpasastras), which spell out in minute detail the requirements of an image for a particular deity--proper proportions, number and position of limbs, posture, gestures, emblems, and instruments. Since the image reflects a theology and a sacred history, little is left to the imagination of the individual artist.  The creation of an image is a ritual event and a discipline. The silpasastras prescribe for the artist various ritual purifications, prayers, and meditation techniques.
Once the artist's work is complete, rites of consecration are performed for the arca before it is established in the temple.  Having been brought to a special booth near the temple, the image is first ritually purified with various substances such as darbha grass, honey, or ghee. Next is the rite of nyasa (touching), in which various deities are established in different parts of the image through the touch of the priest. Symbolically, Visnu is inhabited by a number of gods. The central rite is the pranapratistha, which "establishes the breathiife" of the deity. Once the breath (prana) is established, Lord Visnu permanently enters into the image, and the deity must be worshiped and honored in and through this image. The pranapratistha usually takes the form of a mantra, such as "O Visnu, approach this image and wake it up with thy embodiment of knowledge and the divine energies, which are concentrated in this one image.,,  The eyes of the arca are then ritually opened, enabling the deity to behold (da rsan) the devotee, just as the devotee beholds the divine arca. While most images are established, some do not require such rites. Hindus believe that these images, such as the salagrama are "self-born" (svayarnbhu). Additionally, certain arcavataras are seen as transitory. Into these images the deity is bid to come (avahana) at the beginning of worship and dismissed (visarjana) at the end.
The worship of images evolved out of the devotional bhakti movement. "Bhakti" comes from the root "bhaj," meaning, among other things, to share, revere, love, adore.  The bhaktas cherished the personal Lord and looked on the arcas as one of the many ways in which this Lord approached human beings. Bhaktas continue to emphasize a devotional worship (puja), in which arcavatara represents Visnu's desire to be as close to devotees as possible. The context is one of intimacy and relational love; the form is a mutual sharing, and its mode is emotive. The arca does not get in the way; rather, it facilitates a close relationship between the worshiper and the Lord, enabling an emotional outpouring.
Eck has explained how darsan, the "beholding" of the deity, is the central act of Hindu worship.  By focusing on the arca, the devotee removes distractions in striving for a singleness of mind--"one-pointed concentration" that leads to serenity. However, the arca is not simply an aid in meditation, for the arca is the embodiment of the divine; the image "is charged with the presence of the god."  "Darsan" refers to more than a meditation technique, as it encompasses the devotee's desire to be in the presence of the divine, to look upon and to be looked upon by a God both sublime and intimate.
Other ritual actions reflect the coincidence of Visnu's transcendence and accessibility. Worship (puja) of Visnu in the image consists of both gestures of humility (bowing, kneeling, touching the feet of the arca) and gestures of affection and familiarity (cooking, serving, washing, dressing, and waking the arca). Friedhelm Hardy grouped the patterns of religious response to Visnu's presence in the arca in three categories: Visnu "as chieftain and king,"  Visnu "as lover,"  and Visnu "as child."  An element common to both home and temple worship is the presentation of "honor offerings" (upacaras) to the deity. Upacaras can include food, leaves, incense, nuts, cloth, sandalwood perfume, and other appropriate gifts. These can also involve certain actions, such as circumambulating, fanning, and the lighting of lamps (arati) All convey both respect and intimacy.
This examination of the ritual uses of the arca brings to light the convictions of Visnu's devotees and prepares the way for better appreciating the theology of arcavatara. The variety and multiplicity of images, the careful attention to their creation, the intimacy they allow--all illustrate the worldview of arcavatara. The Hindu imagination delights in the senses. The deity is believed to enjoy the beautiful, and the devotee's senses are awakened and directed toward the divine. This is profoundly emotive. The beauty of the arca, which is the beauty of Visnu, evokes love and longing on the part of the worshiper. Transcendence and intimacy mix as the Supreme Lord descends to draw in those he loves.
