Table of Content IntroductionShiva and VishnuVedic MentionsIn PuranasThe symbolism underlying Vishnu's imageThe Avatars of VishnuConclusion
Table of Content
Shiva and Vishnu
The symbolism underlying Vishnu's image
The Avatars of Vishnu
Did it ever
occur to your mind why Lord Vishnu holds the discus, the lotus, the wheel, or the
conch? All such components in Hindu Dharma have
a meaning or a story behind, which gives an insight into their purpose.
fundamentally means one who pervades and is everything. Not only is he the
power behind which everything exists, but he is also one of the triumvirates
that, apart from him, include Lord Brahma, the Creator, and Lord
Shiva, the destroyer. Lord
Vishnu characterizes Sattvaguna that is the unifying force. To understand Sattvaguna, it
is important to first talk about this philosophical concept of the Samkhya
school of Hindu
philosophy – Matter has three qualities (guna); the lucid (sattva), the passionate (rajas)
and the sluggish (tamas). Most of the
occurences in nature demonstrate these three qualities in diverse magnitudes.
The human mind is such that it has concluded that the lucid state (sattva-guna) takes us to the path of
spirituality. Hence, Vishnu is at the centre of sustenance, protection, and
maintenance of the universe. Thus, the being of the Cosmos is dynamically
sustained and revealed through his will.
Also referred to
as the “Sanatana Dharma” by Hindus,
Hinduism is defined by beliefs in “samsara”
(reincarnation), “karma” (actions
shall have consequences), “moksha”
(freedom from the cycle of reincarnation), facets including the “yogas” and “vedas” from literary works such as the Upanishads
and the Vedas,
and the idea of diversity, or the philosophy that there are numerous gods that
embody one divine being. There are some Hindus that don’t essentially believe
in the concept of worshiping multiple Gods. As a substitute, they simply stick
to one God to worship. Yet, most Hindus believe in the Trinity: Brahma (the
creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer).
Vishnu, who is known as Mahavishnu, is the second deity of the Hindu Trinity. He represents sattva guna and is the centripetal force as it were, responsible for sustenance, protection and maintenance of the created universe. The word Vishnu means one who pervades, one who has entered into everything. So he is the transcendent as well as the immanent reality of the universe. He is the inner cause and power by which things exist.
the interpretative saga of Lord Vishnu begins with Lord Shiva. Once when man's
wickedness overran all restraining boundaries,
an infuriated Shiva transformed himself
into a wrathful form known as Bhairava.
Thus converted, Shiva began his rampage
of destruction, killing, maiming, and
ripping out the hearts of humans and drinking
blood, his menacing laughter thundering
On behalf of humanity,
Vishnu approached Bhairava and requested
him to stop the slaughter. Bhairava
said: "I will go on killing
until my bowl is filled with enough
blood to quench my thirst."
It was common knowledge that Bhairava's
bowl could never be filled and his thirst
His heart filled
with compassion, Vishnu addressed Shiva
thus: "Let me give you all the
blood you need. You don't have to bleed
mankind." So saying, Vishnu
struck his forehead with his sword and
let his blood spurt into Bhairava's
bowl. Ages passed, Vishnu kept pouring
his blood into the bowl, while Bhairava
kept drinking it.
realized that Vishnu was sacrificing
himself for the sake of the world. Moved
by Vishnu's generosity, he declared,
"So long as you preserve the
world, I will not seek to quench my
thirst. But when the world becomes so
corrupt that even you cannot sustain
it, I will raise my trident and squeeze
every drop of blood from the heart of
In Hindu esoteric
imagination, the supreme and ultimate
reality is believed to reside in the
Universal Soul, which is said to pervade
the entire manifested cosmos. The cosmos
itself is thought to have evolved from
this abstract entity, which is formless
and devoid of any qualitative attributes
(Skt. Nirguna Brahman). It is neither
male nor female, and is infinite, without
beginning or end. It is both around
us and inside us. The goal indeed of
all spiritual practice is to unite with
this Supreme Soul.
To the eternal credit
of Indian creativity, abstract concepts
such as the one above are made intelligible
to ordinary mortals like you and me
through the invention of various forms
which make comprehensible the ultimate,
formless reality. Thus the Nirguna Brahmana
(Nirguna - without quality) becomes
Saguna Brahmana (Saguna - having qualities).
This transformed entity is known in Sanskrit as Ishvara.
