Live Classroom: Hinduism through Visual Images

Hindus worships God beyond form, Brahman. Yet Hindus love imagery and art to express the endless divine qualities of Brahman. In this class, we will penetrate into the qualities of God, according to Hinduism, by examining the forms of the Devas, 'the shining ones,' in Hindu art.


1.Vishnu Reclining on Sesha, the cosmic serpent
"We are the stuff that dreams are made of," wrote Shakespeare. When Vishnu dreams the creation, he is awake, enjoying the dream.

2. Vishnu's Dream (
contemporary painting)
He dreams countless universes, like bubbles in the Milk Ocean. Each universe has its own Brahma, or Creator. Vishnu holds the mace, the conch shell, the discuss, and the lotus. What do they represent?

3. Brahma, the Creator
Brahma sits on a lotus that grows from the ocean of Vishnu's dream. It is said that "Brahma does not know Brahman." What does this mean?

4. Lakshmi: Goddess of Prosperity and Beauty
She is the feminine aspect of Vishnu.
Her Festival of Lights, Divali, is a most popular Hindu holiday in November, in the rainy season.

5. Sarasvati

The feminine aspect of Brahma is more popular than Brahma. Hindus don't pray to God through Brahma, but they pray through Sarasvati, Goddess of creativity. She presides over the arts, poetry, music and learning. She plays a vina or sitar. Her other hands hold a scroll and a rosary. She sits on a white lotus with a swan, Hamsa.

6. Krishna and Arjuna (Bhagavad Gita)
In the Hindu epic, Mahabharata, the central chapter is the Bhagavad Gita, one of the world's great scriptures. Vishnu descends as an avatar to guide the righteous in times of trial. Hindu history records his descent as Lord Krishna 14 thousand years ago. He taught Yoga to strengthen the noble warrior, Arjuna. Their conversation takes place on the battlefield just before the battle. Here, Krishna helps Arjuna call the troops with a conch shell. Krishna rides in the chariot next to the prince of warriors. Does a divine helper ride in your chariot?

7. Krishna and Radha.
After helping Arjuna defeat the unrighteous rebel army, Krishna removes his crown and dwells in the garden of Vrindavan, taking the role of a cowherd. His playful acts with the herder boys and girls are called Lilas. His flute calls his friends to play. The Gopi girls fall in love with him. Radha is his favorite. She represents the heart of a devotee, yearning for the Beloved Lord. The love poetry about Radha and Krishna is very similar to the Biblical Song of Songs.

8. Radha-Krishna.
Some of India's most beautiful art consists of miniature paintings of the lilas of Radha and Krishna. Radha and Krishna are really two aspects of one reality, divine love, or Bhakti. She is yearning and he is union.

9. By the River Jumna
Krishna's words from the Bhagavad Gita: "He who offers to Me with devotion only a leaf, or a flower, or even a little water, this I accept from that yearning soul, because it was offered with love from a pure heart." (Gita 9:26)

10. Under the Shade of a Banyan Tree
"Whatever you do - whether eating, working, serving, or offering adoration - let it be done as an offering to Me; and whatever you suffer, suffer it for Me. Thus you shall be freed from all sin, all karma, and come to Me." (Gita 9:27)

. The Mystery of Divine Union
"Those who worship Me with devotion, they are in Me and I am in them." (Gita 9:29)

12. A Lila: The Swing
"Even if the greatest sinner worships me with all his heart, he must be considered righteous, and he shall reach everlasting peace. This is my word of promise: he who loves Me shall not perish." (Gita 9:30)

13. Radha and Her Bridesmaids
The Gopis all want to dance with Krishna! How can many souls have a personal intimate relationship with one and the same God?

14. Rasa Lila

The greatest mystery of that sacred garden is the Rasa Lila (Love Dance). Krishna multiplies himself into a personal form for each Gopi!



15. Shiva Nataraj: 'Lord of the Dance'
One of the most enduring images of Indian art is the dancing Shiva. He dances on the body of an imp, or demon who represents the ego, the false self who cries, "Me! Mine!" Shiva comes from a Sanskrit root meaning "pure." Shiva is NOT a god of destruction and death, as usually misunderstood in the West. Shiva only destroys ignorance and egotism. Shiva purifies, burning up selfish desires. What remains when these desires are burned away? Only the pure fire of Shiva. That is the true Self we are.

16. Shiva and Parvati
Shiva's feminine aspect is Shakti, from which comes the English word, "shock." Shakti is the electrical energy in our body, which gives us life. Her power is stored at the base of the spine. When we awake spiritually, her force moves up the spine opening the heart with love, the throat with joy and creativity, the forehead with wisdom, the crown with pure light. These are the Chakras, or Yogic centers of meditation in the subtle body. Shiva carries a trident, representing Sat, Chit, Ananda: Truth, Awareness, and Bliss. He sits before a Lingam, or sacred stone.

17. Siva and Shakti are One

18. Medieval Painting of Shiva Shakti

19. Prambhanam Shiva Temple, South India

20. Dancing Parvati

In India, the body is sacred, and sexuality is sacred when used for procreation, in marriage. The sensual images in a Hindu temple are expressions of Shiva's life-energy and dancing creativity.

21. Dancing Kali

Kali is Shakti as nature's wild destructive force. Sometimes nature must purify the earth with violence, earthquake and storm to destroy the wicked and purify the elements. The terrifying image of Kali actually protects the righteous by destroying sin. She wears a belt of severed skulls (the heads of demonic powers) and treads on the demon ego. Hindus love extreme dramatic art!

22. Ganesh: Son of Parvati and Shiva
Ganesh is a chubby mischievous boy who played with his father's sword and accidentally cut his own head off. Shiva put the head of the wisest, most elderly animal on the boy to give him some sense! This playful imagert combines the wisdom of the elder with the innocence of the child. Ganesh is a favorite form of Hindu devotion, especially in family homes.

23. Household Statue of Ganesh
The animal associated with this household god is a playful household pest, the mouse! The mouse is thrifty, busy, hard-working, humble and resourceful. Every Hindu home has a Ganesh near the doorway. He protects the home, brings good luck, and destroys obstacles to success.


24. Brahman Transcends All Forms
All these Devas are just sparkles of the formless light of Brahman! The Devas may be a bit more powerful than we, but they are no different in essence than the human soul (Atman). Devas and human souls are all made of the same truth, consciousness and bliss: Brahman.

Gayatri Mantra
Thus the most sacred Hindu prayer, the Gayatri Mantra, sings:
Om bhur bhurva suvaha
Tat savitur varenyam

Bhargo devasya dhimahi
Dhiyo yonah prachodayat.

We meditate on the effulgent light divine,
Who creates both heaven and earth,
Who is worthy of worship,
Who embodies wisdom,
Who removes all sin and ignorance:
May He enlighten us!

Om Shantih, Shantih, Shantih.... Peace, Peace, Peace.