In this sculpture, the god Vishnu [VISH-noo], preserver and protector of the Hindu religion, stands rigid and monumental amongst the attendants and devotees that surround him. Vishnu serves as a hero figure in the Hindu tradition and is featured in many Hindu stories as the restorer of cosmic order in the face of evil or destructive forces. The god’s tall crown, jewelry, and garlands communicate his significance as the most important god and king.
This sculpture originally served as decoration for a temple and would have been one of many scenes visually illustrating the stories of the Hindu gods to worshippers. Temple niches anddoorjambs that frame temple entrances often offer a visual summary of the cults honored inside or house images of the deity to whom the temple is devoted.
Vishnu and his Attributes
Vishnu [VISH-noo], the invincible protector and preserver of the universe, serves as a hero figure who reestablishes cosmic order in many Hindu stories. He embodies the characteristics of goodness and mercy. When the balance of the universe is disturbed by evil or destructive forces, Vishnu prevails over the spiritually ignorant demons and restores dharma or moral order. Vishnu is associated with many different incarnations or avatars, whose form he assumes while restoring universal order in these stories.
Vishnu, surrounded by attendants and architectural elements, appears monumental at the center of this sculpture. A sense of balance is evoked by the placement of the six attendants flanking either side of Vishnu’s legs. The first two attendants on either side are likely personifications of the god’s attributes and hold individual objects, such as the conch shell and wheel. The second figure on the left, representing the club, appears as the only female among the attribute figures. This is in keeping with Sanskrit, which identifies the word club as a feminine noun. The two outer-most attendants that appear on either side of the four personified attributes likely represent guardians of the god. At Vishnu’s feet, the sculpture’s donor couple appears kneeling in worship of the god. These figures, along with the devotees on the pedestal near Vishnu’s lower hands, may represent the mundane or earthly realm.
Vishnu’s stance on an elevated lotus platform signifies his presence in the transcendent realm, reserved for all enlightened beings whether divine or human. Additionally, the god’s tall crown, jewelry, and garlands communicate his significance as the most important god and king. He is shown carrying three of his common attributes, objects that carry special symbolism and can be used to identify and gain insight into a figure. In his upper-left hand, Vishnu holds the wheel or discus. Originally signifying the sun wheel, this attribute represents the cycle of life and death. It is also considered a weapon. The conch shell, held in Vishnu’s lower-left hand, is used as a musical instrument, and its sound is intended to ward off demons. The clockwise spiral of the conch is symbolic of infinite space and the balance of the laws of nature. The club appears in Vishnu’s upper-right hand. This is a weapon that protects the bearer and also represents the power of natural laws and time, which destroy everything in their path. In this particular sculpture, Vishnu’s lower-right hand is rendered in a gift-bestowing gesture and holds the jewels of wisdom.
Along the borders of either side of the sculpture, auspicious rearing horned lions and mythical crocodilian animals (makara) appear. Surrounding Vishnu’s elaborate halo are Hindu gods and celestial beings in yogic poses. Perhaps the upper register of the sculpture is an abbreviated version of the heavenly realm of the gods, of which Vishnu, along with the mundane realm and transcendent realm, serves as the conqueror and protector.
Hinduism is a complex system of beliefs. It incorporates many religious texts and many local and village gods, along with the principle trinity of Brahma [BRAH-mah], Vishnu, and Shiva [SHEE-va]. Hindus believe in reincarnation, the notion that opposing forces are aspects of one eternal truth, and the practice of good deeds in hopes of being reborn into a higher caste. Through trade and cultural connections, Hinduism became a major influence on many cultures throughout Asia, such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
The conventional triad of Hindu deities includes Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. In principle, these gods are equal in power and influence, representing three aspects (creation, preservation and destruction) of One Divine Power.
In the Hindu creation story, Brahma was responsible for all of creation. Hindu cosmology records the time of creation in terms of the days and years of the life of Brahma. His four heads symbolize the four Vedas [VAY-duhs], Hindu’s oldest scriptures, and the goose or geese he often rides represent knowledge. These themes add to the perception of his role as counselor and teacher of the gods. However, he has lost popularity in the modern era and is rarely worshiped by Hindus today. Instead, Devi, a figure who embodies all Hindu goddesses, has become the third most popular figure in the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses. Devi is short for Sri Devi, which means “the great goddess”.
Shiva, the god of life, death, and rebirth in the Hindu tradition, embodies seemingly contradictory gentle and wild natures, making him an intimidating figure. Shiva can destroy or break down everything, thus releasing the energy necessary for new growth and recreation of the world. Shiva plays many roles, including lover of the goddess Parvati [PAHR-vah-tee], ascetic yogi, creator, and destroyer. In Hindu works of art, Shiva often appears in one of several manifestations that highlight the various aspects of his character.
Dharma is the natural and moral balance of the universe, and is what Vishnu, in all his incarnations, seeks to restore when the world is disturbed by evil forces.
Dharma is commonly translated into English as “divine law” and is a force that upholds and supports Hindu principles. Consequently, for many practicing Hindus, dharma refers to one’s social and religious duties as defined by divine law. An individual’s dharma or duties are based both on their stage in life and caste (static social classes said to be predetermined by the good or bad karma of past lives). The caste system includes brahmins (priests), kshatriyas (warriors), vaishyas (merchants), shudras (laborers), and untouchables.
Due to the pervasiveness of Hinduism in Indian culture, Indian art which primarily consists of religious art remains a living tradition that has survived without significant interruption over several millennia.
