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Iconography of Vaishnava Images: Vishnu

Article of the Month - December 2016
Viewed 12315 times since 15th Dec, 2016

Vedic position in regard to form of Godhood

There is Rama, the son of Ayodhya’s king Dasharatha in his human birth, and there is Rama’s divinity, his divine aura that overwhelms the Tulasi’s entire Ramacharit-manas, one manifest – with attributes, and the other, unmanifest – without attributes. Thus, Rama is both, ‘Saguna’ – born with attributes, and ‘Nirguna’ – one beyond attributes or form. Ravana saw in him a form, as any normal human being would, and decided to try his strength against him, Vibhishana, his brother, saw him beyond attributes – his divine aura : the flame, and dedicated him to his service. This is the crux of Indian vision of Godhood. The Rig-Veda and the other Vedas invoked Him as unmanifest but at the same time the Rig-Veda also realised Him in numerous manifest forms – both male and female : Surya, Agni, Varuna, Indra, Vishnu, Vak, Ushas, Sita – the furrow-line, Ratri, Mantra-shakti power of hymn, Mahi – the earth…, that is, in whichever form His divinity revealed enshrined Godhood. Hence, when there emerged in their completeness ‘saguna’ and ‘nirguna’ lines of thought, the Vedas were in the roots of both.

Multi-formal Godhood and incarnation cult

Thus, in Indian thought Godhood, with attributes or without attributes, was a realization of the faithful mind – essentially a vision, an image, which vested even the unmanifest with attributes; as regarded the manifest Godhood was endowed not only with an anthropomorphic form but was also completely humanized and had a human being like lifestyle and day-routine. Pushti-marga like sub-sects of worship through ‘sewa’ – service, were the result of the zeal that saw in service the accomplishment of worship. This gave to Indian theology a highly colourful culture and versatile imagery with the result that Godhood exploded beyond anthropomorphic image – male and female, or even man and animal, giving seers engaged in composing Puranas and other religious scriptures ample scope for discovering not only unique forms of His image but also those of His ensembles, adornment, jewelry, ambience, as also an appropriate human frame.

Perhaps this multi-form perception of Godhood was in the root of incarnation theory that perceived Godhood taking a form not of man alone but also that of an animal the first three of the ten incarnations of Vishnu – one of Trinity Gods, being animals. Such perception of Godhood inspired alike respect for all species of living beings and discouraged animal killing. This all-inclusive vision emphasized that any form could be the God’s form and that Godhood is not confined to a particular form or even to a form at all. This formal perception of God gave to Indian theology a highly colourful religious culture with the result that there emerged for His image millions of shrines and even the image, being essentially conceptual, was extremely diversified.

Divine image : essentially a concept evolved over generations

Not the product of camera but as evolved in the faithful mind, far from being realistic but conceptual, so much so that even the images of divinities born with a definite chronology, represented only a concept or an idealized version of such divinity. The founder of Jainism Tirthankara Mahavira and the founder of Buddhism Buddha were historical figures – the real persons born with flesh and blood; however, the images of neither represent the real persons. Almost identically conceived images of all twenty-four Tirthankaras were ‘dhyana-murtis’, that is, images conceived for helping the meditating mind to centre on a form, the Tirthankara icon, that accordingly shaped their lives. Buddha’s images were conceived more on aesthetic principles. The images of Buddha sought to represent the essential Buddha that certainly was not in flesh and bones. Divyavadana, Uttaratantra of Maitreya and other Buddhist texts mandated to represent Buddha beyond physical likeness also the Buddha’s spiritual inner. The Lankavatara Sutra goes further ahead requiring the artist to paint Buddha beyond aesthetic surfaces 'the picture that is not in colours'.

Obviously, to the Indian mind the divine image is not a realistic or even aesthetic representation of likeness. It is as it has evolved in the tradition – ritual or spiritual, and often manifests the faithful mind’s version of the divine and each manifestation of this vision has now largely rigidified as an independent divinity. Revering each of such divinity the faithful mind has built its own hierarchy of God’s manifest forms and has fixed for each a specific imagery to include the image’s anthropomorphism, type of ensemble, jewelry and other components. Highly diversified the divine image has hundreds of manifestations that a single essay like this cannot encompass; hence this series of essays proposes to allude to just five of Vaishnava images, Lord Vishnu himself, his consort Lakshmi, his mount Garuda, Hanuman, his most trusted and efficient servant and Brahma, the Creator and the second of the Great Trinity.


