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Vishnu: Cosmic Magnification Of The Divine Being

Article of the Month - June 2009
Viewed 42887 times since 15th Jun, 2009

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Shri Narayan (Lord Vishnu)
Shri Narayan (Lord Vishnu)



He has been usually conceived with four arms, but sometimes also with six or eight carrying in them various attributes - a conch, lotus, mace, goad, disc, rod, sword, bow among others. Conch was a later addition, which was included in his attributes after his incarnation as Krishna he eliminated Shakhasura - the demon seeking refuge in a conch. The usual gestures of his hands are abhaya - fearlessness, and varada - benevolence. He has been conceived and represented as blue complexioned wearing a yellow antariya - unstitched length of textile, and rich lustrous jewels. His towering gems-studded crown and a garland of fresh Parijata flowers of celestial origin, worn down to ankles, are other exclusive features of his iconography and hence of his identity.



Baby Krishna Shows His Vishvarupa to Mother Yashoda
Baby Krishna Shows His Vishvarupa to Mother Yashoda





In his cosmic magnification - Vishva-rupa, Vishnu has a different set of iconography. Vishva-rupa is only Vishnu's transform. Brahma did not have such magnification. Himself being the cosmos Vishva-rupa was irrelevant in Shiva's context. As the creation sustains and prevails in Vishnu, his form is required to magnify to assimilate in it the vision of the world.







Vishnu was initially a cosmic presence without a manifest form or appearance. Hence, the seers, right from the Vedic days to the days of Puranas, wove around him, on one hand, a form of his own, and on the other, discovered in any being, a man or animal, which they found containing Vishnu-like dimensional width and magnanimity, a transform of Vishnu or his incarnation. Transformation is a shift from one form to the other in the same birth, while incarnation is a form attained in other birth. Ordinarily, transform and incarnation are two different things but in Vaishnava context both are largely identical. Vishnu enters into another form but without subjecting himself to birth and death. In some of the beings, such as the mythical Matsya - Great Fish, Kurma - Tortoise, or Varaha - Boar, popularly revered as his incarnations, Vishnu had merely an elemental presence. They were only his 'anshavataras' - part-incarnations, each performing one divine act having cosmic magnitude. Narsimha and Vamana, his two other incarnations, were perhaps more decisively only his transforms. Their related myths in the Shatpatha Brahman represent just their emergence, neither their birth nor parentage. Mysticism enshrouded the events of births also of his other incarnations, Parasurama, Rama, Krishna, Balarama, or Buddha. They had parents, babyhood, growth, manhood and a full life and a chain of events but their related myths, ambiguous as they are at least in regard to the circumstances of their births, incline to suggest that their emergence was hardly the outcome of a biological process.

Matsya - The Fish Incarnation of Vishnu
Matsya - The Fish Incarnation of Vishnu


Though the multiplicity of his incarnated forms, ranging from animals to man, suggestive of Vishnu's elemental presence in all things, has undertones of Rig-Vedic mysticism, the proper incarnation cult has its beginning in Brahmans. At least three forms, Vamana who redeemed the world from the demon Bali, Matsya, the great fish that rescued Manu from high tides of the Great Deluge,



Varaha Avatara (The Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu)
Varaha Avatara (The Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu)







and Varaha, boar, that dragged back the earth from deep waters and rescued her, occur in these later Vedic texts.







Dashavatara Panel: Ten Incarnations of Vishnu (From Left - Matshya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vaman, Parashurama, Rama, Balarama, Krishna and Kalki)
Dashavatara Panel: Ten Incarnations of Vishnu (From Left - Matshya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vaman, Parashurama, Rama, Balarama, Krishna and Kalki)

The Mahabharata identifies Vishnu as Krishna when he shows his cosmic form to Arjuna. However, it is in Puranas that the theory of incarnations fully explodes. Each of Vishnu-related Puranas comes out with its own list of his incarnations, totaling in thousands. However, these are two sets that have greater unanimity. According to one tradition the number of his incarnations is twenty-four, while under another, it is ten. His Dasavatara - ten incarnations, comprise the theme of Indian art - sculptures, at least since Gupta period in fifth-sixth century. These ten incarnations are Matsya, Kurma, Varah, Narsimha, Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Balarama and Kalki.

