Over the centuries a struggle for supremacy has taken place on the spiritual battlefield. Hinduism, which today is usually perceived as a single religion, is in reality a gargantuan amalgamation of religious traditions, philosophies, rituals, deity cults, official theologies, folk traditions. The notion of these diverse – and sometimes conflicting – traditions as a single religion is a recent and foreign concept, introduced by the British in only the closing years of the 18th century.
The definitions of Hinduism given to foreigners are vastly oversimplified because, to be frank, the reality is maddeningly complex and a world apart from the workings of Judaeo-Christian-Islamic traditions.
You will find a huge diversity of beliefs across Hindus. Most often their attentions will focus more on one deity or family of deities than another. Some consider themselves monotheists. Others, polytheists. Still others, atheists. And then there is a huge number of other belief systems too complicated to even delve into here and which often rely on Sanskrit words because we simply don’t have the vocabulary for them in English.
Two of the largest sects amongst all these traditions are those who hold Shiva as the supreme deity and those who hold Vishnu as such. Numerous scriptures assert the superiority of one deity over the other, often in the form of one deity springing forth as a subset of the other.
Alongside these battling narratives are the mediators. One of the most important is the tale of Lord Sankaranarayanar. The devotees of Shiva and Vishnu were arguing with each other over who was the Supreme Lord – or so the traditions say. Lord Sankaranarayanar (half Shiva, or Sankara, and half Vishnu, or Narayanar) appeared before the worshippers to demonstrate the two deities are one and the same.
The town of Sankarankoil bears his name, and here this dual deity is worshipped, his image split straight down the middle. The left side is black, the sky-coloured skin of Vishnu; the right side is white, the colour of Shiva.
The young couple in the photo here stood for their portrait in the temple town, their own happy union shining through at the sacred site where another heavenly union is memorialized. The woman is a riot of colourful regalia. The man chisels out a striking figure with his perfectly sculpted moustache.