Evolution of image

Vishnu Vaikuntha



Except in his manifestation as Vishnu-Vaikuntha the images of Lord Vishnu are conceived with a single normal anthropomorphic face.


Large Size Lord Vishnu



brimming with timeless youth, great majesty, vigour and divinity. Vishnu’s image, as fixed in people’s mind, is four-armed




Vishnu with Lakshmi Seated on His 'Vahana' Garuda

in a few manifestations also six and eight-armed, and blue-bodied clad in yellow ensemble: an ‘antariya’ essentially but sometimes also an ‘uttariya’. His blue body is seen as symbolizing the ocean and the space, and the yellow ensemble, the sun that in early scriptures is seen alternating Vishnu. Sometimes the Rig-Veda not only substitutes Vishnu for the Sun but perceives him as circumambulating the earth in every twenty-four hours as does the sun. Stone-sculptures and reliefs, terracottas, metal-casts … restrict to the colour of the respective medium; however, when enshrining a sanctum even such images are adorned with yellow costume and his essential jewelry, almost rigidified in the tradition.


The Blue-Hued Beautiful Lord Vishnu



Other components of his attire are his large ‘vaijayanti’ – the garland of fresh Parijata flowers trailing down the knees, a pair of ‘makara-kundalas’ – ear-rings designed like crocodiles, a majestic crown over his head and Vaishnava ‘tilak’ on his forehead.



Chaturbhuja Vishnu Enshrining Prabhavali



With main emphasis on his majesty in South Indian tradition this crown is taller than usual.




Sheshasayi Vishnu with Lakshmi Ji

As a rule his images are four-armed and the attributes that he is represented as carrying are lotus, conch, mace and disc. Sometimes the disc is alternated with thunderbolt and lotus with the gesture of ‘abhaya’ – assurance-granting posture. In such images his palm held in ‘abhaya’ has on it a graphic mark symbolic of lotus. Except in a few painted versions of his image that portray him as holding his mace weapon-like in one of his hands while rushing to redeem a devotee in crisis he holds all his attributes as formal identity motifs. Conch and lotus are merely symbolic; and, unless released the disc has merely the status of an identity mark. In most images mace is represented as laid along the ground; when represented as reclining mace is represented as lying close-by.



Standing or reclining Vishnu essentially pervades the cosmos by his presence

Bhagawan Vishnu



The Vaishnava tradition perceives Vishnu pervading the cosmos by his presence. Accordingly, his images are conceived either as vertical, that is, stretching from the earth into the space – a standing posture;



Sheshasayi Vishnu with Lakshmi



or lying fully stretched horizontally, that is, reclining. In some Shilpa-shashtra traditions the standing posture is known as ‘khadgasana’, and reclining, as ‘sayanasana’.



Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi

His ‘khadgasana’ images are usually in three modes; one with his right foot moved forward represents him in a commander’s disposition ready to rush for protecting a devotee in crisis or redeem him from some calamity. In such images his normal right hand is held in ‘abhaya’-granting posture. Sanctum images of Chaturbhuja, a form of Vishnu so named for being four-armed, are as a rule in ‘khadgasana’. In such images the primary focus is on his four arms, attributes carried in them and his majesty. As Narayana with Lakshmi in his Lakshmi-Narayana manifestation also he is represented in standing position. His sanctum images are by and large as Narayana enshrining a sanctum with Lakshmi. Such images are essentially Chaturbhuja.



