Vishvakarma – Architect of the Gods
Vishvakarma, the Architect of the Gods, is the presiding deity of craftsman, artisans and builders in the Hindu cosmology. He is the manifestation of the creative power of the Supreme Being and designed the tripartite universe consisting of the mortal world, the heavens and the netherworld at the behest of Brahma, the Creator. Vishvakarma also built the palaces of the Gods as well as their many weapons and chariots. Although a minor divinity within the Hindu pantheon, Visvakarma is frequently mentioned in the Vedas and other scriptures in his capacity as the Celestial Architect.
The literal meaning of the title Vishvakarma is “all-maker” (vishva means ‘all’ and karman means ‘maker’ or ‘doer’). The Rig Veda refers to Vishvakarma as the divine architect of the universe, a personification of the creative power of the Supreme Being.
Whence Vishvakarma, seeing all, producing the earth, with mighty power disclosed the heavens.
He who hath eyes on all sides round about him, a mouth on all sides, arms and feet on all sides,
He, the Sole God, producing earth and heaven, weldeth them, with his arms as wings, together.
- Rig Veda, Mandala 10
The great Hindu epic Mahabharata describes him as “the Lord of the arts, executor of a thousand handicrafts, the carpenter of the gods, the fashioner of all ornaments, the most eminent of artisans on whose craft men subsist, and as a great and immortal god.” In the Brahmanas, Vishvakarma is identified with Prajapati himself as the creator of all things. Vishvakarma is a symbol of the beauty, aesthetic and philosophical perfection, as well as utility of any material construction, be it architecture, art or craft.
Depictions of Vishvakarma
Wise and mighty, Vishvakarma is usually portrayed as a powerfully built and aged deity. Although the Rig Veda describes him as having “eyes, mouth, arms and feet on all sides”, most popular representations show Vishvakarma with one face and four arms. He is usually depicted covered in gold jewelry, holding a water pot, a book, a noose and craftsman’s tools in his four hands. Because he represents an active creative power, Vishvakarma is portrayed with a reddish hue, with red being the color of passion and activity in Hindu philosophy. His mount, like Brahma, is a white swan.
Vishvakarma is the father of five great Hindu sages according to the Vedas, each of whom was master of a craft. Highly talented and versatile in their own fields, the sons of Vishvakarma were respectively the first blacksmith, first carpenter, first founder, first mason and first goldsmith. Each gave rise to the major artistic lineage in their respective fields, and artisans and craftsman in India continue to identify themselves with Vishvakarma through his sons.
Mythical Creations of the Divine Architect
Vishvakarma is attributed with the construction of the legendary cities in Hindu mythology as well as the divine weapons and chariots of the Gods. The jewelry worn by the gods were also fashioned by Vishvakarma. His creations include the palaces of Yama and Indra, as well as the underwater dwelling of Varuna, the Hindu god of the oceans. Vishvakarma also built the mythical city of Dwaraka, which was home to Lord Krishna and was submerged by the ocean after he departed the mortal world following the end of the Mahabharata war. Vishvakarma also built the cities of Hastinapur and Indraprashta, capital of the Kauravas and Pandavas respectively, the two warring parties in the Mahabharata.
Another legend relates Vishvakarma to the other great Hindu epic, the Ramayana. When Shiva wed Parvati, he bade Vishvakarma to build a palace worthy for them to reside. He built a magnificent golden palace on the island of Lanka, and to perform the grihapravesha, or house-warming ceremony, Shiva invited Ravana who was then a wise devotee of Lord Shiva. As recompense, Shiva offered anything that Ravana desired, and overwhelmed by the beauty of Vishvakarma’s architecture, he requested the palace itself. Obliged by the request, Shiva acceded and the golden palace became Ravana’s capital, setting the scene for the events of the Ramayana which was to unfold ages later.
The Markandeya Purana contains the story of Vishvakarma’s daughter Saranya who was married to Surya, the sun god, but unable to endure the heat and brilliance of the sun’s rays, requested her father to reduce their intensity. Vishvakarma then cut away an eighth part of the sun’s brilliance, and used fragments of the rays that fell to earth to build the discus of Vishnu, the trident of Shiva, the Vel of Muruga and other divine weapons for the devas. He also appears frequently in other Hindu scriptures and legends, where he is called upon to build palaces or weapons at the behest of the Gods.
Vishvakarma is said to have revealed the Sthapatya Veda, an upaveda (class of writings subordinate to the four main Vedas), which contains the science of mechanics and architecture. The work includes various treatises on the sixty-four traditionally recognized mechanical arts. Other Hindu manuals on architecture and sculpture are also attributed to Vishvakarma.
The Philosophy of Vishvakarma
Hindu philosophy associates Vishvakarma with Lord Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, because of his creative ability. The goddess Saraswati, consort of Brahma and the presiding deity of wisdom, knowledge and the arts, is also said to possess creative powers. Some see Vishvakarma as the implementer of God’s designs, the active creative aspect of Brahma. In the pantheistic Hindu religion that deifies various aspects of nature, Vishvakarma as the Celestial Architect is the personification of creative action in the universe.
There is a more profound interpretation of the role of Vishvakarma in the Hindu universe. The great Hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore identifies Vishvakarma with the Supreme Soul. Quoting the Upanishads, Tagore says,
This deity who is manifesting himself in the activities of the universe always dwells in the heart of man as the supreme soul. Those who realize him through the immediate perception of the heart attain immortality.
- Sadhana, Rabindranath Tagore
As the ‘all-maker,’ Vishvakarma, while representing the multiplicity of forms and forces in the material world, is also representative of the ultimate unity in the universe.
In contemporary Hindu practice, Vishvakarma is a minor deity without any temples dedicated specifically to him but universally accepted as the symbol of creativity. Vishvakarma gave rise to a separate caste in India, composed mainly of craftsman who trace their lineage to Vishvakarma through his sons who were the earliest artisans. Orthodox members of the Vishvakarma caste hold that the divine skill of their arts has been preserved within their lineage through hereditary laws, and continue to protect that knowledge. Viewing Vishvakarma as the ideal practitioner of the arts and a model to live up to, they engage in pursuit of perfection and beauty in their particular craft.
Nevertheless, any artist or craftsman, regardless of caste, is considered a descendent of Vishvakarma, a representative of the divine architect in the world. They are highly regarded for recreating the work of their mythological ancestor on Earth. Indian artisans and craftsman associate themselves closely with Vishvakarma, from whom they believe they derive the artistic creativity and energy necessary for their endeavors.
Indian artists and craftsman accept Vishvakarma as the founder of the various arts who endowed humans with the knowledge required for their work, and work to honor god through their labor. This spiritual association is very apparent in the arts and crafts of India, a relatively large portion of which are dedicated to the divine. The number of temples and shrines dedicated to the various deities in the Hindu pantheon far outnumbers the palaces and forts of the mortal kings of India. The prevailing principle in India regards that only those crafts and architecture that honor God were worthy of attention and acclaim.
Widely regarded by Hindus as the God of architects and engineers and the presiding deity of all craftsmen, Vishvakarma is honored on the day the sun enters the Bhadrapada constellation, usually around September 17 of each year. During the Vishvakarma Puja, craftsmen pray to their respective tools – sculptors their chisels, potters their wheel, and carpenters their hammer