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
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
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.
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
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 world.
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
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."
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 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
2) Family Life (Grihastha)
3) Retreat into the Forest (Vana-Prastha)
4) Renunciation (Sannyasa)
They further signify
the four aims of life (Purusharthas),
a) Duty and Virtue
b) Material Goods, Wealth, and Success
c) Pleasure, Sexuality, and Enjoyment
d) Liberation (Moksha)
Likewise the four
arms represent the four castes and the
Further, Lord Vishnu
holds the following implements in his
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
other popular icon of Vishnu shows him
in a dreamlike state reclining upon
a mighty serpent and floating upon the
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.
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.
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