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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Symbols and Substance: Lord Vishnu

Vishnu is one of the trinity of Gods of the Vedic Hindu pantheon. Cosmic cycles consist of manifestation, maintenance and dissolution of the universe. In the meta-representation of this cycle, Brahma represents manifestation or creation; Vishnu stands for maintenance or protection and Shiva represents dissolution.

It is interesting to note that Brahma’s consort is Saraswathi, Vishnu’s concert is Lakshmi and Shiva’s consort is Uma or Parvathi. Observe that each male figure has a female counterpart – matter and energy, as it were. It is more interesting to note that Saraswathi is the Goddess of Knowledge. How can Brahma create without knowledge? Vishnu’s wife is Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth. How can you run a family without wealth? Shiva is the destroyer. His wife is the loving Universal mother, Uma. The original concept of our elders is so beautiful and logical.

The word Vishnu derives from the word Vish which means to enter or to pervade. One meaning of Vishnu is:
Vish vyaapaney nuk – meaning He who pervades the Universe.

Also: Yasmaat vishvam idham sarvam thasya shakthyaa mahaathmanah
Thasmaath yeva ucchyathey vishnuh vishadhatho praveyshannath

In substance this means that Vishnu is one who has entered into everything and everyone in the Universe. There is some connection to the ten avatars in this definition that I do not understand.

Let me digress a little here. In early writings, Vishnu is mentioned as one of the 12 Adityas, a solar deity. It appears that the term Ishvara got connected with the name of Vishnu later in history. In Samkhya philosophy there is no mention of Ishvara (God). It talks about purusha and prakriti as the origins of the universe. The obvious question is “Who created prakriti and pusursha?” Brahman, Parabrahman or Paramapurusha was posited as the Ultimate Source. This is Divine with no form, no beginning, no end, immutable. How did this Nirgunabrahman (Brahman without attributes) create everything? Therefore, the concept of Sagunabrahman, the original Creator with form came into use. However, this concept is interpreted differently by different schools. Advaitins say that sagunabrahman is none other than the supreme Brahman conditioned by maya. Visishtadhvaitham says that they are separate. In this system, Ishvara is the name for this separate sagunabrahman. This Ishvara manifests in this world in five forms. They are para(transcendent), vyuha(emanation), vibhava (incarnation), antharyamin (indweller) and archa ( a sacred icon). Vyuha in turn has several names. They are listed by Bhishma in his talk with Yudhishtra as follows: Hari, Vishnu, Narayana, Vasudeva, Dhamodara, Keshava, and Krishna.

Another version is that the Supreme Brahman abides in a four-fold form as Vasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha. From these emanate (vyuha) a total of 12 deities representing different divine qualities. They are Kesava, Narayana, Madhava, Govinda, Vishnu,Madhusudhana,Trivikrama, Vamana, Sridhara, Hrishikesa, Padmanabha and Damodara. We will come to this later when we describe symbolism in rituals.

Now, let us take Vishnu as a concept of Lord of Protection and find out what is behind the physical description of his form. He has a disc (chakra) in one hand, mace (gadha) in another hand, a conch (shanka) in the third hand, bow and arrows ( Sharnga and shara) in other hands, and sword (khanga) in one other hand. He has mark of Lakshmi on the chest (Srivathsa), a garland of gems (kausthuba) and a garland of flowers (vanamala) around his neck.

The meta-representations are as follows: Chakra, the disc represents the human mind which is always spinning at enormous speed. A sloka in support of this explanation is as follows:
chalaswaroopam adhyantham javena antharitha nalam
chakraswaroopam cha mano dhatthe Vishnu karay sthitham.

The meaning of this sloka is that the human mind is like the disc in Vishnu’s hand spinning at enormous speed. It is only by His grace one can gain control.

It is interesting to note that this representation has been meta-represented as another God in the name of Sudharsana. There are elaborate rituals and homam for the worship of Sudharsana . It is a metarepresntation of a representation!

The mace represents Mahat, the first principle to come out of Prakriti according to the Samkhya philosophy. The conch represents ego or Sattvika ahankara and the bow represents Thaamasa ahankara. The sword stands for Gnaana or Divine Knoweldge and its sheath for Agnana or ignorance. The Kausthuba garland is the Purusha of Samkhya philosophy and the Srivatsa (mark on the chest signifying the presence of Lakshmi) is the Prakriti. The arrows and the vanamala are to denote the 5 primordial principles (space,sound,sight,smell and touch) or Tanmatras.
The sloka in support of this explanations is from Vishnu Purana:
Chetah chakrathi chetanasiramathi thathsamvrithimaalika
Bhuthaani svagunaih ahamkrithiyugam shankena sharngaayathey
Baanah khaani dashaapi kausthubamanih jivah praadhaanam punah
Shrivathsah kamalaapathy thava gadaam aahuh mahaantham budhah

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Symbols and Substance - Raja Rajeshwari (Lalitha)

It is no surprise that “God” is often represented as a mother figure in several cultures. When the Primordial Force and the Creator is visualized in the female form, She is Rajeshwari. She is the Universal Mother. She loves her children. She likes her children to realize the Divine Truth and not to go after the unreal, the false.

