Sacred Art in Hinduism

Deity Art in Hinduism

Deity art depicts the personification of God in many world religions. The ones included here are focused on Hinduism. Ancient and modern forms of the deity are so varied as to be nearly overwhelming.

On a practical level, devotion to one or more forms of God seems to be highly beneficial for us as humans. Research shows that prayer and religious faith play an important role in psychological and emotional health. 

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The symbols included in deity art are fascinating keys to understanding how deities are viewed by devotees. Symbolic religious art has been known as long as humans have been making art. The myths, legends and teachings in various traditions have often been passed down through symbolism and parables. For populations where literacy is low, the use of symbolism in deity art has been a tool to pass on the stories of their religions and ancestors.

Celestial Deity Category

Ganesha: Deity Art & Symbolism

Ganesha, also known as Ganapati or Lord Ganesh, is the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati in the Hindu tradition. He is a deity known for assisting devotees in the overcoming of obstacles. Therefore, Ganesha is often invoked at the beginning of an activity, journey or other undertaking. Read stories about the origins of Ganesha.

Ganesha is a joyful being associated with extensive symbolism. The many symbols in deity art featuring Ganesha help the viewer to understand the significance of this unusual deity. Brief definitions are given below for selected symbols in this deity art. For all the symbols related to Ganesha and for more information, see the article What Do Ganesha Symbols Mean?

Large Belly: Ganesha’s belly represents the ability to digest all experiences in life. The large belly of Ganesha also symbolizes prosperity and abundance.

Elephant Head: Elephants use their heads to break paths through the forest. This symbolizes breaking through obstacles on every level.

Large Ears: Large elephant ears represent willingness to listen and bring together ideas. This creates success in human affairs.

Four Arms: Ganesha’s four-armed form represents the inner attributes of the subtle body: mind, intellect, ego, and conscience. 

Surya, God of the Sun: Symbolic Deity Art

There are many names for the sun god in the Hindu tradition. One of the most well-known is the god Surya. Surya is the creator of the universe. His golden chariot is driven by Aruna, a personification of the dawn. The name Aruna means “red” or “rising sun.”

Aruna carries Surya across the sky through the power of his seven horses. The seven horses correspond to the seven chakras and the color spectrum. As Surya and Aruna ride across the sky, they defeat the demons of darkness.

Deity Art Featuring the Hindu Goddess Parvati

Parvati, also known as Uma, is the Hindu deity of fertility, love and devotion as well as divine strength and power. She is the gentle and nurturing aspect of the goddess energy. Parvati is part of a trinity of Hindu goddesses that also includes Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and learning.

Parvati holds a trident in one hand. In Hinduism, the trident is said to represent creation, preservation and destruction. A trident is also known as a trishula. In another hand, Parvati holds a lotus flower, symbol of divinity and enlightenment. Parvati also holds a sword symbolizing both strength and wisdom. Her fourth hand is raised in a mudra or hand gesture of blessing.

Deity Art Featuring the Goddess of Wealth

The goddess Lakshmi is the personification of all that is good, helpful and beneficial. Lakshmi is the consort of Vishnu, one of the three deities in the Hindu trinity. Lakshmi is usually shown seated or standing on a lotus. The lotus in deity art symbolizes creation, beauty, harmony, diversity, stability, and support. Lakshmi also holds lotus flowers in each hand.

She dispenses gold coins from one of her other four hands. Sometimes Lakshmi dispenses rice from her other hand, symbolizing an abundance of food. The rice lands in a bowl of gold coins set just in front of her. For more information about other Hindu gods and goddesses and videos of their mantras, see Hindu Deities & Mantras.

The Hindu Goddess Kali Deity Art

Kali is a Hindu deity symbolizing mastery over time and death. Kali loves to battle the forces of evil on behalf of her children. She is an intimidating figure, brandishing multiple weapons with her four arms. Kali wears a skirt of severed arms and a gruesome garland of heads. These grisly body parts are symbolic of the demonic forces that she slays to protect her devotees.

Most deity art of Kali shows her with four arms. However, she is sometimes depicted with even more. In her four-armed form, she carries a large sickle, a trident, a severed head and a bowl.  The sickle or sword represents the divine knowledge that removes the ego, symbolized by the severed head. The bowl catches the blood dripping from the head. The trident symbolizes mastery over all three forces of life: creation, preservation and destruction.

Deity Art Featuring Indra, The Hindu Sky God

Indra is an ancient Vedic or Hindu deity associated with the sky, lightning, storms, rain and war. Indra holds a thunderbolt as his primary weapon. He also holds a trident representing his mastery over the three primary forces (creation, preservation and destruction) and raises a hand in blessing. Indra rides a white elephant named Airavata. Sometimes Airavata has five to seven trunks and four to ten trunks.

The elephant symbolism the earthly nature or the earth itself. Indra has mastered all that is related to earthly existence. Indra is also depicted holding a goad in his right hand. The goad is used to drive away ignorance, laziness and sluggishness.

Deity Art Featuring Durga, the Warrior Goddess

Durga is a warrior goddess. She overthrows the forces that threaten peace, prosperity and all that is good. The name Durga means a fort or a place that is difficult to overrun. Durga is a goddess who saves her devotees from difficulties whenever possible. She personifies the vibration of the fierce mother, only moving into battle to protect her own and never for the sake of violence. 

Durga is depicted as having eight to ten arms. Her eight arms hold an arrow, a bow, a sword, a discus, a lotus flower, a snake and a mace. A final hand is raised in a sign of peace. Durga remains peaceful even in the midst of battle. The following are brief definitions for each of these weapons in deity art for this goddess:

Arrow Meaning: One must symbolically hit the target with one’s thoughts and actions to succeed.
Bow Meaning: Symbolizes potential and kinetic energy.
Sword Meaning: Represents cosmic intelligence and the ability to divide the real and unreal.
Discus Meaning: Symbol of the center of creation and the revolving evolution of life.
Lotus Flower Meaning: Represents freedom and liberation through knowledge and surrender.
Snake Meaning: The snake symbolizes the masculine energy of Shiva.
Mace Meaning: The mace is associated with loyalty, love and devotion.

The lion represents power, will and determination. Riding a lion indicates mastery over all of these virtues. Sometimes Durga rides a tiger. This symbolizes her possession of unlimited power to protect her devotees and destroy evil.

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Author Kathleen Karlsen

Kathleen Karlsen is a musician, artist, writer and speaker. She is the author of two books (Flower Symbols and Vocal Medicine) and over 200 articles. Kathleen, her husband Andrew and their five children live in Bozeman, Montana. More about Kathleen Karlsen.

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