Vishnu and his avatars

Images of the gods often have multiple arms, with each hand holding a symbolic object or making a certain gesture (“mudra”) that have a specific meaning. A palm facing downward, for example, means that worshiper is safe and can take refuge. An open palm facing the viewer indicates protection and favor and tells the worshiper to have no fear. An open palm facing the viewer with the two middle fingers bent can also indicate fearlessness. A raised foot indicates liberation. Hands almost palm to palm near the chest symbolize teaching and turning the Wheel of Dharma. Kneeling or offering water are expressions of respect and humility.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “ Buddhist deities, Hindu gods are identified by the attributes they hold, their attendants, their color, and their adornment. Many wear the lavish jewelry and elaborate hairstyles of Indian royalty, and most wear the “sacred thread.” (Bodhisattvas are also sometimes depicted wearing the sacred thread.) Often male gods have female goddess consorts, and most gods and goddesses have an animal or a bird (called vehicles or mounts) upon which they travel about the universe. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ]

“Shiva has many roles and guises, each identified by particular attributes and poses. He is sometimes depicted with two arms but more frequently four, and he often carries a trident. In the center of his forehead is a third eye, shown vertically. His hairlocks, long and matted from his ascetic practices, are piled up in a tall chignon. Some of Shiva’s most common attributes are: 1) the third eye, indicating divine omniscience; 2) damaru, a hand drum, indicating the primordial sound of creation; 3) a crescent moon in his hair, representing the cyclical nature of time; 4) agni, the consuming fire of destruction; 5) an antelope, representing animal fertility (Shiva is lord of the animals); 6) a trident and battle ax, symbols of Shiva’s militance.

“Vishnu is usually depicted with four arms and wears a tall conical crown. Typically, one of his hands makes the fear-allaying gesture. His animal mount is Garuda, a man-bird and ancient solar symbol of power. In Vishnu’s nine previous avatars, he appeared as a fish, tortoise, boar, man-lion, dwarf, the ax-bearer Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, and the Buddha. Vishnu’s tenth appearance, yet to come, will be Kalki. His two most popular avatars are Krishna and Rama, both of whom, like Vishnu, are portrayed with dark blue-gray colored skin.Vishnu’s usual attributes are: The Great Goddess Devi.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today ; India Divine ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ; Hindu Website ; Hindu Gallery ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press

Hindu Gods


According to Hindu scriptures there are 330 million “devas” (Hindu Gods). These gods come in many forms and types. Some well-known ones are featured in well-known Hindu myths. Some local ones are worshiped in only a few villages or even by a few villagers. Some are associated with animals, plants (all living things are regarded as divine) as well as natural objects and forces. Others are deified ancestors or historical figures. Many deities are associated with particular places or specialized powers or seasons.

The pantheon of gods is as complex as it is vast. Identifying which god is which is often very difficult because they are usually depicted as eternally young and have the same serene expressions. Identification is often made from certain features or certain object they are holding or the animal they are riding on. Making matters even more complex is the fact that the names of gods, their stories, ancestry and links with other god often varies quite a bit from place to place. Many gods have been created over the years through the amalgamation of different gods and cults.

Individual Hindus generally recognize a multiplicity of gods but are only devoted to one or a few of them. In Hinduism there is no real hierarchy of gods. Each god and goddess in Hinduism occupies its own heaven and is worshiped with a different set of doctrines and beliefs. Each gets its turn receiving “darśan” from Hindu followers.

Worshiping Hindu Images

In Hinduism, deities and their representation are conveyed through images, sounds (like the chanting of “om”) and expressive forms like dance or music. These are attempts to capture the many facets of a supreme being whose existence is difficult to grasp, Narayanan said. As such, “depictions of the sacred are themselves considered to be sacred,” she said. [Source: Nina Agrawal, Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2016 \^/]

Pujas (meritorious actions) refers to all forms of Hindu worship: prayers, prayer rituals, and offerings. They can be simple acts by worshipers at a temple or elaborate rituals performed with the help of Brahmin priests to mark special life cycle event. They usually involve chanting, bowing and leaving offerings before images.

Pujas are usually directed to a specific deity. They often are made in conjunction with a request for protection and help or an expression of thanks. Their ultimate objective is to become one with the deity to which the prayer is directed.

puja offering for Shiva

A puja is supposed to bring five things together: 1) a pot containing water, representing the body; 2) murtis (an image of deity); 3) prasad (a flower or fruit offering, representing nature); 4) yantras (a mandala, or sacred pattern representing the universe); and 5) a mantra , or chant. The first four are optional. The last one is necessary. The mantra is viewed as essential to complete the ritual.

