As a child, I would lie on an enormous wooden swing, which was right in the middle of my grandparents’ family room and look at the pictures on the walls. Over the years, I knew every detail of two prints. These were pictures of Lakshmi and Saraswati, excellent copies of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings. They were framed in glass to protect the small gold and silver sequins and the delicate gold thread that had been glued over the pictures with great care by my grandmother and her sisters when they were young. With their golden crowns, dazzling jewels, star-studded saris, and radiant smiles, the goddesses verily glowed.
Millions of south Indians in the twentieth century grew up with these prints, and Ravi Varma’s representations of gods and goddesses were one way in which we imagined divinity. There were other ways—the icons in the temples, said to be avataras or descents, incarnations, of the supreme on Earth, the divine in an embodied mode. And then there was music and sacred recitation; the sounds of the music itself was considered to be godlike, the audible sounds being an embodiment of the divine, even as the visual forms in print or in sculpture were divine.
The Hindu traditions are, of course, multifarious, and divinity is conceptualized with and without form, sometimes diachronically and sometimes simultaneously. In space, time, and in number, the supreme being is said to be infinite and beyond human comprehension. Anor aniyaan, mahato mahiyan—smaller than the smallest, greater than the greatest, is Brahman, the supreme, cosmic being, says the Katha Upanisad, c. sixth century bce. The Upanishads, which are the last sections of the Vedas (Veda-anta), in speaking of this cosmic, supreme being, Brahman, simply say: yatho vacho nivartante apraapya manasa saha—“There, words do not go; that—the mind cannot grasp.”
As early as the Rig Veda, several centuries prior to the Upanishads, we have a recurring concept that the cosmic being is greater than thought. The Purusha Sukta, a Vedic hymn recited regularly in temples, homes, and in many Hindu rituals, has a grand vision of the Supreme Being and says this cosmic, primeval being is the cosmos and transcends the cosmos. This hymn begins with what seems to be a description of the being: “A thousand heads has this primeval man,” but the very next line, which says he has a thousand eyes and thousand feet (not two thousand, as one may logically expect) indicates that “thousand,” like the term “zillion,” is used as a signifier for “countless.” The next two lines confirm these notions of immanence and transcendence in space and time. This cosmic being pervades the cosmos, is the past, present, and future, and then more than all this—it extends ten finger lengths beyond all space, all time, and, indeed, all thought. In other words, everything we can think, imagine, conceptualize, prove, or speculate on is pervaded by this being—and then, there is always more, ten finger lengths, beyond human thought.
And yet, the history of the Hindu traditions and the experience of millions of people whom we call Hindu today has been replete with identifying specific conceptualizations, phenomena, forms, carvings, paintings, and drawings, not just representations of the divine, but as a manifestation of Reality, as somehow true in itself. Some people, and specific animals, birds, trees, mountains, rivers, icons, and pictures invoke reverence. Sometimes there is a literal identification between what is considered “representation” and one what thinks of as “reality”; sometimes the representation is seen as symbolic. Thus, while some Hindus may look at a picture of Vishnu and say that this is the very form of the supreme being and that divinity is present in that painting, in that art, as fully as it can be anywhere, others may see his name and depiction as allegorical. Vishnu means “all pervasive”; he reclines on the coils of the serpent called Ananta or “infinity”; thus by seeing him, one could say, we know that this divine, this incomprehensible being, is present in and is connected with all space and all time.
This seamless flow between thinking of the supreme being as inaccessible to human thought, as being in different dimensions and simultaneously accessible, fully accessible, fully present in an icon in the temple or a print on the wall, is at the heart of the Hindu devotional experience. The supreme being is simultaneously asankhyeya—literally, without number—but can be understood as either one or as many. Sometimes the supreme being is presented as a husband-and-wife team (as in Vishnu and Lakshmi or Shiva and Parvati), or as having multiple—indeed, three hundred and thirty million—forms. Richard Davis’s introduction begins with the famous passage in the Upanishads in which Vidagdha Shakalya asks the sage Yajnavalkya the whimsical question: “And how many gods are there?” The answer to this question starts with a formulaic phrase, “three hundred and three and three thousand and three,” which is frequently translated as “three hundred and thirty million.” Yajnavalkya eventually brings the answer to one god, but it does not quite end there. The final answer to the question “how many gods are there?” is not “one,” although that answer is theologically and aesthetically pleasing to some people. Yajnavalkya loops it back, saying that they are all the powers and that there are thirty-three gods. In other words, there is refusal in the philosophical texts to pin a number or gender to divinity.
The Upanishads and a swathe of philosophical literature speak about this inaccessible, supreme nature of that which is said to be the ground of all existence simply as reality/truth (satyam), wisdom ( jnanam), and infinite (anantam). At the same time, Hindu devotees also see this being present in the temple, as incarnating itself age after age into this earth, and as being present in every atom of this universe. These statements are not perceived as a contradiction to what the devotee sees in the temple or in a print—in the philosophy of some sectarian schools like the Vaishnava traditions, the supreme being is without form and has a form, a body (as Vishnu-Narayana). Not only does Vishnu-Narayana have a body like a human being, in his incarnations, he is a fish, a turtle, half man-half lion, and so on. And as though this were not enough, he has the universe itself as his body and is pervasive through this universe-body.
There are a number of ways in which Hindus have handled these polarities. We can look at three viewpoints—those of poets/mystics, theologians, and devotees—to see how Hindus bring statements of the ineffable nature of the supreme and intensely accessible nature of a personal god together. Poets—those whom we popularly call “mystics”—exult in and exalt these contradictions and yet end with this wondrous being as residing in the local temple. They simply state both sets of fact as though they were both equally true.
