Hindu Art Images: Vishnu

Hindus worships God beyond form, Brahman. Yet Hindus love imagery and art to express the endless divine qualities of Brahman. This is precisely the opposite of Islam and Judaism, where it is considered sinful to picture God.

Hindu art pictures God in countless human forms, and God takes incarnation as a human avatar whenever the righteous yearn for him, or when unrighteousness prevails and a corrective is needed.

It is essential to understand that all these forms are symbols of the One who cannot be represented in actual form. And all the "gods" are aspects of the One Light of Brahman. In fact, the word translated as "god", Deva, means "shining one." The Hindu gods are the shining beans of Brahman, who is one. In the words of the Vedic scripture, "Ekam sat viprah, bahudha vedantahih." "Truth is One, but the wise have called Him by many names."

In this site, we will penetrate into the qualities of God, according to Hinduism, by examining the forms of the Devas in Hindu art.


1.Vishnu Reclining on Sesha, the cosmic serpent
"We are the stuff that dreams are made of," wrote Shakespeare. The universe is born from Pralaya, cosmic sleep, and the Creator, Brahma, awakens, sitting on a lotus growing from the navel of Maha-Vishnu. Brahma is dazzled, his head facing in all directions at once. Not even the Creator understands the mystery. He too is part of Vishnu's dream. When we dream, we are asleep. When Vishnu dreams the creation, he is awake, watching, 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 "Bahma 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, when the rainy season comes. In Hindu thought, earthly sensual beauty and material abundance are simply the outward sign of inward spiritual radiance. Thus, Lakshmi is pictures on a celestial lotus, yet she pour forth money! She bestows 200% of life: fullness of the spiritual and the physical.

Om Shrim Hrim Klim Maha-Lakshmi Devyai Namaha!

5. Sarasvati

She is the feminine aspect of Brahma, and far more popular in Hindu devotion than Brahma himself. 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 is the Goddess of students and their discipline. As Saraswati plays a vina or sitar, her other hands hold a scroll of literature and a rosary. She sits on a white lotus with the swan, Hamsa. Hamsa also means 'soul'. Music and poetry soothe and inspire the soul.

Sanskrit Hymn to Saraswati by Agyastya (w. translation) 

6. Krishna and Arjuna (Bhagavad Gita)
In the great epic of the Mahabharata, the central chapter is the Bhagavad Gita, one of the world's most popular scriptures. Lord Vishnu descends as an avatar to guide the righteous on earth in times of trial. Hindu history records his descent as Lord Krishna around 14 thousand years ago. He taught the philosophy of Yoga to strengthen the noble warrior, Arjuna. Their conversation, which takes place on the battlefield just before the battle, is recorded in the Gita. In this picture, Krishna helps Arjuna call the troops, blowing the conch horn. He rides in the chariot next to the prince of warriors. Here they are summoning their troops by blowing conch shells, the instrument that is akin to the trumpet in Biblical symbolism. It is the sound that awakens the soul to duty.

Does a divine helper ride in your chariot to guide you through the battles of life? The image of God as charioteer is also used by Plato, at the source of Western philosophy, in his greatest work, The Republic. The chariot driver is the divine in us. The reins represent the mind, controlling the charging horses who are the senses. They pull the body, the chariot. Without a wise charioteer and strong reigns, the horses of sensuality will pull the body off course.

7. Krishna and Radha
After helping Arjuna defeat the unrighteous rebel army, Krishna removes his royal crown and goes to the garden of Vrindavan, where he acts the part of a young cowherd boy engaging in playful acts, called Lilas, with the herder boys and girls. Krishna calls his friends with his flute. The Gopi girls fall in love with him. But one of them is his special lover, Radha. She represents the heart of a devotee, yearning for the Lord. The love poetry about Radha and Krishna is sensual and sweet, much like the poetry in the Biblical Song of Songs.

Krishna in this role is also called Gopala and Govinda. 'Go' can mean 'cow' in Sanskrit. But it also means 'knowledge.' These names of Krishna can mean, 'Protector of the Cows', an image similar to that of Shepherd in Christian symbolism. But the names also mean, 'Protector of Knowledge.' To know Krishna's loving protection is to be at the source of knowledge. In Hindu devotion, all knowledge leads ultimately to that goal: being in devotional relationship to the grace of a loving personal Lord.

Sarva dharman parit-yajya,
Mam ekam sharanam vraja,
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo
moksha-yishami, ma shucah.

"Give up all other religious duties and just surrender to Me. I will deliver you from all your sins: don't worry!"

8. Radha-Krishna
Some of India's most beautiful art consists of miniature paintings depicting the lilas of Radha and Krishna. In spiritual symbolism, Radha and Krishna are really one. They are two aspects of one divine love. She is the heart's yearning, while he the union of the heart with God. Bhakti, or devotion, is the endless rhythm and throb of longing and fulfillment. The secret of Hindu Bhakti is that our very longing for God is God in us. This theme is reflected in St. Paul's statement, "it is the Spirit of Jesus in us who cries, Abba! Father!" (Romans 8:15)

9. By the River Jumna
With the following pictures, we will hear Krishna's words from the Bhagavad Gita on the mystery of devotion. How do these words affect you? Have you heard any words like these in other traditions?

"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. Swing Lila
"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
"In the midst of his work, whatever his activity may be, my devotee takes refuge in Me, and by my Grace, reaches the imperishable abode of eternity." (Gita 18:56)

In Hindu Bhakti, one is not saved by acts of devotion or moral duty, but simply by prashad, the Grace of the Divine. After one has surrendered to Grace, then one's ordinary daily actions are an opportunity for self-offering (sharanam). In the state of Bhakti, everything we do, at work or at home, becomes a sacrament.

In the picture above, all the Gopis want to dance with Govinda. How can many souls have a personal intimate relationship with one and the same God? As in the Biblical 'Song of Songs', the Lover and his Beloved are surrounded by her bridesmaids. Does God only choose one special soul among us for union with Him?

14. Rasa Lila
The greatest mystery in the sacred garden of Vrindivan is the Rasa Lila (Playful Wedding Dance). Here Krishna replicates himself for the Gopis, becoming a personal dance partner for each girl. Just so, every human soul can dance with the supreme Godhead, enjoying an intimate personal relationship with universal Being. God does not lose transcendence or universality when He appears as a human form, a personal Beloved, in the yearning heart of each particular soul.


15. Brahman Is Beyond Form
Let us not forget that all the Devas are just rays of one divine Sun, sparkles of the formless light of Brahman. The Devas may be more powerful, but are no different in essence, from the human soul (Atman). Atman also a ray of Brahman. In the end, gods and souls are one light, one consciousness, one truth, one Self.

Confusion often arises about the words Brahman, Brahma, and Brahmin. The obviously come from the the same Sanskrit root, which means "beginning" or "first." Yet the student of Indian culture must understand their different meanings. Brahmin signifies the first caste in the ancient Hindu social system, the Brahmins. Brahma, as we have seen, is the creator god. But Brahma does not know Brahman. Brahman is the absolute unchanging Truth of unity, the Self in all sentient beings, the One behind the many.

Gayatri Mantra
The most sacred Hindu prayer, the 'Gayatri Mantra', goes directly beyond the Devas to Brahman:

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.

Link to Hindu art images of Shiva