About the Book:
Indian art is becoming increasingly popular in the West, but it cannot be appreciated fully without some knowledge of the religious and philosophical background. Margaret Stutley covers all aspects of Hindu iconography, and explains that its roots lie far back in the style of prehistoric art which has remained part of a living tradition for 7,000 years and which resembles the folk murals of many Indian houses today.
The dictionary demonstrates the rich profusion of cults, divinities, symbols, sects, and philosophical views encompassed by the Hindu religious tradition. It shows how Hinduism is a synthesis of three, Originally separate, religious traditions: the Dravisian (from before the third millennium), the Aryan, and the aboriginal. It makes clear that every part of an icon has some symbolic significance: the material used, the height and shape of the plinths, the type of sculptural relief, the size and position of the figure or figures, the garments, headdress, ornaments, colours, emblems, attributes and weapons, as well as any accompanying minor deities, associated animals, birds or plants.
About the Author:
Margaret Stutley is a private scholar who with her late husband James Stutley, retired over twenty years ago to North Wales to pursue their studies. Her interest in Hinduism and Buddhism began in her teens and she has since works. She is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, and her previous publications are: Ancient Indian Magic and Folklore (New Delhi, 2000) and A Dictionary of Hinduism with James Stutley; (New Delhi, 2003).
Iconography means literally 'writing in images' which is a means of understanding the
religious, philosophical, symbolical and mythological aspects of a religion, in this case the
aggregate of cults, sects and philosophies known in the West as Hinduism. Lack of knowledge
concerning Indian iconography is one reason why Indian art has seldom been fully appreci-
ated in the Occident. Another is that Europeans today do not regard images and symbols
as vehicles of spiritual truths, but as means of self-expression, or for emotional, sensational,
intellectual or aesthetic satisfaction. But once the limiting effect of national and individual
taste has been overcome, Indian art, and indeed all Oriental art, opens out new vistas of
interest and thought.
The simplest to the most sophisticated art exists side by side in India, but its extent and
profundity is not fully realized even by Indians themselves. It is only now that India's
enormous range of superb folk arts is being appreciated and studied.
No sacred art can be termed ugly, grotesque, exotic or unnatural when seen and under-
stood from the viewpoint of its own cultural environment, and with the necessary 'key' to
unlock its symbolism. Thus a person having no knowledge of Christianity would be unable
to comprehend the symbolism of a cross with a dead man nailed to it, yet to a Christian it
is immediately significant.
The iconography of the subcontinent stems from prehistoric times, but our knowledge of
it commences with the archaeological discoveries in the Indus Valley in north-west India,
where a number of seals have been unearthed, one of which portrays a horned human
figure, seated in a yogic position, which some Indologists have assumed to be an early
prototype of Siva. Other seals depict beautifully executed animal figures, and some portray
deities standing under boughs or tree arches - a motif from which derived the aureole
(prabhamandala), with its stereotyped leaves or flames. Lannoy! points out that the style
of prehistoric Indian art 'has remained a part of a living tradition for 7,000 years', and that
the 'neolithic tribal rock-paintings of central India bear a close resemblance to the "dream
murals" of the Saora tribe in Orissa and to the folk murals with which houses are commonly
decorated in many regions today'.
The Rgveda (c. 1500 BC) contains the germ of future iconography in its descriptions of
the Vedic deities. Later the Puranas , Mahabharata, Ramayana and other texts added further
details. Gradually this mass of material was systematized by the priests and image-makers,
but was attributed to mythical sages including Bhrgu , Atri, Vasistha, Kasyapa and others
to make the texts more authoritative in the eyes of the laity. However, despite the rules
laid down in iconographical texts there were regional differences in the treatment of images.
Furthermore, the artist-craftsmen did not all follow the same texts, or they followed texts
which are no longer extant: therefore a number of icons do not conform entirely to the
The measurements for every part of the body were laid down in the Silpa Sastras:
The reason for this lies in a special characteristic of Indian thought which denies any
reality to change and individuality. Ideal forms and recurring patterns of events are more
real and important than continuity or any individual event. Time and change are condensed
into closed spatial ideas. A splendid visual example of this is the way the many arms of
the dancing Siva seem to sum up in the one image a whole series of postures. Every
sphere of thought ... is dominated by the concept of perfect pattern types.
