Hindu Deities & Their Meanings
Images of Hindu Deities & their meanings
Contrary to popular belief in the West, Hindu deities are not "individual gods", indicating a polytheistic faith. They are, rather, different representations of particular aspects of the one god, the source, known as Brahman. The "human" or physical representation of Brahman's aspects or attributes in the form of deities is a vehicle for the devotee to focus his or her attention, devotion or meditation on that particular aspect or attribute in a form more easily visualized and held in the mind.
The many deities of Hinduism, which may be seen as reflecting different aspects of Brahman, are represented by images. Use is made of such features as posture, dress, multiple arms and symbolic objects to represent each deity. It should be noted, however, that there may be a range of different ways of representing a particular deity, particularly when the deity is seen to represent several different qualities. In some cases, symbols are used to show that a deity belongs to a particular 'family', e.g. there is a range of deities associated with Vishnu. In addition some symbols belong to the common heritage of Hinduism or more generally of India.
Images may be made from metal, stone, wood or plastic. The images found in temples will tend to be much more majestic than those found in Hindu homes. The image only becomes a "murti", an embodiment of Brahman, through a special act of consecration when it is installed in the temple or home. It then becomes a focal point for worship. Some images are consecrated on a 'permanent' basis and will continue to be used on the temple or home shrine unless they become damaged. Broken or damaged images are discarded as they no longer fulfill their purpose of representing the deity. Sometimes an image will only be consecrated for a specific period of time, e.g. a festival, after which it will be destroyed, perhaps as part of the concluding ritual of the festival.
Each deity is associated with a 'vehicle', a bird or animal on which it travels. The vehicles are used in Indian religious art to reflect and at times to extend the powers or qualities of the deity with which it is associated. These are often better expressed by an animal than by a human being. The vehicle also represents the close relationship between all living things.
There is a range of views within Hinduism about images of the deities. Most accept that within the context of worship they mediate the presence of Brahman/the particular deity and help the worshipper to visualize the deity. To those outsiders who find it difficult to empathize with the brightly colored plastic images which feature in many Hindu homes, some Hindu writers point to the very 'concrete' mental images of God held by many worshippers in other traditions, e.g. God as 'an old man in the sky'. Perhaps the very fact that there are so many images makes the point that each can tell only a very small part of the whole story.
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As the creator of the world whose four heads and four arms represent the four points of the compass, it may be thought that Brahma would have a dominant role within Hinduism. Though he represents one of the three main forms of Brahman, he is very much subordinated to Vishnu, who represents the sustaining aspect of Brahman and Shiva who represents the destructive aspect. In fact, one story tells of Brahma's fifth head being burnt up by Shiva's third eye.
He may be shown holding a vase of water, symbolizing the water from which the universe evolved, a rosary for counting the passage of time, a sacrificial spoon linking him with the Brahmin priests and their traditional role in the offering of sacrifices and the four Vedas, ancient sacred books of the Hindus. He is also at times shown with a disc and an alms bowl. He may be depicted on a lotus throne. He is often bearded, and may wear a black or white garment.
His consort (wife/partner) is Sarasvati, goddess of wisdom and music and his vehicle is a swan or a goose.
As creation is the work of the mind and the intellect, Lord Brahma symbolizes the Universal Mind. From the standpoint of an individual, Brahma symbolizes one's own mind and intellect. Since an individual is naturally gifted with the mind and intellect, he or she may be said to have already realized Brahma. For this reason the worship of Brahma is not very popular among all Hindus. He is, however, worshipped by seekers of knowledge, such as students, teachers, scholars and scientists.
The name 'Durga' means 'Inaccessible' and this may reflect something of the mystery at the heart of this deity. Though loving and kind to those who worship her, as the consort (wife/partner) of Shiva in her warrior form, she symbolizes the violent and destructive qualities of the Mother Goddess (Shakti). These qualities are explained by a story from the Hindu tradition according to which she was born fully grown from flames which issued from the mouths of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and other lesser deities who created her for the purpose of destroying the buffalo demon, symbol of death.
The weapons which she holds which may include Shiva's trident, Vishnu's discus, a bow and arrow, a sword and shield, and a javelin are for the destruction of evil and the protection of good.
The eight arms with which she is at times shown have been interpreted as representing health, education, wealth, organization, unity, fame, courage and truth. Other images show Durga with ten arms. Her vehicle is a lion or tiger which further emphasizes her violent and aggressive qualities. As a figure of power, she has been likened to a sort of feminine St George.
Durga, also called Divine Mother, protects mankind from evil and misery by destroying evil forces such as selfishness, jealousy, prejudice, hatred, anger, and ego. For example, selfishness must be destroyed by detachment, jealousy by desirelessness, prejudice by self-knowledge, and ego by discrimination.
The image of Ganesha is one of the most distinctive ones within Hinduism. The image has an elephant's head and a large human body usually colored pink or yellow. The elephant's head symbolizes the gaining of knowledge through listening (ears) and reflection (large head). The two tusks, one whole and the other broken, reflect the existence of perfection and imperfection in the physical world. There is a wealth of symbolism associated with his 'pot belly'. It has been interpreted as reflecting an ability to digest whatever experiences life brings. Or, to draw on another motif to be found in Hinduism, that in some sense the whole universe is contained inside him. It may also be seen as a sign of well-being and of his role as a provider of earthly riches. Ganesha is shown with one leg on the ground and the other one folded as if he were meditating. This reflects a balance between the practical and spiritual life, a theme which is repeated in the symbolism of some of the objects associated with him.
In his hands he holds such objects as a rope or noose, to trap the things which attract the mind to the world, and a goad or iron hook, to represent the need to control desires. But he is also typically shown with a bowl of sweetmeats representing earthly prosperity and well-being. He may also be shown with an axe or trident, both of which link him with Shiva. Other symbolic objects which may be associated with Ganesha are a shell, water lily, mace and discus.
He is pictured with four arms symbolizing such aspects of Hinduism as the four Vedas (ancient sacred books), the four aims of Hinduism and the four stages of life.
His vehicle is a rat or a mouse as these creatures are known for their ability to gnaw through barriers. The combination of the elephant and the rat or mouse ensures that all obstacles, of whatever size, are removed. The fact that a rat/mouse and food are often shown around or under his feet has also been interpreted as reflecting the idea that desires and wealth are both under his control.
Ganesha is worshipped as the deity who removes barriers and bestows wisdom and good fortune. Many Hindus have an image of Ganesha on their shrines and pray to him before they begin their worship of other deities. He is also worshipped at the beginning of any new venture such as a wedding or the building of a new house. Ganesha is often shown with an open hand, palms upturned, sometimes holding a gift to show him granting favors to his devotees.
As god of wisdom he is invoked at the beginning of books and may be shown holding a tusk as a pen since he is regarded as the writer of the scriptures and hence the patron of schools and of the written word.
In Hindu mythology Ganesha is identified as the son of Shiva and Parvati. The custom of placing an image of Ganesha at doorways recalls the story of his courage in defending his mother. The stories about the loss of his head all tend to agree that it was replaced by that of the first living animal that came along, which was an elephant.
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