Lecture 10: Identifying Gods/Goddesses in India - Vishnu
Course: Introduction to Hinduism
A little parenthesis from the Bhakti lecture which we started last time. I felt like after, upon reflection I thought, you know, it would be much better to talk about Bhaktism in light of understanding the iconography, the visual images, of Hinduism. So, what we're going to do today is actually look at the actual gods and goddesses themselves and give you some idea of the pictures that you'll ... this is what you'd see if you were anywhere in India.
So, I'm going to actually show you ... in the past I used to take ... well, I've gone through several stages. Stage 1, I used to take, I had a lot of slides of gods and goddesses I took in various temples in India and I, you know, came in with like the slide projector, you know, and all the carousel and everything – which is still fine. I can probably ... I could still do that. Then I went through a period of well, maybe I should try to transition to something more digital. So this is my first attempt at showing some digital images, some of which I got off the internet, some of which I've taken digitally on a camera. And I hope to keep adding to this as I have opportunity to travel around different parts of India. So, I'm hoping to visually show you what you'd really see if you walked in the temples in various parts of India. This particular slide projection, or slide show, I have here is focused specifically on the gods and goddesses – rather than any temples or whatever per se, though you'll see some pictures inside temples. But essentially, we're looking at the gods and goddesses.
Now, there are 330 million different gods worshipped in India. You don't have to know all 330 million of them. So, what I've had to do is I've had to say: OK, what should somebody know? You know, how do you narrow this down? How do you tell somebody what is the most essential gods and goddesses to know about in India? So, what I've done is, I have parroted down to really the national and major regional deities that are found really in temples. I've been in hundreds of temples in India and I think I would ... could say pretty much that the gods you'll see here are the gods that you'll see in the major places. Now, every temple will have multiple gods and many minor deities. But, I mean, in terms of the major icons that you see in a temple, you'll be exposed to that today.
These gods and goddesses generally have certain signs, symbols, representations, things with them that identify. Everybody knows that when they see that particular iconography that's Siva, that's Krishna, that's whatever. And you'll learn that.
Question: Are we doing any more of the Bhakti stuff?
O yeah. We're going to go back and finish that whole Bhakti lecture, but I just thought maybe the Bhakti lecture would have ... make more sense if we had visual kind of images and stuff in our minds. I'll make a list over here on the ... of the gods that you need to know. And I will limit my testing to the gods that show up on this chart. OK, so there will no problem here.
Just to go back a little bit and remind you of a few things. We had mentioned, at least in passing, early on this Trimurti, three faces. Now this refers to the three major gods of India – Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Those are the three major deities worshipped in the world of saguna if you're talking as a Brahminical worldview. But in terms of popular Hinduism, they're the flat out the major gods that are worshipped.
In practice, as one of you mentioned – I forgot now who it was – Brahma is not popularly represented in Indian iconography. And it's rare to find temples to Brahma. So therefore, really we're talking about mainly Vishnu and Siva and various identifications and representations and incarnations and associations and stories and epics with these two figures.
So, as a general rule, Hindus are divided into two major groups: Vaishnavites and Shaivites. The Vaishnavites are the followers of Vishnu or some incarnation thereof. And the Shaivites are followers of Siva or some association with Siva.
Siva does have avatars, I think. There are some who say he doesn't. It's either he has avatars or he has a very large family. And there's all kinds of associations with that. I accept the idea of Siva having 21 incarnations. But the 10 incarnations of Vishnu are extremely important – and much more important in the Hindu worldview. So we're only going to talk about the 10 avatars of Vishnu and only then we're only going to focus on two of them that you need to know about – you'll be happy to know. So, essentially, we're talking about Vishnu and Siva.
For practical purposes, and for this class, you do not need to know anything about Brahma – in terms of this part of the lecture. So we're talking about Vishnu and Siva and you'll notice that I have in parentheses three goddesses that are identified with each of the gods. Each of the gods, they're married. And Brahma is married to Saraswati, Vishnu to Lakshmi and Siva to Parvati.
So, we will talk about them somewhat – though, again, I'm going to not require you to know about Saraswati. But Saraswati is actually important in some places – for example, educational institutions. If you were to go and visit Hindu places of learning, you might say: Why didn't Dr Tennent talk about Saraswati because it seems to be everywhere – because Saraswati is the god of learning and the god of knowledge. And so because of that it tends to be obviously very prominent in Hindu places of learning. So if you go and visit like colleges or universities in India, you'll see it a lot. But, for practical purposes in the villages, it's not as important and we will focus more on Lakshmi and Parvati.
OK, so those are the kind of the general framework. This is just an iconography of what we just said. You don't need to know this. But this is just, you know, the same thing: Brahma, the creator, Vishnu the preserver, Siva the destroyer. It's kind of classically the way it's presented. We're only focused on the preserver and the destroyer and again you can see the three goddesses that are identified with the gods: Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati.
