By Satyaraja Dasa
Anthropomorphism fails as an explanation for the many-armed divine forms described in the Vedic literature.
When I joined the Hare Krishna movement, something in Srila Prabhupada’s books intrigued me: God’s unlimited nature went beyond merely having innumerable forms; these forms, I was amazed to learn, often have numerous arms as well. India’s wisdom texts, in fact, describe a wonderland of beatific multiarmed beings. There is four-armed Vishnu and His consort, eight-armed Lakshmi; the ten-armed Goddess Kali; and an astoundingly ferocious, breathtakingly beautiful, thousand-armed, lion-headed Deity named Nrisimha. All these and many more reside in a multidimensional transcendent realm that the tradition says is our real home, the realm of Godhead, the abode of our heart’s delight.
Why, I wondered, do God or His expansions need multiple hands? Won’t two do the trick? I thought of the old song “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Yes, I thought, He’s got the whole world in His hands – and maybe, as this tradition says, He’s got more than two.
After all, why should God conform to human physiognomy? If He does, might He not also then conform to human limitation? Why try to make God like us?
The Greek philosopher Xenophanes spoke of religion’s Deities as a form of projection. He said we envision God in human terms because we are human. Had we been plants or animals and able to think deeply about the nature of God, we would likely have envisioned Him as a plant or an animal.
The Vedic conception can’t be accused of that. There we find the supreme divinity manifesting Himself in all species of life – as a boar, as a fish, as a tortoise, even as a man-lion. So Vedic conceptions of God are not simply a projection of our own form. Thus we can counter Xenophanes as follows: The Vedic conception of God is not manmade, or at least it can’t be accused as such for the usual reasons, for it’s a conception that is not constricted or defined by the human form.
The way I see it, an extension of this idea is found in the multiplicity of arms under discussion – the Vedic conception of Deity is not limited to our usual two-armed anatomy.
But, Still, Why All the Hands?
Usually, each form of God holds in His hands some objects that symbolize or represent the various qualities of that particular Deity. The same is often true of other divine personalities as well. Sometimes their hands are empty, but the position of the fingers and the palms signify their mood and character. For example, traditional Bharata Natyam hand gestures, derived from the Natya-shastra, often give information: If the dancer’s fingers point toward the ground, it means this particular divinity is of a charitable disposition; if they point upward, it means this deity is in the mood of a protector. These gestures, also known as mudras, indicate a given deity’s individual powers and differentiate one from the other.
Among all deities, the Vishnu-dharmottara Purana tells us, Vishnu is supreme, and His four hands express dominion over the four directions of space. This harkens back to what His name means: “the all-pervading one.”
The same Purana also explains that Vishnu’s arms symbolize the four aims (purusharthas) of human life: (a) duty and virtue (dharma); (b) the pursuit of material goods, wealth, and success (artha); (c) pleasure, sexuality, and sense enjoyment (kama); and (d) liberation (moksha), the chief form of which is not simply going to heaven but developing love for God. This is the real goal of human existence.
Most importantly, Lord Vishnu holds implements in His hands that tell us much about His person: a conchshell, a discus, a lotus, and a mace. I remembered from my earlier studies in Eastern philosophy that the conch symbolizes creativity and victory; the chakra (or discus) symbolizes the powers of the mind (it is also a weapon with which Vishnu kills demons and slays misconceptions and doubts); the mace, with which He evokes fear in the unrighteous, symbolizes strength; and the lotus symbolizes liberation and the ability to rise beyond the material world.
There are innumerable Vishnu expansions of Krishna in the spiritual and material worlds. In His instructions to Sanatana Goswami in the Chaitanya-charitamrita, Lord Chaitanya quotes descriptions from Siddhartha-samhita of twenty-four forms of Vishnu distinguished by the placement of the four symbols in Their four hands. He also lists other Vishnu forms, mentioned in the Hayashirsha Pancaratra.
The Six-Armed Form
When I think back to my initial interest in God’s having multiple arms, I remember that I was particularly attracted to a form called the shad-bhuja-murti, or the six-armed form of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. While I was a bit taken aback by the awe-inspiring thousand-armed universal form, which Krishna showed Arjuna, and the ferocious ten-armed Nrisimhadeva, I found Mahaprabhu’s six-armed form alluring, and I continue to have a special affection for it to this day. In fact, I collect paintings and photographs of the shad-bhuja-murti, some of which accompany this article.
I remember my initial reading of Prabhupada’s description of this form: “Shad-bhuja, the six-armed Lord Gaurasundara [Chaitanya], is a representation of three incarnations. The form of Sri Ramachandra is symbolized by a bow in one hand and an arrow in another, the form of Lord Sri Krishna is symbolized by a stick and a flute like those generally held by a cowherd boy, and Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is symbolized by a sannyasa-danda and a kamandalu, or water pot.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi 17.12, Purport)
“Wow,” I thought, “all the most important incarnations of Krishna in one form!”
