Hinduism is the world's third largest religion and its oldest continuously practiced one, so it's somewhat surprising there has never been a major U.S. museum exhibition on Vishnu, one of its most important deities.
"Vishnu: Hinduism's Blue-Skinned Savior" is a new exhibit at Nashville's Frist Center for the Visual Arts that aims to introduce American art audiences to the visual beauty of the intricate ways Hindus throughout time have rendered their deities.
Curator Joan Cummins, of the Brooklyn Museum, described the goals of the exhibit recently during a private tour.
"First, to introduce one aspect of a major world religion, Hinduism, to a largely uninitiated audience," she said. "We assume they are intelligent but don't know almost anything about Hinduism.
"Second, to show absolutely gorgeous Indian art — the very best material from collections all over the world, the most beautiful and rarest examples."
Vishnu is one of Hinduism's three most important gods, although that description is somewhat misleading. Hinduism scholar Joanne Waghorne, a religion professor at Syracuse University, said many Hindus, but not all, believe the religion's many different deities are simply aspects of a single divinity.
Vishnu is easily recognizable in paintings by his blue skin.
"His association with the skies is one explanation for his blue skin," Cummins said, "but really it's not explained very well in scripture. His skin is just blue."
His role among the Hindu deities is the preserver. He maintains balance and is usually depicted with a very erect posture. Like many Hindu gods, Vishnu is often shown with multiple arms, symbolizing his ability to do many things at once.
A beautifully preserved sandstone stele produced in the 10th century in central India — "Vishnu Flanked by His Personified Attributes" — is one of the introductory pieces in the first galleries. It is one of several pieces that has never been seen outside its home museum or appeared in publications.
In it Vishnu wears his typical garb of an ancient Indian prince. His four arms hold three of the four emblems and weapons usually associated with him: a conch shell, a discus and a mace. He is also associated with the lotus flower, which appears behind his head. His fourth hand is raised in a gesture of reassurance.
Although Brahma is the Hindu creator of the world, "Brahma doesn't have much of a following," Cummins said. "And Vishnu worshippers feel that Vishnu is the beginning and end of all things."
Another sandstone statue, "Vishnu in His Cosmic Sleep," from central India around the 12th century, illustrates the story of how Vishnu created the creator. As he lies sleeping on a giant serpent in the primordial ocean, a lotus flower sprouts from his navel. Inside the bloom is Brahma.
Vishnu is the only one of the Hindu gods to have avatars, which Cummins describes as a more limited version of the God as he comes down to earth.
"He has 10 forms, but the list changes, so we have 11 in the show," Cummins said.
Each form has its own legends surrounding it and its own followers.
Paintings and sculptures of the avatar Narasimha might look fantastical to many Western eyes, with his multiple arms and head of a lion, but two of the works show him engaged in an increasingly familiar activity: practicing yoga. In both, he sits in a meditative pose with his legs crossed. In one of the sculptures he uses a strap around his knees to maintain his posture.
Probably the most well-known avatar to Westerners is Krishna, who is also considered by some followers to not be an avatar but a god. The exhibit's many depictions of Krishna may also be some of the most accessible. They include three small, playful sculptures of a dancing baby Krishna holding a stolen butter ball.
A watercolor, "Krishna and Balarama as Naughty Children" (Punjab Hills, India, circa 1780) portrays the theft of the butter as Krishna's older brother distracts their mother with a tug on her veil.
In another, Krishna, now a gorgeous youth, steals the clothes from a group of bathing milkmaids and climbs up a tree with them, refusing to give them back ("Krishna Steals the Gopis' Clothes," Punjab Hills, circa 1775-1800).
The idea of displaying Hindu sacred objects as art is complicated, scholar Waghorne said, because in Hinduism, God is thought to be actually present in the objects that are worshipped.
"Very many pieces were on temples or in temples," he said. "It's difficult when they change the context of a piece of sculpture from a temple setting. It changes something about the piece. At museums in India people, every once in a while, will put kumkum (vermilion) and flowers on the sculptures," treating them as objects of worship.
While some Christians might feel the presence of God in some religious artworks, Christianity tends to frown on this practice. In Hinduism, it's a different matter.
"Looking at an image of a deity in a temple as the living image of God is the way you're supposed to be looking at it," she said. "There's a ceremony that infuses that image with divine presence so that when you're looking at it, you are looking at God. And God is looking back at you."
The exhibit, five years in the making, was organized by The Frist Center and includes more than 170 paintings, sculptures, textiles and ritual objects created in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh between the fourth and twentieth centuries.
It runs through May 29 before moving to the Brooklyn Museum, where Cummins serves as curator of Asian Art.
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