(a) Brahma is traditionally depicted with four heads and four arms; (b) Vishnu is described as having the divine color of clouds (dark-blue), four-armed, holding a lotus, mace, conch, and chakra (wheel); (c) a statue in Bangalore, Karnataka, India, depicting a meditating Shiva.
(On Mythology, part 3: “Hindu”)
by aLfie vera mella
Hindu mythology, or the mythology arising from Hinduism – the predominant religious tradition of the Indian subcontinent, has perhaps the most number of deities. The Hindu scriptures refer to these deities as devas (male) or devis (female), Sanskrit words meaning “god/dess, deity, angel, spirit, celestial being, or any supernatural being of high excellence.” According to some Hindu literature, there are about 330 million local and regional deities. One distinct feature of Hindu deities is their having usually two pairs of arms; some even have as many as ten arms, like in the case of the goddess Durga. This concept of having usually two pairs of arms may be attributed to Hinduism’s belief that every being—human or celestial—consists of both the male and the female aspect. Thus, the two pairs of arms symbolize the union of these two genders.
Why use the arms to represent the concept of union and not the other body parts? Perhaps because the arms are the most noticeable parts of the human body, so using them most effectively emphasizes the purpose. Aside from this, the hand is a universal symbol of dexterity, giving, and reaching out; therefore, having more than a pair of arms is a logical way to highlight the generosity, agility, and helpfulness of Hindu deities. Simply put, the more arms, the more generous and skillful a deity is. Needless to say, however, having more arms also means the more agile with weapons—hence, the more powerful and dangerous—a vengeful and wrathful deity can be.
Here are some of the most popular Hindu deities.
Durga is a warrior goddess depicted as having ten arms, red-golden glowing skin, and brightly colored attire, often riding a lion or a tiger, carrying weapons, and practicing symbolic hand gestures. She manifests fearlessness and patience and never loses her sense of humor even during spiritual battles of epic proportion, as represented by the constant meditative smile on her face.
Ganesha is one of the best-known and most widely worshipped Hindu deities. His elephant head makes him easy to identify. Ganesha is the “Lord of Obstacles,” whose main task is to place and to remove obstacles on the path of human beings depending on the need and circumstance. He is regarded also as the lord of letters and learning, the patron of arts and sciences, and the deva of intellect and wisdom.
Hanuman is regarded as the most powerful and intelligent among Hindu deities. Portrayed as having the head of a monkey, he is one of the most important personalities in the Indian epic Ramayana, in which he led an army of monkeys to fight the demon King Ravana.
Kali is currently considered the Hindu goddess of time and change. Her name means “black”; but because kala means “time,” Kali has come to personify “force of time.” Despite this new image of Kali, her earliest incarnation as a figure of annihilation and her dark and violent attributes, as often depicted in many Hindu literature, can still instigate fear and terror among many practitioners of Hinduism.
Trimurti (Hindu Trinity)
The Trimurti (a Sanskrit word which means “three forms”) is a concept in Hinduism in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the three deities Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu.
Brahma is the Supreme Creator, representing the Trimurti’s first function. He is traditionally depicted with four heads and four arms. With each head, he continually recites one of the four Vedas (the oldest scriptures of Hinduism). He is illustrated also with a white beard, indicating the nearly eternal nature of his existence. Unlike most other Hindu gods, Brahma does not hold any weapon. His power comes from his recitation of the Vedas. Brahma’s consort is Sarasvati, the goddess of learning.
Vishnu represents the second cosmic function. He is the one who supports, sustains, and governs the Universe and originates and develops all the elements within. His consort is Lakshmi—the goddess of prosperity, wisdom, fertility, generosity, and courage; and the embodiment of beauty, grace, and charm.
Shiva is the Supreme Destroyer, representing the third cosmic function. He is generally portrayed as immersed in deep meditation. Parvati (personification of divine feminine creative power), Sati (goddess of marital felicity and longevity), and Kali are his consorts.
The Last Leaf
Based on the descriptions and characteristics of the Hindu deities presented in this article, duality and the union of two opposing aspects in one being (e.g., female + male, good + evil, creator + destroyer) are indeed significant and consistent concepts in Hindu mythology and Hinduism in general.