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India is the birthplace of Hinduism, and this religious tradition is as vibrant as the culture out of which it grew. A polytheistic religion, Hinduism thrives on diversity, which is evident when one looks at its pantheon of deities. Hindu gods and goddesses all have unique qualities that draw people to worship them, and these qualities are represented not only in texts but also in images of these deities. Images of the gods and goddesses come in many different forms, from paintings and temples to statues and images portrayed symbolically rather than representatively. In terms of worship, the most important of these images are the statues, sometimes called votives or murtis. To understand the importance placed on these images, one must look to the Hindu concept of darsan, which refers to "seeing" or the "auspicious sight" of the divine. In Hindu tradition, one gains blessing and protection from the deity through the eyes, by making eye contact with the image of the deity.
In some religious traditions, such as Islam and some sects of Protestant Christianity, having or worshipping images of a deity or deities is strictly forbidden or looked down on. However, the central act of Hindu worship is to gaze upon the image of a deity in order to gain its blessings. The act of worship is religiously charged in Hinduism because of the belief that the deity is present in the image. These murtis are not simply likenesses of gods or goddesses; rather, they are the deities themselves taken form.
To make an image of the deity, a vehicle through which it can take form, a great deal of ritual consecration occurs. It is widely known among Hindus that an image or statue of a deity is not to be worshipped until the correct rituals and incantations have been performed to call the deity into the image. Before these rituals are completed, the statue is of no particular significance. The regulations and directions for creating a murti are available to the artisans in texts called silpasastras. These texts have specific instructions on how to create murtis for each individual god and goddess based on his or her qualities and characteristics.
Once the deity has been called to inhabit the statue, it becomes a murti. The murti is then installed into a temple or shrine and is ready to begin bestowing its darsan onto those who come to receive it.
Here we have murtis of many different gods and goddesses from this religious tradition. Image worship has been an important part of Hinduism for over two thousand years and has changed over this time. Image worship began during the classical period of Hinduism, and in the beginning images were made from wood or metal with very little color. As time went on, however, images became bathed in brilliant colors, a change that is evident when looking at the collection here.
In Hinduism, moksha, or liberation, is the ultimate goal, and there are three different pathways to attaining this end. One path is bhakti, or devotion to a deity or group of deities. On this path, murtis are of the utmost importance. People who choose this path to liberation do so because they want something tangible on which to meditate, and murtis fill this need.
This minigallery is possible thanks to the generous donations of Robert F. Bussabarger [opens new window].
Bussabarger, Robert F., and Betty Robins. The Everyday Art of India. New York: Dover Publishing, 1968.
Eck, Diana L. Darsan. Seeing the Divine Image in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Kinsley, David R. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988.
Klostermaier, Klaus K. Hindiusm: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1998.
Ten Avataras of Lord Vishnu:
Myths and Legends of Krishna:
Text prepared by Samantha Hunter
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