Reference Library

Reference Library

The languid gaze. The elegant gesture. The whisper of silk. The goddess serenely voluptuous. The god lithe and supple. Chola Bronzes are among the world’s finest sacred sculpture, with an undeniable vitality, as though they are about to take a breath.

A first impression is over in a heartbeat, but if you take the time to look deeper perhaps you may begin to see them as their Chola creators intended – metaphors in bronze of an absolute divine beauty.

Shailja and I wrote this Reference Library to help you gain a wider understanding of the spiritual context of this extraordinary sacred art. Whether you are casually browsing or searching for something specific, if you don’t find the information you need, just ask and we’ll help you find what you need.

We don’t make any claims to scholarship for this material. It has been written from our personal perspective and,  just as it is for the other billion or so Hindu believers, we have chosen what it is true from the almost limitless array of truths Hinduism offers. You may not agree with everything you read, but one of Hinduism’s wonderful qualities is inclusiveness and acceptance and we hope you’ll accept our Reference Library in the spirit with which it is offered.


Reference Library2020-01-30T11:45:14-08:00

The Vedas – That Which was Heard

The Vedas – That Which is Heard

Of the entire body of Hindu sacred texts, The Vedas alone are Sruti, ‘that which was heard.’ Embedded within The Vedas are essential treatises on the nature of Atman, our soul, and its relationship to Brahman, the Ultimate Reality.

Tradition tells of forest-dwelling sages (rishis) who developed a level of consciousness that enabled them to ‘hear’ in their hearts the truths of the universe, hence That Which is Heard. The rishis interpreted these truths to create The Vedas, the core of Hindu belief.

Another origin myth says Brahma created The Vedas whole, spreading them throughout the four directions of the cosmos from the four mouths of his four faces (note 1).

However they came to be, The Vedas are consist of four texts, passed down orally from Brahmin father to son before being transcribed into written Sanskrit some 3500 years ago (notes 2 and 3). As Sruti, The Veda’s four books of hymns, rituals, mantras, theology, are deemed scripture and therefore fixed.

Rig Veda is the oldest of the four and a collection of over 1,000 hymns over 10,000 verses, most of which praise one or another of the Vedic gods, such as Agni, Indra, Varuna, etc. Some of the Rig’s verses remain in use today for rites such as mantras, prayers, funerals and weddings. Some scholars believe some of these prayers and rituals are pre-historic; the Agni fire sacrifice being one (note 4).

Sama Veda is the basis for hymns sung using specific melodies derived from the Rig Veda.

Yajur Veda is a compilation of ritual mantras believed to have psychological and spiritual powers. Mantras are used in ritual and spiritual practice to carry the thoughts and prayers of devotees to the gods and goddesses.

Athar Veda, sometimes called ‘The Veda of magic formulas,’ a compilation of hymns describing esoteric knowledge of things like the treatment of ailments, the making of and defence against spells, domestic rituals such as rites of passage, as well as more in-depth theosophic treatises.

As documents written by mortals, The Vedas have been subject to endless examination, and these observations are set down as the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, as well as early and late Upanishads, and all are deemed sacred by association with The Vedas.

While it is The Vedas, which are the foundation of Hindu belief and practice, it is the early Upanishads which elevate its core values. They were extracted from The Vedas over time and continue to evolve to the present day, where they are widely known as the Vedanta. In turn, the philosophical aspects of the Vedanta are discussed at length in the Brahma Sutra, which delves further into the concept of Brahman and Atman, critiques of other dharmic options such as Buddhism and Jainism, advice on achieving moksha through intense meditation and the benefits of spiritual knowledge.

In south India, The Vedas (Sanskrit for knowledge) are known as Marai (Tamil for ‘hidden, secret, mystery’) and the core of Hindu belief interpreted from a uniquely Tamil perspective. The worship of Shiva and Vishnu, in particular, bear the hallmarks of ancient pre-Vedic beliefs, possibly due to Harappan origins. South India was spared the turmoil of successive invasions such as those suffered in the north, so the old Vedic beliefs remain cohesive.

In pre-Vedic south India, the elemental forces affecting people’s lives were little understood. Mysterious natural events, such as monsoon rains and disease, were appeased through ritual sacrifice and over time the supernatural powers which oversaw these events took physical form as the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Deities were believed responsible for almost any event beyond the control of individuals and ritual offerings of prayer, flowers and symbolic food items to the gods and goddesses remain fundamental to the practice of Hinduism.

