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Vishvarupa (Paintings on the Cosmic Form of Krishna-Vasudeva)

Vishvarupa (Paintings on the Cosmic Form of Krishna-Vasudeva)


Item Code: IDK006

by Neena Ranjan

Hardcover (Edition: 2008)

Aryan Books International
ISBN 9788173053337

Size: 12.0" X 8.8"
Pages: 184 (Illustrated Throughout in Full Color)
Price: $85.00
Discounted: $63.75   Shipping Free - 4 to 6 days
Viewed times since 2nd May, 2014


About the Book

Vishvarupa is popularly known as the cosmic form that Krishna revealed to Arjuna in the battlefield of Kurukshetra in India in the Mahabharata, circa 500 BC. This was captured in verse in two chapters of the Bhagavad Gita. The concept of Vishvarupa is rooted in the Indian philosophical traditions since the Vedic times and represents a holistic interdependence in the manifested universe at all levels. Vishvarupa explores the relationship of man with the cosmic being the microcosm and the macrocosm.

Simple but effective visual representations of this thought are found in Indian arts and culture through the millennia. Herein Krishna is present in a Brahmin, a mongrel dog, a tree and a stone in equal measure. While this book attempts to showcase for the first time a careful selection of Vishvarupa paintings between the 17th and 20th centuries to stimulate further study, it also reveals the beauty and genius of the Indian paining tradition for the lay reader.

About the Author

Neena Ranjan is an civil servant, who spent long periods in the departments of art and culture and also industry and commerce in the Government of India and the State Government. She joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1969 and retired as Secretary, Ministry of Culture, and Government of India in 2006. Since then, she is the Honorary Mentor of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.

She post-graduated from Calcutta University, and later from Harvard University. Her academic interests are in art, art history and philosophy. She took up Vishvarupa as a subject for PhD work in 1993. this book is a result of extensive efforts to collect Vishvarupa paintings from different sources over the years.

As the national coordinator for a United Nations project for seven years, she initiated the Cultural Informatics Lab, and undertook interactive multimedia documentation of India's cultural resources on electronic formats at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in New Delhi under the guidance of Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan. Many well researched DVDs and an excellent website were produced. The Lab continues its good work.

Her hobbies include painting in water colours, travel and Indian classical music. She lives with her husband in New Delhi. Her two sons live in the United States. This is her first book.


Some years ago, when I undertook to investigate and write on the paintings of Vishvarupa, an important purpose was to understand the history of this Cosmic Form, and how it was conceived, before the vision was shown to Arjuna, in the Gita. I began work on this many years ago at a critical juncture in my life, as a base for a PhD thesis, but could not complete it.

I will remain eternally grateful to Prof. B. N. Goswamy who suggested this topic in our first meeting, and following it up by posting photographs, during his travels, from all over the globe. When I did accomplish a part of the work, he spent precious hours of his time discussing this subject and encouraging me, no end.

I studied many related articles and books on the subject, as also books on art history and eagerly searched for paintings on this cosmic vision. Needless to say, I have spent precious months of sheer frustration, barking up many other trees, before I embarked on this project.

In 1991, due to ill health, I was on leave for a few months and needed an all-absorbing subject to engage my attention. All earlier well-laid plans had to be shelved. From my early years, Krishna and the Gita have been an integral part of my life, through my father, who has a true devotee. Hence, the is subjects, when suggested by Prof. Goswamy, immediately appealed to me.

Shortly after returning with a Master's degree from Harvard in 1987, I was bursting with future plans of a JNU PhD in Economics. I had chosen my subject and guide and hoped to make a career, away from a bureaucratic wasteland.

However, due to ill-health and surgery, for logistical reasons, these plans were not possible. Energy levels fell and after the doctors were done with me, I was left with limited options. The invasive modern medical procedures healed but the prolonged effects left me a wrung-out charred doll, within whom beauty, sensitive and dignity had died. Hurting like mad, the haven of my childhood garden was what I needed to escape to. My inner beauty and rhythm were violated-envy, anger, jealousy and negative emotions ruled supreme.

In such a mindset, a change of career seemed insignificant. Many years I had kept swimming in an ocean of power and intrigue. Quite comfortable with both sides of my brain. I needed to shift gears. Childhood years, spent amidst music, painting, sports (chiefly swimming and badminton) and dramatics, were brushed aside for twenty years, subsumed by a career, home and children. It was during these dark months that I took up the paintbrush again, and began I realized that I had undertaken as arduous journey and entered the realms of Yama (Lord of Death). Scenes of an after life-apropos Swami Yogananda's description in 'Autobiography of Yogi'- had often swum before my mind's eye, a beautiful, peaceful place indeed and I longed to cross over. The eager faces of my children, then twelve and fourteen, tugged and I battled on. I lived in a surreal world for many months- with pain and practically no sleep at my command. Then I chanced upon the 'AIR all night FM' of faith music (thankfully sans advertisements), Late at night, with eyes shut I would listen to it until the milk van and clanging cans (the milk booth lay below my bedroom window) ushered in the dawn. I had survived another dark, lonely night. Often I meditated and sometimes reached fields of immense placid calm where tinkling of bells rang beatifically. My daytime study and images fed my thoughts and the healing of my mind, body and heart began.

