Ever wondered why Lord Vishnu carries the discus or why
Brahma has four faces, or why Shiva has a snake, Vāsuki, on his neck? Every such iconographic element in Hinduism has
a precise symbolic meaning underlying it. This essay will unpack the meaning of
the iconographic symbols as detailed in the foundational text of Hindu art and
aesthetics, Vishnudharmottara Purana (5th century CE). The 3rd
Khanda of Vishnudharmottara Purana is a treatise on poetics, singing,
dancing, instrumental music, architecture, and detailed instructions for
sculptures for making images of Gods.
Since the Upanishads conceive divinity as formless, eternal,
and immaterial, the worship of divinity in a concrete form required theological
justification. In the Vishnudharmottara Purana, the sage Mārkandeya says
that the form of the whole universe is the vikṛiti or the modification
of the Supreme himself. Worship and meditation are possible when the Supreme is
endowed with form. Corporeal beings cannot easily apprehend the invisible state
of the Supreme, therefore images are required to conceive, concretize and comprehend
the Supreme. Similarly, another text probably from from the same period, the Vāstusūtra
Upanishad, says that in the beginning, brahman was only a
potentiality, without qualities (nirguṇa). This potentiality became
manifest in the process of creation, and brahman appeared with qualities
(saguṇa). Therefore, form is the precipitation of the creative impulse
of the Supreme.
of Lord Brahma
Purana says that a learned
image-maker should make Brahma four-faced, on a lotus seat, clad in black
antelope skin, wearing matted hair, four-armed, seated on a chariot of seven
swans. In the right hand should be the auspicious rosary and in the left the
waterpot. The eye of that tranquil-looking image, wearing all ornaments closed
in meditation, should resemble the end of the lotus petal. Vishnudharmottara
then gives the reason behind this symbolism.
Since Brahma is a creator God, his colour should be reddish,
representing rajas or his creative activity. Creation involves
the manifestation of space-time. Space is represented by the four arms of
Brahma denoting four-cardinal direction – north, south, east and west. The Vedas,
created at the dawn of the universe, is represented by the four faces of Brahma
denoting the four Vedas - Ṛgveda the Eastern face, Yajurveda the Southern, Sāmaveda
the Western and Atharvaveda the Northern. The rosary in Brahma’s hand
represents the creation of time and its circular movement.
The worlds, both movable and immovable, have sprung from the
primaeval water. Therefore Brahma holds these primaeval waters in a kāmandalu
(water vessel) resting in his hand. The formless Brahma envisioned and projected
the creation into existence through his meditative activity or tapas. Brahma,
therefore, is always represented with eyes closed, sitting in a tranquil
straight posture deep in meditation, visualizing the cosmos into existence.
of Lord Shiva
According to Vishnudharmottara Purana, Shiva with
five faces should be seated on a bull. On the crest of his matted locks should
be the crescent moon, and his sacred thread should be Vāsuki, the serpent king.
He should be represented with ten arms. In his right hands should be a rosary,
a trident, an arrow, a staff and a lotus, and in his left hands should be a
citron, a bow, a mirror, a waterpot and a skin. The colour of the whole (image)
should resemble the rays of the moon.
Vishnudharmottara’s description of Shiva assumes that
the reader is familiar with the symbolism behind Shiva’s iconography; therefore
it skips over specific details. Usually, the five faces of Shiva represent the
five elements: earth, water, fire, wind and ether. The snake Vāsuki that forms
the sacred thread around his neck represents anger that destroys the three
worlds, while the tiger skin represents desire (tṛṣna) for the world of
senses. The two eyes of Shiva are the sun and moon, while his third eye is fire
through which he destroys the world. This symbolism of sun, moon and fire will
become very important in the subtle physiology of Haṭha yoga.
Shiva’s matted lock represents supreme brahman; the
crescent moon on his forehead represents his divine powers (aiśvarya);
the bull represents the four feet of dharma (in Hinduism, dharma
is represented with four feet). The rosary and waterpot are emblematic of his
ascetic nature. The citron (lemon) symbolizes the atoms that constitute the
entirety of the universe (the idea that the universe is created out of atoms is
very old in Hinduism). As is well known, the trident of Shiva represents the
three qualities of prakṛiti: sattva, rajas, and tamas,
together constituting the dynamic impulse of prakṛiti. In the Shaiva
Tantra, the prakṛiti would be represented as the power of Shiva.
of Lord Vishnu
Explaining the iconography of Vishnu, Vishnudharmottara
Purana says that Vishnu should be depicted seated on Garuda, with his bosom
shining with the kaustubha jewel, wearing all ornaments, resembling in
colour the water-laden cloud and clothed in a blue and beautiful garment.
Vishnu wears vanamāla (long garland of flowers), and in his right hands is
an arrow, a rosary, a club and in his left hand is a skin, a garment, and a bow.
This iconography, it seems, is peculiar to Vishnudharmottara. Usually,
Vishnu has four hands carrying a mace, wheel, lotus and a conch.
Since this universe is a transformation of the Supreme, the
colour of the transformation is black (kṛṣna). The creator and sustainer assume
the colour black. The kaustubha jewel on his chest represents pure
knowledge, and the thick garland of flowers (vanamāla) adorning his body
represent the bondage of the world. Vishnu’s garments represent avidyā
which supports the saṃsara. Using Sāṃkhya metaphysics, the mace and the
wheel (chakra) at the hand of Vishnu represents the puruṣa and prakṛiti,
the two uncreated primal cause of the universe. Further, Vishnudharmottara
says that the mind as the evolute of puruṣa and prakṛiti
permeates the entire creation, represented by Garuda, who can fly anywhere as
quickly as the mind. The conch in the hand of Vishnu represents the sky and the
waters, while the symbolism of lotus has multiple meaning in Hinduism, which we
will cover in another essay.
Vishnudharmottara then gives the iconography and its
symbolism for other divinities: Agni, Varuṇa, Kuber, Narasiṃha, Hayagrīva,
Sarasvati, Saṇkarṣṇa, Pradyumna, Vāsudeva, Krishna, Aniruddha, Tumburu, and
many others. A worshipper who knows the symbolism and philosophy behind the
iconography would be better equipped to meditate on his chosen form.
Vishnudharmottra Purana is a seminal text of Hindu
art. It was the first time an independent compendium was written for music,
painting, sculpture, architecture and dance. For the next 1200 years, Hindu
tradition would produce very sophisticated texts and manuals covering all the
known art forms. The increasing complexity of the textual tradition is
reflected in the architecture and sculpture of the monumental temples built
from the 8th century CE onwards, the sophistication of Hindu music
and dance forms, and the aesthetic tradition of rasa.
(Note: For this essay, we have used Stella Kramrisch’s
translation of Vishnudharmottara Purana. The critical edition and
translation of Priyabala Shah can also be used.)