A puja usually involves some kind of offering and worship before an image. It is supposed to begin with a mantra that calls the deity and ends with the worshiper smearing blood-red vermillion paste or red powder ( kumkum ) on the middle of the forehead of the image being worshiped. Lighting incense sticks and ringing brass bells, like matras, are seen as ways to get the attention of the gods.

There is often an element of give and take with puja. Sometimes an offering is made and a small portion is taken back. This portion is regarded as blessed and auspicious. In Hindu temples puja often takes the form of offerings at statues of gods followed by blessings, sometimes a mark on the forehead, by a priest. Most people give the priest a small amount of money after receiving the blessing. A Web site launched in the early 2000s ( arranges pujas at a choice of temples in Indian by proxy for a fee of $10 to $75 per prayer, with the cost determined by how elaborate the puja is.


Darshan (also spelled Darsan) is an important aspect of Hindu worship. It refers to viewing an image of a deity. "A Hindu goes to a temple," writes historian Daniel Boorstin, "not to 'worship,' but rather 'for “darśan”” ...Darsan is a two-way flow of vision. While the devotee sees his god, so too the god sees the devotee, and the two make contact through their eyes. In the building of a new temple...when the images of the gods are made, their eyes are the last to be completed...The bulbous or saucer eyes that make Indian paintings of gods seem so bizarre to us are clues to the dominance of vision in the Hindu's relation to his gods. Many gods, like Shiva and Ganesh, have a third eye in the center of their foreheads. Brahma, the Thousand Eyes, regularly has four heads, to look in all directions at once, and sometimes he has leopard-spot eyes all over his body."

The importance given darshan can be appreciated by the attention that is sometimes lavished on images that are worshiped. In large temples where there are a large number of attendants, the image is woken up in the morning and washed, fed and prepared with flowers and incense before it is placed on its throne in the shrine room. In some cases the images are fanned and entertained with music throughout the day. In the old days many temples had their own troupe of dancers that entertained the images and could be enjoyed by worshipers for a fee.

Darshan is also associated with people of great holiness. Great leaders like Gandhi are also believed to possess darśan. When Indians glimpsed the Mahatma through the window of trains on his travels across India they were "taking darsan" and Gandhi was giving it. The importance of eye contact between the gods and humans helps explain why Hindu disdain eye contact in public, even between husband and wife.


Bhakti refers to devotion, participation in and the love of a personal god or a representational god by a devotee. In Hinduism Bhakti-marga is considered one of many possible paths of spirituality and alternative means to moksha. The other path are Raja-marga (path of contemplation and meditation), Karma-marga (path of works) and Jnana-marga (path of knowledge). [Source: Wikipedia]

Bhakti is practiced in a number of ways, including reciting mantras, japas (incantations), and individual private prayers in one's home shrine or in a temple before a murti or sacred image of a deity. Hindu temples and domestic altars are essential elements of worship in contemporary theistic Hinduism. While many people visit a temple on special occasions, most offer daily prayers at a domestic altar. This altar is usually a dedicated part of the home that includes sacred images of deities or gurus.

Aarti is a form of daily worship. It involves offering a flame and singing a song of praise. Notable aartis include Om Jai Jagdish Hare, a Hindi prayer to Vishnu, and Sukhakarta Dukhaharta, a Marathi prayer to Ganesha. Aarti can be used to make offerings to entities ranging from deities to human exemplars. In many temples, including Balaji temples where the primary deity is an incarnation of Vishnu, Aarti is offered to Hanuman, a devotee of God. Followers of Swaminarayan offer aarti to Swaminarayan, whom they consider to be the supreme God, in Swaminarayan temples and home shrines.

How Bhakti Evolved

Wendy Doniger, a Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Chicago, wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Bhakti, ( Sanskrit: “devotion”) in Hinduism, a movement emphasizing the mutual intense emotional attachment and love of a devotee toward a personal god and of the god for the devotee. According to the Bhagavadgita, a Hindu religious text, the path of bhakti, or bhakti-marga, is superior to the two other religious approaches, the path of knowledge (jnana) and the path of ritual and good works (karma). [Source: Wendy Doniger, Encyclopedia Britannica]

Ganga Kalighat 1875

“Bhakti arose in South India in the 7th to 10th centuries in poems that the Alvars and the Nayanars composed in Tamil to the gods Vishnu and Shiva, respectively. Drawing on earlier Tamil secular traditions of erotic poetry as well as royal traditions, bhakti poets applied to the god what would usually be said of an absent lover or of a king. Bhakti soon spread to North India, appearing most notably in the 10th-century Sanskrit text the Bhagavata-purana. Muslim ideas of surrender to God may have influenced Hindu ideas of bhakti from the start, and later poet-saints such as Kabir (1440–1518) introduced Sufi (mystical) elements from Islam.