Over a span of centuries ancient Tamil beliefs, practices and mythology were being absorbed into Vedic beliefs and practices, but that process was interrupted in the 8th century AD when  a devotional revolution took place in south India as the Bhakti movement was born. Wandering Tamil poet-saints singing passionate devotional hymns to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti ignited a new, intimate, personal mode of worship independent of ritual, gender or caste and its focus on a personal connection between worshipper and deity remains the standard practice throughout Hinduism. Temple worship with priestly intermediaries is common, but Bhakti is the preferred mode of worship for daily puja rituals.

Over 600 years, these hymns and poems were compiled as sacred texts, the Triumurai for those devoted to Shiva, and the Naalayira Divya Prabhandham, dedicated to Vishnu. They were composed in the Tamil language rather than the Vedic Sanskrit, and their passionate devotional hymns and poetic descriptions of the deities became a guide and reference, not just for Hindu scholars, musicians and dancers, but to Chola bronzesmiths as well.

Note 1 – It is said that Brahma created the seers solely to hear The Vedas and share them with humankind.

Note 2 – As facilitators of temple ritual, young Brahmins were, and are, required to memorize the Vedic hymns and mantras they will perform throughout their lives with subtle nuances of intonation and rhythm. Fastidious cross-checks ensure virtually no errors occur as this sacred knowledge is passed down through generations, and this oral tradition remains strong even today, with one Brahmin family in south India reportedly having passed The Vedas down without error for 3000 years.

Note 3 – Exactly when The Vedas were written down is unknown and likely to remain so. Contemporary Hindu nationalists in India claim The Vedas pre-date any other world religion, but because memory and speech leave no trace, that assertion is impossible to confirm. What no historian disputes, however, is Hinduism’s place as the world’s oldest living religion.

Note 4 – When Shailja and I married, the ceremony involved a series of sacrificial rites in Sanskrit around the temple’s sacred fire, all features of Vedic rituals.

The Vedas – That Which was Heard2019-11-07T09:38:55-08:00

Ganesha – The Beloved One

Ganesha – The Beloved One

Of the entire Hindu pantheon, it is Ganesha characteristics are most human. He is a calm, pure, benevolent deity inspiring neither fear nor awe, while his kind smile, carefree manner and child-like enthusiasm for sweet rice balls (laddus), define the relaxed aura surrounding him. Ganesha is the most popular and approachable of the Hindu gods, worshipped as the Lord of new beginnings and remover of obstacles, and therefore honoured before the start of any endeavour, ritual or ceremony. Largely a secular divinity, Ganesha is associated with no fussy rituals or rigid taboos. He is loved and worshipped by everyone, and all receive his protection and royal blessing.

There are many myths surrounding Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Uma, and about how he got his elephant head. According to one legend, the Uma made her son, Ganesha, out of the dead skin she scraped off her body as she bathed. She posted Ganesha at the door of her bath and instructed him to let no one enter. Uma’s husband, Shiva, returned home after several years of meditating to find an unknown boy guarding the door to the bath. Ganesha refused to let him enter. Shiva lost his temper and cut off the boy’s head. Uma, devastated, insisted that her son be returned to life. Shiva then offered to give Ganesha the head of the next being that appeared, and when an elephant approached, Ganesha received its head and was brought back to life. To pacify Uma further, and compensate for the act of killing own son, Shiva bestowed upon Ganesha the powers of a god and blessed him that henceforth no activity will begin without invoking his name and blessing. Since then, it is said, no new venture – from a schoolchild opening a new notebook to an opening of a shop, from the foundation of a building to entering a new home – is deemed complete without puja directed to Ganesha.

As for Ganesha’s physical characteristics, just as in every Hindu icon, they symbolize an attribute. The size of his head is said to represent wisdom and learning, his large ears symbolize the ability to hear every prayer he is offered, and small eyes signify the ability to concentrate as he meditates. His defining characteristic is his trunk, and its symbology is extensive. For example, it is believed to be auspicious for a Ganesha image in the home if the trunk is bent to his left, indicating a more cooling feminine energy and ideally touching a bowl of laddus, representing material prosperity. He should be also be seated, so he doesn’t wander away from home. On the other hand, Ganesha’s temple icons ought to have his trunk to his right, a more fiery and dynamic energy, and helpful for expediting gratification of one’s prayers. Ganesha is usually shown with four arms. With his trunk he reaches for a bowl of the laddus he loves, while his hands hold; a string of prayer beads, an elephant goad, sometimes a snake, and his broken tusk; all heavily symbolic. Temple sculptures of Ganesha are usually found at the beginning of a sequence of deities on the exterior walls, placed there to eliminate obstacles faced by the worshipper on his or her spiritual path. 