If you focus on the Vaishnavites, those who follow Vishnu, Vishnu has 10 incarnations or avatars. And these can be pulled out of any textbook. Many of you talked about it in your papers. Matsya is fish – by the way, these words just mean – that's what these words ... Kurma means turtle. Varaha means boar, and so forth. Narasimha – man-lion – and so forth. Vamana. Parashurama – Rama with axe. Rama. Krishna. Buddha. And Kalki. These are the ten avatars of Vishnu. These are earthly manifestations, earthly appearances of Vishnu.
One of my arguments that I made in my book is that the avatar figure is not the same as an incarnation for a number of reasons. Number one: it's multiplied – there's many incarnations. But also these are ??? partial incarnations. They're not actually full incarnations, with the possible exception of Krishna. So, by their own testimony, these are partial incarnations and don't represent the fullness of Vishnu. In fact in the Ramayana, Vishnu incarnates himself as ten different people at the same time, one of whom is Rama. So, you know, it's not the kind of thing that we would associate with Christ.
Before we look at the two most important ... just kind of an overview of where we're headed – how we know what's important. You'll be surprised to find that Buddha is one of the 10 avatars of Vishnu. This is classic example of the way Hinduism has absorbed Buddhism. What happened was the Buddha was brought into Hinduism and it was said that Vishnu chose to incarnate himself into someone, Buddha, who would mislead and deceive people who were not worthy of the true dharma. This is very good of god, isn't it, to, you know, go ahead and kind of close the door on people who weren't worthy of it. So, the Buddha comes into it in this way. There are other interpretations of this, I admit – but that's the main interpretation of the Buddha as essentially a negative figure. And there's this future Kalki Buddha – sorry, I mean Kalki avatar, in the future.
Of all of these 10 avatars, the most important are these two right here: Rama and Krishna. Without any doubt, these are the most important. There's no one who could possibly walk through India without recognising the importance of these two particular avatars. So, we're going to include them on the list for sure: Rama and Krishna.
Because of the epic – Ramayana is one of the great epics of India. Every child in India grows up learning the Ramayana. This is put on the cartoons. This is put in story-book form. You grow up as a child being introduced to Ramayana – all the way to most advanced literature, some very Tolsidas famous poet has a beautiful famous translation of it – very erudite. So it goes on every level. So Ramayana is something that is introduced along with the mother's milk. These stories are told and sung to children. So everybody, Christians, everybody alike, is aware of these stories. If you're preaching in India and make reference to Ramayana – there are exceptions of course. There are Christians whose parents, you know, actively participate in ways to keep them from knowing these stories. But I would say, as a general rule, certainly any Christian with a Hindu background, but even in general Christians, if they didn't grow up in a really closed community, would be aware of these stories.
Because of ??? the popular of these stories, the gods and the figures identified with Rama in the story have also become very, very important. So, because of that, we're going to add Rama's famous, well-known wife Sita, who is the central figure to the Ramayana – as well as the central figure who helps them in the epic is Hanuman, the famous monkey-god. So that will be one that you, you know, because these are ... you'll see this iconography of Hanuman everywhere in India. So it would be a mistake not to include it.
And also Krishna, who loves the gopis, the cow-herding girls, but he particularly loves Radha. Radha is the most famous – this is the most famous love affair in India. I was preaching a Indian wedding – were you there for John's wedding? Yeah, you remember I mentioned Krishna and Radha in my sermon in that wedding. It talks about comparing it and contrasting it with the love of Christ with the church. But Krishna and Radha is the most famous picture of a ... both of these actually, Rama and Sita, Krishna and Radha, are very, very famous for ... ??? all the marriage kind of rituals and everything else. So Radha's important.
And then finally, we want to make sure we make allusion to the wife of Vishnu, Lakshmi, because Lakshmi comes up in iconography all over India as well. So, we're going to essentially not make you need to know these 10 avatars, but we're going to focus on these two. We're going – I don't know if we'll do it today – but at some point we will give a brief exposition of the Ramayana. And we're going to do a more detailed look at the Bhagavad-Gita, as time develops. So you'll be exposed to both these documents.
When we get to the Shaivites, I've identified a few figures that you should know. The first would be Siva – Siva himself – and that would include Siva in several different famous forms. Siva takes different forms. We'll mainly be interested in the Nataraja form, which is the dancing Siva form. Siva's wife, Parvati, is important; and then their son, Ganesh, the famous elephant-headed god, very prevalent all over India. In addition to this, we have kind of the ambiguities that are inherent in Hinduism. Aparavati is sometimes also called Devi or Mah – even sometimes called Sati, that's the wife of Rama.
So, we have some ambiguities here between Shaivites and Vaishnavites, but what ... the way I'm going to present it to you is the great goddess, you should essentially view as a separate figure, for our purposes. I think it makes it much clearer to learn it, even though in reality in India there are some problems with confusing along certain lines. But essentially, this great goddess is the goddess of India itself. India is known as the Mataparat, the Mother India. There's various iconographies associated with Devi or Mah and we're only going to focus on two of these. There's about four that are important, but two that are really important – and that's Kali and Durga.
