Home > Cultural Informatics > Visvarupa > The Visvarupa Iconographic Traditions > Book on Visvarupa by Prof. T. S. Maxwell




Physical multiplicity is not only a feature but a characteristic of brahmanical religious art in India. It represents the several identities or functions of a particular deity or demon. When seen in man it is considered monstrous. Supernatural beings may be protean and perform in the roles of many of their transformations simultaneously. At the human level, this would run counter to one's personal dharma-witness the agony of Arjuna when called upon to fight in accordance with his kṣatriya-dharma, thereby going against his jṅāti-kārya: there can be no two ways about it, as a man he must choose one or the other loyalty. In religious sculpture, which in many ways is the visual counterpart of myth or doctrine, such moral dilemmas need not apply: an image may integrate kṣatriya and brahmaṇa elements, or the divine and the demonic; it may represent separate cults in a single figure or be seen to project a number of different manifestations in human shape from one figure. Such images, as sculptures, were developed during Kuṣāṇa times in north India, and to this fundamental experimental phase a considerable amount of this book is devoted. The number and types of multiple images which later became more or less standarized increased thereafter, and I cannot mention and deal with them all here for reasons of space without reducing the book to a mere catalogue. I have therefore limited the text to an examination of what I consider to be the most prototypical, and often experimental, images in order to attempt to understand the purpose behind the making of these extraordinary, but widespread, icon-types. This often involves speculation for which I can show no historical evidence; for I think that this evidence has either perished, was so esoteric as not to have been committed to writing or consisted of diagrammatic plans of the maṇḍala type which were obliterated when the sculpture was executed on the stone.

The areas of India in which this experimentation appears to have mostly taken place are those today covered by Gujarat and parts of Maharashtra, Rajasthan, northern Madhya Pradesh and western Uttar Pradesh. Developments in certain adjacent areas are also discussed where relevant. In the north-west, particularly Swat and Kashmir, several multiple image-types were developed, but there is no space within the confines of this book to deal with them, to my regret; I shall deal with them later. A chronological limitation has also been imposed for the same reason: the study ranges from the first to the eighth centuries A. D., with one necessary excursus into the ninth century.

The type of multiplicity discussed and interpreted here is mostly limited to the heads or faces of sculptures, as multiple arms became standard very early. Emanatory deities are also discussed because they are so often connected with multiheaded images. Any number of faces may be shown affixed to an object, such as a pillar, with little or no aesthetic difficulties arising. It is the multiheadedness of figures in human shape which seems to require explanation, violating as it does anatomical naturalism. My study is therefore confined to such anthropomorphic images, with reference to other cult objects (such as the multi-faced Linga) being made where necessary.

It is my purpose throughout to understand these images: description and illustration are necessary, but only as the basis for an interpretation. I wish to contribute to our understanding of what the designers and sculptors of these images were trying to express, and why they chose particular visual constructs as their vehicles of expression. Sometimes it has been possible to find scriptural bases for the creation of this type of statuary, sometimes not. In either case, there is a lot to be supplied by the iconologist in order to arrive at a coherent interpretation, for the iconographical texts (śilpa-sātras) are frequently at variance with the sculptures as they appear in reality. It is at these points that informed speculation, or the educated guess, is the only bridge between what can be demonstrated by historical documentation and archaeological fact. In order to clarify the purpose of the sculptures discussed here, I have supplied such bridges through what I trust is reasonable argument and the elimination of theories which are manifestly inaccurate. These are matters in which there will probably never be certainty; but after studying such sculptures for many years, I believe that the formulations and interpretations presented here are as accurate as it is possible to be., It has been my belief throughout my investigations of these complexities that the solution to any given problem would be a logical one, and in nearly every case this faith has been justified. Where logic has seemed to fail, I have carried my explanation and interpretation as far as appeared reasonable, and admitted that beyond this point, in the absence of new evidence, we cannot know.

The work contained here (based on research conducted mostly in the 1970s) is only a beginning, an attempt to lay some foundations particularly in the matter of our perception of these remarkable religious images. Much remains to be done.

Since this book was written, several of the ideas expressed in it have been discussed at conferences held at the University of Pennsylvania (1981; Discourses on Siva, ed. M.W. Meister, Philadelphia and Bombay 1984), the Royal Commonwealth Society, London (1982), the University of Heidelberg (1986) and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi (1986). I am grateful to all my colleagues who have debated these matters with me, particularly Professor Stella Kramrisch, Secretary of State Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, Dr. Joan Erdman, Professor Michael Meister and Dr. John Mosteller. Their views and my subsequent researches are not incorporated in this volume, which is intended to convey the original state of the research as it stood in 1981. I have up-dated the Bibliography, however, but only as far as substantive works are concerned; certain debates have been continued in the Notes, and for a recent consideration of the influence of Indian Viśvarūpa symbolism on Central Asian and Chinese iconographic constructs, the reader is referred to Angela Falco Howard's The Imagery of the Cosmological Buddha (Leiden 1986). Professor Kramrisch's interest in the progress of my work, which dates from 1982, has been especially sustaining and I wish to thank her in particular both for reading the original dissertation and for writing the Foreword to this book. Special thanks for exceptional editorial skill and patience are due to my editor at the Oxford University Press.

The text which follows is little altered from my D. Phil. thesis completed at Oxford in 1981. At that time I was guided chiefly by Dr. James C. Harle, Keeper of the Department of Eastern Art in the Ashmolean Museum, to whom I wish to express my gratitude. Richard F. Gombrich, Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, contributed several helpful suggestions. For financial assistance I am grateful to the Wolfson College Research Fund and the Senior Tutor's Fund, the Boden Fund, the Committee for Graduate Studies and the Inter-Faculty Committee for South Asian Studies, University of Oxford. I have not forgotten the kindness of the late Professor J, Le Roy Davidson, Dr. Alice Boner, and Professor Johanna van Lohuizen-de Leeuw. My examiners at Oxford were Dr. Sanjukta Gupta, now Gupta-Gombrich, of Utrecht and Dr. F. Raymond Allchin of Cambridge, both of whom made valuable critical observations. Dr. George Michell encouraged me to publish a first essay on Viśvarūpa in 1973. I am also personally indebted to Mme Odette Viennot, Dr. Debala Mitra, Dr. Umakant P. Shah and Dr. Ramesh Chandra Sharma.

For the sake of completeness, I should add a word on the transliteration conventions used in this book. Place names are not marked if they are well known (e.g. Mathura, Amaravati), but others are accented in accordance with local pronunciation as I encountered it (e.g. Nānd, Śamalājī). Familiar terms such as Linga, or art-historical terms such as chaitya-arch are not italicised. For the sake of brevity, museums are referred to merely by their location (e.g., Bikaner Museum, rather than Gaṅgā Golden Jubilee Museum).





Ancient India


Archives of Asian Art


Art and Archaeology Research Papers


Artibus Asiae


Art International


Arts Asiatiques


Brahma Vidyā, Adyar Library Bulletin


Bulletin of the Baroda State Museum


Bulletin of  Museum and Archaeology in Uttar



Bulletin of the Museum and Picture Gallery,



East and West


Indian Art and Letters


Journal of  the Bombay Historical Society


Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society


Journal of Indian History


Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art


Journal of  the Oriental Institute, M.S. University

of Baroda


Journal of the U.P. Historical Society


Lalit Kalā






Viśvesvaranand Indological Journal-


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Oxford University Press 1988