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MŪRTI . According to many Hindu religious traditions, mūrti is a god's form, its infinite metaphysical reality manifested visibly. Aside from a limited class of objects called svayambhū (self-created or natural), mūrti s are mainly anthropomorphic figures or symbols. They are the ritually consecrated cult images at the center of pūjā (worship), which is the dominant form of Hindu religious practice.

In Vedic sacrifice the deity is unseen, being represented only by the chanted mantra s of the priests as they move among the abstract geometric forms of the altars that represent the cosmos. The deity's form first emerges in the practice of the orthodox tradition with the later, theistic Upaniads, where a vision of the mūrti of the personalized deity is summoned through meditation. In the epics, image worship is mentioned and accepted, but it is given only marginal and fleeting notice, while major interest is centered upon the fire sacrifice. Only with the emergence of sectarian Agamic and Puranic literature, from the fourth century ce on, did the notion of mūrti and its use in pūjā become systematically formulated. There, for the first time, the claim is made that worship of mūrti succeeds or even supplants the sacrifice.

Paralleling this textual record are inscriptions and fragmentary temple and image remains from as early as the second century bce. Very few images of orthodox Puranic deities have survived from before the third century ce, however, and not until the fifth and sixth centuries were mūrti s and the temples that house them committed to the permanence of stone throughout the subcontinent. Nearly all earlier images, and most later ones, were made of perishable materials, and so lost.

An image is a mūrti, not by virtue of looking like the deity it represents, but because it conforms to prescribed measurements and symbolic conventions and is accorded orthodox consecration (pratihā ) and authentic devotion by those whose activities create it, the initiated artist (sthapati ), priest (ācārya ), and devotee (bhakta ). This process is expounded in two sets of authoritative texts. Requirements as to materials, measurements, proportion, decoration, and symbolism according to which the mūrti is shaped are provided in technical manuals known as the Śilpaśāstras. Explanation of the metaphysical significance of each stage of manufacture and the prescription of specific mantra s to sanctify the process and lodge the power of the deity in the image are found in the Agamas and Tantras, liturgical handbooks. The process is modeled on the instructions found in the Brāhmaas for building fire altars.

Mūrti worship also, partially patterned after the fire sacrifice, takes place in the complementary contexts of household and public altars. Images of iadevatā and kuladevatā, family deities who are treated as honored guests, are found in a discrete location in every household. The mūrti s of public cults are established in palatial temples, where they are served by an attached priesthood and may be visited by their devotees. As material extensions of the mūrti and descendants of the sacrificial altar, such temples are created in accordance with the same technical and liturgical prescriptions as the mūrti s themselves.

See Also

Iconography, article on Hindu Iconography; Temple, article on Hindu Temples.


Along with a consideration of the full range of Hindu deities, going back as far as the Vedas, Alain Daniélou's Hindu Polytheism (New York, 1964) contains a section on the representation and worship of deities, in which the discussion of mūrti is set in its broader context. T. A. Gopinatha Rao's venerable Elements of Hindu Iconography, 2 vols. (1914; reprint, New York, 1968), offers a compendium of Agamic and Puranic lore about deities compared with examples of mūrti s and illustrative images. Its general introduction offers a wealth of information, including a discussion of various systems of classifying mūrti s. Jitendra Nath Banerjea's Development of Hindu Iconography, 2d ed. (Calcutta, 1956), provides a detailed explanation of the origin of mūrti worship in both the texts and in the material record. It also presents the historical development of mūrti largely based on material findings. To approach an authentic understanding of the richness of textual thought on mūrti more closely, one may read a translation of one of the liturgical handbooks: Kāśyapa's Book of Wisdom (Kāśyapa-Jñānakāa: A Ritual Handbook of the Vaikhānasas), translated and annotated by Teun Goudriaan (The Hague, 1965).

Gary Michael Tartakov (1987)