About the Book
Vishvarupa is popularly known as the cosmic form that Krishna revealed to Arjuna in the battlefield of Kurukshetra in India in the Mahabharata, circa 500 BC. This was captured in verse in two chapters of the Bhagavad Gita. The concept of Vishvarupa is rooted in the Indian philosophical traditions since the Vedic times and represents a holistic interdependence in the manifested universe at all levels. Vishvarupa explores the relationship of man with the cosmic being the microcosm and the macrocosm.
Simple but effective visual representations of this thought are found in Indian arts and culture through the millennia. Herein Krishna is present in a Brahmin, a mongrel dog, a tree and a stone in equal measure. While this book attempts to showcase for the first time a careful selection of Vishvarupa paintings between the 17th and 20th centuries to stimulate further study, it also reveals the beauty and genius of the Indian paining tradition for the lay reader.
About the Author
Neena Ranjan is an civil servant, who spent long periods in the departments of art and culture and also industry and commerce in the Government of India and the State Government. She joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1969 and retired as Secretary, Ministry of Culture, and Government of India in 2006. Since then, she is the Honorary Mentor of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.
She post-graduated from Calcutta University, and later from Harvard University. Her academic interests are in art, art history and philosophy. She took up Vishvarupa as a subject for PhD work in 1993. this book is a result of extensive efforts to collect Vishvarupa paintings from different sources over the years.
As the national coordinator for a United Nations project for seven years, she initiated the Cultural Informatics Lab, and undertook interactive multimedia documentation of India's cultural resources on electronic formats at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in New Delhi under the guidance of Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan. Many well researched DVDs and an excellent website were produced. The Lab continues its good work.
Her hobbies include painting in water colours, travel and Indian classical music. She lives with her husband in New Delhi. Her two sons live in the United States. This is her first book.
Some years ago, when I undertook to investigate and write on the paintings of Vishvarupa, an important purpose was to understand the history of this Cosmic Form, and how it was conceived, before the vision was shown to Arjuna, in the Gita. I began work on this many years ago at a critical juncture in my life, as a base for a PhD thesis, but could not complete it.
I will remain eternally grateful to Prof. B. N. Goswamy who suggested this topic in our first meeting, and following it up by posting photographs, during his travels, from all over the globe. When I did accomplish a part of the work, he spent precious hours of his time discussing this subject and encouraging me, no end.
I studied many related articles and books on the subject, as also books on art history and eagerly searched for paintings on this cosmic vision. Needless to say, I have spent precious months of sheer frustration, barking up many other trees, before I embarked on this project.
In 1991, due to ill health, I was on leave for a few months and needed an all-absorbing subject to engage my attention. All earlier well-laid plans had to be shelved. From my early years, Krishna and the Gita have been an integral part of my life, through my father, who has a true devotee. Hence, the is subjects, when suggested by Prof. Goswamy, immediately appealed to me.
Shortly after returning with a Master's degree from Harvard in 1987, I was bursting with future plans of a JNU PhD in Economics. I had chosen my subject and guide and hoped to make a career, away from a bureaucratic wasteland.
However, due to ill-health and surgery, for logistical reasons, these plans were not possible. Energy levels fell and after the doctors were done with me, I was left with limited options. The invasive modern medical procedures healed but the prolonged effects left me a wrung-out charred doll, within whom beauty, sensitive and dignity had died. Hurting like mad, the haven of my childhood garden was what I needed to escape to. My inner beauty and rhythm were violated-envy, anger, jealousy and negative emotions ruled supreme.
In such a mindset, a change of career seemed insignificant. Many years I had kept swimming in an ocean of power and intrigue. Quite comfortable with both sides of my brain. I needed to shift gears. Childhood years, spent amidst music, painting, sports (chiefly swimming and badminton) and dramatics, were brushed aside for twenty years, subsumed by a career, home and children. It was during these dark months that I took up the paintbrush again, and began I realized that I had undertaken as arduous journey and entered the realms of Yama (Lord of Death). Scenes of an after life-apropos Swami Yogananda's description in 'Autobiography of Yogi'- had often swum before my mind's eye, a beautiful, peaceful place indeed and I longed to cross over. The eager faces of my children, then twelve and fourteen, tugged and I battled on. I lived in a surreal world for many months- with pain and practically no sleep at my command. Then I chanced upon the 'AIR all night FM' of faith music (thankfully sans advertisements), Late at night, with eyes shut I would listen to it until the milk van and clanging cans (the milk booth lay below my bedroom window) ushered in the dawn. I had survived another dark, lonely night. Often I meditated and sometimes reached fields of immense placid calm where tinkling of bells rang beatifically. My daytime study and images fed my thoughts and the healing of my mind, body and heart began.
