Eastern Religion in Psychedelic Rock Culture

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Jimi Hendrix was a pioneer in the psychedelic rock era whose music influenced millions of those involved in the hippy culture of the 1960s. The cover art for Hendrix’s second album, Axis: Bold as Love (1967) (figure 1), appropriated a famous Hindu image of the Supreme God Vishnu called Viraat Purushan-Vishnuoopam (figure 2).There is a long history among musicians in using images to promote their music, and album covers have a way of telling a visual story that gives a preview of the music at hand. When looking at the practice of appropriating images we must look at the changes in perception that occur, and in this case at the alteration of religious significance. I would argue that this diminishment of religious significance occurs because Hendrix’s cover artist is taking an image from elsewhere and pushing it into American society as his own, therefore changing its symbolic meaning for Hendrix’s fans.

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Viraat Purushan-Vishnuroopam is a Hindu devotional painting that has been interpretively reproduced since a description of the God Vishnu was written in the Hindu sacred epic Mahabharata (Moskowits, 28). The image itself originated in the 2nd century B.C.E. specifically in the 700 verse scripture the Bhagavad Gita, also known as “The Song of God.” In this climactic war verse the Pandava prince Arjuna is in the midst of interfamilial warfare alongside his charioteer when he is faced with the moral dilemma of whether or not to kill his own family members for dharma. His charioteer lectures him on the meaning of life and death, and eventually reveals himself as Krishna. Krishna then blesses Arjuna with a divine vision that reveals Vishnu in universal form with one thousand avatars, eyes, faces, mouths, and arms. Arjuna is then able to understand what he must do for his duty as a warrior because Vishnu’s universal form reveals that the universe is infinite without life, death, beginning, or end (Cahill, 54). This belief in the Vishvarupa as the embodiment of life and death is a powerful one held by Hindus and symbolizes the universality of life in everything they do.

The image used on Axis was famous in the twentieth century and was widely redistributed in India as portraits and posters. These reproductions of the original oil painting would be seen in Hindu believers’ homes and places of business, engrainingthe symbolic significance in the minds of Hindu and non-Hindu alike. This interpretation of Vishnu could be seen in sacred Hindu Caballero fig3places of worship in various forms, such as statues (figure 3). Its wide range can be compared to that of the pictures of Jesus seen in America, where even non-Christians recognize the religious significance of such images and statues. The image of Vishnu contains Krishna in the middle representing the human kind, the evil deities to the left, and the good deities to the right (Cahill, 20). It includes a variety of colors, such as bright pink, blues, greens, browns, and yellows. The image is symmetrically appealing with a balance among the heads, arms, and feet. This symbolic form is further enhanced with the objects held in its fourteen arms, such as a conch shell representing creation and balance, a chakra that signifies a purified mind, a mace representing the mental and physical strength, and a lotus flower representing the purity and spiritual consciousness within (Cahill, 42). The images of war chariots, the men praying to Vishnu’s feet, the objects held, and the gods themselves will all hold their own meaning to a practitioner of Hinduism. Hence the image would have a deeper meaning to those in Hindu communities; they would understand the painting signifies the good and bad, as we perceive it and our existence in life. This interpretation by a specific audience gives insight into the way Axis: Bold as Love holds a different meaning for its intended audience.

The image of Jimi Hendrix’s face superimposed onto a god remakes the Hindu image as non-secular and Western, and no longer a symbol that accurately represents the Hindu faith. The image of Hendrix’s face on this religious figure brings with it what Jimi Hendrix himself represents: a counter-culture of drugs, rebellion, and etc. The counter-culture movement of the 60s was highly influenced by Eastern culture for its spiritual aspect that condoned self-discovery and aesthetic values. Hinduism itself preached ideas of dharma and karma, along with the universality and oneness of life. These ideals themselves embodied the main objective among young adults in this culture to reject materialism and the establishment, such as those involved in the Beat Movement who emphasized Zen Buddhism. This rejection of the establishment and subsequent self-discovery meant freeing one’s body and mind from the constructs of society, through the use of drugs or trance-inducing music. Hendrix himself partook in such mind-freeing practices by taking tabs of LSD before shows to be connected subconsciously with his music, creating an image for himself as a “hippy.” This contradicted the Hindu faith by neglecting the rituals and structures in place; young adults merely were concerned with the free loving outcome.

Caballero fig4Jimi’s Axis: Bold As Love album was specifically designed to stick to that free and aesthetic feel that he said was an influence of his Cherokee culture and he wanted that highlighted on the album cover, explaining that “the music in Axis is based on a very, very simple American Indian style” (Henderson, 194). However, the British art department of his record label misinterpreted this reference to “India” as the India orientalized in British culture and therefore superimposed a photo of Hendrix and his band mates created by Roger Law (figure 4) onto a Hindu painting. In the appropriation Hendrix is the focal point, with his band mates playing the role of Krishna to his right and left. The images still emphasizes the bright pink, blues, greens, browns, and yellow but uses accented gold to highlight the psychedelic theme the musician aimed for. This replacement of religious symbols or gods with an image of the artist undermines the religious significance of the original image; it was also a strategy used in various album covers of the 1960s and 70s, including some with Egyptian mythological Caballero fig5references. Figure 5, for instance, highlights the mystical and eerie connotations associated with the Eye of Ra and the Western ideas about such religious practices. The use of Eastern philosophical images was merely to reinforce the counter culture they were targeting. The Beatles dedicated an entire album, Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to their influences in India and highlighted their drug use in songs such as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. This cultural branding of a musical genre and musicians has become widely successful through mass media.

