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Exploring Aniconism: IAHR 2015 Panel Review

Mikael Aktor reviews the panel he co-organised on Aniconism at the 2015 IAHR World Conference in Erfurt, Germany.

Anicionic objects from different religious traditions together form a broad category of religious material sources. In fact, it seems both too broad and incoherent. It includes clearly recognizable depictions of wheels, fish, phalli, unmanufactured objects and elements in the natural environment such as unwrought stones, trees, rivers and mountains, fashioned objects, such as stelai and logs, as well as empty spaces, such as vacant seats, and empty rooms. While all of these objects are described as ‘aniconic’ at least in some religious traditions, they differ dramatically in their religious agency and manner of mediating divine presence. A South Asian river can be a Hindu goddess, while it is hardly an image of her. Similarly, a black meteorite could be described as Cybele the mother goddess, yet it does not seem to articulate a vision of the divinity’s imagined appearance. At the same time, a river and a stone have markedly different physical and visual relations to their viewers and worshippers as well as the deities to which they are linked. In order to explore the range of aniconism, Mikael Aktor and Milette Gaifman organised a panel at the 21st World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR)to discuss these questions.
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Between Temples and Toilets: Sanitation Worship in India

Jacqueline Cieslak artfully describes the complicated relationships between sanitation, reverence, and political contrivance in contemporary India. Cieslak focuses on the phenomenon of ‘The Toilet’ and its objectification as artefact and cultural institution. She argues that officials have not simply recruited religious imagery but that sanitation itself has become an object of worship.

Ayodhya’s sacred landscape: ritual memory, politics and archaeological “fact”

Julia Shaw provides an alternative archaeological perspective on the polarizing issues surrounding the contested site of Ayodhya, India and its significance in Hindu religious imagination as the birthplace of the deity Rama. Written in 2000, this article is a succinct reminder of what a materialized study of religion has to offer to the analysis of disputed sites. In 1992, the ‘Babri Masjid’ (Babri mosque) in Ayodhya was destroyed by Hindu sectarians who claimed the site as the birthplace of the Hindu deity Rama. In 2010, the Allahabad High Court ruled that the disputed site be divided between three parties (Sunni Muslim Waqf board, the Hindu Maha Sabha representing the deity Ram Lalla, and the Hindu Nirmohi Akhara). The verdict was suspended, following appeals, by the Indian Supreme Court in 2011. The debate continues.

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