The earliest Hindu iconography showing a four-armed Vishnu was found in Malhar in Madhya Pradesh, dating back to 100 BCE.
In Kushan’s coins, minted over 1,800 years ago, we come across images of a woman holding the cornucopia. She is identified with the Roman goddess Fortuna, the Greek goddess Tyche, the Ardochsho of Central Asia, the Buddhist Hariti, and the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. Images of Lakshmi are also found on the pillars and medallions of early Buddhist stupas. She is pictured there as a jeweled woman standing in a pond of lotus flowers surrounded by elephants, very similar to the images of Lakshmi found in Hindu homes today. But there is a crucial difference. Lakshmi’s images today show her with four arms, not two arms.
The transformation from the two-armed Lakshmi to the four-armed Lakshmi occurred in the Gupta era, 1,700 years ago, when the ancient Vedic way strengthened its power by redefining itself through the Puranas and pushed back the Buddhist popularity. The change began at the start of the Kushan period. The rise of four-armed divinities indeed marks a turning point in affirmed Hindu art.
No more than two
The oldest Indian art comes from Harappa. Here we have images of men meditating, or escaping tigers, or jumping on bulls, and women in procession, or resolving conflicts. All human characters have only two arms. Almost 2,000 years after the Harappan period, we have remarkably evolved Gandharan and Mathura art, predominantly Buddhist, telling stories from the life of the Buddha and folk tales inspired by Jataka tales. In Mathura art we find the first image of Saraswati, from a Jain site, sitting with a book in her hand. She also has two arms. Here we find celestial beings with wings, heads and bodies of horses, indicating the clear influence of Greek and Persian art. But not four-armed beings.
The earliest images of Hindu gods are found on coins. Indo-Greek coins from 200 BCE have images of Krishna holding a wheel; he has two arms. The 200 CE Kushan coins have images of Shiva holding a trident, many showing him with four arms. But Shiva’s oldest lingam in Gudimallam, Andhra Pradesh, dated to 300 CE, shows Shiva with only two arms. From the Kushan period, we have the earliest footage of Durga, showing her killing a buffalo. She also has several arms. The Kushans were migrants from southwest China and had no religious affiliation, which is why their coins at the western end of their empire show Greco-Roman-Scythian influence while their coins at the is show Buddhist and Hindu influences. During the days of the Guptas, Buddhist influence was in decline.
The earliest Hindu iconography showing a four-armed Vishnu was found in Malhar in Madhya Pradesh, dating back to 100 BCE. This becomes more explicit in the Hindu temple of Deogarh which dates from the Gupta period, where we find the four-armed Vishnu in three forms: riding Garuda, lying on Shesha and as a teacher. When he is lying down, Lakshmi is at his feet. But she only has two arms.
The sprouting of several arms, and later, several heads, differentiated supernatural beings from ordinary humans. In Buddhist art, Brahma and Indra are often depicted bowing before the Buddha. How do you know that they are not just any kings or priests? Brahma is depicted with four arms, establishing his divine status and his Hindu roots. In early Jain art we find four images of the Tirthankara Rishabhdev facing four directions. But in Hindu art, we find chatur-mukha lingas showing the head of Shiva on four sides. In Jain art we find yakshas and four-armed yakshis, but the Tirthankara never received a supernatural form. At best, its limbs are longer than usual, reaching up to the knee, an indicator of being special.
No icon here
The idea of a god with several heads, arms and feet is first found in Vedic literature, and also finds expression in the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna takes his cosmic form, the one that permeates every corner of the universe by expanding his form and multiplying heads, arms, legs. Vedic priests visualized the gods but did not turn them into icons of stone and metal. The local tribes gave shape to their gods, but represented them symbolically through rocks, trees, rivers or pots and baskets filled with food and water. Anthropomorphic images, where the gods have a human form, came much later. And the images of gods with many heads and hands came even later. Tamil Sangam literature refers to gods like Mayon, Ceyon, and Perumal, with their complexion, abode, banners, and sacred animals, but does not mention multiple arms.
The Mahayana and later the Tantric schools introduced the idea of supernatural beings with multiple heads and arms into Buddhist art. But the form was associated with the Bodhisattva, who has yet to attain Buddhahood. He sprouts many heads and hands to see, hear and help the many suffering souls in the cosmos. Upon attaining the status of Buddha, he can have a giant form, but only retains two arms.
Adi Shankaracharya is said to have established the cult of the goddess Sharda, identified as Saraswati, almost 12 centuries earlier. Early 20th-century engravings of the goddess show her with two arms, but newer engravings show her with four arms. How to solve this mystery? Was she a Buddhist goddess who became a Hindu under the influence of Shankara? Shankara was after all described by his opponents as Prachanna Buddha or crypto-Buddhist. And he played a key role in the eclipse of Buddhism from the Indian landscape. We’ll never know.
But what we do know is that today the Hindu gods from Lakshmi to Ganesha to Saraswati are still depicted with four or more arms. They only have two arms when they take on a mortal form, like Ram or Krishna. Four arms do what the halo did in Christian art – help the viewer quickly establish who is divine, who is supernatural, and who is worthy of worship.
Devdutt Pattanaik is the author of 50 books on mythology, art and culture.