The artist-craftsmen themselves frequently used yogic techniques to visualize the ideal
appearance of each deity to be portrayed.
The people of the Indus Valley civilization produced well-designed moulded ornaments
of gold and silver, but by far the largest finds consist of variously shaped beads fashioned
from a variety of materials including agate, carnelian, chalcedony, felspar, shell, steatite,
faience and pottery. The nine auspicious gems (navaratna) are the ruby, diamond, pearl,
coral, sapphire, emerald, topaz, eat's eye, and jacinth which, when set in a single ornament,
were believed to protect the wearer, and attract to him beneficent planetary influences. It
was, and is customary for both men and women to wear jewellery, and this love of adornment
continued throughout the centuries.
Unfortunately there is a gap of about a thousand years from the end of the Indus Valley
civilization (c. 1750 BC) to the beginning of the Mauryan Empire (3rd century BC) during
which practically nothing of artistic importance has been discovered, although doubtless
there would have been wooden carvings and buildings soon destroyed by the rigours of the
Indian climate, or by the nomadic invaders who had no need of houses or temples, and who
were culturally much inferior to the Indus Valley people.
Indian paintings, images, or composite figures are 'pictures' of the many aspects of
religious belief and function as 'aids' to meditation and the comprehension of spiritual truths
by the worshipper according to his level of understanding. Thus an image is intended
primarily to express certain ideas, rather than to portray the likeness of any earthly thing.
It is 'a visual symbolism, ideal in the mathematical sense".' Most Hindu art was initially
intended to remind the illiterate laity of religious truths and sacred stories, as were the
painted frescoes in Christian churches in the Middle Ages.
An icon should be regarded as a reflected image or shadow of the Supreme Being (that
is, in: the philosophical sense, the Absolute), which is necessarily without form or attributes
(nirguna) , but few people are able to worship an abstraction, therefore the godhead was
conceived of as a Being with attributes (saguna), the creator, preserver and destroyer of
All deities are envisaged under a number of aspects and forms which bear different names,
emblems and symbols. Thus Siva as the Cosmic Dancer is called Nataraja, as the Supreme
God Mahadeva, as the destroyer of the Triple City, Tripurantaka , and so on. The gentle
and benign aspect .of his consort- is called Parvati, as the gracious corn-goddess she is Gauri,
and as the terror of Time that destroys all creatures and things, Kali.
Every deity has its own symbolic geometrical diagram (yantra), sound-form (mantra), and
icon. All parts of an image have significance: the pedestal, position of the body, limbs and
hands, the ornaments, crowns, garments, attributes, emblems, weapons, as well as the
accompanying minor divinities, animals, birds, fish, trees, plants and flowers. As the universe
is divinely created everything in it must be worthy of worship, and hence forests, mountains,
rivers and constellations serve as the chief 'temple' of the Hindu, whereas ordinary temples
are places where a specific aspect of deity is honoured with offerings of flowers, incense and
water, an element that pervades all life. The cult of images allows the devotee to focus on,
and worship, the invisible through the visible, 'to look behind the gods for the Absolute
One, the Unnameable Integration'.
The jewellery and garments of deities generally speaking, reflect those worn by the upper
classes in whichever part of India the image was made. Garments are also an indication of
status - thus Skanda the god of war wears military garb. Visnu, Indra and Kubera who
represent ideal kingship wear elaborate royal crowns, robes and ornaments, while Siva,
Brahma and Agni, who represent the ideal ascetic, wear the scanty garments of yogins.
Most goddesses are portrayed wearing the fine draperies and jewels of the upper classes.
Similarly, the conception of the divine celestial worlds of the gods, with their musicians,
dancers and attendants, is based on the medieval Courts, and reflects the taste of the rulers
under whose auspices the temples were erected.
