Vishnu - A Symbolic Appreciation

Article of the Month - Jan 2003

This article by Nitin Kumar Editor http://www.exoticindia.com

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Vishnu, who is known as Mahavishnu, is the second deity of the Hindu Trinity. He represents sattva guna and is the centripetal force as it were, responsible for sustenance, protection and maintenance of the created universe. The word Vishnu means one who pervades, one who has entered into everything. So he is the transcendent as well as the immanent reality of the universe. He is the inner cause and power by which things exist.

Shiva and Vishnu

Curiously, the interpretative saga of Lord Vishnu begins with Lord Shiva. Once when man's wickedness overran all restraining boundaries, an infuriated Shiva transformed himself into a wrathful form known as Bhairava. Thus converted, Shiva began his rampage of destruction, killing, maiming, and ripping out the hearts of humans and drinking blood, his menacing laughter thundering all around.

On behalf of humanity, Vishnu approached Bhairava and requested him to stop the slaughter. Bhairava said: "I will go on killing until my bowl is filled with enough blood to quench my thirst." It was common knowledge that Bhairava's bowl could never be filled and his thirst never quenched.

His heart filled with compassion, Vishnu addressed Shiva thus: "Let me give you all the blood you need. You don't have to bleed mankind." So saying, Vishnu struck his forehead with his sword and let his blood spurt into Bhairava's bowl. Ages passed, Vishnu kept pouring his blood into the bowl, while Bhairava kept drinking it.

Bhairava finally realized that Vishnu was sacrificing himself for the sake of the world. Moved by Vishnu's generosity, he declared, "So long as you preserve the world, I will not seek to quench my thirst. But when the world becomes so corrupt that even you cannot sustain it, I will raise my trident and squeeze every drop of blood from the heart of man."

In Hindu esoteric imagination, the supreme and ultimate reality is believed to reside in the Universal Soul, which is said to pervade the entire manifested cosmos. The cosmos itself is thought to have evolved from this abstract entity, which is formless and devoid of any qualitative attributes (Skt. Nirguna Brahman). It is neither male nor female, and is infinite, without beginning or end. It is both around us and inside us. The goal indeed of all spiritual practice is to unite with this Supreme Soul.

Shesha Shayi Vishnu in Yoga Nidra

To the eternal credit of Indian creativity, abstract concepts such as the one above are made intelligible to ordinary mortals like you and me through the invention of various forms which make comprehensible the ultimate, formless reality. Thus the Nirguna Brahmana (Nirguna - without quality) becomes Saguna Brahmana (Saguna - having qualities). This transformed entity is known in Sanskrit as Ishvara.

The entire universe, along with the dynamic processes underlying it, is said to stem from Ishvara. For example, when Ishvara creates the universe, he is called Brahma, when he protects, he is called Vishnu, and when he destroys, he is Shiva. The three together constitute the trinity, which controls the universe and all its functions.

Thus, as exemplified in the above legend, Vishnu is the Preserver, the protector of all humanity. A deity who saves mankind from calamities that result from its own foibles.

Vedic Mentions

Vishnu finds his earliest mention in the Rig Veda, the most ancient book in the world. Here he appears as a solar deity. The Vishnu of the Rig Veda is a manifestation of light, whose head was, by a trick of the gods, severed from his body. This severed head is believed to have become the sun. Further in the Veda, Vishnu is a friend and associate of Indra, god of rain, thunder, and storm. Together, Vishnu the sun and Indra the rain, take on the demon Vritra, who personifies drought. Indra and Vishnu both are described as Vritrahan or the killer of Vritra. This potent combination forms an awesome ensemble of fertilizing powers.

The Vedic connotations of Vishnu are discernable also in the etymology of his name which is derived from the root 'vish', which means to spread, or in other words all-pervading. Indeed in the Vedas, he is the all-pervading sun, whose rays envelop the earth, as does Vishnu himself, in his role as protector of the world.

Haloed Chaturbhuja Vishnu, Of Lifelike Proportions

In Puranas

The Puranas being the most popular scriptures of Hinduism has acted as an important source of knowledge, wisdom and spiritual solace. Out of the eighteen Mahapuranas, the Vishnupurana is perhaps the earliest, dated back to 100 B.C- A.D 400. It is said to have contained 23,000 verses. Unlike the other Puranas where generally the Suta Romaharshana narrates the stories after being questioned by some sages, this Purana is narrated by the sage Parasara (father of Vyasa and grandson of Vasishta) to his disciple Maitreya. Though most of the work is in poetry, it has elegant prose passages also. In fact, it has all the characteristics of a good literary classic. Vishnu Purana treats Vishnu as not just the Vishnu of the trinity responsible for the sustenance of the created world. He is Parabrahman, of the nature of jnana (knowledge or consciousness) and absolutely pure. The appearance of this world as an entity separate from him is only an illusion.

