NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) ― 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.