Not an overseer presiding over the cycle from beyond, Vishnu is the cycle's inherent part. Two myths, often perceived as mutually contradicting, one of his emergence as a child on a fig leaf afloat the post-deluge oceanic waters, and the other, perceiving him as reclining on serpent Shesh in Kshirasagara, are symbolic extension of this cosmic process of which Vishnu is the axis.
As the former myth has it, after the Great Deluge subsides, all around are dark unfathomable waters with immeasurable expanse. Vishnu, just a child, emerges afloat on a fig leaf, something symbolic of nothingness, or comprising just a nominal support. The myth discovers Vishnu in child, as the child alone has possibilities of growing, the essence of Vishnu's being. It sets him in darkness and over immeasurable seas, as it is only the darkness that contains the light in its womb and might release it, and, it is the immeasurable out of which the measured spaces are carved. Vishnu is not the creator but he only grows and expands and there-from emerge the manifest and the unmanifest worlds.
And, then there is the other myth. Vishnu, now fully grown-up, reclines in Kshirasagara - the ocean of milk, on the coils of serpent Shesh unfurling its hoods over him. Now Shri or Lakshmi, his spouse, is in attendance and from his navel rises the lotus.
Atop the lotus emerges Brahma with water-pot in one hand, Veda in another, rosary in the third, and the fourth being held in varada - the posture of benevolence, a total transformation of the myth which perceives Vishnu as child. The dark waters of the child Vishnu's myth transform into the grown-up Vishnu's ocean of milk abounding in unique radiance. The light pervades the darkness. Out of the immeasurable expanse are carved the measured length and width which the serpent Shesh, symbolic of life and representing the earth, manifests. Vishnu lying on it and holding it canopy-like above him pervades it. Lotus, symbolic of three cosmic regions - the earth, the sky and the ocean, is Vishnu's offshoot, and so is Brahma emerging to define them in terms of creation. Brahma defined life, which the water contained in the pot symbolised; good and benevolence which pre-empted the course of life and regulated the creation; jnana - knowledge, which Veda in his hand symbolised; and, devotion, which the rosary in his other hand represented. Shri, Vishnu's spouse, manifests his will to let it sustain and lead it to abundance. Conjointly, the two myths illustrate the Vaishnava theory of Vishnu's emergence and growth.
As the scriptural tradition has it, after every 60 crore, 18 lac, 34 thousand and 752 years of human calendar Vishnu disappears and then there is desolation and deep eternal silence for 30 crore, 9 lacs, 17 thousand and 376 years before he re-emerges and grows, and along with emerges the entire creation - the manifest as also the unmanifest. In Vedic perception Vishnu is a continuum, and in Puranic, a plurality. The term 'vishnu' is not an incidental catch for his name. 'Vish', the Sanskrit root out of which the term 'vishnu' developed, means 'vyapana', that is, to expand and pervade. Thus, Vishnu is one whose ultimate nature is 'vyapana'. Hence, Vishnu is not a mere sanctum deity or worshippers' idol but also a deep cosmo-metaphysical principle that defines on one hand the principle of evolution, and on the other, manifests the Rig-Vedic theory of God's oneness and unity of the cosmos. Some scholars contemplate 'vish' as suggestive of one who is 'incessantly in act'. Incessant is only the growth. Hence growth alone is the incessant act. Vishnu, who is the growth, and thus the incessant act and the essential nature of all things, is inherent in all things, manifest or unmanifest, and is their life. When Vishnu withdraws, the cosmos drops and perishes like the dead mass. It is thus that in the Great Trinity - the three aspected manifestation of the Formless God, Vishnu represents sustenance or preservation, and is the core of cosmic order.