The much-needed succour for my intense but quite and beauteous mental activity was amply provided by this research. The 'Mahamantra' japa, that I internally chant, from early years, increased in intensity during these dark months. Riding a shaky boat in stormy weather, this Vishnarupa raft seemed a good hold. These images quickly opened a whole new world of symbols, colours and poetic philosophy. Art history helped awaken my numbed faculties. My agonized mind found the cyclic time and the image of the all-devouring Kala strangely soothing and amazingly true:
'Swallowing through Your blazing mouths, You are licking all those people on all sides. Lord, Your terrible splendours are burning the entire universe, filling it with Radiance.
Sri Bhagavan said: 'I am inflamed Kala ( the eternal time-spirit), the destroyer of the worlds. I am out to exterminate these people. Even without you all those warriors arrayed in the enemy's camp must die.'
The images evoked through the Cosmic Form of Vishvarupa paintings and their setting echoed my inner turmoil, and helped me come to terms with loss and pain. I realized my anger was directed at events that overcame me and which I could not control. I had stopped moving with the flow. My ruptured psyche found solace in the sermon of Krishna. I truly felt that the only thing of importance was the inner spark which I would carry with me to an after life and the following verses left their indelible imprint:
'I am the source of all creation and everything in the world moves because of Me: knowing thus the wise, full of devotion, constantly worship Me.'
'Arjuna, I am the universal Self seated in the Heart of all beings; so I alone am the beginning and middle and also the end of all beings.'
Hereafter I resolved within, to concentrate on the essence of my being and live life on less strenuous terms with conscious and informed acceptance. Then healing, slow at first, gathered force.
No true devotee needs to be reminded that only Arjuna is vouchasafed the vision of Vishvarupa. Each devotee of Krishna relates to this Divine Form in an intimate manner and meditates and recites this text. As we know, many Mahatmyas (glorifications) were written on the Bhagavad Gita that reveal the immense hold of the text on the multitudes. One such is written by Kishoradasa Krishnadasa in 18 chapters in Hindi (Delhi: Raja Pocket Books[undated]). The fruits of reading of the Gita are explained in this work through exposition of legends. The legends (kathas) are recast in the form of dialogues between Vishnu and Lakshmi and, in some cases, between Shiva and Parvati. To read such texts, especially at critical junctures of one's life, gives strength and determination to fight all odds. At the end of each story, the respective god explains the benefit to be accrued by reciting the specific chapter of the Gita. Each chapter is an exemplary model for profound truths of existence and exalted moral values. For me too, such texts provided solace and hope. Annexure-I lists some benefits of reciting Gita according to the Mahatmya.
Similarly, the Devi-Mahatmya, a part of the Markandeya Purna, containing thirteen chapters, is another efficacious text, inspiring immense fatih.
With the Indian tradition great emphasis is laid upon the path of devotion, bhaktiyoga, as one amongst the many paths for realization. The recitation of the glories of the Divine as Shakti is another path. The concept of worship of the Mother Goddess can be traced to the Vedas although there is pre-historic evidence of mother worship. The major female deities in the Vedas are not 'wives' of the Gods. These are Divine Powers in their own right. It is important to note that the Vedas place great emphasis on the mantra. A mantra is not a mere collection of letters but a sound charged with intense vibrations of the spiritual personality of the seer of the mantra.
The objective of such Mahatmyas is to convince the devotees that hearing (shravana) and recitation (patha) can dispel all forms of ills: adhibhautika, ills inflicted upon the body; adhyatmika or afflictions of the mind, or those from divine sources (adhivaivika) in the form of personal destiny. Hence, these texts are treated by the faithful as efficacious texts to be recited and chanted to overcome many of life's perennial problems, including illnesses.
