Murti is a Sanskrit term that typically refers to sacred images of Hindu deities. However, the term also represents an anthropomorphic embodiment or a manifestation of different forms of a deity that illustrate the infinite attributes and aspects that are beyond the perception of our senses (Sugirtharajah 74). In this way, murtis serve as images of deities that do not only help Hindus establish and enhance a legitimate relationship with God, but it also allows the worshipper to concentrate the mind and attend to the deity with a deep sense of respect, adoration and meditative awareness. In fact, the Hindu ritual tradition darsana, which translates to ‘seeing’, is a central form of worship in which crowds of people in India gather at temple sights to simply stand in the presence of a murti and gain the blessings of the divine by seeing the deity and be seen by it. Understanding the importance of murtis in the Hindu religion allows one to realize that the act of worship in the religion is not just a matter of making devotional offerings and praying, but it also involves a deep focus on expressing honor and affections for the deities (Eck 36).
The origin of murtis goes back to Vedic times but evidence of this cannot be verified with solid affirmations because many of the scripts and literature of the Indus Valley culture is still a mystery until today (Banerjea 42). However, many scholars have debated over the question of whether Vedic Indians made images of their gods (murtis) and whether they knew and practiced image worship or not. From a negative perspective, scholars like Max Muller argued that image worship was not known during the period of Vedic Indians. In fact, other scholars went as far as to say that images, idols, and temples were not even mentioned in the Rgveda (the earliest existing literature of the Indo-Aryans). From the complete opposite perspective however, other scholars used specific passages, mainly hymns that contained anthropomorphic descriptions of different deities (Banerjea 48), from the same Rgveda text to suggest that the practice of making murtis was well known among the early Vedic culture (Banerjea 43). Though the issue is still controversial and not much is of certainty because very little literature of the Vedic period survived, it can be argued that it was not until the fourth century CE that the notion of murtis became to be systematically and officially accepted (Tartakov 6240). It is important to note however, that prior to the fourth century murtis worshipping may have been practised by early settlers. [For further details on the origins and development of image worship (murtis) in India see Banerjea (2002)]. Why the notion of murtis even began has many reasons, a few of which are as follows: first, murtis took the same role that the sacred fire (agni) takes in Vedic rituals to create a union with the divine. That is, just as the fire was a way of transporting sacrifices from a worshipper to the God Agni, a murti was the medium in which the worshipper transferred his devotion with a specific deity. Secondly, murtis were also a way of practicing worship in one’s own home, especially for women at the household stage of life (Banerjea 78). And lastly, murtis were established for temples and public altars where it became common to use them in public worship, festivals, and celebrations.
Certainly not all murtis depict the same god nor does it depict every god in the same way. In fact, the same deity can have more than one murti that reflects different aspects, features, and roles of it. For example, the god Siva is depicted in his daksinamurti as a teacher; but in another murti, he is standing as Pasupati protecting animals and humans (Kramrisch 4323). Additionally, the metaphysics of these murtis are of great importance because Hindus use a wide variety of distinct features that are significant to the deity it represents. In fact, the precise shape, posture, dimension, material, colour and gender vary from one murti to another, and each of these aspects symbolizes a (usually divine) feature of the deity that it characterizes. There are also specific instructions and implements that must be followed when creating a murti, such as the system of measurements and units of proportions for each body part. “The appropriate postures, the appropriate number of arms, the gestures of the hands, the emblems and weapons to be held in the hands, and the appropriate animal mount” (Eck 39) are all specified to be done in certain ways in ancient Hindu texts such as the silpasastras (‘texts of artists’). [Also see ‘canonical manuals of Hindu religious art’ for further information about the instructions of creating a Murti]. Also, in the ancient Vedic text, Bhavisyapurana, seven main types of materials from which murtis can be used are mentioned: stone, metals such as gold, silver and copper; wood, earth or clay, sand, paint, and gems (Banerjea 209). In this way, it is evident that the notion of murtis certainly has a complex system and very detailed work is put in every feature of a murti. Hindus do not simply paint an image of a god and worship it, which is a common accusation usually applied to Hindus by Western religions, but they developed a whole system that is based on the human sense of vision (going back to the idea of darsana) (Eck 33). In fact, the essence of this system has roots which are deeply connected to the divine realm and it cannot simply be ignored or dismissed when learning about Hindu worship.