…Being the all-surrounding incomparable light,
Being the earth, being the firmament,
The lord resides in the Sacred Celestial City (Tiruvinnagar).
…Being virtue and sin, union and separation
And all of these,
Being memory, being forgetfulness,
Being existence, being non-existence,
Being none of these,
The Lord resides in Tiruvinnagar,
City surrounded by lofty mansions
—Nammalvar’s Tiruvaymoli, 6.3.3 and 4 (ninth century ce)
Notice that although the poet is rejoicing in the paradoxes, he still says that this paradoxical being resides in Tiruvinnagar (“sacred celestial city”), an actual temple-town in south India. The same rationale would be extended to prints, to lithographs, to framed pictures. God is “other” but very much here.
Theologians, on the other hand, have used several frameworks to conceptualize the different ways in which the supreme being is understood. Ramanuja and Pillan, religious teachers and writers in eleventh century south India, speak about the supreme Brahman/Vishnu having the universe as its body on the one hand—an all-pervasive form. The entire universe is his (Vishnu’s) body, and he is the inner soul of everyone and everything. This divine form is the locus of all the worlds. Second, in addition to being all-pervasive, Vishnu has his own divine auspicious form (divya mangala vigraha). Thus, Vishnu has a personal and impersonal form (rupa), pervades and transcends, and has no form. Each category is then unpacked to give more details with supportive statements from scripture. The divine auspicious form manifests itself in five different ways, and the fifth of these manifestations is the archa avatara or the “incarnation [of God] in a worshippable” form. While technically this is the form consecrated in a temple, by extension, one can say it is the form that we see in the prints and framed pictures. The list of five manifestations (below) consolidates different conceptions of Vishnu given in the Puranas and epics and makes them all equal.
1. The supreme (para) form. This is the eternal, unchanging form of Vishnu seen only in heaven. A vision of this form engenders bliss in the devotee.
2. The emanations (vyuha). There are three primary emanations, called Samkarsana, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha, which are said to preside over the functions of creation, preservation, and dissolution of the worlds, respectively. Iconographically, this form is represented as Vishnu reclining on a five-headed serpent, called Ananta (“Infinity”), on an ocean of milk. The ocean of milk is a mythical location in Hindu Puranas, a place where Vishnu resides, a place that Hindus sometime identify with the Milky Way. This is the posture of several images of Vishnu found in temples and in several prints in this book—the endless coils that Vishnu (“all-pervasive one”) resides on is called “infinity,” thus signifying his mastery over space and time.
3. Manifestations at particular times (vibhava, sometimes called avatara). These include specific “historical” descents of the Lord onto earth as Rama, Krishna, etc. Some holy men, such as Vyasa, are also held to be partial incarnations of Vishnu; again, this is a theme of many paintings.
4. The Inner Controller (antaryamin or harda). This is the special subtle form of the supreme being, which is supposed to reside within the hearts of human beings—the pervasive form that is in every atom of existence.
5. The last, and the most important form of Vishnu, for many Hindus, is his avatara into the world as an image that can be worshiped. This image is an actual and real manifestation of the deity, neither lesser than nor a symbol of other forms. It is wholly and completely God, though it does not exhaust his essence. Through articulating theologies such as these, traditions may encompass many disparate notions of the deity and bring them all under identifiable categories.
The Human Body as the Temple for the Deity
Just as the deity graciously descends from heaven and manifests itself in a temple, it appears in the worshiper’s heart. Tirumalisai Alvar, a poet-devotee (c. seventh–eighth centuries ce), expresses this idea clearly and says that the same Vishnu whom he saw in the many sacred places resides in his heart:
The days are gone when I saw
at Urakam, the standing Lord.
At Patakam, I beheld my father sitting,
and at Vehka, he reclined.
I was not “born” then; and when I was born
I never did forget
that he stands, abides, and reclines
within my heart.
—Tirumalisai Alvar, Tirucchanta Viruttam 64
The poet clearly identifies the deity, externally worshiped in the temples at Urakam, Patakam, and Vehka (all near the town of Kanchipuram, about forty miles from Chennai/Madras City), with the light within himself. Most Hindus extend this concept loosely to all visual representations of the deity. The external and internal depictions and manifestations of the deity are not mutually exclusive; rather, it is the same divine being that manifests itself in the temple and in the human heart. In other words, divinity is everywhere but appears and is manifest at a point when conceptualized.
While theologians give the many categories of divine manifestations, devotees may reconcile the multiple viewpoints by focusing on the special relationship that exists between them and the deity and celebrate the nature of personal love and connection.
Poykai Alvar, a poet writing in Tamil around the seventh-eighth century ce, sings extensively about the form of Vishnu he visualizes but also says:
Whatever form his devotees wish,
He becomes that form.
Whatever names his devotees wish,
He takes those names.
Whatever qualities the devotees think about
He is that person—he, the lord who bears the wheel.
—Poykai Alvar, Mutal Tiruvantati 44, c. seventh–eighth centuries ce
The forms taken by the supreme being are real, divine, and auspicious, and although the supreme being is ineffable and supreme ( para), it is also accessible (sulabha). As a child, I had imagined the little sequins that shone on the pictures of Lakshmi and Saraswati to be stars. It was years later that I heard the lines from the hymn in the Vedas that described the supreme being as having the form of the stars—nakshatrani rupam. And I suspect, for most Hindu devotees, both conceptualizations are real, both forms radiant. For the Hindu who views the prints lovingly framed and hung on the wall, that divinity, which is the cosmos and which transcends the cosmos, is true, is real, because it is palpable through that picture.