A favourite hymn dedicated to Ganesha is; ‘O ye who possesseth curved trunk, huge body and brilliance of ten million suns, accomplish and accomplish always, all my errands free from obstacles’.

Ganesha is also identified with the sacred mantra, the syllable Om, and believed to be its personification. His animal-vehicle (vahana) is the rat which, though small by contrast, will gnaw through any obstacle. This comparison suggests that there are two ways to remove obstacles; like an elephant trampling everything in its path, or a rat finding its way through small openings to achieve the same goal. In the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnoke, Rajasthan, rats are fed milk and grain and believed to be destined for reincarnation as holy men (sadhus).

Ganesha – The Beloved One2019-11-18T17:17:22-08:00

Mantra – The Sacred Sound

Mantra – The Sacred Sound

Mantras, (tr: mind instrument) are central to the ritual traditions of Hinduism. They are syllables, words, phrases or sentences having sacred power when repeatedly chanted, whispered or thought, usually in Sanskrit. The literal meaning of the Mantra’s content is of less importance than its vibrational quality and are usually used in combination with an action of some sort, such as when making a ritual offering or when meditating to clear the mind of day to day clutter, allowing it to focus and concentrate. Should a specific Mantra be gifted from a guru to a student it is empowered or brought to life in much the same way an icon is empowered when inhabited by a deity.

Mantra’s origins are Tantric and therefore strongly associated with the Shaktic energy permeating all planes of existence from the most sacred and subtle to our own base earthly level. Tantrics believe the Mantra itself is divine as if it were a deity in its own right.

The ultimate Mantra is, of course, the syllable OM (pronounced ahh–uhh–mm), which is identified with Brahman, the Ultimate Soul.

If white contains within it every colour in the spectrum, then OM contains every sound in the cosmos’ vibrational spectrum. It is believed that once our vibration matches that of the universe, slowly repeating OM clears the mind and connects us to the cosmos. OM is considered to be the essence of The Vedas distilled into one syllable and found in virtually all Vedic rituals from daily pujas to Vedic temple sacrifice. OM is also sacred to Buddhists and Sikhs.

Other mantras are prayers, such as the timeless Gayatri Mantra which is so important to Hindu belief it is embodied as the goddess, Gayatri. For many Hindus the Gayatri Mantra may be the only Sanskrit prayer they know;

Aum
Bhuh Bhuvah Svah
Tat Savitur Varenyam
Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi
Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayat

“O thou existence Absolute,
Creator of the three dimensions,
W
e contemplate upon thy divine light.
May He stimulate our intellect
and bestow upon us true knowledge.”

(Rigveda 3.62.10)  

Our favourite version of the Gayatri Mantra is sung here by Deva Premal; https://youtu.be/yQjHSIHPJfw 

Mantra – The Sacred Sound2019-11-07T16:30:12-08:00

Chola Bronzes in Context

Chola Bronzes in Context

In the ninth century, the Chola imperial dynasty emerged from the fertile coastal plains of south India and became the dominant political, cultural, religious, and artistic force in the region for the next four hundred years. With his land borders secure and a fleet of trading ships filling his coffers, the dynasty’s enlightened founder, Rajaraja Chola, began construction of almost 300 majestic temples to project the power, wealth, and piety of the Chola dynasty. These temples were the spiritual and cultural centers of the Chola Empire and marked the beginning of a golden age where music, dance, poetry, architecture and sculpture flourished as never before and rarely since. The aesthetic and technical sophistication the Cholas achieved remains the standard for sacred art.

Imagine yourself a thousand years ago in south India. You and your family are citizens of the Chola Empire. The land is rich and fertile; the empire wealthy and secure. Chola merchants trade all over southeast Asia as far as China and as far west as the Persian Gulf. Your markets are filled with silks and spices and exotic goods, while travellers from all over the world pass by your door. You and your family are blessed by God, protected by your king, and tonight is special.

Chanting hymns of praise, priests in the temple have ritually fed and bathed bronze images of your gods and goddesses in milk, butter, honey, and sugar, rinsed them with holy water from the Kaveri River, anointed them with fragrant sandalwood paste and draped them in new silk, garlands of jasmine, hibiscus and marigold, and lustrous pearls, gold and jewels. You and your family have been preparing yourselves as well. Everyone is freshly bathed and dressed in their finest. The moon is full and high, the streets lit with torches and decorated with banners, flags and tree branches. The fragrance of incense is in the air.

