Krishna in His Universal Form (Vishvarupa). Rajasthan, India; 19th or 20th century. Opaque watercolor and gold on cloth, 56 x 36 inches (142.2 x 91.4 cm). Courtesy of Nancy Wiener Gallery, New York
The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most influential scriptures in Hinduism, as it spells out many key concepts, including the importance of developing a strong, personal relationship with God. It takes the form of a conversation between the hero Arjuna and the blue-skinned god Krishna, who are standing in Arjuna’s chariot before a very bloody battle. Like the epic Mahabharata in which it appears, the Bhagavad Gita is rarely illustrated by painters or sculptors. Its impact and appeal are primarily conceptual and verbal rather than narrative and visual. However, one part of the Bhagavad Gita offers a very compelling challenge to artists: the moment, about halfway through their discussion, when Arjuna asks Krishna to reveal his true form. Krishna says that he must give Arjuna special sight in order for this to be possible, then:
O King, saying this, Krishna,
the great lord of discipline,
revealed to Arjuna
the true majesty of his form.
It was a multiform, wondrous vision,
with countless mouths and eyes
and celestial ornaments,
brandishing many divine weapons.
Everywhere was boundless divinity
containing all astonishing things,
wearing divine garlands and garments,
anointed with divine perfume.
If the light of a thousand suns
were to rise in the sky at once,
it would be like the light
of that great spirit.
Arjuna saw all the universe
in its many ways and parts,
standing as one in the body
of the god of gods.
Frightened by what he sees, Arjuna begs Krishna to return to his familiar, more approachable form, and the compassionate god does so.
The giant body revealed by Krishna to Arjuna is usually known as Vishvarupa, or Having All Shapes. It is inherently beyond the comprehension of mere mortals, and yet artists have long attempted to capture some sense of it through the most complex composite figure imaginable.
This large painting on cloth—a temple hanging, or picchawai, made in Rajasthan in northwest India—provides a great deal of visual information while focusing on Krishna as the central figure. The seven faces of the god are all the same, and other gods appear in the architecture of his crown and shoulders. On the god’s belly we see the Rasamandala, a circle dance in which Krishna duplicated himself to partner with each of the gopis. That dance is nearly replicated above, in an ovoid space—shown in a detail—
at the top of the painting that appears to represent the paradise of Vishnu (of whom Krishna is an avatar); here, the gopis (milkmaids) dance around a single figure of Krishna. The god appears in a stylized form called Shrinathaji, replicating an important statue that is the focus of a shrine in the Rajasthani pilgrimage town of Nathadwara. In the landscape at either side of the Vishvarupa we can spot figures in chariots, presumably the Kaurava and Pandava families preparing for the battle that is setting of the Bhagavad Gita. The blue-skinned Krishna in the chariot with Arjuna is at our left.
Adapted with permission from Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior, ed. Joan Cummins (Nashville: Frist Center; Ahmedabad: Mapin, 2011).
Text excerpt: Bhagavad Gita, teaching 11, verses 9–13, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller, The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War (New York: Bantam, 1988), 98–99.