III. Theology of Arcavatara
As noted above, Srivaisnava teachers (acaryas) employed the concept of avatara to offer a sophisticated theological grounding to the community's ritual practice. These theologians were not indifferent to the larger metaphysical issues at stake in the belief that "Visnu is in the temple." The discussion thus turns from the concrete arca and its rituals to the very essence of the divinity to ask how Visnu is in the temple.
Srivaisnavas distinguish between two forms of Visnu.  First, there is Visnu's all-pervasive form: "[T]he entire universe is his body and he is the inner soul of everyone and everything. But, beyond this, Visnu is seen to have his own divine auspicious form (divya mangala vigraha). This auspicious form exists in five different modes: (1) the supreme form (para), "the eternal, unchanging form of Visnu seen only in heaven";  (2) the emanations (vyuha), which relate to different stages of the universe's evolution, particularly the creation, preservation, and dissolution of the world; (3) the "[m]anifestations at particular times (vibhava [or] avatara),"  including the historical descents of Visnu as Krishna, Rama etc.; (4) the "Inner Controller (antaryamin or harda),"  the subtle form of Visnu within human hearts; and (5) the descent into an image (arcavatara). 
The arcavatara is not merely a symbol, nor is it the least of Visnu's manifestations. In the arca, Visnu's auspicious form is composed of a nonearthly transcendental substance unique to the deity: suddha sattva. While the arca is clearly composed of matter such as wood, metal, or stone, once it has been consecrated and, thus, established as an arcavatara, it ceases to be matter of an earthly kind. Suddha sattva cannot be compared to any of the three qualities (gunas) that make up all living beings and material things.  It is pure, nonmaterial (a-prakrta). Transcending anything found on earth, suddha sattva is described as "luminous."  What this is less clear than what it is not: "The image must not be regarded as a material object. It is a personal god, luminous, and complete with all auspicious qualities; it is transcendent and supreme, yet easily accessible--a bit of heaven on earth." 
The Srivaisnava tradition contains a certain strand of apophaticism with regard to this pure substance. While the most common position describes the "material" of the arcavatara as suddha sattva, Pilla Lokacarya, a fourteenth century Srivaisnava commentator, was hesitant. Trying to understand the substance of the arcavatara is as reprehensible as trying to broach another sensitive question--the birth or caste of a devotee. "Both are as despicable and as vulgar as regarding the reproductive organ (yoni) of one's own mother as a common sex object."  Too deeply probing into the question of the arcavatara's substance is likened to a sexual taboo. "What a sin that is! Analyzing the material of the arcavatara is just as heinous!" 
Presenting arcavatara within the context of the five forms of Visnu highlights the integration of Visnu's various manifestations to humanity. Visnu in heaven is seen in history, seen in the image. Behind all of this is the Srivaisnava belief that Visnu is both utterly transcendent (paralva) and graciously accessible (Saulabhya). The suddha sattva indicates that God descends to the level of humanity without losing divine transcendence.
The deity's accessibility is at the heart of the Srivaisnava conception of arcavatara. The arca is the most important form of Visnu for Srivaisnava because it represents the ultimate in God's descent, "coming down to a level even lower than that of God's human worshipers."  Pillai Lokacarya captured the accessibility of the Lord, using the metaphor of water:
The Lord as an Inner Controller (antaryamitvam) is like water deep down in the earth; the Emanation (vyuha) is like the sea of milk; incarnations and manifestations on earth (vibhava) are like rivers in flood, but incarnations as images (arcavataras) are like deep pools [that are easily accessible]. 
Subterranean veins, the sea, and floods are either unpredictable or inaccessible to the average person, but a pool of water is always available, always near and accessible. Elsewhere Pillai Lokacarya wrote of arcavatara:
In other forms the man belonged to God but behold the supreme sacrifice of Isvara, here the Almighty becomes the property of the devotee.... He carries Him about, fans Him, feeds Him, plays with Him--yea, the Infinite has become finite, that the child soul may grasp, understand and love Him. 
The goal of Visnu's descent, the reason for this gracious accessibility, is self-revelation. Beholding (darsan) the image, the devotee sees Visnu. This evokes an outpouring of emotion, a deep love and devotion for the Lord. The theological foundations of arcavatara serve a relationship between the worshiper and God.
IV. Roman Catholic Parallels: Art and Sacramentality
To Christian ears, the Srivaisnava belief that God is locally present in images made of wood and stone sounds like idolatry. This reaction has been shaped not only by Christianity's early history--its Jewish roots and its interaction with the culture and religious traditions of the Roman Empire--but also by a more recent history of European colonialism and triumphalism in the modern meeting of world religions. Sensitive to these historical prejudices, this section asks what Catholic Christians can gain from the Srivaisnava notion of arcavatara. This question leads to some important parallels in Srivaisnava and Catholic worldviews, points to the key differences between the two views, and finally challenges certain attitudes within Roman Catholic theology and practice.
However, a subtle obstacle must first be recognized. The recent history of Christianity's contact with world religions has created the danger of a certain Darwinism in approaching Hindu image-worship. Early attempts at categorizing various religions and religious practices saw image-worship as an early stage in the human understanding of the divine, a stage left behind as human beings advanced to more refined concepts. Animism evolved into polytheism and idolatry, which in turn led to monotheism. Europe's nineteenth-century encounter with India challenged this assumption. Europeans found in India an advanced society that had not shed its "primitive" religious beliefs and practices. F. Max Muller, the early scholar of the comparative study of religions, proposed a solution that maintained an implicit Darwinism: Historical evolution became personal evolution. In this view, idolatry and its polytheism were retained for the benefit of those beginning the religious life. These more simplistic notions of the divin e benefit the young and more "childish" of society, serving as an initial stage of religious experience. Later, this stage is left behind as one moves to more sophisticated and mature expressions of faith. 
A certain progression and development of religious categories cannot be denied, both historically and personally in a variety of traditions. Yet, the danger of these evolutionary assumptions for the present question is the way in which they fashion a tendency not to take Hindu image-worship seriously. For the unreflective Westerner, image-worship is not only sinful (scripture condemns it--Ex. 20:4-6, Dt. 5:8-10), but it is also primitive and childish. Observing this obstacle is not meant to imply that all religious beliefs and practices are of equal value. Rather, the goal is to open up space for the Srivaisnava notion of arcavatara to contribute to the Catholic's appreciation of her or his own faith tradition.
The preceding survey of the history, practice, and theology of arcavatara invites the Catholic to reflect on parallel movements and expressions within his or her own tradition. For the Srivaisnava, God descends into the area and lives in the temple. Visnu can be seen and touched, dressed and bathed. Sense experience is central to worship. The Catholic chooses the words "art," "icon," "sacrament," and "eucharist" to suggest this presence, this "tangibility," of the divine. Catholicism has always avoided a stark Puritanism. While some schools of spirituality have at times emphasized the ascetic and avoided the worldly, art and sacrament have always flourished. In the intricate order of a gothic cathedral, the dizzying diversity of a baroque church, or the fluid curves of a contemporary chapel, one sees faith taking shape in the colors, sounds, and words of art--reflecting the genius and limitations of a particular age and revealing a church continually "image-ing" the divine.
Eastern Christians, more than Western, accord a special sacral reality to one form of art. Images (icons) are crafted in prayer and serve to enhance the believer's contemplation.  While a multitude of icon styles and theologies exist, certain central recurring themes resonate with practices surrounding the arca. The creation of icons is driven not by individual creativity but by the attempt faithfully to externalize a sacred tradition. Scripture, liturgy, and spiritual traditions both inspire and set controls on any particular representation. Later painting manuals evolved that spell out details for an icon's creation and appearance.  Elements in the tradition suggest "that icon painting was actual spiritualisation of matter, a re-enactment of the Incarnation, reflecting actually and not only symbolically the appearance of God at the human and earthly level."  The clear Orthodox distinction between veneration (proskinesis) and worship (latreia) avoided the charge of idolatry but by no means lesse ned the centrality of icons in Eastern worship. Icons are true mirrors of the divine, meeting points for God and human beings, the essential art of any liturgy. The close connection between icons and prayer is enhanced by the Eastern theological appreciation of beauty, which inspires, attracts, and transforms the venerator.
Eck expressed her objection to a certain attitude toward Hinduism: "I am often puzzled with the stereotypical view of India as 'other-worldly,' for in the Hindu tradition there is nothing in the substance of this world that cannot display the presence and glory of God-an enlightened person, a cow, a tree, a basil bush, even a lump of clay."  Her language resonates with the Catholic imagination. For the Catholic, "sacramentality" captures an attitude toward the world--a world created good and capable of receiving God. Richard McBrien, an authority on Roman Catholic theology, sees sacramentality, alongside mediation and community, as one of three basic characteristics of Catholicism: "A sacramental perspective is one that 'sees' the divine in the human, the infinite in the finite, the spiritual in the material, the transcendent in the immanent, the eternal in the historical. For Catholicism, therefore, all reality is sacred."  Rooted in the incarnation, this conviction in turn grounds Catholic attitude s toward morality, church life, and, particularly, worship.
V. Arcavatara and Eucharist: Parallels, Problems, and Possibilities
Surprisingly, comparative theology has little explored the links between arcavatara and eucharist.  On the one hand, there has been a great deal of work done comparing the Hindu notion of avatara with the Christian doctrine of incarnation.  On the other hand, Christian eucharist seems to fit more readily a comparison with Hindu communal rituals (samskaras), the elements of bread and wine more closely paralleling prasada, the temple food used in certain rites.  These pages indicate a fruitful area for further exploration--the relationship between arcavatara and the Catholic understanding of divine presence in eucharist.
Eucharist is a multifaceted reality for Catholic Christians. It is both a sacred meal and a sacrificial offering, both the prayer of a community and the real presence of God in the elements of bread and wine. The history of eucharist is complex but shares resemblances with the history of arcavatara outlined above. Like the Srivaisnava tradition, Christians began with the conviction that the divine was present in their worship. Later categories entered in to give a more sophisticated account of this presence. For Srivaisnava, the concept of avatara gave coherence to a long tradition of image devotion. For medieval Christians, Aristotelian philosophy allowed for a remarkable synthesis of Christian doctrine and offered a vocabulary for articulating Christ's presence in the consecrated elements of eucharist. The reservations of Piilai Lokacarya in the fourteenth century about the substance of the arcavatara are matched by Catholic theologians of this century who, shifting out of an Aristotelian substance metaphy sics, have found it difficult to describe exactly what eucharist is. 
In fact, the past forty years have been marked by a multitude of new questions surrounding eucharist. Breaking Out of the neo-scholastic paradigm, Catholic theologians have begun to approach this central Christian reality in a variety of ways. Perhaps most important is what Albert Houssiau called the rediscovery of liturgy "as a privileged source of sacramental theology."  Attention to the actual rites of eucharist--whether using textual, ritual, aesthetic, or symbolic tools of interpretation--has opened up new perspectives. Moreover, theologians are asking how insights from trinitarian theology, Christology, and ecclesiology can contribute to a deeper understanding of eucharist and how eucharist itself offers themes and directions for ethics, ecumenism, and ministry. A systematic and inclusive approach marks contemporary discussion of eucharist. A further, potentially fruitful, perspective on eucharist is that offered by comparative theology. Within this context, the final section of this essay suggests some initial problems and possibilities for future dialogue between Catholic eucharistic theology and the Srivaisnava notion of arcavatara.