The Bhagavata seems to be an elaboration of the stories and ideas contained in the Vishnu Purana. Whereas the after deals only with five avatars or incarnations out of the well-known 10, the Bhagavata deals in detail with all the ten and a few more. Though bhakti or devotion finds an important place in Vishnu Purana, it is all-pervading in Bhagavata.

It is not surprising thus, observing Vishnu's popularity, that he has been a constant source of inspiration for artists down the ages. His visual presentations tend to depict in clearly perceptible terms, all the composite elements which make up this comprehensive deity.

Vishnu is usually depicted with four arms, though sometimes he may even have more than this number. The many arms of Hindu deities are symbolic of the god's manifold powers. Whereas we have limited abilities, a god's power is unlimited, signified by the many hands that hold a variety of attributes and perform myriad activities, often simultaneously. According to noted Indologist Alain Danielou, "the image of a deity is merely a group of symbols."

The significance of the Vishnu icon is explained in the Puranas and several minor Upanishads. The two most common representations show him sleeping above the causal ocean on the coils of a serpent, while the other shows him standing with four arms, each exhibiting a different attribute.

The symbolism underlying Vishnu's image is as follows:


The Four Arms

The four hands of Vishnu express dominion over the four directions of space. They also symbolize the four stages of human life, known as the four ashrams:

1) The quest for knowledge (Brahmacharya)
2) Family Life (Grihastha)
3) Retreat into the Forest (Vana-Prastha)
4) Renunciation (Sannyasa)

They further signify the four aims of life (Purusharthas), these are:

a) Duty and Virtue (Dharma)
b) Material Goods, Wealth, and Success (Artha)
c) Pleasure, Sexuality, and Enjoyment (Kama)
d) Liberation (Moksha)

Likewise, the four arms represent the four castes and the four Vedas.

Further, Lord Vishnu holds the following implements in his hands:

 

The Conch

This is one of the most important emblems of Vishnu. The blowing of the conch symbolizes the primordial creative voice and Indian mysticism links it to the sacred sound OM, which is said to be the breath of Vishnu, pervading all space.

Its convolutions are variously suggested as the rising and setting sun, hence further cementing Vishnu's solar associations.

The conch has the form of multiple spirals evolving from one point into ever-increasing spheres. It thus denotes eternity, since it may go on forever.

Vaishnavite Shankha-Chakra Apparatus

The Discus (Chakra)

The ancient text 'Vishnu Purana,' identifies the chakra with the human mind whose 'thoughts, like the chakra, flow faster than even the mightiest wind.'

When used as a weapon, the distinguishing feature of the chakra is its ability to return to the hand of he who throws it. The only other weapon known to have this quality is the boomerang. Perhaps this is a pointer to the cyclic nature of existence. Indeed some scholars discern a parallel with the water wheel (in use since the earliest times), viewing the world as a constant and cyclic interplay of irreconcilable activities (duality). The water wheel both empties and fills its vessels, turning without end to bring up water and to disgorge it into forever parched fields. So too, life fills and empties, due to forces innate in nature. This is the constant and rhythmic turning of the Wheel of Life.


The Lotus

When Vishnu contemplated the creation of mankind, a lotus sprang out of his navel. Seated on it was the four-headed Brahma, illuminating all the directions with his brightness. Vishnu is therefore also known as Padmanabha or the one with the lotus-navel.

Sree Padmanabhaswamy (Sheshashayi Vishnu)

This lotus lit up the sky with its effulgence and was identified with the sun. As it was the creative matrix from which all of the worlds eventually evolved, the lotus thereby became a symbol of creation and fertility. By rising from the depths of the ocean where are said to dwell impure creatures like demons and serpents, the lotus also expresses purity. Likewise does the individual soul, though rooted in an imperfect world, search for perfection.

The lotus in Vishnu's hand also denotes his better half and constant companion, the source from which he derives his powers, namely Goddess Lakshmi. Lakshmi is the goddess of prosperity who sits on a lotus and also holds stalks of the same flower in her hands.

Thus the lotus is also the feminine force that activates the creative power of Lord Vishnu like Shakti does for her Shiva.

Goddess Dhana Lakshmi Seated on Lotus in Pond

The lotus further signifies the well-known yogic ideal of detachment. This is because though this beautiful flower often grows in muddy waters, neither water nor dirt are ever seen sticking to its petals. Indeed Vishnu's message is amply reflected in the lotus and informs us to partake of life's pleasures, without getting ensnared by them.

 

The Mace

There once lived a mighty demon named Gada who intoxicated with his prowess on the battlefield, continued to wreak havoc on all humanity. Finally, it came upon Vishnu to provide succour to harassed mankind.

Famed universally for his valour, Gada was equally known for his charitable inclination. It was said that he wouldn't refuse a boon to any individual however unreasonable the demand may be.

Vishnu approached Gada as a Brahmin and addressed him thus: "If you are so generous can you give me your bones?" Gada immediately tore open his body and pulled out his bones. From these bones, the celestial artists (Ribhus) fashioned out a mace for Vishnu. Thus striking two birds with a stone, Vishnu acquired for himself an invincible weapon while at the same time gaining respite for the world.

It is in honour of this demon that the mace is still referred to as 'gada,' in Sanskrit.

At the metaphysical level, the mace represents the power of time. Just as nothing can conquer time, the mace too is unconquerable and destroys those who oppose it. According to Danielou "As such the mace is identified with the Goddess Kali, who is the power of time." This is supported by the Krishna Upanishad which says: "The mace is Kali, the power of time. It destroys all that opposes it."

 
The Bloodthirsty Dashabhujadhari Devi Kali

Thus does Vishnu describe himself: "The world rests as the lotus in the palm of my hand, the cosmos revolves around my finger like a discus. I blow the music of life through my conch and wield my mace to protect all creatures."

In visual imagery,                                            an upright Vishnu stands with each of his four arms holding a different symbolic attribute. He is straight as a post, for he is the firm centre, and the axis of the universe, he is the sturdy pillar that joins the earth to the heavens. Indeed to his devotees, a formal, hieratic representation of Vishnu - their refuge and protector - standing like a mighty pillar is a deeply comforting sight.

The other popular icon of Vishnu shows him in a dreamlike state reclining upon a mighty serpent and floating upon the primordial waters. 

This image is Vishnu at its purest. This pure Vishnu principle is the source and plan of life. It is identified with the world of dreams, where things are conceived as prototypes yet to be realized. The real, lasting creation is this mental creation. We create a machine when we conceive it. Once the plans are made in the abstract, realization in perishable materials is a secondary matter which the inventor may leave to technicians. World planning is the work of Vishnu, who symbolizes the universal intellect.

Large Size Lord Vishnu

The three states of mind (sleep, dream, and awareness) are the relative conditions corresponding to the Hindu trinity. Thus Shiva is experienced in the dreamless sleep, Vishnu in the vision of dreams, and Brahma in the state of awareness.

Vishnu in his dream state represents that gap in time when creation stands withdrawn and eternity awaits the birth of a new age. When creation is withdrawn it cannot entirely cease to be; there must remain in a subtle form the germ of all that has been and will be so that the world may rise again. It is this reminder of destroyed universes that is embodied in the serpent floating on the waters, known as Sheshanaga (Shesh-remainder).

At the physical plane,                                            it is parallel to the sperm floating in the germinating waters of the womb when creation can happen at any instant.

This measureless ocean is the pure consciousness on which wafts the divine spark of energy which is the harbinger of the creative activity about to materialize. According to Deepak Chopra: "The source of all creation is pure consciousness.. pure potentiality seeking expression from the unmanifest to the manifest.."

The same author brings to our notice that Vishnu resides inside each of us. He is present in the silent space which exists between our two consecutive thoughts. The two consecutive thoughts of course represent the two sequential ages and the silence between them is the fathomless ocean of infinite possibilities. When we are able to inject in this space our intention to create (or achieve any specific goals) the result is the fulfilment of our desires in resonance with the creative rhythms of nature. It is this divine and fertilizing seed that Vishnu signifies.

The Avatars of Vishnu

  1. Matsyavatara

In this incarnation, the lord is said to have saved Manu, the progenitor of mankind, and the saptarishis, the seven sages along with their wives during the deluge. The world was repopulated through them later on.

  1. Kurma

He incarnated himself as Kurma (the tortoise) in order to support Mount Manadar which started sinking during the churning of the ocean

  1. Varahavatara (Boar)

In this, the Lord killed the demon Hiranyaksha and lifted the earth out of the floodwaters in which it had been submerged.

  1. Narasimha ( Man-lion)

When Prahlada, the great devotee of Vishnu was being severely tortured by his father, Hiranyakashipu, he emerged out of the pillar and killed him

  1. Vamana (the Dwarf)

This avatar was taken on the request of Indra to regain his heavenly kingdom from the Asura King Bali. Vamana approached Bali for three steps of land and measured heaven and earth on the first two steps. The third step was kept on Bali’s head and he was pushed to the netherworld.

  1. Parasurama

Born as the son of the sage couple, Jamadagni and Renuka, he exterminated the tyrannical Kshatriyas led by Kartyavira, who were oppressing people.

