Arts of Asia

Vishnu stele, ca. 12th century
India, Rajputana
40 1/2 x 22 3/4 inches
Gift of Ellnora D. Krannert 1969-10-1

Hindus believe in a formless god whose three primary manifestations are Brahma the creator, Siva the destroyer, and Vishnu the preserver. Vishnu was first mentioned as a deity in the ancient Indian sacred collection of hymns, the Rigveda, in 1200 BCE.

The earliest known Hindu images are from the first century BCE from the Mathura region of northern India. By the third century CE, freestanding figurative sculpture began to appear on the outsides of Hindu temples and became an increasingly important component of temple architecture. This figure of Vishnu was probably placed in an interior sub-shrine or in the sanctum of the temple. The sanctum is the venue for darshana, the active visual and mental interaction between god and devotee. If the rituals surrounding this act are performed correctly, it is thought the god or divine spirit will inhabit the image.

This four-armed figure can be identified as Vishnu because of the attributes he holds in his hands. The conch in his lower-left hand represents the sacred sound om, which calls existence into being. The gada, or mace, in his lower-right hand symbolizes the power of knowledge, and the chakra, or discus, in his upper-left hand denotes divine power and protection. His upper-right hand is raised in abhaya mudra, the gesture of protection. Vishnu periodically descends to earth in various human and non-human forms, known as avatars, to preserve the dharma ("law") and return order to the universe.

In this stele, Vishnu stands on a lotus flower with an elaborate lotus-shaped halo behind his head. His facial expression is benign, and he wears an elaborate crown and large earrings indicating his royal status. To the immediate right and left of his feet stand the anthropomorphized figures of his attributes, the chakra, called Sundarshana, and the conch, Shankha. To their left and right are the diminutive figures of devotees. At the top of the stele, sitting on lotuses, are the figures of Brahma on the left and Siva on the right.

Text by Barbara H. Friedell, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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