A crucial moment in any comparison is die contrast. While there is much in the Srivaisnava conception of arcavatara that resonates with Catholic Christianity, two areas raise questions from a Catholic perspective. The first question concerns the relationship of individual to community in worship. Does arcavatara devotion, which so richly emphasizes the relational love (bhakti) between the deity and the devotee, contain an inherent dynamism toward others? The beauty of the arca sparks an emotional response that is best described as a desire to take refuge in the Lord.  The history of Catholic eucharistic devotion is certainly full of a similar individual focus. However, the tendency in Catholic theology today is to recover the centrality of eucharist as a communal event. Worship should not only strengthen the ties between God and believer; it should also unite believer to believer, prompting all to a life of service and love for others.  Inspired by this recovered insight within her or his own traditi on, the Catholic Christian engaged in dialogue should ask how puja and the experience of bhakti are not only moments within a community but also catalysts toward love and service of neighbor.
A second group of questions surrounds the Srivaisnava notion of suddha sattva. The theology surrounding the substance of the arca allows the Srivaisnava to claim that the God of heaven is present on earth. However, does the luminous and nonearthly "stuff" of the arcavatara keep the divine from truly entering into this world? A similar question was asked by Joseph Neuner several decades ago, comparing avatara and incarnation. Is there not a difference between a God who becomes fully human and suffers and a God who appears human, walking on earth as God in a human form?  The full humanity of the Son of God is important for Christians because, in the words of the ancient maxim, "that which is not assumed is not redeemed." Christianity emphasizes the value of this world, God's good creation. Though fallen through sin, this world will ultimately be transformed and redeemed. "Sacramentality" points not simply to sights and sounds but also to the real value of created realities. Eucharist, as sacrament, is part of a salvation that encompasses all aspects of human existence--indeed embraces the entire world. Does the transcendental purity of arcavatara, as a-prakrta (nonmaterial), reveal a similar concern with prakrta (material, nature, the created world)? Does this tradition that seems to rejoice in the sense world, in colors and sounds, shapes and smells, ultimately offer hope for this world in which we live?
These questions reveal that there can be no easy comparison between arcavatara and eucharist, for both traditions incorporate different attitudes toward the world and the individual's relationship to others. While these problems cannot be ignored, they do not make a deeper dialogue impossible. Just as the Catholic Christian raises questions about arcavatara, so Srivaisnava thought and worship question Catholic attitudes and approaches. At least three related observations offer indications toward and resources for continued dialogue between arcavatara and eucharist.
First, the intimacy and accessibility (saulabhya) of Visnu is the heart of arcavatara as well as its most compelling teaching. Yet this intimacy is masterfully balanced in Srivaisnava thought with divine transcendence (paratva). John Carman has pointed out the centrality of this polarity in the thought of Srivaisnava's most important acarya, Ramanuja.  Rather than seeing these divine attributes as paradoxical, Carman has insisted that Ramanuja tries to harmonize the two poles, seeing them as complementary. The Srivaisnava community, so shaped by this sense of complementary polarities, interprets the presence of God in the arca according to the same harmony of presence and distance--the divine Visnu is in the image; acts of devotion include both gestures of respect and of familiarity. While the way in which this theology maintains God's transcendence (that is, through the concept of suddha sativa) can be questioned, it nevertheless emphasizes a balance not always maintained in eucharistic theology. Exten ding this observation to the actual liturgical practice of Catholic Christians, such a complementary polarity challenges the false dichotomy at times set up between awe-inspiring worship and worship marked by intimacy and familiarity.  Must communities celebrating eucharist choose between a liturgy of transcendence and detachment and a liturgy of community and involvement? Are there ways to incorporate insights from arca devotion in emphasizing Christian rituals that evoke God's sublimity as well as God's intimate accessibility?
Second, the Srivaisnava balance between transcendence and accessibility in the arca is explained by Visnu's desire to be in relationship with devotees. God freely descends to dwell among creatures so that they might see and adore God. Acts of devotion surrounding the arca serve primarily to foster a relationship. Worship for the Srivaisnava is bhakti--sharing, devotion, love, a relationship that leads to salvation. While the ambiguity of arca devotion with regard to love of neighbor was mentioned above, the category of relation resonates with contemporary movements in eucharistic theology.  Recent trends in trinitarian theology have recovered the fundamental relationality at the heart of the doctrine. The mystery of the triune God affirms a God who extends outward into relationships in order to draw creation into the trinitarian dynamic of love. This insight has naturally found its way into eucharistic theology--suggesting the liturgy as a special place for communion, both between God and human beings an d among the community of worshipers. The concept of relation provides a second potential theme for continued dialogue.
