Zoomorphism in Hindu Art & Religious Belief


Bhairava ( a fearsome manifestation of Shiva) riding horse with his consort Kali (Devi) holding a lotus bud accompanied by his dog (Shvan)

bhairava


Animals have been representative of deities from ancient times since worship began, and in the course they became gods and goddesses themselves. Reliance of animals began during the hunter-gatherer period when nature was central to man’s survival. Animal’s were the source of man’s strength by way of food, defence and support. The earliest known domesticated animal is the dog and it is also happens to be earliest companion of primitive man during his hunter-gatherer era. Dog is portrayed in Hindu religion as the vehicle or companion of God Bhairava, a fierce manifestation of Shiva. Bhairava happens to originate from the word bhīru, which means “fearful”, while the dog is also associated other fearsome gods such as Yama, the lord of death, whose Vahana is also a dog mentioned under its Sanskrit name Sarama.  

bhairava 1
Hindu god Bhairava with her vahana or mount, the dog (Shvan)

The antiquity of the role of animals in Hinduism is exemplified by the fact that the first paintings of stone age man were that of animals as revealed through prehistoric cave art. When civilisation began as early as 6000 years ago in the Indus Valley we see animals appearing in the seals of pre-Aryans who occupied the valley. However, we are unable to gauge significance of these animal images since the text accompanying  these seals still remain undeciphered: a missing link in the  history of civilisation.

Decorated Nandi

The appearance of cow in Hindu religion also may have taken origin during the pastoral period of early societies. It is a sacrilege in Hinduism to hurt a cow which is worshipped as deity named Nandi. In a more serene mood Shiva’s vehicle (vahana) is Nandi but in a warrior role Shiva abandons his meek companion  and chooses the horse. One such role is as Khandoba, a village protector with a wielding a sword. Kamadhenu , also known as Surabhi, is a divine bovine-goddess described in Hinduism as the mother of all cows.

Kamadenu

She is a miraculous “cow of plenty” who provides her owner whatever he desires and is often portrayed as the mother of other cattle. In Hindu art and iconography, she is generally depicted as a white cow with a female head and breasts, the wings of a bird, and the tail of a peafowl or as a white cow containing various deities within her body. All cows are venerated in Hindu religion as the earthly embodiment of the Kamadhenu. However,  Kamadhenu is not worshipped independently as a goddess, and temples are not solely dedicated in her honour alone; rather, she symbolises the veneration of cows Hinduism

Born to Shiva and Parvati god Ganesha (Ganapati, Vinayaka) is perhaps is the most depicted god in Hindu art and sculpture in a zoomorphic form: an elephant head with an indulgent human body. In contrast to the size of his body Ganesha rides a mere rat. The significance of the impracticality of an elephant riding on meek rat has generated hundreds of logical and illogical assumptions to explain this paradox.

The Avatars of God Vishnu, a concept in Hinduism which means “descent” are even more complex. Of the avatars of Vishnu, the Fish (Matsya), tortoise (Kurma), boar (Varaha) and lion (Narasimha) are the standard zoomorphic deities that still invite and await theological explanation for their existence. Matsya is sometimes depicted as a great fish or as a human torso connected to the tail of a fish who rescued the first man, as well as other creatures of the earth, from a great deluge in mythologies related to cosmic history. Kurma is the incarnation Vishnu that relates to the myth of churning the ocean to obtain treasures dissolved in the ocean of milk. In this myth, Vishnu takes the form of a tortoise to support the churning stick on his back.  Varaha is often depicted as a boar head on a human body who raised the sunken earth out of the water. In another depiction of Narasimha as an avatar of Vishnu he emerges as a human lion to slay the demon.

Of all the ancient religions in the world Hinduism is perhaps the most zoomorphic depicted by animal gods. The antiquity of the religion may help to explain this phenomenon just as Aesop’s Fables uses animals to explain complex philosophy in a simple. Similarly in Buddhism the Jataka Tales is a vehicle of philosophy.

Enshrining animals in religion is a concept common to many ancient religions but Christianity is an exception where worship of animals is sacrilege.

Hindu Art & Antiques from Antiques International

  

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