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Chapter 3

THE ŚAMALĀJī Viśvarūpa...


30. Now the anatomy of the god thus outlined is explained as follows. His feet are splayed upon the intertwined serpentine, bodies of two nāgas, who represent the fertile waters, into which the tip of his garment also hangs at the centre of their convolutions. The nāgas should have human torsos, curving around and supporting the base of the lower egg (stage l6), so that they, an be shown worshipping at his feet like children; for they are, indeed, his offspring-it cannot be suggested that the primeval waters pre-existed the god and are therefore greater than he. Manu has explained this: in the darkness before the beginning was the Being-in-Itself, the Self-Existent (Svayambhū) and he, though in being, was as yet unborn and thus unable to give birth Therefore:

so 'bhidhyāya śarīrāt svāt sisṛkṣur vividhāḥ prajāḥ/

apa eva sasarjādau tāsu bījam avāsṛjat//

tad aṇḍam abhavad-d-haimaṃ sahasrāṃśusamaprabham/

tasmiṅ jajṅe svayaṃ brahmā sarvalokapitāmahaḥ//

āpo nārā iti proktā āpo vai narasūnavaḥ/

tā yad asyāyanaṃ pūrvaṃ tena nārāyaṇaḥ smrtaḥ//

Manusmṛti 1.8-10


He, wishing to produce various offspring from his own body,

In the beginning produced the waters by desiring, then loosed his semen upon them;

That became a golden egg as brilliant as the sun.

And in it hr himself as grandfather of all the world. Brahmā, was born.

It is said 'The waters are Nāra-s', the waters being the sons of Nara [i.e. Svayambhū];

In that they were the first place he went (ayana), he is called Nārāyana.

  Thus, we show the central pleats of his robe pointing straight downward into the midst of the waters [point K2 in Figures 3.3-3.6] to indicate that he has 'loosed his semen upon them'; this point of insemination corresponds. in the upper half of the plan [point K1] to the face of death, of Śiva as  Mahākāla, who by contrast is urdhvaretas, for he does not shed his seed (sections 15 and 21). But at the same time that Nārāyana Viṣṇu rests his fret upon the inside of the egg produced by his impregnation of the waters, he also draws upon them in order to grow and expand in the personified universe. The waters are fertile but they have no polarity or direction in themselves. This is why they are to be represented by nāgas. The tortuous couplings of serpents result only in the perpetuation of their species (uraga) which imitates a perpetuation of the undulating oceanic state of pralaya. Viṣṇu, upright upon these horizontal waters, is the male (Nara, Puruṣa) whose right and left feet symbolically impose definite sexual identities upon them before they are drawn upward to the base of his trunk, the mūlādhāra. The process of forming the raw material of existence into a cosmos in his own archetypal image is thus begun. As a tree is pāda-pa, drinking through its feet, so the god himself rises in the likeness of a tree. Breaking free of the nether waters into antarikṣa, the atmosphere, his trunk branches out to pervade it with his eight arms. These signify the cardinal and intermediate directions of horizontal space. The centrelines of his four upper arms are to be equally distributed through the horizontal to the vertical (900, at 300 intervals: see Figures 3.5 and 3.6) on either side. His front arms should start from his natural shoulders, the remaining three pairs from successively receding shoulders up to the level of the chin of the profiles of the side-faces, from which points the centre lines of all four upper arms on both sides should emanate (as in Figures 3.5 and 3.6). From the elbow, each forearm should be carved at the angle appropriate for display of the object held in that hand. The hand of the rearmost left arm, extended horizontally and bent upward at the elbow, should support the disc, the cakra Sudarśana, which will thus appear below Aniruddha [Figure 3.1(G)], the Unimpeded, by which name the cakra itself is also known. Moreover, we know that the cakra is the sun, beyond which a man's spirit may by stages be unified with Vāsudeva Kṛṣṇa, beginning with the encounter with his grandson Aniruddha.32 This cakra is also a symbol of universal dominion (the rim is the horizon, cakravāla, the six or eight spokes the directions) which is among the regalia of a great monarch, a cakravartin, and our god, although four-headed like Brahmā, is not an ascetic with matted locks but a king-wearing a crown and bearing weapons. For the ideal ruler ii a mighty warrior, and for this reason his opposite hand, the uppermost right, should wield his great sword, Nandaka, holding it upright as if to strike. In this position its blade will fall among the Vṛṣṇis on the lowest branches of the tree above him, and it should be contrived that it sever the heretic Sāmba [Figure 3.1, (H)], from his kin and displace him (section 24), for the archetypal Sword is Asi, the sword of Dharma. And this shall surely be the lot of an)- man who brings dishonour on his kin, as depicted here among the deified kṣatriya clan of Kṛṣṇa. By means of such graphic symbolism connecting two of the weapons of the god and the universe we know. a worshipper of our image may know his place within the universal scheme and his relationship to his god.





