The Art Review in the The New York Times titled “Basking in the Presence of an Ever-Changing God,” by Holland Cotter, discusses an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum — Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savoir — with beautiful language, masterful grasp of the art, and genuine insight into the philosophy behind the ancient sculptures and paintings. Mr. Cotter distilled the possibly confusing array of art into its essence. I’m more than impressed; I’m excited.
He encourages, “Once you’ve grasped the idea that love, that saving force, is the show’s true theme and have immersed yourself awhile in that thought, carry it back through the galleries. Look at everything through a lover’s eyes. Confusions may begin to lift. Wariness may begin to ebb. Images that the first time around seemed stiff and cold may start to feel warmed to life by energies coming from you don’t know where.”
As art is Mr. Cotter’s expertise, I doubt he would claim extensive understanding of Hinduism, but he did better in two pages in The New York Times than many gurus and experts I’ve read in lengthy articles. He hit the mark spot on. Vishnu, or Krishna, is all about love — an unconditional, transcendent love.
That love is known as Bhakti. Become aware of Bhakti, and you will understand the art of the Vishnu exhibit; practice Bhakti, devotional acts of love, according to India’s sacred texts, and the door to liberation will open.
As usual, Westerners get lost in the complexity of Hinduism, and Mr. Cotter points out, as everyone does, that the Judeo-Christian tradition has one God. But we shouldn’t think that the many forms of God in Hinduism indicate a belief in many gods. Well, they do and they don’t. Back to that point in a minute.
As the exhibit itself demonstrates, there’s a distinction between the idea of many forms of God and the idea of many gods.
Mr. Cotter describes a statue of Vishnu portrayed as sturdy, balanced, and preservative, then explains that the exhibit proceeds through the various forms of Vishnu. It sounds like the exhibit displays the personalities in the order commonly described in Bhakti texts, and Krishna comes at the end of the list. Mr. Cotter mentions that the list seems to be an evolutionary order. If the last person in the list is evolutionarily superior perhaps that’s why Indian art profusely focuses on Krishna, and in the exhibit his forms “increase tenfold compared to all the various forms.”
The list of Vishnu incarnations is not actually in an evolutionary order. Vaishnavas (followers of Vishnu) consider Krishna-Vishnu to be one God, and the various forms are manifestations of moods, or of desires to accomplish certain work in the world. But Krishna is considered unique because he embodies the full qualities of God and experiences the highest enjoyment, which is said to be achieved only through love. Krishna is God expressing love unconditionally.
But don’t many forms mean more than one God, and therefore isn’t Hinduism very different from the Judeo-Christian monotheistic tradition?
The term Hinduism covers many beliefs and world views. Lumping them all under “Hindu” is like lumping all the religious and philosophical views on the continent under “American.” Some Hindu sects believe that after death, the soul merges into the One. Some believe that the female goddess who controls the material world is God. Some believe a secondary creator to be God. Some worship personifications of the sun, air, and fire as god.
But Vaishnavism, which represents the largest number of followers in Hinduism (560 million out of the 1 billion followers), believes in one God: Krishna, or Vishnu. God’s appearance in different forms doesn’t make him multiple persons. Rather, like us, he has different interests and responsibilities that take him into different arenas, and he dresses appropriately.
Whether God is Krishna and is blue, I can’t say for certain. But I’m convinced that if God exists, he enjoys and loves supremely. I’m interested in that psychology of God.