Puja and Piety

Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist Art from the Indian Subcontinent

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Pratapaditya Pal
  • Berkeley, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , April
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Puja and Piety, the newest photographic and academic book by Pratapaditya Pal, a well-established scholar of Asian art and culture, explores three of the main religions found on the Indian Subcontinent; Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Pal works for both museums and universities and is known as the eminent scholar of Indian art in the United States. It is quite fitting for him to spear head this multi religious exploration. Four other senior scholars contribute to this work, exploring the diversity and function of art, ritual, and worship. Puja and Piety dives into a different aspect of the three religions using art and artifacts. The aim of this book is to show how art melds with religion and spirituality. The images included in this volume are examples of complex understandings of devotion, veneration, and worship.

The three contributing articles go into depth regarding how each religion- Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism- developed throughout the centuries and how each perfected their own ways of performing puja and piety. Stephen Huyler is an art historian and cultural anthropologist specializing in Indian and Hindu art. Huyler does a succinct job in documenting the many facets of Hinduism, its rituals, and how its many followers have practice for thousands of years. John Cort a professor of Asian and comparative religions explores Jain art and piety. Cort states that among the three religions discussed in the book, Jainism and it’s art have not been adequately studied despite its rich tradition. Christian Luczanits is a lecturer of Tibetan and Buddhist art and his article explores Buddhist art and worship. Luczanits’ article provides the last piece of the puzzle, showing how the Indian religions created and adapted icons, art, and worship.

This book is the companion guide for an exhibit at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) during a three-month period in 2016. The foreword, written by SBMA’s Director and CEO Larry Feinberg, explains the exhibit to which hosted over 150 pieces from twelve regional private lenders, some of which are from the personal collections of Pal and Huyler. Feinberg states that the main purpose of the exhibit and book is to highlight the complex relationship between art and puja. Feinberg describes the factors considered for artifact selection – how did the piece function for the believer, for the community, and for the religion. Those pieces selected for display were used in both private and public spaces; stressing how both are equally vital in everyday life.

Pal states that while these three religions are different, they have shared elements. One of which is the substantial focus on images and symbols to express devotion. Image and iconography are central to Indian religious praxis. Pal does a decent job of spelling out the rich and complex history of India for non-academics. For these authors, puja and piety go hand and hand. Though intended as a companion exhibit guide, this book can be a stand-alone work – for both academics and non-academics. Puja and Piety strategically provides in-depth articles that explore the pieces displayed in the exhibit, how they function for the religion’s believers, and how the artifacts exhibits religious elements. There are moments within the articles that a seasoned Indic religious studies scholar would find elementary as well as moments which display critical analysis of function and meaning. At times throughout the multiple essays, paragraphs jumped from one element to another without a concise flow. As a companion guide is a large endeavor, the articles attempted to discuss all of the items displayed in the exhibit and that alone requires sacrifice for precise arguments.

The book does shows how statues, iconography, and other objects that are central to ritual worship, personify religious ideas and become the very vessel of divine embodiment. Puja and Piety does an admirable jo in showing that images and icons are powerful, even when they are on exhibit in a museum. It illustrates that art is an avenue for people to explore and express their spiritual needs. Fundamental elements like that of darśan -the mutual direct eye-contact of deity and devotee- the symbols of the banyan tree, lotus, and elephants are all explored. Puja and Piety hits home, demonstrating the power of images and that images, statues, and paintings can be just as powerful for the devotees as they are for one participating in pilgrimages or during onsite temple worship. Even when the images and statues are “retired” and no longer function in their intended role, they still carry the essence of the divine. The handling of images, icons, and statues associated with specific rituals, prayers, and states of purity requires reverence as the images, in all forms, are sacrosanct and need respect, honor, and veneration.

Puja and Piety is highly useful in exploring how these elements, icons, and figures blend and mold within each religion while constantly influencing each other - mandalas, stupas, statues, and even the deities themselves. Each article does an adequate job in providing the history of the religion and the movers and shakers who influenced ritual, worship, and religious thought. Each article wrestles with how piety and puja are the tools which the devotee use in their life journey and spiritual practice. All three religions place importance on daily worship in both private and public atmospheres. Puja and Piety is a great companion to the SBMA exhibit, a visually stunning coffee table conversation piece, and a stellar tool for use in a classroom to provide graphic, tactical examples of function and worship. Puja and Piety is a photographic journey exploring the intricate relationship that art holds within religion and lived spirituality.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anjeanette LeBoeuf is a doctoral candidate at the Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
March 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Pratapaditya Pal has been affiliated with many prominent museums and universities as a curator and a teacher. He has organized numerous groundbreaking exhibitions on the arts of Asia; has written more than sixty books and catalogues on the ancient art and culture of India, Nepal, and Tibet; and was the general editor of Marg, a journal of art and culture published in India. His publications include Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure, Indian Sculpture (2 vols.), and Art of Nepal.



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