I understand that this collection may be the only of exclusive Vishvarupa paintings. Some of these paintings have been published in other books, but not yet seen together, under such an independent treatment. Prof. B.N. Goswamy, aware of published books in this field (which I am not), has reiterated that such a book, compiling these paintings, has not yet been published.
The justification for the present effort, however small and inadequate, is that these paintings again reinforce the plural cultural diversity of this country, which has held together for thousands of years and, continues to do so, in spite of many inroads into its fabric. It is fascinating to see this image represented from practically every part of the country, in paintings as well as illustrated manuscripts, in different scripts, language (Sanskrit, Gurumukhi, Persian, Arabic, etc.) showing a continuity even to the present day. This effort is meant entirely for the general reader.
Given the subject, it is naturally not an original work. Material work collected for the subject from over 75-80 books. Not being a scholar in the subjects of art-history, philosophy, painting or classical languages, much of what I gathered, as I explored this subject, was through help from experts in these various subjects. Much useful information was given to me by many of them. They not only spared their time to share their experience and knowledge, but also explained subtle points which I would not have otherwise understood.
Many of the collected paintings have been taken from museums in India as well as from private sources, catalogues, and some from books. I wish to thank the concerned Directors/Curators and Directors General of museums in India and elsewhere and am grateful to them as well as many publishers named in Annexure-II for making available photographs/slides and giving permission to publish the same.
I must thank a great number of people for helping me over these long years. They are so innumerable that it will be difficult to thank all of them. However, to name a few, eminent scholars like Prof. T.S. Maxwell, Mr. Anand Krishna, Shri M.C. Joshi, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, and Prof. B. N. Goswamy gave generously from their vast storehouse of knowledge and experience.
Many others helped to put the book together. This material went through several changes since its transformation from the shape of a PhD thesis into a book. For this, I need to especially thank Mrs. Anamika Pathak of the National Museum, who spent valuable time to help me rearrange this massive material. Other friends read portions of it, from time to time, and gave their objective feedback, especially, Manju Kak and Mano Ranjan (my husband). Dr. Naseem Akhtar, Mr. O.P. Pandey, Dr. R.C. Agrawal, Mr. K.K. Banerjee, Mr. Babu Rajeev and many Archaeological Survey of India officers and Dr. G.C. Tripathi deserve special mention and many thanks. Their scholarship in their own fields gave me further insights on my work. Dr. Madhu Khanna's scholarship led me to seek her advice many a time. She was always willing to spare time and her vast experience. Mrs. Mohini Hinogorani spent much time to help me with the glossary and other material. Shri P. Jha, Shri G. Chamu Deswarn and Shri Umesh Batra fro Cultural Information Laboratory, IGNCA, were of immense support over the years.
More recently, Ms. Anju Bhalla helped to correspond and gather together the vast visual material including listing of photographs, cataloguing them for research, etc. It was truly a painstaking effort. Shri Rohit jain deserves many thanks for his dedicated and patient efforts to type this vast material. Shri Rajendra Bhandari and Mrs. Sunita Sharma helped him in this major effort. Shri Vijay Tulreja was the pillar of support in procuring library books, tracking down articles, slides and other material. I cannot thank him enough for his help and patience. Shri Jagdish, Shri Sahib and Shri Veer Singh helped in every possible way of which not the least was supplying endless cups of tea.
Foreword by B.N. Goswamy
'I am Time grown Old'
For countless generations, the air has been ringing with Krishna's utterances in the Bhagavad-Gita- such as these: hoary of age, steeped in mystery and wisdom -but each time one returns to them, one gets the sense, as Ralph Emerson and Henry Thoreau did more than a century and a half ago, as if 'an Empire were speaking to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent
' The great text starts as if it were a narrative the bard Sanjaya being asked by the blind king, Dhritarashtra, to tell him what was transpiring on the field of the great battle which was about to begin. Quickly, however, it takes on a different aspect: that of a prolonged philosophical discourse in which the most profound of questions are asked and a range of answers given. But then sensing, in the midst of it, Arjuna's continuing inability to comprehend 'the deepest mystery' of it all, Krishna reveals to him his true self, a concrete vision of the creator and the destroyer, and of times deadly destructiveness: 'a fearsome explosion of countless eyes, bellies, mouths, ornaments, and weapons, gleaming like the fiery sun that illumines the world'.