In the distance, you hear the deep beating of drums and a cacophony of horns and bells. Your children are hopping up and down with excitement as a caparisoned and lavishly decorated elephant carrying a banner in its trunk plods into view. Chanting hymns and dancing, beautiful men and women from the temple pass you by. Coming into view now are palanquins bearing your God, nearly hidden beneath silk and flowers and gold, the bearers straining under the weight. Your heart pounds in your chest, your palms are pressed together in Anjali, the gesture of greeting and respect. As the palanquin draws near, you raise your eyes and look upon the face of your God. You make eye contact, and in doing so, the God blesses you. Your heart is full, illuminated by divine grace; a moment known as Darshan.

The visual language of symbols, either abstract such as a lingam or literal as a Chola Bronze, enables us to focus our devotions. Chola bronzesmiths were inspired to create figurative icons in bronze to whom worshippers could approach and offer prayer. And isn’t that the purpose of any religious art, from the Lascaux cave paintings to Michelangelo’s Pieta? Unique to the genre of sacred art, however, is the extraordinary ability of Chola bronzesmiths to capture both the sensual beauty and spiritual grace of the gods and goddesses they represent.  

Chola Bronzes in museums, private collections and here on our website, were never meant to be seen unadorned. It was only after consecration, purification, and adornment with silks, jewels, and flowers, that the bronze figure was ritually transfigured into a living, breathing, seeing divinity; a transformation central to the spiritual importance of Chola bronzes. So when you are drawn to an unadorned Chola bronze, imagine that same figure in a torchlight procession on a hot summer night long ago, swathed in silk, jewels, and flowers as chanting fills the air.

Or perhaps you envision a quiet corner at home, where your Mantra Sacred Sculpture fills your home with its spiritual presence and sensual beauty. Listen to a mantra, light candles, and lay some flowers, then reflect on the ancient spiritual power your sculpture represents. Perhaps you may even hear some faint echo of a procession a thousand years ago.

Note 1; The temples and several of the bronzes commissioned by Rajaraja Chola continue to fulfill their role as objects of devotion today. The best known of these being the Thillai Temple Nataraja of Chidambaram, the former Chola capital.

Chola Bronzes in Context2019-11-08T05:33:33-08:00

Uma – The Divine Feminine

Uma – The Divine Feminine

Just as Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, is without form, it’s Force of Life, Shakti, is formless as well. When the power of Shakti takes physical form it manifests as the Great Goddesses (Maha Devis); Saraswati, Lakshmi and Uma (note 1), while goddesses such as Kali and Durga embody other more specific aspects of Shaktic power (note 2).

A foundational belief in Hinduism is that Shakti (female) and Purusha (male) energy are interconnected and interdependent; two halves of the complete divine whole. Uma is Shiva’s, dynamic creative energy and the force of life which connects all beings and the means of their moksha, or spiritual release.

In mythology, Uma is believed to be the incarnation of Shiva’s first wife, Sati, who immolated herself when Shiva was insulted by her father. Lost in mourning, Shiva had withdrawn into extreme asceticism, causing problems with the world, so the gods caused Uma to be born to lure Shiva into the active, sensual realm of husband and father. Uma civilizes him, therefore making him accessible to mortal worship. Uma is Shiva’s, dynamic creative energy, the Force of Life connecting all beings and the means of their spiritual release (moksha).

Shiva acting alone may perform acts of cosmic significance and protect the world from evil, but it is only in the company of Uma that Shiva’s grace is bestowed upon an individual soul. In iconography, the two are rarely depicted without each other. For example, when Shiva manifests as Nataraja, his power is considered incomplete unless a figure of Uma stands nearby.

A striking feature of many Chola Bronzes depicting The Divine Couple is their sensual intimacy. In the depiction of their marriage they tenderly hold hands and in others he will often be shown fondling her breast or gently turning her face to his. There are also many written references to their lovemaking in the sacred texts or the hymns of the Naynmar poet saints. In Hinduism it is believed the ecstasy of sacred union of worshipper with their deity is closely related to the bliss of sexual union with one’s beloved. 

Uma’s identity hasn’t always been defined by her relationship with her husband or sons, however. She was born a princess, daughter of Himavat, the personification of the Himalaya mountains, and the apsara (angel), Menā, and grew up to become an ascetic, demon-slayer, roles which morphed into those of Durga, the ultimate demon slayer, and Kali the fierce protector. As Vedic patriarchal attitudes toward goddesses prevailed, Uma lost a great deal of her earlier status and independence Balance was restored, however, when assertive, dynamic Chola queens such as Sembiyan restored Uma’s stature as a goddess in her own right. 

Smooth and curved her stomach,

like the snake’s dancing hood,

her flawless gait mocks the peacock’s grace,

with feet soft as cotton down,

and waist a slender creeper,

Uma Devi is one half of Shiva, lord of sacred Pundarai.”

