How to identify Hindu Gods and Goddesses?

Research Article: written by London swaminathan

Post No.2217

Date: 5   October 2015

Time uploaded in London: 19-27

Don’t use pictures. Don’t reblog for at least a week.


One hundred years ago, even the illiterates in India were able to identify scores of herbs, trees, flowers, stars in the sky and all Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Though they were not able to sign their names, they had all the practical knowledge.

There is an interesting anecdote in Tamil literature. Two thousand years ago two villagers, husband and wife, visited a temple near Madurai in South India. There the wife was wonderstruck with a painting on the temple wall where a cat is slipping out of an Ashram (hermit’s cottage). When she asked her husband, what it was her husband says “don’t you know the story of Indra and Ahalya? This is Indra in the form of a cat sneaking out of the Ashram after molesting Ahalya”. This scene is described in Sangam Tamil literature (Paripatal) This anecdote shows that even the villagers were able to identify the figures on a wall painting (mural). And such paintings were so common in the temples in those days.

Trimurti in Ellora

Now even the scholars who are well versed in the scriptures have no practical knowledge. Their knowledge is more bookish than of field study. Moreover countries like Thailand and Cambodia have distorted the figures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. A Hindu from India would find it difficult to recognise Indra or Shiva in South East Asian countries. Only figures like Vishnu or whoever rides on a Vahana (Mount of God) will be easily recognised; so I have compiled a list of Gods and Goddesses with their symbols.

The sculptors or goldsmiths who made the statues and idols of gods and goddesses used the Sanskrit slokas (couplets) with description for the figures.

Most of the confusion arises when Buddhist and Jain gods and goddesses are shown in any book or museum along with the Hindu Gods. They took lot of things from Hindu iconography and changed them according to their whims and fancies. Particularly confusing are the Tibetan Buddhist figures. But recognising Buddha in his meditative posture and Tirthankaras as straight standing figures with a Srivatsa on their chests won’t be difficult.

Easiest way is to recognise a vahana first and then identify its rider. But recognising the statues without vahanas is very difficult. Following list of identification will be very useful:

Brahma stamp by France


Four heads (one head is not shown), Four hands, rosary in one hand and Vedas on another hand; swan or goose nearby (if it is a figure with Vishnu he is shown as if coming out of Vishnu’s belly button, seated on a lotus); sometimes Brahma is shown with beard.


Four hands, Wheel and Conch (Shankgu and Chakra) on both hands and Garuda (Eagle or Kite) as the Vahana; mace or Gatha is also seen in some pictures.

Vishnu’s another pose is Seshasai: Here he is shown lying on his snake bed. The multi-headed snake is called Adisesha.



Trident in hand, matted lock with crescent on the hair; sometimes the third eye on the forehead is shown; riding on a bull (Rishaba); battle axe, Damarukam/drum,  and deer are in other hands. Snake is shown around his neck.


Dancing Shiva can easily be identified with one leg up and a demon under his feet. The Universal dancer holds a drum in one of his hands and Fire/agni in another hand.


Siva’s another form is Veerabhadra; he is also shown with trident.

ganesh lanka


Easiest Hindu god to recognise is Ganesh because of his elephant head. Sometimes the rat or mouse is shown as vahana on a very small scale


Monkey faced god from Ramayana can also be easily recognised like Ganesh.


Rama is always shown with his bow; and mostly with Sita and Lakshmana on either side.

hanuman raman


Hindus know the stories behind Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu known as Dasavatara in Sanskrit; they can be easily identified by close observation of the following points:

Matsya (Fish) Avatara: Half the body is shown as Fish (In western countries sea nymphs are shown this way)

Kurma (Tortoise/turtle) Avatara: Bottom half of body is shown as tortoise

Varaha (Boar) Avatara:This Avatara is shown with a boar like face and holding the earth on the tip of its nose.

Vamana (Short) Avatara:- A short figure with a tuft like a Brahmin with an umbrella.

happy onam, sivaraman post

Narasimha (Man-lion) Avatara: Face is shown as a lion or ferocious looking; if the full figure is shown, one can see even the sharp animal toes with long nails.

Parasu (Axe) Rama: Parsurama is shown as a tall figure with an axe in his hand. He always looks angry.

Rama (Full man) Avatara: Explained above; shown with a bow, usually a very tall figure.

Balarama: Shown with a plough; he was a great agriculturist who spread agriculture and cultivation by travelling to different parts of India. He was always on pilgrimage. Wearing yellow cloth if it is a colour picture.

