Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 4:26 AM
To ordinary mortals the Nirguna Brahman (without form or attributes) is impersonal and hard to comprehend. Therefore, in relation to the world and to make the Universal Spirit easily understandable, we have the Saguna Brahman, or the Brahman with form and attributes who is known as the One Great God or Ishwara. To those less developed spiritually and to the average man and woman, the concept of God has to be one with a form, a sort of Superior Being in human form on whom one can fix one's mind, especially during prayer.
The three main functions of God-head, Creation, Preservation and Destruction, are further simplified by the One Great God, Ishwara, being called Brahma, when He takes over the Creation of the Universe, Vishnu, when He assumes the role of the Preserver, and Shiva, when He is the Destroyer.
A high degree of symbolism has been evolved to explain the attributes and qualities of God-head to the masses.
Different iconographical features are depicted for the different deities at different times, depending on the roles they perform. In one temple Vishnu may be shown in a peaceful form and in another in a role destroying evil. The weapons he holds could differ in these two forms. However a few of the major depictions are given below.
Brahma the Creator, for example, is shown with four heads facing all four directions symbolizing that he has created the entire Universe. The fact that, after each Kalpa (or age), he meditates and recreates the Universe we live in is symbolised by the Vedas he holds in his hand which guide him, and the kamandalu or vessel which is used in the ritual of prayer prior to tapasya (meditation and penance), after which he creates the Universe. He sits on a lotus which is a symbol of purity, as the lotus usually grows in muddy waters but is untouched by the dirt and mire from which it emerges. So also the true Yogi (one who practices Yoga and is an evolved being), should be unaffected by the world around him. To emphasise the closeness of Creation and Preservation, Brahma is shown emerging from the navel of Vishnu, the Preserver.
The feminine aspect of the Creator is personified in the beautiful form of Saraswati, the consort of Brahma, who is the embodiment of learning and wisdom. In her hand she holds the vina, symbolic of R'ta, the order in the Cosmic Universe and of Nada-Brahman, the music or rhythm of the Universe. It is out of the sound of OM that the Universe was created. The hum or Nada, or the Inner Sound, the Music of the Cosmos, is also called the Music of the Spheres.
The beads in her fingers bring out the importance of prayer and meditation, and the palm leaf scrolls she holds represent learning and wisdom without which man is nothing. Her saree, always white, reminds us that all knowledge of value should be pristine pure and unsullied by untruth. She sits either on the pure lotus or on the peacock, in the latter case to remind us that the ego (symbolised by the peacock) is to be suppressed. The graceful swan is also her vehicle, to remind us to separate the chaff from the grain of true knowledge, just as the swan removes the water from milk before consuming the latter.
Vishnu is represented as lying on the many-headed cobra, Ananta, in the ocean of milk. Ananta denotes cosmic energy and the ocean symbolises ananda or the endless bliss and grace of the Brahman. Vishnu is given the colour blue to symbolize Infinity, as he is as limitless as the blue sky. He holds the chakra or discus in one hand denoting that he maintains Dharma (righteousness) and order in the Universe. The shankha or conch that he holds in the other hand is for the removal of ignorance and is also symbolic of Nada-Brahman or the Music of the Cosmos, as the conch when placed to the ear has a deep humming sound. The gada or mace is for removing the evil in the world and the lotus is the symbol of the beauty and purity of the Cosmic Universe. The vehicle of Vishnu is Garuda, the man-eagle, a figure of great strength, power and piety.
The feminine aspect of the Preserver is Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu. The grace of God is personified in her as one who brings prosperity. One hand she holds in the abhaya mudra (with the hand held open with the palm facing the devotee and the fingers facing upwards) which says "Do not fear" and the other in the varada mudra (with the hand with the palm facing the devotee but with the fingers facing downwards) symbolic of the prosperity and grace she gives to the human race. She sits on the lotus and holds lotus flowers in her hand emphasizing the importance of pure living without which her grace and giving are meaningless and prosperity but an empty shell.
Bhoo Devi, or Mother Earth, is depicted as the second consort of Vishnu.
