When we embark on a circumambulation of a temple (pradakshina), our eyes come across many figures besides those of the gods and the goddesses. Among the ones we most frequently meet are the chubby ganas busy blowing into conch shells, or bearing heavy loads of the temple, or sometimes playing the musical instruments. Others that we cannot miss are the mithuna couples (erotic art), and beautiful apsaras (celestial dancers); while the Gandharvas (celestial musicians) and Vidyadharas (celestial figures that dispel ignorance with their sword of knowledge) make less frequent appearances. Quite often we also notice the motifs of a hamsa or a swan going around the temple walls, marching along like soldiers or sometimes even teasing the rotund ganas. As we look at these images repeated in almost all temples, the figures automatically turn into an integral part of the temple architecture, embedding themselves deep into our inner consciousness, so we accept them unquestioningly. Being a part of the temple walls, these figures or images also acquire a divinity of their own in the mind of a bhakt, as he or she completes the pradakshina with thoughts focused on the divine presence inside the garbagriha.
The Airy Spirits and Breath
Vidyadharas, Gandharvas, Apsaras, Ganas and Hamsas
According to the rules laid by Shilpa Shastra, certain murtis have their positions fixed on the temple walls, spread radially from the main deity stationed inside the garbagriha. Such murtis can be divided into two categories: the prasar-devtas, which are the various forms or aspects (rupa) of the main divinity residing inside the sanctum; and the ashta dikapalas or gods of the eight cardinal directions, whose places are fixed in predetermined niches/positions on the temple walls.
Between the fixed images there are spread various other celestial figures, such as the apsaras, gandharvas, etc., and among them the ones that amuse me the most are the little ganas. The ganas, as Kramrish would let us know, are the imagery representations of air, which is one among the five essential elements that make a human body (panchamahabhutas- air, water, earth, fire, and ether ); and as we know, it is the air that summarily supports all our bodily movements. As India understands better through images, the temple stapahtis had given a body (an image) to Air and we see that in the form of ganas, which in a literal sense are mere quantities (gana when translated denotes a quantity). Shown as potbellied to make them appear full of air, the little fat airbags or ganas rush around lending a shoulder to a heavy structure, such as a pillar or the shikhara; or playing musical instruments; and sometime blowing into the conch-shell. Airy, full of life, yet in reality body less, the ganas are also a symbolic represention of the lightness of a mind in full concentration focused on becoming one with the Brahman or Paramatma.
The Apsaras, the Gandharvas, and the Vidyadharas represent airy spirits; their bodies made of airy substances that show the five attributes of air, such as running, jumping, stretching, bending, etc. Thus, we see Apsaras performing the heavenly dances in the city of Amaravati, while Gandharvas playing heavenly music there. The Vidyadharas who are not a part of the musical soirée are often depicted as flying alone, or sometimes with Apsaras. They soar lightly across, carrying the sword of knowledge, which they use to cut through clouds of ignorance. Despite the inevitable aggression of time or kaal that destroys everything, the vidyadharas with a determined detachment of mind, keep pursuing knowledge relentlessly.
The geese or swans that we often see marching on temple walls (they are rarely shown in flight) represent the breathing rhythm; or Ham-Sa; where HA is the sound of breath going out, and SA is the sound of air entering the body. The control of breath which is practiced during Pranayama, is an essential part of Yoga sadhana to attain the final liberation of the soul. According to Garuda Purana, a person at any time breathing normally is internally chanting the rhythmic mantra of Ha-M-sa: Ha-M-Sa. This breath, the essential seed of life, the pran-beeja, finds an imagery manifestation in the form of Ham-Sa. The Hamsa bird represents the union point of atma with paramatma, towards which fly all celestial airy spirits, such as the ganas, gandharvas, and the dancers (apsaras).
Surasundaris are a representation of the Sakti, or the passive primordial Energy. They form a part of the ‘avaran devtas,’ and belong to the air-world or atmosphere. These female figures are a manifestation of the great beauty of the Devi, who has for a moment become conscious of her beauty and is sensing a deep pride in it, while feeling animated by her sudden passion. Hence, she is charming and alluring, expressing divine vitality.
