Female figures fanning a Hindu deity

The Hindu sacred image and its iconography

Professor Julius Lipner explores the rich tradition of Hindu icons, considering the theology that underpins the use of images in worship, their symbolism and the many forms that they take, as well as explaining what makes an image ‘sacred’.

Hindu images are a large and visible part of Hinduism as it is practised in the homes and temples of its adherents, and indeed in wider society wherever Hinduism has a presence. However, they are often misunderstood under dismissive accusations of ‘idolatry’ and ‘polytheism.’ In this essay, we shall investigate the role that Hindu images and their iconography (meaning, ‘the way the icon or sacred image is presented through its artistic style and features’) play in the lives of worshippers, with special reference to the images of certain deities. To understand what is going on, we must first inquire into the theology underpinning Hindu images.

In the important Sanskrit text Viṣṇudharmottara Purāṇa (dated to between the 6th and 11th centuries) there is a statement that explains the nature of the sacred image, which most Hindu theologians would accept.[1] The sage Mārkaṇḍeya is instructing the king, Vajra, with reference to Vishnu (also spelt Viṣṇu) as the Supreme Being. Vajra asks that if Vishnu, as God, exists everywhere, then what’s the point of making images of him and summoning Him to reside in the image? Mārkaṇḍeya replies that in his highest personal mode of existence, Vishnu is unbounded, having neither beginning, nor middle, nor end. However, out of love (anugraha) for the devotee and to be more approachable to the worshipper, Vishnu presents himself in the image, which is a ‘condensed’ (piṇḍita) form of his, and has a beginning, a middle and an end. So the image is no more than a way for Vishnu to make Himself accessible to the worshipper. In more general terms, it is also a way for the Deity, transcendent and mighty in its own right, to graciously don the mantle of humility so that It can be approached at an earthly level without overawing the devotee. Over the passage of time a large number of images, many of them not very grand at all, have become available to devotees as objects of worship over a wide range of denominations.

What forms do Hindu images take?

This mode of appearing as an image does not apply only to male representations of the Deity, like Vishnu and Shiva (also spelt Śiva); it also applies to the Deity when It is worshipped as the Great Goddess, or Mahādevī. Another important early Sanskrit text, the Devī Māhātmya (ca. 5th century), makes this clear. It includes a hymn, called the Nārāyaṇī Stūti, to the Goddess. We are told that she is the mother and source of the entire universe, the power behind the creation, maintenance and destruction of the world and manifests in various forms, both male and female, including Shiva, Vishnu, Lakshmi (also spelt Lakṣmī), Sarasvatī, Durgā and Bābhravī, ‘the dark one.’ One of these ways of manifesting is the sacred image, since the Goddess’ iconographic features are mentioned in various verses of this hymn. Thus, in multiple forms and modes, whether represented as male or female or through an in-between personality (as we shall note later), the Great One, who is matchless and formless in Its highest state, appears on a more accessible level which includes the image, for the benefit of the worshipper. This is obviously not ‘polytheism’, i.e. a belief in many gods, but, rather, a distinctive form of monotheism, wherein the transcendent One manifests in different ways and in many forms for the spiritual and sometimes also material welfare of the devotee. For the religiously educated Hindu there is only one Supreme Being, who on a visible level is multiform, according to context and circumstance.

Devi Mahatmya

Devī Māhātmya, or 13733, folio 13 verso

The Goddess Durgā slaying Mahiṣāsura, the buffalo demon.

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What makes an image sacred?

It is only once the image has been consecrated in the right way (becoming the arcā, ‘that which is worshiped’) that it contains the potent presence of the deity, usually in the temple. First, the image must be constructed out of acceptable material, e.g. gems, metal, stone or wood, according to rules of measure and iconography. It must also be created complying with various codes of practice that have been laid down in certain texts. Then it must be consecrated by the priest through a ritual called the prāṇa pratiṣṭhā, ‘the investing of life.’ The image then formally becomes the embodiment of the deity that has been summoned into it; even though its appearance remains the same, it is believed that its original substance has been transformed into a deified substance called śuddha sattva. This makes the image into an object fit for worship.

What are avatars?