The entire universe,
along with the dynamic processes underlying
it, is said to stem from Ishvara. For
example, when Ishvara creates the universe,
he is called Brahma, when he protects,
he is called Vishnu, and when he destroys,
he is Shiva. The three together constitute
the trinity, which controls the universe
and all its functions.
Thus, as exemplified
in the above legend, Vishnu is the Preserver,
the protector of all humanity. A deity
who saves mankind from calamities that
result from its own foibles.
Vishnu finds his
earliest mention in the Rig Veda, the
most ancient book in the world. Here
he appears as a solar deity. The Vishnu
of the Rig Veda is a manifestation of
light, whose head was, by a trick of
the gods, severed from his body. This
severed head is believed to have become
the sun. Further in the Veda, Vishnu
is a friend and associate of Indra,
god of rain, thunder, and storm. Together,
Vishnu the sun and Indra the rain, take
on the demon Vritra, who personifies
drought. Indra and Vishnu both are described
as Vritrahan or the killer of Vritra.
This potent combination forms an awesome
ensemble of fertilizing powers.
The Vedic connotations
of Vishnu are discernable also in the
etymology of his name which is derived
from the root 'vish', which means
to spread, or in other words all-pervading.
Indeed in the Vedas, he is the all-pervading
sun, whose rays envelop the earth, as
does Vishnu himself, in his role as
protector of the world.
The Puranas being the most popular scriptures of Hinduism has acted as an important source of knowledge, wisdom and spiritual solace. Out of the eighteen Mahapuranas, the Vishnupurana is perhaps the earliest, dated back to 100 B.C- A.D 400. It is said to have contained 23,000 verses. Unlike the other Puranas where generally the Suta Romaharshana narrates the stories after being questioned by some sages, this Purana is narrated by the sage Parasara (father of Vyasa and grandson of Vasishta) to his disciple Maitreya. Though most of the work is in poetry, it has elegant prose passages also. In fact, it has all the characteristics of a good literary classic. Vishnu Purana treats Vishnu as not just the Vishnu of the trinity responsible for the sustenance of the created world. He is Parabrahman, of the nature of jnana (knowledge or consciousness) and absolutely pure. The appearance of this world as an entity separate from him is only an illusion.
The Bhagavata seems to be an elaboration of the stories and ideas contained in the Vishnu Purana. Whereas the after deals only with five avatars or incarnations out of the well-known 10, the Bhagavata deals in detail with all the ten and a few more. Though bhakti or devotion finds an important place in Vishnu Purana, it is all-pervading in Bhagavata.
It is not surprising
thus, observing Vishnu's popularity,
that he has been a constant source of
inspiration for artists down the ages.
His visual presentations tend to depict
in clearly perceptible terms, all the
composite elements which make up this
Vishnu is usually
depicted with four arms, though sometimes
he may even have more than this number.
The many arms of Hindu deities are symbolic
of the god's manifold powers. Whereas
we have limited abilities, a god's power
is unlimited, signified by the many
hands that hold a variety of attributes
and perform myriad activities, often
simultaneously. According to noted Indologist
Alain Danielou, "the image of
a deity is merely a group of symbols."
of the Vishnu icon is explained in the
Puranas and several minor Upanishads.
The two most common representations
show him sleeping above the causal ocean
on the coils of a serpent, while the
other shows him standing with four arms,
each exhibiting a different attribute.
behind each of Vishnu’s iconography has been thoroughly elaborated in the
foundational text of Hindu art and aesthetics, called the Vishnudharmottara
Purana. It dates back to the 5th century CE.
on the iconography of Vishnu, Vishnudharmottara Purana articulates that Vishnu
should be depicted seated on Garuda, with his bosom shining with the Kaustubha jewel, wearing all ornaments,
resembling in colour the water-laden cloud and clothed in a blue and beautiful
garment. Did you know that Kaustubha contains all the jivas? Did you know that Srimati Radharani can be seen in the
Kaustubha? And did you know that Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s Lila can be seen in the Kaustubha? The
Srimad Bhagavatam says, “Kaustubha is a type of ruby.” Vishnu adorns a Vanamala (elongated garland of flowers),
and in his right hand is an arrow, a rosary, a club and in his left hand is a
skin, a garment, and a bow. This iconography, it appears, is unique to
Vishnudharmottara. Typically, Vishnu has four hands carrying a mace, wheel,
lotus and a conch.