Now, just so you'll know the kind of picture of why this goddess is so important, Devi is said to have generated all of the three goddesses of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva – Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati. So this kind of as Devi, this goddess kind of transcends the Shaivites. But the two major manifestations of Devi, that is Kali and Durga, is a Shaivite thing. That's why I'm going to keep it within this category. So, you'll need to know of the ... well as far as iconography, there's no iconography of Devi, so we'll focus on Kali and Durga.
You should be able to recognise Kali and Durgma and did I mention on here ... yeah, Lakshmi there, so that gives us one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirt... no, no ... that's because of Siva there. We have what twelve gods or goddesses – these are goddesses – that you need to know: a dozen out of 300 million. So, we'll start looking at pictures now – but are we clear on the 12 you need to know and their relationship with each other? Let's see if this is right. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve. And these represent Vaishnavites and Shaivites. OK, are we ... everybody' happy with the 12? A dozen, that's nice – even dozen.
None of these are Vedic gods. Well, I shouldn't say that. There's ... some of these have like little minor, minor roles in some early Vedic material, but they're ... none of these are important Vedic gods. You're right – you do not need to know Vedic gods.
OK, let's begin with Vishnu, the preserver. Here are ... I'm going to show you two slides ??? another of Vishnu and I think will give you enough examples of the iconography to appreciate it. Because, even though these are very different icons, they're very typical Vaishnavite depictions of Vishnu. There's a couple of things that you'll notice about Vishnu. He always has four arms. You actually find this in a number of gods. This is not unique to Vishnu, but this is typical of iconography in India. When you want to depict a god you show them with super-human characteristics – so they'll have multiple eyes, multiple arms, multiple whatever. The four arms is very typical. The blue is also typical of gods in general. So multiple arms, blue shading, is a sign of austerity, a sign of their deity and so forth. So, when you see something with four arms, you really know: OK this is a god.
You see it's a male figure, so that tells you, OK, it's not going to be Durga or Kali. But then you look more carefully, and you'll notice there's certain things that are in the hands of the gods. Now, that's important, because once you kind of notice certain things in the hand like a conch shell. Now, if you see a conch shell, that will narrow it down to possibly three figures, one of which is Vishnu. It could also be Krishna, so we're going to ... we're getting this one absolutely seal it as a Vishnu figure yet, but the conch shell will begin to help you narrow it down because very often, in one of his four hands, Vish is holding a conch shell.
But the real giveaway is actually right here and right here. That is the wheel of Samsara. It's a disk that he is spinning on his finger. If you see the disk, you know you've got Vishnu. That's a very, very good way to tell it. There is another way. So the conch shell is very, very prevalent. You see the disk – that's a dead giveaway.
The third and absolutely dead giveaway sure is the lotus. Here is the lotus, but also you have ... this is a lotus flower, this is lotus flower. He's always associated with the lotus. He's on a lotus throne. There's lotus flowers. Again, lotuses you'll find with other icons as well, but when you see all these come together, you know you're getting Vishnu. Yes.
Question: It looks to me like they're snakes.
They're also ... yeah, the snake is also there. That is a snake. That's called Nag. The snake is another part of the iconography. In this case, he's not actually seated. So he's standing on top of the Nag, but this behind him is a lotus. Here he's ... it looks like he's sitting on a lotus throne. You have to look for kind of the general theme. Don't get overly focused on the details, because what will happen is that you'll see hundreds of different iconographies of Vishnu. If you always look for a snake, for example, you may be disappointed. So you kind of have to look at the whole thing and begin to observe what kind of comes together.
Every Hindu would immediately recognise this as Vishnu. But how do they do that? Well, they do that mainly because of the combination – OK, four arms, the conch, the lotus, the disk (that's a dead giveaway) – those kind of things kind of all come together. But you may not always see all of these things in every icon. You may not even always see the disk. So you know you have to kind of ... I mean, I'm not going to try to trick you in the exam. I'm just trying to give you a feel for how this works.
The other thing that is prevalent and is in both of these is the mace. That's the last thing: the mace, the lotus, the conch and the disk. That's classic Vishnu. In this case, and that's why I chose them to show you, these icons have all four of his symbols. The mace is for conquering. It's for ruling. It's ??? power.
So the conch shell represents the OM. You blow through the conch shell – OM – it resonates with the universe. That's the OM sound. So conch is OM. The disk is Samsaara. The mace represents power, authority. And the lotus always represent moksa – release from the wheel of Samsara. So the lotus flower which blooms represents, as you might imagine, release and beauty and all of that. Look for those four things: conch, disk, lotus and mace – and you will probably be standing in the presence of Vishnu – icon of Vishnu – there is no Vishnu. I'm so sorry to say.
The serpent is a serpent who is ... the word for serpent is Nag. This is actually a serpent called Seshanag – and they will usually say Seshanag. This is a ... it goes back to some of the puranic stories about Vishnu's struggles with the snake, about the amrith – the fluid of immortality. And they had a big battle and one of the reasons why that he's blue is that the snake wrapped his himself around his neck. He turned blue because of the lack of oxygen. There's all kinds of theories about the blueness. But he had a big battle with this.
