History and Identity: The Object Formerly Known as Shiva as Brahma

Brahma, ca AD 900. South India, Chola dynasty.

The Cleveland Museum of Art's Indian and Southeast Asian collection is rated as one of the leading collections in this area, both nationally and internationally. With the grand opening of the building and completion of the renovation and expansion project, the collection, along with the museum's distinguished collection of Chinese art, is on view once again.

While walking the west wing galleries where the collections are on view, one can't miss the the sculpture of Brahma in the center of the exhibition. In the Hindu pantheon, Brahma is in charge of carrying out the work of creation. In this tour-de-force of South Indian temple sculpture, he is in a special regal aspect, with the only elements of his typical priestly appearance being the prayer beads and the matted dreadlocks piled up on his head. Four arms connote superhuman power, and four heads convey the idea that his creative activities spread in all four directions. His upper right hand enjoins freedom from fear, and the lower holds a lotus bud associated with birth and the process of creation. His lowered left hand is held in the gift-giving gesture, suggestive of the gift of creation he will bestow upon the world. However, not as suggestive is a pinpointing of the sculpture's true identity. The object, acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2007, was actually first titled Shiva as Brahma before being renamed Brahma. Why the name change? We asked Sonya Quintanilla, George P. Bickford curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art, to talk about the history and identity of this particular work of art.

Quintanilla explains: "For a short moment in South India, around AD 900, life-size versions of this icon carved in the round were especially popular, and five of them are in museums in the U.S., having been exported from India during the British colonial period. Besides the Cleveland Museum of Art, nearly identical examples of are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Yorkthe Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Worcester Art Museum, and the Detroit Institute of Art. Although they all depict the same figure, the curators at New York and Boston have chosen to identify the image as the Hindu god Shiva, while the curators in Detroit and Worcester call him Brahma. When the sculpture in the Cleveland Museum of Art, formerly in the collection of the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York, was accessioned in 2007 it was titled Shiva as Brahma.  What is the correct or the best identification for this important sculpture?

Close up of Brahma, late 900s or early 1000s. South India, Chola dynasty, late 10th - early 11th century

In form he looks like Brahma, the Hindu god in charge of creation and the model for the Brahmins, or priest class in orthodox Hindu society. He has four heads, ascetical dread locks, and four arms; he sits on a lotus flower and holds a lotus bud to refer to birth and a rosary indicative of priestly piety. The only feature that links him with Shiva is the third eye in the center of the forehead—which can also be reserved for enlightened beings in Buddhist contexts. The curators in Boston and New York cite the third eye as the reason for identifying this icon as Shiva. However, I have chosen to go back to the earlier identification of the image as Brahma. While I acknowledge that it most likely depicts the ultimate divinity, known by many Hindus as Shiva, who has emanated himself into the form of Brahma to carry out the act of creation, the image is still that of Brahma. I also feel that the presence of the third eye alone need not necessarily trump all of the other iconographic features. Many other enlightened beings also have the third eye, and it is possible this particular form of Brahma had the third eye for a short time. It is not a feature exclusive to Shiva alone. There is even debate as to whether this image was in a niche on the north wall of a Shiva temple; the other images of Brahma in the northern niches are all carved in relief and are generally standing. This unique icon may have sat in its own shrine. The evidence for their original locations is now lost.

Many museum-goers struggle to learn the names iconography of the gods and enlightened beings in the South Asian traditions, and the metaphysical idea of one divinity emanating into the form of another is appropriate for scholarly discussion; the title need not allude to every nuance. In form he is Brahma, so the label now reads Brahma.

In the Cleveland galleries the Brahma sits in the middle of the central gallery, extraordinary from all directions. This gallery is filled with images associated with the Buddha and the Hindu god Vishnu. Brahma is recognized as a creator god by followers of all these traditions, and in this way need not be limited to a space devoted only to Shiva.”

Meet Brahma for yourself in the newly unveiled west wing galleries at the Cleveland Museum of Art!



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