In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Iconography

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Text and Image
  • Formations
  • Syncretic Forms
  • Rivers, Plants, and Animals
  • Narrative Imagery
  • Modern and Contemporary Contexts

Hinduism Iconography
Chandreyi Basu
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0027


At a basic level, iconography involves description, identification, and classification of artworks as a means of studying their development over time and variations in their forms across regions. These studies rely on close visual analysis and the correlation of images with relevant written texts. Beyond this, the role of iconographical analysis is to understand what images mean and how they function as part of larger historical, sociopolitical, and intellectual contexts. Scholarship on Hindu images is characterized by both descriptive and interpretative levels of analysis. Following the main themes outlined in published works, this article charts the historical development of Hindu images in various media from the formative through the modern periods and highlights their meanings in different contexts: secular and religious; domestic and public; and local, regional, and global. Discussion of regionalism and sectarian identity are balanced with examinations of crossovers among sects, regions, and religions.

General Overviews

Broad surveys of Hindu iconography are dominated by the search for textual explanations of visual representations of the three major cult deities, Shiva, Vishnu, and the goddess. Gopinatha Rao 1997 and Banerjea 1974 are the earliest examples of such scholarship, while Bhattacharyya 1980 and Maxwell 1997 demonstrate the hold that such a text-centered approach continues to have on the study of Hindu icons. All four of these general works rely heavily on the analysis of stone sculptures. Eck 1996 and Waghorne, et al. 1985 adopt more interdisciplinary approaches, shifting away from textual analysis and moving more toward ethnographic examinations of how living communities of worshippers and artists interact with images. These sources share this contextual approach with the Blurton 1993 art historical survey of Hindu art and the Asia Society’s website Divine Realms. These last four sources are particularly useful in introducing readers to a broader range of media, including sculptures made from clay and metal (Waghorne, et al. 1985), paintings (Blurton 1993, Asia Society), and prints (Blurton 1993). Beginning undergraduates and general readers will find Blurton 1993 and the Asia Society website adequate starting points before consulting Eck 1996 and Waghorne, et al. 1985. Advanced students will still need to consult the specialized albeit text-heavy sources in addition to Eck 1996 and Waghorne, et al. 1985.

  • Asia Society. Power and Desire: South Asian Paintings from the San Diego Museum of Art. Divine Realms.

    A section of the website accompanying an exhibition of 16th-to 19th-century Indian court paintings. Separate links titled Rama, Krishna, Shiva, and Cosmic Realms provide a basic introduction to the nature of divinity in Hinduism and demonstrate the interrelatedness of rulers, Hindu deities, and heroes.

  • Banerjea, Jitendra Nath. The Development of Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1974.

    A comprehensive study of the historical development of Hindu images in India, terminology, primary texts, systems of proportions used in image construction, and forms of major and minor deities. Two substantial chapters are dedicated to the representations of Hindu deities on coins and seals. Originally published in 1956.

  • Bhattacharyya, Dipak Chandra. Iconology of Composite Images. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1980.

    An introduction to the composite nature of Hindu icons in all major sects of Hindu worship. Draws on Hindu texts and images represented in diverse media across multiple time periods to argue that all Hindu deities combine features of two or more deities in a single form.

  • Blurton, Richard T. Hindu Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

    A well-illustrated general introduction to the forms, meanings, and contexts of images of Hindu deities. Nontechnical language and a good selection of examples representing different media, artistic styles, and time periods make this book a useful starting point, particularly for beginners and undergraduates.

  • Eck, Diana L. Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. 3d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

    A succinct explanation of the ways Hindu worshippers interact with aniconic and iconic representations of deities and holy people in the settings of temples and pilgrimage sites.

  • Gopinatha Rao, T. A. Elements of Hindu Iconography. 3d ed. 2 vols. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidas, 1997.

    A standard source for learning about various Hindu deities and their symbols and attributes as well as descriptions of the deities in major classical Hindu texts. Originally published in 1914.

  • Maxwell, T. S. The Gods of Asia: Images, Text, and Meaning. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    Compares Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina icons. Part 1 discusses Hindu worship and icons of four major cult deities—Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, and the goddess—from a pan-Indian perspective. Part 5 focuses on mythology and sexual symbols. Ten indexes assist in searching specific themes, subjects, place-names, and texts.

  • Waghorne, Joanne Punzo, and Norman Cutler, with Vasudha Narayanan, eds. Gods of Flesh, Gods of Stone: The Embodiment of Divinity in India. Chambersburg, PA: Anima, 1985.

    A collection of eight distinct case studies conducted by multiple authors that illustrate how Hindu worshippers may view living ascetics and potters to be vessels for the divine just as much as stone, clay, or metal icons are thought to be manifestations of deities.

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