  1. Sri Rama

He types the ideal man. His story, the Ramayana has now become an immortal epic.

  1. Balarama

Rama the strong, the elder brother of Sri Krishna is the eighth incarnation. His many adventures include the slaying of the ape Dvivida and the demon Dhenuka, shaking the ramparts of Hastinavati and dragging river Yamuna out of its course.

  1. Shri Krishna

He is the supreme statesman, warrior, hero, philosopher and teacher. Nay, God Himself. He is the great expounder of the ‘Song Celestial’, Bhagavadgita.

       10. Kalki

The tenth vatara is yet to come. He will descend upon the earth at the end o the present age (Kali Yuga). He will destroy the enemies of Dharma and re-establish it in all its glory.


References and Further Reading

  • Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols: London, 1999.
  • Danielou, Alain. The Myths and Gods of India: Vermont, 1991.
  • Danielou, Alain. Virtue, Success, Pleasure, Liberation; The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India: Vermont, 1993.
  • Dehejia, Vidya. The Sensuous and the Sacred (Chola Bronzes from South India): Ahmedabad, 2002.
  • Johnson, Willard. Poetry and Speculation of the RG Veda: Berkeley, 1980.
  • Krishna, Nanditha. The Book of Vishnu: New Delhi, 2001.
  • M Dye III, Joseph. The Arts of India (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts): New Delhi, 2001.
  • Pattanaik, Devdutt. Vishnu An Introduction: Mumbai, 1999.
  • Purce, Jill. The Mystic Spiral (Journey of the Soul): London, 1997.
  • Tresidder, Jack. The Hutchinson Dictionary of Symbols: Oxford, 1997.
  • Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization: Delhi, 1990.
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  • What an excellent post! Thank you so much for presenting it. All the best.
    Andrea September 30, 2016
  • When humans are sad they look for ways to get out of sadness. We are from our birth inclined to look things that makes us happy and avoid things that makes us sad. Things we consider makes us happy are not eternal thus we become unhappy again. So this circle goes on and on. This article does give you way to escape unhappiness temporarily or on the superficial level. So true spirituality must be the one that leads us to total bliss. If it cannot give us happiness or bliss then it should not be considered beneficial. So seek eternal bliss......how can you? remove negative alinements of mind a pure mind is a blissful mind and if you can maintain that purity then eternal bliss is yours. This is how you worship narayan, buddha, shiva , allah or whatever.........enjoy the eternal bliss.......
    Pratik May 26, 2015
  • Shwetashvatara Upanishad Chapter 4 verse 20 It is mentioned in Shwetashvatara Upanishad "na samdrse tisthati rupam asya, na caksusa pasyati kas canainam”. His form cannot be seen, no one sees Him with the eye (Shwetashvatara Upanishad 4:20) (The Principal Upanishad by S. Radhakrishnan pg. 737) (And in Sacred books of the East Volume 15, the Upanishad part II, Page no. 253) BHAGWAD GEETA 7:20 Bhagwad Geeta mentions Those whose intelligence has been stolen by material desires worship demigods that is ,Those who are materialistic, they worship demigods; i.e. others as deities besides the True God. (Bhagwad Geeta 7:20) It is mentioned in Bhagavad Gita He who knows Me as the unborn, as the beginning-less, as the Supreme Lord of all the worlds...(Bhagwad Geeta 10:3) Yajurveda Chapter 32, Verse 3 It is mentioned in Yajurveda na tasya pratima asti& There is no image of Him& It is mentioned in Yajurveda Chapter 40 verse 8 He is bodiless and pure. (Yajurveda 40:8) (Yajurveda Samhita by Ralph I. H. Griffith pg. 538) It is mentioned in Yajurved Andhatma pravishanti ye assambhuti mupaste They enter darkness, those who worship natural things E.g. worship of natural elements air, water, fire, etc. (Yajurveda 40:9) It further continues and says "They sink deeper in darkness those who worship sambhuti i.e. created things; E.g. created things such as table, chair, idols, etc. It is mentioned in Rigveda Ma Chidanyadvi Shansata&; Do not worship anybody but Him, the Divine One, Praise Him alone (Rigveda 8:1:1) & many more verses are there to prove that the way you worship God ,whether shiva or anyone, is against the holy scriptures of hinduism..
    Sohaib April 20, 2009
  • Very informative article!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Which is the best book of Hindu symbolism?
    brenda January 16, 2008
  • I was wondering which Deepak Chopra book that quote about Vishnu was in? I enjoyed this article and love this site!!
    Cyndy April 19, 2004
  • thankyou - peace
    will May 09, 2003
  • Thank you for this wonderfully informative article. The paintings are beautiful. It is good to study from such knowledge. Peace be with you!
    Narelle Duscha January 23, 2003