In order to kill Mahishasura ( a demon), She rode a lion and used swords, bows and arrows. She wants us to conquer our internal demons. How does She show that? She still has the bows and arrows in her hands. But, She carries a sugar cane in Her left hand instead of a bow and a bunch of flowers in Her right hand instead of arrows. She wants to remind us about the Divine Truth gently and without hurting. May be that is why She is using a bow made of sugar cane and arrows made of flowers?

In the vedic system, the Supreme Force is represented as both male and female – Matter and Energy; Shiva and Shakti. Shiva and Shakti may be worshipped as separate, as two parts of the same body (as in Ardhanareeswara), as female energy hidden behind male energy (as in Dakshinamurty) or as male energy hidden behind the female energy (as in Kamakshi).

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Symbols and Substance - Dakshinamurthy

Lord Shiva is the Guru,the teacher in this form of Dakshinamurthy. The definition of Guru is given in the following sloka:
Gukaarasthu anthakaarah syat Rukaarasthu nivarthakah
Anthakaarnirodhithvath guru ithi ucchyathey buddhaih

The meaning is: Gu stands for ignorance; Ru stands for its removal. Since he removes our ignorance, he is called Guru.

Dakshinamurthy practices “mouna” (silence). When the guru and the disciples are in synchrony, words are superfluous.

His index finger and the thumb are touching each other, to tell us that the Universal God, Paramatma (index finger) and the Personal God, Jivatma (thumb) are one and the same. This is the entire essence of various philosophical teachings.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Symbols and Substance - Nataraja

Lord Nataraja

This is another form of Lord Shiva, made famous in the western world because of the icons of Nataraja of great artistic beauty.

Nataraja means the King of Dances. In His dancing pose, one foot is on the ground, standing on a demon. The other foot is free in space. There is fire in one hand and a drum in another. He has the river Ganges (Ganga)and crescent moon on his head. What do all these represent?

His dance is the Cosmic dance of creation. His dancing theatre is the Universe. Mayalaka, the demon on whom Nataraja is standing with one foot, is maya, the illusion (ignorance), suggesting that we crush our ignorance and illusion.

But the other foot is free, free of dependence and attachment. He says that even as we live in this world of reality, we have to keep one foot free. In other words, He asks us to learn to be free of attachment to worldly things.

One hand has the drum; the drum makes noise only when the hand moves, when His hand moves. The drum also represents cosmic sound, from which this Universe was created by Him. The drum, therefore, represents the world that He creates and controls.

The other hand holds fire. This represents human mind that like the flames of the fire, wavers and is unsteady. It also represents the opposite of creation (the drum), the dissolution of the universe.

On the head, the Ganges (Ganga) represents cool and refreshing wisdom and the crescent moon represents eternal, blissful and soft Divine Light.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Lord Shiva

Shiva is one of the trinities of the Vedic Religion. The other two are Brahma and Vishnu. These forms stand for each of the three functions of the Absolute Primordial Force – namely, creation (Brahma), protection (Vishnu) and destruction (Shiva). When all three faces are seen in the same unit, the name is Trimoorthy (three embodied forms).

Shiva is often shown living in cremation ground. He wears sacred ashes and a garland of skulls. His neck is black (Neelakantan). Why is Shiva in this form?

He lives in cremation ground so that you and I can live in comfort.

He wears ashes and skull so that you and I can wear sandal powder and jasmine powder and garland of flowers.

His neck is black because he drank a poison (visham). He swallowed poison so that you and I can have the Divine nectar (amritha).

These represent the thyaga(sacrifice) of the Divine for the human. That is why, Shiva is also called Thyagaraja.

Although Shiva (meaning auspicious) is often depicted as Rudra (the formidable), this form of Thyagaraja shows His compassion for His subjects.

The root Sanskrit word for Rudra is “rudh” which means “ to cry”. One meaning for the name Rudra is That One who can make you cry. In other words, frightful, formidable. Another meaning for rudh is driving away. Therefore rudra may also mean one who drives away suffering. It appears that the name Rudra used in Rig Veda became Shiva subsequent to the writings of Svetaswatara Upanishad.

The name Shiva denotes auspicious or ultimate reality.

In His “terrible” aspect Shiva’s names are: aghora, bhairava, ugra and rudra. In His benevolent form, His names are: shiva, shankara, shambhu, thyagaraja, and dakshinamurthy.

The name Nataraja seems to be related to His “terrible” aspect. We will look at the symbolism behind Nataraja in the next essay.