According to the Hindu view, there are four goals of life on earth, and each human being should aspire to all four. Everyone should aim for dharma, or righteous living; artha, or wealth acquired through the pursuit of a profession; kama, or human and sexual love; and, finally, moksha, or spiritual salvation.
This holistic view is reflected as well as in the artistic production of India. Although a Hindu temple is dedicated to the glory of a deity and is aimed at helping the devotee toward moksha, its walls might justifiably contain sculptures that reflect the other three goals of life. It is in such a context that we may best understand the many sensuous and apparently secular themes that decorate the walls of Indian temples.
Hinduism is a religion that had no single founder, no single spokesman, no single prophet. Its origins are mixed and complex. One strand can be traced back to the sacred Sanskrit literature of the Aryans, the Vedas, which consist of hymns in praise of deities who were often personifications of the natural elements. Another strand drew on the beliefs prevalent among groups of indigenous peoples, especially the faith in the power of the mother goddess and in the efficacy of fertility symbols. Hinduism, in the form comparable to its present-day expression, emerged at about the start of the Christian era, with an emphasis on the supremacy of the god Vishnu, the god Shiva, and the goddess Shakti (literally, “Power”).
The pluralism evident in Hinduism, as well as its acceptance of the existence of several deities, is often puzzling to non-Hindus. Hindus suggest that one may view the Infinite as a diamond of innumerable facets. One or another facet—be it Rama, Krishna, or Ganesha—may beckon an individual believer with irresistible magnetism. By acknowledging the power of an individual facet and worshipping it, the believer does not thereby deny the existence of many aspects of the Infinite and of varied paths toward the ultimate goal.
Deities are frequently portrayed with multiple arms, especially when they are engaged in combative acts of cosmic consequence that involve destroying powerful forces of evil. The multiplicity of arms emphasizes the immense power of the deity and his or her ability to perform several feats at the same time. The Indian artist found this a simple and an effective means of expressing the omnipresence and omnipotence of a deity. Demons are frequently portrayed with multiple heads to indicate their superhuman power. The occasional depiction of a deity with more than one head is generally motivated by the desire to portray varying aspects of the character of that deity. Thus, when the god Shiva is portrayed with a triple head, the central face indicates his essential character and the flanking faces depict his fierce and blissful aspects.
The Hindu Temple
Architecture and sculpture are inextricably linked in India. Thus, if one speaks of Indian architecture without taking note of the lavish sculptured decoration with which monuments are covered, a partial and distorted picture is presented. In the Hindu temple, large niches in the three exterior walls of the sanctum house sculpted images that portray various aspects of the deity enshrined within. The sanctum image expresses the essence of the deity. For instance, the niches of a temple dedicated to a Vishnu may portray his incarnations; those of a temple to Shiva, his various combative feats; and those of a temple to the Great Goddess, her battles with various demons. Regional variations exist, too; in the eastern state of Odisha, for example, the niches of a temple to Shiva customarily contain images of his family—his consort, Parvati, and their sons, Ganesha, the god of overcoming obstacles, and warlike Skanda.
The exterior of the halls and porch are also covered with figural sculpture. A series of niches highlight events from the mythology of the enshrined deity, and frequently a place is set aside for a variety of other gods. In addition, temple walls feature repeated banks of scroll-like foliage, images of women, and loving couples known as mithunas. Signifying growth, abundance, and prosperity, they were considered auspicious motifs.
Dehejia, Vidya. “Hinduism and Hindu Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hind/hd_hind.htm (February 2007)
Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. London: Phaidon, 1997.
Eck, Diana L. Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. 2d ed. Chamberburg, Pa.: Anima Books, 1985.
Michell, George. The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to Its Meaning and Forms. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Mitter, Partha. Indian Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.