Attributes

The natural state of Hindu gods and goddesses is formless. They exist on a heavenly plane, however, they will take physical form from time to time to facilitate puja, mystically descending into an image of itself. When a sculptor creates such an image (murti), its form depends upon what the image’s function is to be, but it also must be pleasing to the god or goddess. Apparently it pleases them to be portrayed as young, beautiful, idealized human figures (note 1). 

When a worshipper looks upon a murti, they are able to identify them by their body language, hand gestures (mudras) and adornment, though perhaps the clearest indicators are the attributes (ayodha) they hold in their hands. These ayodha confirm the deity’s identity and also communicate their unique divine powers and qualities. When a deity wishes to indicate more than two of these characteristics, more than two hands are required to hold them.

Due to subtle differences in how the deity’s legends are interpreted, their attributes may differ from region to region. For example, while Shiva‘s attributes in the north include a trishula (trident) and a naga (cobra), in the south he holds a mrga (deer), and a parasu (axe). 

Note – 1 Gods and goddesses are only portrayed otherwise to make a point. For example, one of Kali’s qualities is that of a wild and fierce demon-killer, therefore images of her in that form reflect those qualities.