Many of the oldest jewellery designs continue to be reproduced in base metals by Indian
peasant craftsmen, whereas the jewellery of the upper classes was much influenced by
foreign, and changing, fashions. The striking similarity between Sumerian, Babylonian,
Egyptian, Etruscan and Indian jewellery is due to the fact that all the main cities of the
ancient world were connected by overland and sea routes along which a variety of merchan-
dise travelled from country to country.
Plinths or pedestals were a convention devised to elevate the image above the transitory
world of mankind, and to indicate what the deity portrayed was supposed to be doing. Thus
a triangular pedestal should be used when the god is witnessing amusements; a rectangular
lion-seat (simhasana) when being bathed; an octagonal seat (yogasana) during invocation;
a circular lotus, seat (padmasana) during meditation; and a hexagonal 'pure seat' (vimalasana)
when offerings are made.Even the three varieties of sculptural reliefs have significance;
high relief conduces to spirituality, success, enjoyment, liberation, and to all good things;
moderate relief to enjoyment and liberation; and low relief to material success, pleasure,
and sensuous enjoyment. The different horizontal levels of a composition also have meaning:
the lower level may represent the underworld, the next the earth, the upper the celestial
world; or the lower level denotes the earth, the next the atmosphere, and the top the
Exquisite animals, birds and luxuriant plant life are portrayed frequently in sculptures
and paintings, both for their beauty of form and symbolism, and as manifestations of the
cosmic life-force existent in every form. These beautiful representations show that the Indian
artist-craftsmen, like the ancient Egyptians, were able to reproduce naturalistic forms as
well as the 'artificial' figures of divinities required by theological considerations.
Many deities are portrayed with a multiplicity of arms and heads to distinguish them from
human beings and to suggest a transcendent mode of being, far above that of ordinary life.
They also indicate the immense potential of the Divine. It follows from this that human
sages, rsis and heroes are depicted with two arms only. The 'creator' Brahma is shown with
four heads, each facing a different direction, to indicate that he is all-seeing and all-knowing.
Knowledge is also symbolized by the snow-white wild goose which is his mount, a bird
signifying the 'One Spirit', the cosmic life-force pervading the earth, the waters, atmosphere
and the heavens, for the goose is at home in all these regions. Its whiteness denotes purity,
and its graceful, lofty flight is likened to the spiritual efforts of the devout Hindu to attain
Multi-headed deities can be interpreted in a number of ways. Some have their origin in
mythological stories; or in the inner visualizations of yogins during meditation; or they
represent an amalgamation of particular elemental powers, as in the case of the five-faced
Siva; or signify a part of the god's essence; or indicate diverse mythological exploits
performed simultaneously by the deity concerned.
Some composite images such as that of Hari-Hara-Pitamaha represent the triad of Visnu
(Hari), Siva (Hara), and Brahma (Pitamaha) which indicates a 'syncretism' of the three
cults. The androgynous figure of the Goddess (Devi) and Siva (Ardhanarisvara), suggests
an amalgamation of the Mother-goddess and Saiva cults.
The sacred emblems and symbols associated with deities function as 'conductors' between
the icon and its underlying idea. Increasing knowledge of symbols results in ever enlarging
and evolving spheres of meaning because every symbol can be interpreted from various
points of view and levels of reference. Both emblems and symbols are believed to have
affinities with the divine and therefore may themselves be objects of worship, but they, like
images, remain mundane objects until rendered sacred by means of ritual.
