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Three Hindu gods

The Hindu preserver

Stele with a standing figure of Vishnu, 12th century, from Bengal, eastern India, Pala dynasty, 162.56 cm, © Trustees of the British Museum
Stele with a standing figure of Vishnu, 12th century, Pala dynasty, 162.56 cm, Bengal, eastern India © Trustees of the British Museum
Vishnu is one of the most popular gods of the Hindu pantheon. His portrayal here is standard: a royal figure standing tall, crowned and bejeweled, in keeping with his role as king and preserver of order within the universe. He carries a gada (mace) and chakra (disc) in his hands. The other two hands, which would have held a lotus and conch, are broken. On his forehead he wears a vertical mark or tilak, commonly worn by followers of Vishnu. In keeping with his iconography as the divine king, he is heavily bejeweled, wears a sacred thread that runs over his left shoulder and a long garland that comes down to his knees.
He stands flanked by two attendants, who may be his consorts Bhu and Shri, on a double lotus. The stele has a triangular top unlike earlier examples which were usually in the shape of a gently lobed arch. On either side of his crown are celestial garland bearers and musicians, the Vidyadharas and Kinnaras. A kirtimukha, or auspicious face of glory, is carved on the top centre of the arch.
The sculpture is typical of workmanship of the Pala dynasty of twelfth-century Bengal. The heart-shaped face with stylized arched eyebrows, long eyes that are slightly upturned at the ends, the broad nose, and the pursed smile are all characteristic.

A temple image of the Divine Couple: Shiva and Parvati

Bronze figures of Shiva and Parvati, early 11th century, bronze, from western Deccan, India, 67cm high, © Trustees of the British Museum
Bronze figures of Shiva and Parvati, early 11th century, bronze, 67cm high, western Deccan, India © Trustees of the British Museum
Shiva is a powerful Hindu deity. He has a female consort, like most of the gods, one of whose names is Parvati, "the daughter of the mountain." Shiva and Parvati may appear as a loving couple sitting together in a form called Umamaheshvara. In this example two separate bronze images have been designed as a group. Both Shiva and Parvati wear elaborate jewelry. Shiva is the more powerful deity and so he is depicted with four arms and is the taller figure. In his hands he holds his weapon, the trident, a small deer and a fruit. His fourth hand is raised in reassurance (abhayamudra). Like other images of Shiva he wears two different earrings. Parvati holds a lotus in one hand and a round fruit in the other.
Bronze-casting in the eleventh century was highly developed in Tamil Nadu in the far south of India. However, these two bronzes are unusually large for the Deccan in the same period.
The erect frontal pose of these two figures contrasts with the relaxed, naturalistic posture of many images from Tamil Nadu of the Chola period.

The Hindu creator god

Stone figure of Brahma, Chola dynasty, c. 1110-1150, from Tamil Nadu, southern India, 131 cm high, © Trustees of the British Museum
Stone figure of Brahma, c. 1110-1150, Chola dynasty, 131 cm high, from Tamil Nadu, southern India © Trustees of the British Museum
It is often said that there is a trinity of Hindu gods: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. But while Vishnu and Shiva have followers and temples all over India, Brahma is not worshiped as a major deity. Brahma is the personified form of an indefinable and unknowable divine principle called by Hindus brahman. In the myth of Shiva as Lingodbhava, when Brahma searches for the top of the linga of fire, Brahma falsely claimed that he had found flowers on its summit, when in fact the Shiva linga was without end. For this lie he was punished by having no devotees. There are very few temples dedicated to Brahma alone in India. The only one of renown is at Pushkar, in Rajasthan.
Brahma can be recognized by his four heads, only three of which are visible in this sculpture. In two of his four hands he holds a water pot and a rosary. Brahma originally had five heads but Shiva, in a fit of rage, cut one off. Shiva as Bhairava is depicted as a wandering ascetic with Brahma's fifth head stuck to his hand as a reminder of his crime. Brahma is commonly placed in a niche on the north side of Shaiva temples in Tamil Nadu together with sculptures of Dakshinamurti and Lingodbhava.

Suggested readings:
T. R. Blurton, Hindu art (London, The British Museum Press, 1992).
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© Trustees of the British Museum

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  • blobby green style avatar for user nalini
    In describing brahma you make reference to one thing which I do not understand and need explanation is 'the top of the Linga fire'
    Otherwise what is a complex topic, it has been written very short and clear.
    (6 votes)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Arjun Chaudhuri
    Any questions you can ask me. I've read the mahabharata and ramayana about three times each
    (4 votes)
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  • piceratops seed style avatar for user 1591nyc
    I'm 88 and find this a treasure...It is slow learning for me because I'm also hard of hearing....Any learned information is valued...Thank you, Do any of the lessons have subtitles?
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user drszucker
      I am delighted that the content is helpful. Most of the videos do have subtitles but some are not very accurate. Hopefully they will be fixed soon. To see the subtitles, click the small gear to the lower right of the video. Then check the box that says subtitles.
      (3 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user James Harry
    Are these the three main Hindu gods? I know there are many others that are worshipped, for example Mother Lakshmi. Where do the other gods fall under these three?
    (1 vote)
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  • marcimus pink style avatar for user yourbeth
    What do the 5 heads of Brahma represent? Do they mean faces? On the statue it looks like one head with multiple faces.
    (2 votes)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Arjun Chaudhuri
    Incidentally in more popular texts Shiva s described with only 2 arms
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Shriya
    what is the linga of fire??
    (1 vote)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Crystalline Alicorn
    What are the white lines surrounding the first deity statue?
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user visethsorng
    What is the meaning of each material held by four arms of Lord Vishnu?
    Thanks
    (1 vote)
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  • starky sapling style avatar for user Joseph Macias
    It is often said that there is a trinity of Hindu gods: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. But while Vishnu and Shiva have followers and temples all over India, Brahma is not worshiped as a major deity. Brahma is the personified form of an indefinable and unknowable divine principle called by Hindus brahman. In the myth of Shiva as Lingodbhava, when Brahma searches for the top of the linga of fire, Brahma falsely claimed that he had found flowers on its summit, when in fact the Shiva linga was without end. For this lie he was punished by having no devotees. There are very few temples dedicated to Brahma alone in India. The only one of renown is at Pushkar, in Rajasthan.
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user