Sculptural images of multi-armed Hindu deities, some half-human, half-animal, are sometimes bewildering to Westerners. Most often they are seen as isolated forms in a museum setting, but it is important to remember that they are intended not as works of art but as images of devotion. Adorning the outside surface of temples as an integral part of the architecture, the lavishly carved figures were meant to be instructional devices to aid worshippers in the complex mythology of their faith. Notice how the sculpted figures are set into the niches of the Black Pagoda at Konarak (shown here) like story panels. The intent of the sculptor was to represent an entire mythology of selected gods or goddesses within the surface of a religious structure. Often the abundance of ornamentation obscured the simple forms of the temple.
To unravel the mystery of Hindu sculpture requires a general understanding of its symbolic meaning as it relates to basic religious beliefs. Two principles are primary to Hindu faith. Reincarnation, the belief that the soul migrates through endless lives being reborn in animal and human forms, is the first fundamental concept. Intricately linked with this is the doctrine of karma which holds that the accumulation of good and evil in one's life determines the quality of life to come. Hinduism provides personalized gods equipped with a body of legends and myths, in which the devotees can place their faith hoping to gain a better place in the next life.
Of the many Hindu deities, three are held universally supreme: Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; and Shiva, the Destroyer. Serving as an ambassador, Vishnu is seen as a kind god, working continuously for the world's welfare. People who worship Vishnu also believe he can come to earth in many forms. He does this when people forget the right way to live.
Like Christian saints, certain attributes identify each Hindu god and goddess. In Hindu sculpture, the multi-armed figures serve as a display for the various attributes of a particular deity. Two attributes have primary importance for Vishnu: the discus and the conch shell. The discus is a flaming, sharp-edged weapon of immense destructive power. Capable of destroying vast numbers of enemies, it symbolizes Vishnu's role as Defender of the World Order. It also serves as a reminder that a keen mind is a powerful weapon against ignorance. The conch shell is employed by Vishnu in war; by blowing the shell, he often struck terror into the hearts of his enemies. The spirals of the conch shell are also symbolic of the eternal cycles of life.
Narasimha (Nara-she-mah), the Man-Lion, was Vishnu's fourth reincarnation. The relief sculpture of Narasimha (shown in the centerspread) varies from low relief to fully in the round, and is a superb example of stone sculpture being produced during the 1200s in northern India. Note the sculptor's technical abilities as displayed in the undercutting of the hands, the delicate band between the legs, the precise, fierce features and the sensitive carving of the ornamental accessories. Beyond the technical aspects, the sculptor was also able to bring a spiritual quality to the form. Narasimha's strength can be felt through the firm posture of the form and the "intense facial features which were meant to strike terror in those with evil intent. Despite the grotesque purpose of the form, the sculptor has created a fanciful image that is a parallel between the external nature of the material and the internal nature of the spirit.
Look carefully at the sculpture. Vishnu/Narasimha can be easily identified by the attributes he holds in his hands. In context, this figure, which was probably a part of a medieval temple facade, would have served as a meditative device for worshippers who would recall the story of Narasimha and the lesson it represented as a means of gaining personal contact with the god. …