Dr. A K Chatterjee is a seasoned writer with more than 330 blogs in English and Bengali and 10 books mostly on travel, trekking and temples.
Key words (vernaculars are in italics)
Shri Chaitanya; Gauranga; Shadbhuja, 6-armed; anthropoid; avatar; Vishnu; Krishna; terracotta; stucco; mural/fresco; Dharma; Ananda; Prema; Bhakti Yoga; devotion cult.
Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was a 15th-century Indian saint from Bengal. He was one of the all-time great saints of Hinduism. It will be unfair to describe him just as a great saint, he was in true sense a great social and religious reformer who single handedly brought a lot of changes in contemporary social and religious structure and re-introduced the "Bhakti Yoga" or the devotion cult which swept the contemporary Bengal and large parts of India like a Tsunami.
He popularized "Krishna worship" but in a different way from the traditional Hinduism. His Krishna was not just an Avatar of Lord Vishnu, one of the three great Gods of Hinduism viz. Brahma The Creator, Vishnu The Sustainer and Maheshwar (or Shiva) the Destroyer, but the Supreme God-head, the Ultimate from which everything emanates and to which everything goes at the end. Shri Krishna of Shri Chaitanya is The Alpha as well as The Omega.
Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's mode of worshiping Krishna with ecstatic song and dance had a profound effect on Vaishnavism in Bengal and large parts of contemporary India. He was also the chief proponent of the Vedantic philosophy of "Achintya Bheda-Abheda Tattva". He founded "Gaudiya Vaishnavism", which is gaining strength day by day and spreading all over the world (especially by the ISKCON or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness) till today.
He popularized the chanting of the "Hare Krishna" Maha-mantra ("Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna/ Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama/ Rama Rama, Hare Hare"), the most effective mode of salvation in the present "Kali Yuga".
To his followers, Shri Chaitanya is considered as an avatar of the Supreme Lord Krishna, a theory which has support of various scriptures including the Bhagavata Purana (Canto 11, Chapter 5, Verse 32). He is also considered as the combined avatar of Radha and Krishna.
I've described the influence of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu on the construction of temples in Bengal and his presence in the decorations of Bengal temples in a separate article (Link : http://hub.me/ap42U).
In this article I'm focusing on a particular subject and it's representation in the decorations of temples in West Bengal. The subject is "SHADBHUJA GAURANGA" OR the 6-armed Gauranga (Gauranga being another name of Shri Chaitanya).
The concept of gods and goddesses with multiple arms in Hinduism
In Hinduism, there is a tradition of describing gods and goddesses in an anthropoid form with multiple arms and heads. This concept comes from the idea that gods are creatures from heaven, a supra-human world and their attributes are often go beyond the normal human form.
Even when gods are described in non- or partial-anthropoid forms, they are often picturized with multiple arms like the parent gods.
One nice example is Lord Vishnu. Thus Lord Vishnu in His anthropoid form is described with 4 arms ("CHATURBHUJA VISHNU") and His half-anthropoid avatars Matsya (the Fish), Kurma (the Tortoise), Varaha (the Boar) and Nrisingha (Half-man half-lion) are also described with 4 arms.
Goddess Durga in Her various forms are described with 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 or even 18 arms.
I'm not getting into the detailed discussion on this, as the subject is extensive and beyond the scope of the present article. Here I'll focus on 6-armed Gauranga only.
The Concept of 6-armed Gauranga
The concept of 6-armed Garuanga came from the belief that Gauranga (other name of Shri Chaitanya) was a combination of 3 Avatars of Lord Vishnu - Shri Rama, Shri Krishna and Shri Chaitanya himself.
In iconography and temple decorations this is depicted as Shri Chaitanya having 6 arms - the two upper arms holding bow and arrow are of Lord Rama; the middle two hands holding the Banshi (flute) are of Lord Krishna and the two lower arms holding the Danda (stick) and the Kamandalu (water pot of the ascetics) are of Shri Chaitanya himself. Incidentally, the Danda and Kamandalu are two the signs of a Sannyasin (ascetic).