“Each of the major divinities of Hinduism—Vishnu, Shiva, and the various forms of the Goddess—have distinct devotional traditions. Vishnu-bhakti is based on Vishnu’s avatars (incarnations), particularly Krishna and Rama. Devotion to Shiva is associated with his frequent manifestations on earth—in which he can appear as anyone, even a tribal hunter, a Dalit (formerly called an untouchable), or a Muslim. Devotion to the goddesses is more regional and local, expressed in temples and in festivals devoted to Durga, Kali, Shitala (goddess of smallpox), Lakshmi (goddess of good fortune), and many others.

“Many, but not all, bhakti movements were open to people of both genders and all castes. Devotional practices included reciting the name of the god or goddess, singing hymns in praise of the deity, wearing or carrying identifying emblems, and undertaking pilgrimages to sacred places associated with the deity. Devotees also offered daily sacrifices—for some, animal sacrifices; for others, vegetarian sacrifices of fruit and flowers—in the home or temple. After the group ritual at the temple, the priest would distribute bits of the deity’s leftover food (called prasad, the word for “grace”). Seeing—and being seen by—the god or goddess (darshan) was an essential part of the ritual.

“During the medieval period (12th to mid-18th century), different local traditions explored the various possible relationships between the worshipper and the deity. In Bengal the love of God was considered analogous to the sentiments involved in human relationships, such as those felt by a servant toward his master, a friend toward a friend, a parent toward a child, a child toward a parent, and a woman toward her beloved. In South India passionate, often erotic, poems to Shiva and Vishnu (particularly to Krishna) were composed in Tamil and other Dravidian languages, such as Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam. In the 16th century Tulsidas’s Hindi retelling of the Rama legend in the Ramcharitmanas (“Sacred Lake of the Acts of Rama”) focused on the sentiment of friendship and loyalty. Many of those poems continue to be recited and sung, often at all-night celebrations.”

Symbols, Mounts and Recognizing Hindu Gods

20120501-Ganesh on his vahanaa mouse rat.jpg
Ganesh and his his mount, a rat
Hindu gods are often coupled in male and female pairs. All the important male gods have a “shakti” (female consort). These gods also have various “avatars” (incarnations) and “vahana” (mounts or creature they ride on) and are linked to other gods by marriage and birth and kinship. The mounts of Hindu Gods, which include tigers, swans, and bulls, transports the gods between earth and heaven. Many Hindu gods take the shape of horses when they die. Hindus consider the peacock sacred because of its association with several deities.

Many Hindu gods have good and evil sides and even change into gods that are quite different from each other. Shiva, for example, is both the god of destruction and the enforcer of divine law and creation. He is both a god and a goddess named Shakti. Incarnations sometimes mirror the phases and experiences that humans go through in their lives.

Vidya Dehejia, a professor at Columbia University, wrote: “In India, the aim of art was never to imitate nature or to recreate reality through illusionistic devices; rather, the goal was to produce an idealized form. Sculptors did not model their images on living beings: whether the subject was a god or a mortal, the artist strove to convey a stylized ideal. [Source: Vidya Dehejia, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University Metropolitan Museum of Art /=]

“The prototype for the female torso was the vajra, a double-headed divine thunderbolt, or the damaru, a waisted drum held by the god Shiva. Following such models specified in ancient texts, sculptors invariably produced an idealized female form with narrow waist, broad hips, and high, rounded breasts. The arms, shapely and elongated, were created to resemble the slender, pliant bamboo shoot. Eyes were modeled on the lotus petal or the fish. No specific attributes distinguish human from divine figures; gods and goddesses as well as ordinary men and women are equally sensuous in their portrayal. Given this standardized visual vocabulary, it is rare that the work of an individual sculptor with a distinctive aesthetic style emerges from the dozens of images carved on temple walls. Sculptors did not model their images on living beings: whether the subject was a god or a mortal, the artist strove to convey a stylized ideal. /=\

