Recognizing the Gods
By Vidya Dehejia
Barbara Stoler Miller Professor of Indian and South Asian Art
In India, the aim of art was never to imitate nature or to recreate reality through illusionistic devices; rather, the goal was to produce an idealized form. Sculptors did not model their images on living beings: whether the subject was a god or a mortal, the artist strove to convey a stylized ideal.
The prototype for the female torso was the vajra, a double-headed divine thunderbolt, or the damaru, a waisted drum held by the god Shiva. Following such models specified in ancient texts, sculptors invariably produced an idealized female form with narrow waist, broad hips, and high, rounded breasts. The arms, shapely and elongated, were created to resemble the slender, pliant bamboo shoot. Eyes were modeled on the lotus petal or the fish. No specific attributes distinguish human from divine figures; gods and goddesses as well as ordinary men and women are equally sensuous in their portrayal. Given this standardized visual vocabulary, it is rare that the work of an individual sculptor with a distinctive aesthetic style emerges from the dozens of images carved on temple walls.
Various hand gestures, known as mudras, are used to express the mood and meaning of divine images, whether Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist. A palm of the hand raised to face the worshipper is the gesture of protection (abhaya). A lowered hand with fingers pointing downward is the gesture of bestowing (varada). When thumb and index finger of the right hand are joined, it is an indication of teaching (vyakhyana). In the case of the Buddha, the left hand joins the right to create a two-handed gesture of preaching that is intended to recall the first sermon (dharmachakra). When a seated image has palms upward and placed within each other in the lap, it is the mudra of meditation (dhyana). Other mudras are specific in their application.
Hindu and some Buddhist deities are associated with particular mounts or vehicles (vahanas). Thus Shiva rides the bull, the goddess Parvati rides the lion, and Vishnu rides the divine eaglelike Garuda. Each of the many minor deities has his or her own vehicle. An iconography manual enables a viewer to identify a god as, say, Agni by recognizing his vehicle, the ram. An image on a temple wall may be identified as divine by the presence of a vahana; in the case of a human image, no such vehicle is portrayed.
The contrappposto pose, known in India as tribhanga, is a popular stance. In this somewhat exaggerated posture, the body bends in three places; the head and the lower limbs are angled in the same direction while the torso moves in the opposite angle. The tribhanga produces a sense of swaying movement, and most images are thus poised, whether of Shiva, the goddess Shakti, or of men and women who grace the walls of temples. The samabhanga, in which the body stands erect in a single alignment, is used for Vishnu and for Jain images.
The deities may be presented in a variety of seated postures (asanas) as well. Meditating gods-the Buddha, the jinas, Shiva-often sit in a special cross-legged lotus posture (padmasana). A number of deities, including Shiva and the goddess Parvati, sit on an elevated seat in a posture of ease known as lalitasana, with one leg bent to rest on the seat and the other leg pendant.
The Hindu god Vishnu is distinguished by the war discus (chakra) and the conch-shell trumpet (shankha) that he holds in his hands. Vishnu wears a tall crown and rich jewelry and is often accompanied by his divine consort, Lakshmi, goddess of fortune. A theory of ten incarnations, or avatars, is associated with Vishnu, who is believed to have been born on earth on nine occasions; the tenth is yet to come. The most popular avatars are Rama, prince of Ayodhya, a model of a warrior-king, hero of the Ramayama epic, and Krishna, the cowherd prince, beloved of the cowherd girls of Brindavan and teacher of Arjuna in the famous philosophical poem Bhagavad Gita.
The Hindu god Shiva carries a trident; he often has a serpent flung around him as a scarf and wears a skull and the crescent moon in the matted locks piled high upon his head. A third eye in his forehead signifies his all-seeing nature. Renowned as a great dancer, Shiva has the appellation Nataraja, “Lord of Dance.” Shiva is the great practitioner of yoga who spent aeons in meditation until he opened his eyes, saw the goddess Parvati, and fell in love with her. Parvati, the consort of Shiva, with the lion as her vehicle, is a major deity in her own right. As Durga, she slays demons whom the other gods are unable to control. One of her most celebrated feats is the destruction of the buffalo demon Mahisha. Two other deities are considered their children. Elephant-headed Ganesha is the god who removes obstacles and is worshipped at the start of any undertaking; his vehicle is the mouse. Skanda, a warlike youth, rides the peacock.
The Buddha is usually portrayed wearing a monastic robe draped so as to cover both shoulders or to leave the right shoulder bare. The Buddha is said to have had thirty-two marks of superhuman perfection. The ushnisha, a cranial bump that signifies his divine knowledge, was transformed by artists into a hair knot, while the urna, a tuft of hair between the eyebrows, was depicted as a rounded mark. Elongated earlobes, indicating divine or elevated status, are given not only to the Buddha but also to all Hindu and Jain deities and to saintly figures. Images of the Jain tirthankaras (jinas) are similar to the Buddha; however, they have a shrivatsa emblem on the chest, are often unclothed, and do not have the ushnisha or urna.
By the first century A.D., a new category of deity was introduced-a series of elevated beings known as bodhisattvas. They were on the threshold of buddhahood but chose to remain in this world in order to assist all beings toward salvation. Bodhisattvas became exceedingly important in the Buddhism of the Himalayan regions of Kashmir, Nepal, and Tibet and in the art of Southeast Asia. Each is recognized by his identifying attributes. Thus Avalokiteshvara (the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion) carries a lotus and has a small Buddha image adorning his crown, and the Bodhisattva Maitreya (the Buddha of the Future) carries a water vessel and has a stupa in his crown. Goddesses, too, were introduced into this later Buddhism, and Tara, who holds a lotus, is one of the most deeply venerated.
Himalayan Buddhism, especially that of Tibet, introduced some unique imagery. Ferocious deities are protectors of the Buddhist faith and devout Buddhist believers. Esoteric male-female figures in embrace are known as Yab-Yum, or “Father-Mother.” They represent the union of wisdom (female) and compassion (male), which results in supreme wisdom leading to salvation. Also popular in the medium of painting are mandalas intended for meditation; these esoteric diagrams of the cosmos center around a deity upon whom the devotee has chosen to meditate.
Standing Four-Armed Vishnu
Second half of the 7th century
Vietnam (Mekong Delta area)
This outstanding Vishnu is carved in a style associated with the period prior to the establishment of the Khmer capital at Angkor in the early ninth century. It preserves a flavor of Indian sculpture, particularly in the full, round forms of the face. The deity is easily identified as the Hindu god Vishnu, the preserver of the cosmos who assumes many forms, or avatars. He wears the orthodox high miter and holds a conch in his raised left hand and a war discus in his right. His lowered left hand rests on the remains of a battle mace and would have been paired with a right hand holding an orb, symbolizing the earth.
Text and image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art