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Art Through Time: A Global View

Cosmology and Belief Art: Vishnu Reclining on a Serpent from the Bhagavata Purana

» Kalurama (Indian, n.d.)

Vishnu Reclining on a Serpent from the Bhagavata Purana

Vishnu Reclining on a Serpent from the Bhagavata Purana
Artist / Origin: Kalurama (Indian, n.d.)
Region: South and Southeast Asia
Date: 1863
Period: 1800 CE – 1900 CE
Material: Paint on paper
Medium: Painting
Location: The British Library, London, UK
Credit: Courtesy of HIP/Art Resource, NY

According to Hindu teaching, the universe is neither singular nor constant.

Rather, it has been created and destroyed in an endless cycle throughout time. Nor is there one definitive creation story explaining how the current universe came into being. A number of sacred texts deal with the subject of creation, including the Upanishads and the Riga Veda. However, it is the Puranas, compendiums devoted to Hindu cosmology and mythology, that describe creation in the most concrete terms, often explicitly through the inclusion of illustrations.

This image comes from a manuscript of the most important of the Puranas, the Bhagavata Purana, which focuses on the god Vishnu and his various avatars, or incarnations. Although the Puranasprovide differing descriptions of creation, they generally focus on two main themes, both of which feature Vishnu reclining on the many-headed serpent Shesa (also called Ananta). In the version depicted here, Vishnu, resting under the protection of the serpent’s hood and accompanied by his consort Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity, floats on the cosmic waters. From his belly sprouts a lotus flower containing the god Brahma, the creator. Brahma, in turn, brings forth the heavens and the earth. While some illustrations place this scene against an amorphous backdrop suggestive of the nothingness before creation, this one clearly represents the ordering of the universe already underway. Flora and fauna populate the waters and the green rolling hills of the earth are distinct from sky with its atmospheric sunset.

Additional Resources

Craven, Roy. Indian Art, rev. ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 1997.

Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. London: Phaidon, 1997.

Michell, George. Hindu Art and Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Mitter, Partha. Indian Art. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Zimmer, Heinrich Robert. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization.Edited by Joseph Campbell. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

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