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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

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