Vishnu - A Symbolic Appreciation
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 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.
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 which result from its own foibles.
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 form 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 wo rld.
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 (Brahamacharya)
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:
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 a multiple spiral evolving from one point into ever-increasing spheres. It thus denotes eternity, since it may go on forever.
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.
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.
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 world 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. Like wise 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.
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.
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 succor to harassed mankind.
Famed universally for his valor, 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 honor of this demon that the mace is till 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."
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 center, 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.
This image is Vishnu at his purest. This pure Vishnu principle is the source and plan of life. It is identified with the world of dream, 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.
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 remainder of destroyed universes which 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.
References and Further Reading
- Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia 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.