The Vedas abound in strange mysticism and such mysticism is far deeper in case of Vishnu. The Rig-Veda assigns to Vishnu a status secondary to other gods, specially, Indra - the god of rains, Varuna - the god of oceans, Agni - the god of fire, Surya - the Sun-god, among others. Just five of the Rig-Vedic Suktas - hymns, are devoted to Vishnu, and in these too, he has not been attributed the status of an independent being. The Suktas do not recount any of his exploits, nor his role. The Rig-Veda perceives him just as another form of Surya assisting Indra - obviously a deity subsidiary to both. However, it is in such Rig-Vedic perception that the real mystique of Vishnu's being lies. While the other Rig-Vedic gods, such as Surya or Agni, seek to deify nature's corresponding entities, or represent, as do Varuna or Indra, some tangible aspect of nature, or even Brahman - the Creator, Vak - Speech, or Ushas - Dawn, representing some aspect of cosmic activity, Vishnu is a god by conception with no specificity of any kind. He has not been linked with any aspect of the universe, manifest or unmanifest. The Rig-Veda conceives him as a youth with as massive a build as pervaded the entire cosmos. It perceives Ushas also as a youthful maid with unique lustre but nonetheless it also links her with one of time-cycle's phenomenal phases, which is the sun-rise.
The Rig-Veda does not do so in case of Vishnu. It does not link him with any specific aspect of nature, the tangible in the least, or assigns to him any specific role or phenomenalism.
Thus, unlike any other god of Vedic Order, Vishnu, even if a subsidiary god, is more or less an abstract concept, not corresponding to an aspect of materially or visually existing world. He is the only divinity whom the Rig-Veda seeks to personalise. The Rig-Veda uses for him terms like 'urugaya' - someone with long strides, 'urukrama' - someone with wide steps, 'tri-pada' - someone with three steps, that is, it perceives Vishnu as a massive-bodied youth capable of covering the entire space, width-wise and length-wise, in just three steps. At another place the Rig-Veda acclaims that he spans the entire universe with three strides, with two of which he covers the visible space, and with the third, which the Rig-Veda designates as 'Parama-pada', the space to which human eye does not have access. Thus, whatever the Rig-Vedic perception, Vishnu pervades all spaces, the 'seen' and the 'unseen'. The Vedas perceived some unmanifest levels also of other gods, especially of Agni that exists on a plane to which the human mind does not have access. But, such super-existence apart, the Rig-Veda weaves the veil of mysticism only around Vishnu, not barring the human mind from reaching it but rather allowing it to lift the veil and develop its own concept of him.
Hence, it is not strange that in later Vedic literature - Samhitas, Brahmins and Upanishads, this subsidiary god of the Rig-Veda emerges as the most powerful divinity of the Vedic pantheon. The Shatpatha Brahman (14.1.1) illustrates through a myth how Vishnu attained such superior position. Once all gods performed a yajna stipulating that whoever accomplished it first would have supremacy over all other gods. Vishnu did it and was worshipped by all as the supreme of all gods. Tetreya Aranyaka (5.1. 1-7) gives to the myth of his supremacy a different dimension. It narrates that once Vishnu's bow broke and with it broke his head. This broken head, with enormous lustre, took the form of the sun. Later, Ashwins - a class of celestial beings, re-planted this broken head on his torso. Thereafter Vishnu emerged as the supreme master of all three worlds. Shatpatha and Etareya Brahmans (1.2.5 and 6.15) recount further how Vishnu rescued all gods from demons and emerged as their natural superior. Once demons defeated gods and occupied their habitation, the world. The demons began breaking the land in fragments. This endangered its very existence. Gods approached Vishnu for setting the world free from demons. Vishnu transformed into a dwarf - Vamana, and went to the demon king. He asked the demon king for a piece of land measuring just three steps. When the prayer was granted, Vishnu magnified his form into cosmic dimensions so much so that in three steps he measured not merely the three worlds but also the Vedas and Vak, that is, all known and spoken. The Puranas modified the legend a little. The Vamana, a Brahmin, spanned in his cosmic magnification all three worlds in two steps and with the third pushed the demon king into the nether world. The Puranas designated this form of Vishnu as Vishnu-kranta, Tri-Vikram or Vikranta. This is one of his most widely represented forms in early sculptures.