A symbol may mean different things to different people. In fact it can represent anything
the observer thinks, or decides, it should mean. This can be clearly seen in .the swastika,
which for thousands of years in the East has been a solar symbol, a sign of life, good fortune
and happiness. It is worn as an amulet and also placed on cattle, horses and other livestock
to protect them from harm, especially from the baneful effects of the Evil Eye. Even in
Europe it was long regarded as a luck-bringer and was depicted on the National Savings
books issued. during the First World War, and miniature swastikas were often included
among the auspicious objects suspended from charm bracelets, but after Hitler adopted it
as the symbol of the Nazi party, it became in the West a symbol of genocide, hatred and
Colours also playa part in symbolism, and may denote the three gunas , which when
variously combined, determine the characteristic quality of every person and thing. White
expresses the sattva guna, the quality of light, truth, knowledge, intellect, and the glorious
side of life; black represents the tamas guna the principle of passivity, inertia, negation,
darkness, and the fearsome aspect of life; and red the rajas guna which is creative, active
Apart from images, natural objects are also venerated, such as the salagrama stones -
the fossilized shells of an extinct species of mollusc, which Vaisnavas regard as being
permeated with the very essence of Visnu, thereby indicating his omnipotence and capacity
to assume any and every form, but salagramas should be worshipped only if no image of
Visnu is available. To Saivas the linga of Siva is represented by the white stones (bana-
linga) found in the Narmada river, while Saktas, who regard the godhead as the Great
Mother, may worship her in almost any object including a book, stone, sex emblem, water,
icon or yantra, for she represents universal energy, and hence she is worshipped in objects,
but the objects themselves are not worshipped.
Indians have never believed that anyone religious system is suitable for all time and for
all men - a fact confirmed by the teaching concerning karma which maintains that individuals
vary enormously in their physical and emotional make-up as well as in their mental, moral
and spiritual capacities. Therefore each individual, being at a different stage of development,
requires a particular method or way suited to his level of understanding.
The godhead is conceived of as an abstract Supreme Spirit, and therefore no eternal,
external purpose, or limiting First Cause, is superimposed on- the natural dynamic world
process. Man is part of Nature and not apart from it as in the teaching of the Semitic
religions. Therefore all representations of natural forms, whether of insect, bird, animal or
plant, are no less important and detailed than that of man, for each has its place in the
Aesthetics have never been given a separate independent value in India 'as only in the
tremendous Summum is all perfection invested'." Instead the underlying harmony of unity
behind multiplicity is striven for. No false distinctions are made between art (for which
there is no Sanskrit term) and craftsmanship, since for thousands of years every skilled
craftsman produced objects which were both beautiful and functional '- a tradition which
has lasted longer in Asia than elsewhere. Today in Europe and America the combination
of beauty of line and function is found mainly in the work of engineers, in fine ships,
harbours, bridges, dams, 'planes, and similar works. All these forms are governed by
scientific principles and functional necessity. Coomaraswamy, quoted in Anand (1957),long
ago pointed out the Western indifference to real values which 'is reflected in the current
distinction of Fine and Decorative art, it being required that the first shall have no use, the
second no meaning'.
Deities are represented in gentle and in terrifying aspects to reflect the dualism of the
terrestrial world. Thus Siva on the one hand embodies sexuality, fertility, and the abundance
of Nature, but on the other he represents the 'great ascetic' whose sexual passions are
The rich profusion of divinities, godlings, myths, emblems, and symbols in the Hindu
tradition arises primarily because it is not one religious system with a fixed canon of belief,
but an amalgamation of magico-religious teachings, cults, sects, philosophies, tribal and folk
beliefs, which, constitute a way of life and the basis of the social system. Its very complexity
illustrates man's diverse views of the Divine which range from the simplest to the most
sophisticated. This immensely complex conception of divinity contains strands from three
originally separate religious traditions: the Dravidian, Aryan and aboriginal. The Dravidians
were in India before the third millennium BC and were agriculturists whose gods were
connected with the deified Earth. The successive waves of Aryans entered India from the
north-west from the second millennium onwards. They possessed horses and probably iron
weapons which enabled them to subdue the Dravidians who had neither, but gradually the
old Dravidian deities reappeared and many were assimilated into the Hindu 'pantheon'.
With the mergence of these three traditions a number of archaic, primitive, ambiguous,
sublime, and contradictory conceptions were retained, yet again this very diversity emphas-
izes the countless aspects of the Divine and the many 'ways' to liberation. None the less
the underlying unity of the Supreme Spirit behind all transitory forms was never lost sight
of. Thus in the words of Krsna: 'Howsoever men approach Me, so do I welcome them, for
the path men take from every side is Mine.'
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