Another way for the Deity to appear in human affairs is through the avatāra, that is, by way of a ‘descent’ or ‘re-presentation’ into the world (translated in English as avatar, now much used in computer game-technology). The concept of the avatar is first clearly mentioned in the Bhagavad Gītā or ‘Song of the Lord (Krishna)’, one of the most influential religious texts of Hinduism (ca. 1st century CE). Here Krishna (also spelt Kṛṣṇa), as God, says: ‘Though I am unborn, with unchanging Self, …. I engage with material nature which is mine, and come to be [in time] by my wondrous power. For whenever righteousness (dharma) wanes and unrighteousness is on the rise, I project myself [into the world] and take birth age after age, to protect the good, destroy the wicked, and re-establish righteousness’ (4.6-8). The concept of avatars developed over time, giving rise to belief in a variety of descents by the Deity into our world. Two of the best-known avatars, other than Krishna, are the righteous king Rāma, a model of dharma for many Hindus, and Narasiṃha, the ‘Man-Lion’. Rāma’s story is first given in the great Sanskrit epic, the Rāmāyaṇa (dated to over two thousand years ago); this was followed by many subsequent versions in different vernaculars.

Bhagavata Purana

Folio 230 recto.

Image of Narasiṃha, from a Bhāgavata Purāṇa manuscript.

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Narasiṃha’s story is particularly interesting. It is told in different Purāṇas and in different versions, but in brief it is a tale about the boy, Prahlāda, who was an ardent devotee of Vishnu; his father, the ogre Hiraṇyakaśipu, on the other hand, worshipped Shiva. Hiraṇyakaśipu had been granted a favour by the god Brahmā that he could not be killed either indoors or outdoors, either during the day or at night, either on the ground or in the air, either by a human or by any animal. In short, he appeared to be invincible, and taking advantage of this Hiraṇyakaśipu became more and more overbearing. He forbade his son to worship Vishnu, but Prahlāda would not give up his devotion to his God. Enraged, Hiraṇyakaśipu made several unsuccessful attempts to kill his own son (who was protected by Vishnu). One day, when he was in the temple-forecourt, Hiraṇyakaśipu arrogantly challenged Prahlāda about the whereabouts and power of Vishnu. Vishnu had had enough; he instantly emerged from a pillar in the forecourt (neither indoors nor outdoors), in the terrible form of Narasiṃha or a ‘Man-Lion’ (neither fully human nor fully animal, but an in-between form), at twilight (neither during the day nor at night), and placing Hiraṇyakaśipu on his lap (neither on earth nor in the air), he ripped him to pieces with his great claws, thereby saving his devotee Prahlāda from further harm.

Narasimha, the Man-Lion avatar of Vishnu

A Kalighat painting of Narasiṃha, the Man-Lion avatar of Vishnu, shown disembowelling the demon king Hiraṇyakaśhipu.

A Kalighat painting of Narasiṃha, the fourth avatar of Visnu, disembowelling Hiraṇyakaśhipu. The painting dates to c.1865 and was produced by Indian artists for sale around the Kalighat temple in Kolkata, India.

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Clearly this is a Vaiṣṇava story, glorifying devotion to Vishnu above all others. But the point of the story is the way in which the divine avatar is shown to have the power to overcome all obstacles in order to rescue the devotee. Thus, the different avatars, like the different sacred images, signify a gracious Deity ready at all times to help and to save, to comfort and to be near.

What are the most popular representations of deity in Hinduism?

We can use the story of Narasiṃha to say more about Hindu iconography and the way Hindu deities are presented to the worshipper. Three major deities, or rather, manifestations of the one Supreme Being, are mentioned in the story: Brahmā, Vishnu and Shiva. We must remember that in different strands of Hinduism either Vishnu or Shiva – or, although rarely today, Brahmā – is the preferred form or representation for the Supreme Being. So, on the level of story or myth, forms other than the preferred form can represent lesser manifestations of the Supreme Deity. Sometimes this is shown through images of the lesser deities in postures of reverence or deference towards the image of the deity regarded as supreme. Images of Brahmā, Vishnu and Shiva, sometimes collectively called the trimūrti or ‘the three forms’ (and misleadingly translated into English as the Hindu Trinity), are often depicted in this way. In the Narasiṃha story, it is Vishnu who comes out on top, with Shiva as a rival, while Brahmā remains in the background. In other stories these roles may be reversed, in some cases with different functions and rivalries occurring. This flexibility is not present in the Christian Trinity. With a view to teaching different kinds of truth about divine action in our world and lives, often through mythic rather than theological language, the Hindu trimūrti is more open-ended than its Christian counterpart.

