Around 40,000 years ago, someone sat down with a piece of mammoth tusk and spent hundreds of hours carving a lion-headed man. It’s not just the age of the foot-high figure in the Living with gods exhibition at the British Museum that’s impressive; it’s also the fact that so many thousands of years ago our ancestors had a sense of imagination, of spirituality, of awe. This figure held a ritual importance we can only guess at – but he’s a link between our ancestors and ourselves, startling evidence of how early in mankind’s societal development we expressed a spiritual awareness.
The lower-case “g” of Living with gods doesn’t discriminate between the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim monotheistic Deity and the gods of Hindu, Buddhist, Native American and other religious cultures. The exhibition focuses on how people believe rather than what they believe: on how religion is lived.
It begins with Light, Fire and Water, which are at the heart, symbolically and practically, of most religions: a mosque lamp, the importance of fire in Zoroastrianism, Diwali in Hinduism, Pentecost in Christianity, bathing in the Ganges and the ritual use of holy water. The use of prayer beads in meditation is universal – not just the rosary but, in the same display case, Buddhist prayer beads and a Sufi dervish’s tasbih, made from water chestnut beads.
Religious practice, the exhibition emphasises, is practical – and this is perfectly illustrated by Buddhist prayer flags and prayer wheels. Write prayers and blessings on flags, and let the wind carry them to heaven: one flag in the exhibition moves gently as if in a breeze. A spinning prayer wheel carries printed mantras; woodblock prints are now replaced by computer printouts because they give more mantras to the page. Delightfully, one prayer wheel is made from a beer can.
The simplicity of many of the items is echoed in the simplicity of the exhibition layout: the room dividers are no more than white cotton sheets, through which shapes
of the next room’s exhibits can faintly be discerned – a symbolic echo, perhaps, of the commonality of religious expression.
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