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Why do Hindu Gods have multiple heads & multiple shoulders?

Is it just meant to symbolically represent the God we worship is cosmic?

  • Please don't use 'Gods', that is only one, you can use Deva,Devta,Devi and other such correlations. I would Like you to edit the header. – Mr. K Aug 21 '14 at 16:20
  • @Mr.K Is "deity" acceptable? – a20 Sep 1 '14 at 7:10
  • @a20, if you google deity, it has same meaning dipicting polyatheism, the best possible word is Dev/Devi, or just Devas(their is no english word for the same). – Mr. K Sep 1 '14 at 7:16
  • @Mr.K How about Demigod? – a20 Sep 1 '14 at 7:21
  • @a20, demigod, very much symbolizes Devas, but doens't covers the complete definition of them, you can use, but that will create questions in the mind of readers, and now Devas is also a accepted word over the world. Still, demigod is a usable word. – Mr. K Sep 1 '14 at 7:36
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Deities are often portrayed with multiple arms, especially when they are battling cosmic forces. The multiplicity of arms emphasizes the deity's immense power and ability to perform several acts at the same time. The portrayal of a deity in human form but with multiple arms is the artist's attempt to express the deity's superhuman power. Demons are frequently depicted with multiple heads to convey their superhuman power as well.

Occasionally a deity is shown with more than one head in an attempt to describe various aspects of the character of that deity.

The multiple arms are to show a difference but also a greater power than humans. The number of arms varies depending on the symbolism being shown. Thus normally it is 4 arms each holding a different item (with a different meaning). However, the number can and does vary. For example Lord Ganesha.

The Abhaya Mudra (gesture of fearlessness) of his lower right hand symbolizes Ganesha's blessings and protection on a person's journey through life, especially the spiritual one. In His upper right hand, Ganesha usually holds an axe, with which He is said to cut off all attachments.

He pulls the devotee nearer to the spiritual path by the rope that He carries in His upper left hand.

He offers rewards for penances (sadhana) done with the modak (type of confection, usually made from rice flour and a stuffing of jaggery, coconut, etc.) He holds in His lower left hand.

You can get 6 or 10 armed Lord Ganesha with other items each with their own meaning. So it depends on the complexity of the message.

Places that have a 2 armed deity usually (not always) have a legend of the deity manifesting in the area where the temple was built.

Some definitions for this aspect go directly into an ancient Indian mythology, for example:

Brahma originally possessed one head. From a part of his own body, he created a woman Shatarupa. Brahma fell in love with his own female creation and could not take his eyes off her extraordinary beauty. Shatarupa felt shy and tried to evade his gaze by moving away on all sides. To follow her wherever she moved, Brahma created his 5 heads. Four of which facing East, West, North and South and the one facing up. (It is said that from the four of his heads four Vedas came into existence, namely, Rigveda, Samveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda and from the top one 18 Puranas.)

Then Lord Shiva got angry for this behavior of Brahma and cut off his 5th head facing up. Therefore HE was left with four of his heads.

Quoting from Mythencyclopedia Or for example,

In a battle with Gods (Devtas), Tarakasur gathered the most destructive things in Brahmand(Universe) and made a Linear weapon out of the same. He wanted it to use it on Earth to destroy it to prevent Lord Shiva to establish the 51 Shakti-peeths formed out of the limbs of Sati fallen on Earth to prevent the Devtas getting power from there.

When Lord Shiva came to know by his intuition about the plans of Tarakasur, he imbibed or absorbed the weapon in the same way as he had done with Poison or Vish at the time of Great Ocean Churning (Samudra-manthan). He could have very well thrown the weapon anywhere in the universe but then that would have meant total destruction of that part of the universe, the weapon being meant for heavy destruction.

Hence to avoid that destruction, Lord Shiva absorbed it in his body and it formed the 3rd eye, the eye of destruction. From then it is opened by Lord Shiva only when he wants to totally destruct anybody (e.g., Kamadev, the God of Sex) or anything (say Universe at the end of all 4 yugas).

Edit:

I was asked in comments "Why wasn't Lord Hanuman portrayed like that"? My answer is Lord Hanuman was portrayed like that too in his hypostasis of Panchamukhi Hanuman.

Here is a picture of Hanuman, his hypostasis of Panchamukhi Hanuman. The photo I took in Jakhoo temple in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.

Panchamukhi Hanuman

Panchamukha (Devanagari: पञ्चमुख) (alternatively Panchamukhi) is a Sanskrit word meaning 'five-faced'. Most of the Hindu deities are shown as having several faces.

The origin of Sri Panchamukhs Hanuman can be traced to a story in Ramayana.

During the war between Lord Rama and Ravana. Ravana took help of Mahiravana who is the king of pathala. Lord Hanuman in order to protect Lord Ram and Lakshman formed a fortress with his tail. Mahiravana took the form of Vibeeshana and took Lord Ram and Lakshman to pathala loka.

Hanuman entered pathala loka in search of Rama and Lakshmana, and he found out that to kill Mahiravana he had to extinguish five lamps (life of Mahiravana is in 3 places, lamps are one of them) burning in five different directions at the same time, so he has taken the Panchamukha form with Hanuman, Hayagriva, Narasimha, Garuda and Varaha faces and extinguished the lamps and killed Mahiravana.

