You might’ve seen many Hindu gods and goddesses having multiple heads and arms in India, but have you ever asked yourself why? Even being a Hindu by birth, I had never encountered this question until last night, when one of my friends brought up the topic during a discussion. So, after a quick research on the internet I have come up with the most accepted theories of Hindu mythologists that could clarify this confusion in greater detail.
Why Hindu Gods Have Multiple Heads And Arms?
The main theory behind this phenomenon, which is also mostly accepted throughout the hindu beliefs, is that the ancient Indian sages must be trying to demonstrate to us the immense power and qualities of the deities. However the extra hands of the deities only come up visible when they are either engaged in a war against demons or busy battling the universal cosmic forces.
Often in Hinduism, only the supreme or important deities and gods are shown with many hands to display their significance from the other group of deities. However, beside the mainstream beliefs there are many alternative theories which Hindu mythologists strongly argue upon.
To put it simply, this question has no single correct answer. Because there’s not even a single authority in the entire umbrella of Hinduism that could be held accountable for these confusions. The vast diversity of spiritual practices, rituals and ideologies are the reasons for alternative theories to co-exist parallel with the mainstream beliefs.
That is why, you may have seen many gurus and scholars simply giving their own interpretation on it, as there is simply no right and wrong concept in Hinduism. It’s said that every possibility is believed to attain and realize the higher truth.
Presenting The Deities As Supernatural Beings
One of the famous mythologists of India, Devdutt Pattanaik is often seen on various TV interviews discussing the actual motive behind the depiction of Hindu deities in such superhuman-like forms.
According to him, the deities in hindu pantheon are shown with multiple heads and arms just to display their supernatural abilities. It’s not like the deities actually have multiple arms or legs, but they are being projected in this exaggerated form to only make them identifiable as the supreme beings.
In other words, every child in India can tell the difference between a normal human being and a Hindu deity just by giving a glance on their extra heads or hands sticking out from the back. Therefore, it’s used more like a symbol over anything. It is only there to remind us of deities being the owners of supernatural powers that humans can not possess.
Projecting Purpose Of God’s Existence
In the entire pantheon of Hinduism, every god and deity has a set of their own purposes of existence. Having multiple arms and heads shows a glimpse of their duties that they’re bound to perform in order to maintain and sustain the dharmic laws of the universe.
For instance, Goddess Durga was created for slaying the army of Mahishasura (Buffalo demon) that even lord Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva combined were unable to kill, because of a boon that gave him an absolute immunity from gods. Only a fierce goddess could kill him, but at the time there was no such goddess with the required strength to deal with Mahishasura.
So, gods decided to give every one of their divine strength and weapons to embody an even more powerful goddess who could destroy the demons. Therefore, she has multiple arms and weapons because of her duty of fighting and eliminating sufferings from evil powers. Thus, next time you will see a hindu deity or god with multiple arms, carefully notice their weapons and hand gestures as it might reveal the purpose of the deity.
Showing Multiple Personalities & Qualities
Image or idol worshiping is a huge part In Hindu religion. The importance of it is so huge that what version of a deity to be placed in a temple gets the utmost priority. The people following Hinduism, take the image of their deities pretty seriously. Therefore, oftentimes many Hindus are seen presuming the supremacy of a deity just by the number of their hands and arms.
However, it is not a hard fact as many important gods in Hinduism don’t have any extra hands, heads or arms for that matter, such as Lord Shiva. So it’s safe to say, that the depiction of hindu gods with multiple arms and hands are there to show their certain characteristics, personalities and qualities.
All deities are very representational with their various markings, colors, and objects surrounding them. They are said to be holding a deep significance and abstract meaning. Take Lord Ganesha (The Elephant-Headed god) for example. He is shown below with four hands holding some objects, where each object represents some of his qualities and personalities.
In this image, Lord Ganesha is shown in the Abhaya Mudra or the gesture of fearlessness if translated in English. This is a gesture of safety and reassurance that removes the fear of uncertainty and gives a divine protection from the negative cosmic energies.
He is also shown holding an axe in his upper right hand, which symbolizes the detachment from the Maya (the cosmic illusion that the world is real). The rope in his upper left hand represents the guidance he gives to his devotees for coming closer to the spiritual path. The sweet he holds in his lower left hand represents the rewards of following the rule of dharma.