In paintings (murals/frescos), the arms are shown in colours - the upper arms (those of Rama) are Green (as Lord Rama's complexion was green), the middle arms (those of Krishna) are Blue (as Lord Krishna's complexion was dark blue or black) and the lower arms (those of Shri Chaitanya) are Golden yellow (as Shri Chaitanya's complexion was like molten-gold).
Shadbhuja Gauranga in temple decorations
The oldest depiction of 6-armed Gauranga can be seen on the south-east wall of the Jagannath temple of Puri, and in the Ganga Mata Math (temple) of Puri, the erstwhile home of Sarvabhauma and now preserved as the place of "Shadbhuj Chaitanya leela".
Temples of 6-armed Gauranga
There are several temples dedicated to 6-armed Gauranga. Some of these are :
1. Private temple of Mukherjee family of Bhubaneshwar, Odisha.
2. In a temple in Ekchakra village in Birbhum district of West Bengal. Incidentally, Ekchakra village is the birthplace of Nityananda, the closest associate of Shri Chaitanya.
3. In Shri Gauranga Gaudiya Math of Mayapur, district Nadia, West Bengal
Significances of this form of 6-armed Shri Chaitanya
There are profound significances of this form of Shri Chaitanya and Vaishnava scholars described these in several ways :
1. It signifies the underlying truth of the "Achintya-bhedabheda" philosophy which tells that essentially God is one with his different forms (Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur)
2. It signifies the unity of Maryada-Purushottama (Shri Rama, who is Duty and Self-respect personified), Leela-Purushottama ( Shri Krishna, who signifies the playful bliss of the God) and Prema-Purushottama (Shri Chaitanya, who is Love personified). (Radha Govinda Dasa)
3. It signifies the combined manifestation of Dharma (Rules), Ananda (Bliss) and Prema (Love) (Indradumnya Swami - leading ISKCON Preacher).
4. It signifies that to go to God we've to destroy the 6 Ripu-s or base feelings which are the great 6 enemies of man (Lust, Anger, Greed, Earthly attractions, Pride and Jealousy). (Poet Karnapura in his 16th century book "Shri Chaitanya Chandrodaya").
Lucky persons who viewed the 6-armed form of Shri Chaitanya
It is believed that Shri Chaitanya showed his 6-armed form to 3 persons : Nityananda, Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya and the King of Puri Maharaja Pratap Rudra.
As per Shri Chaitanya's authorized biographies, the sequence of this "Darshan" was as follows :
1. Prabhu Nityananda : Just after Shri Chaitanya met Nityananda for the first time, he showed his 6-armed form to Nityananda at the residence of Shribasa in Mayapur on the auspicious day of Vyas Puja ("Chaitanya Bhagabat", Madhya 5:92).
Here is an important piece of information regarding this "Darshan".
In 2 books with sufficient authority ("Chaitanya Chandrodaya" by Karnapura Goswami, Act II, text 75 and "Shri Chaitanya Charitamrita" by Krishnadasa Kaviraja, Adi : 17 : 12) it is written that the 6-armed form of Shri Chaitanya revealed to Nityananda held Shankhya (the Conch), Chakra (the Disc), Gada (the Mace), Padma (the Lotus), Banshee (the Flute) and Dhanuk (the Bow). Incidentally, the first 4 are Ayudhas of Lord Vishnu, the Flute is sign of Shri Krishna and the Bow represents Shri Rama.
This is somewhat different from the standard form of Shadbhuja Chaitanya.
2. Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya, the court Pundit of the king of Puri Pratap Rudra : at his residence in Puri ("Chaitanya Bhagabat", Antya 3: 100-105).
However, here is a catch -- according to "Chaitanya Charitamrita" by Krishnadasa Kaviraja, Shri Chaitanya first showed Sarvabhauma his 4-armed Vishnu form, then the 6-armed form.
3. Maharaja Pratap Rudra, the King of Puri : this was 2 years after Sarvabhauma got the Darshan, when Shri Chaitanya returned from his pilgrimage to South India (Murari Gupta's "Shri Krishna Chaitanya Charit Mahakavya"; 4 : 16 : 14-20 and Lochan Dasa's "Chaitanya Mangal" last part, song 12, text 113-115).