Whatever Vishnu's form in these later texts, the Rig-Veda contained the initial roots of such forms. Except Vishnu, all other gods that the Vedas personalized represented one of the manifest forms of nature, the sun, fire, wind, rain etc. Such personalization was unnatural and unconvincing, for one might perceive some kind of divinity in these forms of nature but not the face of man in any of them. On the contrary, personalization of Vishnu was more natural and convincing; obviously because the Vedas did not ever identify him with an otherwise manifest form. Rather, a concept of mind as he was, the Vedas, the Rig-Veda in particular, chose to visualise him in a human form. The Rig-Vedic mysticism begins from here. It talks of Vishnu as one would talk of a man but at the same time allows him to walk out of the man's frame and vests in him unique divinity. As for Vishnu, he sometimes appears to be, but at other time, one beyond being, one beyond the entire manifest world.
This shift from the abstract or a nature-manifesting solar deity to one perceived anthropomorphically was effected partly out of the efforts of concretizing the Rig-Vedic mysticism and partly being necessitated by the Vedic worship-cult involving yajna as an essential aspect of day's routine that had become by now quite methodical.
An anthropomorphic deity was better suited for presiding over such yajnas. This seems to have effected the shift from the solar god to a yajna-deity. Subordinated to Vishnu other Vedic gods did not have their prior status. They were sometimes yet personalised but either as subsidiary deities or as Dikpalas - guardians of directions, etc. Vishnu, other than Rudra-Shiva, was the only major personal god of this era and ever after. Rudra-Shiva was a god with wrathful nature worshipped mostly for preventing him from inflicting his wrath. The massive-bodied Vishnu was contrarily all-pervading and protective. Hence, in Vedic cult he soon had an enormous presence and with it the Vedic worship had two separate sects, the Shaivites and the Vaishnavite.
The Puranas pursued broadly the same line as the later Vedic texts in regard to Vishnu's form and status in the pantheon. However, while the Vedic mysticism was still the dominant spirit of later Vedic texts it was largely missing in Puranas. Instead, in Puranas he emerged with far greater divine aura combined with such personal attributes - invincibility, stateliness, anatomy of a warrior, appearance and grace of a king, which made him more the supreme commander of the world rather than an abstract principle manifest. Hundreds of hymns in these Puranic texts lauded not merely his appearance - a robust build, oceanic blue complexion and figural distinction, or divinity, magnificence, or lustre but also his brilliant costume, precious jewels, special crown, and celestial flowers that he wore. Despite that he was perceived as possessing great majesty such as should the Lord of the world in command of all cosmic regions and all elements and a multi-armed anatomy, these texts brought to mind such personalized picture of Vishnu as of one's next-door neighbour. Thus, the supreme monarch but with great personal touch Vishnu emerged as the foremost guardian and protector. This Vishnu was both, the benevolent boon-giver and the supreme deity of yajna as also the slayer of demons and the protector of the earth and its inhabitants. The Devi Bhagavata acclaims Vishnu to have fought a thousand battles against 'asuras' - demons. Not merely the supreme divinity, this Vishnu was also the supreme model of life manifesting both, the highest principles of faith and the brightest colours of culture.
This Puranic personalization of Vishnu gives to Indian art - sculpture and painting, a uniform, elaborate and well defined iconography. His anatomy and other aspects apart, Puranas also associated with him some attributes, body-postures and gestures of hands, all revealing some kind of symbolism or some of his related mythical contexts. The two of his postures are more usual; one as standing, and other as reclining. His standing posture with a forward thrust has Vedic connotations. It is the Rig-Vedic form of Vishnu as revealed in epithets like 'urugaya', 'urukrama' or 'tri-patha', already discussed before. This is the most usual form of Vishnu's sanctum idols or votive iconography.
The other posture relates to the myth representing him reclining on the coils of serpent Shesh in the ocean of milk. In this form he is Nara, the cosmic ocean which spread everywhere before the creation of the universe. As he moves over these waters of cosmic oceans he is Narayana, 'one who moves in water'. His seated postures are rare except sometimes as in his manifestation as Yoga-Narayana, or in shrines like one at Badrinatha.
His Tri-Vikram form, representing him with one of his legs shot into the sky or onto the face of the demon king Bali, a representation of the myth of spanning the universe in three strides, has also been sculpted on temples' walls. Lintels of early Vishnu temples and sometimes even Shaiva, usually carry the image of Vishnu riding his mount Garuda.
In Dasavatara panels on the door-frames of early temples too the Garudaruda - Garuda-mounted Vishnu, is usually the central figure.
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