In Hinduism, Deities are often depicted with multiple arms. These many arms become visible when they are battling with cosmic forces. The pictorial representation of Hindu Gods having multiple arms in the human form is the artist’s attempt to express the supreme powers of Gods. It shows their immense strength and power to perform numerous acts at a single time.
The multiple arms of Hindu Gods and Goddesses show the greater power of Deities over humans.
Each hand holds some object which symbolizes the various qualities of that particular deity. Some hands are shown empty but with different mudras (positions) of the fingers and palms that signify the character of God. For instance, when the fingers are pointing toward the ground, they convey the charitable nature of God, whereas when the fingers point upwards, in the form of a blessing, convey the protective nature of God.
The number of arms varies basis the symbolism portrayed. Usually, Deities are shown having four arms, each holding a different object having a different significance. For instance, Lord Ganesha.
The Abhaya Mudra, translated to English, means a gesture of fearlessness (Abhaya = fearless, mudra =gesture). In this gesture, Ganesha’s lower right hand symbolizes his grace, blessings, and protection on a person’s journey through life. Holding an axe in his upper right hand, Ganesha symbolizes detachment, which is to cut off all attachments. He holds a rope in his upper left hand to pull the devotees nearer to the spiritual path. It is said that Ganesha offers rewards in the form of Modak (sweets) for penances (sadhana) done with the Modak, which he holds in his lower left hand.
At times, the Deity is also shown with more than one head. This representation symbolizes the various aspects of the character of that deity. For example, when the god Shiva is portrayed with a triple head, the central face indicates his essential character and the flanking faces depict his fierce and blissful nature.
As per Ancient Hindu Texts,
Lord Brahma formerly possessed one head. When he created a woman, Shatarupa, from his own body, Brahma fell in love with his own female creation. He could not escape his eyes from her astounding beauty. As Shatarupa felt shy, she tried to elude his gaze by moving away on all sides. It is believed that to follow Shatarupa wherever she moved, Brahma created his FIVE heads, facing each side, East, West, North, and South, and one facing upwards.
Like Hindu Deities, the Puranas also mention demons (Asura) having multiple arms and heads. This depiction is done to convey their superhuman power.
Examples of Deities and Asuras with Multiple Arms and heads
One of the most well-known deities with multiple hands is Lord Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. Vishnu is often depicted with four hands, each holding different objects that symbolize his divine attributes and powers. For example, he may hold a conch shell (representing the primordial sound of creation), a discus (symbolizing the power to destroy evil), a mace (representing strength), and a lotus flower (symbolizing purity).
Goddess Durga, an incarnation of the divine feminine energy is usually depicted with eight or ten arms, each holding various weapons and tools associated with her role as a warrior goddess. Her multiple arms symbolize her ability to multitask and carry out different actions simultaneously.
Lord Shiva, the destroyer and transformer, is also sometimes depicted with multiple hands. However, his most common depiction shows him with four arms. Each hand may hold different objects, such as a trident (symbolizing his power), a drum (representing the rhythm of creation), a small axe (symbolizing detachment), and a snake (symbolic of his mastery over fear).
As for the asuras, Ravana is a well-known demon king from the Hindu epic Ramayana who is often depicted with multiple heads and arms. Ravana had ten heads and twenty arms, signifying his immense power and intelligence.
Goddess Kali is a fearsome form of the divine mother and is often depicted with four or eight arms. Her multiple arms represent her ability to perform various actions simultaneously. Each hand may hold weapons like a sword, a trident, a severed head, or a bowl to catch the blood of demons.
Goddess Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, music, arts, and learning. She is typically depicted with four arms, each representing different aspects of wisdom. Her hands may hold a veena (musical instrument), a book (symbolizing knowledge), a mala (prayer beads), or a lotus.
Lord Kartikeya (Murugan) is the son of Lord Shiva and the brother of Lord Ganesha. He is the god of war and victory. Kartikeya is often depicted with multiple arms, most commonly six. His hands may hold a spear, a flag, a bow and arrow, a conch shell, and a discus.
Asura Mahishasura was a powerful asura who was eventually defeated by Goddess Durga. In some depictions, Mahishasura is portrayed with multiple arms and heads, representing his formidable strength and transformation abilities.
Asura Rahu is a demon associated with eclipses. In some representations, Rahu is depicted with multiple arms and a serpent-like body. He is often depicted with his lower body coiled and his upper body adorned with various weapons.