Shiva’s nature is as complex and mysterious as Hinduism itself. He is Tripurantaka, Destroyer of Cities, yet also the serene Adiyogi, Lord of Yoga, gentle, generous and benevolent, residing within everyone as pure consciousness. Perhaps it is this wild, unpredictable nature that led orthodox Vedic tradition to favour Vishnu over Shiva. Still, in south India, it is The Auspicious One who inspires the most ardent devotion, both in the Chola period (note 1) and today.

In addition to Tripurantaka and Adiyogi, Shiva manifests in many different forms. He is Somaskanda, loving husband to Uma and father to sons Ganesha and Murugan; Ardhnarishvara, half-male half-female, embodying the cosmic duality of male and female principles; Dhakshina, Lord of the South and Great Teacher; Veenadhara the Lord of Music; and Bhikshatana, the Enchanting Mendicant (ascetic beggar). However, Shiva is most ardently worshipped as Nataraja, The Great Lord of Dance and this is his most widely known manifestation. As Nata (dance) Raja (lord), Shiva dances the ecstatic cosmic dance during which he performs the five essential acts as creator, preserver, eradicator of ignorance, bestower of reassurance, and ultimate destroyer (note 2).

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

Additional Elements

Additional Elements

Pitha; Hindu deities are subject not to our laws of physics but to their own set of cosmic laws, and therefore their feet must never touch the earth. Should our world and theirs connect in physical manner would be catastrophic  – for us, not for them. In iconography, therefore, this separation of their world and ours means it’s necessary to have a pedestal (pitha) for them to stand or sit upon. Their pithas are sacred by association and their shape and arrangement have symbological meanings of their own, beyond those of the deity sitting or standing upon it. 

Perhaps the most auspicious of the pithas is the padmapitha, or lotus pedestal (above). Recognizable by the stylized lotus petals, it represents how everything, mortal and divine, is born out of purity. 

When a pitha has a single, clearly defined segment, it indicates a single aspect of the god depicted, while a double indicates two or more characteristics. These are Bhadrapitha and unique to the pithas of the Great Gods and Goddesses. 

Some pithas feature holes or rings in the pitha (see above), meant to accommodate carrying poles. Larger sculptures were created to be carried aloft in processions, either as part of a daily ritual or festivals.

Prabhamandala; Sometimes, an arch, or nimbus, may encircle the icon. When it represents the Earth, it is elaborately decorated with stylized leaves from the sacred tree representing cosmic power. In the case of Shiva as Nataraja, the prabhamandala represents the entire cosmos and is surrounded by flames. Sometimes a mask (Kirttimukha, or Face of Glory) will be at the prabhamandala’s peak, providing divine protection. 

Additional Elements2019-11-08T05:29:54-08:00

Murugan

Murugan – The Warrior Prince

Murugan is the second son to Shiva and Uma after Ganesha and the most masculine and fierce of the Hindu pantheon (note 1). Murugan is often referred to as God of the Tamils and is arguably the most popular deity in south India (note 2). As revered general of Shiva’s armies, Murugan is the beautiful and eternally youthful bestower of blessings. 

Murugan’s origins are probably a composite of the north Indian warrior god, Skanda, and an ancient Tamil hero, Subrahmanya. His mythology is told in the Skanda Purana which tells mostly of his birth and youth. The following is one of many legends of his conception; 

“Once married, Shiva and Uma honeymoon at Shiva’s home atop Mount Kailash. Their lovemaking shakes the cosmos, and the gods become fearful, wondering what a child born of two such powerful deities will be like. Led by Vishnu, the entourage travels to Kailash and wait patiently for the newlyweds to emerge. Many years pass yet Shiva and Uma continue as before. Agni (God of Fire) disguises himself as a dove and enters the bedchamber. Uma reacts. Shiva withdraws. A drop of his semen falls to the floor. Agni eats the drop. Uma is enraged at the interruption and curses the gods so that all their wives would be barren. Agni, meanwhile, is unable to bear the heat of Shiva’s fiery seed and flies to the banks of the Ganges to cool off. This particular location happens to be where wives of seven sages have come to bathe (note 3). They’re feeling cold and approach the heat. Agni drops the seed, and it enters the wives, who become pregnant. When the sages find out they scold their wives, who place the embryo on a Himalayan peak. Thus is born Murugan. Shiva and Uma are delighted. Murugan’s six mothers are smitten by the newborn baby god and argue amongst themselves over who is to breastfeed him. Murugan solves the problem by creating five additional faces, one for each of his mothers.”