[remaining hand-held symbols lost]

Like Brahmā, the god should be four-headed, each head facing one of the cardinal directions. As our image is to be a relief work, the same convention as that employed in representing caturmukha Brahmā should be used: that is, the central face should look to the front while those on the left and right should present their profiles and the rear face is not represented, its presence being assumed. The central face should be represented in proportion to the rest of his body, but the side-faces should be smaller, commensurate with the distance at which they should seem to be set back from the front face. It is also important that, during the course of the ritual, the. worshipper be not confused or distracted: one main, salient face of the god should he presented as the focus of his devotion. From the mouths of the side faces should issue a vidyādhara bearing, a word: they represent the breath of the god which is the life-sustaining air (prāṇa) filling antaṛikṣa, the uppermost limit of which is marked by their horizontal line of flight. They also herald the doctrine embodied in the god and made explicit in the multiplicity of figures above them: thus they are within the zone of transition between the absolute and relative universe (section 28). At1 three faces of the god should hr crowned, for he is associated roost closely with the kṣatriya of Vāsudeva Kṛṣṇa, who stand upon the lowest branches adjacent to his crown of kingship (section 241. And the crest jewal of his crown should be a wheel or a flower (for behind the cūḍāmaṇi is the shasrāra-cakra) in the form of a wheel elevated upon its axle or stalk; for Viṣṇu is the god of the sacrificial stake, within which all the gods are potentially contained, and Viṣṇu is the sacrifice and co-extensive with it.33 The crown should be decorated with vegetation of the forest from which the stake is cut.

31. Such is the form of the god crouched within the Egg among the roots of the tree. The entire universe is compressed within him, in the lower ellipse; he projects its parts upward, like a branching tree, into the upper ellipse; and the two ellipses are the two halves of the one cosmic Egg. Manu has said of Nārāyṇa, who is also Puruṣa and that ancient Brahmā who was Svayambhū before the beginning:

tasmin-n-aṇḍe sa bhagavān uṣitvā parivatsaram/

svayam evātmano dhyānāt tad aṇḍam akaarod dvidhā//

tābhyāṃ sa śakalābhyāṃ bhūmiṃ ca nirmame/

madhye vyoma diśaś cāṣṭāv apāṃ ca śāśvataam//

Manusmṛti 1.12-13


That divinity, having rested in that Egg the year round,

He himself by his own thought broke in two the Egg.

And with those two halves he made heaven and earth,

Between them the sky and the eight directions,

and the eternal abode of the waters.

That egg, being in its overlapping halves and as a whole the universe itself that we inhabit, we have recreated in miniature, in the form of our god.

32. Now this image stands upon a plinth so that it may be installed for worship. The height of it is one unit; it should be marked on the plan by drawing a line below the baseline and parallel to it, tangential to the nadir of the arc having as radius the length of the inclined sides of the second isosceles triangle [arc m1; see Figure 3.6].

33. Upon the plinth, outside the Egg, four separate figures should be shown standing. Behind the nāga on the Ieft side of the god stands his consort. Śrī Lakṣmī; her long upper garment should be draped casually around her shoulders like a shawl, leaving her breasts bare. [It is this garment which Sāmba, the dissolute Vṛṣṇi, should be shown exhibiting above his head and shoulders in a travesty of womanhood.] Her counterpart on the right of the god should be his bird vehicle, Garuḍa, in human form; the god, though seated, is not seated upon him, and he might be shown peevishly deserting his master, but restrained by a nāga's mighty tail. (For serpents and eagles are age-old enemies, and in this manifestation the god has returned to the nāgas as his vāhana or ayana.) Behind these two figures, on the outer edges of the cowed plinth, should stand the god's two dvārapālas, Jaya and Vijaya, their faces contemplative, and each holding an offering of the kind acceptable to the god-a fruit and a flower (Puṣpaphale)-as examples to his worshippers, for Viṣṇu does not accept blood sacrifices. So the theory and design of our image are explained: the rest is the sculptor's art.

