I recently read a fascinating article by Christopher P Jones, ‘Decoding Reflections: The Meaning of Mirrors in Art’, where the author talks about some important European paintings featuring mirrors, and explains the role and symbolism of the mirror in each painting. After reading it, I thought of the depiction of mirrors in Indian art and how these might reflect Indian ideas (pun intended!) about the symbolism of the mirror in religious thought and practice.
The image above shows a section from the mid-18th century Bundi painting ‘A Glimpse of the Loved One’. This painting shows an exchange of glances through a mirror. The catalogue text suggests that this setup might have happened in a purely fortuitous manner, with the curtain thrown aside by the breeze to reveal a handsome young man just at the moment when the mirror is being held up for the seated lady to see herself, perhaps in the midst of dressing after a bath. A second lady holding the mirror is perhaps the one who cleverly seizes the chance to bring about this exchange of glances.
The painting thus depicts a moment of sudden emotion. What kind of emotion? The lady has a flash of realization, firstly, of the presence of another person, secondly, of herself as an attractive woman in his eyes, and thirdly, of the welling up of romantic feelings within her own heart. As the catalogue describes –
“Almost certainly, it is the first meeting of the eyes – purva raga – that the painter renders here … Suddenly … a light wind begins to blow, displacing the brief curtain thrown over a window of the house next door, revealing a young man who peers out … his face gets reflected in the mirror that the nayika was just beginning to gaze into … Things, it would seem, are beginning to happen.”[Domains of Wonder, B.N. Goswamy & Caron Smith; p.88]
In this way, mirrors have a special connection with the admiration of beauty and hence with romance, but also with a heightened degree of self-consciousness. When we look into a mirror, we become self-consciously aware of our own appearance and thereby of ourselves as unique individuals in the world. Thus mirrors are also used as a device within spiritual traditions. Mirrors are gazed into in meditative contemplation of the self to achieve enlightenment, and in some temples, the deity is worshipped in the form of a mirror. As Naman Ahuja explains, mirrors are “receptacles of divine energy”. They “encourag[e] meditative interiorisation [and thereby] communicate that abstract idea of what the god does without making the body of a god”.
In fact, variations on the basic theme of this painting are seen in other examples from Indian painting. Thus Abhinavagupta discusses a slightly racier version of just this type of scene –
Even though a young lady furtively presses a mirror, beautiful with the reflection of an attractive [face], against her breasts, she doesn’t feel satisfied.[Tantrāloka Chapter 3, verse 6; my own translation]
The reflection here symbolizes our ordinary understanding of reality, which fills us full of furtive desires for its objects, but which, according to Abhinavagupta’s discussion, ultimately leaves us unsatisfied. Thus from a spiritual perspective, we should realize the illusoriness of our everyday conceptions of reality and understand that it is our own nature that stands behind it. Again the analogy of a mirror is used, whereby the conceptions that animate our everyday life are like a mere reflection in a mirror, and what is being reflected is our own inner nature. Śaṅkara, whose birth anniversary was celebrated earlier this month, summarizes this insight as follows –
I bow to that form of the guru, Śrī Dakṣiṇāmūrti, who, at the time of [spiritual] awakening, makes apparent the non-duality of one’s own nature, which [ordinarily] sees the universe which is within oneself as if it’s outside, like a city being viewed reflected in a mirror, due to illusion [māyā], like in a dream.[Dakṣiṇāmūrti-stotra; Verse 1 of stotra proper; my own translation]
Indeed, we can certainly relate to occasions in everyday life where a sudden emotional realization transforms our understanding of ourselves and our environment, and such a moment has an almost spiritual quality. A famous verse from the Vijñāna Bhairava similarly explains –
“At the beginning and end of sneezing, in a state of fear or sorrow, (standing) on top of an abyss or while fleeing from a battlefield, at the moment of intense curiosity, at the beginning or end of hunger; such a state comes close to the reality of Brahman.”[Vijñāna Bhairava p.145, verse 118, translated by Swami Lakshman Joo]
In the Indian context, romantic love is frequently a symbol for spiritual feeling, and we can perhaps understand the two ladies who have control over the mirror as Śakti, the power of variety and dynamism in our apparent reality, and the young man whose gaze is unwittingly caught in the mirror as Śiva, the static, unitary, passive witness to this play of activity.
The article I mentioned at the start of this article describes and illustrates five roles of mirrors in European art – The Irresistible Mirror; Mirrors of Self-Knowledge; The Sinful Mirror; The Truthful Mirror; The Worldly Mirror. Based on the discussion above, then, we might say that in Indian art, the mirror can play a role as instrument of romance, or as instrument of spiritual self-realization, or perhaps as both simultaneously.