You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Hindu’ tag.

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In Hindu mythology there was an entire class of intelligent beings who were snakes—the nāgas (a male is a nāga: a female is a nāgī or nāgiṇī). In contemporary Hinduism the nagas are regarded as the protectors of springs, wells, streams, and rivers.  Sometimes nagas assume human form (with all of the abilities, appurtenances, and liabilities) but largely they are huge beautiful king cobras. The nagas tend to live in their own realm, Pātāla, the seventh of the nether kingdoms, yet they appear in other places too and interact with gods, mortals, demons, and animals.  Neither evil nor entirely good, the nagas have their own enmities, problems, and tales (although these intersect sometimes with the human protagonists of Hinduism’s great epics and myths).

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A particular problem of the nagas is the swift and terrible eagle god Garuda, who is an enemy to the serpent people. He despises them because once he was their slave (through a complex family geas which you will have to look up on your own).  Garuda escaped this servitude by bringing the potion of immortality to the nagas, but, as soon as he presented it to them and escaped his servitude, he spilled the potion upon the sword grass.  The nagas desperately licked up the remnants from the razor grass…but it is a bit unclear whether they attained immortality or not—the grasss certainly cut their tongues most cruelly and nagas (and snakes) have forked tongues up to this day.

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The world itself rests on the head of a naga. The naga prince Shesha practiced such astringent asceticism that Brahma became amazed by him.  Shesha’s body (which was already that of a snake) became so knotted and powerful and slender that he slipped downward into a hole which lead all the way to the bottom of the world.  There Brahma entrusted him with the sacred burden of holding the entire planet and all of us.

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With this in mind, it is unsurprising that in certain parts of India, Bali, and Nepal, the naga are worshiped.  Nag stones are a particular object of cultic reverence. Cobras likewise are venerated.

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My grandfather grew up in West Virginia (where snakes are taboo in accordance with longstanding Judeo-Christian cultic practice) but his work took him around the world–which was not quite so homogeneous in the 40s, 50s, and 60s! When I was a child he used to tell me stories of the nagas and their struggles.  He also told me that one of the defining moments of strangeness in his life was when he was passing through South India and saw a woman put out a saucer for (what grandpa assumed was) a pet.  He was surprised when she squeezed some breast milk into it, but stunned when a huge glistening cobra crawled out of a wall and lapped up the milk.

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The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple or Thiruvarangam is a colossal temple to the Hindu god Vishnu (or, more specifically, it is dedicated to Ranganātha, a reclining form of Vishnu).  Located on an island in the Cauvery river in Tamil Nadu, the temple is one of the most illustrious (and largest) temples in India. The complex includes 21 monumental ornamental towers (including the 72 meter (236 foot)  Rajagopuram), 39 pavilions, fifty shrines, all within a 156 acre complex which includes six miles of concentric walls.  The shrines, walls, and towers are bedecked in stunning stone statuary painted in all of the brilliant colors of South India.

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The story of the temple’s creation is steeped in Hindu myth: Lord Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu completed his devotions to Vishnu by worshiping a mysterious idol.  After killing Ravana and returning victorious from Sri Lanka (as detailed in the Ramayana) Rama gave this sacred statue to King Vibhishana.  The king planned on taking the statue to Sri Lanka, but when he set it down while resting on an island, it became rooted to the spot.

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The temple itself was built by the Chola Dynasty, India’s longest lived dynasty.  There is a further legend of the temple’s construction: a Chola king chased a parrot into the deep forest and found the idol overgrown by jungle.  He built the complex around the statue and the temple was maintained and expanded by the great dynasties of Southern India–the Chola, Pandya, Hoysala and Vijayanagar dynasties.  The oldest parts of the building seem to date back to the 10th century AD, but written sources do not accurately convey the precise chronology.  The great temples of South India are themselves primary historical sources, but alas, they are not as particular about dates as historians might like.

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It is difficult to even begin to describe the sumptuous beauty and complexity of the ornaments of Sri Ranganathaswamy.  The colorful and intricate statues of the figures from Vishnu’s lives and incarnations have an otherworldly and alien beauty not found elsewhere.  Nor will I attempt to  describe the meaning of Vishnu’s iconography (although if you are as smitten by his reclining beauty as I am you can read about Ananta Shesha, the many headed cobra god which serves as his divine couch).

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The Avatar Kurma Churns the Ocean of Milk with Help from Devas and Asuras

The Avatar Kurma Churns the Ocean of Milk with Help from Devas and Asuras

Today is World Turtle Day when we celebrate all things chelonian. “That is wonderful, but what does it have to do with the fabulous Hindu tableau above?” you are probably asking. Well, the second avatar of Lord Vishnu, the preserver of all life, (who appears again and again in the world as different incarnations) was the turtle deity Kurma. The story is told above, but here is a streamlined narration to go with the painting.

Vishnu as Kurma

Vishnu as Kurma

The story begins with an elephant mishap: the great sage Durvasa presented a magnificent garland to Indra, king of the gods, who in turn presented the wreath to his magnificent war elephant. Unfortunately the elephant had limited aesthetic appreciation of the gift and trampled it. Deeply offended, Durvasa cursed the gods to lose their strength, radiance, and immortality. Thus cast down, the gods desperately looked for a solution from Vishnu, who advised them to quaff the nectar of immortality. Sadly there was no nectar available and the only way to produce more was to churn the ocean of milk with such force that the sacred milk clarified into the elixir.