So whenever ... another thing you'll notice about icons in Hinduism is that the standing on top of something. They're always on top of something. And it's usually one of two things: it's either their mount, which is not the case for this – but it's a mount. In other words, when the gods came into tribal beliefs in India, they say: Well we already worship a bird. We already worship a mouse. We already worsh... OK, that's the mount of this god. That's what they ride or travel on. The mount of Ganesh is a mouse. See, this bizarre thing of an elephant riding a mouse. It's really weird, but it's just the way Hinduism works. Every god and every goddess has a mount. The mount will tell you the god. One of the signs of Ganesh is a mouse, for example.
More often, I think, it's something they've had victory over. Something they've defeated in one of the puranic battles. So, when they see the snake here, that's another example. I mean, this particular icon here has everything that you associate with Vishnu – it has the four symbols, it has the victory over Nag. It's all there. In that sense, it's quite a remarkable thing. The only thing it doesn't have – neither of these has – is Garuda. Garuda is a big flying bird. You don't need to know it. I'm sorry, I put it on this chart. But Garuda is a flying bird and that is the mount of Vishnu. And so you'll sometimes see him on a bird, but ... yes
Question: Is there any ??? other places you have creation accounts that are similar sounding to the Bible and the struggle with the snake and of ???
With ... you mean Vedic stories? Or with ...?
Question: ... is there any linkage with ??? stories of creation ...
O right. No. Not to my knowledge. Though there are people who think that anytime anybody's sniffs in the world that they immediately come upon Egypt. So, I don't know. I'm sure there's somebody who's made some observation. But I don't ... I've never seen ... another ...
Here is another icon. This looks very, very different, but what do you notice? You notice that ... you see the disk. You see the conch. Do you think you could recognise that as Vishnu even though it's very, very different from this? See, I want to make you realise that it may appear ... this is one inside a temple and you may find ... the mace in this case is still there. It's just lying there. There it is at his feet. Any questions about Vishnu? Right now, we're just trying to look at the deities and gain some ability to recognise it when you walk into a temple in India. Yeah.
Question: Does there have to be the lotus flower?
There ... nothing is, I mean ... in this case it's here as well. This is the lotus flower. Sometimes the way the iconography is done, it can be very symbolic and you may not be able to recognise it as clearly – O, that's a lotus flower. So you can see the leaves here, but it's pretty obscure, don't you think? The lotus there? He is on a lotus throne. I would say that in this case again, this is a dead giveaway. And you have the mace, the conch and the disk. That's pretty good signs that you have ... you have him. Any other questions about that?
OK Rama is the next figure. You have the arrows. The arrows is a classic of Rama. The only other figure I can think of off the top of my head that would have arrows other than Rama would be Arjuna. Arjuna is the figure in the Bhagavad-Gita that Krishna comes and talks to. Occasionally you see him with arrows, but he's not one of these. So for our class purposes, this will be a good help.
Arrows is important, because Rama used the arrows. He's famous in the Ramayana for bowing the great Siva's bow. He was the only one ... no one had the strength to pull back the bow and put the arrow in it. He could do that. And also, when he shot his arrows, he put mantras on them. He recited Vedic mantras and used the mantras on the arrows to shoot and kill this big demon-king that he fights in the Ramayana epic.
In a nutshell, the Ramayana story – and maybe we'll come back to it – but Rama ... the story is basically about the kidnapping of this beautiful woman, Siva ... Sita by this king, this demon-king known as Ravana. Ravana. This demon-king kidnaps Sita, takes Sita away and takes her to this island off the coast of India which is called Sri Lanka – which you know, of course, today is reverted back to the original name. It was called Ceylon for so many years, but now it's back to Sri Lanka – lord Lanka. OK, so he takes them to Lanka and holds her in captivity.
So, the Ramayana epic, which is a long epic, but essentially it's about the rescue of Sita. And in the process, he gets help from the monkey god. And so Hanuman comes and helps the rescue. In the process he carries this mountain which gives them leverage against the king. They have this big battle. He is about to rescue Sita when he doubts whether she was actually faithful to him or not. Now, during the whole captivity, there's all these interludes in the story where Ravana's trying to seduce Sita. She's a very beautiful woman in Hindu mythology. So he's constantly trying to seduce her – the demon-king. She always resists. She's always faithful to Rama. She's loyal to Rama. And so finally she gives like him Vedic knowledge. She's trying to teach him the dharma, trying to, you know, convert this demon you might say.