The shift in meaning between the original and appropriated images considered here points to ideas about orientalism and its effects. In this context the usage of Eastern culture manages to take away religious significance and creates an iconic image representing 1960s American culture. These shifts in representation can be seen as appropriate in the West, since the music represented signifies a rebellious culture. But they also show how Western society neglects or undermines religious significance. We have seen how a religious image can become secular in nature to its new audience and offers up new interpretations and meanings.

–Pedro Caballero

Works cited

Moskowitz, David V. The Words and Music of Jimi Hendrix. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010.

Cahill, Michelle. Vishvarūpa. Parkville, Vic.: Five Islands Press, 2011.

Henderson, David. ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: The Life of Jimi Hendrix. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1981.

Illustrations

Figure 1. David King, Axis: Bold as Love album cover, 1967.

Figure 2. Unknown artist, Viraat Purushan-Vishnuoopam, date unknown, oil on panel.

Figure 3. Unknown artist, Avatars of Vishnu, stone sculpture, date unknown, Singapore.

Figure 4. Kal Ferris, photograph of the Jimi Hendrix Experience used by Roger Law on the Axis: Bold as Love album cover, ca. 1960s.

Figure 5. James Koehnline, album cover design for Nicky Skopelitis, Ekstasis, 1993.

Comments

  1. I response to Preston: I tried finding further research in interviews with Jimi Hendrix about this album cover, however, I came up with limited responses. According to an interview I found in The words and music of Jimi Hendrix he stated that roger law misinterpreted his request due to his British nationality. You have to remember this was in a time where India had recently won their independence and that colonialist identity was still strong. So when Jimi asked him to highlight his Indian heritage it is assumed that was the expectation because in America an artist would have understood that and gone with it, but it was his british culture that misinterpreted what an Indian was to Jimi. He did say in a similar interview that he wanted his Cherokee heritage noted and I also agree and wonder if Jimi had used this language toward Roger if there would be a different outcome.

    In response to Hye: Jimi was not all to pleased with his culture be misrepresented because he really pour his culture into some of his songs in the album and he wanted this to be noted on a visual medium. However, on a positive note in an interview Jimi did say he respected the artistic value of the picture and said it was quite visually appealing enough for his lyrics. I think if his native american culture was highlighted on the album cover then I feel as if the cover would have had a totally different scope. The album cover as it is really is dependent on relgious imagery and native americans don’t really have as strong of relgious icons such as the Hindu due. What we believe in present day I feel as if that album cover would have been very stereotypical possibly?

    In response to John: Jimi was disappointed that they misrepresented his cultural backround but he appreciated the cover from an artistic standpoint.

  2. While I’d seen the Viraat Purushan-Vishnuroopam and heard recollections of Arjuna’s dilemma before due to a partially Hindu upbringing, the second paragraph’s concise summary of the Bhagavad Gita’s text was a helpful reminder. I think this summary will also be found helpful by those less familiar with the story. I am curious as to how Hendrix’s request that “his Cherokee culture” be “highlighted on the album cover” was mistaken. Perhaps the wording used when making requests of his art department was different. It would be interesting to see the wordings used in the correspondence between Hendrix and his art department.

  3. I found your discussion of how the significance of a certain image is completely changed once it is appropriated. In this case, it was the religious significance of VIshnu image being nullified when it was appropriated into Jimi Hendrix’s album cover. i really enjoyed the point that because Jimi Hendrix was a symbol of counter culture of hippies, the album cover, though seemingly religious, does not still hold its original function of representing the deity Vishnu. I am more curious about the concept of “India” being mistaken. Was Hendrix okay with this mistake? How would the Native American version of the cover, if created, differ from this? I really enjoyed that although the two images seems very similar at first, further research shows that these two images have completely different meaning and function in their own special context and ideology.

  4. I find your discussion of Jimi Hendrix’s use of Eastern philosophy and imagery in his album covers and music itself interesting. I like how you discuss the orientating of Psychedelic Rock and how it in a sense only embraces certain aspects of Eastern philosophy and how in a sense this secularizes the religious significance of this imagery. One thing I would like to know more about is how Jimi reacted to the use of Indian imagery on the Axis Bold as Love album cover rather than the American Indian imagery that was requested. I would also like to know some of the reactions, people that are part of the Hindu faith, had to the use of Viraat Purushan-Vishnuoopam in the Axis Bold as Love album cover.

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