The making of icons is not only intimately connected with religion, a fact that needs no emphasis , but also with philosophy, which needs to be emphasised in order to bring out the more subtler contours of the icons . Iconography is often, at one and the same time, the artistic expression . of religious fervour, as well as a search for the metaphysical ultimate .

The search began with tl1e Nasadiya in the Rgveda:

-llt1<1Efi..qt)l Glttl<l ct<l.fl’,– 1,a1~~1i~1T <Al’ll q~tlq_ I

f<b’llc{l let: ~ cf>tlt ~ 31cq: f<);”Gltil<;_lt~~-1· 11 (10. 1-7)

This beautifully poetic yearning never came to an end ; the search continued, assuming diverse metaph~ical expressions , the elusive ultimate within the search of only an intuitive experience. The experience could neither be shared nor communicated . It was bliss and nothing but bliss , beyond words, beyond form. As the devotional theism of the Bhakti schoo l gained momentum , a new pathway was thrown open for the realisation of the formless ultimate . The nirgut;a became sagu,:za, the nirakiira asslll!1ed vibrant akara . The metaphysical became transformed into the physical . The iconic expression of the metaphysical ultimate not only took diverse forms but forms which were pregnant with beautiful suggestiveness. These fantasies in stone sculpture came to personify in concrete form, the dogn1as and ten etS of the various schools of philosophy , struggling to give eA-pression to the ultimate that pervades the universe. What the words could exp ress through endless discourses appeared in visual stone medium in compact suggestion .


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Ardhanarisvara: Siva as the Androgyne

The Ardhanarisv~ra (Pl. 44 .1) image combines the physical form of a man and woman. Prima

Jacie, the image, for any lay devotee would symbolise a syncrctic representation of Siva and

Sakti. The visual i.m pact of the mighty god and his female counterpart in perfect physical

harmony , however aesthetic can also be emotionally disturbing . A symbol of perfect llll!On, the

androgyne nevertl1ele ss by its very nature is anti-erotic and barren . Thus began the attempts to

put forth acceptable reasoning for this unusual combination. Very many are the myths, the

Puranas have woven around the form of Ardhanarlsvara either justifying the syncretism as the

source of the universe as explainL<1g away its unn atural blend . Some of thern come close to

philosophic musing, others are unc onvinc ing and populist. When Brahma , tl1e cre ator forget to

create a woman , Siva came to his aid, assuming the form of an androgyne , the two halves

separating to merge in sexual union to produce all living creatures . Siva here is conceived as

the primeaval source of the universe . He is not the creator, an external manipulator, but the

very source of the creative energies , male as well as female . In yet another myth Parvati embraces

Siva to become one with him in order to disallow him to keep relation with other woman for

which she bad strong doubts . A third version has Parvati merging with Siva to force his devotee

Bluingi to offer worship to her along with Siva. These mythic explanations, how eve r popular

and imaginative, show the divinities, both Siva and Parvati, in a somew hat frivolous light , subjec t

to baser human instincts . The lack of concordance among the Puranas makes the wh ole exercise

somewhat illogical and artificial, and, unacceptable .

Ardhanarisvara images make their <f:ebut from the second century AD onwards . The earliest

known images belong to the Kushana school at Matbura . The chronological sequence predates

the puranic myths which are tame attempts at exploring the mystery of the image, superficially

explanatory but not able to reach out the inner depths of the icon . The chronological origins

of t11:eim age are also a strong pointer to the true source of inspiration, the eternal duality of the

ultimate principle, the Purusba and the Prakrlti of the Samkhyas. Proje cting Prakrlti as the

matter that gives shape and form to the universe, the Samkhyas believed her to be active but

unconscious . The volity of the universe was the Prakrlti’s endless game , her gu,:za.s interacting

but not consciously. The conscious knower was the Purusba , who despite his consciousness

was inactive, uninclined to involve himself in the universal functioning , unless drawn into the

unconscious activity of the matter , of Prakriti, which he etemalJy is . T. he distancing of the

Purusba from Prakrltt , the unconscious matter , was for the Samkhyas the final liberation, the

everlasting bliss of unfettered consciousness. The Samkhya doctrine came to be epitomised in

the Samkhya Karlkas of Kapila around the second century AD, but was only the final blossoming

forth of a long process of metaphysical enquiring going back to the pre Buddhist phase of

intellectual ferment . The Samkhya influence went deep permeating the Mahabharata and the

Bbagwad Gita . The Samkhya Jfiana, the Samkhya path of knowledge forming the foundation

for the edifice of Bhakti. The devotional current, however, transformed the inar.tive Purusba

into the active Purushottama , the Isvara who knows everything , who is conscious of everything .

The Sam khya duality was no longer simply a play of the conscious and the un conscious; it was

not superimposed by a watchful , caring Isvara . The Sesvarat.a of the Samkbyas sen t vibrant

. currents of creativity into the artistic , outpourings of the early centuries AD, the Ardhanarisvara

being one of its manifestations . The two eternal existents, Purusha and the Prakrlti found an

unparalleled forμi, an imposing and aesthetic blend whose visual impact transports the devotee

into the realm of intu itive exp e rience of the primeaval forces of cre ation .

Siva as Vilakshana Sadasiva

This type of image ls known only from three images . The first two occur at Khajuraho ; (Pl. 44 .2)

one in situ in a niche in the north-east corner of the mabamandapa of the Khandariya Mahadeva

I a


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templ e (AD 1050) and the oth er in tl1e site museum at tl1e same plac e. A third image c?..n be

seen in the nich e of the matJ.4ovara of the Mark:andl templ e (Pl. 44 .3) in district Chandrapur ,

Maharashtra . This one , though has four legs as the oth er two from Khajuraho have, is distinct

in son1e features . Chronologically th ey are more or less of the same period , the early medieval ,

l._ l Oth11 th century AD. The two images from Khajuraho are alike, sixheaded , twelve armed , and

fourlegged . They are in the asan astba p ose, the god seated witl1 two legs dangling down from

the asana , while the other two are folded in Padmasana . TI1e heads are arranged in two tiers

of three each . and capped by a linga. All the hands in the Khajuraho images except the lower

right holding an akshamala in varadamudrii are mutilated. The pedestal has Brahma in

padmasana between the two dan gling feet of Sadisiva whil e near the asana are seen the head s

of Hamsa, Garuda and Nandi , tl1e respe ctive vabanas of Brahma , Vishnu and Siv~. A multiplicity

of heads and hands is a common devise to symbolize different aspects of a deity . The mutilated

condition of the hand s in the case of the se images, however , greatly curtail s the ·potential for a

fuller expl ar1ation . Wl1at is more striking tl1an the heads and the hands are the multipl e legs. A

fotrrlegged deity is rarely en coun tered. Moreove r, the totality of the ,nulti pron ge d physical

entity endows it with superhuman pow ers and striking pres ence. Not surprisingly, therefore,

that this Vilaksha,:za multi headed and multi limbed form superimposed on the Brahma-Vishnu Siva

triad is considered a unique icon in the annals of Indian iconography .

The uniqueness of the iconic form carries within it a multiplicity of thought providing at

one glance a terse visual formula which ·gives a mes,neric expression to the SaivaSiddhanta or

Suddha Saiva school appears anthropomorphised in the Sadasivamurtis . The Vayavrya Samhita

of the Siva Purana exposing the Saiva Siddhanta de scribe s Dharma as chaduspiida or four legged .

The four padas of Dharma , the word piida being understood in its primary and literal sense as

a foot as well at its secondary sense as support , are enum erated as jiiana (knowledge), charya

(conduct) , krlya (rites and ritual s) , and y oga (meditation) . The rites and rituals (krlya) form

the vital link that binds an individual to the social structure ; the daily conduct (cbarya) of

morality upholds the ethical base of tl1at structure; but beyond the mundane structure of social

roles and relationship s lies the true knowledge (jnana) . The knowledge of the universal function ing

of the ultimate of which the mundane world is only a s~all part ; the universal ultimate can

be experienced only through inward regression into the depths of thorough medication (yoga).

Dbarma cannot be sustained without any of the four padas . 1he society and its ethical functioning

forms the foundation on which is built the edifice of]nana and yoga . It is the philosophy

of a full life, social , moral , intellectual and spiritual . The visual language of the artist has succeeded

in personifying the four legged Dharma in all its inlposing grandeur .

