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Indian Art

Indian gods and spiritual figures look human, but special features show they are divine.



For Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, the gods look human. Take the Hindu god Shiva pictured at left, for example. He dances in a pose from classical Indian dance traditions. He wears the earrings, necklaces, and bracelets of an Indian prince. The “sacred thread,” a cord worn by upper class Hindus, crosses his chest.

But what about that extra pair of arms? One way of showing that gods have powers and responsibilities humans do not have is to give them many arms. Each hand holds a symbol of the god’s unique qualities, or forms a gesture with a special meaning.

Some spiritual figures were actual people. The founders of both Buddhism and Jainism began their lives as princes in the sixth century B.C. They rejected the luxury of their royal lives and taught their followers a simpler life. Both are shown with long ear lobes, stretched from wearing heavy earrings when they were princes. A lump on top of their heads shows their divine wisdom.

The purity of gods and spiritual figures can be seen in their bodies. Unlike humans, the bodies of the divine do not contain muscle and bone. They are instead filled with prana, or the “breath of life,” which makes their skin appear somewhat puffy.

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1. A Hindu would know that this four-armed god is Vishnu because of the objects he holds in his hands: a club, a sun disk, a conch shell, and a lotus. Like Shiva above, he wears the jewelry and “sacred thread” of an Indian prince.
2. The Buddha appears in art with specific physical traits, like long dangling earlobes and a lump on his head.
3. This purity of this Jain holy man can be seen in his body. He seems filled with air rather than muscles and bone, like many spiritual figures in Indian art.


January 2004