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Friday, May 15, 2020

Depicting the Divine: Meet the Hindu Gods in WAM’s Collection

Hinduism is the dominant and native religion of South Asia. It is a rich, pluralistic, and complex faith; it does not have an ecclesiastical order, governing body, prophet(s), and binding holy book; rather, it is comprised of a wide range of traditions, ideas, belief systems. Hindus can choose from a pantheon of 330 million gods and goddesses (which includes incarnations, or avatars) whom to worship.

There are, of course, primary deities that are popularly venerated, and are widely represented in the South Asia’s visual culture, across time periods, geographies, and media. Their multiple heads symbolize great power and intelligence, the cardinal directions, and associations to other deities, while multiple arms denote supernatural strength and power, as well as the and ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously.

Deities’ hands are typically shown creating gestures (mudras) that signify various expressions and moods, or wielding weapons that signify the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, and the vanquishing of demons. Each god and goddess is depicted with attributes and, at times, vehicles (vahanas) that are distinct to their iconography and identity. Here, we will look at a few representations of Hindu gods in WAM’s collection and what to look out for to identify them.

Fig. 1: Shiva as Mahesha, India, Chola period,
10th century, granite with traces of gesso and
red pigment; Eliza S. Paine Fund, 1964.16


Shiva is one of the members of the Hindu Trimurti or “Trinity”, which also consists of the gods Vishnu and Brahma. While the other two are known as the Preserver and the Creator, respectively, Shiva is known as the Destroyer. Although the title may have negative connotations, the god brings about destruction to clear paths for positive change and purification.

Worshippers of Shiva believe that the deity manifests himself in three stages, from the abstract to the concrete, symbolized by: the undecorated linga (“shaft”); the linga with one of more faces emerging from it; and, finally, Mahesha (“The Great”), from whom Vishnu and Brahma are born. This 10th-century sculpture in the collection, shows Shiva as Mahesha, with four faces: on the right is Brahma, in the center, Shiva; on the left Vishnu; and on the back, Rudra, who is believed to be the predecessor of Shiva.

Fig. 2: Vishnu, India, 10th-11th century, sandstone;
Alexander H. Bullock Fund, 1999.3


As mentioned above, Vishnu is one of the members of the Hindu Trimurti. He represents preservation, maintaining cosmic stability. Here, this sandstone sculpture shows Vishnu in the center, surrounded by celestial figures and mythological creatures. He is depicted with four arms, each carrying an attribute distinct to his identity. For example, in his upper left hand, Vishnu holds Sudarshana Chakra, his discus that he uses to conquer demons and other evil forces.

Another weapon the god uses for this purpose is a mace (gada) shown here in his upper right hand. Vishnu also carries a conch shell, shown in this sculpture in his lower left hand. Typically, the deity also holds a lotus flower, but here, his lower right hand forms the varadamudra or “gesture of charity”. His iconic lotus takes the form of the halo surrounding his head, with the light emanating in the form of petals. At the center of Vishnu’s chest is one of the 14 divine jewels (ratnas) known as Kaustubha. It represents pure consciousness, and its power is so brilliant, only Vishnu can handle it.

One of the most notable aspects of Vishnu is his 10 incarnations (avatars), which he adopts in order to descend to earth and vanquish whatever evil, chaos, and destructive forces threatens it and the overall balance of the cosmos. These manifestations include, in order of appearance: Matsya, the fish; Kurma, the turtle; Varaha, the boar; Narasimha, the half man, half lion; Vamana, the dwarf; Parashurama, the warrior with an axe; Rama, the protagonist of the epic, the Ramayana; Krishna a central figure in the epic, the Mahabharata, and religious texts such as the Bhagavata Purana and the Bhagavata Gita; Buddha; and Kalki, the rider on the white horse, who is Vishnu final avatar that has yet to manifest. Vishnu’s incarnations, especially Rama and Krishna, are popularly worshipped in Hinduism as deities.

