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. Shiva Nataraj: 'Lord of the Dance'
One of the enduring images of Indian art is the dancing Shiva. He dances on the body of an imp, or demon. This figure represents the ego, our petty selfish nature. Shiva comes from a Sanskrit root which means "pure" and "light." Shiva is misunderstood by many in the West to be a god of destruction and death. But this is not the real meaning of Shiva. Shiva destroys ignorance and egotism. Shiva burns up what binds us to our lower animal desires. So Shiva is the Liberator. In the final analysis, Shiva is the higher self within, the purity luminous nature of the soul, or Atman, when it is free of all lower qualities.
2. Shiva and Parvati
Shiva's feminine aspect is Parvati. She is the gentler personification of Shiva's energy, Shakti, from which comes the English word, "shock." Shakti is the electrical energy in our body, which gives us life, consciousness and movement. Her power is stored at the base of the spine. When we begin to grow spiritually, that creative force moves up the spine and awakens our innate powers of love, discrimination and wisdom. She dances upward until she freed through the crown of the head, to merge our soul with its divine source in Shiva. So our path of enlightenment is the winding, serpentine movement of Shakti reaching upward to dance with Shiva Nataraj. He carries a trident, representing Sat, Chit, Ananda: Truth, Awareness, and Bliss. The couple sits before a lingam, or sacred stone, which would be found in the central shrine of a Shivite temple.
3. Siva and Shakti are One
from Jñānadev's 'Amṛta Anubhāva' (13th C.)
The Union of Shiva and Shakti
I offer obeisance to the God and Goddess,
limitless primordial parents of the universe.
They are not entirely the same,
Nor are they not the same.
We cannot say exactly what they are.
How sweet is their union!
The whole world is too small to contain them,
Yet they live happily in the smallest particle.
These two are the only ones
Who dwell in this home called the universe.
When the Master of the house sleeps,
The Mistress stays awake,
And performs the functions of both.
When He awakes, the whole house disappears,
And nothing at all is left.
Two lutes: one note.
Two flowers: one fragrance.
Two lamps: one light.
Two lips: one word.
Two eyes: one sight.
These two: one universe.
In unity there is little to behold;
So She, the mother of abundance,
Brought forth the world as play.
He takes the role of Witness
Out of love of watching Her.
But when Her appearance is withdrawn,
The role of Witness is abandoned as well.
He assumes the form of the universe;
He is left naked.
If night and day were to approach the Sun,
Both would disappear.
In the same way, their duality would vanish
If their essential Unity were seen.
In fact, the duality of Shiva and Shakti
Cannot exist in that primal unitive state
From which AUM emanates.
They are like a stream of knowledge
From which a knower cannot drink
Unless he gives up himself.
Is the sound of AUM divided into three
Simply because it contains three letters?
Or is the letter 'N' divided into three
because of the three lines by which it is formed?
So long as Unity is undisturbed,
And a graceful pleasure is thereby derived,
Why should not the water find delight
In the floral fragrance of its own rippled surface?
It is in this manner I bow
To the inseparable Shiva and Shakti.
A man returns to himself
When he awakens from sleep;
Likewise, I have perceived the God and Goddess
By waking from my ego.
When salt dissolves,
It becomes one with the ocean;
When my ego dissolved,
I became one with Shiva and Shakti.
4. Traditional Medieval Icon of Shiva Shakti
5. Shiva-Shaki: A Modern Rendition
6. Prambhanam Shiva Temple, South India
7. Dance of Parvati Shakti
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 as life-energy and creative power.
8. Dance of Kali Shakti
Kali is Shakti in her wild and purifying personification. She is difficult for many Westerners to comprehend. Yet the Bible also has its terrible and wrathful images of God. "Our God is a consuming fire... It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God!"
Kali is nature's destructive force. Creation cannot occur without destruction. The old must be cleansed for the new to be born. There is pain in birth. In every religious tradition, God must at some point resort to violence in order to slay the wicked, defend the innocent, and restore order in the world. The terriflying image of Kali is beloved by many Hindus, because she protects the righteous by destroying sin. She holds the sword of Shiva, a mace, a bow, a trident, a discuss and other weapons. She wears a belt of severed skulls (representing demonic powers, not human victims) and she treads on a conquered demon who represents the ego, the 'demonic.' selfish side of every human personality.
9. Ganesh: Son of Parvati and Shiva
Ganesh is a chubby mischievous boy who played with his father's sword and accidentally cut his head off. One should not play with knowledge one is not ready to handle! So Shiva took the head of the wisest and most elderly animal, put it on the body of the boy, and created a delightful form, combining the elder's wisdom with the boy's innocence. As each Hindu God has an animal symbol, Ganesh's companion is a mouse. Sometime's he rides the mouse!
10. Household Doorway: Statue of Ganesh
Ganesh protects the household. Every traditional Indian home has an image of Ganesh guarding its door, like the statue below. And the household usually has a mouse or two guarding its pantry! The mouse is humble and quiet, but gets its work done efficiently. Like a good householder, the mouse is inventive, industrious, and always busy. These are some qualities of Ganesh.