Kalki the Tenth Avatara (The Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu)
Kalki the Tenth Avatara (The Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu)





The Vishnu Purana and some other texts acclaim Buddha, not Balarama, as his ninth incarnation. According to many texts, Kalki, the tenth incarnation, has to incarnate in Kaliyuga, the present eon. Around the end of this eon righteousness would turn into unrighteousness, light, into darkness, good, into evil, virtues, into vices, believers, into profanes, community of man, into thieves and evil doers, and the faith in God would be lost. Then Kalki would emerge riding the horse Devadatta - one given by gods, and with this the Kaliyuga would end.




Lord Venkateshvara
Lord Venkateshvara







However as Venkateshvara, Vishnu has at least one such form which is not his incarnation.






Balaji - Venkateshwara Lord of Tirumala - Tirupati An Introduction
Balaji - Venkateshwara Lord of Tirumala - Tirupati An Introduction






Vishnu's south Indian devotees consider Venkateshvara as Vishnu's proto-form. Even if this position is unacceptable, Venkateshvara, a manifestation of Vishnu, might be termed as his transform or re-emergence. Vishnu is believed to have abandoned Baikuntha and migrated to Tirumala, a hill-range in south India having serpent Shesh-like form and hence designated as Sheshachala.





The related myth is variously narrated. However, the one in the Padma Purana is better known. As it has it, gods once fell into a dispute for settling which they deputed sage Bhragu. For seeking their guidance Bhragu went to Great Trio. Shiva, engaged in amorous act with Parvati, did not pay attention to him. Brahma behaved almost rudely, but Bhragu lost his temper when he found Vishnu asleep. The angry sage hit him on his chest with his leg, which left on it the impression of his foot that as Shrivatsa adds another element in his iconography. Vishnu, instead of punishing the sage, only apologised for being asleep. Lakshmi who was lying on his side felt insulted and in fury abandoned Vishnu and his Baikuntha. Unable to bear separation Vishnu also left Baikuntha and migrated to Tirumala hill on the earth. After eons of repentance and yearning one day Vishnu realised that like a lotus Lakshmi was sprouting within him and thus the two were re-united. Tirumala is thus Vishnu's only abode where he permanently settled after he had abandoned Baikuntha, his heavenly abode. His presence here is considered thus full and absolute.


Shesha-shayi Vishnu, Madhu-Kaitabha and Adishakti
Shesha-shayi Vishnu, Madhu-Kaitabha and Adishakti

Except that he is one who spans the earth, known and unknown spaces in three steps, the Rig-Veda does not recount any of his exploits. With his transformation as the god of yajna his role widens in later Vedic texts. Now also as Vamana, Matsya and Varaha he indulges in more personalised kind of acts. In Puranas his form is almost concretised and so his exploits against demons, Hayagriva, Madhu and Kaitabha, Andhaka, Vritrasura, Nemi, Sumali, Malyavan among others. He fights against mighty demons Madhu and Kaitabha for ages before he is able to kill them.

The myth of annihilation of Madhu and Kaitabha appeared first in the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata. Later, with a few variations, it appeared in the Devi Bhagavata Purana. As goes the myth, after the Great Deluge Mahavishnu lay asleep on the water's surface. Long after from his navel grew a lotus, out of which subsequently emerged Brahma. Staying in the lotus he engaged himself in meditation and in reciting Vedas. Meanwhile some ear-wax emitted from the ears of Mahavishnu and from it were born two demons, named Madhu and Kaitabha. According to the Mahabharata, Madhu and Kaitabha were born from two drops of water that Mahavishnu had created in the lotus. One of the two drops was sweet like Madhu -honey, and hence, Madhu, the name of the demon born of it. He stood for Tamas - darkness, one of the three attributes of cosmos. The other drop was hard. From this drop was born Kaitabha representing Rajas - activity.