Sambandar, Nayanar poet-saint.

When standing alone, Uma is the ideal of feminine beauty and wears the clothing and adornment of a queen, including the sacred thread of an ascetic – a throwback to her origins as a Himalayan renunciate goddess. She stands in tribhangasana, the threefold stance, with her hip to one side, her left arm hanging gracefully at her hip in the elegant lolahasta (note 3). Her right hand holds a (missing) lotus, symbolizing purity, in katakamudra. Sitting alone she may be Shiva Gami (Beloved of Shiva), Boga Shakti (Pleasure of Shakti) or as Somaskanda, a family group with Shiva and her second son, Murugan, and on occasion, Ganesha. 

As mother to sons, Ganesha and Murugan she is Boga Shakti and shown seated in lalitasana, the pose of royal ease (note 2).

In both these roles, she embodies the ideal balance of purity and sensuality and invariably portrayed as a slender, sensuous woman of great beauty.

Note 1 – Uma is known outside of south India as Parvati, Aparna, Lalita and Shailja (Daughter of the Mountains) from her origins as a Himalayan ascetic.

Note 2 – female deities such as Uma, Kali and Durga were originally indigenous tribal deities, worshipped in their own right without male consorts. Over time, however, as the Tridevi were absorbed into the Vedic patriarchal pantheon they were assigned supporting roles as wives to the male gods.

Note 3 – when a Great Goddess stands alone they can be difficult to differentiate when all depict the ideal female form. If their breasts are bare they live in heaven and if they they wear a breast band, or kuchabandha, they live here on Earth; or in the case of Bhu Devi, second consort of Vishnu and Earth Goddess, lives within the earth. Somewhat more difficult is the headgear. Uma’s hair is worn in the style of an ascetic, in dreadlocks and arranged to look like a crown and bound with jewels, while Lakshmi and Saraswati wear kiritamakuta and are actual crowns

Uma – The Divine Feminine2019-11-07T16:55:14-08:00

Chola Bronze Iconography

Chola Bronze Iconography

“Without a form how can God be meditated upon? If God is without form, where will the mind fix itself? When there is nothing for the mind to attach itself to, it will slip away from meditation or glide into a state of slumber. Therefore the wise will meditate on some form, remembering, however, that the form is a superimposition and not a reality.”

Vishnu Samhita Ch 29, V 55-7

When Brahman (God) is without form, the form which enables Hindus to focus their devotions is either an abstract aniconic form such as a lingam, yoni or yantra; or figurative – such as a Chola Bronze.

Lingam and Yoni; The aniconic pillarlike form of the lingam predates figurative imagery to a time when symbols alone were used to represent divinity (note 1). In the Saivite and Shaktic traditions, the lingam is Shiva’s column of light at the center of the world, rooted in the dark netherworld, breaking through the surface of the earth and reaching towards the infinite cosmos. The yoni (tr; womb, origin, source) is the female, regenerative equivalent of the lingam and represents the Divine Feminine principle of Shakti. The lingam and yoni together represent the regenerative power of the universe through the union of male (Prakriti) and female (Purusha) natural, divine power.

Yantra; A Yantra (tr; machine) is a geometric shape, often drawn on the floor with powder, specific to a particular deity and worshipped as that deity. Yantras predate Vedic belief by many thousands of years and closely associated with Shakti worship. Yantras are charged with the power of a Mantra and direct mantric energy towards the deity. While Yantras and Mandalas are similar in appearance and both are metaphysical devices created to aid meditation practice, Yantras are specific to a deity, or the home of a deity, while Mandalas represent the cosmos as a whole.

An ancient tradition in south India is the kolam, an auspicious geometric pattern similar to the yantra and mandala. The kolam is applied to the ground outside the entrance to private homes and are refreshed each morning. Kolam are believed to repel evil and welcome Lakshmi, Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune.

Figurative Sculpture; In Hindu mythology, it is believed gods and goddesses exist on a higher plane in a formless state and leave this state only when a physical body is required to perform a heroic deed, or when a worshipper requires a material focus for worship. If certain rituals are performed the god’s spirit may mystically descend and enter into a sculpture created in its human form (murti). For the time it takes to perform puja, the bronze figure becomes the god or goddess. Doing so is an act of grace on the part of the deity and having a physical form enables the god to bestow a blessing upon the worshipper with a gesture or eye contact (Darshan). and it is the clean, simple, visual vocabulary of iconography which makes it possible.