Various forms of Sakti include the Apsaras (often also referred to as Suranganas), Yaksis also known as Salabhanjikas, and Natakas. Representing vitality and movement, the Apsaras denote atmospheric movements, while Yakshis/ Salabhanjikas denote foliage movements, and Natakas are bodily movements shown in the form of dancers.
“Embracing Shiva as the Madhava creeper clasps the young Amra tree with his bosom like cluster of blossoms” – Yogavashishta, Nirvanaprakarana
Erotica or mithuna couples that we see carved on temple walls reflect a deeper underlying philosophy than just representing sensuous earthly pleasures. Deep in the throes of passion the mithuna couples represent the transition from a physical to the spiritual plane of consciousness, analogous to the walk from the mandapa to finally meet the divinity present within the temple embryo or garbhagriha. In the Vedas, we find the mention of four purusharaths or human life goals, and one among them is Kama or satisfying physical pleasure (the other three being Dharma, Artha, and Moksha). Mithuna sculptures on the temple walls pander to this ancient Hindu philosophy, which believes that yoga (spiritual exercise) and bhoga (physical pleasure) are the two paths that lead to moksha (final liberation). As Kramrisch explains, when a man is embraced by the woman he loves he becomes unaware of everything else, inside or outside; something similar happens when the spiritual being of a person is embraced by the all pervading Supreme Soul. In both instances he forgets everything else that is external or internal to his being. He is satiated, has nothing more to ask for, and becomes free from all pain, and one experiences unending happiness, a state of sadaa-sukham. Thus, mithuna becomes a reflection of the other purusharath: Moksha, where there is an union of two inseparable substances, the Purusha (essence or mind) and Prakriti (Sakti or energy); hence we find Shiva needs Sakti for the final release or moksha, the ultimate objective of life. Essentially, the mithuna couples are thus an imagery representation of that particular moment when an atma becomes one with the Paramatma, and enters a state of eternal bliss and ecstasy.
This form of ritual (used for mastering the third purusharath or kama through bhoga) is practiced in Tantric worship, and it is for this reason we find gods and ascetics also shown in mithuna postures in some temples. This form of krida or lila, however has nothing to do with human copulation that aims at procreation. The love sport of ascetics, which can be practiced only by sanyasis (who have already crossed the first two levels of sadhana), with a woman who willingly gives herself just as a “creeper lovingly embraces a tree.” This form of lila or krida has no connections to dharma, artha, or kama, and strictly aims at achieving the fourth purusharath, moksha. The Avadhuta (one of the highest among sanyasis in terms of metaphysical realisations, who is above all castes and social norms) doesn’t need this union with a woman. He is already one with the Supreme entity: the Brahman.
** There is another perspective or line of thought that believes the mithuna sculptures on temple walls represent just what it shows: mithuna; or in other words it just shows Kama (one among the four purusharths), and nothing more. A part of the daily life, it represents physical pleasure, which one must see to overcome earthly temptations before viewing the divinity present inside the garbagriha or sanctum. Keeping this perspective in mind, I will say that arguments on this topic can be unending without any convergence of ideas. Symbolism will perhaps depend to a certain extent on the viewer to interpret what he sees and what he wants to see. Speaking for myself, I will side with Kramrisch and choose to see mithuna sculptures as reflecting the moment of ecstasy, which one experiences with final liberation or Moksha, when the antaratma unites with the Paramatma to become one.
The prasara-devtas which are various forms of the main divinity inside the temple, guide and help us to focus on the Supreme Soul residing in the sanctum. On the other hand these semi divinities like the ganas, gandharvas, apsaras, vidyadharas, and the mithuna couples constantly remind us of our sole objective in life: to become one with the Paramatma and attain final liberation or moksha. Thus, from that perspective the temple with all its sculptures also turns into a point of union of the soul with the Supreme Soul; an imagery concept or a representation of ecstasy through final liberation or moksha.
Post Script: I hope to take up each of these celestial beings separately as a series in my next few posts. There are many more aspects that can be examined about the temple wall figures that I talked of here; stories of apsaras, gandharvas, and Vidyadharas that can be told from our historical epics; while adding many more photos to help understand better. In that context this post remains an introductory one.
Tarun Chopra, 2016. Temples of India. Thompson Press, Delhi.
Stella Kramrisch, 2015. The Hindu temple. MBP Private Ltd, Delhi.