Lord Vishnu Killing the Demons Madhu and Kaitabha
Lord Vishnu Killing the Demons Madhu and Kaitabha

Born and grown up in water Madhu and Kaitabha had exceptional power to walk on water's surface and under it, which had made them arrogant and proud. They wondered how this big flood came into being. One day, Devi appeared and taught them the 'Vagbija mantra' - hymn of the origin of logos. Reciting the hymn they performed Devi's worship for a thousand years. Appeased by their worship Devi appeared and told them to ask whatever they desired. They wished that they should die in the manner they chose. The wish was granted. Their arrogance now multiplied. One day, they stole Brahma's Vedas and with them hid in the nether world. Brahma went after them but tortured and frightened by them came back. He went to Mahavishnu and sought his help in restoring Vedas. Mahavishnu went to Madhu and Kaitabha but they refused to return the scriptures. Mahavishnu raised arms against them but it yielded no result. Under a strategy, when one fought with him the other rested and thus they tired Mahavishnu who was battling non-stopped. It continued for a thousand years. Finally, Devi appeared and revealed that they would not be killed unless they themselves disclosed the manner by which they could be killed. Mahavishnu feigned to give up arms and lauded the demons for their great valour. He told that he would grant them anything they wished. As anticipated, the demons laughed and said that they were superior to him and hence he should ask them whatever he wanted from them. Mahavishnu instantly said that he wished to kill them and asked them to grant this wish. With no other option left, they granted his wish but with the condition that he could kill them but not inside the water. Mahavishnu instantly expanded his thighs so far that like earth they reached above water. The demons expanded their bodies many more times leaving waters far below. Vishnu expanded his thighs further, caught hold of the demons, held them on his thighs and cut their throats with his disc.

Mahavishnu likewise eliminated Hayagriva, the son of Kashyapaprajapati by his demon wife Denu, for torturing good people and destroying their yajnas, Anthaka, the notorious minister of the demon king Mahisha, Vratasura, the son of Prajapati Twasta born of his wrath, Sumali, the son of Patalaravana, Malyavan, the son of demon Sukesha and brother of Mali and Sumali, Nemi, the head of the demons of Nemi clan, and Rahu, the notorious planet. Rahu was cut into two parts by Mahavishnu with his disc. As the related myth has it, the incessantly warring gods and demons once reached an accord under which they agreed to churn ocean and discover nectar that the ocean contained. After the nectar was found in the course of churning the demons rushed to snatch it. Fearing that the world would be destroyed if it fell into the hands of demons, gods were reluctant to let it pass into their hands. And hence, a fearful battle ensued for its custody. When arms did not yield result, Vishnu resorted to other options. He transformed himself into Mohini, the temptress. All demons rushed to obtain her. Meanwhile gods disappeared with the pot of nectar, and just after them, Mohini. They reached Baikuntha and to bar entry of any demon put the Sun and the Moon on guard. However, Rahu in disguise succeeded in entering. But, on being detected by Moon Mahavishnu discharged on him his disc and cut him into two pieces.

For Further Study:

Rig-Veda Samhita, Edited By F. Maxmuller (Edited by), English translation by H. H. Wilson, Poona.

Shatpatha Brahmana: edited by Albert Waver, Leipzig, 1924.

Mahabharata: Gita Press, Gorakhpur; Critical Edition, Poona; English translation by Pratap Chandra Rai, Calcutta.

Valmiki Ramayana: Gita Press, Gorakhpur, 1976.

Padmapurana: Gita Press, Gorakhpur, 1981

Brahmavaivartapurana: Hindi Sahitya Sammelana Prayaga, Bombay, 1935

Bhagavata Purana : Gita Press, Gorakhpur, 1961.

Markandeya Purana(Devi-Mahatmya): Gita Press, Gorakhpur, 1972

Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagavat Vyanjan: Mumbai, 2006.

Vishnupurana: Bombay, 1889; Gita Press, Gorakhpur, 1980.

Vishnudharmottarapurana: Bombay, 1912; English translation by Priyabala Shah, Baroda, 1961

Etareya Brahman: Gita Press, Gorakhpur

Devi Bhagavata: Gita Press, Gorakhpur

Harivansha Purana: Gita Press, Gorakhpur

Dr. Daljeet and P. C. Jain: Indian Miniature Painting

Dr. Daljeet and P. C. Jain: Krishna : Raga se Viraga Tak

Brajesh Krishna: The Art under the Gurjara-Pratiharaos, Delhi

Suvira Jaiswal Origins and Development of Vaishnavism

D. O. Flaherty: Hindu Myths

Marta Jakimowicz-Shah Metamorphosis of Indian Gods

Veronica Ions: Indian Mythology

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  • A possible reason Vishnu came to be recognised as the most powerrful deity in the Hindu cosmos is that His existence is perceived in reality as a cosmic concept located at the very heart of the geocentric universe. Thus His role became enhanced through millenia of observation that He was the central pivot of All celestial movement, around whom All movement in the Universe happened in eternal cycles. Vishnu is perceived to be the invisible, unmoved mover of All that Is.

