Roaring lion of the national emblem

Although the depiction in every minute detail looks exactly like the original in Sarnath, the national emblem carries an altogether different meaning.
The national emblem of India on top of the new Parliament building
The national emblem of India on top of the new Parliament building

Referring to the symbolism of the lion capital of Sarnath, Roy C. Craven says, “. . . the Buddha’s clan, the Shakyas, had the lion its totem, so the lion may refer to him as well. The Buddha is often called a “lion” and his words, “the voice of the lion” or simhaghosha. It is tempting to suggest that the four addorsed lions, with their open mouths, may have served as a dual metaphor, referring both to Ashoka, whose words were inscribed on the pillar, . . . and to Shakyamuni and his teachings, some of which were first revealed at Sarnath.”

However, when the same image is used as the national emblem, such symbolism is not as meaningful as it was in the specific time and place of its origin.

Although the depiction in every minute detail looks exactly like the original in Sarnath, the national emblem carries an altogether different meaning. It no more serves as a Buddhist or Ashokan symbol but as an image of the nation that has “imagined” or reconstructed a glorious past in which Buddhism and non-violence had deep roots in religious and political life. In essence, it becomes an iconic image representing a unique history that every Indian is taught and expected to be proud of. What was once a religious symbol thus turned out as a secular image of the nation.

Under the influence of Persian art, Mauryan art, as a whole, manifests a distinct sculptural stylisation. It is perceptible in the Sarnath lion. Set in a strictly symmetrical posture, the lion looks far from the real one because of its decorative flourish that vividly appears in the detailing of the face, whiskers and the richly carved thick mane. This artistic interplay between the real and abstraction renders the lion extra-ordinarily beautiful. Although it looks ‘roaring’, its ferocity is toned down to gently suggest a metaphor of supreme power—the power of dharma of Shakyamuni.

The artists who re-produced the lion in the national emblem seem to be incapable of perceiving this crucial point that determines the Mauryan style. Although the artists claimed that there was “no deviation” but “paid attention to details”, their recast is, in a single and simple term, repulsive. It is, for many reasons, not the result of scaling and angle of visibility, as it is often justified, but obviously a product of their insensitive eyes which misguided their skill in copying the subtle beauty of the original. That apart, it seems there was a conscious effort to deviate from the classical, majestic lion to turn it into a wild, aggressive, over-eaten, taut-muscled beast of naturalism for the new emblem. Its intimidating expression is so perceptible that no one can lose sight of it. Being “more ferocious”, this lion in the forest was the epicentre of the controversy. Its defenders prove it further. Anupam Kher tweeted: “If the lion has teeth, it will, of course, show them. This is, after all, the lion of independent India. If needed, the lion will bite, too.”

Lion capital of Ashokan Pillar, Sarnath, c. 250 BC
Lion capital of Ashokan Pillar, Sarnath, c. 250 BC

The Kashmir Files Director, Vivek Agnihotri, reacted similarly in his tweet: “The new national emblem at the Central Vista has proved one thing that. . . urban naxals want a silent lion without teeth. So that they can use it as a pet.” The defenders themselves acknowledge the change in the expression—a past symbol referring to non-violence has become an image of violence. This sea change is not exceptional or accidental; rather, it keeps pace with a series of events which have been taking place in our visual culture since the 1980s.

“One of the functions of nationalist depictions,” as Romila Thapar observes, “is to locate cultures, usually by defining a national culture that selects some aspects of history and symbolism, but sidelines others.” Thapar cites the television serial Chanakya as an interesting example to illustrate this point. As she continues, Ashoka was the greatest of all Mauryan kings and the existence of numerous Ashokan edicts throughout the country, which still remain “as landmarks in many cities renders Ashoka a commonly evoked name in many contemporary and popular histories. But the Doordarshan’s serialised drama about the Mauryas did not focus on Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism, but instead depicted his Brahmin adviser Chanakya as a hero of the Mauryan empire.”

This dichotomy may also be seen reflected in how the installation ceremony of the new national emblem was organised—a secular emblem of the Indian Republic was installed unhesitantly against its own ethos with an elaborate performance of Hindu rituals. More shockingly, the opposition parties were offered no space to be part of the function at any point in time.

It is in this new political reality which brushes aside secular and democratic values that the new cast national emblem comes out with “more ferocious” lions. They breathe a new life, just like the holy men of new India, the sadhus and sanyasis, the renouncers, who now come out roaring with swords from their world of meditation to that of agitation. All this shows a fundamental change that has been taking place in modes of apprehending India through the eyes of cultural nationalism.

Chandran T V

Art critic & author. Teaches art history at the College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram


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