Bhakti could be described as loving of one’s chosen god or goddess the way a lover loves their beloved, a parent loves their child, or a friend loves another friend. Bhakti is a deeply personal spiritual intimacy on the part of the devotee, and open to everyone regardless of gender or caste. Bhakti as a devotional practice was never exclusively Hindu but also important in Buddhist and Jain traditions, having spread to Sufism, Christianity and Sikhism as well (note 1).
As a Hindu devotional philosophy and a means to achieve moksha (note 2), Bhakti has been known for millennia but didn’t really become popular until the early medieval period around 600 AD. At that time, seemingly out of nowhere, itinerant poet-saints began wandering from temple to temple throughout south India chanting deeply personal, and at times frankly erotic, hymns praising their chosen gods and goddesses. When focussed upon Vishnu and/or his avatar, Krishna they were known as these poets were known as Alvars, when praising Shiva they were Nayanars, and when the focus was upon one of the Divine Goddesses they were Shaktics.
Prior to the rise of Bhakti, Hindu worship was primarily a function of an ancient Vedic sacrifice ritual carried out by Brahmin priests deep inside the temples. Devotions were a quid pro quo type of ceremony where the worshipper, through the priests, would offer something of value, such as food or flowers or cash, to the deity in exchange for a gift or their blessing. Bhakti offered a much more personal alternative for the worshipper, a direct connection to God, without the need for either priests or structured ritual. Temple worship remains an important element of Hindu practice, however it is the personal devotion of Bhakti through which most Hindus offer their prayers, whether through a simple puja ceremony at home or a quick invocation to a postcard of Ganesh on the dashboard of their autorickshaw.
Note 1 – personal devotion to the Buddha may have been common practice from Buddhism’s earliest days (500 BC) though Bhakti as a term is Hindu in origin.
Note 2 – the two other paths to achieve moksha are; a) Vedic ritual and knowledge, and b) Yogic meditation and contemplation on the nature of Brahman.
Bhakti – The Love of GodTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:24:22-08:00
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.
While Lakshmi, The Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune, is Vishnu’s main consort, Bhu Devi, The Goddess of Mother Earth, as sustainer, enricher and provider, is an essential aspect of Vishnu’s role as Preserver (note 1).
Bhu Devi was created from the three petals which came from the navel of Vishnu after the creation of Brahma. In early Rig Vedas, Bhu Devi is Mother Earth and consort of Dyaus, Father Sky, though over time Dyaus morphed to reflect the growing importance of Vishnu.
The best-known legend involving Bhu Devi was after she was abducted by the demon Hiranyaksha, Vishnu took the form of his boar avatar, Varaha, and plunged into the depths of the cosmic ocean to save her. After lifting Bhu Devi above the waves on his tusks, Vishnu vanquished the demon with his discus (chakra), then spread out Bhu Devi as Mother Earth, creating the seven continents and the land required for humankind to exist.
As a Chola Bronze, Bhu Devi is often shown as part of a trinity, with Vishnu in the centre and Lakshmi and Bhu Devi either side. Both are of equal beauty and both will be holding a lotus. The pair are usually differentiated by Lakshmi wearing a kuchabandha, or breast band, while the Bhu Devi is bare-breasted. When depicted with either two or four arms, Bhu Devi’s right hand may be holding a blue, or night lotus (kumuda or utpala), while the left gestures either fear not (abhayamudra) or hanging freely in lolahasta, which symbolizes nothing – it just looks right. When depicted with four arms, she may be holding a water vessel, a pomegranate, a bowl containing healing herbs or another bowl containing vegetables. Her vehicle (vahana) is the cow.
Note 1 – Bhu Devi translates as Bhu (Earth) Devi (goddess). She is also known as Prthivi.
Bhu Devi – The Earth GoddessTerry Curell2019-11-07T17:31:13-08:00
Krishna is as well-loved today as he was in the time of the Cholas. However, it is Murugan, Shiva and Uma’s second son, who fulfills the role of eternally youthful hero, protector, philosopher, teacher and friend in south India. Krishna as Supreme Being is a sect popular in the north, entirely separate from the Vaishnavite belief that Vishnu is supreme, and has spread worldwide with the Hare Krishna movement.
Krishna is Vishnu’s eighth incarnation, unique in that he chose to be born as a mortal as a newborn. Krishna was exchanged at birth with a cowherd’s daughter to escape the clutches of an evil demon king, Kamsa (note 1). Childhood stories tell of his mischievous nature, but also illustrate the close bond between Krishna and his foster mother, Yashoda. Young Krishna spent a happy life with his foster parents playing boyish pranks (often including butter theft) (note 2), and later as a youth when he used his flute to seduce village girls (gopis) (notes 3 and 4). His favourite was Radha, his foster sister and childhood lover, although they did not marry. Theirs was a pure love and came to symbolize the unconditional love between devotee and deity; a relationship related closely to Bhakti, an intimate, personal devotion to one’s chosen deity.
According to mythology, Krishna was not only divine but heroic as well. As a boy, he defeated the snake king, Kaliya when the serpent poisoned the Yamuna River. In the epic poem ‘Mahabharata’ he helps the Pandavas against the Kauravas, two families in a war of succession. In the poem, Krishna is depicted as divine charioteer to the troubled hero, Arjuna, as Krishna delivers his celebrated treatise ‘Bhagavad-Gita’ on life and dharma. This speech persuaded Arjuna that it was his duty, his Dharma, to fight against his kinsmen.
Krishna is depicted as the beautiful smiling youth with skin the colour of the sky, plays the flute, wearing a peacock feather in his curly black hair and a flower garland around his neck.
Note 1 – Many respected scholars accept that Krishna was an actual person, living in the period between 3200 and 3100 BCE.
Note 2 – As a playful tot, he is known as Balakrishna.
Note 3 – In his cow herding, flute playing aspect he is known as Venugopala B-VNST21 and B-VNS28.
Note 4 – Divine playfulness (Lila) is an important concept in Hindu mythology which not only as it applies to Krishna but other gods as well. Depending on which deity is believed to be Supreme Being, the world is created simply because it is that deity’s will. It is God at play.
Krishna – The Philosopher KingTerry Curell2019-11-07T17:41:38-08:00
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!”
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.
Hinduism in The Chola EmpireTerry Curell2019-11-10T15:44:27-08:00
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;
Matsya, the Fish, who rescued the first man and the creatures of the earth from a great flood – a myth common to many cultures,
Kurma, the Tortoise, supported the stick on his back used to churn an ocean of milk to recover treasures,
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,
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,
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,
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,
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,
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.
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),
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.
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.”
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 HinduismTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:39:27-08:00