The early inhabitants of India were farmers and herders who practiced religious cults focused on the fertility of nature. When the Aryans arrived in the region around 1500 BC, these indigenous traditions were combined with the Indo-European cults of the Aryans to create Hinduism. Then, in the sixth century BC, the Buddhist religion, grounded in Hindu roots, developed and spread. During this same time, the Jain religion also grew out of Hinduism, establishing the third major world religion to originate in India.
Temple Art and Architecture
After the establishment of the Gupta kingdom in India during the fourth century A.D., Hindu art began to flourish. The first Hindu temples were constructed and modeled after earlier Buddhist monuments. Hindu temples are designed to represent a diagram of the universe. Temples take on the form of a three-dimensional mandala, a sacred diagram that is oriented to the cardinal directions and contains patterns and images intended to aid viewers along the path to understanding and enlightenment.
Many stone sculptures were created to decorate the exterior and interior walls of these temples. Sculptures decorating the temple serve the dual purpose of familiarizing worshipers with the appearance and stories of Hinduism’s pantheon of gods and goddesses and welcoming the worshiper into the temple. For example, many doorjambs that frame the entrance to a temple offer a visual summary of the cults honored inside, and temple niches often house images of the Hindu deity to whom the temple is devoted.
Hindus believe that the spirit of the deity represented can enter sculptures to receive prayers and offerings. These sculptures preside over a variety of religious events in the temple and are circumambulated, or moved around, by worshipers who bestow offerings of food and incense. Though most Hindu objects in museums today appear unpainted, they would have originally been painted using a polychrome, or multiple-color, technique.
1. Think about the composition of this sculpture, placement of the various figures, and their size. What do these things communicate to us about the figures appearing in this sculpture and their potential roles? Discuss the role of an attendant versus that of a god.
2. What adjectives would you use to describe the central figure?
3. We know that this sculpture represents the Hindu god Vishnu. How are gods and goddesses or other divine beings represented in other works of art you have seen?
4. Vishnu is the protector god in Hindu religion and serves as a hero in many Hindu stories. What is the importance of mythology and storytelling in various religions?
5. We know that this sculpture would have been one of many pieces used to decorate a Hindu temple. How are the sacred or gathering spaces of other religions decorated? What is the potential purpose of these decorations?
Vishnu, the Buddha Sakyamuni, and Jesus Christ represent key figures in three of the world’s largest religions. Write a short essay comparing and contrasting their representations in the three DMA objects Vishnu as Varaha, Buddha Sakyamuni,
and Ecce Homo.
Pay special attention to how the figures are presented compositionally and spatially, the materials used, their scale, etc.
Consider how Vishnu’s portrayal differs between his representation in Vishnu as Varaha
and Vishnu and Attendants.
Compare and contrast the two sculptures focusing on the main figure, materials used, and attributes shown. Encourage students to assume the pose of each figure and describe how they feel similar or different.
3. Research another work of art in the DMA collection that features a religious figure. Write a short essay or use a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting this object with Vishnu and Attendants.
4. Hindu texts and the stories of the gods serve as sources for both sculptors and dancers. Read one of the Hindu stories that feature Vishnu as a hero figure. How do the details in the story create Vishnu’s persona as protector? Translate the story into visual art and movement.
o Draw an image of Vishnu as he is described in the story.
o Choreograph a series of movements for Vishnu as he is described in the story.
Compare and contrast the drawing and the dance, which were created from the same story. Then, consider how the description in the story, your drawing of Vishnu, and your dance compare to the representation of him in Vishnu and Attendants?
5. In groups, research a particular religious or sacred structure from the list provided. Create a presentation with images that presents how artistic elements such as painting, sculpture, inlay, etc. were used to decorate the space. Discuss the effect of these decorations. Potential structures: Notre Dame, Hagia Sophia, Temple of Heaven, Angkor Wat, Dome of the Rock.
|Watch a dancer perform the incarnations of Vishnu.|
Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas, 1997. Page 53.
Desai, Vishakha and Darielle Mason, eds. Gods, Guardians, and Lovers: Temple Sculptures from North India, A.D. 700 – 1200. New York: Asia Society Galleries, in association with Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, 1993. NB1912.H55G63 1993
Guy, John. Indian Temple Sculpture. London: V&A Publications, 2007. NA6001 .G89 2007
Jansen, Eva R. The Book of Hindu Imagery: The Gods and Their Symbols. Diever, Holland: Binkey Kok Publications, 1993. BL1215.S9J3613 1993
Books for Students:
Chatterjee, Manini. Roy, Anita. Eyewitness Books – India. New York: DK Publishing, 2002.
Jain, Divya. Incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Unicorn Books, 2010.
Rosinsky, Natalie M. World Religions: Hinduism. Compass Point Books, 2005.
Streissguth, Tom. A Ticket to India. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1999.
Learn the basic concepts and gods in the Hindu religion.
This web site provides a summary and timeline of South Asian Culture through art.
Access tips for recognizing Hindu and Buddhist gods.
Secondary level lesson plans focused on reflection and comparison of world belief systems.
Explore religion and philosophy in the contemporary world through photos, articles, and video.
Access a pdf document full of teaching ideas for understanding South Asian Hindu and Buddhist art.
Access rich educational materials focused on the Art of South and Southeast Asia.
This website provides a summary and timeline of South Asian Culture through art.
Explore five facts helpful to teaching about Indian Art.
Concise and comparative presentations of world religions with connections to works of art.
This web site provides a rich, multimedia exploration of India through photos, commentary, and educational resources.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”