By Bob Smietana
Religion News Service
NASHVILLE (RNS) In Hindu tradition, Lord Vishnu shows up in many forms.
There's Prince Rama, who killed the demon Ravana; Vamana the dwarf; Parashurama the vengeful; and Matsya the great fish.
Then there's Varasha, the boar who saved the world.
"He's like a superhero," said Joan Cummins of the Brooklyn Museum in New York City and the curator behind the exhibit, "Vishnu: Hinduism's Blue-Skinned Savior."
The exhibit, currently on display at Nashville's Frist Center for the Visual Arts and headed back to Brooklyn in June, is billed as the first major American exhibit on Vishnu, one of central deities of Hinduism.
The exhibit features 170 works of art portraying 11 different incarnations, or avatars, of Vishnu. They range from icons made of bronze and stone to modern-day posters of the Hindu god.
"It's about 1,500 years worth of history from all over India," Cummins said.
The exhibit has been a hit, drawing about 45,000 visitors since opening at the Frist Center in late February. Among them is Rachel Mathenia, a Nashville yoga instructor who's seen the exhibit three times.
Mathenia, who has taught yoga for 6 years, said she's been fascinated with Hindu mythology since discovering yoga 14 years ago. She knows many of the stories of Vishnu, but said the exhibit helped explain how they fit together.
"They did a great job of simplifying and organizing the stories," she said.
The Tennessee native said that many of her neighbors don't know much about Hinduism or think that Hindus worship statues. "I think it's frightening to many people," she said. "They are almost afraid of all the different faces of God."
She hopes the exhibit will help people better appreciate Hinduism, which is practiced by more than 900 million people worldwide but only about 0.5 percent of the U.S. population.
Cummins said one of her goals in organizing the exhibit was to make the Hindu faith more concrete and understandable -- a sort of nuts-and-bolts take on Hinduism and Hindu worship.
"A lot of people want to make India more mysterious," she said. "One of my goals in life is to de-mystify it."
She always wanted to show the beauty of Hindu art. Many of the pieces in the exhibit came from the exteriors of temples in India, though a few were venerated inside temples.
"The bronzes were almost certainly made to be the recipient of prayers," she said. Cummins explained that Hindus believe the icons themselves are not divine, but that Hindu deities inhabit the icons when they are used in worship.
That's one reason the pieces also qualify as works of art.
"They were made to be beautiful, so that the gods would be more likely to inhabit them," she said.
The Nashville exhibit also includes a display of photos of the home shrines of local Hindus, as well as a replica of a home shrine.
C.K. Hiranya Gowda, one of the founders of Nashville's Sri Ganesha Temple and Hindu Cultural Center of Tennessee, said the exhibit allows local Hindus a chance to give their neighbors a glimpse into the daily practice of their religion, Gowda said.
Gowda said he, too, has learned more about his faith through the exhibit. Much of what Gowda knows about Hinduism was learned from his parents -- but more the practice of the faith than the theology behind it.
The exhibit includes 11 avatars of Vishnu, and that's a bit controversial, said Cummins. There's disagreement on how many avatars there are. Some say seven, some say 10, and some say as many as 22, she said.
The main division comes over the status of Lord Krishna -- whether he is an avatar of Vishnu, or something more than that.
"Some people worship Krishna as the No. 1 spiritual power in the universe," she said. "And some people don't. There's a lot of disagreement but it tends to be pretty good-natured."
Gowda, a retired ear, nose, and throat doctor, believes Hinduism has much in common with other faiths like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. They all teach that spiritual peace matters more than material gain, he said.
As a doctor, he said, he was often tempted to buy a bigger house or fancier cars as signs of his success. Yet none of that matters when we die, he said.
"At the end, nobody can take anything with them," he said. "God said, come along. If you bring anything with you, you are too heavy for me."
Photo: 'Krishna Fluting for the Gopis', page from an illustrated 'Dashavatara' series, ca. 1730. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 10 1/4 x 8 in. Collection of Catherine and Ralph Benkaim. Courtesy of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts.