Iconography in Hinduism – Part 2

We shall talk now about the minor deities, though very important characters and in some instances be the reasons of the trinity taking various forms.

Dikpalas: These represent the eight quarters of the directions, they being Indra, Agni, Yama, Nirruti, Varuna, Vayu, Kubera and Isana.

The Sun rises in the east, and is the source of all energy. All the gods, therefore live in the east and so, Indra who is the King of the Gods, became the guardian of the Eastern Quarter. He is represented as a fair man riding a white elephant, Airavata. He is four armed, carrying the vajra, the terrible thunderbolt, a conch shell, bow and arrows, a hook and a net. Agni’s popularity in the Vedic period is attested by the large number of hymns addressed to him in the Vedas. He has three legs and seven arms, and rides a ram. From his mouth flames issue, by means of which he licks the butter used in sacrifices. His two faces represent the two fires, solar and terrestrial. He three legs denote three sacred fires, the nuptial, the ceremonial and the sacrificial.

The Aryans had a great contempt for Dravidians, who lived in South India. The south was therefore considered inauspicious. Death is the most inauspicious; therefore Yama, who is the God of Death guards the Southern Quarter. India is girdled by the Arabian sea in the west, so Varuna who is the water-deity became the guardian. He is represented as a white man sitting on a fabulous monster with the head and front legs of an antelope and the body and tail of a fish, and carries a noose in his right hand.

Nirruti is an ancient god mentioned in the Vedas and he has two hands, and rides on a Lion or man or ass and is decked with ornaments and surrounded by demons and celestial damsels. Vayu has two or four hands, sits on a lion-seat or a deer. The Yakshas are supposed to live in the north. So the chief of the Yakshas, Kubera takes control of the Northern Quarter. He is the god of all wealth in both Hindu and Buddhist cultures. He has a lotus seat or a chariot driven by men. This denotes the importance that man gives to wealth. He has a big belly.

Surya stands on a lotus pedestal, holding in his two hands two full blown lotuses which rise above his shoulder. He wears a protective armor, and his feet and part of the two legs are covered by high boots, which is a peculiar feature only of him.

Our discussion will not be complete without talking about the various goddesses.

The part played by the woman in the perpetuation of the species was not ignored in the Vedas. Through the course of the development of the theory of Sakti, her maternal aspect is not lost sight of. Her concept of a wife does  not subordinate to her husband. This wifely aspect of the Original Mother has been accounted for in the Puranas by the story of the birth of the triad, Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, from the Devi, who ultimately took Siva as her consort.

Sarasvati is the goddess of learning and culture and is also known as Vagdevi, Vani etc. and is popular among Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. In Buddhism, she is called as Maha Mayuri, the consort of Manjushri. She is either represented in four, eight or ten hands holding the lute, rosary, book and sometimes wheel as well.

Parvati has 24 names and is the consort of Siva and is generally not customary to erect temples for her. She appears in the company of Siva. She may hold a javelin (Sula) or a chisel.

Chamunda is a form of the Supreme Goddess in a ghostly form. Her general characterization is that she should be like a skeleton in appearance, with sunken cheekbones and abdomen contracted. Her hair should be standing on end and snakes peeping our of them. Her tongue protrudes and she should wear a necklace of skulls and bones. She should be dressed in tiger skin and have a corpse or an own as her vehicle.

Mahishasura Mardhini is also regarded as a form or Parvati and is described as being born out of the union of three goddesses. Puranas say that she is very fond of wine, garland of heads, tiger skin and a mace. She either appears alone or in company in temples. If there is a temple of five gods grouped together, she always occupies the center shrine. She is depicted with either eight, ten or twenty hands depending on the size of the sculpture.

Lakshmi takes various forms as Maha Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu and sometimes of Siva. She is depicted with four hands. She is also takes forms for Sridevi or Bhudevi and appears along with Vishnu. In forms other than Maha Lakshmi, she is depicted with either two or eight hands and flanked by attendants and two or four elephants.

The Sapta-Matrikas:

The legend of the seven divine mothers is interesting which aimed to emphasize a point, to draw a moral. In order to kill a demon called Andhakasura, Siva and other gods (Brahma, Mahesvara, Kumara, Vishnu, Varaha, Indra and Yama) create seven powerful Saktis. These Saktis carry the same weapons as their male counterparts. The Varaha Purana mentions eight Matrikas and say that they represent eight mental qualities which are bad, namely Yogesvari (Kama or Desire), Mahesvari (Krodha or Anger), Vaishnavi (Lobha or covetousness), Brahmani (Mada or Pride), Indrani (Matsarya or fault finding), Chamunda (Paisunya or tale bearing) and Varahi (Asuya or envy).

The assistance of the seven mothers bought down the demon. However the demon praised Siva and obtained grace. Later Siva withdrew the destructive qualities of the mothers. The entire episode is symbolic of the struggle between wisdom and the evil qualities mentioned above. Unless they are bought under control, wisdom can never triumph over the darkness of ignorance which leads men away from the Ultimate Truth.

The river goddesses, Ganga and Yamuna are also have been worshipped for a long time.

What we understand primarily from Hindu Iconography is that people’s perception and the geographical and cultural situations often determined our scriptures, whether they are the Vedas, Puranas or the Great Epics.

We can now proceed with exploring the Hindu Caves of Ellora.