Shiva, the Destroyer of the Universe, is often shown as Nataraja, the King of Dancers, his dance depicting Cosmic Energy. He dances on the demon, Apasmara Purusha, who represents our egos. Only by destroying one's ego can one attain God-head. In one hand Shiva holds a deer which denotes man's unsteady mind which darts hither and thither like the deer but has to be brought under control. In another he holds a rattle-drum, the symbol of creative activity, and in the third, the fire, the symbol of destruction. His fourth hand in the abhaya mudra says, 'Do not fear. I shall protect as I destroy'. The circle of fire behind him symbolises the continuity and eternal motion of the Universe through the paths of Creation, Preservation and Destruction. The river goddess Ganga, on Shiva's head, denotes eternity and purity, and the crescent moon reminds us of the waxing and waning of the Moon and the movement of Time. The cobra coiling around him is, again, the symbol of Cosmic Energy. Shiva's garland of skulls reminds man that death comes to all and his third eye depicts that God is all-seeing and wise. Placed in the centre of the forehead on which the Yogi concentrates while in meditation, this spot is symbolic as the seat of wisdom. Shiva opens his third eye to destroy evil.
On the right ear Shiva wears a kundala (a jewel worn by men) and on his left ear a tatanka (ear ornament worn by women). This is to tell us that he is Ardhanarishwara, half-man and half-woman (as Parvati, his consort, is part of Shiva himself), symbolizing the ideal union of man and woman. As fire and heat are inseparable, so are Shiva and Parvati one, and purusha (the spirit) and prakriti (matter) are combined in them.
The ashes worn by Shiva tell us that the body is transient and ends in ashes. The tiger-skin that he wears around his waist is the ahamkara or arrogant pride which, like the tiger, springs out of us and has to be suppressed. Shiva not only destroys the Universe but is also the destroyer of man's illusions, and the cycle of birth and death which binds us to this world.
Soon after the creation of this world, Shiva is believed to have appeared in the form of a pillar of fire, reaching into space at one end and into the bowels of the earth at the other, and neither Brahma nor Vishnu was able to trace the beginning or end of this supernatural manifestation. Therefore Shiva is symbolised as a Linga or Lingam (meaning a symbol) representing this endless pillar of cosmic power and light.
He is also worshipped as Lingodbhavamurti, in which the figure of Shiva emerges out of the pillar of fire, with Brahma and Vishnu standing on either side.
In all Shiva temples, his vehicle, Nandi the bull, faces the figure of Shiva symbolizing the soul of man, the Jiva, yearning for Paramatma, the Great Soul (God).
Cosmic Energy in its dynamic form is symbolised for us ordinary mortals in the form of Shakti, the World Mother, who is the power and energy by which the Great God creates, preserves and destroys the world. She is shown in many forms. As Uma or Parvati, she is the gentle consort of Shiva. As Kamakshi or Rajarajeshwari, she is the Great Mother. In one hand she holds a noose, signifying worldly attachments from which we should free ourselves. The hook in her other hand is indicative of her prodding us on to the path of righteousness. The sugarcane plant she carries is a symbol of the sweetness of the Mind. The arrows she holds in one hand are our five sense-perceptions which we have to conquer. In the form of Durga she rides the tiger, the ego and arrogance that Man has to subdue. With the weapons in her hand she fights the eight evils (hate, greed, passion, vanity, contempt of others, envy, jealousy and the illusions with which man binds himself). In her angry form she is known as Kali, the personification of Time. In this frightening form she destroys Mahishasura (the demon buffalo) who is the symbol of ignorance which is man's greatest enemy. Her arms and weapons are constantly flaying and fighting evil in all forms. The skulls she wears tell you that Man is mortal. Her dark form is symbolic of the future which is beyond our knowledge, and as Kali she tells you that Time (Kala) is immutable and all-powerful in the Universe.
Ganesha, also known as Ganapati or Vinayaka, is the son of Shiva and Parvati and is the first deity to be worshipped during any ritual, as he is considered the remover of obstacles. His huge body represents the Cosmos or Universe and his trunk the Pranava or OM, the symbol of the Brahman. His elephant's head denotes superior intelligence and the snake around his waist represents cosmic energy. The noose is to remind us that wordly attachments are a noose and the hook in his hand is to prod Man on to the path of righteousness. The rosary beads are for the pursuit of prayer and the broken tusk is symbolic of knowledge as it is with this tusk that he is believed to have acted as the scribe who wrote down the Mahabharata as dictated by Sage Vyasa. The modaka or sweet in his hand is to remind us of the sweetness of one's inner self.
The physical form of Ganesha is corpulent and awkward to teach us that beauty of the outward form has no connection with inner beauty or spiritual perfection. Ganesha, on his vehicle, the mouse, symbolises the equal importance of the biggest and the smallest of creatures to the Great God.
The other son of Shiva, Kartikeya, is also known as Kumara, Skanda, Subramanya, Shanmukha or Muruga (the last name used in Tamil Nadu). As Kartikeya he is designated the deity of war, guarding right and destroying evil. As Shanmukha, the six-headed, he teaches that we have five senses and the mind, and only when all six are in harmony is there spiritual growth. As Subramanya, he has two consorts, Valli and Devasena, who embody Jnana Shakti, the power of knowledge and Kriya Shakti, the power of action. He rides the peacock, reminding us not to let pride and egotism get the better of us. In his hand he holds the vel or sharp spear, symbolizing the developed sharp intellect, and with it he guards the spiritual progress of the world.