So when Rama finally rescues her, he says: Well, maybe how do I know she has been faithful? Maybe she's been faithless. Maybe she's not been faithful. So, kind of classic, you know, literature theme, you know, where the man doubts the woman's faithfulness. So finally he decides that, because he can't be sure, he's going to burn her to death. Welcome to Hinduism. So he takes her. He throws her onto the fire. And the fire, the lapping arms of the fire, take her and give her back to Rama. And so she's been faithful, which is why the practice of suti – you've heard of the practice of suti – where the wife joins the husband on the funeral pyre, is burned with her husband when he dies. This is a practice – even William Carey observed it in his day. It still happens today. I was in India last summer. I saw three of these in the newspaper reported – just when I was there last summer. It's against the law now, but people still do it. So, when a man dies, is cremated – the widow who to show her faithfulness will join her husband on the funeral pyre – and has been, of course, done by force. This is, by the way, one of those sub-plots of Around the World in 80 Days – if you know that famous book, because this is how he gets his wife. He rescues her from the funeral pyre. That's called suti. It's actually from Sati – there's the wife of Rama that's rescued through the fire.
But what essentially happens is that the Ramayana creates certain archetypal leaders and heroes in Hinduism. So Rama is the greatest example of a hero, especially if you go into any store in ... almost any store, shop in India, it's very, very normal to find on the wall. It's written in Hindi, so you have to look at the ... it looks like this. It'll say: Ram, jai ram. They'll talk about, you know, victory to Ram. It's everywhere. It's always present in all iconography of the walls and whatever else – and on buses. You see it everywhere. So Rama's like the perfect hero. Sita is the faithful, loyal, beautiful wife – the faithful wife is always Sita. You'll see them often together in the temples – Rama and Sita – the ultimate couple.
And then Hanuman, who helps them in this experience, becomes the faithful, devoted follower. I even noticed on the internet this devotee of Hanuman who wrote this little poem in worship of Hanuman, for English speaking people, and he said: Hanuman, it's like one of these things like you knows, H stands for this, you know.
H is for humility.
A is for adoration.
N for nobility.
U for understanding or knowledge.
M for mastery over ego.
A for achievements.
N for nishkama karma, that means selflessness.
And he used the letters of Hanuman to, you know, add a little poem of devotion – very, very popular thing.
So, in the iconophy, you often will see a god … again, here's the arrow – another classic way of identifying that it's Rama and this is Sita. The only major other pair you'll see together is Krishna and Radha. And so there's ... one of the ways to determine is this Krishna and Radha or is this Rama and Sita is the arrow. But by virtue of being with her is a dead giveaway that this is Rama.
Question: Is she ever by herself?
She is rarely by herself, very rarely. The other figure is ... well, here's another Rama and Sita. Again, you have the bow. There's many ways you would know this is not Krishna and Radha, even though you might immediately say: O yeah, this is it because it's blue. Krishna's often blue. But there's things that are missing in the picture. So, the bow gives it away. This is Rama and Sita. This is a very different kind of picture. This is from an epic so this is ... there are other things there. But you can see some parallel between the two.
Hanuman is very easy to recognise because he has a monkey's face. That's the number one way. The Ram is often there because, of course, was part of the Ramayana epic. So the number one way to recognise Hanuman and the only dead giveaway is he always has a monkey face because he is the monkey god. He is a monkey. Just look for that. This mountain – another dead giveaway, because Hanuman regularly appears with the mountain because that's part of the epic. In the epic, he carries a mountain to Sri Lanka. The mace, once again, represents power. We saw that was already could be present with several other iconographies. But the mountain I think and the monkey face are such obvious things that you will have no problem identifying Hanuman.
Here's one that brings them all together. This is ... O this is another really famous one. You see this all over India – in statues and in all the temples. You'll see the face. You immediately recognise it's Hanuman. Who's inside Hanuman's heart? Who would it be?
Answer: Sita and Rama.
Rama and Sita, of course. The very fact that you have his heart opened up. I mean, you find this all over India – this god, big statue there, like ripping his heart open. And sometimes you just have his heart ripped open. Sometimes and more typically you have painted inside the open chest cavity a picture of Rama and Sita. This is very, very typical. Very, very typical. That's another dead giveaway that that's Hanuman. And, of course, inside would always be Rama and Sita. No one would ever ... it would be impossible for that to be Krishna and Radha, because Krishna and Radha would never be found inside of Hanuman's chest. It's always goes back to the epic. So if I were to ask you: Who is that inside the heart of Hanuman? You would be making a poor guess if you said Krishna and Radha – even though it's a lovely couple. You see the blue, the beautiful, you know, the nose ring.
You know, I find you know it's great to be a part of a culture where you can wear a ring that connects your ear with your nose. That's a great thing. But we don't have that in our culture. But if any of you want to start that tradition, it's a great thing.
Here's another iconography of Rama – again the blue colour. Sita, the devoted wife. The main way that you know that this is Rama and Sita ... I mean, the way you would absolutely know is because of the bowing Hanuman at the feet of Rama. He has a large bow in his hand. He has the arrows there. So you're getting a lot of classic kind of Rama stuff. But if you saw Ganesh at his feet, that's a dead giveaway that this is Rama and Sita – because this is the epic. The epic is about his rescue of her through the help of Hanuman. So she represents the ideal wife. He represents the ideal hero. He represents the ideal devotee – one who perfectly adores and worships.
