Hindu Gods Iconography

Trimurti: Brahmā, Vishnu, and Shiva

The Mahabharata Series (cont.)

For some of my post a little background on the Hindu pantheon would be helpful.  The descriptions below are oversimplified, butI hope folks would enjoy the iconography !

Hinduism came to India with the Aryan invaders who brought their Vedic gods.  At that time the indigenous people of India had many local gods.  As the Vedic deities and local deities blended, Hinduism  was formed.  As a result of this amalgamation, there are many different names for any one God and many different stories about that god/goddess — often inconsistent.  But three main deities stand out: Shiva, Vishnu and Brahmā who in later Hinduism are known as the Trimurti (three forms).  These three are felt to be different aspects of the divine.  However, the mother Goddess also plays a huge role and she is variously designated as a consort (sexual partner) each in the Trimurti.

Here their brief traits.  Below I will show various pictures of the Gods which are found all over India and explain the iconographic symbolism.

Deity Traits
Brahmā Main Trait: The Creator
Consort: Saraswati
Shiva Main Trait: The Destroyer or Transformer
: Nataraja (lord of the dance), Rudra, Shankara
Consorts: Sati, Paravati, Kali, Durga
Vishnu Main Trait: The Preserver / Maintainer
:  Lakshmi


Brahmā & Saraswati


Vehicle: Swan (grace, discernment)Crown: Supreme authorityBeard: Wisdom

4 Arms: represent east, south, west, and north
and also:  mind, intellect, ego, and  self-confidence. The arms hold the items below:

The Book: symbolizes knowledge (The Vedas)

Rosary: symbolize substances used in the creation process

Gold: Symoblises activity – creator

Guru Brahmā

As above plus:4 Heads:  Brahma is often depicted with 4 heads.  There are many stories about why he has 4 heads.Complexion:  Red is common , as are red clothes

Lotus:  Symbolizes nature and the living essence of all things and beings in the Universe.

Note:  Brahma temples and worship is rare in India nowadays.


Saraswati– Consort of Brahma, Goddess of knowledge, music and arts.  Associated with fertility, prosperity, purity and dcreativity.  Saraswatis children are the Vedas (scriptures).Swan:  same vehicle as her husbandVina: her musical instrument

Peacock: represents arrogance and pride over its beauty — the Goddess teaches not to be concerned with expernal apearance and to be wise regarding the external truth.

River:  Her name means “flowing” — related to her early history as a river goddess.

Shiva & The Goddess


Third Eye: line in center of forehead.  He used this to burn Desire (Kāma) to ashes.  Cut off head of son, Ganesh.  It will annihilate the world in the end of the age.Tiger Skin: A meditation blanket of only most accomplished ascetics.Matted Hair:  His classic style.  Implies an ascetic meditator who cares not for looks.  Sadhus imitate his appearance.

Trident:  Shiva’s weapon to destroy evil and ignorance

Drum:  Hanging on the Trident.  Shiva is known for his dance which will destroy the world.  (see below: Nataraja)

Blue (esp throat): He drank the poison churned during creation of world to save it.

River (Ganga): A stream of water flows from his hair.  This is the sacred Ganges River (Ganga).  Here its fall from heaven is broken by the Lingum (Shiva’s phallic symbol of potency).

Snake: often shown with a cobra as a garland

Mount Kailāsa: The mountain in the Himalayas where Shiva lives and is felt to be the center of the Universe.

Shiva - Nataraja

Nataraja:  Shiva is known as the lord of the dance- “Nataraja”Ring of Fire:  He uses fire to destroy.Rhythm of the Universe:  Another image of the dance is the vibrant energetic movement and enpowering of the universe.

Releasing Souls:  Another image is the dance used to release the souls of all men from the snare of illusion.


Shiva's Family

Paravati:  The Gentle aspect of Shakti (the power of the mother Goddess).  Kali & Durga (below) represents the violent aspect of the feminine power.  Symbol of fertility.  Vehicle Lion.Ganesh:  Son of Shiva and Paravati — see post on Ganesh


Ganesh: Son of Paravati & Shiva
Elephant Head: Denotes Wisdom.Fan-like Ears:  He hears all petitionsTrunk: symobl of his discrimintation (viveka) needed for spiritual progress.

Pot-belly:  Bounty of nature and shows that gansh swallos the sorrows of the universe and protects the world.

Sweet rice:  (left hand) symbolic of sweetness of the realized inner self.

“Swastika”: (right palm) symbol of fortune (stolen by Nazis)

Goad:  (in right hand) Helps propel mankind forward in righteousness and truth and remove obstacles.

Noose:  (left hand) “Pasha” – symbol that worldly attachments and desires are a noose.

Broken Tusk:  (right) Symbol of sacrifice which he broke for writing the Mahabharata.

