Classification in Indian Iconography [Part 4]

Posted: 18.05.2012
Updated on: 02.07.2015

§ 2. Classification in Viṣṇu Iconography

Viṣṇu iconography shows a remarkable lack of uniformity. Not in the general sense that the "great gods" have always "many forms", but in the more specific sense that Viṣṇu iconography does not form a well defined area within the larger field of Hindu iconography. Before supplying a structural analysis of the Kṛṣṇa iconography we shall, therefore, try to X-ray - not specific forms of Viṣṇu but the entire area connected with his name.

"Viṣṇu" has absorbed various theriomorphic concepts, and as far as the human element is concerned we find what may be called typological syncretism: Viṣṇu as a Yakṣa, as a king, as a yogin, as a demon-slayer. Adopting an approach which is basically synchronic, we shall arrange the material in concentric circles, starting with the innermost circle: -

  1. Viṣṇu in human form, four-armed, carrying in three of his four arms "conch", disk, mace (śakha-cakra-gadā-dhara: N. P. Joshi).
  2. Viṣṇu in various anthropomorphic and therio-anthropomorphic forms: -
    1. Viṣṇu 2-armed (N. P. Joshi);
    2. śaṅkha-cakra-gadā-dhara, 4-armed, standing;
    3. śaṅkha-cakra-gadā-dhara, 4-armed, seated on Garuḍa;
    4. Viṣṇu resting on the Nāga Ananta (or Śea: Anantaśayana, Paukarāvatāra);
    5. Viṣṇu seated on a Nāga (compare Akrūra's vision);
    6. Viṣṇu meditating (padmāsana, yoga-mudrā);
    7. Lakṣmī-Nārāyaa;
    8. therio-anthropomorphic Varāha;
    9. therio-anthropomorphic Narasiṃha (several subtypes);
    10. Trivikrama (several subtypes);
    11. Vāmana;
    12. Kṛṣṇa Govardhanadhara;
    13. Kṛṣṇa Kāliyadamana (several subtypes) - "-damana" always in the sense of "-jit" (denoting the agent as in Govardhanadhara);
    14. Kṛṣṇa Veugopāla. To this we have to add what may be called the "Vaikuṇṭha complex": Viṣṇu with three heads and further elaborations of this syncretistic motif.
  3. The outermost circle includes the following additional types: -
    1. theriomorphic representations of fish, tortoise, boar, and lion (normally accompanied by Viṣṇu attributes);
    2. churning of the ocean (amtamanthana);
    3. Nara-Nārayaṇa (so far only found at Deogarh);
    4. Balarāma, Rāma Dāśarathi, Kṛṣṇa (except Govardhanadhara, Kāliyadamana, Veṇugopāla).

To supplement the scheme we add the following category, the character of which is defined by the examples given:

  1. Vāsudeva and Balarāma; Vāsudeva, Balarāma, and Ekānaśā (N. P. Joshi) ;
  2. Hari-Hara;
  3. Sūrya-Nārāyaa;
  4. Hari-Hara-Pitāmaha;
  5. 10-avatāra

In order to demonstrate how the problem of form-principles can be handled without unnecessary theoretical commitments, we have prepared the following scheme which is given in the form of a tree graph.

We have placed the examples above the various divisions (permutation etc.) as we wanted to show that the structure of the scheme depends in most cases on well-defined phenomena in the field of Viṣṇu iconography. Further observations (and references) are given below.

(A) Theoretical texts attach considerable importance to the twenty-four different forms of Viṣṇu obtained by the twenty-four possible permutations of four hand-attributes (śaṅkha, cakra, gadā, padma [lotus]), but a systematic study of the archaeological facts has apparently not yet been attempted.

(B) The three types listed under this letter are, on the whole, derived from the standing Viṣṇu (human form, 4-armed) and from Viṣṇu-on-Garuḍa. Information on Vaiṣṇavī is easily available, while more specialized literature has to be consulted for the other two goddesses, who belong to the Yakṣī and Mahāvidyā sets of the mediaeval Jaina pantheon (24 Yakṣīs and 16 Mahāvidyās). See U. P. Shah, JISOA 15. 1947, pp. 132 foll. (5th Mahāvidyā) and JOI 20.3 (March 1971), pp. 280 foll. (1st Yakṣī).

(C) Here we consider in the first place the mediaeval temples of the North. Many of them show large numbers of figures on their outer walls and on other surfaces. The iconographic programme of a particular temple often reflects the atmosphere of a particular workshop rather than the spirit of systematic theological efforts - one of the results being the tendency to produce new figures by the variation of the well-known types. The Jaina (!) temple of Pārśvanātha at Khajurāho has several "pseudo-Viṣṇus" differing from proper Viṣṇu images and differing from one another (Khajurāho p. 26 etc.) - A temple in Rajasthan had bull-headed Viṣṇu-images (reminiscent of Hayagrīva), very casual in appearance but perhaps of special interest as they show how easily such figures could be produced (Researcher, Bull, of the Raj. Arch, and Mus., 5-6, 1964-65, Pl. 24-25, Kota Dt./Kota Museum). It should perhaps be added that the casual element in Indian iconography generally increases as the size of the figures decreases. The Khajurāho figures just quoted are conspicuous exceptions to this rule, while the Kota figures are small indeed. In early art, rare and irregular pieces can be labelled as "unique", but in the later periods some caution is necessary.