There are several representations of Krishna in WAM’s collection. One that could be found in both painting and sculpture form is based on a legend from the Bhagavata Purana. When Krishna was a youth, he went into the Yamuna River to rescue his ball. He encountered, Kaliya, a poisonous snake (naga) with 110 hoods. The serpent wrapped his body around Krishna, but the deity expanded his body, causing Kaliya to release him. Then, Krishna assumed the weight of the universe and danced on the naga’s hoods, beating time with his feet. Kaliya’s wives begged Krishna to show mercy for their dying husband. Although Krishna could have vanquished Kaliya, he showed the creature mercy and pardoned him.

Fig. 3a: Krishna Quells the Serpent Kaliya, India, Orissa, 19th-20th century,
tempera on cotton; Gift from the Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection, 2002.364

Fig. 3b: Krishna Quells the Serpent Kaliya, India,
18th-9th century, bronze and copper; 2004.221

Both painting (Fig. 3a) and sculpture (Fig. 3b) show Krishna dancing on top of the Kaliya’s many hoods, denoting the moment of complete control and mastery of the serpent. In the painting, Krishna is shown with his iconic blue skin and his flute, an important attribute associated with him, surrounded by Kaliya’s wives.

Fig. 4: Seated Ganesha, India, Gupta period, 7th-8th century,
sandstone; Gift of Mr. Alexander H. Bullock, 1949.56


Ganesh is the son of Shiva and his consort, Parvati, the goddess of fertility, love, marriage, children, and an aspect of the Divine Energy (Shakti). One of the most popular and beloved of all Hindu deities, Ganesha is the remover of obstacles and the god of fortune and success. At the beginning of any new enterprise, he is traditionally prayed to, and his image is often placed over the doorways and entrances.

There are many legends that surround how the deity has his most distinctive feature—the elephant head. The most popular being that, Parvati was preparing a bath and did not want to be disturbed, so she had her little son, Ganesha, guard the door. Shiva, after being away for years (the reasons include war or deep meditation), returned home and wanted to see Parvati, but was stopped by the boy. Shiva became enraged by the audacity of this stranger and cut Ganesha’s head off. When Parvati saw what Shiva had done, the powerful goddess threatened to destroy all of Creation unless Shiva revived him. The god agreed and gave Ganesha the head of the first creature encountered—which was an elephant. The animal symbolizes Ganesha’s immense strength and his deep spiritual wisdom.

In this sculpture, Ganesha is shown with several iconic attributes. In his lower left hand, he holds a bowl of modaka, a type of sweet that the deity is very partial to. The modaka also represents the joys of life as well as the liberation from the cycle of birth and death, to which all Hindus believe they are bound to. In his upper right hand, he carries an axe, representing the cutting of attachments and the removal of obstacles in one’s path. Due to damage, it is difficult to see, but his lower right palm is facing outward in the abhya mudra, or “gesture of protection”. At his feet, is his vehicle (vahana), a small mouse.

Fig. 5: Kartikeya, India, probably Andhra Pradesh,
12th century, granite; Museum Purchase, 1923.22


Kartikeya is also the son of Shiva and Parvati. He is the god of war, and is also known as Skanda, Kumara, Murugan, and Subramanayan. Typically, he is depicted as a youthful warrior with his vahana, a peacock named Paravani, as seen here. In sculpture form, Kartikeya is commonly shown in the round, with either one or six heads. There are a few interpretations for the latter; one is that they collectively represent the six stars of the Pleiades cluster that took the form of six mothers to care for him in his infancy, and the other is that he assumed a form of six heads to give him the ability to see in multiple directions when at war.

Since WAM’s example is not free-standing, it depicts the deity with only three heads. Like other representations, he is shown here with twelve arms, all holding up weapons. For example, in his top left hand, he holds a thunderbolt (vajra). The weapons not only denote the list mentioned in the first paragraph, but also are a reference to this status as the god of war. Paravani carries a serpent in its mouth, symbolizing one’s power over ego and desire.

—Rachel Parikh, Assistant Curator of Asian and Middle Eastern Art
    May 15, 2020

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