Krishna: Shown with a crown wearing peacock feather, handsome, tall, holding/playing on a flute, standing nearby a cow or Radha; if it is a colour picture then he is shown with blue cloth to distinguish him from his brother Balarama.

Buddha: Buddha is considered by some as one of Vishnu’s Avataras. Easily recognised because of his meditative posture and shawl on his shoulder. Closed eyes with peaceful countenance.

Kalki: Hindus believe that the last incarnation of Vishnu -Kalki is yet to come. Kalki is shown riding a white horse with a sword in is hand. Sometimes he is shown horse faced.

murugam balan


Shiva’s two sons are Ganesh and Kartikeya (Skanda/Murugan) . He is easily identifiable because of his Spear and his vahana- the peacock. He is shown with his two wives Valli and Deivanai in some places. Also shown with six heads and 12 hands in Tamil books.


Indra: He rides the white elephant ‘Airavata’ with multiple heads or single head. Indra holds thunderbolt (Vajrayudha) and lotus in his hands.

Agni: The hair of Agni is shown as fire; he rides on a goat. He holds rosary, vase in his hands.

Varuna : he is shown riding a Crocodile; noose and lotus are in his hands.

Yama: he rides buffalo and have staff and noose in his hands. Very dark in complexion.

Vayu: Vayu is shown with his vahana stag; hands are in boon giving position.

Kubera: The god of wealth is shown with mace and boon giving hand. He is also shown with a gold pot full of coins. He is short with a big belly. His vahanas varies between man, horse and goat

Nirruti: sword, shield and Katri are in his hands; man (dead body) or ass or camel is vahana


Nine Planets

Surya: Lotus in each hand, one wheeled chariot driven by seven horses

Chandra/Moon : mace, rosary or lotus in hands; chariot driven by ten horses; Rohini on his right side and sometimes shown with his wives Kanti and Shhoba

Angaraka/mangala/Mars: Goat vahana, rosary, staff, javelin are in his hands

Budha(Mercury): Lion vahana; sword, shield mace , bow, rosary, Yoga mudra in hands.

Guru (Jupiter): Rosary, vase or staff or book are in his hands; golden chariot driven by horses is his vahana.

Sukra (Venus): Rosary, vase or staff; chariot driven by horses

Sani /Saturn: Arrow, bow, javelin, staff, rosary are in his hands; Crow is his vehicle; sometimes vulture or buffalo

Rahu: sword, shield, javelin;  face half moon, ugly face

Ketu: mace or shield in hands; serpent tail or serpent body with ugly face.


Durga: Durga is the destructive form of Uma or Parvati. She is shown as killing Mahishasura (Beffalo demon); she is also shown as Narayani with Conch and wheel or with garland of skulls; vahana — lion or tiger.

Lakshmi: seated on lotus; if it is Gajalakshmi form, two elephants on either side doing Abishekam; bowl of leaves; vahana owl

Sarasvati : Veena (musical instrument), rosary, books, vase, flute; swan or peacock is shown as vahana.

durga, mamallapuram

saraswati lakshmi

Gayathri: She is shown seated on a lotus flower, with five faces and ten hands holding rosary, bowl, battle axe, conch, wheel, mace etc. Sometimes a swan is shown by her side.

The above list is not a comprehensive list. Still there are lot of forms like Sapta matas, Lalita, Raja rajeswari, Chamundi, Kali and other forms. For every mythological story we have a special form of god or goddess. The study of Hindu iconography is a very big field. Grama devatas have (Village goddesses) have different forms. Sastha, Ayyanar, Santoshimata, Bhagavati …. list goes on and on. But one will be able to identify most of them with Tri Murtis or their three consorts.

In South Indian Temples, Vishnu is shown in three poses: Sitting, Standing and lying down. They are huge sculptures.

For each god we have different forms when they kill some demons. Particularly with Krishna, his forms like Kaliya nardana or Kaliya mardana  (dancing and tackling the snake Kaliya) are more popular.

If elders in the family learn all these things and the significance of each and every symbol, it will be useful to teach the youngsters in the family.

We must also tell them that these are symbolic representations; When Brahmachari Ganesh is shown with his “Two Wives” Siddhi and Buddhi, that means anyone worshipping god in this form will attain Success (Siddhi) and Intelligence (Buddhi). When Moon is shown with Kanti and Shoba, we must make sure they understand that these are the words for Brightness, Shining etc. When Sun has a “wife” by name Chaya (Shadow) they must know shadow follows light. Since they forgot the symbolism, now all the stories have become “myths”!!

IMG_4537 (2) siva is pillar

Nataraja and Shiva


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