According to Hanumath Prakaranam in Sri Vidyarnavatantram, Anjaneya has five faces (Pancha Mukha) and ten weapons. The five faces are that of Lord Hanuman, Lord Narasimha, Lord Adivaraha, Lord Hayagriva, and Lord Garuda. Hanuman is a great yogi (mystic) having transcended the five senses (Pancha Indriyas).

In Kamba Ramayanam (in Tamil), the significance of number five is beautifully narrated as follows: The son of one of the five elements (son of wind - Pavana Thanaya) crossed one of the five elements (water – the ocean), through one of the five elements (sky), met daughter of one of the five elements (daughter of earth - Sita Devi) burnt down Lanka by one of the five elements (fire). Sundara Kandam, which highlights the heroic exploits of Lord Hanuman at Lanka is the fifth canto in the Ramayana.

Therefore, it is considered auspicious to go around His idol 5 times, 14 times, 23 times, 32 times or with such numbers the digits of which add to five. The pancha mukha hanuman is a rare idol of Hanuman.

There are many legends and interpretations to this. The legend Lord Hanuman is said to have appeared before Raghavendraswamy in a unique way amalgamating within him the avataras of "varaha, garuda, anjaneya, narasimha and hayagreeva", thus five-headed. Panchamukhi, located on the south bank of river Tungabhadra near Manchala now known as Mantralayam is where Raghavendraswamy performed penance for 12 long years in a cave.

In appreciation of his Yoga, Lord Panchamukhi Pranadevaru, Kollahpura Mahalakshmi, Lord Venkateshwara of Tirupati and Kurmavathara gave darshan to him. Then he left for Mantralaya where he entered into Samadhi. A temple has been constructed at the spot where he performed penance known as the Panchamukhi Anjaneyaswamy temple.

The details of Panchamukaa are: East facing Anjaneya to grant humanity Ishta Siddhi. South facing Karala Ugraveera Narasimha to grant humanity Abhista Siddhi. West facing Mahaveera Garuda to grant humanity Sakala Sowbhagya. North facing Lakshmi Varaha to grant humanity Dhana Prapthi. Urdhva Mukha {atop} being Hayagriva to grant humanity Sarva Vidya Jaya Prapthi. The interpretations

  1. There are five ways of prayer to the Lord. They are Naman, Smaran, Keerthanam, Yachanam and Arpanam. The five faces depict these five forms. Lord Hanuman always used to Naman, Smaran and Keerthanam of Lord Sri Rama. He totally surrendered (Arpanam) to his Master Sri Ram. He also begged (yachanam) Sri Rama to bless him the undivided love.

  2. In Bhagavat Gita Lord Krishna says to Arjun, "He who acts for me, who is engrossed in me, who is my devotee, who is free from attachment, he reaches me" . We find all these 5 qualities enshrined in Hanuman. Each of his face explains the five divine qualifications. May be an artist thought over about this before making the Vigraham.

    There is a belief that one of the faces is that of Sri Vinayaka. The idol of Adyanta Maha Prabhu depicts a figure of half Anjaneya and half Vinayaka. Half Ganesha and half Hanuman At Madya Kailas temple Adyar Madras The idol is an amalgam of Sri vigneshwara and Sri Anjaneya on the lines of Ardhanareeswara ( Siva and Parvati) and Sri Sankaranarayana (combination of Siva and narayana).

    The word Aadiyantha stands for "beginning to end" (Aadi = beginning & Antha = end). There is a Tamil saying "Begin with Ganesa and end up with Anjaneya". Many people visit the temple to get the blessing of the "Twins" against the influence of Navagrahas. The importance of the idol is that Sri Vigneswara and Sri Anjaneya are the only two deities who are totally free from any influence over them whatsoever by the Navagrahas.

    It is believed that, the devotees can and do influence the Navagrahas themselves proportionate to the devoutness with which the devotees address themselves to Sri Aadiyanta Prabhu!

This description of Panchamukha is taken from a Wikipedia article

  • @RuslanGerasimov, 'Deities are often portrayed with multiple arms, especially when they are battling cosmic forces', why wasn't Lord Hanuman portrayed like that. – Mr. K Aug 22 '14 at 16:20
  • @KCloud No, Hanuman was portrayed like this too, please see an update part of my answer. – Ruslan Gerasimov Aug 22 '14 at 18:59
  • @RuslanGerasimov, the image you used is Panchmukhi Hanumana, he is totally different than Hanuman, has his own story of creation and how he met his end. – Mr. K Aug 22 '14 at 19:12
  • @KCloud Please describe the story or provide the link to the source. I want to read about Panchmukhi Hanumana. – Ruslan Gerasimov Aug 22 '14 at 22:53
  • @KCloud my edition with posting Panchmukhi Hanuman is directly relevant to the original question, answers and illustrates it. Your question about why Hanuman is not portrayed like that should be asked separately as a new question. I advice you to ask it if you want to. – Ruslan Gerasimov Aug 22 '14 at 22:57
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The iconography of a Devata is philosophy in action. The analogy is the Feynman diagrams in particle Physics. A trained Physicist can read off the various contribution to the scattering cross section of a scattering process by looking at its Feynman's diagram. Similarly the details of the murthi tell a knowledgeable person the major things to know about the Devata. For example, multiple arms with weapons signifies superhuman power to destroy the various passions (Krodha, kama, lobha, moho, matsarya, and Ahamkar).

  • Would love to see this analogy developed in terms of a specific example of a Devata! – DirghaChintayanti Nov 10 '17 at 12:12

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