The challenge for Chola artists was to craft sculpture worthy of the gods. As a material metaphor of a divine entity, it must be aesthetically and technically perfect and when royal patronage put all the resources of the empire at the artist’s disposal, the iconic Chola Bronzes were created. The artists worked within the temple complex and in most cases, were also trained in music and dance. Then as now, dance brought to life the god’s stories, not only through body language (bhangas and hastas) but subtle hand gestures (mudras) as well (note 2). A dancer tells the god’s story with their body, the sculptor tells it in bronze.

For those new to the idea of gods and goddesses as sexual beings, the sensuality of Chola Bronzes can be unsettling. Prudery was unknown to the Cholas, indeed to most pre-colonial Indians, who believed the body’s senses were a gift from the gods. The intense sensual stimulation of sex was the greatest of those gifts and connection with one’s beloved while making love was believed to be spiritually akin to the feeling of connection between worshipper and deity during the ritual of Darshan. In addition, the ecstasy of sexual release was deemed similar to Darshan’s moment of bliss when the worshipper and divinity became visually connected.

As Chola artists created their sculptures, they were guided by the firm hand of sacred texts, the Shilpa Sastras. Every aesthetic and technical detail was followed to the letter (note 3). The units of measurement are the angula, or a finger width, and the tala, the distance from the chin to the forehead. Twelve angulas equal one tala. The artist creates a figure using an ancient system where the head is one tala high; the neck is four angulas, the torso three talas, and so on. The figure’s eyes, for example, are to be shaped like a small fish or lotus petal; the eyebrow like an archer’s bow; the lips shaped like lotus blossoms; the chin like a mango stone; and the arms like an elephant’s trunk or, in the case of a woman’s arms, long and tapered like a perfectly formed edible root. The male torso should resemble the frontal view of a bull’s head or the chest of a lion. The female should have full breasts, a narrow waist like a drum (damaru), and generous hips, all symbolizing nature’s abundance and the female procreative powers. Goddesses are slightly shorter in stature and slender, while in a grouping of deities, lesser gods and juveniles are proportionally smaller.

As they blend characteristics of both the divine and the human, a Hindu god’s body appears soft, without muscle definition, because it is filled not with blood, muscle and bone, but with prana, the sacred breath of life and evokes the serene otherworldliness of spiritual beings who have passed beyond the physicality of the human body. The way the gods stand or sit or hold their hands conveys messages to the beholder of assurance, blessing or protection. Multiple arms and hands hold symbolic attributes such as flowers or weapons, all conveying information as to the deity’s qualities or responsibilities. The head of an animal, such as a boar or an elephant, places the deity in myth and legend. But tradition – and the Shilpa Sastras – specify these figures must also blend supernatural characteristics with the ideal beauty of earth-born men and women and the artists need to look no further than the royal court around them for inspiration. They would be surrounded by beautiful, youthful, semi-nude men and women, adorned in fine silks and lavish jewellery (note 4). For royalty, divine or mortal, the wearing of jewels and silk sets them apart and above. In a tropical environment, minimal clothing was natural and only lack of adornment (alankara) was considered vulgar.

Note 1 – The lingam is the central fixed point in Creation and any figurative forms are deemed secondary. For example, while the galleries and outer courtyards of a Saivite temple may contain multiple images of Shiva in his various aspects (Nataraja, Tripuravijaya, etc.) the centre of temple worship in the innermost sanctum is the Lingam.

Note 2 – Bharatanatyam is India’s oldest classical dance form and in the Chola period was known as Sathir. Noted for its fixed upper torso, with legs bent or knees splayed, intricate footwork and sophisticated vocabulary of body postures (hastas), gestures (mudras), eye and facial expressions, Bharatanatyam is an interpretive narration of mythical legends and spiritual ideas. For a top contemporary dancer see; http://arushimudgal.com/video-ardhnarishwar.html

Note 3 – The Shilpa Shastras formalized how Chola bronzesmiths related the perfection of the natural world to the perfection of the gods. In addition to the creation of their iconic bronzes, the Shilpa Shastras also directed the arts of painting, temple architecture, mural carving, jewellery making, music, dance, poetry, medicine, carpentry, even the erotic arts.

Note 4 – Chola Bronzes worshipped in temples are never seen unadorned except by their attendant priests. Except for their faces and perhaps their hands, their bodies are hidden beneath garlands, silks and jewellery. 