(D) The diffusion of the subdued-Nāga motif is demonstrated by graph [8]. The process obviously reflects to some extent mythological traditions not preserved in literature. - The diffusion of the standard attributes (śaṅkha, cakra, gadā, [padma]) is a different matter. It reflects the mythological catholicity of Vaiṣṇavism which operated with the avatāra scheme in literature and with the standard attributes in iconography. The assimilation of the boar (!) motif to the standard type ("innermost circle") is one of the most conspicuous examples. - The Vaikuṇṭha complex (see p. 38 above) has not been included, as its description (combination of various heads etc.) would have overburdened our scheme.

(E-F) The relations according to "E" and "F" are best described as instances of assimilation ("remoulding", similarity of form without identity of partial motifs). With a few exceptions, transfer is insignificant or absent. The interaction concerns motifs which are sufficiently separated to justify the expression "external". Much material has already been collected by C. Sivaramamurti (Journal As. Soc. Letters, 21. 1955, No. 2, pp. 77 foll.). The present survey is restricted to a few paradigmatic cases which are connected with Viṣṇu iconography. - Viṣṇu seated-on-Nāga (compare H. Zimmer, Art of Indian Asia, II, Pl. 127: Badami) shows at Aihole the impact of Nāga iconography (op. cit. Pl. 122, compare for the Nāga component L. Frederic, l'Inde, 1959, Pl. 187). - In Western Indian art, Kṛṣṇa Kāliyadamana is sometimes modelled up from Viṣṇu-on-Garuḍa. Further Nāga motifs - encircling this group - were added, and eventually a complicated pattern with interlaced Nāga tails developed. See Nanavati/Dhaky, Ceilings in the Temples of Gujarat, 1963, Pl. 12; H. D. Sankalia, Archaeology of Gujarat, 1941, pp. 153-55, Fig. 49; Mārg 12.2 (March 1959), p. 67. - Viṣṇu-on-Garuḍa also influenced the following: Balarāma-on-Garuḍa (R. C. Agrawala [ § 4], p. 348), Śiva's Rāvaṇānugrahamūrti on the outer walls of the Nāganātha temple at Aundha (Andhra Pradesh Govt. Arch. Ser. 15. 1963, Pl. 15a), a Skanda-image near Kathmandu (Pratapaditya Pal, ed., Aspects of Indian Art, Leiden 1972, Pl. 49a), Śiva-on-Nandi (Djakarta Museum, compare C. Sivaramamurti, op. cit., Pl. 3, Fig. 5). - The Lakṣmī-Nārāyaṇa motif should be connected - always or in a number of cases - with the Śiva-Pārvatī motif (C. Sivaramamurti, op. cit., Fig. 7: Bundelkhand). - Some cases according to "E" and "F" clearly represent isolated developments. A Narasiṃha-image in the South has been influenced by Siva's Liṅgodbhavamūrti (G. Jouveau-Dubreuil, Archéologie du Sud de l'Inde, II, Pl. 26), Siva's Śarabhamūrti (Airāvateśvara temple, Darasuram) shows the influence of Viṣṇu's Narasiṃhamūrti (C. Sivaramamurti, op. cit. Fig. 25).

Normally, attributes are considered in connection with the god or goddess to whom they belong. It is, however, also necessary to proceed from the attribute to the deity, i.e. to ask where a particular attribute is found. We have selected for this purpose the subdued-Nāga motif ("contribute" according to Deogarh § 297):

References: J. N. Banerjea, Development of Hindu Iconography, 1956, Pl. 23, Fig. 3 (Narasiṃha); ibid. Pl. 23, Fig. 2 ("other types"); observations on Karivarada follow in the next paragraph, and for Māndhātā see § 5.6 below. - - Naturally the inversion (proceeding from the attribute to the gods) is more useful in some cases than in others. But although we try to supply examples which seem to be "interesting" we cannot include observations on the relative usefulness of the different classifications in the present article, which considers the method as such.

The Karivarada myth relates how Viṣṇu came to the rescue of an elephant who was attacked by some aquatic animal ("Karivarada" designates Viṣṇu, while the better known term "Gajendramokṣa" designates the incident). It seems that in the early period the motif occurs four times: Deogarh (Gupta temple), Deogarh (Varāha temple: copy of the Gupta panel), Undavalli cave, Pattadakal (north porch of the Virūpākṣa temple). According to the available literary tradition (mainly Bhāga-vatapurāna 8, 2) the elephant is caught by a crocodile. This is replaced by a Nāga at Deogarh and by a tortoise at Pattadakal (C. Sivaramamurti op. cit. Pl. 19, Fig. 38). The later representations show a crocodile, and information on Undavalli is not available. The Deogarh Nāga in all probability replaces the crocodile of the literary tradition (philologically speaking, the crocodile is the lectio difficilior). As a consequence we have a clear separation of two concepts: substitution (Karivarada) on the one hand, and transfer (Varāha, Trivikrama, Narasiṃha) on the other. More often than not a clear separation is difficult. We mention only the case of wall-figures where different gods share the same attributes and where some "gods" are simply created by the combination of attributes which were in vogue in the locality. Here a purely synchronic approach (statistics) may be preferable to the employment of the terms "transfer" and "substitution" (which are diachronic). - That the substituens (motif substituted for another motif) may be similar to or assimilated to the substitutum (motif which has been replaced) is a different matter. For "similarity' refer to Deogarh § 88, for "assimilation" to Distinction (Figs. 42-48).

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