This figure here is a figure we have not ... it's called Lakshman. This is a ... Rama's brother. It's part of the epic but it, for our purposes, we're not going to be talking about Lakshman.
Here's another icon. It's the same figures that you had before. You have Rama, Sita, Hanuman. You have the brother. How do you know it's Rama? Arrows. You know it's Rama. And this is a dead giveaway because there you have Ganesh there ... I mean Hanuman. Tried to fool you there.
The wife of Vishun is Lakshmi. This is one that always is a dead giveaway. You can definitely quickly identify Lakshmi. Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth. I mentioned, I think, a member of Brahma's cohort, Saraswati, the goddess of learning. I mentioned you'll find it in schools. Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth. Because she's the goddess of wealth, she's found in a lot of places, because people hope that, by worshipping her, they might gain wealth. Nobody likes to have money!
So, Vishnu represents kind of all that is male about god. Lakshmi represents all that's female. She is always painted in ways that, at least to the Indian eye, are beautiful. She has long hair. She has the vindu on her head. She has ... on her forehead. She has all kinds of, you know, her shape and all. She's wearing beautiful clothes. She's always pictured in this radiant beauty.
But there are really more important things because many of the ladies are viewed as beautiful. But what's more important is that there are certain things that are always giveaways and this one has them all. The lotus flower – now we mentioned already the lotus flowers, it's important – but in the case of Lakshmi, she almost always seen standing on a lotus flower. That's a sure sign. The other and even more important, I think, in terms of like common depictions, is she has coins flowing out of her hand. Sometimes they just come out her hand. Sometimes they come out of a vessel like this. The coin obviously represents wealth. So, the coins flowing from Lakshmi is a dead giveaway this is Lakshmi. Absolutely dead giveaway. So, I would say, look for the coins.
I mean you obviously have things like the disk, OK, but you're not going to be fooled by the disk and so OK well, ah hah. You know. This is Rama. No, this is definitely ... this says Devi ... this is saying that she's a goddess in Hindi or Sanskrit as well.
Another thing that you'll notice a lot about the ... because it has four arms you recognise it's a goddess. It's not just an Indian woman. But the elephants. The elephants are also frequently found in the Lakshmi pictures. This one doesn't actually show the way it's usually done. The way it's often done, in the ones I've seen in India, have the elephants. Usually the elephants are spraying her with water – representing her, you know, that she's refreshing, she's clean, she's you know ... So that elephants are giving her a shower. So you often see water pouring out over her. They'll be spraying water. I don't think that's spraying. I think that's just decorations. But maybe that's water spraying down. I don't know.
See the light coming from her? That's very typical as well. The main things are the coins, the lotus. I would say coins is the number one thing you'll notice. The lotus is probably the number two thing you'll notice. And then the elephants are frequently there. The only thing that's not here that you may find is that her mount – they all have mounts – is an owl. And I'm drawing a blank on the owl's name right now, but it's an owl. If you see an owl, that's another dead giveaway – but this particular icon I have doesn't have the owl.
Another interesting thing is that if Lakshmi is shown by herself, as in this iconography, she always has four arms. Always four arms when shown by herself. If she is shown ... well, here's another iconography of her. You have the four arms. You have the coins. And you have the lotus. So, in this case, there are no elephants. But you have the two most dominant ones. So if I show you an icon that has coins and a lotus flower, you should recognise it as Lakshmi – goddess of wealth.
Devali is a famous festival in Hinduism. We'll look at Devali later – festival of lights. This is not true in south India, but in north India during Devali they worship Lakshmi. And so you'll see icons of Lakshmi just everywhere during that month of Devali. I was there a year ago December during Devali – and it's also the time when everybody gets married, which again ... another reason why you venerate one of the wives of a god and you also hope for their success and wealth and all that. So you have a strong influent Lakshmi and ohh they believe it's an auspicious time to get married. And the weddings in India are not like it is in the US – we have like a 30 minute affair. These things go on all night long, beating the drums, singing. I mean this goes on all night long and so I literally, you just can't sleep at night. And there's just so much noise all night long, like in Koolhan where the school's located, just constantly.
If you were to go into a temple, and you were to see a picture of Vishnu which was definitely Vishnu, with a woman by his side, it is still almost certainly Lakshmi. So whenever Lakshmi is shown with her hsuband, she always has two arms. This is taken in isolation, but if it's proper iconography, Vishnu would be right next to her in this picture. So, if I show you one – I mention that just for FYI, for your information – but if I show you one, it'd be like this. Again, you have the lotus, in this case the lotus in her hands. The coins are falling out. She's sitting on this huge lotus here. And so it has all the kind of classic features of Lakshmi. There's no reason why you would not recognise that as Lakshmi. The lotus represents the, as it normally does, the idea of the world opening up to moksa. So the idea of the slow opening of the lotus flower represents the slow pathway toward moksa, ultimately leading to liberation.