11. Interpretation of Ganesh by Shri Shri Ravi Shankar
"An elephant's trunk has the strength to uproot a tree as well as the finesse to pick up a needle. Ganesha's trunk symbolises the fact that the wise person has both immense strength and fine discrimination. Ganesha has large ears. The wise person hears all. He has four hands. In one and he holds a lotus, the symbol of enlightenment. In the other hand he holds a hatchet. That means, the old karma, the accumulated good and bad of past deeds, gets cut when enlightenment comes.
"The third hand holds laddus, the round sweet-meats. They are the rewards of a wise life. Ganesha is never shown eating the laddus. The wise man never partakes of the rewards of his deeds. He is not attached to them. The fourth hand is shown blessing the people. The wise man wishes the best for everyone.
"Ganesh has only one tusk; the other is shown broken. The symbolism of the broken tusk is that the wise person is beyond duality. We tend to think that we end when our bodies end in the material world. We are the first person. All else is different. This duality is created by the mind which creates the ego to help us survive in this world. This 'me-other' duality is the screen keeping us from realising our real Self, which is beyond body and mind. Once we transcend this duality, we see the entire universe as a single whole and we become aware of our true Selves. The single tusk of Ganesh symbolises this non-duality. Wisdom allows us to see all as one and ourselves an integral part of the whole.
"Ganesh is shown sitting with one foot on the ground and the other resting on his knee, above the ground. The wise person is of this earth, yet not entirely of this earth.
"Ganesha is shown seated on a rat. The reason for saying that Ganesh 'rides' on the rat is that the rat is among the greediest of all animals. It will keep nibbling at whatever is available, eating everything it can. Scientifically, too, the rat's teeth keep growing and it has to keep chewing on something to keep these within limits. The rat is a symbol of our senses, which are never satisfied. They crave new experiences, new tastes. Left uncontrolled, they keep growing forever. The wise person rides on his senses. He keeps them under control.
"Ganesha is often shown seated in front of a tray of sweets. In these images the rat is shown sitting in front of Ganesha, perhaps a bit to one side, looking up at him. The senses of the wise person are under his control and the rat dare not eat the sweets without the permission of Ganesha.
"Ganesha is the son of Shiva and Parvati, the God governing the life-force and the earth-mother. This symbolizes the spirit and body of the wise person. Finally, the wise person has the dignity of an elephant.
"When we say Aum Ganeshaya Namah before starting anything, what we are saying is, in what we are about to do, let wisdom be our guide. In a sense, Ganesh is our most powerful god, and he is usually remembered before starting any rituals for other Devas."
"Anything and everything is possible with the grace of Sri Ganesha. Here one may ask, who is Sri Ganesha? He is none other than Adi Para Shakti, Divine Mother in the form of the original supreme cosmic energy. In the Ganapati Atharvashirsha Upanishad, Sri Ganesha is praised by the Vedic rishi as "Shakti Trayatmaka," the very soul or essence of the three forms of divine shakti.
"In the Vedic worldview, male deities are worshipped as forms of prajnanam, or consciousness, and female deities are worshipped as forms of shakti, or divine energy and power. Truly speaking, this shakti has no form, but we give it forms so that we may approach Divinity.
"The shakti of Rudra is Mother Rudrani. The shakti, or power, of Narayana is Mother Narayani. And the shakti of Brahma is Brahmi. These three powers of Rudrani, Narayani and Brahmi are all contained within the power of Sri Ganesha. In fact, the powers of all the forms of Divine Mother are within Sri Ganesha. Thus, worshipping Ganesha brings the blessings of all deities.
"This is especially true when he is worshipped on one particular day of the year - Sri Ganesh Chaturthi. This day is known as the most important and auspicious day for obtaining Sri Ganesha's blessings. Ganesh Chaturthi, which is also known as Ganesh Chavithi or Vinayaka Chavithi, occurs on the fourth day of the waxing moon in the Hindu month of Bhadrapada (Aug-Sep).
13. Interpretation of Shiva Symbols from the Upanishads
He is Shivam (the good, the pure), Sundaram (the beautiful), Kantam (the effulgent). “Shantam Shivam Advaitam,” declares the Mandukya Upanishada: 'Oneness is the peace of Shiva.'
'I bow with folded hands again and again at the lotus-feet of Lord Shiva, who is One without a taint of duality; who is the Adhishthana, or ground of creation and all minds; who is Sat-Chit-Ananda (Truth, Awareness, Bliss); who is the Antaryamin (Supreme Ruler); the Sakshi (silent witness of every thought); who is self-effulgent, self-existent and self-contained as Pari-purna (Supreme Fullness); who is the remover of the primitive Avidya (ignorance); and who is the Adi-Guru (first teacher). That Lord Shiva is my very essence. That Lord Shiva I am. Shivoham, Shivoham, Shivoham!"