Chola Bronze Iconography2019-11-08T05:28:22-08:00

Hindu Belief

Hindu Belief

A fundamental human need is connection, with our self, our family, and our friends. Many of us also long for connection with something greater, something transcendent, and in Hinduism that transcendent something is Brahman, The Great Soul of The Universe – eternal, infinite, formless, all-embracing, everything that ever was, is now, and ever will be. Hindus also believe that within each of us is a spark of Brahman’s essence, our, Atman. Our soul. (note 1). 

“That which is the finest essence, This whole world has as its soul.

That is Reality. That art thou.”

Chandogya Upanishad 6.9.4

Basic Tenets; The three great religions of India, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism all share these fundamental beliefs.

  • Oneness; All forms of life – gods, humans, flora, and fauna – are one.
  • Time is cyclical and everything in the universe, including the universe itself, is endlessly cycling through creation, destruction, and rebirth (note 2),
  • Maya; Our experience of the world is transitory and illusional,
  • Samsara; All living beings are born and reborn in an endless reincarnation cycle of birth, an illusional life, death, and rebirth.
  • Karma; One’s good and bad actions accumulate through our life to determine the form into which we will be reborn.
  • Moksha; The spiritual goal of all three religions is release from Samsara. 

Spiritual goals;

  • Dharma, a value shared by all Indian faiths it has no simple definition and depends to a great degree upon the context in which it is used. A gross generalization might be to aspire to a righteous, dutiful and moral life,   
  • Artha, translates as “meaning, purpose or essence.” In a personal sense, it means securing one’s career, wealth, and prosperity. 
  • Kama, taking pleasure in the senses. Whether in the arts, in nature or sexuality, Kama is essential to a well-lived life, provided it doesn’t violate one’s dharma,
  • Moksha, only humans have the potential for the consciousness to transcend Maya and achieve Moksha, the transcendental and eternally blissful merging of one’s Atman (essence or soul) with Brahman, The Great Soul. 

“The life span of a man is one hundred years. Dividing that time, he should attend to three aims of life in such a way that they support, rather than hinder each other. In his youth, he should attend to profitable aims (artha) such as learning, in his prime to pleasure (kama), and in his old age to dharma and moksha.”

Kama Sutra: 1.2.1 – 1.2.4

The four Vedic stages of Hindu life (ashramas) are Purusartha, literally “object of human pursuit”;

  • Brahmacharya (student life) where one builds the foundation of one’s life by learning how to live a life of Dharma through the study of sacred texts, philosophy, logic, and science.
  • Grihastha (household life) is when one strives to live a dharmic, family-centred life. This is the stage of life when one produces the food and wealth, or artha, which enable others in the family and community to pursue their stages of life. This is also the time of sensory pleasures, or kama when the person is most engaged in the world.
  • Vanaprastha (retired life) when the responsibilities as a householder are passed on the next generation. As a grandparent, your family comes to you for advice. It is a time when of gradual withdrawal from worldly affairs as the focus turns to moksha.
  • Sannyasa (renounced life) where the material life is left behind. Some at this point embrace an ascetic life, where possessions are few, and the focus is on a simple spiritual life.

Note 1 – This belief carries over into daily interactions with others. The anjalimudra, hands together, palms touching, fingers pointing up, thumb gently touching the Anahata, or heart chakra, is a gesture of respect to the tiny spark of Brahman in the person being greeted. Its literal meaning is, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.” 

Note 2 – Hinduism views time in great cyclic periods known as yugas. There are four such yugas, and today we live in the period known as Kali Yuga, the era of spiritual darkness, ignorance, and destruction. 

Hindu Belief2019-11-08T05:41:32-08:00

Vishnu – The Preserver

Vishnu – The Preserver

Vishnu ranks among the Maha Devas, the Great Gods. Brahma creates the Universe and Shiva destroys it, enabling Brahma to create it anew. Between creation and destruction, Vishnu preserves the universe’s cosmic order, its Dharma, when it is disturbed. The gods ask Vishnu to intervene and he leaves his formless state on the heavenly plane, descending to earth in the form of an avatar. Vishnu has manifested as ten avatars or incarnations, and each serves a specific form and purpose.