* There are unconfirmed stories that Shri Chaitanya showed his 6-armed forms to Shribasa Thakur also.
Shaabhuja Gauranga in Bengal temple decoration
This is the main objective of this article.
Though the life of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is rather poorly depicted in the decorations of temples of West Bengal, the Shadbhuja Gauranga motif is depicted in large numbers in temple decorations of Bengal - mostly in terracotta, but also in stucco, stone work and in paintings (fresco/murals).
The figure of 6-armed Gauranga :
In temple decorations, the head to feet portion of the body of this figure is of Shri Chaitanya, but instead of 2 arms, he has 6 arms, 3 on each side. The upper two arms are usually depicted in raised manner with a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other; the middle two arms are shown holding the flute to his lips and the lower two arms are on either side holding the Danda (stick) and the Kamandalu (water pot of the ascetics).
He is standing in "Tribhanga" (crossed legs) posture.
Examples of 6-armed Gauranga in some temples of West Bengal :
The following list comprises of only those temples visited personally by the author. There are many more temples with this motif.
1. In terracotta : This can be seen in Shiva temple of Ukhra, Paschim Bardhaman district; Gopinath temple of Dashghara, Hooghly district; Shiva temple of Dubrajpur, district Birbhum; Radha-Damodar temple of Mandal family (Mejo Taraf), Hadal-Narayanpur, district Bankura; Dakshina Kali temple of Malancha Sahachak, Paschim Medinipur district; Pancharatna Shiva temple, Itanda, district Birbhum; Madanmohan temple, Vishnupur, district Bankura; Shiva temple of Uchkaran, district Birbhum; Narayan temple of Jaipur, district Bankura; Shiva temple, Sribati, district Purva bardhaman and Ratneshwar temple , Bhattabati, district Murshidabad.
2. In Stucco : Shadbhuja Gauranga in stucco can be seen in Ekteshwar temple, district Bankura, Girigovardhan temple of Kotulpur, district Bankura and the eastern temple of the Charbangla temple complex of Baronagar, district Murshidabad.
3. In Stone work : Shadbhuja Gauranga in stone work can be seen in a Shiva temple, Ganpur and in the Malleswar temple, Mallarpur (both in Birbhum district) .
4. In paintings (Fresco/mural) : Shadbhuja Gauranga in fresco/mural can be seen in Kaleshwar Shiva temple, Kaleshwar, district Birbhum and Vrindavan Chandra temple of Guptipara, district Hooghly.
In an analysis of the images of 6-armed Gauranga seen and photographed by the present author, certain salient features are noticeable :-
A. Total number : In the present series, we've 21 images of Shadabhuja Gauranga from 19 temples.
B. Of these 21 pictures, 14 are in terracotta plaques; 2 in stone, 3 in stucco and 2 in painting (mural/fresco).
C. In all but three of these images Shadabhuja Gauranga are seen carrying the standard Bow and arrow, the flute and the Danda-Kamandalu.
Of the two remaining pictures, one from a temple in Ukhra is under so much decay and erosion that it is not clear what Shri Chaitanya is carrying; the second one, a mural/fresco from the Brindavan Chandra temple of Guptipara, district Hooghly, does not carry anything in two lower hands.
But the other image from a Narayana temple of Dutta-Para of Jaipur village, district Bankura is highly atypical and intriguing. It is discussed in details below in a separate capsule.
D. An interesting observation regarding the positioning of the Bow-arrow and Danda-Kamandalu, is in which hand (Right or Left) these are held.
This is not a problem with the Flute, as it is always held by the the two middle hands, the arms of Krishna (there is an exception, which is discussed later).
I. Bow and arrow :
In all of the 17 pictures where the Bow and arrow are visible, the bow is held in the left hand and the arrow in the right hand.
This is exactly how a right handed archer holds his/her bow and arrow (please see the picture of Shri Rama in terracotta plaque).
II. Danda and Kamandalu :
Of the 19 pictures where the hand held objects are visible, in 2 (a stucco work from Giri Govardhan temple of Jaipur village, Bankura and a painting from Kalleshwar temple, Birbhum) the Danda is absent. The remaining 17 cases have Danda and Kamandalu both.