. Besides its vilaksba,:ia form , the Sadasiva has a more common appearance, polycephalous ,

but only tw o-legge d , tl1e five basic elements, p rith v i, teja, vay u , apptt and aka~a of wl1icl1 the

Universe is create d , are symbolised by the five l1eads, Sadyojata, Vamad eva, Aghora, Tatpt1n1sha

and Isa.na. The omnipresence and omnipotence of the god, who can unleash forces of creation

~ well as destruction , could not have been more aptly moulded in stone .

An image , however , does not crystallise unless a need for it arises . The inscriptional evidence

sugges ts that during the I Oth11 th centurie s AD, th e Saiva Siddhantin s and the Pasupatas had a

sizable follow ing in th e Chandela regio n. Political patronage too was not altoge th er lacking.

Hen ce aro se gr.iphic formulation of the basic ten ets of tl1e Scho ol to enable the lay devotees to

establish an immediate personal rapport with the Supreme Being.


Vishnu as Vaikuntha

Visl1nu as VaUru.t:i~I1(Pa l. 44 .4) appears in the Kushana art at Mathura in the l st211dc entury AD.

Vaik~;ha imag es became very popular in the Himalayan region , Kashmir and Khajuraho durin~

the early medieval p~riod . A solitary image is met with in Maharashtra also , in the LakshmiNarayana

temple at Methi in Buldhana district . The icons are generally four l1eaded and fourarmed,

but the one from the Martand temple in Kashmir has eight arms. Of the four heads the

central and the two side ones are frontally visible, while the fourth occurs at the back . While

the cen tral one is generally a human head, the two side ones rep resen t a stylized lion and boar,

lhe f ourt.h at tl1e !)ack being often a demo11ical one or that of horse . The Vishnuaharmottara

speaks of the image as a composite icon, with differen t aspect s of th e great god Vishnu rolled

i.t1to one, tl1e four faces symbolizing bala (strength), jtiar1a , (knowledge) , aisvarya (lordship)

and sakti (power) .

Therianthromorphic figures, parti cularly with anim.al head and human torsos, are not uncommon

in Kushana art , but they are generally two-armed semi-<livine beings such as yak.shas .

The VaikuJ:i~a, however , is a multi armed divine figure with distinct Vaishnava attributes . The

asswnption of such therianthropomorphic form by Vishnu in his various incarnations is a

deve loped theoretical phenomenon of the Vaishnava cult . Vishnu appears as Matsya, Kuhna,

Varaba, Nri.simba and Hayagriva in his various avatara-descents . Making the early appea~ce

in the Mahabharata and the Ramayarra the avatara theory went through a process of gradual

evolution and expansion in the Puranas , sucking-in many a smaller cult-figures into the Vaishnava

orbit between the 1st to the 5th-6th centuries AD. The Va.i.ktu).~hias a product of the same phase,

a composite amalgam of some of the very same figures which appeared either contemporaneously

or slightly later as separate incarnated divinities . In its final evolved form, however, of the 4th

century AD onwards the Vaikw).~a came to symbolize the Bhagwata Pancharatra cult centred

around the Vrishni heroes , the intensely devotional cult that grew around the Satvatavrishni

hero . Vasudeva Krishna was at the root of the Bhakti movement of the early centuries AD. It

came to be designated as Vaishnava at a comparatively late stage of its growth; its earlier names

being Ekantika, Bhagwata , Pancharatra or Satvata. With Vasudeva as the central figure the

pantheon ca~e to include other Vrislini viras in direct blood relation to him . Together they

; formed the Paiichavrislmiviras , the five hero gods who came to form the core of the Paiicharatra

worship. Vasudeva was the Para , the supreme cause and the fmaJ resting place of everything .

His divine will (icl1cl1/1a) is profcct ed towards l1is consort ‘SriLaksh mi’ who in her duaJ aspec t

of matt er and action (bl:;uti and k1·iya) received il and, it is this close comb ination of tl1ree

powers, icchasakti, bhuti sakt i and kriyasakti which results in the creation of the six gur;as,

jfiana (knowledge), aisvarya (lordship), sakti (ability) bala (strength), virya (virility) and tejas

(sp lendour) . The totality of the gu,:ias makes up the subtle bodies of Vasudeva, Samkarshana,