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To complete the task, the gods allied themselves with the demon Asuras (power-hungry beings of near divinity who frequently fought the gods). The gods took the pillar-like Mount Mandara as a great butter churn and, with help from Vasuki, the king of all snakes, they began to churn the ocean of milk. So great was the force of gods and Asuras combined that Mount Mandara begin to sink into the ocean. Vishnu then transformed himself into the vast turtle Kurma and swam beneath the Mountain. His flippers churned the froth. The gods, demons, and great snake all exerted themselves to their utmost, and the turbulent ocean of milk became refined. Fourteen precious treasures arose from the sea, culminating in the sacred nectar of immortality.

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The picture at the top (which you should enlarge!) shows the gods on the left and the Asuras on the right. The king of nagas is acting as a drill rope wrapped around Mount Mandara. Vishnu sits atop the mountain and does not seem especially turtle-like. Fortunately I have included some paintings and drawings of him as a great turtle.

Hopefully you can learn a valuable lesson from this powerful myth! (Do not give treasured wreathes to elephants? Milk is healthy? Be kind to turtles? I don’t know…)

Anyway Happy World Turtle Day!

Maybe the point is that turtles are beautiful and should be considered sacred

Maybe the point is that turtles are beautiful and should be considered sacred

Vishnu in glory

Vishnu in glory in Vaikuntha (with Lakshmi and Ananta-Shesha)

Vishnu is one of the supreme Vedic beings of Hinduism.  He is an all-powerful deity who sustains and protects the universe–indeed, all beings within the universe are part of him.  Vishnu is the past, present and future.  He creates, sustains, and ultimately destroys all aspects of existence.  The multiple avatars of Vishnu—worldly incarnations which he assumes to directly experience and affect existence—lie at the center of Hindu myth.  Vishnu has lived many lives as Varaha, Rama, Krishna, and Buddha (well, at least to some of the devout), and performed many heroic deeds but his true divine nature transcends human understanding.

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When not incarnated as an avatar (and slaying demons, seducing milkmaids, or explaining the Bhagavad Gita to Arjun), Vishnu dwells in an abode known as Vaikuntha which transcends the material universe.  Sometimes Vaikuntha is imagined as floating atop a sea of milk or suspended in the infinite blackness of space.  In this numinous cosmological state of being, Vishnu reclines with his consort Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, beauty, and prosperity. In his four arms he holds a great conch shell, a mace, a chakra, and a lotus (padmus) which may or may not be the universe itself.

Vishnu-Ananta

Most interestingly, in his ultimate aspect of godhood, Vishnu reclines on another supreme deity, Ananta-Shesa, the king of all nagas, who is simultaneously a dasa (servant) of Vishnu and an incarnation of Vishnu himself.  Ananta-Shesa is sometimes portrayed as a five or seven headed cobra, but he is most commonly imagined as a naga (snake spirit) with immense numbers of cobra heads. Each one of these snake heads supports a planet and all of the heads constantly sing praises to Lord Vishnu. In Hindu iconography the heads are typically topped with crowns (but maybe you should imagine exoplanets instead).

vishnuWhen Kalki–the final incarnation  of Vishnu–manifests himself and ends the Kali Yuga (the current fallen incarnation of the universe) Ananta-Shesha will be one of the only things left.  The great snake god is eternal and stands outside the eternal cycle of death and rebirth of the universe.

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Statue of an Apsara Dancing(Unknown artist, Uttar Pradesh, India, Early 12th century)

In both Hindu and Buddhist mythology a group of beautiful & ethereal female spirits inhabit the skies.  These elegant beings are known as apsaras.  They are lesser goddesses of water and clouds.  In classical Indian literature apsaras are often portrayed dancing seductively in the courts of the gods or married to ganharvas—nature spirits who play celestial music for the gods. Both groups of entities are particularly connected with the court of Indra, the god of the skies and storm, and also king of the gods (although that title is less absolute in Hinduism than in other cosmologies).

Rambha Apsara (Kishan Soni, 2012, oil on canvas)

In many myths, apsaras are cast as supporting characters.  They are roughly analogous to nymphs and naiads in Greek mythology or angels in Abrahamic myths.  Indra constantly felt threatened by great ascetics who amassed titanic spiritual and magical power through physical austerity.  One of his favorite ways of dealing with these powerful yogis was to send apsaras to seduce them—which is why many heroes of Indian myth have a sexy apsara as a mother and a crazed hermit as a father!  In addition to being masterful dancers apsaras could alter their form at will (although I can’t think of any story where they were anything other than beautiful).  They also ruled over the vicissitudes of gaming and gambling.

The apsara Menaka seduces the sage Viswamitra

Apsaras can be recognized because of their tiny waists and their pronounced feminine attributes.  Usually they are pictured dancing gracefully, clad (or partially clad) in lovely silk skirts and bedecked with gold jewelry and precious gems.  Often they are gamboling in the skies or playing in the water.  Additionally apsaras tend to be crowned with gorgeous ornate headdresses.

Apsara (stone relief carving at Angkor Wat)

Sculptures of apsaras are frequently a principle component of classical Indian temples and the gorgeous undulating female forms remain a mainstay of Indian art.  These celestial dancers were also particularly esteemed in Southeast Asia. Classical art and architecture from Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos frequently features the lovely spirits.  Recently a controversy has broken out in the Cambodian community involving contemporary paintings of apsaras which some critics deem too racy for refined tastes.  Ascetics beware!

 

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