A murti is much more than a piece of art or a physical representation of God, worshippers see beyond the surface and relate to the spirit within. In the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, there is a collection of various murti present, in addition to sacred carvings of images on the pillars surrounding the main dome. Without these images, the temple would be no more than a beautiful building, but with them, a place of sacred worship is established. When there is no image for the mind to meditate on, it is impossible to remember that God is superimposed within a sacred form. After passing through the mandapa, on the walls adjacent to each other are murti depicting Rama, Sita, and Hanuman and Shiva, Parvati, and Ganesh. Rama, an avatar of Vishnu is enshrined with his consort, Sita. The pair are clothed in colorful fabric and covered in gold foiled beads, jewelry, and nimbi. Hanuman, the monkey god is seen below them, he too is gilded in an ornate dress. Together, the three represent truth, justice, and compassion as taught in the Ramayana. On the opposing wall is Shiva, standing with a gold trident, hand drum and the marking of a third eye on his forehead. He is portrayed in his ascetic aspect, bearing symbols relevant to his role in cosmic dissolution. Beside him is Parvati, wearing gold and leopard skin, below her is the pair’s son”Ganesh. Ganesh is seen here in his typical state.
In front of the individuals sits a Linga Yoni, an aniconic representation of Shiva. As you walk further into the temple, there is a large murti on the wall where the transept runs through the temple. Here is the murti of Krishna, another incarnation of Vishnu in his adult form, playing the flute. He is clothed in very bright clothing and his ears are covered in jeweled peacock feathers. He is accompanied by his greatest consort and Gopi, Radha who represents unflinching love and total dedication to God. It was at this altar, I was able to witness devotees offering their respect by lying full prostrate on the floor, with their arms stretched towards the murti, both an elder man and a young boy performed this ritual. With the presence of these deities in each sacred image, they are served and attended to by devout worshippers just as if they were a living sovereign. They are awoken, bathed, dressed, adorned and fed by the Mandir’s trained swamis so the divine with be attended to with a deep sense of reverence and meditative awareness. These images are the real embodiment of a deity, not just a piece of art for human vision, but a tool to both see and be seen by the divine; the murti serves a multifaceted purpose.
The inner shrine of the garbhagriha is home to the main murti of Vishnu in the Swaminarayan temple. Vishnu is thought to be the tender and merciful deity, having the world reborn out of his navel. This supreme love for God is observed in the lavish of his own creation in murti as well as the intricacy in the depiction of his avatars in the earlier areas of the Swaminarayan. The inner shrine itself is intricately carved stone, while the interior seat is gilded wood. When the deity is resting or being adorned, the wood carved doors remain closed out of respect. This particular form of Vishnu, is a small, golden statuesque image that sits on a platform within the dark womb room. On my visit, worshippers were performing an aarti for Vishnu. Aarti is one of the forms of prayer offered in greeting and gratitude to God, reminding devotees of his presence and providence. A ceremony consisting of fire, involves waving the light before a sacred image to infuse the flames with the deity’s blessings and energy, and a songful prayer was sung in accompaniment. The traditional Hindu ritual of Puja perfectly illustrates the inextricable nature of religion and art, without the presence of artistic expression, devotees would be unable to go about their religious practices to the deities and thus the idea of darshan would be unobtainable.
The interdependence of orthodoxy and orthopraxy and Hindu aesthetic expressions seen within the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir perfectly illustrate the inextricable relationship of religion and art within Hinduism. Through my immersive experience, I was able to witness the profoundness of such within a devout Hindu’s life. Although, unlike other religions, it is not mandatory for a Hindu to regularly visit a temple due to in-home shrines, temples are often still visited to be surrounded by the holistic presence of God. The Hindu temple is significant not only for its religious elements, but also for the elements within retaining traditional culture, as the practice demonstrates the profound importance of religious imagery in ritual worship. Hindu architecture and art are designed to dissolve the boundary made between humankind and divinity in order to stress the unification with God as the ultimate goal. Temple murti are consecrated and considered to have the deity within them, by worshipping such Hindu’s are expressing their devotion in the literal presence of God and succeed in darshan. Artistic expressions are not merely a symbol of beauty, but embody and convey religious meaning and shape liturgical practices while maintaining aesthetic dimensions, the stylized architecture and various ornate murti within the Swaminarayan temple go to exemplify this contention.