That magnificent form, the Vishwarupa of Krishna-Vishnu, is however nor for everyone to see. When Arjuna sees it, it is only with the divine eye granted to him for that moment. And when the vision ends, Krishna reminds him that 'this form that you have seen is rarely revealed'. For, he adds, 'Not through sacred lore, penances, charity, or sacrificial rites, can I be seen in the form, that you saw me.' And yet, generation after generation, and in region after region of India, artists have been attempting to capture that very form in their work. It is a daunting task, for the vision is at once grand and terrifying and wondrous. The brilliance of the word of the eleventh chapter is not easy to match, and to compress everything into one soaring image almost impossible. For how does one bring in nearly all that there is: the 'fiery rays of crown and mace and discus', 'brushing the clouds with flames of countless colours'; 'roiling river waters streaming headlong toward the sea like moths in the frenzy of destruction flying into a blazing mouth; the many mouths and eyes thighs and feet and bellies and fangs seeing which the worlds tremble; the throngs of gods entering the great form- howling storm gods, sun gods, bright gods, and gods of ritual, gods of the universe, twin gods of dawn, wind gods, vapour-drinking ghosts, crowds of celestial musicians, demigods, demons and saints; a form that has 'no beginning, or middle, or end? The descriptions are remarkably dense, and when all the space, as the text says, is filled with this form alone, all space 'between heaven and earth and all the direction, is there any room left, even a little sliver of it, for the visual artist to enter it, one wonders?
This book is the result of several years of research and collection of material. Being interested
in art-history, I began collecting material on the subject of 'Vishvarupa in Indian Paintings'. I
wish to share some of this material and beautiful paintings that I have collected.
The word Vishva means 'All' and it refers to the universe. Rupa is form. Vishvarupa thus
means 'the universal form', a form which contains the whole universe in itself. Vishvarupa is a
form in which the creation and the creator become one and the same. The creator is the sum
total of the manifested world and the manifested world has the Divine penetrated into the
tiniest part of it.
The concept of Vishvarupa is usually connected with Vishnu and the Puranas like Bhagavata
and Vishnu describe in detail how the various objects of the world form the different parts of
the body of this Supreme Being. Why Vishnu, and none else in the Hindu trinity has been
described as having a 'universal form' or, in other words, identical with the whole universe, has
a valid reason. The word 'Vishnu' is formed out of the root vis (visati) which means 'to
penetrate', or from the root vis (visnati) which means 'to pervade', 'to encompass'. The Divine
Being who encompasses the whole manifested world and penetrates deep into every small
particle of it, is Vishnu. It is obvious that in this original concept of Vishnu, he is the only god
who can most justifiably be identified with the whole universe and this identification is vividly
reflected already in the Purushasukta of the Rig Veda (X.90) in which the whole universe is said
to have emanated step by step from the primordial body of the Supreme Being.
The ten incarnations of Vishnu are quite well known. Of these Krishna is not only the
most beloved one but also the most 'perfect' one according to Hindu belief. In the Bhagavad
Gita (Ch. XI) Krishna shows his Vishvarupa to Arjuna in which Arjuna sees the whole universe
existing in the body of Krishna: tatraikastham jagat kritsnam pravibhaktam anekadhalapashyad
devadevasya sharire pandavas tada. Our book takes and deals with only this particular Vishvarupa
During the Kurukshetra war, in the epic Mahabharata, when the opposing armies face each
other, Krishna, Arjuna's charioteer, reveals this form to a dejected Arjuna. Arjuna has no heart
to fight his dose relatives and questions the need to take up arms for the sake of material gains
in a transient world. A.t this poignant moment, the composer incorporates the philosophical
poem Bhaga Gita (henceforth referred to as the Gita) into the epic. The reader is then
suddenly transported into a deep ocean of philosophical quietness just before the raging storms,
in which brother will kill brother, and both sides will suffer the pangs of damnation.
The Gita is composed in the form of a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. Its setting
in the battlefield is not just a physical place but also representative of a state of mind. We see
a doubting and reluctant Arjuna, throwing aside his bow (Gandiva), unable to accept his duty
to fight. Krishna's exhortation to Arjuna at this juncture in the epic, is the text of the Gita. In
Chapters X and XI of the poem Krishna reveals his Vishvarupa image that jolts Arjuna from his
apathy. When William Oppenheimer, the creator of the atom bomb, saw pictures of the bombing
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he compared them with the images describing Vishvarupa in the
Gita, espcially in Chapter XI, Verse xii.