Throughout India, Ganesa (or Ganapati) is one of the most popular Hindu deities that is worshipped and is represented with many forms of murtis. The name Ganesa simply translates to ‘the lord of hosts’ and he is worshipped for being wise and having the power to remove obstacles; thus many Hindus invoke his blessings at the beginning of any life endeavours such as starting a new career or even buying a new house (Kramrisch 4326). Even though Ganesa is visible in numerous different murtis, there are common features that are usually employed in his classical murtis that make him unique. To begin with, he is in the form of a human but has the head of an elephant; this half human half elephant form represents the cosmic and human dimensions of existence (Sugirtharajah 93). His large round human-like pot-belly is the entire world of creation and it is also a symbol of Ganesa’s prosperity. His elephant head is sometimes disfigured where the tusk is broken and most commonly he is depicted with only one tusk, but sometimes more. More importantly however, according to many sources when the Mahabharata was transmitted by Badarayan Vyasa, he asked Ganesa to record down the oral transmission. So Ganesa is said to have broken off his tusk to write with so that in return Vyasa would narrate the epic in one continuous sitting without pausing; and that is why many of his depictions show a broken tusk (Bae 46). Furthermore, in Mumbai many Hindus worship the god Ganesa each year for ten days leading up to the final festival. In the festival, a large murti of Ganesa is brought to be celebrated and offered prayers to while at the same time ritually disposing the murti in a body of water (Eck 42). This divine festival again illustrates that murtis are an embodiment that become a valid vehicle to allow for a transitory union with the divine, but once the deity departs the murtis, it is no longer appropriate or valid to worship it and in fact it must be disposed of in certain ways (See Bae 45-50).
Another popular deity that is commonly worshipped throughout India is Visnu, the preserver and sustainer of the universe. Like Ganesa, Visnu is popularly depicted in a variety of murtis where his posture is sometimes standing, sitting or reclining. Actually, in South India each murtis, with a different posture, occupies its own space in many of the three-storied temples, and are sometimes each worshiped separately (Kramrisch 4325). The common features in most of his murtis however are his anthropomorphic form and the four arms with each holding a white conch, a rotating wheel, a golden mace and a lotus flower. As is usual with most Hindu murtis, each of these items has an enormous significance and symbolizes the main characteristics of the god. The white conch signifies the origins of existence and the elements of creation (Bae 103), the rotating wheel is a symbol of the cycle of time (i.e. the cycle of birth and death) and it is also believed that Visnu has used the rotating wheel to conquer demons and preserve the world, hence he is known as the sustainer of the universe (Sugirtharajah 79). In the third hand, the golden mace is held and it is symbolic for Visnu’s power and authority as it is a weapon of destruction; and lastly, the lotus flower is the purity and perfection as it is commonly used with many Hindu goddesses (Bae 103).
Ganesa and Visnu are only two common deities among the thousands other gods and goddess that are worshipped in Hinduism, and already numerous types of murtis have been created just to embody and manifest each deity. This clearly indicates that the concept of this type of worship is regarded with a high degree of devotion, seriousness and importance; in fact, great respect, honor and devotion must be firmly present when treating and worshipping any murti of any deity. Moreover, a murti of a supreme lord “may be seen, bathed, adorned, touched, and honored” (Eck 35) by any of its devotees. In fact, it is common to find in a home of a strictly devotional family, sometimes even in temples, that murtis are treated in the same way that a servant would treat his master. That is, “gestures such as bowing, kneeling, prostrating, and in the Hindu world, touching the feet of revered superior” (Eck 35) are consistently performed during a worship. Another important practice that is also mandatory during the worship of a murti is making offerings of sacrifices such as flowers, food, cloth, and incense; also, some deities require that the sacrifice be of meat, liquor, and/or be smeared with blood. The act of making these offerings became a significant part of worship because it was inherited down from the Vedic fire ritual of Agni; in which throwing sacrifices into the fire was a mandatory part of the ritual. Overall, the notion of murtis is an important one in the Hindu religion; in order for sincere worshipers to establish a true union with the divine deity, they must be able to firmly focus their attention on that deity. The way that this state of concentration can be perfected is through the human sense of vision, in which a Hindu is able to see the divine in a physical form and more importantly also be seen by it.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Bae, James H. (2003) In a world of Gods and Goddesses: The Mystic Art of Indra Sharma. Novato: Mandala Publishing.
Banerjea, Jitehdra Nath (2002) The Development of Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.
Eck, Diana L. (1981) Darsan, Seeing the Divine Image in India. Chambersburg: Anima Publications.
Kramrisch, Stella (2005) “Iconography: Hindu Iconography” In Lindsay Jones, eds. Encyclopedia of Religion, p. 4323-4327. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.
Sugirtharajah, Sharada (1994) “Hinduism” In Jean Holm and John Bowker, Picturing God, p. 70-109. New York: Pinter Publishers.
Tartakov, Gary Michael (2005) “Murti” In Lindsay Jones, eds. Encyclopedia of Religion, p. 6239-6240. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA.
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Article written by: Maye Awad (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.