The much-needed succour for my intense but quite and beauteous mental activity was amply provided by this research. The 'Mahamantra' japa, that I internally chant, from early years, increased in intensity during these dark months. Riding a shaky boat in stormy weather, this Vishnarupa raft seemed a good hold. These images quickly opened a whole new world of symbols, colours and poetic philosophy. Art history helped awaken my numbed faculties. My agonized mind found the cyclic time and the image of the all-devouring Kala strangely soothing and amazingly true:

'Swallowing through Your blazing mouths, You are licking all those people on all sides. Lord, Your terrible splendours are burning the entire universe, filling it with Radiance.

Sri Bhagavan said: 'I am inflamed Kala ( the eternal time-spirit), the destroyer of the worlds. I am out to exterminate these people. Even without you all those warriors arrayed in the enemy's camp must die.'

The images evoked through the Cosmic Form of Vishvarupa paintings and their setting echoed my inner turmoil, and helped me come to terms with loss and pain. I realized my anger was directed at events that overcame me and which I could not control. I had stopped moving with the flow. My ruptured psyche found solace in the sermon of Krishna. I truly felt that the only thing of importance was the inner spark which I would carry with me to an after life and the following verses left their indelible imprint:

'I am the source of all creation and everything in the world moves because of Me: knowing thus the wise, full of devotion, constantly worship Me.'

'Arjuna, I am the universal Self seated in the Heart of all beings; so I alone am the beginning and middle and also the end of all beings.'

Hereafter I resolved within, to concentrate on the essence of my being and live life on less strenuous terms with conscious and informed acceptance. Then healing, slow at first, gathered force.

No true devotee needs to be reminded that only Arjuna is vouchasafed the vision of Vishvarupa. Each devotee of Krishna relates to this Divine Form in an intimate manner and meditates and recites this text. As we know, many Mahatmyas (glorifications) were written on the Bhagavad Gita that reveal the immense hold of the text on the multitudes. One such is written by Kishoradasa Krishnadasa in 18 chapters in Hindi (Delhi: Raja Pocket Books[undated]). The fruits of reading of the Gita are explained in this work through exposition of legends. The legends (kathas) are recast in the form of dialogues between Vishnu and Lakshmi and, in some cases, between Shiva and Parvati. To read such texts, especially at critical junctures of one's life, gives strength and determination to fight all odds. At the end of each story, the respective god explains the benefit to be accrued by reciting the specific chapter of the Gita. Each chapter is an exemplary model for profound truths of existence and exalted moral values. For me too, such texts provided solace and hope. Annexure-I lists some benefits of reciting Gita according to the Mahatmya.

Similarly, the Devi-Mahatmya, a part of the Markandeya Purna, containing thirteen chapters, is another efficacious text, inspiring immense fatih.

With the Indian tradition great emphasis is laid upon the path of devotion, bhaktiyoga, as one amongst the many paths for realization. The recitation of the glories of the Divine as Shakti is another path. The concept of worship of the Mother Goddess can be traced to the Vedas although there is pre-historic evidence of mother worship. The major female deities in the Vedas are not 'wives' of the Gods. These are Divine Powers in their own right. It is important to note that the Vedas place great emphasis on the mantra. A mantra is not a mere collection of letters but a sound charged with intense vibrations of the spiritual personality of the seer of the mantra.

The objective of such Mahatmyas is to convince the devotees that hearing (shravana) and recitation (patha) can dispel all forms of ills: adhibhautika, ills inflicted upon the body; adhyatmika or afflictions of the mind, or those from divine sources (adhivaivika) in the form of personal destiny. Hence, these texts are treated by the faithful as efficacious texts to be recited and chanted to overcome many of life's perennial problems, including illnesses.

I understand that this collection may be the only of exclusive Vishvarupa paintings. Some of these paintings have been published in other books, but not yet seen together, under such an independent treatment. Prof. B.N. Goswamy, aware of published books in this field (which I am not), has reiterated that such a book, compiling these paintings, has not yet been published.

The justification for the present effort, however small and inadequate, is that these paintings again reinforce the plural cultural diversity of this country, which has held together for thousands of years and, continues to do so, in spite of many inroads into its fabric. It is fascinating to see this image represented from practically every part of the country, in paintings as well as illustrated manuscripts, in different scripts, language (Sanskrit, Gurumukhi, Persian, Arabic, etc.) showing a continuity even to the present day. This effort is meant entirely for the general reader.

Given the subject, it is naturally not an original work. Material work collected for the subject from over 75-80 books. Not being a scholar in the subjects of art-history, philosophy, painting or classical languages, much of what I gathered, as I explored this subject, was through help from experts in these various subjects. Much useful information was given to me by many of them. They not only spared their time to share their experience and knowledge, but also explained subtle points which I would not have otherwise understood.

Many of the collected paintings have been taken from museums in India as well as from private sources, catalogues, and some from books. I wish to thank the concerned Directors/Curators and Directors General of museums in India and elsewhere and am grateful to them as well as many publishers named in Annexure-II for making available photographs/slides and giving permission to publish the same.