Seshashyai Vishnu (With Chromatic Aberration) Vishnu’s ‘sayanasana’ image pervades the cosmos horizontally. He is represented as reclining over the coils of the great serpent Shesh that symbolizes earth. Kshirasagara – the ocean of milk, is the abode of the great serpent. As the Devi Bhagawata has it, while upholding the earth on its hood the great serpent breathes out milk like substance which transforms the oceans’ water into milk and thus the Kshirasagara. Vishnu preferred Kshirasagara for his abode. Thus, covering the ocean from one end to other he is symbolically represented as commanding, and thus guarding, the entire existence – the ocean and the earth. Further, the great serpent is represented as unfurling its five hooded head, like an umbrella or royal canopy, over the head of reclining Vishnu. In a ‘sayanasana’ image Vishnu reclines but does not sleep; as in the commander’s disposition fully alert he is always ready to rush to protect a devotee.


Lord Venkateshvara as Balaji at Tirupati

An essential component of a ‘sayanasana’ image Lakshmi, the goddess of riches and well-being, serves him by massaging his feet. She symbolizes means by which Vishnu sustains life and promotes well-being, that in the Trinity of Gods he represents. Another usual feature of ‘sayanasana’ image is the lotus rising from his navel with Brahma, another Trinity God – the Creator, mounting it. The lotus is symbolic of Creation. Despite such great symbolism a ‘sayanasana’ image rarely enshrines a sanctum. Instead, Vishnu’s ‘sayanasana’ images are carved, most of them in relief, on the outer walls of many early temples its earliest known example being the Gupta period Dasavatara temple at Deogarh in Lalitpur district, Uttar Pradesh. In South Indian iconographic tradition, as Balaji or Venkateshwara, images of Vishnu are quite differently conceived.



Some other forms of his image

Dashavatara (Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu) Besides these two regular forms, one, manifesting his active aspect, while the other, his auspicious presence, Vishnu is also represented in Yogasana – seated position. Though his Yogasana images are rare, they are not unknown to his iconographic tradition. This form is known as Yoga-murti, that is, engaged in ‘yoga’. One such Yoga-murti image enshrines the known Badrinatha shrine, one of the four pilgrimage sites in Himalayan hills in Uttarakhand. Vishnu’s ten incarnations, though the number of his incarnations varies from ten to many thousands, constitute another significant group of his imagery. Besides temples like the Gupta temple at Deogarh in Lalitpur district that are constructed on Dasavatara theme and have large size icons of Vishnu’s ten incarnations many early temples have the panels of Dasavatara imagery on the lintel of the main entrance.


Lord Venkateshvara as Balaji at Tirupati


These ten incarnations are Great Fish, Kurma, Boar, Narasimha – half man and half lion, Vamana, the dwarf, Parasurama, Rama, Krishna, Balarama – sometimes Buddha, and Kalki, the first three, animals, fourth, man-animal combine, next five, human beings, and the last, yet to emerge. In iconographic tradition among the first three animal forms Boar has, such as at Vidisha and Khajuraho, large size independent statues with independent shrines.



Lord Narasimha



Narasimha images enshrine a larger number of sanctums and are also worshipped.



Trivikrama: Vishnu in His Incarnation as Vamana



Vamana imagery, usually as Tri-vikrama pushing Mahabali into nether world, adorns outer walls of many early temples.




Images of Rama and Krishna are more popular than Vishnu who they incarnate. There are millions of shrines world over dedicated to them. Images of Balarama and those of Buddha as one of Vishnu’s incarnations are hardly seen.

Vaikuntha-Bhairava : extension of incarnation-cult and some other forms of image

Vaikuntha Vishnu


His manifestation as Vaikuntha-Bhairava is perhaps the condensation of his ten incarnation form – a form cohesive and absolute encompassing man, animal and animal-man combine. Vaikuntha-Bhairava has three faces, one in the centre being a human face, on the right, half lion half man, and on the left, a boar’s face. Literally too the term ‘Vishnu-Vaikuntha’ means ‘Vishnu Samagra’ – absolute. Not illustrative of a myth Vishnu-Vaikuntha relates to the principle of Vishnu’s cosmic breadth, his ability to expand and be inclusive.


