In an earlier blog I was giving my observations on the gender of gods and goddesses. A similar issue that can be examined is the color. Practically every god and goddess has a unique color associated with a unique function or characteristic. We find many examples in the vedic literature, which have further come down into literature in the same form.
Students of advaita are familiar with mAyA, the indefinable, beginningless force which emanates from Brahman, or rather appears in Brahman, and by its twin powers of AvaraNa (enveloping) and vikShepa (projecting divergence) ‘projects’ the world we see. All the deities who are responsible for creation, sustenance etc. and all the living and non-living are the products of the same mAyA. It follows that we are all the products of mAyA, and it would be interesting to see its colors and colors of its products. When we say mAyA and its colors we refer to the world and its colors. It is intriguing why and how the RRiShi-s conceived of colors to represent the deities and their nature.
The shwetAshwatara-upaniShat provides a context for this in two verses. Verse 4-1 says how the attributeless Brahman is a-varNa – without any color. mAyA, the appearance on Brahman has three colors, she (because mAyA is a female) is tri-colored, lohita-shukla-kRRiShNA. She is a combination of red, white and dark colors. So the nirguNa Brahman is colorless whereas the mAyA and her creations are colorful.
The first verse mentioned above, rendered into English, reads as follows:
The One colorless, who with power of mAyA, releases multiple colors for no gain of Self, and in whom the world exists and dissolves, may He give us good discrimination.
(The Sanskrit phrase eko.avarNaH has also been interpreted as eko varNaH by deleting the negative - ‘a’ to say that one varNa i.e. substance which is consciousness, takes diverse shapes. Another interpretation is that the one letter ‘a’ takes different shapes and constitutes the alphabet and thus constitutes the whole creation. This is the version of those who say that the ‘word’ is Brahman. Another interpretation is that the ‘one’ is the letter ‘Om’ in which the entire creation inheres, gets released and withdrawn into the same. I will not go into these interpretations but I will take one meaning given by Shankara.)
Shankara interprets the word to mean ‘nirvisheShaH’ – attributeless. mAyA, the lady, has been described in the next verse (4-4) in a rather colorful manner. An English rendering is as follows:
The beginningless and the only one (mAyA), who is red, white and black, creates multiple offspring of self-same nature. One beginningless keeps enjoying and staying with her, while the other who is also beginningless, having enjoyed, rejects her.
Looks like a little indulgence by the vedic sage to drive home a point. Following the ChAndogya upaniShat, Shankara explains the colors to represent fire, water and food respectively, denoted by the Sanskrit words tejaH, ab and annam. mAyA is also called, prakRRti (feminine) or world which has these three constituents. The one who continues association with mAyA is the ignorant one who is in the cycle of desires and keeps transmigrating. The one who leaves is the enlightened one who gets over mAyA and realizes Brahman. The word ‘one’ is used to say that jiva, the individual is one, i.e. delimited by the same avidyA, ignorance, which is common to all jiva-s. Both jIva and mAyA are beginningless, jIva (masc) is called ajaH, and mAyA (fem) is called ajA, but the cycle continues till eternity until one attains self-realization.
Another interpretation about the three colors: the three colors red, white and black stand for the three guNa-s or characteristics i.e. rajas (activity), sattwa (serenity) and tamas (sloth). These are the three dispositions we find in all sentient beings (and insentient things also). All other colors are taken as combinations of the above three. The immediate manifestations of mAyA are the trinity – BrahmA, the creator whose disposition is rajas -creativity, ViShNu, the sustainer whose disposition is sattwa - sustenance and Shiva, the deity for dissolution whose disposition is tamas - dissolving power. Their colors are somehow not tallying with their dispositions because they are white, black and red respectively. At the divine level tamas is not sloth or laziness but the power of dissolution. (The commentary on bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShat 2-2-3 says that dissolution is the negation of the world as a result of self-realization – brahma vidyA. Shiva is the master who gives realization.)
In fact, Vedanta does not talk about the above noted trinity (which seems to have come in the later period) but it talks about HiraNyagarbha, the first Being from whom all the deities have emerged. This hiraNyagarbha is described as of golden color. The golden puruSha – person described in ChAndogya upaniShad has a golden beard and golden hair (hiraNya-shmashru, hiraNya-kesha) almost fitting the description of a Caucasian.
The deities who represent different aspects of human life have different colors. The female trinity who actually are the powers of their spouses (as I noted in the earlier blog, power is represented by the female) have colors which are associated with the functions of their husbands and also their own disposition. For instance, Saraswati, the spouse of the creator and the goddess of learning is white, showing the sattwa disposition and creativity. Lakshmi, the power of ViShNu and the goddess of wealth is red, showing her rajas disposition, the quality of achieving. Shiva’s spouse is worshipped in her serene form as well as in ferocious and destructive form and hence she is white, red and also dark.
A long list of such names can be given from the vedic literature, but it may only confound a new reader. Krishna and Arjuna, the well-known duo in the Gita derive their names from colors – dark brown and white. (Peter Brooks’ movie Mahabharata could have been a more authentic masterpiece had he given a thought to the colors of the characters). Another deity seen in the upaniShad-s is gAyatri, having five faces with five different colors representing different characteristics. Meditation on gAyatri is a compulsory activity – nitya karma – for a traditionalist.
The word varNa also means ‘caste’, an important stratification in the Indian society, but I will not go into this as this does not relate to color. However, color has come into every aspect of Indian life like yoga, astronomy, astrology, medicine, dance, dress, and even the Sanskrit alphabet. Each letter of the alphabet represents a deity and has a color.
Bharata’s nAtyashAstra (200 BC), the famous treatise on dramatic art and dance forms, describes different colors for different emotions. Nine types of emotions (rasa-s) are categorized, such as shRRi~NgAra (the erotic), vIra (brave), karuNa (pity), hAsya (humour) and so on. Each is represented by a different color: dark brown for erotic, white for humour, pigeon grey for pity, red for ferocity, pale red for bravery and so on (chapter 6 verses 42-43 of nAtya shAstra). Each is again represented by a deity whose disposition tallies with the emotion – erotic by ViShNu, ferocity by Shiva, pity by Yama and so on.
Deities were perhaps visualized in different colors for purpose of upAsanA i.e. meditations, which are also described in the upaniShad-s. The opening line of bRRihadAraNyaka talks of uShA the dawn with red color, visualized as the head of the sacrificial ashwa, the horse, where Ashwa denotes sun’s rays and also horse. upAsanA was at three levels: the personal bodily level (adhyAtma), at the physical level (adhibhautika) and divine level (adhidaiva). But all such meditations were for lower goals or leading to purification of mind which would gradually lead to the knowledge of Brahman.
As a serious student of Vedanta I am not sure whether an elaborate study of the above subject would only mean getting more entangled with the lady mAyA or whether it will throw any light on the intricacies of mAyA and help to reject her. The goal, however, is to be a-varNa, colorless i.e. attributeless as the shwetAshwatara upaniShat describes.