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In yoga philosophy, why are the deities represented the way they are?

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

How do we relate to deities in yoga?

Some take deities to be living energies that existed at one time, and continue to exist in some way, (think of historical figures like Ram, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus...) others see deities as patterns of consciousness rather than literal representations.

In either case, these energies are there to support, teach and guide us as we navigate the challenges of everyday life as well as provide inspiration and aspiration. Life can be uncertain and stressful at times and we all face hardship. Yoga, ultimately, is about relieving suffering and bringing us closer to Realization. A personal deity is one way *not the only way* to make a connection with the divine.

The artwork that represents deities is for many, symbolic and allegorical - that means it's meant to represent something and teach us something, in a non-literal way much like good writing uses literary tools like metaphors to deepen our understanding of a passage.

Allegory: a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. -Oxford Dictionary

If you are wondering how to relate to deities represented in yoga, but don’t know where to begin, consider connecting with the "essence" of the deity: if not their image then their yantra, or mantra or energy. Ask: what is the nature of this deity, what wisdom do they share? Listen to the messages in your body and the reactions you have to it. Sit with the associated mantra. How does it feel, where in your body do you feel the resonance? Do you feel triggered? Where is that in your body, what is coming up for you? Work with your teacher, mentor, elder or therapist to access your inner wisdom and knowing.

Deities and representations are culture-specific. So learning about them is an invitation into a culture that has its own ways of representing itself - ie. ornaments, clothing style, food weapons etc. These motifs are recognized by people from the Indian Subcontinent, but may be different for someone looking in from the outside. All these cultural norms will be represented in the artwork.

For example, usage of gold is highly culture-specific. Gold in India is considered the most deeply held asset: as social security; ornamentally; as a commodity; in spiritual rituals; in Jyotish and Vaastu principles. In fact, Indian Women hold 11% of the world’s gold. Indian women are often considered to embody Lakshmi themselves because of the abundance they represent in all forms - my own parents used to call my sister and I “little Lakshmis” and when my brother would wrestle with us they would say to him “don’t hurt Lakshmi!”.

Another is with weapons. Why are there so many weapons alongside pictures of God? Is it promoting violence? How does this match with yoga which seems to be about peacefulness? Life contains all aspects of existence: creation, maintenance and dissolution. We don’t hide from the parts that are messy. Life contains all aspects of existence, including battling our inner demons and overcoming difficulties - don’t we all have stressors and challenges in our lives? Thus the imagery and storytelling expresses the nuanced depiction of life as both peacefulness and struggle:

People often relax in their garden at home. They think the garden is so peaceful. But that’s not true. If you dig beneath the earth, there is a huge fight constantly going on for survival between the roots, the worms, the earth and different creatures. Moment to moment, millions of them are being killed, millions of them are being born…. - Sadhguru

Vedic culture is about inner peacefulness. Krishna speaks of inner stillness in the Bhagavad Gita when he says to seek “inaction in action” Explaining that one must be steady and unattached to the play of life around us. As life continues in a sometimes peaceful, sometimes tumultuous way, we seek to withdraw (pratyahara) inward to find answers. Life is messy and contains both struggle and calm. This is the life process. Thus Ganesh is shown holding an axe to cut through the veils of ignorance and seek inner calm. Durga is represented with many hands, some holding instruments of battle and some holding aspects of peacefulness. Because this is the truth of existence, and she reminds us of that.

The final example is the question oft asked: Why are there many heads and arms on these gods? Every deity has its specific duties and attributes. Each God has a certain duty that they perform to maintain dharma. Or there is an origin story and those many arms and heads represent that mythology. The multiple arms are exaggerated to convey the meaning behind the story. The actual being probably does not exist with all those arms, but the imagery shows it that way to help us understand the stories.

Ultimately, there’s no single authority on why or how these deities are represented. One common perspective is to keep a beginner’s mind and stay open to how different lineages and teachers describe these complex visual details. Remember also that this is a system that allows for many possibilities to be simultaneously true.

These stories are being shared from the lens of Indians and South Asians…

One important part of learning about yoga is that you are visiting a culture. It’s important to be open to the way that culture chooses to represent itself through its own style. This becomes relevant when it comes to appropriation and colonial harm. If we don’t understand or relate - that doesn’t make it inaccessible or irrelevant, it means we might have to spend some more time as a student and sit with those questions if they arise within us and try to understand OR it means there’s another form for you to better relate to (mantra, the abstract, nature etc…).

The way you choose to interact with these representations is up to you and all of you are doing great! You can't go wrong as a sincere aspirant who abides in the mindset of a student- which you all are doing beautifully, so let's take the pressure off and recognize that we are playing a long game in this journey of self-knowledge <3



Sivananda Companion to Yoga, Meditation and Mantras, SWD

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