Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory

Can gazing at profound images heal our minds?

Posted Mar 10, 2010

Within a single hour yesterday, I saw a moody winter sunset, a used diaper discarded in a gutter, an almond-fudge ice-cream cone, the televised image of a serial rapist, and a framed painting of a vivid turquoise Buddha emitting rainbow rays. Which of these images will remain in my mind the longest? Did any of them alter my core beliefs or spark some yet-unknown-but-profound series of events?

The very fact that we can see makes us so vulnerable. We are moved, manipulated, and controlled by what passes before our eyes. Advertisers know this, as do propagandists, politicians and promoters of celebrities. We can be traumatized by certain sights. Can we also be healed?

Can we make profound emotional, psychological and/or spiritual changes in ourselves by spending more time looking more intently at images meant to produce those effects?

That's the idea behind religious iconography. Just as repetition and suggestion make us think we need Taylor Swift CDs and Olive Garden lunches, devotional images have inspired lifelong faith in countless believers for thousands of years. They feel touched, helped, guarded and guided by the figures represented in these paintings, carvings, printed images, medallions, murals, frescoes, figurines and stained-glass windows -- just by virtue of having gazed upon them in a contemplative state of mind.

"The images that we take in with our eyes are going to shape our lives. If we're so influenced by images, then why not turn toward looking at things that have been used as positive images for thousands of years?" asks art historian Siddhartha V. Shah, whom I met yesterday.

He's a leading expert on modern Tantric art, a controversial new movement in which Nepali painters present Buddhist and Hindu deities with Renaissance, Baroque, and Bollywood techniques and sensibilities. A far cry from the flat geometrics of traditional Himalayan art, these images are 3D, with flexed fingers and visible abs.

Crowned by a hot-pink halo, a brick-red Bodhisattva of Compassion rides a sapphire sea on the lotus-studded half-shell. A strapping Krishna does yoga. Charitable sixtysomething wine-seller Sukhasiddhi, transformed by a guru into sex-bomb, displays her vagina. Royal-blue and haggard, squatting Kali wields a severed head in one of her eight hands; a few dozen more hang around her neck.

A far cry from what Shah calls the "cute Krishnas" and "goody-goody, almost Vatican-style Hinduism" displayed on mass-market posters in India, the Nepali images invoke primal urges in what approaches visual overload.

"We have this word in Sanskrit: darshan," Shah said yesterday in the Oakland, California, restaurant where he will auction off some of these paintings at a benefit later this month. "It means 'to see.' In India, instead of reading ancient scripture, families pile into cars, trains or buses and travel for hours at a stretch -- even overnight -- to temples. There they stand on line, like people do at theme parks, waiting their turn to get inside and then just to stare at an image of a deity -- even at a stone representing the deity. The more you look at it, the more it is believed that it's going to protect you."

With ultra-bright colors, tiny sparkling flecks, and hair-fine details that can best be relished through a magnifying glass, the modern Tantric paintings are "high art, but also religious art," says Shah, who used to sell Picassos and Warhols but now tours the world exhibiting and lecturing on the new Tantric work.

"Art has been a major tool for so many religions because of this idea that contemplation of the sacred image -- gazing into the eyes of the beloved -- is something that can get you somewhere." His childhood home was peppered with images of Hindu deities, "because my mother always said that wherever you were in the house, you should see gods, and gods should see you."

He continues this tradition by incorporating the modern Nepali paintings into his own daily spiritual practice. But deliberately choosing what to view, when to view it and how much of it to view could arguably have psychological effects in secular contexts just as powerful as choosing what to eat or what to wear.

As used in advertisements, images keep us stuck, Shah said.

"The first time you see an ad for Ugg boots, you think they're ugly. But by the time you've see four or five ads and four or five people actually wearing Ugg boots on the street, you think they're beautiful and you want a pair.

"It is through the images that we choose to contemplate that we truly know who we are. We should bring into our lives those images that make us feel alive and awake."