You'll notice ... sometimes it'll have her with rather large breasts. And one of the reasons for that is that in the epic stories about Lakshmi, one of her practices was to collect a thousand flowers every day for Siva. Yes, Siva – not Vishnu. And in the course of doing this, one day she got ready to offer the petals and she found out that she had two less than one thousand. She only collected 998. So, she decided that she would cut her breast off – both of her breasts off – and offer her breast as two more flowers, as it were. So, she cut her first breast off and the god was so moved, realising the Siva was so moved by her obvious act of sacrifice and devotion, that he stopped her and he restored her breast into even more glorious splendour, etc, etc, etc. You often see her with enlarged breasts. I hope I'm not embarrassing you, but sometimes this iconography can be sensual.
In fact, when they had a ruling of this, like six or seven years ago in India, about they were outlawing pornography, like in the stalls and all that in this particular .. it was done state by state in India, but this particular region was discussing it and they passed a law in this state legislature against pornography, but, as a rider to the thing, they had to exempt all Hindu temples – which says a lot about the nature of a Hindu temple because there's so much po... I mean, essentially it's not pornography maybe the way we would think of it in terms of like high gloss, whatever. But there's so much of sexual imagery that is in the iconography – not the ones that we're showing you. But I'm saying a lot of the lesser gods and goddesses that are outside this kind of major 12 can be extremely erotic. That comes up.
The lotus, the owl, the coins – those are the main things to note. OK.
Krishna is the eighth avatar of Vishnu. Major figure in the Mahabharata, the other great ... There's two great epics in Indian history. We'll look at both of these. Ramayana means the epic of Rama. The Mahabharata is the great – maha means great – bharat is the word for India. This is the great story of India.
And it's in the Mahabharata that Krishna plays a major role. He appears as the prince of a particular tribe and he's the friend and counsellor of the princes of another tribe. And one of the great climaxes of the Mahabharata is the particular poetical section of the Bhagavad-Gita, the song. It's the longest poem in the world. We'll look at it in more detail.
But in that poem, Krishna comes down and counsels Arjuna and in the process you have all the epic literature that comes out which creates again new philosophical possibilities in the Bhagavad-Gita. Based on the Gita, the modern day ISKCON. I hope we have time in this class to look at ISKCON – the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The ISKCON people believe that Krishna is the personal name for Brahman – ??? nirguna Brahman. They don't accept this nirguna conception. They believe that Krishna is the highest, highest expression of god at the highest level. So, it kind of shakes up the apple cart ??? in a lot of things. We'll have to come to that more later.
But, there's two things that you will notice about Krishna. One is the flute. If you see a flute, then you know it's Krishna. So, look for the flute. The other is look for a cow. In his early life he was a cow-herder. You see him often with cows. He's the lover of cows. I would say, if it's Krishna by himself, you would look for a cow or look for a flute, because he uses the flutes in his later life to lure the gopis. The gopis are the cow-herders. These are the young girls that run the cows. If you see a figure of a god surrounded by thousands of women, that's also Krishna – Krishna surrounded by the gopis. So that's ... I'll show you one of those here in a little bit.
So I would say the cow and the flute are the main things. The blue colour is also very, very popular – maybe even just a blue throat. You'll see sometimes – that's a Krishna thing. I would say that the blue comes into a lot of the iconographies. It's particularly prominent with Krishna. So that would be a third, yet not as decisive way, of recognising it. The flute and the cow are the main things.
This is an example of Krishna and the gopis. This is a small number of gopis in this particular painting – dancing around Krishna. The peacock is the bird of India – the national bird of India – so that's kind of an Indian thing. But, I had a man who ... he's the architect for the college in India, and I go to have supper with him from time to time. He's a Hindu man, but he's a very friendly guy. We've become friends over the years. And so he invited me to his house one night. We had supper. And at the end of the night, he's … O, I want to show you this new painting that I have. I'm so excited about it. So, we go into this room of his house and there's this huge picture on the wall. And, at first, I thought it was one of those pictures of the cosmos – you know, you have like a picture of like the Milky Way galaxy or something with this big like ring around it. As I came closer I realised: No, that's not the cosmos. Those are gopis. There was like thousands and thousands and thousands of women – little tiny icons of women dancing around Krishna at the centre. And it looked like the cosmos, the centre because quite amazing picture showing the transcendental and yet the very practical side of Krishna.
They have ways of creating spiritual meanings to all kinds of things. I mean, one of the things that he does with the gopis, for example, is that he steals their clothes while they're at the riverside bathing. So, they come up out of the water. Their clothes are gone. So he ... I think I've told you this story. And so he made them put their hands on their head as a symbol of devotion. And, of course, they had to expose themselves to get their clothes back. O but they turned this into the highest philosophy. You know, this represents the self and how they completely gave up all clinging to the self and, you know, all this. They have all these you know ways – because Krishna was untouched by sensuality, da da da da da da. But it's very sensual in the way it's done.