I must thank a great number of people for helping me over these long years. They are so innumerable that it will be difficult to thank all of them. However, to name a few, eminent scholars like Prof. T.S. Maxwell, Mr. Anand Krishna, Shri M.C. Joshi, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, and Prof. B. N. Goswamy gave generously from their vast storehouse of knowledge and experience.

Many others helped to put the book together. This material went through several changes since its transformation from the shape of a PhD thesis into a book. For this, I need to especially thank Mrs. Anamika Pathak of the National Museum, who spent valuable time to help me rearrange this massive material. Other friends read portions of it, from time to time, and gave their objective feedback, especially, Manju Kak and Mano Ranjan (my husband). Dr. Naseem Akhtar, Mr. O.P. Pandey, Dr. R.C. Agrawal, Mr. K.K. Banerjee, Mr. Babu Rajeev and many Archaeological Survey of India officers and Dr. G.C. Tripathi deserve special mention and many thanks. Their scholarship in their own fields gave me further insights on my work. Dr. Madhu Khanna's scholarship led me to seek her advice many a time. She was always willing to spare time and her vast experience. Mrs. Mohini Hinogorani spent much time to help me with the glossary and other material. Shri P. Jha, Shri G. Chamu Deswarn and Shri Umesh Batra fro Cultural Information Laboratory, IGNCA, were of immense support over the years.

More recently, Ms. Anju Bhalla helped to correspond and gather together the vast visual material including listing of photographs, cataloguing them for research, etc. It was truly a painstaking effort. Shri Rohit jain deserves many thanks for his dedicated and patient efforts to type this vast material. Shri Rajendra Bhandari and Mrs. Sunita Sharma helped him in this major effort. Shri Vijay Tulreja was the pillar of support in procuring library books, tracking down articles, slides and other material. I cannot thank him enough for his help and patience. Shri Jagdish, Shri Sahib and Shri Veer Singh helped in every possible way of which not the least was supplying endless cups of tea.

Foreword by B.N. Goswamy

'I am Time grown Old'

For countless generations, the air has been ringing with Krishna's utterances in the Bhagavad-Gita- such as these: hoary of age, steeped in mystery and wisdom -but each time one returns to them, one gets the sense, as Ralph Emerson and Henry Thoreau did more than a century and a half ago, as if 'an Empire were speaking to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent…' The great text starts as if it were a narrative the bard Sanjaya being asked by the blind king, Dhritarashtra, to tell him what was transpiring on the field of the great battle which was about to begin. Quickly, however, it takes on a different aspect: that of a prolonged philosophical discourse in which the most profound of questions are asked and a range of answers given. But then sensing, in the midst of it, Arjuna's continuing inability to comprehend 'the deepest mystery' of it all, Krishna reveals to him his true self, a concrete vision of the creator and the destroyer, and of times deadly destructiveness: 'a fearsome explosion of countless eyes, bellies, mouths, ornaments, and weapons, gleaming like the fiery sun that illumines the world'.

That magnificent form, the Vishwarupa of Krishna-Vishnu, is however nor for everyone to see. When Arjuna sees it, it is only with the divine eye granted to him for that moment. And when the vision ends, Krishna reminds him that 'this form that you have seen is rarely revealed'. For, he adds, 'Not through sacred lore, penances, charity, or sacrificial rites, can I be seen in the form, that you saw me.' And yet, generation after generation, and in region after region of India, artists have been attempting to capture that very form in their work. It is a daunting task, for the vision is at once grand and terrifying and wondrous. The brilliance of the word of the eleventh chapter is not easy to match, and to compress everything into one soaring image almost impossible. For how does one bring in nearly all that there is: the 'fiery rays of crown and mace and discus', 'brushing the clouds with flames of countless colours'; 'roiling river waters streaming headlong toward the sea like moths in the frenzy of destruction flying into a blazing mouth; the many mouths and eyes thighs and feet and bellies and fangs seeing which the worlds tremble; the throngs of gods entering the great form- howling storm gods, sun gods, bright gods, and gods of ritual, gods of the universe, twin gods of dawn, wind gods, vapour-drinking ghosts, crowds of celestial musicians, demigods, demons and saints; a form that has 'no beginning, or middle, or end? The descriptions are remarkably dense, and when all the space, as the text says, is filled with this form alone, all space 'between heaven and earth and all the direction, is there any room left, even a little sliver of it, for the visual artist to enter it, one wonders?

Foreword by Prof. B.N. Goswamyvii
Chapter I:Origins of Vishvarupa1
Chapter II:Concept and Philosophy of Vishnu Vishvarupa9
Chapter III:Vishvarupa in Indian Art and Thought17
Chapter IV:Vishvarupa in Indian Painting23
Chapter V:Illustrations with Notes on Paintings35
Annexure-I Benefits of Reciting the Gita According to the Mahatmya 152
Annexure-IIList of Sources for Images153
Annexure-IIITextual References from Vishnusahasranama154
Select Bibliography165
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