Third, Visnu descends to the arca and makes himself accessible in order to reveal himself to the devotee. The Hindu concept of darsan and the importance attached to the physical beauty of the arca point to the belief that the devotee sees and thus knows God in worship. Visnu chooses to become intimate and enters into relationship by presenting himself in the arca in order to attract the love and captivate the hearts of human beings. God is truly revealed in the image. Eucharist, as sacrament, has not always exhibited such a clear revelatory role for Catholics. The redemptive function of the sacraments has always been emphasized in Catholic theology; less evident has been the way in which God becomes known through one's participation in these events of worship. Revelation has been the near exclusive domain of the Word. Arcavatara invites not only continued discussion on the nature of revelation and the purpose of worship; it also encourages a better integration, on the part of Catholics, between the sacrament s and the revealing Word of God.
In moments of resonance and in moments of dissonance, the Christian engaged in comparative theology develops a keener ear for listening to her or his own tradition. This introduction to the Srivaisnava notion of arcavatara reveals a pattern of history, ritual, and theoretical speculation not unlike Christianity's own complex movement. Beyond broad patterns, the implications of arcavatara for Catholic Christianity are several. The Srivaisnava notion fosters a delight in the senses and the sacramental that affirms Catholic sensibilities, while its view of the material world and of the neighbor needs further exploration. Yet the balance of transcendence and accessibility, the attention to relation and revelation involved in arcavatara suggest theological points of entry for the Catholic Christian, offering the possibility of a continuing, mutually enriching dialogue.
Edward P. Hahnenberg (Roman Catholic) is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in ecciesiology and liturgical studies. His dissertation is on the theology of lay ecclesial ministry. He holds a B.A. and M.A. (1997) from the University of Notre Dame and studied at the Ecumenical Institute for Theological Study at Tantur in 1993 through the Notre Dame Foreign Study Program. He was a full-time substitute teacher at St. Mary's High School in Lake Leelanau, MI, in 1994, and was a graduate assistant (1998-99) and summer faculty (2000) in the University of Notre Dame's Theology Dept. During 2000, he has been part of the teaching team for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at the U.N.D. Campus Ministry. He received a Duke Pastoral Leadership Project Dissertation Fellowship from Duke Divinity School's J. M. Ormond Center for 2000-01. He published "Who Is at Work? Ecclesiology and Domus Dei" in Worship (July, 2000), and has other articles and reviews forthcomi ng in Worship and Assembly.
(1.) Vasudha Narayanan, "Arcavatara: On Earth as He Is in Heaven," in Joanne Punzo Waghome and Norman Cutler, eds., with Vasudha Narayanan, Gods of Flesh/Gods of Stone: The Embodiment of Divinity in India (Chambersburg. PA: Anima Publications, 1985), p. 53. See also idem, The Vernacular Veda (Columbia. SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1994), and idem, "The Goddess Sri: The Blossoming Lotus and Breast Jewel of Visnu," in John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds., The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India, Berkeley Religious Studies Series (Berkeley, CA: Graduate Theological Union, 1982), pp. 224-237. For a concise historical overview of the rise of Srivaisnavism, see Thomas J. Hopkins, The Hindu Religious Tradition (Encino, CA: Dickenson Publishing Co., 1971), pp. 108-130
(2.) John Braisted Carman, The Theology of Ramanuja: An Essay in Interreligious Understanding (New Haven, CT, and London Yale University Press, 1974), p. 24. See also Julius J. Lipner, The Face of Truth: A Study of Meaning and Metaphysics in the Vedantic Theology of Ramanuja (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986).
(3.) Friedhelm Hardy, "Ideology and Cultural Contexts of the Srivaisnava Temple," The Indian Economic and Social History Review 14 (January-March, 1977): 121.