If the light of a thousand suns
were to rise in the sky at once,
it would be like the light
of that great spirit.
[Extract from: The Bhagavad-Gita - A Translation by Barbara Stoler Miller, verse 12, The
This text is enshrined in millions of hearts, and is one of the supreme treasures of th.e world
of literature. Its influence has touched poets, philosophers and scientists like Aldous Huxley,
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Arnold Toynbee and Mahatma Gandhi, to name a few: Its gospel of
devotion to duty, without attachment or desire of reward, has shown a way of life to both rich
and poor, learned and ignorant. It seeks to answer the deepest, the most basic questions of life.
As a culmination of the discourse, this vision demonstrates to Arjuna, that he is only in
instrument in achieving what is already ordained within the karmic cycle. Arjuna gets an inner
strength to pick up his bow in order to uphold righteousness - the law of dharma.
The contextual setting of the Gita is truly dramatic. The epic Mahabharata dwells on, the
greed of one branch of the family - the sons of the blind, reigning King Dhritarashtra - who
are unwilling to part with an iota of land to the other branch - their royal cousins, the sons
of Pandu. Dhritarashtra and Pandu were brothers born in the Kuru dynasty, descending from
King Bharat. Because the elder brother is born blind, the throne that would have been his, is
passed down to his younger brother, Pandu. Then unfolds a saga of the intrigue, jealousy,
revenge, murder and meanness of one side against the unity and nobility of the other. The only
resolution to this strife is a war to decide who will reign, since both cannot co-exist. When both
armies face each other, the sage Vyas, the author of the Mahabharata, appears in a vision to the
blind Dhritarashtra and grants him the boon to hear an account of the battle from his minister
Sanjaya, who has the power to see things past, present and future. Sanjaya is thus the mediating
voice through which the mystery of life and death revealed to Arjuna is preserved for future
This poem is the central theme of the epic and brings to climax a situation that offers a
solution to the dharmic dilemma of a war, both evil and just. The Hindu equivalent concept
of religion is exprssed in Sanskrit by the word dharma (sacred duty), which refers to the moral.
order that sustains the cosmos, society, and the individual. Theoretically, in this system, right
and wrong are n t absolute; right or wrong are decided in practical terms according to the
categories of social rank kinship and stage of life. For other cultures, this relativity of values and
obligations may be difficult to comprehend. The dilemma faced by Arjuna is neither new nor
is it satisfactorily resolved, yet the Gita provides a religious and philosophical platform on which
it can be addressed.
The Vishvarupa of Krishna reinforces the feelings of futility in Arjuna regarding the war.
However, simultaneously when the many truths of the universe unfold before his very eyes he
is jolted to do what he must with a sense of true understanding. The paintings on this theme
startle and shake the viewer and urge him to come to terms with the myriad pictorial
representations of the vision. I have been able to collect some paintings based on this theme.
These are painted on paper, textiles, canvas, manuscripts and murals - collected from books,
catalogue publications, museums, art galleries, libraries and private collections, within and outside
the country. I have confined my study to the Vishvarupa of Krishna. For comparative purposes,
I accessed relevant Shiva, Brahma, Devi, Rama, Buddhist and Jaina images, with similar
iconography. Very few such paintings are shown here.
The period of study are the paintings from the seventeenth century AD to the nineteenth
century AD. Professor B.N. Goswamy indicated that at least 100 such Vishvarupa paintings are
available and have not yet been compiled. Even though I have been at this task for over ten years
I believe this still holds true. As with most Indian art, for many centuries, these paintings were
not signed or attributed to individual artists. This information could certainly have been collected
or made available with more dedicated research, especially for later artists. However, I have not
attempted this onerous task. Manuscripts also contain these paintings. Recently, the Kurukshetra
Development Board acquired an l8th-century Vishvarupa painting, in the Nathdwara style. I
have tried to compile what I could access and get reasonably good photographs. To date, I have
collected over 40 paintings of Kashmir, Rajasthan, Orissa, Punjab, Gujarat, Karnataka, etc.
within India and elsewhere. I will discuss most of them in this work.
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