Trident:  (on forehead)  Shiva’s symbol

Mouse:  Ganesh’s vehicle — at his feet.  He is humble enough to ride the lowest of creatures.



Kali: The violent aspect of Shakti (the power of the mother Goddess).  The goddess associate with eternal energy.  The goddess of time and change.  Some conceive of her a benevolent mother goddess.  Associated with other Hindu Guddesses like Durga, Bhadrakali, Sati, Rudrani, Parvati and Chamunda.Necklace of Heads: after destructionSkirt of Arms: after destruction

Severed Head:  Human Ego which must be slain by Divine Knowldge in order to attain moksha.

Sword: Signifies divine knowledge

Vishnu & Lakshmi


4-Arms: All-powerful and all-pervasive.  Holding the following items:Crown: symbolizes supreme authority.Conch Shell:  represents power to creat and maintain the universe.  It represents “OM”

b: A sharp-spinning discus-like weapon.  Represents destruction of one’s ego

Blue Skin: All-pervasive like the infinite ocean

Peacock Feather: Borrowing from Krisna Avataar.

2 Earrings: Inherent opposites in creation:  knowledge and ignorance; happiness and unhappiness; pleasure and pain.

Garland of Flowers:  “vanamālā”

Jewel on Chest:  Lakshmi dwells in the jewel

Mace:  Weapon

Conch Shell:  auspicious


Lakshmi : Vishnu’s consort
4 Arms: Brahma is often depicted with 4 heads. There are many stories about why he has 4 heads.Lotus:  Stands of Lotus — symbol of spiritual perfection and rises above worldly contaminationCoins:  Goddess of means of obtaining objectives:  Prosperity Goddess. dressed in fine garments and precious Jewels.

Elephants: Flanked by elephants signifying her royal power. Some texts have the owl as her vehicle.

Avatars of Vishnu

Avatars of VishnuIntro:  When the world needs help, Vishnu incarnates and works wonders (from Wiki).

  1. Matsya, the fish-avatar who saved Manu – the progeniter of mankind from the great deluge and rescued the Vedic scriptures by killing a demon
  2. Kurma, the tortoise-avatar, who helped in the Samudra manthan – the churing of the ocean
  3. Varaha, the boar-avatar, who rescued the earth from the ocean, by killing her kidnapper-demon Hiranyaksha
  4. Narasimha, the half man-half lion avatar, who killed the tyrant demon-king Hiranyakashipu, to rescue the demon’s son Prahlada, who was a Vishnu-devotee
  5. Vamana, the dwarf-avatar, who defeated the demon-king Bali
  6. Parashurama, sage with the axe who killed the thousand-armed king Kartavirya Arjuna
  7. Rama, the king of Ayodhya and the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana
  8. Krishna, the king of Dwarka, a central character in the Bhagavata Purana and the Mahabharata and reciter of Bhagavad Gita
  9. The Buddha (Gautama Buddha) meaning “the enlightened one”
  10. Kalki (“Eternity”, or “time”, or “The Destroyer of foulness”), who is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

11 responses to “Hindu Gods Iconography

  1. Ian

    I don’t know whether you ever saw the ‘I believe’ series on TV (I only know it from the interwebs). There’s a fascinating interview on Hinduism here: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6191876799063525626&pr=goog-sl#

    Where the interviewee puts forward a view of the diversity of divinities as all being forms of one underlying divinity. The way she puts it I thought was very demythologized, which is interested. I suspected she wasn’t putting forward mainstream theology of Hinduism.

  2. Wow, how can you say that this is oversimplified. That’s a great concise resource on Hindu gods, and I will be referring to it if I need to write on Hinduism. 🙂

  3. @ Ian The gods being different aspects of the unified reality is an old concept in Hinduism and grew in popularity as the religion evolved.

    @ Darren Glad you like it. I hope to be improving a little in the future. Why, though, does the future never get here??? 😉

  4. Ada

    This is great, thank you for putting this. I just discovered your blog. I am also an atheist, but I am studying religion at univeristy, 🙂 I have hinduism exam coming up this week, and this was so helpful to remember things.

  5. Wow, thanks Ada. It is always nice when others appreciate the work us bloggers put into our posts. You inspired me to update this post further. Best wishes on your studies !

  6. Well Thanks for presenting this post so called “Hindu Gods Iconography” .. Your way of presenting is awesome like..presenting various facts about various god ex .. Vehicle, Arms, The Book, Rosary, Gold for “Brahmā & Saraswati” and so on.

  7. Thanks for this beautifully written blog. My only disappointment was that some of the minor divinities weren’t included. As a writer of the old ones (divinities of the past and present) I am forever researching the subject.

  8. i want join hindusm

  9. Pingback: Objects As History- class 9 | alefiyahmufaddal

  10. Its 1.30 am buddy have a paper tomorrow, needed some quick info.. THANKS ..!

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