What are commonly known as "Vishnu images" are, as everybody is aware, extremely common in this country, and one's first general impression of them is apt to be one of almost tiring uniformity. The figure itself is generally treated more or less schematically, with little regard to modelling on naturalistic lines in many cases, and the four attributes displayed by the several hands do not strike the casual observer as being of any very special interest. We all know that Vishnu is characterised by his mace, his lotus, his conch and his wheel (discus), or think we do, and when we see a four-armed image with these attributes we call it Vishnu and pass on. In reality, however, the matter is much more complicated than at first appears. Some years ago I wrote a pamphlet in Bengali entitled Vishnu-murti-parichaya, "The Identification of Vishnu Images," published by the well-known Bengali literary society called the Banjiya Sahitya Parishad, in which I set forth that according to the records of the Puranas and other texts, "Vishnu" is but a general term for what in reality constitute a considerable variety of different figures, to each of which a different name attaches. These varying names represent the Deity in his several divergent aspects, which are sculpturally differentiated each from each according to the distribution of his attributes between his several hands. Thus where the lower right hand holds the attribute a, and the upper right holds b/ while the upper and lower left hands hold c and d respectively, the image represents one aspect of the god, quite different from the figure represented by an identical sculpture in which the order of these attributes is changed. It is therefore obligatory upon any one who wishes to gain a real knowledge of this important branch of Hindu iconography, or who aspires to interpret these who ordered and by those who fashioned them, to pay particular heed to these divergences as set forth in the ancient texts called sadhanas. To call all these figures "Vishnu" straight away is but a rough-and-ready method of procedure, little compatible with scholarship.
The first division of the subject with which I purpose to deal is the group in which twenty-four forms of the divinity are enumerated, the so-called chatur-vimsati-murtis. Of these we have three descriptive texts, (1) the Agnipurdna (Chapter 48), (2) the Padmapurdna (Chapter 78), and (3) the Chaturvarga Chintamani of Hemadri, the well-known writer on Hindu Law in the XIIIth century. Unfortunately only the first of these authorities names all twenty-four of the types; the second enumerating only 21, and Hemadri only 23, presumably owing to corruptions or enumerating only 21, and Hemadri only 23, presumably owing to corruptions or omissions in the text, which should be collated from several manuscripts for final certainty. It is advisable to quote the Agnipurana text at length before discussing them.
The Agnipurana reads;
As this is potentially nothing more or less than a chart showing the various positions of the several attributes in the distinctive forms of the divinity, a tabulation of the material in chart-form will be more useful than a translation as such, and I accordingly give below the list of the twenty-four names with their respective attributes in the arrangement appropriate to each. The only word in the text which does call for mention is the word pradakshinam at the end of the first sloka. This is the key for the understanding of the whole system, and means that the various attributes are mentioned in the following order, (1)lower right hand, (2) upper right hand, (3) upper left hand, and (4) lower left hand, or as in the pradakshina.
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