Vishnu’s avatars are;

  1. Matsya, the Fish, who rescued the first man and the creatures of the earth from a great flood – a myth common to many cultures, 
  2. Kurma, the Tortoise, supported the stick on his back used to churn an ocean of milk to recover treasures, 
  3. Varaha, the Boar, after a thousand-year battle, raised the Earth out of from the sea with his tusks after the demon, Hiranyaksha, dragged it to the bottom of the ocean,
  4. Narasimha, the Lion-Man, slew Hiranyakashipiu after Brahma had conferred a boon that the demon couldn’t be harmed or killed indoors or out, by day or night, nor by any weapon. The demon was causing trouble both in heaven and on earth, and when Hiranyakashipiu threatened his son Prahlada, a Vishnu devotee, Narasimha leapt from a pillar on a porch (neither indoors nor out) at dusk (neither day nor night) and tore out his heart with his claws,
  5. Vamana, the Dwarf, appeared when Bali, a demon king, ruled the universe when the gods lost their power. Vamana visited Bali and begged for as much land as he could cover in three steps. Laughing, Bali granted the wish. As Vamana, Vishnu assumed the form of a giant whose first step bestrode the whole earth, the middle world with the second and with the third step, sent Bali down to rule the underworld,
  6. Parasurama appeared as an angry, axe-wielding priest who came into the world to restore dharma to a social order corrupted by an arrogant Kshatriya (warrior) caste,
  7. Rama, another popular Hindu deity, is the central figure in the Ramayana, an epic where Rama slays the multi-headed demon, Ravanna, who had kidnapped Rama’s devoted wife, Sita,
  8. Krishna is a hugely popular deity in Hinduism. He was born mortal and is the playful butter loving toddler; the eternally beautiful, blue-skinned, flute-playing, gopi-seducing, cow-herding youth; and the worldly charioteer speaking to Arjuna on the battlefield in the epic, Bhagavad Gita, the definitive treatise on the practice of Hinduism.
  9. Balarama is Krishna’s rarely worshipped, physically powerful, older brother who shares some of Krishna’s adventures. Later legends have Buddha or Jesus of Nazareth replacing Balarama as the ninth avatar (note 1),
  10. Kalki, the mighty warrior, is Vishnu’s last incarnation and is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga, our present time. Kalki will come to rid the world of evil riding a white horse and carrying a flaming sword.

Vishnu in his traditional form is portrayed in one of two ways; standing (samabhanga) on a lotus with four arms and hands holding attributes and weapons (note 2).

Or he is portrayed resting on the coiled snake floating on the cosmic ocean (note 3). As Vishnu awakens, the universe is created. A lotus emerges from his navel and out of the unfolding lotus emerges Brahma, the Creator, who then manifests the universe which Vishnu maintains and preserves. After Shiva destroys the universe, Brahma is enfolded in the lotus, withdraws into his navel, and Vishnu falls asleep once again. As he sleeps, he dreams the universe as it will be created when the next cycle begins, a cycle without beginning or end, the Hindu concept of time (note 3).

A foundational Hindu belief is the importance of the interdependent balance of male and female energies in major deities. The male cognitive force (Purusha) is ineffective without the creative female energy of Shakti (Prakriti), personified in Vishnu’s case by Lakshmi, the Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune. If Purusha is the word, Prakriti is the meaning. A romantic aspect of the myths whenever Vishnu descends to earth as an avatar he is accompanied by Lakshmi in her reincarnated form. For example, when Vishnu incarnates as Rama, Lakshmi is born as Sita.  

Vishnu’s vehicle (vahana) is Garuda, a giant eagle able to spread knowledge of The Vedas. Garuda has great courage and sometimes portrayed in winged human form with an eagle’s beak. 

Beginning in the 6th century in south India, Vaishnavite (note 4) poet-saints (alvars) roamed south India singing Vishnu’s praises in a deeply personal manner (note 5). This intimate relationship with God in turn inspired a new devotional style of worship known as Bhakti. Out of which arose practices formerly associated with Tantric rituals, such as puja and material images representing the gods (murti) which were believed to be able to temporarily host the deity, given the appropriate rituals and intensity and purity of heart of the devotee. 

Note 1 – Hinduism is all-inclusive. When a new focus of worship, such as Buddhism or Christianity emerges, from a Hindu perspective they manifest a fresh aspect of Brahman, the Ultimate Universal Soul, and are enfolded into Hindu belief.

Note 2 – In the first hand a conch, Sankha, represents the spread of the sacred sound ‘Om’; in the second the disc, Vajira, representing the chakra, the wheel of time; the third holds his club, Gada, representing the elemental force from which all physical and mental powers are derived; and in the fourth he holds the lotus, Padma, symbol of purity and unfolding creation.

Note 3 – Variously known as either Sesha (remainder) or Ananta (endless) who represent the sleeping universe.

Note 4 – Vaishnava is the sectarian belief that Vishnu or one of his avatars, Krishna in particular, is Supreme Lord. Vaishnavism has many sub-sects.

Note 5 – The equivalent for devotees of Shiva is Saivism and for the many aspects of Devi, Shaktism, all with many sub-sects. 

Vishnu – The Preserver2019-11-07T17:22:49-08:00
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