“Hindu and some Buddhist deities are associated with particular mounts or vehicles (vahanas). Thus Shiva rides the bull, the goddess Parvati rides the lion, and Vishnu rides the divine eaglelike Garuda. Each of the many minor deities has his or her own vehicle. An iconography manual enables a viewer to identify a god as, say, Agni by recognizing his vehicle, the ram. An image on a temple wall may be identified as divine by the presence of a vahana; in the case of a human image, no such vehicle is portrayed. /=\


20120501-Vishnu_Avatars 2.jpg
Vishnu Avatars
“ In Hinduism, an avatar is the incarnation of a deity in human or animal form, often taken to counteract an evil in the world. It usually refers to 10 appearances of Vishnu. Avatars” are often other gods. Krishna, for example, is an avatar of Vishnu and Kali is an avatar of Shakti. Many of these incarnations are believed to have occurred over time as different gods from different places, or with different duties, were merged.

The term 'avatar' is not found in Vedic literature, but is present in verb forms in post-Vedic literature and as a noun, particularly in Puranic literature after the 6th century A.D. The concept of reincarnation is most commonly associated with the avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu, although it has been applied to other deities. Various lists of avatars of Vishnu appear in Hindu scriptures, including the ten Dashavatara of the Garuda Purana. In the goddess-based Shaktism tradition, avatars of the Devi are found, and all goddesses are considered to be different aspects of the same metaphysical Brahman and Shakti (energy). Although medieval Hindu texts mention avatars of other deities, such as Ganesha and Shiva, this is infrequent and of lesser importance compared to the mention of Vishnu's avatars. [Source: Wikipedia]

Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA, writes: “The idea of an avatar was distinct to Hinduism before a variation of it was introduced into Mahayana Buddhism, and it retains a pivotal role in Hindu theology and mythology. The idea of an avatar is predicated on the notion that from time to time, whenever evil or ignorance is on the increase, the Supreme Being must incarnate itself in some form, or descend to earth, so that the forces that stand for good might be reinforced. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA ==]

Hindu God Mudras, Postures and Body Language

Vidya Dehejia, a professor at Columbia University, wrote: ““Various hand gestures, known as mudras, are used to express the mood and meaning of divine images, whether Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist. A palm of the hand raised to face the worshipper is the gesture of protection (abhaya). A lowered hand with fingers pointing downward is the gesture of bestowing (varada). When thumb and index finger of the right hand are joined, it is an indication of teaching (vyakhyana). In the case of the Buddha, the left hand joins the right to create a two-handed gesture of preaching that is intended to recall the first sermon (dharmachakra). When a seated image has palms upward and placed within each other in the lap, it is the mudra of meditation (dhyana). Other mudras are specific in their application. [Source: Vidya Dehejia, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University Metropolitan

“The contrappposto pose, known in India as tribhanga, is a popular stance. In this somewhat exaggerated posture, the body bends in three places; the head and the lower limbs are angled in the same direction while the torso moves in the opposite angle. The tribhanga produces a sense of swaying movement, and most images are thus poised, whether of Shiva, the goddess Shakti, or of men and women who grace the walls of temples. The samabhanga, in which the body stands erect in a single alignment, is used for Vishnu and for Jain images. /=\

“The deities may be presented in a variety of seated postures (asanas) as well. Meditating gods-the Buddha, the jinas, Shiva-often sit in a special cross-legged lotus posture (padmasana). A number of deities, including Shiva and the goddess Parvati, sit on an elevated seat in a posture of ease known as lalitasana, with one leg bent to rest on the seat and the other leg pendant.” /=\

Disrespectful Marketing of Hindu Images

Vishwakarmaa, the son of Brahma, displaying a variety of mudra

Nina Agrawal wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Bathroom mats. Toilet seats. Shoes. Dog tags. All of these items have, in recent years, gone on sale adorned with images of Hindu deities, particularly that of Ganesha, known most commonly in the West for his elephant face. “It is inappropriate, and it is offensive to devotees,” said Rajan Zed, a Reno, Nev.-based Hindu activist who protests against such commercial products. “I haven’t seen Christ on toilet seat covers. Or any symbol of Islam,” said Vasudha Narayanan, a professor of religion at the University of Florida. “If you wouldn’t do it with one, why do you want to do it with something else? Or at least wouldn’t it behoove you to check? Another time, there was the Burger King commercial in Spain that featured Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, sitting atop a hamburger with the caption, “The snack is sacred” in Spanish. (Many Hindus are vegetarian, with beef considered especially off-limits because of the sacredness of the cow.) [Source: Nina Agrawal, Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2016 \^/]