Pra<lyumna and Aniruddl1a kno\\ 1n as tl1e Chaturvyi.Ihas, a concept which came to be formulated

so rnetime in tl1e second century nc. As the deification of Vasudeva and his near rel ative was at

tl1e root of his con<.:ept, the Bhakti cult centered around him was essentially monotheistic . The

four vyubas had to merge into one god, a composite four-headed divinity . The coup let incor porated

in the Nagapatri.stuti of the Bhagwata Purana demonstrates the idea of the composite

amalgam in a characteristic manner ‘Namaf? I(rlshnaya Ramaya Vasudevaputraya cha

Pradyumnaya AnirudlJaya satvatam pataye namaf? ‘. The concept of one in four described

in the cu lt treatises as cbaturoyuba of Vishnu chatunnurti is strikingly illustrated by the

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fotir-head and four armed early medieval Vishnu images known as Vaikuntha . Rather than the

plurality of separat e incarnated divinities, the Paiicharatra doctrin e and its iconic manifestation

preferred a composite amalgam of folkbeliefs at various levels, therianthromorphic demi -gods

symbo licaUy representing hero-c lan gods , tl1e blend surmoun ted by ilie god of gods, Vasudeva ,

identifi ed with Vishnu , the ultim ate sou rce of everyt hing . Vaikut;~hopasana, a composite

upasana in a si..-igle manif esta tion was tl1e easiest patl1 to salvation, to the attainment of the

ultimate , within the reach of all.

Wheth er it be the atheist Samkhyas on the path of knowl edge or the theist Saivas and

Vaishnavas , the goal of life always remained the same, liberation (moksha) from the mundane

world for an irrevocabl e mergin g into the ultimat e, be it fomtless Universal Principle or an

anthropomorphi cally conceived Isvara, the pur suit and wor ship of the formle ss, how ever, is

always difficult, be)rond the grasp of tl1e intellect , unappealing to the mind , difficult to medidate

upon cons ciously . Realising ttus the Gita says: Kleso ad!Jikatarasteshiimavyaktasakta chetasam,’

( 12 .5) and advocat es the intensely personal upasana of Krisfma-Vasudeva , the

momentum of the Bhakti cult brought the icons into the limelight . Icons were created to bestow

the formless with visual form and enable the lay devotees to transcend beyond oneself into a

state of eternally blissful salvated union with one’s god. The images are thus the ~agut;a

manifestation of the nirgutJ,a parabrabma . The path of that parabrabma led either through

the ecstasy of the up~ana of an imaged Isvara or through the intellectual metaphysical exercise

of th~ various darsanas and doctrinaire cults. As the Bhakti cult expressed its pop,llar base to

beco me a major socio-religious movement the philosophies and the doctrines had to take

reco urse to the images to express themselves in a more appealing idiom . The Ardhanarisva.ra ,

the Vilakshana Sadasiva and Vaikuntha Vishnu were the visual illuminants along the path of

liberation as conceived by the cult doctrines. The personification of the ul~ce metaphysical

reality through the images was the final achievement of artist -sculptor who followed the philosophers

and the thinkers to give ‘formto the doctrines and shape to their thoughts and to

translate their mantras into visual language . These images thus constitute the ultimate in

icon making . There could be no other higher motivation for fashioning an icon than the projection

of the Ultimate Reality (Supreme Principle) in all its ground complexity. It is the

sagu1.ia defming the nirgutJ,a. In tlle final moment of reckoning the two , sagut;a and

nirgu-r;a are not really different to put it in the word of saint Jiianesvara ‘tuja saguma

mhatJu ki nirgut;a re/SagurJ,a nirgurJP-eka Givindu re’// Oh Lord how to address you as sagurJ,a or nirgutJ,a. In fact both are ultimately the same i.e., Govinda .


1. Banerjee, J .N., Tbe Developm ent of Hindu Iconography , 1974 , New DeU1.. l

2. Bhatta charyya , Haridas (e d.), Tbe Cultural Heritage of lnd ta, 1953-58, 6 volumes, Calcutta.

3. Desai , Dcvangana , ‘Sadasiva Catuspada images of K11ajuraho, Puratan, Bhopal

4. O’ Flaherty , Wendy Donig er, ‘The !\1yths Depict ed at Elephanca in Elephanta: The Caves of Shiva , 1983 ,


5.Rao, T.A.G.1 Elements of Hindu Iconography, Madras, 1916