Kurma, the Tortoise avatar of Vishnu

The painting is a depiction of Samudramanthana ‘the churning of the ocean’

An 18th-century painting of Samudramanthana, ‘the churning of the ocean’ in which Kurma the Tortoise, the second avatar of Vishnu, held up the mountain Mandāra to help recover divine objects. Indian miniature watercolour painting, Northern India, later 18th century.

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The symbolism of the sacred images

As we have noted earlier, Hindu images are depicted according to a strict template of iconographic features that artists must work to. The images are usually in human form, but often constructed with more than one head or two limbs; the multiple hands usually hold objects associated with particular stories and the powers they imply (though there is a range of interpretations of the latter). This characteristic multiplicity of body-parts is purely an artistic device in order to convey information about the deity being represented. Thus, when Vishnu is given four arms, one upper hand generally holds a conch shell symbolising infinite lordship over all space – sea, land and air – while the other balances a sharp-edged, whirling discus on one finger, which signifies power over the cycle of time and its obstacles; the lower hands may hold the mace of authority and the lotus flower of purity.

Matsya, the Fish avatara of Vishnu

In this painting Matsya avatāra is shown in the centre, rising out of the water. The upper part of his body is blue, bejewelled and haloed, each hand bearing one of Vishnu’s emblems

An 18th-century painting of Matsya the Fish incarnation and first avatar of Vishnu, defeating the demon Śankhāsura. Two Brahmins are shown on each side of Matsya holding up one of the Vedas. Visnhu emerges from Matsya’s mouth and holds the śankha (the conch shell) chakra (the discus), padma (the lotus) and gadā (the mace). Indian miniature watercolour painting, Northern India, later 18th century.

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Shiva, on the other hand, could be depicted meditating calmly in the lotus posture with a head full of matted hair (the mark of the yogi), holding a trident and a rosary of beads, both signifying self-restraint and asceticism, while a cobra may be entwined around his neck, which symbolises fearlessness, fecundity and immortality. Brahmā’s multiple heads signify his all-seeing eye and omniscience.

For her part, the Goddess Kālī, a terrible form of the Great Goddess, is usually depicted as dark in colour, with fearsome visage and tongue sticking out, holding a severed head and a bloody scimitar, with a garland of severed heads dangling from her neck. She is regarded by her devotees as a fearsome enemy of evil, ready to decapitate the harmful passions of our lives and to engage in bloody combat with evil-doers wherever they are to be found. One foot may be resting on the supine body of her consort, Shiva, signifying her role as the creative energy, or śakti, of the Godhead.

Kali Puja

A watercolour painting on mica of Kālī Pūjā from India, painted in the Benares or Patna style and dating to 1830–1840.

A watercolour painting on mica of Kālī Pūjā from India, showing the Goddess Kālī under worship. Painted in the Benares or Patna style, the painting dates to 1830–1840.

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Like these deities, many other Hindu gods and goddesses are distinctively represented in graphic fashion, each generally identified by a particular vāhana or animal associate (e.g. Garuḍa, the great bird-mount, for Vishnu, Nandin the bull, for Shiva, the lion or tiger for the Goddess Durgā, and so on). Without exception, each of these so-called deities is an emanation or form of the one Supreme Godhead, arising from this source like multiple rays radiating from a single sun.

Bhagavata Purana

Folio 230 recto.

Image of Narasiṃha, from a Bhāgavata Purāṇa manuscript.

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Footnote

[1] cf. Ch.108 of the third part.

  • Julius Lipner
  • Julius Lipner is Professor Emeritus in Hinduism and the Comparative Study of Religion in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. He specializes in Hindu philosophical theology and modern Hinduism and in the relationship between Hinduism and Christianity. His published works include The Face of Truth: A Study of Meaning and Metaphysics in the Vedāntic Theology of Rāmānuja (1986), Brahmabandhab Upadhyay: The Life and Thought of a Revolutionary (1999), Ānandamath or The Sacred Brotherhood (2005), Hindus: their religious beliefs and practices (2nd ed. 2010), and Hindu Images and their Worship with special reference to Vaişņavism: A Philosophical-Theological inquiry (2017), and numerous journal articles. He is an Emeritus Fellow of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of the British Academy.

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