“The use of these images in a secular context, and particularly in a context that is in direct opposition to the basic tenets of the Hindu religion, displays a lack of respect, Narayanan said. Consider that time in 2013 when Urban Outfitters drew criticism for selling socks with depictions of Ganesha around the ankles. Feet are considered the lowest form of a being, Narayanan said. Pointing one’s feet at another person is considered to be extremely disrespectful, while bowing at someone’s feet is a mark of veneration. “When you have your foot not just pointing to but touching a god on footwear, it’s a double-whammy,” Narayanan said. “Even the most liberal Hindus that I know … this they would find particularly jarring.” \^/

“It’s not that Hindus categorically reject the use of religious images on artistic or commercial products. In India, for example, images of Lakshmi are commonly used to sell lottery tickets. In another well-known advertisement, Hanuman, a monkey-faced deity known in Hindu mythology as an efficient, swift emissary, promises fast delivery for ABT Parcel Service, a transportation and post service in south India. “Context shapes whether something is a misappropriation or appropriation or appreciation,” said Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy group for Hindu Americans. “Someone who’s doing it out of appreciation or reverence would never put it on a toilet. That automatically becomes the filter,” she said. \^/

“Some Hindu symbols have become particularly valuable to brands. For instance, Brahma Beer in Brazil is by some estimates the ninth top-selling beer in the world. Though the reason behind the selection of the name Brahma is unclear (the brand originated in 1888), the name also refers to a Hindu god and is antithetical in a religion that sees alcohol as impure — or that at the very least would not associate it with worship.” \^/

Efforts to Curb Disrespectful Marketing of Hindu Images

Nina Agrawal wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Every few months, Zed said, he receives a message about some insensitive commercial use of a Hindu image. Most recently, Zed called on Amazon to pull deity-decorated skateboards and bedding from its online shelves. (This was not the first time the retailer got itself into hot water over such practices. In June, the hashtag "boycottAmazon" trended on Twitter in India after users discovered doormats with images of Hindu deities available for sale. Amazon removed the items within days.) Earlier, Zed asked online retailers Wayfair and Kess In House to stop selling bathmats, doormats, dog beds, leggings and rugs with images of Ganesha, who often is invoked in prayers for prosperity and success at the beginning of new ventures. [Source: Nina Agrawal, Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2016 \^/]

Guruju puja

“Most of the time, when Zed reaches out to companies to ask them to stop selling an item or displaying an advertisement, he said, they apologize and comply. “It’s ignorance, basically,” Zed said. “People don’t know our traditions and our deities.” “People reach for things that are accessible … and don’t stop to think necessarily what those pieces of culture might mean,” Scafidi said. Instead, they infuse the symbol with their own, “usually inchoate,” meaning, she said. “It doesn’t typically come from a place of racism or hatred. It’s more thoughtlessness,” Scafidi added. But after a group has made it known that a particular use of an image or cultural artifact is offensive, companies that continue to use it are choosing to place profits above respect, she said. Zed said he contacted Anheuser-Busch InBev, now the owner of Brahma, about discontinuing the product, but he acknowledged that it was too significant a revenue source for the company to terminate. \^/

“In the U.S., the multibillion-dollar yoga industry has for years produced yoga mats, towels and exercise pants that place “om” symbols and images of Ganesha close to or directly underneath the feet and legs. But Scafidi said these images are probably more an asset than a liability to companies at this point because they have been accepted by the mainstream rather than seen as offensive to another culture. \^/

“That’s a big problem, said Shukla, of the Hindu-American Foundation. “On the one side, people are very familiar with Hindu concepts like karma or reincarnation” and practices like yoga, she said. But on the other hand, these elements have been stripped of any association with Hinduism. Shukla’s group is trying to change that. Its members previously launched a “Take Back Yoga” campaign to educate the public about yoga’s connection to Hinduism. \^/

“This year, when the American holiday of Halloween and the Hindu holiday of Diwali overlapped, the group embarked on an effort to dispel myths about the swastika, a symbol of prosperity and good fortune in Hinduism that was notoriously misappropriated by Hitler. “The more people understand about Hindu practice, the greater the likelihood of [symbols] being used in context,” Shukla said.” \^/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia “ edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2023

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