In many points of detail, this reconstruction is inevitably inaccurate and probably laconic. However, it has covered most major aspects of design and iconography in a way which is, I believe, consistent with the theological and mythological horizon and the original intention of the priests and sculptors who designed this remarkable image. The evidently close interrelation between its internal logic and the artistic execution of that logic makes it a superbly realized work of religious art. The care taken over iconographic portrayal and innovatory details-from the invention of the minor incident of a nāga trapping Garuḍa to the decision to represent Viṣṇu with multiple human heads-distinguish it as an original work. Although small in size-it stands a mere 91 centimetres high-as were the multiple Kuṣāṇa images from which it was undoubtedly developed-it contains a total of thirty figures, including only two identical pairs (the nāgas and vidyādharas), of which twenty-four are connected to each other within the Brahmāṇḍa, one has eight arms, two are four-armed and another two are three-headed. It is thus the most complex of all known Hindu cult-images, and the best organized. The unification of so many distinct figures in a single image which is aesthetically pleasing and symmetrically proportioned, is the work of a master. Knowingly or not, he based his design upon constructs deriving from inherited cosmic metaphors of great force: the vertical axis (shambha or yūpa), the branching tree of creation (nyag-rodha, or aśvattha), the horizon line dividing chaos into a fertile duality (tiraścīno... raśmir ...uītato), the egg-form of the universe (Brahmāṇḍa) and its two halves.

In addition to the artistry which so successfully conjoined so many differentiated figures into a single sculpture, there is a three-dimensional aspect to the work which I was unable to rover in the reconstructed 'śilpaśāstra'. The overall shape of the sculpture is ovoid not only in elevation but also in plan and profile. Viewed from above, the sculpture bulges in a curve from the flat back surface so that the main axial figures-the body of Viṣṇu and the three gods above him-are salient, while the limbs of the god and lesser emanations recede gradually towards the sides; this is most clearly to be seen in the curvature of the plinth and the relative positions of the four figures standing upon it (Plates 57 and 59). In profile, the sculpture has a side-elevation which resembles a segment of an ellipse, rising vertically to the crown of Viṣṇu and then receding in a curve toward the top. These geometrical complexities were apparently presented to the sculptor because of the concern on the part of the designer with the egg-like shape of the universe. The overall resulting form is very like a vertical section of a bāṇa-liṅga set in its pīṭha, a combination of a naturally occurring (or svayambhū) pebble from the Narmadā set upright in a man-made curved pedestal which is probably a very ancient cult object and which would have been familiar to priest and layman alike in southern Gujarat around A.D. 600. The same egg shape, upright upon the waters, has been represented in Indian painting until modern times as the Hiraṇyagarbha o r Brahmāṇḍa, the 'Cosmic Egg'.

Artistically, the representation of a man seated beneath a tree, or of a vacant throne set beneath a tree; had long been prefigured in Buddhist sculpture. Kuṣāṇa brahmanical art used the form of a tree as an organic model upon which to base the growing and expanding concept of multiple divinities emerging together from a single image. Not until the making of this Śamalājī image, however, was the tree in its entirety-trunk, branches and roots-employed as a template upon which to base representations of the whole content of the universe conceived as an egg. At the intellectual, planning level, the Śamalājī image represents an enormous advance, far beyond the Kuṣāṇa Caturvyūha and related sculptures of Mathura; the potential for development in the Kuṣāṇa designs was clearly grasped and brought to its peak of achievement by the western school while Mathura was chiefly concerned with the evolution of a new aesthetic in sculpture under Gupta patronage. Thus the artistic style of the Śamalājī image is derived from Gupta Mathura and is well ill such features as anatomical form, the iconography of individual figures and the semi-squatting posture of Viṣṇu.  The total conception of the image and the thinking behind its design, as outlined in the śilpaśāstra' above, however, is original, Mathura having nothing to compare with it in either organization or sheer inventiveness of detail. The Gupta attempts at representing Omniform Viṣṇu, such as the crowd of disembodied heads in a mass of flame around the god in the Gaḍhwā relief (Plate 48) or the straggling rows of nearly identical ṛṣis with other heads of disproportionate size inserted at different angles within the prabhāmaṇḍala of the Bhankari image (Plate 49)) appear clumsy and unsystematically planned beside the precision-so exact that a single (deliberately) displaced figure (H) is immediately apparent-of the Śamalājī sculpture. The fundamental difference between the versions created by the northern Gupta schools and the Western school lies in the degree of intimacy between theology and visual design. At Mathura, there was a wide gap between concept and practice; given the Gītā doctrine of Viṣṇu as Viśveśvara Viśvarūpa, Omniform Universal Lord, the Gupta sculptors enlarged an already existing image-type (Viṣṇu with lion and boar side-heads), expanded the prabhāmaṇḍala and crammed it with repetitive groups of similar figures, holding the loose agglomeration together by means of a superbly executed rakṣāvalī of busts borrowed from the Śaiva repertory. At  Śamalājī, on the other hand, the same doctrine was expressed in an image which drew upon Kuṣāṇa a sculptural tradition hut was completeIy re-designed. In addition, it appears that the Mathura sculptors were given the eleventh chapter of the Gītā as their working text, a visionary description of great literary power hut of little use to the sculptor. At Śamalājī, the Gītā appears not to have been used at all, the designers relying rather upon more ancient concepts of universality contained in texts of greater antiquity which spoke of archetypal forms such as the egg and the tree, which the designers were able to adapt freely in planning an image of Viṣṇu as the universal god. Deeply Indebted as they were to Kuṣāṇa design and Gupta style, the Śamalājī artists nevertheless exercised their originality in allowing their theology - a doctrine which appears to have been virtually formalized at the same time as the designing of the image - to govern the planning of the sculpture.