Most visitors to our country wonder why gods and goddesses of the Hindu Pantheon are shown with several arms, and sometimes with several faces. The main reason is to show them to be supernatural, just as in some religions angels are shown to have wings. We are aware that the Supreme Brahman is formless. It is Man, in the primitive stages of society, who has given the Great Spirit understandable human forms of His power and His attributes, to teach the ordinary people of His greatness, His omniscience and His omnipotence.
Also, one must realise that Hinduism adopted and assimilated the religious beliefs of all the primitive tribes and peoples with whom the early Hindus came into contact. Its tolerance of all religions is unique as it did not destroy the beliefs of the peoples the ancient Hindus conquered but absorbed them. Every religion which Hinduism absorbed had its own gods and beliefs (some even had totems), and every race its own rituals and rites. Hinduism assimilated them all, never destroying the beliefs in the gods or the totems of any of the tribes and peoples whom the early Hindus conquered. It is one of the greatest miracles of the spiritual world that Hinduism gathered so many, many different religions in its fold, and brought thousands of differing religious beliefs under the umbrella of Vedic Hinduism, with the Upanishadic aphorism, Ekam Sat viprah bahudha vadanti' (the Great God is One, and the learned only call Him by different names).
By the time Adi Shankara, the great Indian philosopher, arrived on the scene, there were thousands of gods and goddesses of the various races and tribes and innumerable and confusing rituals being performed by Hindus.
Born in Kalady in Kerala in the 8th century, Shankara was the greatest exponent of the Advaita philosophy (according to which God is within Man, and the Atma, the individual soul and the Brahman, the Universal Soul are one and not two). He refuted the Buddhist teaching that the world is totally unreal and said that the objective world does exist in relation to the ordinary mind but is not the Ultimate Reality. In relation to the latter, however, it is an illusion.
Travelling by foot several times to all corners of this vast land, in his short span of life of 32 years he established the earliest Hindu monastic order with Matams or Ashrams in the south, west, north and east of this country. (Even today we have Matams of this order at Sringeri and Kanchi in the south, Dwarka in the west, Badri in the Himalayas, and Puri in the east.) Each Matam was placed under an Acharya or teacher, called a Shankaracharya during his tenure, who propagated Advaita or the philosophy of Monism.
As a religious reformer in a period of spiritual crisis, as existed then (and exists now), he taught that vijnana (intuition), vichara (enquiry), and anubhava (experience), each have their place in spiritual experience but it is essential for knowledge to be acquired by personal investigation and one's own experience alone, as even the Vedas, he said, only reveal, they do not command. He postulated that all paths to God are ancillary to Jnana Marga or the path of knowledge.
He was one of the great mystical seers who, with their intuitory knowledge, anticipated many of today's scientific theories on primal energy (Shakti), the atom (Anu), vibrations of the Universe (Shabda Brahmam), and the physical and psychic world around us.
He also wrote commentaries on Vedanta, the Gita and the Upanishads, and gave new dimensions to devotional literature by including in it mysticism clothed in exquisite poetry.
Never forgetting the needs of the untutored devout of heart, he established new systems of worship for their guidance. He codified popular Hinduism and grouped all the gods and goddesses under six main streams of worship.
They are Shaiva (worship of Shiva), Vaishnava (worship of Vishnu), Shakta (worship of Shakti, the Mother Goddess), Saura (worship of Surya, the Sun God), Ganapatya (worship of Ganesha or Ganapati), and Kaumara (worship of Kumara, also known as Muruga or Subramanya). He taught that these six Bhakti-darshanas or paths of prayer are not in conflict but are for the choice of the worshipper striving to reach God.
Adi Shankara is therefore called the `Shanmata-sthhapana Acharya', the teacher who established the six-fold form of worship and taught that worship of any one of the deities was as good as worship of the other, reaching towards a common goal. He did not destroy any existing beliefs but brought order into the Hindu fold in a form which did not exist earlier. Many Hindu communities which had given up the path of Hindu beliefs came back to it, attracted by Shankara's intellectual approach to popular religion.
From this it must not be presumed that the aim of the Hindu is only to worship one of these six deities. Such worship is only the means to an end. The ultimate goal is for the individual soul in each one of us, known as the Atma, to attain the Brahman or the Universal Soul.
Writer Name:- Shakunthala Jagannathan