Beliefnet spoke with renowned photographer Stephen Huyler about the exhibit "Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion" at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Huyler has traveled extensively in India documenting Hindu religious traditions on film and in books. View more exhibit photos.
"Meeting God" opened right around the time of the World Trade Center attack. Did you have any doubts?
Absolutely. I thought, oh my God, why do we want to be in a museum at a time when we just want to recover and be concerned with whether to retaliate? But very quickly after that people told me the exhibit is more important than ever. That it's a divine message. It gives a face and place to South Asia when Americans need to know more and have underlying, common denominators, about the sacredness of home and the necessary balance of masculine and feminine, of wrong and right.
|"The exhibit creates sanctuary. Right now when America needs to figure out what sanctuary is, what reaching out is."|
There's also an irony that at the time of the tragedy there was a 30-foot banner on Central Park West proclaiming "Meeting God." You can't second-guess faith. You can't second-guess divine purpose.
What can Hinduism teach us about coping with the disaster?
The Indian point of view teaches me that something may come of this. Rather than the Islamic extremists thinking America is evil and rather than many Americans thinking they are evil it may simply be a divine process. Hindu civilization teaches that.
Our (Western) religions tend to look at masculine as superior to the feminine, and good as exclusive of evil. We are at a male-generated aggression, generated by a male God. And we need to listen to the balance which is one of the primary, defining characteristics of Hinduism.
You have Shiva and Shakti. The exhibit is trying to show that one in six human beings lives with an understanding of the need for balance of the masculine and feminine. The nurturing, listening, recognizing aspect of the female. Rather than this "go-out-and-bomb `em" aspect.
But aren't some Hindu groups attempting to define what Hindu ways are?
Yes, but that's a relatively recent phenomenon. It's a politicized Hinduism that is not as widely expressed. I've been doing this for thirty years and I don't see this in the India of the masses. I see it when politicians are trying to make a point.
However, I don't think that Hinduism is a utopian system. There's a lot of imbalance. Social restriction is one of those imbalances. But there's an irony because there's also a remarkable freedom of choice in Ishta-devata (personal deity).
Hinduism is not one religion. It's hundreds of religions. It's a group of religions that have some common denominators. India loves to express its regionalism and it certainly does. There's a strong difference from how Vishnu is worshipped through Jagannath in Orissa versus Balaji in Tirupati or Srinathji in Haridwar.
In the exhibit, there is a focus on the mundane aspects of Hindu worship. What were you trying to set out to accomplish with your exhibition?
I didn't want to dazzle. I wanted the viewer to feel he could have a one-to-one relationship. I think that's the basis of Hinduism. It's about personal experience. Most of the huge temples, even the extraordinary temples, they create a sense of awe, but beyond that, if you watch devotees, it's still about personal response. They're responding in very different ways.
I experienced Indian in a very color-saturated way. My photographic process has been getting past my own inhibitions to portraying the intimacy of devotion. But I realized it was my own inhibitions. I would never take a photo without being given permission. But for years I would work from the outside, with a telephoto lens, rather than the inside. If I'm in a relationship with the devotee my camera becomes an extension of me.
Have you had any particularly profound experiences during your travels through India?
The photograph - it's the cover of my book - is of a pujari adding ghee to a sacred fire. That was about six years ago. I was there at that tree shrine and it's the Goddess of that community in Orissa. Normally she's just worshipped by villagers but at that ritual they were trying to solve a village crisis. There was a special Chandi puja in which Chandi was invoked in the tree and there were many other gods and goddesses invoked in order that the village elder could talk to Chandi.
It was such a privilege to be there. I was photographing and videotaping the ritual and yet I was also very responsive to what was going on. Until that moment, I was an observer and prided myself on being objective. But I felt a palpable change in the atmosphere. You could've knocked me over with a feather. I went from observer to participant. Before that, part of me stood outside. Part of me held back, as an American and someone who'd been brought up Christian. I no longer have that level of doubt. That was the single most important, seminal experience in my life: that I was transformed at the moment Chandi was transformed.
You make it a point to break certain stereotypes, such as the view of women.
In the west, we tend to think of women (in India) as less than. But the power of the woman is in the home. We see them as housewives. Not that there isn't abuse - there is - but it's not the defining characteristic of Indian women. Female infanticide or sati or bride burning is not the norm, it's the exception.
I think the majority of our windows into Hinduism have been through Brahmanism, as a male practice. But if you see the majority being being practiced in the home. There are no two shrines alike, because they identify the character of that individual and family.