The colour of
the transformation of the universe is black (kṛṣna). The creator and
sustainer adopt the colour black. The Kaustubha jewel on his chest signifies
pure knowledge and the thick garland of flowers (vanamala) adorning his body represents the bondage of the world.
Vishnu’s garments denote avidya which supports the Saṃsara. Applying Saṃkhya philosophy, the
mace and the wheel (chakra) at the hand of Vishnu represents the Puruṣa and Prakṛiti, the two uncreated
primal cause of the universe. The universe was born from the union of Prakriti and Purusha. Prakriti denotes the elementary cosmic material that is
the foundation of all beings, and Purusha to the spirit or sentient energy that
administers life and reality Moreover, Vishnudharmottara states that the mind
as the evolute of Purusha and Prakriti pervades the entire creation,
characterized by Garuda, who can fly anywhere as swiftly as the mind.
The conch in the
hand of Vishnu represents the sky and the waters, while the symbolism of lotus
has multiple meanings in Hinduism. In the Bhagavad Gita,
a human is adjured to be like the lotus; they should work without attachment,
dedicating their actions to God, untouched by sin like water on a lotus leaf,
like a beautiful flower standing high above the mud and water. In the postures
of hatha yoga, the lotus position, “padmasana”, is adopted by those striving to
reach the highest level of consciousness, which itself is found in the
thousand-petalled lotus chakra at the top of the head.
The four hands of
Vishnu express dominion over the four
directions of space. They also symbolize
the four stages of human life, known
as the four ashrams:
1) The quest for
2) Family Life (Grihastha)
3) Retreat into the Forest (Vana-Prastha)
4) Renunciation (Sannyasa)
They further signify
the four aims of life (Purusharthas),
a) Duty and Virtue
b) Material Goods, Wealth, and Success
c) Pleasure, Sexuality, and Enjoyment
d) Liberation (Moksha)
Likewise, the four
arms represent the four castes and the
Further, Lord Vishnu
holds the following implements in his
9" Conch with Goddess Durga, Saraswati, Lakshmi and Ganesha (Wall Hanging) In Brass | Handmade | Made In India
This is one of the
most important emblems of Vishnu. The
blowing of the conch symbolizes the
primordial creative voice and Indian
mysticism links it to the sacred sound
OM, which is said to be the breath of
Vishnu, pervading all space.
are variously suggested as the rising
and setting sun, hence further cementing
Vishnu's solar associations.
The conch has the
form of multiple spirals evolving from
one point into ever-increasing spheres.
It thus denotes eternity, since it may
go on forever.
The ancient text 'Vishnu Purana,' identifies the chakra
with the human mind whose 'thoughts,
like the chakra, flow faster than even
the mightiest wind.'
When used as a weapon,
the distinguishing feature of the chakra
is its ability to return to the hand
of he who throws it. The only other
weapon known to have this quality is
the boomerang. Perhaps this is a pointer
to the cyclic nature of existence. Indeed
some scholars discern a parallel with
the water wheel (in use since the earliest
times), viewing the world as a constant
and cyclic interplay of irreconcilable
activities (duality). The water wheel
both empties and fills its vessels,
turning without end to bring up water
and to disgorge it into forever parched
fields. So too, life fills and empties,
due to forces innate in nature. This
is the constant and rhythmic turning
of the Wheel of Life.
Vishnu contemplated the creation of
mankind, a lotus sprang out of his navel.
Seated on it was the four-headed Brahma,
illuminating all the directions with
his brightness. Vishnu is therefore
also known as Padmanabha or the one
with the lotus-navel.
This lotus lit up
the sky with its effulgence and was
identified with the sun. As it was the
creative matrix from which all of the
worlds eventually evolved, the lotus
thereby became a symbol of creation
and fertility. By rising from the depths
of the ocean where are said to dwell
impure creatures like demons and serpents,
the lotus also expresses purity. Likewise does the individual soul, though
rooted in an imperfect world, search
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The lotus in Vishnu's
hand also denotes his better half and
constant companion, the source from
which he derives his powers, namely
Goddess Lakshmi. Lakshmi is the goddess
of prosperity who sits on a lotus and
also holds stalks of the same flower in her hands.
Thus the lotus is
also the feminine force that activates
the creative power of Lord Vishnu like
Shakti does for her Shiva.