(5.) The traditional and sacred number is 108.
(6.) Hardy, "Ideology and Cultural Contexts," p. 122.
(7.) The Gupta Period runs from the fourth through the seventh centuries C.E. See Diana L. Eck, Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India, 3rd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p.39. Also see Jitendra Nath Banerjea, The Development of Hindu Iconography, 2nd ed. (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1974).
(8.) Hardy, "Ideology and Cultural Contexts," p. 125.
(9.) See John B. Carman, Majesty and Meekness: A Comparative Study of Contrast and Harmony in the Concept of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), pp. 210-212, for a listing of the principal avataras of Lord Visnu.
(10.) Carman, Theology of Ramanuja, pp. 180,299,307.
(11.) Hardy, "Ideology and Cultural Contexts," p. 128.
(12.) Carman, Theology of Ramanuja, pp. 77ff.
(13.) This is Eck's approach; see her Darsan, pp. 32ff.
(14.) Ibid., p.33.
(15.) Narayanan, "Arcavatara," pp. 58-61.
(16.) Eck, Darsan, p. 38.
(17.)Narayanan, "Arcavatara," pp. 55-58.
(18.) Eck, Darsan, p. 51.
(19.) See Pandurang Vaman Kane, History of Dharmasastra (Ancient and Mediaeval Religious and Civil Law), 2nd ed, rev, and enlr., vol. 2, pt. 2, Government Oriental Series, Class B, no. 6 (Poona: Bandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1974), pp. 896-904, for an extensive treatment.
(20.) Eck, Darsan, pp. 52-53.
(21.) See Monier Monier-Williams, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, new ed. (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1999), p. 743, cols. 1 and 2.
(22.) Eck, Darsan, pp. 3ff.
(23.) Ibid., p. 45.
(24.) Hardy, "Ideology and Cultural Contexts," pp. 132-135.
(25.) Ibid., pp. 135-141.
(26.) Ibid., pp. 141-142.
(27.) As in any particular Christian tradition, Srivaisnavism encompasses a plurality of theological views. As the notes reveal, the following discussion points to those common elements in the Srivaisnava theology of Arcavataragleaned by Vasudha Narayanan, in her "Arcavatara."
(28.) Narayanan, "Arcavatara," p. 54.
(31.) Ibid. Recently, Gerhard Oberhammer traced the use and theological sense of antary amin in various Vedantic contexts, giving special attention to Ramanuja and his school SeeDer "Innere Lenker" (Antaryami): Geschichte eines Theologems, Materialien zur Geschichte der Ramanuja Schule 4 (Vienna: Verlag der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1998).
(32.) Narayanan, "Arcavatara," p. 54. See also Carman, Majesty and Meekness, p. 195.
(33.) "The three gunas in Indian philosophy are sattva (purity), rajas (passion, emotion), and tamas (darkness, ignorance)" (Narayanan, "Arcavatara," p. 61, n. 22).
(34.) Ibid., p. 61.
(35.) Ibid, p. 62.
(37.) Ibid., n. 25.
(38.) Carman, Majesty and Meekness, p. 195.
(39.) Narayanan, "Arcavatara," p. 62, quoting his Sri Vacana Bhusanam, ed. P. B. Annangaracarya (Kancipuram: P. B. Annangaracarya Publications, 1966), sutra 39.
(40.) Eck, Darsan, p. 46.
(41.) Joanne Punzo Waghome, "Introduction," in Waghome and Cutler, Gods of Flesh, pp. 2-5. See F. Max Muller, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religions of India, The Hibbert Lectures, Westminster Abbey, April, May, and June, 1878 (London Longmans, Green, and Co., and Williams and Norgate, 1878).
(42.) For background on the theology and spirituality of icons, see John Baggley, Doors of Perception: Icons and Their Spiritual Significance (London: Mowbray, 1987); Albert C. Moore, Iconography of Religions: An Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), pp. 228ff; Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, tr. Anthony Gythiel, with Elizabeth Meyendorff, 2 vols. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, [C] 1978, 1992); Egon Sendler, The Icon: Image of the Invisible (Redondo Beach, CA: Oakwood Publications, 1988). Comparing Arcavatara devotion and icon veneration remains a rich, yet underexplored, area.
