During the Kushana period of India's cultural history, there manifested in art and temple iconography a two-dimensional sculpture of Vasudeva, coming out of Balarama’s shoulder alongside other motifs. At the back of this sculpture a tree was depicted, the tree, since hoary past, being a theological metaphor which sheltered all the cosmic contemplations of man.
Also found in the Kushana period where six female figures branching out from one another in a singularistic aesthetic form. These images were similar to the tree motif behind the Vasudeva sculptures, a branching dimension from the trunk. The six female figures were an embodiment of Sakti with six gunas. The creative force was thus depicted in a manifestive form vis-à-vis the tree.
Analysing these divine sculptures, Professor Thomas Stuart Maxwell from the University of Bonn, Germany opined that in the Kushana period, the sculptures were sperim-posed to give a dimensional perspective, depicting one body as if coming out from another. In the later period, however, we find only faces and not part of the body coming out from one another. The sculptural remains of the Gupta period, in 5th century AD, testify to this fact.
In the holy dhama of Mathura, sculptures from this period clearly show that there were two main types of Visnu images. Both were comprised of three-headed, inwardly projections consisting of a crowned Deity in human form with the heads of Lord Varaha and Sri Nrsimhadev (shown at left) emerging out from the junction between neck and shoulder on either side. In the other type of sculpture, one can see the three-headed Visnu with a nimbus behind, studded with numerous miniature figures as described in Bhagavad-gita. This cosmic dimension of Visnu is explained in the Gita as being Visvarupa (see image below), the Lord's cosmic manifestation.
In the post-Gupta period, the Visvarupa iconography traveled southward from Mathura along the Dwarka trade-route to Samalji, in northern Gujarat. Simultaneously, the Visvarupa traveled northward into the small mountain-valley kingdoms of western Himalaya, from the Sutlej to the Swat valley. It even traveled up to Kabul, Afghanistan. In Central Asia, the nimbus of Lord Buddha filled with varied motifs were also indicative of thie dimensional manifestation of the Visvarupa potency.
In the 8th century, India witnessed the concentration of the two above-mentioned Visnu images, which had been taken up into the hands of two separate power groups. The Visvarupa image was developed and patronised by the Gurjara-Pratiharas as they moved northward from Malwa to the Ganga-Yamuna plain. In the northwest, meanwhile, the three-headed Vaikuntha Visnu was taken up, especially in the Jhelum valley of Kashmir by the later Karokota kings and their successors. This polarisation took a dramatic turn in the 9th century, when the Gurjara-Pratiharas conquered the city of the Kanyakubja (Kannauj), and the Utpala dynasty arose in Kashmir.
The Gurjar’s developed the iconography of Visvarupa and enshrined at least two major images of this Visnu Deity form in Kannauj itself. On the other hand, Yuvaraja Avantivarman of the Utpalas took up the older icon of three-headed Vishnu and added a fourth face to it. This cautranana-Visnu concept originated from Pancaratrins, whose devotional name was Vaikuntha, and who installed the Deity form in a new temple at Avantipura.
This Vaikuntharupa of Visnu consisted of a crowned human face alongside Varaha and Narasimha. At the back of the image, a face is seen which is generally named Kapilamuni, with tripundra tilak and a flat nose resembling an iconographical perspective of Bhairava. It is interesting to note that the faces of Varaha and Narasimha are depicted outward to create a clear angular dimension, and They are unlike the inward or on-looking forty-five degree faces from the Gupta period. Professor Maxwell observed that the face of Varaha is as ferocious as Narasimha Himself, and this was also indicated by Dr. P. Pal and Dr. B.L. Malla in their early scholarly works on the matter. Maxwell traced a Kashmiri legend where it is described that Lord Visnu took on the Varaha depiction in a ferocious manner. Prof. Maxwell.
The theological iconography of the Vaikuntha form appears to have evolved out of the mental contemplations of its worshippers. Towards this image of Vaikuntha iconography, there are three stages, including the Bija Mantra, the 18 syllable Murti Mantra, and the Dhyana Mantra. With separate invocations, a devotee is able to realise the wholesome concept of Vaikuntha by use of these mantras. Pictured at right is the Visvarupa Form at the Ram Laksama temple, Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh, Gurjara-Pratihara period, early 9th c.
The cult of Vaikuntha spread from the Ganga-Jamuna plain to present Bangladesh. However, in the 10th century, Vaikuntharupa became in vogue amongst the Rajputs, who picked it up and nurtured it as a symbol of independence. The evidence of the Vaikuntha and Visvarupa concepts got a different perspective when a number of arms were added, and this particular form remains in vogue. The evidence of Vaikuntha is also found in Rohtak, traveling up to Gujarat, where we find that caturanana Vishnu and three-headed Visvarupa are worshipped side by side.
Thus, from the days of Kushana to the present day, the concept of a multi-headed Lord Visnu manifested within a region, was patronised by the local rulers, later traveled along different trade routes, and was finally submerged into a cosmic pan-Indian unity.
For the devout the form and shape of the Lord do not hinder their spiritual aspirations. Divine unity is seen manifest in unlimited forms, whether it be salagram, linga or multi-headed Visnu. All are Sri Krsna, formed or formless.
Source: IGNCA lecture series.