Art, Cosmology and the Divine | Part III

Main photo (above) is a Basohli illustration to the Bhagavad Purana, Krishna Bringing the Parijata from Indra’s Heaven,  Tira-Sujanpur, c.1780

Continuing this six-part series (Read Part I and Part II) in which distinguished scientist, academic and Vedic scholar Subhash Kak shows how traditional Indian art is not only aesthetically sublime, but is a reflection of the cosmos and of the Divine itself. In Part III we see how ancient Hindu temples were designed to reflect the cosmos. The representation of the cosmos simultaneously at the level of the universe and the individual, was meant to facilitate the devotee’s spiritual transformation.

Part III: Temples and Gods

The temple is considered in the image of the Cosmic Purusha, on whose body is displayed all creation in its materiality and movement. Paradoxically, the space of the Purusha (Rigveda 10.90) is in the sanctuary only ten fingers wide, although he pervades the earth.

The outer cosmos is expressed in terms of various connections between the temple structure and the motions of the sun, the moon, and the planets; the inner cosmos is represented in terms of the divinity (universal consciousness) in the womb of the temple and various levels of the superstructure that correspond to the states of consciousness. The position of the gods in the Vastupurusha-mandala within the temple is a symbolic representation of the spatial projections of the cosmic Purusha in his body. There are other iconic representations of sacred space, as in the Sri Yantra where the body’s three parts – vagbhava, madhya, and mula – have recursive structures within, that represent Vedic cosmology in a unique fashion.

The prototype of the temple is the Agnikshetra, the sacred ground on which the Vedic altars are built. The Agnikshetra is an oblong or trapezoidal area on which the fire altars are built. During the ritual is installed a golden disc (rukma) with 21 knobs or hangings representing the sun with a golden image of the purusha on it. The detailed ritual includes components that would now be termed Shaivite, Vaishnava, or Shakta. In Nachiketa Agni, 21 bricks of gold are placed one top of the other in a form of shivalinga. The disk of the rukma, which is placed in the navel of the altar on a lotus leaf is in correspondence to the lotus emanating from Vishnu’s navel which holds the universe. Several bricks are named after goddesses, such as the seven krittikas.

Ganesha: elephant-headed, wise with mouse as his vehicle

The Hindu temple represents the Meru mountain, the navel of the earth. It is the representation of the cosmos both at the level of the universe and the individual, making it possible for the devotee to get inspired to achieve his own spiritual transformation. The purusha placed within the brick structure of the altar represents the consciousness principle within the individual. It is like the relic within the stupa. The threshold to the inner sanctum is represented by the figure of Ganesha (see right), who, like other divinities, symbolizes the transcendence of oppositions.

The temple construction begins with the Vastupurusha mandala, which is a yantra, mostly divided into 64 (8 × 8) or 81 (9 × 9) squares, which are the seats of 45 divinities. Brahma is at the centre, around him 12 squares represent the Adityas, and in the outer circle are 28 squares that represent the nakshatras. This mandala with its border is the place where the motions of the sun and the moon and the planets are reconciled. It is the Vastu in which the decrepit, old Chyavana of the Rigveda 1.116.10 asks his sons to put him down so that he would become young again. Chyavana is the moon and Sukanya, whom he desires, is the sun.

In the basic Vedic scheme the circle represents the earth and the square represents the heavens or the deity. But the altar or the temple, as a representation of the dynamism of the universe, requires a breaking of the symmetry of the square. As seen clearly in the agnichayana and other altar constructions, this is done in a variety of ways. Although the main altar might be square or its derivative, the overall sacred area is taken to be a departure from this shape. In particular, the temples to the goddess are drawn on a rectangular plan. In Shiva or Vishnu temples, which are square, change is represented by a play of diagonal lines. These diagonals are essentially kinetic and are therefore representative of movement and stress. They embody the time-factor in a composition.

The Hindu temple, as a conception of the astronomical frame of the universe, serves the same purpose as the Vedic altar, which reconciled the motions of the sun and the moon. The progressive complexity of the classical temple was inevitable given an attempt to bring in the cycles of the planets and other ideas of the yugas into the scheme. There was also further complexity related to the expansion of the tattvas within the temple. For example, in Shaivite temples we see the unmanifest (Shivalinga) expand into the intermediate state of manifest-unmanifest (Sadashiva), and finally into manifest (Mahesha).

The Ashtadhyayi of Panini (5th century BC) mentions images. Ordinary images were called pratikriti and the images for worship were called archa. Amongst other things we are told that a toy horse is called ashvaka. (This means that the queen who lay down with the ashvaka in the Ashvamedha did not sleep with the dead horse.) Deity images for sale were called Shivaka etc., but an archa of Shiva was just called Shiva. Patanjali mentions Shiva and Skanda deities. There is also mention of the worship of Vasudeva (Krishna). We are also told that some images could be moved and some were immoveable. Panini also says that an archa was not to be sold and that there were people (priests) who obtained their livelihood by taking care of it. They also mention temples that were called prasadas.

Complementing the tradition of the Vedic ritual was that of the munis and yogis who lived in caves and performed austerities. From this tradition arose the vihara, where the priests lived. The chaitya hall that also housed the stupa may be seen as a development out of the agnichayana tradition where within the brick structure of the altar was buried the rukma and the golden man.

The gods are the entities that hold up the inner sky of the mind. There is the single Brahman or Purusha, interpenetrating and transcending the inner and the outer universes. But the framework of the inner sky is held up by a variety of gods. The physical nature, governed by laws, is the Goddess or Shakti. If Brahma is the deity of the astral world, Shiva is that of the physical world, and Vishnu that of the causal or the moral world. They each have a consort: Brahma’s is Sarasvati, the goddess of learning and the arts; Shiva’s is Parvati, the goddess of power, energy, and intuition; Vishnu’s is Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune.

Shiva as Ardhanarishvara (Shiva-Shakti)

The gods themselves are interconnected. Brahma’s origin is from the lotus in Vishnu’s navel. Shiva is the god who subsumes all oppositions. He is the celibate, divine yogi, who is also the perfect husband to Parvati. He brings the world to an end by his dance, but he also creates the world. He is the heart of consciousness, the lord of all beings, the divine dancer. As Ardhanarishvara, he is half Shakti; as Harihara, he is half Vishnu.

Vishnu is the all-pervader, the primal person, without beginning or end. He is also known as Narayana, with his abode is in the waters. He is Hari, the golden-garbed one (like the Sun), and his mount is Garuda, the eagle. During the periods in between dissolution and creation, he sleeps on the cosmic serpent Ananta (the endless). He wields in one of his hands the discus, Sudarshana, which represents time. His consort, Lakshmi, appeared out of the Churning of the Ocean. Periodically, he descends to earth as an avatara to battle evil. Two of the most popular of these avataras are Rama and Krishna.

Read Part I: Introduction
Read part II: General equivalences
Read Part IV: churning of the ocean
Read Part v: Krishna’s Dance
Read part vi: Indian aesthetic in an age of war
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Subhash Kak
Scientist, Professor, Vedic Scholar
Subhash Kak is Regents professor at Oklahoma State University where his work has focused on artificial intelligence, quantum information, and history of science. He is also a Vedic scholar with contributions to the fields of Indian astronomy, architecture, and philosophy and he has written over a dozen books and several hundred research articles on these subjects. His two most recent books are Arrival and Exile: Selected Poems and The Circle of Memory: an Autobiography.

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