Murugan’s first wife is Devasena, daughter of Indra through an arranged marriage, and she represents heaven. His second wife, Valli, the gypsy huntress, he keeps hidden in the hills. She represents Earth and theirs was a love match. The characteristics of his wives complete Murugan as he spends his time equally on earth and in heaven.

In Murugan’s iconography, he is dressed as a warrior with 12 arms, each hand holding an attribute, most of them weapons, such as Vel, the lance given to him by his mother, Uma. His vehicle (vahana) is Paravani, a blue peacock, who often holds a serpent in its claws symbolizing the destruction of ego.

Note 1 – Murugan is also known in the south as Karthikeya, Subrahmanyan, Shanmughan and Swaminathan; in northern India, Skanda, Kumara, or Karttikeya.

Note 2 – Three of the six busiest and richest temples in south India are dedicated to him.

Note 3 – The seven wives are said to be the seven stars of the Pleiades cluster, also known as The Little Dipper. 

Murugan2019-11-07T17:16:51-08:00

Hinduism in The Chola Empire

Hinduism in The Chola Empire

When Vedic Hinduism reached south India around 2400 BP, the indigenous Tamil culture was fully established. Both traditions were rooted in common animist origins, and Vedic gods blended with their Tamil counterparts almost seamlessly. For example, the pastoral god Murugan, “the red god seated on the blue peacock who is ever young and resplendent,” merged with the north Indian Skanda and retains a large following even today. Murugan’s mother, the fierce war goddess, Korravai, united with Kali. Mayon, a black rural divinity, shares many of the same characteristics as Krishna Gopala. Lalita, “Beautiful Goddess of The Three Cities,” is the Tamil equivalent of Lakshmi.

A thousand years later, in the centuries leading up to the time of the Cholas, dissatisfaction with Vedic tradition was feeding widespread frustration among ordinary worshippers. Deep within the temple’s inner sanctums, the priests and a select few of the royal elite would have direct contact with the gods while the lesser castes waited in the entrance hall. This worship by proxy left the population spiritually unsatisfied, but change was in the air. Seemingly out of nowhere came the Alvars and Nayanars, itinerant poet-saints, male and female, high caste and low, who wandered through south India singing passionate devotional hymns to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti. This new personal connection with God sparked a devotional revolution known as Bhakti. It’s ardent, unstructured emotional style of worship contrasted sharply with the old Vedic temple rituals and the Tamil people wholeheartedly embraced these poet-saints and this new devotional style (note 2). They rejected not only the idea of salvation through Brahmin controlled ritual but Vedic divisions of gender and caste. Bhakti spread beyond the Chola borders and into India and eventually throughout Asia, where it remains the dominant form of worship. As the movement spread, Bhakti freed not just Hindus but Buddhists and Jains to perform their devotions when, where, and how they chose. Their relationship with God was now personal and far more gratifying. Chola craftsmen, too, found inspiration in the hymns and poems of the saints, creating in bronze the vitality, grace and beauty the poets had created in words.

“Youth who shines as a ruby,
In a cluster of emeralds!
Being who enters my heart,
Stirring memory!
Come to me in my sleep,
Be my friend,
Give me refuge in your grace,
O dweller in Avatuturai!”
Saint Appar

As often occurred when orthodox Hinduism is confronted with a powerful new spiritual energy, it absorbed key practices into itself. And when the Chola kings also fell under the spell of Bhakti, Brahmin priests eased their restriction on access to the gods and royal craftsmen were directed to re-create the temple’s stone-carved deities in bronze, portable images which could be carried in procession about the temple within view of worshippers. Over time these bronze figures began to acquire the persona of both divine and earthly kingship. The deity would have a sacred bedroom, where it would be awoken, bathed, offered food and drink (puja), adorned in sumptuous silks, jewels and fragrances before being carried in procession. The deity would preside over daily rituals and ceremonies, and in the evening would be ritually ‘put to bed.’ For annual festivals, these processional bronzes (utsavamurti) are carried by bearers or atop wheeled vehicles, outside the temple grounds to great fanfare (note 2). Such processions continue today, and the sensory onslaught has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Note 1; Four thousand of these hymns, the Naalayira Divya Prabhandham, were collected from all over south India and within the four thousand, eleven hundred verses, the Tiruvaymoli, came to be known as the Tamil Vedas (note 2) and deemed every bit as authoritative as The Vedas from the north. The hymns were passed down orally through generations before being committed by scholars to pen and palm leaf.

