Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Symbolism of Vishnu

It has been a tradition in civilized nation to provide hidden messages in places where people will least search for it...

The best example would be art forms, which are used to convey messages to those who are ready to take it, or in the state where they would grasp the subtle meaning in the display. Sometimes the messages are not that subtle but very simple and yet we don’t seem to recognize them, maybe because of our ignorance or biased thinking.

One of the oldest civilization in the world is Vedic, and the art forms of this civilization has simple symbols, which had tons to say, but the essence of the art has been lost. I would like to discuss about the symbolism of gods, what the vedic saints would have thought about it while they created these images of god.

We would find lots of discrepancies in the mythology of vedic civilization concerning the origin of the universe and superiority of god. Yes the Vaishnavas and the shaivites fought over the superiority of their gods, but the attributes to their gods have been given well before this war started. When we consider the actual meaning of the gods and then reconsider the myths, it would become clear that they actually don’t contradict. They create an ambiguity only to those who don’t understand them, but then Physics in its extreme also creates Ambiguities and paradoxes.

The west think that the Vedic civilization was obsessed with wild animals, infact they will call vedic gods to be paganic, in a way they are, but they are more than what they appear.

Vishnu, the most patient, intelligent of the trinity has been symbolized in a very special way. He has a four arms like many of the other gods in this pantheon. He is represented with a blue skin, he is shown wearing the Kaustubha mani and a flower garland. On his chest there is a mark of srivatsa. He also has crown like all other gods(exceptions exists) in vedic civilization. He also wears two earrings.

He is always shown having the

1. Conch (Panchajanya ) in left upper hand
2. Chakra (Sudarshan) in upper right hand
3. Mace (kaumodaki) in left lower hand
4. Lotus (Padma) in right lower hand

He is sometimes shown standing Upright with Laksmi on a lotus. He is also shown reclined on the Sesha Naaga/Ananta naaga , with Lakshmi and the sesha naaga resting on the Ksheer Saagar (Ocean of milk), Here Brahma is shown sitting on the lotus which came out of Vishnu’s Navel. Another way this divinity is represented is while flying the Garuda.

Now the symbolism of all this representations…

Vishnu :
The name itself means the “All pervading one”, so he literally means everything that exists, this is nothing but one of the attribute of Brahman. Vishnu in technical sense is nothing but the space that exists, so he is the one who manifests space in the void or is the space itself.

Blue Skin:
He is shown with a blue skin, the reason is simple, he is the representation of Ether, so he has to be blue, the color of sky.

Kaustubha Mani:
He is the owner of the most precious of material possessions anyone can have, this is just another way to say that human life is not only about spirituality but also about materialism, or the dualism of being the everything and still having material possession.
Kaustubham is also were Sri Lakshmi(Consort of Vishnu) resides.

Srivatsa mark:
This mark is present on the chest, where Laksmi resides, venerating the goddess.

This is just to reinforce that he is “The Lord”.

He is shown wearing two earrings. This represents the extreme opposites, like knowledge and ignorance, pleasure and pain. He is the source of everything, the good and bad etc.

Panchajanya (Conch):
This is the conch, which is the source of creation. It is believed that the Universe is created by the sound “Om”, and Adi narayanan used this Conch to create the sound of creation. It can also be said that this conch is used to sustain the universe by creating vibration of life. Having the conch in his left upper arm symbolises that he is the creator or cause for everything that is. Or scientifically speaking The Vishnu (Space) has created the vibration of creation(symbolizing the self created universe). It may seem that I am applying naasthik ideals in the symbology, but this is just my rational approach. I believe it would be easy for the Saints to explain scientific concepts to the Disciples using symbols like this than some 3rd degree Differential equations.

Also Panchajanya represents the five basic elements of universe, thus reinforcing itself to be the source of origin.

Sudarshana Chakra:
This weapon is a Chakra (spinning discus) which symbolises Purity of mind. Su-Darshan means good/superior vision. This chakra has been used many a times by Vishnu to destroy the demons, The Chakra as such cannot destroy, infact its name suggests that it was used to destroy only the ego or bad element of the entities and provide a Superior vision to him towards Spirituality.

Kaumodaki Mace:
This represents destructive nature of the god. It symbolizes the destruction of egos and negative traits or even the destruction of universe itself.

Padma Lotus:
The lotus represents Awakening consciousness and in hands of Vishnu it means that to awaken our consciousness we have to understand Vishnu or Vishnu is the source of individual awakening.

Now we will try to understand the meaning of one of the popular images of Vishnu, in which he is shown reclined on the Shesha naaga. Shesha Naaga is a representation of time. Shesha means remaining, shesha naga refers to the time remaining after each creation cycle, which is always Infinity. The other name of shesha naga is Ananta naga which means endless, thus saying that after each cycle what is left is endless time. Vishnu (Space) reclined on Time for me is a perfect way to show the relation between space and time. Space lying on the bed of time is a perfect analogy to our universe. This whole setup is shown on the Ksheer sagar, or the ocean of milk, this could be a possible analogy to Milky way as in Mayan civilization and also represent the Chaos outside universe(I know there is no outside universe, this is the chaos before universe is created). This picture shows that universe(space and time) is created or lies in the ocean of Chaos, and out of space and consciousness(Vishnu) the Material creator(Brahma on the lotus from the navel of Vishnu) has come into existence. Brahma here is not actually the God as such but the personification of creation process.

Vishnu is not the creator but Brahma is, but Brahma came out of Vishnu, this is a very subtle way of explaining the creation of Universe. Initially came the space and time, and then came the material existence.

Another popular image is where Vishnu is shown flying the Garuda. It is said that when Garuda flaps his wings a chanting sound of Vedas is created, this in essence means that Garuda itself is the personification of knowledge. Also Garuda is a strong enemy of snakes bringing him in a position against the Shesha naaga, in a way saying that knowledge is superior to time(illusion) or ignorance. Vishnu being on both of them shows his mastery over knowledge and his control on time.

Ekam sat, viprah bahuda vadanti