      As Shah34 intimates, this is rather an image which might be termed Mahā-Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa than a depiction of the Viśvarūpa or Omniform vision of God granted to Arjuna on the battlefield at Kurukṣetra in the Gītā. Inasmuch as it is useful to classify the types of multiple image which are examined in this thesis, the Śamalājī sculpture should be placed under the heading 'Viśvarūpa' as it represents Viṣṇu with multiple heads and emanatory forms. But this is a label of convenience; since the sculpture does not illustrate the vision described in the Gītā, another purpose behind its making has to be sought. That purpose was, as I have shown in the reconstruction of a śilpaśāstra for the image, to create a miniature cosmos- a microcosm- in terms of the Vaiṣṇava cosmogonic and cosmological doctrines which prevailed in the Śamalājī  -Devni Mori region in the sixth century A.D. It is an expository, didactic image, presenting the workings of the universe and its origin alongside mythology and anecdote. In visual terms, it appears to be the sculptural equivalent of a theological treatise intended to bring together all the various strands of belief which contributed to the religious identity of the local Vaiṣṇava community of the time. In other words, It seems to be a graphic formulation of dogma which, as an image, would serve as a unifying symbol or rallying point, for those who regarded Viṣṇu as their particular god, yet lacked a coherent and systematically codified belief system. The image is thus the precise iconographical equivalent of purāṇa text. For the Purāṇas were compiled for the very same purpose as that which, as I propose, was behind the making of this image. purāṇa is formally required to deal with five topics, called the paṅcalakṣaṇas  or 'five characteristics', all of which are present in the sculpture. They are:

1. sarga, the generation (or 'creation') of the universe (the ellipse or egg, its two component ellipses or halves of the egg and the tree within it. in the planning of the image; and the emanation of archetypal life forms as divinities in the sculpture);

2. pratisarga, the dissolution and regeneration of the universe Śiva Mahākāla at the apex of the image corresponding to the point of fertilization or polarization of the waters at its base);

3. uaṃśa, genealogy of the gods and patriarchs (the strict sequence of emanation of gods from Nārāyana, namely Hayagrīva, Brahmā, Śiva, from whom spring lesser divinities, seers or priests among them);

4. manvantaras, the fourteen periods of each Manu making up the kalpa (I have made the planning diagram (Figure 3.2) fourteen units high as measured along the vertical axis of the universe; there are seven significant points in each half of this axis, counting the centre and the two extremities: the height of the image may thus represent the kalpa or, more likely, the current manvantara, seven more of which will end the kalpa);

5. vaṃśānucarita, the history of the solar and lunar dynasties, the sūrya- and candra-vaṃśas  (Sūrya and Candra are represented- and (BR)- and (BL) - as are Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa of the sūryavaṃśa  and the Yādavas Kṛṣṇa, Balarāma (Saṅkarṣaṇa) et al., and the Pāṇḍavas Arjuna and Bhīma of the candravaṃśa).

From this triumphant local development of iconographical form created in the Kuṣāṇa experimental matrix, I shall now move on to another which, though-less complex in its design and number of combined elements, is iconologically the very Śaiva counterpart of the Śamalājī Mahā-Viṣṇu.

32 Ibid., P. 206.

33 Taittirīya-saṃhitā: ...vaiṣṇavo vai devatayā yūpaḥ ...

            'The pots has Viṣṇu for its deity.' ... yajṅo vai viṣṇur yajṅenaiva yajṅaṃ saṃ tanoti ...

                  Viṣṇu is the sacrifice; verily he unites the sacrifice with the sacrifiec.'

(Translation of A. B. Keith, The Veda of the Black Yajus School, Harvard Oriental Series 19, Harvard 1914, pp. 516 and 490.)

34 BMPGB (Special Issue, 1960).


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Oxford University Press 1988