I loved the idea, and as I learned more, I noticed that Prabhupada also saw this form as special:
Lord Sri Ramachandra is so kind and merciful to His devotees that He is very easily satisfied by a little service rendered by anyone, human or not. This is the special advantage of worshiping Lord Ramachandra, and there is the same advantage in worshiping Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Lord Krishna and Lord Ramachandra, in the manner of kshatriyas, sometimes showed Their mercy by killing asuras [demons], but Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu awarded love of God without difficulty even to the asuras. All the incarnations of the Supreme Personality of Godhead – but especially Lord Ramachandra, Lord Krishna and, later, Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu – delivered many of the living entities present before Them, indeed almost all of them. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is therefore represented in the six-armed form of shad-bhuja-murti, which is a combination of Lord Ramachandra, Lord Krishna, and Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The best purpose of human life can be fulfilled by worshipping the shad-bhuja-murti, the form of the Lord with six arms – two arms of Ramachandra, two arms of Krishna, and two arms of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.19.8–9, Purport)
I found that the earliest artistic depiction of this form seems to be in the Oriyan style, painted on the walls of the Jagannatha temple and the Gangamata Math in Jagannath Puri, Orissa.
On the southeastern side of the main temple building in Puri, one can see a deity of Sri Chaitanya in His six-armed form. This is because Mahaprabhu revealed this form to both King Prataparudra and his court pandita, Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya, both of whom resided in Puri. Thus the King had this form painted on the outside of the temple tower and on the ceiling of the Nat Mandir, as well as in a room near the southern gate.
Sri Chaitanya also showed this form to His intimate associate Nityananda Prabhu, as described in the Chaitanya-charitamrita. Over the centuries, many artists have depicted this form, but my favorite renderings are the ones done by ISKCON artists that have appeared in Back to Godhead.
Historical Revelation and Inner Meaning
According to Sri Chaitanya’s authorized biographies, then, shad-bhuja-murti was revealed three times, in the following order:
1. To Nityananda Prabhu in Srivasa Thakura’s house in Mayapur. This occurred during the Vyasa-puja celebration (worship of Vyasadeva), the day after Mahaprabhu and Nityananda met for the first time. (See Chaitanya-bhagavata, Madhya 5.92; Sri Chaitanya-candrodaya, Act II, text 75; and Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi 17.12.) Incidentally, according to both the Sri Chaitanya-candrodaya, Act II, text 77, and the Chaitanya-charitamrita reference cited above, Nityananda saw a different version of the six-armed form, with hands holding conch, disc, club, lotus, bow, and flute.
2. To Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya in his house in Puri, soon after the Lord first arrived there. (See Chaitanya-bhagavata, Antya 3.100–105, and Srila Prabhupada’s purport to Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi 10.130, as well as his Teachings of Lord Chaitanya, chapter 26.)
3. To Maharaja Prataparudra, two years after the Sarvabhauma revelation, when the Lord returned from His South Indian tour. (See Murari Gupta’s Sri-krishna-caitanya-carita-mahakavya 4.16.14–20 and Locana Dasa’s Chaitanya-mangala, Sesha-kanda, Song 12, Texts 113–115.)
In Locana Dasa Thakura’s Chaitanya-mangala we find the following verses, which give us a deeper understanding of the six-armed form.* They depict a scene that occurs just after Sri Chaitanya takes sannyasa, the renounced order of life. At that time, the Lord offers a prayer to His danda (renunciant’s staff), saying that it is essentially identical to His bow and arrow and flute:
ami se sakala chadi karinu sannyasa
tumi na chadile more janme janme vamsha
rama avatare tumi dhanuka haiya
rahile amara hathe dushtera lagiya
krishna avatare vamshi hana mora kare
mohita karile saba akhila samsare
ibe danda hana mora aila karete
kali-yuge pashanda-dalana hetu rupe
“O My danda! Although I have given up everything by becoming a sannyasi, still you have not given Me up. You stay by My side, accompanying Me life after life. When I was traveling in the forest as Rama, you were always in My hand as My bow and arrow. During My pastimes as Krishna, you were always there in My hand as My flute, captivating the entire world with divine love. And now after I have abandoned everything as a sannyasi, still you remain with Me as My danda in order to vanquish the nonbelievers in Kali-yuga.” (Sri Sri Chaitanya-mangala [in Sri Locana dasa krita padavali saha], 2nd edition, edited by Sri Mrinalakanti Ghosha, Gaurabda 444 [1930 or 1931 CE], Madhya-khanda, p. 66)
This prayer brings to light a little-known dimension of the six-armed form, showing a spiritual connection between the items the Lord holds in His hands, particularly when He descends as Rama, Krishna, and Chaitanya.
