Organized Panel Session
Gurus have been central figures in South Asia for over two millennia. Although the terminology may differ, all traditions have emphasized the need for spiritual teachers or guides. Despite its ubiquity, the guru as an institution has been neither uniform nor static. This panel looks at 200 years of guru reformulation from the angles of visual culture and ethnography. Within two western Indian traditions, the Jain and Swaminarayan, how have the material and visual portrayals of gurus changed over time? What might account for these aesthetic and religious changes? From recent ethnography, what characteristics have emerged in Jain and Swaminarayan gurus’ public presentations of self that provide new modes of experiencing the guru?
The panel’s four papers are informed by religious studies, textual, art historical, and ethnographic analyses. Each offers differently realized but converging arguments on the highly personalized and humanly-accessible guru. In the Jain traditions that have favored the impersonal and de-individualized form of the guru, photographs of contemporary Jain gurus convey a reformulated relationship of follower to guru. The Swaminarayan sampradaya’s earlier focus on guru images depicting human and divine characteristics has shifted over time to guru portraiture highlighting distinctly human-like aspects. For contemporary Jain and Swaminarayan communities, the visibly human and less-explicitly sectarian guru is the wellspring of compassion and care for those seeking a personal guide in challenging times.
This panel furthers discussions on guru transformations as indexical of political and social shifts, showing how the guru remains vital in contemporary Indian culture and society.