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To enable him to behind and bear the sight of his boundless divinity, Kṛṣṇa his charioteer gave divine vision to the hero Arjuna who saw the god's boundless form: Viśvarūpa the universe with all its shapes.  The image of Viśvarūpa, 'God as the Universe' given form in Indian sculpture, is the them of T.S. Maxwell's book.

Knowledge of Indian sacred art was only slowly resuscitated in this century after the decline of its practice in India.  Its otherness from Western standards, at first badly tolerated, gradually won acceptance. It demanded a new insight, for its anthropomorphic images could not be seen as rendering nature.  They neither copied nor interpreted nature as Indian art did not take its stand outside nature, but conformed with nature, with the powers and rhythms that give shape to its forms and creatures. Once the hegemony of and comparisons with Western art had fallen to the ground and the autonomy of Indian art was recognized, in its plasticity visualizing a continuum as of breath and pulsation, a fulness with the stream of life, another factor of Indian sacred art was recognized, different from and complementary to its plasticity; it was acknowledged together with the awareness in the West of the practice of yoga underlying the ritual of worship. The yantra, a geometrical device used as a tool to conjure the presence of deity within the symmetry of its limits, was contemplated as coinciding with the anthropomorphic image- though as a reflex only of the unearthly perfection of the transcendent reality of the envisioned deity.

Going beyond both these approaches, the vitalistic and the tantric, the text of Viśvarūpa constructs and comprises the being and becoming as well of early Brahmanical sculpture.

A deeper understanding, unachieved hitherto, of Indian sacred imagery, and transcending in its scope all previous modes of approaching the Indian sacred image as work of art and at the same time as thought construct, is substantiated in the pages of Viśvarūpa.

The book treats of the beginning of Brahmanical figures in Northern India. They are seen as visual images of cosmogonic theory. Their anthropomorphic figures are emanatory, they issue from a central figure and represent, not a group of figures, but a process of cosmic becoming in its continuity. They form 'multiple icons' as phases of the process of creation. It is shown as an ongoing, uninterrupted whole, the phases together with the source whence they proceed.

Sculpture rendering a process, creating in its static three-dimensional form an ongoing progression, conveys this continuum by an assemblage of emerging anthropomorphic figures emanating from one central body. Such a multiple shape, iconogonic and 'icontological' at the same time, presents the virtual correspondence to a theological thought-structure created in the Pāṇcarātra system to celebrate Viṣṇu as the universe. The system had its support in the mythical transfiguration of four heroes, members of one family. Their presence was envisaged branching out and forming a family tree. This arboreal image sustained the unified presence of the hero-gods issuing from the towering figure of the principal image. In the conception of this theophany anthropomorphism was combined with the arboreal concept. The branching tree coalesced with the vision of the emanations, the correlated hero gods emerging from the image from which they stemmed.

A theological system was given sculptural form. The concept of emanation was translated into the composite figure of an anthropomorph, having a sustaining middle and main figure from whom sprang forth, laterally and on top, the emanating figures like branches of a tree. The anthropomorphic corporeality of these figures carved in the front view of the total three-dimensional image is-when seen in back view- 'supplemented' by the likeness of a tree, carved in low- relief, its curving branches and leaves aquiver with vital linear motion.

The multiple image of deity incorporates a theological framework within its conceptual structure. Its three dimensional sculptural equivalent 'embodies' in fulsome anthropomorphic shapes a metaphysical reality. Boldly the shape of the human body is made part of a coherence that belongs to thought and not to corporeal possibility. It ramifies from the region of the shoulders of the main image. The emanating figures, visible from the hips, form an aureole around and above the head of the central figure whence they emanate. The unitary multiple icon seems to have been created in about the first to second century. It visualized theological thought and was capable of creating works of art attaining, in terms of form, the depth of thought of Upaniṣadic God-realization.

The unitary multiple image stands at the beginning of Brahmanical sacred sculpture. Gradually it lost its inherent emanatory, cosmogonic power. The full-bodied figures, issuing laterally and apically from their source, became reduced to their heads only, inaugurating the subsequent multi-headed image of the gods of Hinduism. Cosmogonic sacredness henceforward had as its support the icon of one or the other god manifesting in this world. The whole of manifestation was seen embodied in one icon in particular, that of Viśvarūpa, 'the form of the Universe', the ancient Ṛg Vedic 'Urgod' whose unfolding is the cosmos.

The icon Viśvarūpa, as the many headed, many armed pivotal figure of a stele, is surrounded by a carved tapestry of figures of the many gods and powers that have issued from and are the ambiance of Viśvarūpa manifestation. The contiguity of their figures suggests the overwhelming vision of boundless form of boundless deity described in the Bhagavad Gītā ( 11.16). Discipline, following complex planning. saturated with iconographical knowledge, matured in a total mythical/metaphysical recall of Viśvarūpa, as manifested in the Bhagavad Gītā  and even more ancient tradition.

The planning of the lay-out of the Viśvarūpa vision in each one of the few extant relief sculptures follows a definite scheme whose essentials allow variations from sculpture to sculpture according to the particular vision incorporated in each single work of art. The planning of the sculpture obeyed a geometry that focused on the centres of meaning and linked them in a web supporting the entire composition and carrying the total weight of its meaning.

The method of planning devised by T. S. Maxwell applies not only to Vaiṣṇava themes. Śaiva sculptures as well were based on 'form thoughts' like the tree and the egg; they are augmented by that of the Linga. This seminal Śaiva theme penetrates the extent of the created cosmos of Śaiva God-realization. It structures the image under the aspect of time that subsumes all existence as it leads from now to eternity in cycles within the fathom of mortal man and those beyond it. Supported by the Liṅga construct, one of India's greatest sculptures, hitherto unidentified, the Śaiva image at Parel, yields its meaning in the pages of Viśvarūpa.

Consciously and subconsciously the entire world of traditional sacred knowledge was at the command of the sculptor, he activated the ancient cosmogonic symbols, such as the branching tree or the cosmic egg, subjacent to the ordering of the figures, and even more elementary and imperative elements of visualization, the vertical that traverses and connects the planes of the cosmos, the horizontal that divides above from below.

T. S. Maxwell has resuscitated the cooperation of priestly knowledge and the sculptor's competence. By his insight he has located the centres of meaning and planning in each composition. The reconstructing of the planning of the sculptures considered in Viśvarūpa is tantamount to discovering in their form the significance, the thought construct, that hitherto has awaited clarification. With the work of T. S. Maxwell the knowledge and understanding of Indian sacred sculpture has been given focal orientation. The very essence of each sculpture has been revealed, the cosmogonic aspect of the image of deity has come alive in the form of the image. Its form carries a depth and range of meaning that hitherto has lain unsolved. Viśvarūpa has created the frame and foundation of a new understanding of Indian sculpture in its most creative centuries.

Stella Kramrisch


March 1987


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Oxford University Press 1988