(43.) Note The "Painter's Manual" of Dionysius of Fourna, tr. Paul Hetherington (Redondo Beach, CA: Oakwood Publications, 1989).
(44.) Richard Temple, "The Painting of Icons," appendix in Baggley, Doors of Perception, p. 99; emphasis in original.
(45.) Diana L. Eck, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1993), p. 83.
(46.) "Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism, new ed. (San Francisco, CA, and New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), pp. 9-10. See David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York Crossroad, 1981).
(47.) An important exception is Klaus K. Klostermaier, Kristvidya: A Sketch of an Indian Christology (Bangalore: Christian Institute for thc Study of Religion and Society, 1967), pp. 31-32, which contains a paragraph not only and comparing Arcavatara to cucharist but also relating other forms of Visnu's presence to Christian categories.
(48.) "See, in particular, Eck, Encountering God, pp. 81-1l7. Note Joseph Neuner, "Das Christus-Mysterium und die indische Lehre von den Avataras," in Aloys Grillmeier and Heinrich Bacht, eds., Das Kanzil von Chalkedon: Geschichte und Gegenwart, vol. 3 (Wurzburg Echter-Verlag. 1954), pp. 785-824; Carman, Majesty and Meekness, Geoffrey Parrinder, Avatar and Incarnation: The Wilde Lectures in Natural and Comparative Religion in the University of Oxford (London: Faber and Faber, New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970); Daniel E. Bassuk, Incarnation in Hinduism and Christianity: The Myth of the God-Man (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1987), and Prashant Miranda, Avatar and Incarnation: A Comparative Analysts (New Delhi: Harman, 1990).
(49.) "On samskaras, see Klaus K Klostemaier, "The Hindu Sacraments: The Samskaras," chap. 11 of his A Survey of Hinduism, 2nd ed. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994), pp. 183-192; and Gavin Flood, "Hinduism," in Jean Holm, ed., with John Bowker, Rites of Passage, Themes in Religious Studies Series (London and New York Pinter Publishers, 1994), pp. 66-89.
(50.) See the important article by Edward Schillebeeckx "Transubstantiation, Transfinalization, Transignification," Worship 40 (June-July, 1966): 324-338.
(51.) Albert Houssiau, "The Rediscovery of the liturgy by Sacramental Theology (1950-1980)." Studio Liturgica, vol. 15, nos. 3/4(1982/1983), p. 158.
(52.) Nazayanan, "Arcavatara,"p. 63.
(53.) Fr. Virgil Michel, O.S.B, is as an outstanding example of one who has attempted to connect liturgy and social justice. For an introduction, see the 1988 symposium collected in John R Roach et al., eds., The Future of the Catholic Church in America: Major Papers of the Virgil Michel Symposium (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), as well as Kenneth Himes, "Eucharist and Justice: Assessing the Legacy of Virgil Michel," Worship 62 (May, 1988): 201-224. Particularly helpful is Virgil Michel, The Social Question: Essays on Capitalism and Christianity, ed. Robert Spaeth (Collegeville, MN: St John's University, 1987).
(54.) Neuner, "Das Christus- Mysterium," pp. 816-824. See Eck, Encountering God, pp. 85ff.
(55.) Sec Carman, "Ramanuja's Theology of Vishnu: God's Supremacy and Accessibility," chap. 5 of his Majesty and Meekness, pp. 79-100.
(56.) See Richard R. Gaillardetz, "North American Culture and the Liturgical Life of the Church: The Separation of the Quests for Transcendence and Community," Worship 68 (September, 1994): 403-416.
(57.) See Catherine Mowry LcCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: Harper-SanFrancisco, 1991); and Jean Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995).
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|Author:||Hahnenberg, Edward P.|
|Publication:||Journal of Ecumenical Studies|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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