Art Through Time: A Global View
Cosmology and Belief Art: Shiva Vinadhara (Holder of the Lute)
The roots of Hinduism go back several millennia and the religion, over time, has been influenced by diverse belief systems and practices.
Although the complexities of Hinduism offer numerous points of theological debate, a shared belief in a unifying cosmic force is at its core. This force, which controls all aspects of the universe and existence, is not completely knowable by humans, but elements of it can be made manifest in the form of gods and goddesses.
The large Hindu pantheon consists of primary deities, as well as their various incarnations and diverse aspects of their personalities. Hindu divinities may be represented in art symbolically or anthropomorphically. In the latter case, the gods take the basic shape of human beings, but are ultimately given suprahuman attributes, usually multiple limbs or heads. This sculpture depicts the god Shiva (the Creator and Destroyer) as the master of music. He is identified by symbols in his hair—a crescent moon and a snake, both references to the cyclical nature of time and Shiva’s place outside of it—and by the objects he holds in his four hands. Originally, Shiva held a vina, a lute-like instrument in his two front hands. In the back, he holds an axe and antelope (now missing its head). These items were characteristic symbols of Shiva in South India, where this particular piece was created during the Chola period (850–1287).
Great patrons of culture, the Chola rulers commissioned the building of numerous Hindu temples. In the innermost chamber of each temple an image of the god to whom the structure was dedicated was erected. Such images were permanent, generally fixed in stone. Others, however, were made of cast bronze. This technique, which flourished under the Chola, allowed the creation of numerous portable statues. These bronzes were carried in processions through the streets during festivals and other public ceremonies. While not considered gods themselves, the figures were believed to be capable of embodying divine energy. Through puja, the enactment of certain rituals and prayers, the spirit of the deity was invoked to enter the statue. In this way, the sculpture facilitated darshan, direct visual communication between viewer and deity.
Vishakha N. Desai President and CEO, Asia Society
“When we think about gods and goddesses in the Western tradition, we go back to the classical Greek tradition. And often we say that these gods are idealized humans. So we elevate humans to become ideals. Indian gods and goddesses really come out from the other end. It is the concept of god that then is represented in human form. So, right from the get go abstraction of that concept of god is more important than idealizing a human form. So therefore, Indian gods and goddesses are more suprahuman than they are superhuman or idealized human. They also, therefore, at no point are trying to represent anything that resembles, necessarily, a real human body. On the other hand, that means that they can have multiple arms because it’s a concept that you want to really make visible. So if the god has four functions and you want to show that, the best thing to do is to give extra arms and to put some symbols and then you are done. But people always say, ‘But, but human beings don’t have that,’ and I always remind everybody that they are not really human beings. They are put in a human form for our understanding, and that is the difference.
Whenever we think about Hinduism we think about multitudes of gods. Not only are there multiple gods and goddesses, each one of them has a multitude of aspects. So any one god can be represented ten different ways. One of the reasons why you have poses and gestures for Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as attributes they hold in their hands, is that they become part of a language. So, for example, if I want to know that this god is Vishnu, I know that if the upper arms actually have certain attributes like a discus and a mace in the lower hand, I would know that this is Vishnu. If he has a certain hat, or if not, like if there is a god with a lock of hair, just kind of strings of hair, then you know it can’t be Vishnu, it has to be Shiva. So what you begin to do is to begin to identify the hair, dress, the hand gestures, the attributes they have, the poses sometimes, all of them help you to codify and define different aspects of one god and or different aspects of many different gods. So it really becomes a visual language.
Shiva can be represented simply though a lignam, or his phallic symbol, that suggests his energy. But he can also be represented as a great ascetic. How is he shown as an ascetic? Well, he wears a loincloth that is made out of an animal skin; his hair is tied in these locks of hair. But when he is not an ascetic he might wear a different garment. When he is an ascetic he might have a begging bowl in his hand. But when he is seen as a slayer of great demons, he might have another attribute that is an axe that he holds. He’s also a great musician. So each one of these different kinds of symbols tells you which aspect of Shiva you are looking at.”
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“Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotion.” In Education. Smithsonian Institution, Freer and Sackler Galleries Web site. http://www.asia.si.edu/pujaonline/puja/start.htm.
“Shiva Vinadhara.” In Collections. Smithsonian Institution, Freer and Sackler Galleries Web site. http://www.asia.si.edu/collections.