Cosmic Vision of Vishnu (Large Size Statue)


On the same principle as Vishnu-Vaikuntha the iconographic tradition has visualized Vishnu’s cosmic form representing his totality. Such image perceives him with sixteen arms and eleven faces : besides his own face enshrining great majesty and aura in the centre the image has five faces on either side. Usually such faces are Bhragu, Narsimha, Ganesha, Rama, Shiva, Balarama, Hanuman, Yama, Parashurama and a human being, often a saint. Besides the normal right and left held in ‘abhay’ and ‘varad’ the other of the fourteen hands hold various divine weapons.






Harihara, a form in which he shares with Shiva half of the body,



Lakshmi in Ardhapurusha Rupa (The Vaishnava Ardhanarishvara Form)


and yet another, in which he shares half of his body with Laksmi, a Vaishnava vision of Ardhanarishwara and a far rarer concept of his image, are also seen in Vishnu’s imagery.



Representation of some of Vishnu’s exploits

Shesha-shayi Vishnu, Madhu-Kaitabha and Adishakti Puranas have woven around Vishnu innumerable legends that portray the image of Vishnu as protector and savior in crisis. This image which is now the people’s image of Vishnu quite often reveals in art, specially painting, does not as emphatically reveal in his sanctum or temple sculptures. Apart his independent image in ‘sayanasana’ or ‘khadgasana’, or even as Narayana, alone or with Lakshmi, legends like subduing Bali or Mahabali as Tri-vikrama, or redemption of elephant, also figure in stone-reliefs more often on the walls of some early temples besides in a number of miniatures. Now and then he is also seen with Sridevi and Bhudevi. However, many of Vishnu’s legends, such as rescuing his devotee Dhruv … or his exploits against various evil powers, mainly the elimination of Hayagriva, Madhu and Kaitabha, Andhaka, Vritrasura, Nemi, Sumali, Malyavan and many others constitute the theme only of some miniatures or painted walls in temples.


Garuda, Vishnu’s mount

Lakshmi-Narayana on Garuda

The great bird Garuda, the mount of Vishnu, is an essential element of Vaishnava imagery. Garuda-dwaja – a column with an icon of Garuda atop it, is the essential identity of a Vaishnava temple. Some Vaishnava states, especially in Rajasthan such as Kota, have Garuda as their state’s official logo. A few most beautiful miniatures also portray Garuda, a couple of them the bird’s portrait while some with Vishnu rushing to protect a devotee riding on the bird and a few other with Lakshmi and Vishnu riding it.



Garuda Past and Present (A Bird's Eye View of South Indian Traditions)



Basically a bird Garuda is seen for ages as Vishnu’s ardent devotee, a learned human being and an auspicious presence, and in iconographic tradition often conceived with a man’s face, anatomy, ornaments and ensemble. The Puranas are replete with tales of Garuda’s divine exploits.




This article by P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet


For Further Reference:

  • Rig-Veda Samhita: ed F. Maxmuller; English translation by H Wilson, Poona
  • Shatpatha Brahmana: ed by Albert Waver, Leipzig
  • Etareya Brahman: Gita Press, Gorakhpur
  • Taittiriya Samhita: Gita Press, Gorakhpur
  • Taittiriya Brahman: Gita Press, Gorakhpur
  • Linga Purana: Poona
  • Matsya Purana: Poona
  • Mahabharata: Gita Press, Gorakhpur; Critical Edition, Poona; English translation by Pratap Chandra Rai, Calcutta.
  • Valmiki Ramayana: Gita Press, Gorakhpur.
  • Padmapurana : Gita Press, Gorakhpur.
  • Bhagavata Purana: Gita Press, Gorakhpur.
  • Vishnupurana: Bombay; Gita Press, Gorakhpur.
  • Harivansha Purana: Gita Press, Gorakhpur
  • Vayu Purana: Gita Press, Gorakhpur
  • P. C. Jain & Usha Bhatia: The Magic of Indian Miniatures
  • Dr. Daljeet & P. C. Jain: Krishna : Raga se Viraga Tak
  • Suvira Jaiswal: Origins and Development of Vaishnavism
  • D. O. Flaherty: Hindu Myths
  • Veronica Ions: Indian Mythology
  • Devdatta Pattanaik: Vishnu
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