Iconography in Hinduism – Part 1

I have written about Hindu temples and structures for the past years in this blog, but never discussed about its iconography. As we proceed to the Brahmanical Caves in Ellora, we will talk a little bit about the religion and the various aspects of it. This discussion is not intended to be an authority over the subject, but to throw light on aspects for a common man. Hinduism is normally termed as a religion, but it is not. It is actually termed as a Dharma, the style of living. Various mythological characters depict an aspect of a person’s character and way a person is supposed to live happy.

The Trinity: This triad comprises Brahma, Vishnu and Siva- Creator, Protector and Destroyer respectively. Brahma embodies Rajo Guna, the quality of passion and desire, Siva is the embodiment of the Tamo Guna, the attribute of darkness, and the destructive fire by which the world is consumed and Vishnu is the embodiment of Sattva Guna, the property of mercy and goodness by which the world is preserved. These three gods, charged with their respective three activities constitute the primary group of deities. Around these has grown the great system of Hindu gods and goddesses with all their countless ramifications. Here we go into a little detail.

Brahma: In the Vedic period, Brahma was not an important god. The idea of creator was present, but it was Viswakarma and not Brahma. He has four heads in all directions. The Puranic Brahma probably originated from Viswakarma. In one hymn, Rig Veda mentions Prajapati as the creator. Brahma is also known by various names, Swayambhu, Hiranya Garbha, Kamalasana. Both the Saivites and Vaishnavites tried to belittle his importance by propagating stories that he fell in love with his own daughter named variously Savitri, Brahmani, Saraswati etc. and became one with her; and to look at her wherever she turned, he got four faces in each direction and fifth on to; the story goes on that Siva cut off the fifth head as a punishment for incest.

                        Brahma has four faces, four arms, matted hair and wears the skin of a black antelope as a garment. He sits in Padmasana in a chariot driven by seven swans. His four faces represent the four Vedas, arms represent four directions, The whole universe evolved from water; so symbolically he carries a kamandala filled with water. The rosary he counts represent time and the seven swans represent the seven Lokas (worlds).

Vishnu: Though in Trinity, he comes after Brahma, Vishnu remains most popular and preeminent. The Vedic Vishnu strides through the heavens in three steps With these three steps, Vishnu, a solar deity courses through the three directions of the universe in a three-fold form, as Agni on Earth, Indra or Vayu in the atmosphere and Surya in the sky. Vishnu’s supreme task was preservation and his incarnations were necessary to carry out this task. Whenever the forces of evil began to rule the world, he had to descend to the world of men and rescued them. Sometimes he assumed forms for the attainment of specific objectives. We know that some of the incarnations are cosmic in character, while some are obviously based on historical events. it is also of interest to note the evolution of these characters from the lower to higher forms of life, i.e. a Fish to a Dwarf, and further to complete human.

                        From an iconic perspective, Vishnu should be seated on an eagle (Garuda, also called as Suparna). has one face and four or more arms. He carries in his right hands an arrow, rosary, a club; and his left hands a hide, a cloth and rainbow. The chakra represents rotation of the world, as also the wheel of Dharma, the Wheel of Time and the Wheel of the Planets. He also holds a conch (Sankha) which represents the sky. Vishnu’s incarnations are normally ten, but sometimes are said up to twenty two. The ten most generally accepted are Matsya (Fish), Kurma (Tortoise), Varaha (Boar), Narasimha (Man-Lion), Vamana (dwarf), Parasurama, Dasaratha Rama, Krishna, The Buddha and Kalki (which is yet to come).

Other common iconographical representations of Vishnu are Adimurthi, Dattatreya, Dhanvantari, Hayagriva, Lakshmi Narayana, Manmatha, Mohini, Vaikuntha, Varadaraja and Venkatesa.

Siva: He is one of the most important and popular gods of India. Siva is identified with the Vedic Rudra, who is clothed in a skin and inhabits the mountains. His favorite weapons are the bow and arrow and a thunder-bolt (Trisula) occasionally. He is also called Triambak, the son of three mothers (Earth, Atmosphere and Heaven). The Vedic Rudra appears to be a terrible god who has to be constantly pacified. He is also the god of medicine and protects human beings and animals from disease.

Till 6th Century B.C., offerings to Siva were made outside the town limits. Rudra, being a non-Aryan god he continued to be described as a deity more to be feared than to be respected and revered. This was in a way symbolic of the early conflicts between the Aryan and Dravidian Cultures. Gradually, Rudra became Siva, the auspicious. He was still the inhabitant of cemeteries, who applied ashes to his naked body covered only by a deer skin, ornamented with a garland of skulls, carrying a alms bowl made of a skull top, and accompanied by dogs. Siva is one of the most popular gods to whom a very large number of temples are dedicated. His followers are divided into a number of sects viz. Saiva, Pasupata, Kapalika, Kalamukha, Lakulisa, Vira-saiva etc. Siva is also worshipped as Isvara (one and the only Lord), Maheswara (using ‘Maya’, the nature), Nataraja (in the dancing form).

Siva is also worshipped in the phallic form, which was always a subject of controversy. According to historians like R.G. Bhandarkar, the Aryans might have borrowed phallic worship from some aboriginal tribes. The Rig Veda makes reference to people worshipping the phallus and the Shvetashvatara Upanishad speaks of god Isana as presiding over every ‘Yoni’, the female generative organ. This may merely be an allusion of god presiding over every creative cause. According to Dr. Aiyer, Linga does not mean the phallus. Siva is the formless, or the ‘all-formed’. Every form worshipped, therefore, has the stamp or mark of Siva. The phallus has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes and thousand feet. However, we know that the real image does not represent any of these. Phallic worship examples (both Linga and Yoni) have been discovered in Mohenjo-Daro civilization and also at Baluchistan.

Siva is also worshipped as Anugraha Murthi in the forms of Chandesanugraha Murthi, Vishnuvanugraha Murthi (or) Chakradana Murthi, Nandisanugraha Murthi, Vigneshvaranugraha Murthi, Kiritarjuna Murthi, Ravananugraha Murthi. He is also worshipped in his destructive aspects in the form of Kankala Murthi Bhairava, Gajasura Samhara Murthi, Tripurantaka Murthi, Sarabhesa Murthi, Kalari Murthi, Brahma Sirsha Chedaka Murthi, Kamantaka Murthi, Andhakasura Vadha Murthi. Other aspects of Siva include, Gangadhara Murthi, Ardha Nariswara Murthi, Hari-hara, Kalyana Sundara Murthi, Vrishabha Rudha Murthi, Vishapaharana Murthi. Veera bhadra etc.

We will talk about the minor deities in the next post

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