Hindu and Buddhist art

The earliest images of Hindu deities appeared about the same time as the first anthropomorphic images of the Buddha, in the early centuries CE. Artists rapidly defined the visual characteristics that distinguished one deity from another in the subsequent centuries. Though there are regional and temporal variations in the names for, and depiction of, the myriad deities of the Hindu pantheon, the main themes and principles for their identification can be easily acquired and their most important manifestations recognised.
The most important deities worshipped by Hindus are the male gods Shiva and Vishnu, and the goddess or Devi. With the exception of Shiva, discussed in the following section, Hindu deities are invariably visualised in anthropomorphic form. It is this important conception that makes the depiction of the divine image such a central feature of Indian art across two thousand years.

In common with the images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas discussed in Unit 3: The image of the Buddha, Hindu deities are depicted as full figures. Indian artists developed a complex visual vocabulary for distinguishing Buddhist from Hindu images, and differentiating the many Hindu deities.

When trying to identify an image of a deity consider the following:

? What gender is the image?
? What posture is it in?
? How many arms and heads does it have?
? Are there any distinguishing features of the face or head?
? What gestures are the hands making?
? Is anything held in the hands?
? Are there any associated animals or figures?

Hindu sculpture and iconography are immensely rich and varied. As you look at more examples of Indian sculpture you will gradually acquire a greater knowledge of who is depicted. It is an immensely rewarding and satisfying journey; there are new names, myths and deities to know, even for the most experienced art historian of India. Don’t be discouraged by the apparent complexity.

You will also gradually gain greater knowledge of where and when a sculpture was made, for example from the nature of the stone or metal, the size, the manner of depiction of the body, dress or ornaments, or the presence of subsidiary figures.


Reflection activity: Similarities and differences

What similarities and what differences are there in the depiction by Indian artists of Buddhist and Hindu images?

Reflection activity: Analysis

This week?s main exercise asks you to perform the same analysis on different sets of images. For each set of images compare and contrast them in terms of the following categories:
? Iconography: who is it and how do you know?
? Style: comment on the manner of depiction, material, and size, and the historical context in which the image was
? Function: how and where was this image seen and used?

1. Shiva: The Chola bronze statue of Shiva Nataraja( from c.990 in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (F2003.2). The sandstone Dancing Shiva ( from the 9th century in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (69.1047)

2. The schist carving from Karnataka of Durga slaying the Buffalo Demon( from the 13th century in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.70.1.1). The Chola copper alloy statue of Parvati ( from the 11th century in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art