Srila Prabhupada’s guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, gives us yet another inner meaning of this form: By showing His associates this divine manifestation, Lord Chaitanya is bringing to light His teaching of achintya-bhedabheda, or the inconceivable and simultaneous oneness and difference between the Lord and His various forms and energies. “The prakasha, or expansion, the avatara, or incarnation, the shaktis, or energies, and the bhaktas, or devotees, are not separate from the svayam-rupa, or original Personality of Godhead,” writes Srila Sarasvati Thakura. “Within Krishna Chaitanya all of them are individually included with simultaneously distinct characteristics. To exhibit this achintya-bhedabheda philosophy in His Gaura-lila, the Lord displayed His six-armed form to Sri Nityananda Prabhu.” (Commentary on Sri Chaitanya-bhagavata, Madhya 5.105)
In conventional Vaishnava discourse, the philosophy of achintya-bhedabheda pertains to the Lord’s essential nature in relation to His energy – it explains how He is both one with and different from everything that emanates from Him. However, in this instance, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta extends its meaning to include the Lord’s many direct manifestations as well. That is to say, He is both one with and different from His incarnations and expansions. The shad-bhuja-murti, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta tells us, is an exhibition of this truth.
According to Radhe Govinda Dasa, who is writing a book about shad-bhuja-murti, the threefold form represents maryada-purushottama, lila-purushottama, and prema-purushottama. Purushottama means “Supreme Person.”
“Rama is the supreme,” Radhe Govinda writes, “in terms of formality, or rules and regulations (maryada), allowing us to reach the concept of God Almighty. Now, Krishna is Lord of play (lila), or the Supreme who manifests beautiful pastimes for the pleasure of His devotees. And Mahaprabhu gives us divine love (prema) in an unprecedented way. Together, these three aspects of Godhead are seen in shad-bhuja-murti, a very special manifestation of the Supreme.”
Indradyumna Swami, a leading ISKCON preacher, has summarized this as follows: “Shad-bhuja-murti means dharma, ananda, and prema – Rama represents proper action in the material world (dharma), Krishna’s divine pastimes give bliss (ananda), and Mahaprabhu brought us divine love (prema).”
Hands and Heart
The conclusion is that God can have innumerable hands, one hand, or even no hands. The Vedic literature is replete with descriptions of God’s many divine forms – and their hands. But the important part of God, those same sacred texts tell us, is not His hands at all, but His heart, His love. While His hands may exist in an infinite variety of forms, with diverse symbolism and attributes based on His purpose and meaning, His heart is one. His love for us is single-minded. That is certain.
For me, Prabhupada sums it up best, showing how God’s many arms basically serve two functions, which can especially be seen in the four-armed Vishnu: He has two hands to address the negativity of the demoniac, and two for the pleasure of the devotees:
So when Krishna comes, He has got two businesses: paritranaya sadhunam vinashaya cha dushkritam – for giving protection to the devotees, to the faithful, and for killing the demons. So Krishna, when He was present, He exhibited these two things. Perhaps you have seen our picture of Narayana, or Vishnu. Vishnu has got four hands. In two hands He has got a lotus flower and a conchshell, and in the other two hands He has got a club and a disc. The disc and club are meant for vinashaya cha dushkritam, for killing the demons and the miscreants. And the conchshell and the lotus flower are meant for giving benediction and blessings to the devotees. (Lecture at a Christian Monastery, Melbourne, April 6, 1972)
In Kavi Karnapura’s classic sixteenth-century work, the Sri Chaitanya-candrodaya (Act II, text 82), the author expresses a similar idea, specifically in terms of the shad-bhuja-murti: “Some say that with these six arms You kill the six enemies of the world. O fulfiller of desires, I say that with these arms You give devotional service, love of God, and the four goals of life.”**
Indeed, Lord Rama’s bow and arrow bring fear to the hearts of the demoniac, while Krishna’s two flute-holding hands inspire devotion in those so inclined. And Sri Chaitanya’s arms? They provide the highest love, prema, for all who adopt the path of Krsna consciousness. Mahaprabhu’s two arms take the devotees beyond all dimensions of the material world and situate them in the embrace of transcendence.
*Among the various Bengali versions of Sri Chaitanya-mangala, some omit these verses. I’ve chosen to include them because they pertain to our understanding of the Lord’s six-armed feature.
**The six enemies of the world are lust, anger, greed, madness, illusion, and envy. The four goals of life are religiosity, economic development, sense gratification, and liberation.
My special thanks to Maha Lakshmi Devi Dasi and Radhe Govinda Dasa for the use of their photos and the fruits of their research. Their Facebook page dedicated to Shad-bhuja, “Sadbhuja – The 6-armed Form of Lord Chaitanya” (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1811067715804556/) was extremely helpful.