    Unmoved because He is anchored by the Pole Star through His foot to the axis of the Divine Milk Churn that is the leg He pivots on ( mirrored in the Sufi mystics dance). Vishnu's movement is the abstract vectorial sum of the Precession of the Equinoxes. Leaning because He is inclined at the angle of the ecliptic to the Sun ( thus the Pole star changes with each age of the Zodiac), His other leg thrust up at an angle in the face of the demi-gods, pointing to the Avatar that rules the Age of the Zodiacal cycle, while describing the eternal cyclic path of the ecliptic the planets must follow and the vernal equinox.

    The serpent protecting Him with ten heads symbolises the serpentine paths of the demi-gods ( planets, sun & moon ) as they follow the eternal cycles created by His cosmic dance. (In older depictions the serpent has only 7 or 5 heads. eg., the Buddha Naga). His 3 steps are the birth, life and death of All Life brought into existence through His eternal Heavenly cycles. Death being the step in time no man can traverse within a given lifetime.

    Vishnu has no face because He is the invisible force behind the visible, behind even the greatest Gods such as Usha. His power, size and esoecially His invisibility are mirrored in the West by the faceless Judaic 'God of the Shadows', who holds mankinds destiny in His palm and also has one foot on earth. Vishnu's dance causes All to rotate with Him, churning the Cosmic Ocean, the Earth and the Celestial Heavens. He is the force that turns the Heavenly Milk Churn churning out the Milky Way. His All powerful rhythm conquers even the errant heavenly bodies of comets and asteroids. He presides over the Universe as Shaiva in the Shaiva-Lingam where He is worshipped as the phallic source of the Milk of Life that leaves the lip of the Lingam to give birth to the Milky Way. The Lingam's Lip symbolises the path to the Heavens that opens at each Vernal Equinox. The Vernal Equinox ( aka Easter ) is universally revered with annual divine fertility rites as the time that the souls of the deoarted can escape the realm of the earth ( Buddhist Samsara ) to ascend to and be united with their god(s) in the Heavens.

    Shaiva is depicted spinning on one leg, similarly to Vishnu in the Dance of Maiya. Krisna and Seth, the gods of light and darkness, are depicted hauling on the divine 7 headed serpent that entwines the Heavenly Milk Churn, causing it to rotate and churn out the Milky Way in the Heavens. Are they alternate depictions of Shaiva and Vishnu's role in Hindu cosmology? This model makes it seem likely. The demarcation between Vishnu the 'invisible spin axis and unmoved mover of All that Is' and Shaiva 'the mysterious serpentine movement of the planets that is the Cycle of the Zodiac' appears to reside between Vishnu's invisibility and Shaiva's phenomenality.
    by Noel Ingham on 12th Jul 2009
  • I enjoy reading your articles with great interest. In this, you mentioned that
    Lord Vishnu, the central figure of the Brahmanical God...May I know what you meant by 'Brahmainical'?
    thank you.
    by bharathasarathy on 27th Jun 2009
  • The Western perception of the iconography of Kalki is often confusing - portraying the god as horse-headed implying that Devadatta is Kalki, not the rider. There is a horse-headed Vedic deity, Vadavamukha or Vajimukha also known as Hayagriva - Vishnu as the god of Knowledge who gave the Vedas to Brahma. Khmer temples celebrated him.
    by Ian Ison on 23rd Jun 2009
  • Namaskar. Thank you for the article. Please continue sending for my enrichment of knowledge and practice.
    by Rodolfo on 21st Jun 2009
  • Such a depth and breadth of knowledge in the scriptures! Wow! Many thanks for this invaluable aid in our studies.
    by Ian Ison on 20th Jun 2009
  • Prof. Jain and Dr. Daljeet,
    Qudos for the yeoman service you are doing by bringing excellent articles on Indian religions. I greatly enjoyed reading this article. However, there remains an ambiguity about one incarnation of Bhagwan Vishnu. Is it Balram, or Mohini, or Budha, or Guru Gobind Singh, or some other avtar? Also, it would have been excellent idea to include which evil forced which incarnation, e.g., Ram because of Ravana and Kumbhakarna, Krishna because of Kansa. And, Kali bacause of whom?
    by Inder Kumar Garg on 19th Jun 2009
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