Note 2; An extreme example may be the processional vehicles carrying Jagannath, an image of Krishna. A fresh one is constructed every year and is a massive 45 feet high and 35 feet wide and long. 

A photograph showing a processional car carrying a devotional image.  

Hinduism in The Chola Empire2019-11-10T15:44:27-08:00

Shiva and Uma – The Divine Marriage

Shiva and Uma – The Divine Marriage

Shiva and Uma’s relationship represents the eternal tension in Hindu culture between the secular and spiritual, the ascetic and domestic. Until Uma enters his life, Shiva is Adiyogi, Lord of Yoga, leading the austere life of a sage, meditating motionless in cremation grounds and mountain forests.

Like many Hindu gods, Shiva is a character of contradictions. He is Lord of Yoga and the ultimate ascetic, but also Lord of Tantra, where sexual union is a path to spiritual enlightenment. Hindus do not interpret Shiva’s behaviour as contradictory, but rather a deity wisely integrating the extremes of human nature while transcending attachment to any ideology.

Uma is in love with Shiva and determined to lure him away from his ascetic self-absorption into the world of marriage, sex, and children. Uma breaks into Shiva’s mystic world by becoming as austere as he, to the extent other gods fear the heat of her intensity will to scorch not only themselves but the entire world. The gods persuade Shiva to accept Uma as his bride so she will cease her efforts.

As Shiva’s wife, Uma upholds the order of dharma, and it is she who represents the beauty and attraction of worldly, sexual life, and cherishes the home and community. Uma civilizes Shiva with her presence. She domesticates him, and in so doing, enables him to become accessible to the mortal worshipper.

A striking feature of many Chola Bronzes depicting Uma and Shiva as a couple is the sensual intimacy shown. 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. In the time of the Chola Empire the ecstasy of sexual union, whether mortal or divine, paralleled the rapture of the spiritual union between devotee and deity. To experience the rapture of oneness with one’s beloved was felt to be akin to the bliss of spiritual oneness with God. The sages of the 6th and 7th centuries wrote hymns to their gods and goddesses which are frankly sexual and led in no small part to the Bhakti movement which transformed Hindu worship from formal temple ritual to an intensely personal devotion to one’s chosen deity.  

Shiva and Uma – The Divine Marriage2019-11-07T17:08:40-08:00

The Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism

The Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism

It is said that Hinduism is a religion of 300 million Gods, but those who say it perhaps don’t understand the symbolism of the Hindu pantheon. Truth may take 300 million forms but there is only one Ultimate Truth and it is Brahman and the entire Hindu pantheon is needed to even begin to represent Brahman’s aspects and manifestations.

He is the one, the one alone, in Him
all deities become One alone.” 

Artharva Veda

Hindu gods and goddesses are broadly classified as Vedic or Puranic. The Vedic gods and goddesses are the old gods, while the Puranic deities were created later. The Puranic epics, Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, are well-loved by Hindus everywhere, while in south India, Sangam literature told stories of the lives and adventures of south India’s royalty, however, it is within the Puranas where the major deities have their stories told. The Puranas are perhaps the most important or commonly used scriptural texts; guidebooks for the whole of life and society. These sacred texts were in their final form by about 500 AD though orally passed down for two thousand years before that. The principal Puranas tell the stories of Vishnu the Preserver (Vishnu Purana), Shiva the Destroyer (Shiva Purana) and Devi, the Mother Goddess (Markendeya Purana). The Bhagavata Purana is important to the worshippers of Krishna, while Vayu (Vedic God of Air), Agni (Vedic God of Fire), Murugan (second son of Shiva and Uma), Kalki (last avatar of Vishnu), Lingam (the anthropomorphic pillar symbolizing Shiva) each have their own Purana.

These myths and legends were more than tales of high drama and superhuman feats; they told the stories of the gods and goddesses and brought them to life. No longer seen as unapproachable statues in temples or processions, these divine beings fought demons in hand to hand combat, made love, felt pain and lost their tempers, just as humans do. These tales showed them to be wise, loyal, caring, while some even had a sense of humour. In other words, they became multi-dimensional to Hindu devotees, more real, more approachable. The stories weren’t just entertainment but allegorical lessons in Dharma, the dutiful pathway. They taught Hindus, by example, how to do the right thing.

The Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism2019-11-07T16:39:27-08:00
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