But one of the gopis is of particular importance – and that is Radha. He loves Radha. This is a probably a better example of it because, even though I think this is a nice one, it's a beautiful one swinging, but you there may be things you're not sure – maybe that's Rama and Sita. You know, you may not be absolutely clear on that because I don't see a flute there. But here you have the flute and that would be a dead giveaway for the Krishna and Radha. She's always depicted with him. It's only very, very rarely you see a picture of Radha separately.
Question: Is Radha Krishna's wife or was he married to someone else?
There are multiple layers of Krishna puranic material and so there's no way ... so you have to only answer within a certain tradition. So there are certain traditions that say that he was only ever married to Radha. And there's in fact a cult of that type in India. There's other groups that have all kinds of other wives and stuff associated with Krishna.
So, the flute, the blue complexion, the gopis, or Radha, and the other way to tell is, when Krishna's not with Radha, the whole development of the Bhagavad-Gita. Because of the importance of the Gita, you'll see a number of scenes that are very much a part of the Bhagavad-Gita scene – especially something like the one on the left which shows Krishna in a transcendental form – iconography often refers to transcendental forms showing his greatness and power – and this has all kinds of gods and goddesses are all located in Krishna. The only way to know for sure that's Krishna – do you know how to know? It's this. Because that could be other puranic ... because they all believe their gods are transcendental – but this is a particular part of the Bhagavad-Gita. So, I think I would recognise it even without it because of the way this is done. It's certain ways it's done and I think, for your purposes, probably the best way to recognise it is the chariot, because in the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna comes down – this is Krishna here – and counsels with Arjuna. And whenever you see two people in a chariot, it's always Krishna and Arjuna – virtually always. So therefore at one point he shows him his transcendental form and Arjuna is worshipping the form.
So there are many iconographies of Krishna that are part of the Bhagavad-Gita that will not include a flute, for example. There will never be a flute in this kind of picture. So, you have to be able to think about kind of the early part of Krishna's life with the flute and the gopis and all that. You see the cows and the flutes. In the later part of his life, you'll either see a chariot or a conch shell. The conch shell is really important because you have one here. I don't see that he has a conch shell here, unless there's one in his hand. I can't tell. Maybe there ... he may just be showing them. But you'll see in the other icons ... Yeah, here's a conch shell. That definitely tells you it's Krishna. The blue form, the conch shell. You have Krishna giving advice to Arjuna in the chariot. There's no question this is those two. It would give you a clear giveaway. I mean, this not only you know it's Krishna because of the chariot, two figures. Which one's Krishna? The blue one. Who is that?
Arjuna. I told you sometimes you'll see Arjuna with arrows. OK, that's why I mentioned that before. Arjuna, because he's a warrior, so he may have arrows. But don't get fooled by that obviously. He's not a god. You can tell that by looking at he only has two arms. This is just a picture I got off the internet, but there's no question ... It's not only the Bhagavad-Gita, it's a particular in the Gita. This is the point where Krishna tells him to kill his relatives and he's in all this sorrow about it. Well, how should I kill them? Why should I kill them? Etc, etc, etc. So, that tells you that it is Krishna.
Here you have the transcendental forms – another very different kind of picture – but here is Krishna in the chariot. Here's Arjuna worshipping the transcendental form of Krishna. So you know that's Krishna. This is actually toward the end of the Gita, when he does decide to fight. He's pulling for his arrow. Krishna's guiding the chariot. Again, the chariot thing is always a dead giveaway. You're talking about the Bhagavad-Gita.
This one I wanted to show you as well. The child. Now, this is really getting to the popular level. The baby Krishna. And there's a dead giveaway that it is ... I talked about this in my book. I think I do, in passing. But it's a marvellous little story about him as the butter-thief. Krishna is the butter-thief. Anytime you see a small child with his hand in the butter, you know it's Krishna. And this is put on in popular plays in every village in India. Every Indian knows that Krishna is the butter-thief. In fact, you will sometimes see him with it smeared all over his face – because he gets in hand the butter gets on his face. OK, so Krishna comes in. He's this very mischievous little fellow and he steals butter from his mother's kitchen. And they ohhh they turn this into all kinds of meanings and transcendental meanings. And there's this one part of the play where Krishna comes out onto the stage and Krishna will look very like this to the crowd. And, of course, it's done in many different ways, but this is one way it's done. And Krishna will say to the crowd ... and this is like this is the end of the whole play. I'd rather be known as the butter-thief than as Brahman. And that's the end. I mean, this is a really powerful stuff. This is a major, popular critique on the whole Brahminical thing. I'd rather be known as the butter-thief than as Brahman. It's just really powerful – I know you have to be there to appreciate it.
Anyway, so if you see a child god, blue child, especially with a hand in butter – it's no question Krishna. Or a child, you know, playing the flute. A child surrounded by little cows. Child leading cows. All those little children, if it's associated with a cow, the flute or the butter is almost certainly Krishna. OK, I'm afraid we'll have to stop and we'll have to move to the Shaivites next time.