Masterpiece: The Hindu deity Shiva

The Beautiful Ascetic

The Hindu deity ShivaAsian Art Museum

Who Is This Complex God?
Worshiped by millions as the Supreme Being, he is both creator and destroyer of the universe. Like an ascetic, he rejects belongings and sex, yet he is also a devoted family man.

His dreadlocked hair, a fashion still worn by many Indian ascetics or yogis today, has some stories to tell. To unlock Shiva’s secrets, we start with his hair.

The Hindu deity Shiva detail - MoonAsian Art Museum

The crescent moon, barely visible in Shiva’s dreadlocks, reminds us of his power over the cycles of the universe and time. What is in Shiva’s hair on the opposite side of his head?

The Hindu deity Shiva detail - GangesAsian Art Museum

Ganga, the goddess of the great River Ganges, nestles in Shiva’s locks reminding us of when Ganga, in her form as a river, was sent from the heavens to earth. Shiva broke the river’s fall with his matted hair to save the earth from great destruction.

The Hindu deity ShivaAsian Art Museum

Visual artists, poets, musicians, dancers, and storytellers recount Shiva’s stories and describe his perfection.

The sculptor of this artwork, following the style of the time, has exaggerated the broadness of Shiva’s shoulders . . .

and the narrowness of his waist.

The sculptor also treated lines in a hyperelegant manner, such as the jeweled chain on the lower right leg . . .

and the sacred thread across the chest.

How Did The Bronze Sculptor Create Such A Figure?
With a thousand-year tradition, South Indian bronze sculptures are among the great artworks of the world.

Casting Bronze Statues in South India (2019)Asian Art Museum

Watch a video of how a wax model is turned into a sophisticated work of bronze.

The Hindu deity ShivaAsian Art Museum

Devotion to Shiva is conveyed not just in artworks but also in intensely expressive poems.

Pure gold, first being,

living in grove-encircled Pulamankai, he is my own;

he is music, he is like

the light of the morning sun.

—Adapted from Indira Viswanathan Peterson, Poems to Śiva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 11.

Charles Ma performs South Indian classical dance to a hymn describing and praising Shiva (2019)Asian Art Museum

Devotion to Shiva is also conveyed through dance. Here, Charles Ma performs a South Indian classical dance to a hymn describing and praising Shiva.

The Hindu deity ShivaAsian Art Museum

An essential practice in Hindu worship is for the deity and the worshiper to see each other (darshana). The deity confers blessings and divine grace, and the worshiper offers humble devotion in return.

Images of Hindu deities are honored as sacred embodiments of the deity. A stone image of a deity would be fixed immovably in a temple, but a bronze image like this could be taken out in processions for many more worshipers to see and be blessed by.

In the lower part of the base of this sculpture there are holes likely used to help secure the image to a palanquin or chariot. Such a vehicle was used to convey the image through the streets during special festivals and rituals bringing the deity closer to the people.

Honoring Hindu Deities in the Temple and in Procession (2019)Asian Art Museum

Watch a video of Hindu images in worship inside the temple and in procession.

The Hindu deity Ganesha (1400/1600)Asian Art Museum

Shiva was an ascetic, living in rigorous self-control and separated from society, so it may be surprising that he has a family: a wife, the supremely beautiful and virtuous goddess Parvati, and two sons. Both of his sons came into being in unusual ways. Learn their stories by finding Ganesha (shown here) and Skanda in the Asian Art Museum's collection.

Credits: Story

Masterpiece presentation made possible with the generous support of an anonymous donor.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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