Of these 17 cases, the Danda is held by the right hand in 15 cases, and in 2 cases (Narayan temple, Jaipur village, district Bankura and Shiva temple, Sribati village, Purva Bardhaman district) by the left hand. Consequently, the Kamandalu is held by the right hand in 2 cases (Narayan temple, Jaipur village, district Bankura and Shiva temple, Sribati village, Purva Bardhaman district) and by the Left hand in 15 cases.
This may or may not be significant in the religious sense, though carrying the Danda in right hand is logical for practical reasons.
E. Accompanying person/s :
This is another interesting point.
As per the scriptures, only 3 persons were fortunate enough to be able to see this 6-armed form of Shri Chaitanya - Nityananda, Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya and Maharaja Pratap Rudra, and that too separately.
Now let's see what is there in the pictures of our series.
1. In 3 pictures (those from Shiva temples of Uchkaran and Ganpur, both of Birbhum district and Radha-Damodar temple of Hadal-Narayanpur, Bankura district), we can see one person with folded hands is standing beside the figure of 6-armed Gauranga.
Of these 3 pictures, that from Hadal-Narayanpur shows the person standing in front of 6-armed Gauranga in a Royal dress, so he is in all probability King Pratap Rudra.
In the other 2 cases, the accompanying persons are in ordinary dresses, so they may be Nityananda or Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya.
2. In 2 pictures (from Ratneshwar temple, Bhattabati and Kalleshwar temple, Birbhum) we can see 2 persons along with the figure of 6-armed Gauranga.
This is not according to the scriptures. Probably the artist/s did not know the descriptions of the scriptures, or they might have taken what may be called the "Artist's liberty".
An image of Shadbhuja Gauranga from a Narayana temple of Dutta-Para of Jaipur village, district Bankura is highly atypical and intriguing. It shows two figures standing side by side in terracotta plaque.
The image on the left hand side is of the standard image of Shadbhuja Gauranga, but the image on the right hand side (from the viewer's view-point) is in a sense unique. It's upper two arms carry Lord Rama's bow & arrow and the two lower arms the Danda and Kamandalu of Shri Chaitanya in the standard fashion, but the two middle arms are not holding Lord Krishna's flute. These two arms are displayed on either side, the right arm carrying a Horn (Shinga) and the left something which is difficult to pinpoint but looks suspiciously like the Hal (plough) of Lord Balarama.
Can these two arms are those of Lord Balarama (the elder brother of Lord Krishna) instead of Lord Krishna's?
If the answer is "YES", then here we have an unique example of an image of Shadbhuja Gauranga as the combined form of Lord Rama, Lord Balarama and Shri Chaitanya.
Or, can be a Shadbhuja (6-armed) version of Prabhu Nityananda, the closest associate of Shri Chaitanya? Incidentally, Nityananda is considered as the Avatar of Lord Balarama.
In Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition of Bengal, Shri Chaitanya and Prabhu Nityananda are often mention together as "Gaur-Nitai".
So, can be a case of over-enthusiasm of a village artisan to draw an image of Shadbhuja Nityananda by the side of an image of Shadbhuja Gauranga?
Even if the answer is "NO", we are here seeing a unique depiction of Shadbhuja Gauranga with middle two arms NOT holding the standard flute of Lord Krishna, but something else.
The subject of "Shadbhuja Gauranga" and his depiction in the temple decorations in Bengal is no doubt an interesting subject.
Since this article is based on the study of a small number of cases, it may be called a Pilot Study. Hopefully some researchers in future will deal with a really big series so that we can get a complete picture of the subject.
I'm indebted to Shri Aditya Chatterjee of Mumbai, India for his useful suggestion in analyzing the unusual image mentioned above.
All photos are by the author.
1. Different internet sites including Wikipedia.
2. A very useful article is :
"Shad-bhuja-murti: Sri Chaitanya’s Six-Armed Form"
- 'Back to Godhead' March/April 2018
By Satyaraja Dasa
Link : https://btg.krishna.com/shad-bhuja-murti-sri-chaitanya%E2%80%99s-six-armed-form
© 2022 Dr A K Chatterjee