India, Tamil Nadu, Thanjavur
Four-Armed God Vishnu Holding Discus and Conch
Vijayanagar period, 15th century

85.9 x 31.2 x 28.2 cm (33 7/8 x 12 9/16 x 11 1/8 in.)
Robert Allerton Purchase Fund, 1969.699

Of the three primary Hindu deities who embody God, Vishnu is the preserver of the universe. (The two others are Brahma, the creator, and Shiva, the destroyer.) He descends to earth at various intervals during the cycles of existence in the form of one of 10 avatars, such as Varaha, the boar, to protect humanity and guard the earth from forces of destruction. The 10 avatars of Vishnu are each represented in a traditional dance, the Dashavatara. Because Vishnu maintains the cosmic order of the universe, or dharma, he is characteristically portrayed standing upright and balanced.

Multiple limbs or heads represent the supernatural powers of a deity, and in this bronze statue Vishnu is depicted with four arms. In his upper left and right hands, he holds attributes associated with his battle against evil: a conch shell (upper left), used as a war horn to signal troops, and a razor-edged disc (chakra), a powerful weapon that symbolizes dharma. Its circular shape suggests that the circles of existence are assured by proper behavior. Vishnu's two lower hands form mudras: The lower right makes the gesture of granting protection and reassurance; the lower left once held an object, perhaps a lotus flower, a symbol of spiritual enlightenment. Vishnu is depicted in the garb of a king, adorned with jewelry and an elaborate crown, trappings that symbolize his status as supreme lord of the cosmos.

As are all Hindu gods, Vishnu is believed to live in his sculptural image. Originally, this statue would have been adorned with garlands and carried in religious processions. At other times it would have resided in a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu.

See the Dashavatara dance depicting Vishnu's avatars.

India, Rajasthan
Boar Incarnation of God Vishnu (Varaha) Lifting the Earth Goddess Bhudevi
11th century

Red sandstone
132.1 x 58.5 x 29.3 cm (52 x 23 x 11 1/2 in.)
James W. and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection, 1997.707

According to a Hindu myth, the earth began to sink under the burden of evil and overpopulation, and Vishnu, assuming the form of a boar (varaha), dived into the ocean to rescue it. This stele from a Vaishnava (dedicated to Vishnu) temple represents the moment when Varaha, depicted as a human figure with a boar's head, has rescued the earth, personified as a beautiful woman perched on his bent left elbow. She lays her right hand gently on his snout both for support and as a token of gratitude. The nagas (serpent deities) below the lotus flower under Vishnu's left foot symbolize water.

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