Signs and Symbols

What sort of symbolism is important in Hindu religious sculpture and painting?

Images of the deities convey their distinctive meanings through a combination of iconographic clues or themes. Here are some of the most important categories or types of imagery. Unusual physical features naturally strike the viewer immediately. They may include nonhuman appendages, multiple arms or faces, and stylized or highly exaggerated male or female characteristics. Features like these function as reminders of the “otherness” and mystery of the deity. Smaller distinctive bodily marks (the diamond on Vishnu’s chest), along with items of clothing or ornament, are part of the standard repertoire. Posture and gesture are very important. Some deities are shown in a rigidly upright posture, but many popular images adopt the “triple bend” or S-curve posture that suggests warmth, attractiveness, and accessibility. Artists can choose from a wide range of hand gestures, but certain specific gestures are by convention associated with certain deities. They can communicate anything from reassurance to the wrath that awaits evildoers. The same is true of the various implements or devices symbolic of each deity’s prerogatives. Weapons and musical instruments are the most common items of this type. Weapons remind devotees of the deity’s protective power; musical instruments, of the divine power of enchantment. Deities often appear with their consorts, or female counterparts (Shiva with Parvati, Vishnu with Lakshmi, Krishna with Radha, Rama with Sita), and with their offspring (Shiva’s Ganesha and Skanda), or assistants (Rama with Hanuman, and any number of deities with guardian figures). Finally, each of the major deities has his or her vehicle or mode of conveyance (Vishnu’s eagle Garuda, for example), and these often appear in images.


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