The lotus further
signifies the well-known yogic ideal
of detachment. This is because though
this beautiful flower often grows in
muddy waters, neither water nor dirt
are ever seen sticking to its petals.
Indeed Vishnu's message is amply reflected
in the lotus and informs us to partake
of life's pleasures, without getting
ensnared by them.
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There once lived
a mighty demon named Gada who intoxicated
with his prowess on the battlefield,
continued to wreak havoc on all humanity.
Finally, it came upon Vishnu to provide
succour to harassed mankind.
for his valour, Gada was equally known
for his charitable inclination. It was
said that he wouldn't refuse a boon
to any individual however unreasonable
the demand may be.
Gada as a Brahmin and addressed him
thus: "If you are so generous
can you give me your bones?"
Gada immediately tore open his body
and pulled out his bones. From these
bones, the celestial artists (Ribhus)
fashioned out a mace for Vishnu. Thus
striking two birds with a stone, Vishnu
acquired for himself an invincible weapon
while at the same time gaining respite
for the world.
It is in honour of
this demon that the mace is still referred
to as 'gada,' in Sanskrit.
At the metaphysical level, the mace represents the power of time. Just as nothing can conquer time, the mace too is unconquerable and destroys those who oppose it. According to Danielou "As such the mace is identified with the Goddess Kali, who is the power of time." This is supported by the Krishna Upanishad which says: "The mace is Kali, the power of time. It destroys all that opposes it."
Thus does Vishnu
describe himself: "The world
rests as the lotus in the palm of my
hand, the cosmos revolves around my
finger like a discus. I blow the music
of life through my conch and wield my
mace to protect all creatures."
In visual imagery, an upright Vishnu stands with each of
his four arms holding a different symbolic
attribute. He is straight as a post,
for he is the firm centre, and the axis
of the universe, he is the sturdy pillar
that joins the earth to the heavens.
Indeed to his devotees, a formal, hieratic
representation of Vishnu - their refuge
and protector - standing like a mighty
pillar is a deeply comforting sight. The
other popular icon of Vishnu shows him
in a dreamlike state reclining upon
a mighty serpent and floating upon the
This image is Vishnu at its purest. This pure Vishnu principle is the source and plan of life. It is identified with the world of dreams, where things are conceived as prototypes yet to be realized. The real, lasting creation is this mental creation. We create a machine when we conceive it. Once the plans are made in the abstract, realization in perishable materials is a secondary matter which the inventor may leave to technicians. World planning is the work of Vishnu, who symbolizes the universal intellect.
The three states
of mind (sleep, dream, and awareness)
are the relative conditions corresponding
to the Hindu trinity. Thus Shiva is
experienced in the dreamless sleep,
Vishnu in the vision of dreams, and
Brahma in the state of awareness.
Vishnu in his dream
state represents that gap in time when
creation stands withdrawn and eternity
awaits the birth of a new age. When
creation is withdrawn it cannot entirely
cease to be; there must remain in a
subtle form the germ of all that has
been and will be so that the world may
rise again. It is this reminder of
destroyed universes that is embodied
in the serpent floating on the waters,
known as Sheshanaga (Shesh-remainder). At the physical plane, it is parallel to the sperm floating
in the germinating waters of the womb
when creation can happen at any instant.
ocean is the pure consciousness on which
wafts the divine spark of energy which
is the harbinger of the creative activity
about to materialize. According to Deepak
Chopra: "The source of all creation
is pure consciousness.. pure potentiality
seeking expression from the unmanifest
to the manifest.." The same author brings
to our notice that Vishnu resides inside
each of us. He is present in the silent
space which exists between our two consecutive
thoughts. The two consecutive thoughts
of course represent the two sequential
ages and the silence between them is
the fathomless ocean of infinite possibilities.
When we are able to inject in this space
our intention to create (or achieve
any specific goals) the result is the
fulfilment of our desires in resonance
with the creative rhythms of nature.
It is this divine and fertilizing seed
that Vishnu signifies.
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immemorial, Lord Vishnu has taken many shapes and forms to strengthen the good
and to terminate evil, by this means re-establishing Dharma and releasing the
burdens of the earth. In the Mahabharata, he is depicted as Narayan. There, he
tells Narada that he will appear in ten different incarnations. He appeared in
the form of a swan (Hamsa), a tortoise (Kurma),
a fish (Matsya), as a boar, (Varaha), then as a Man-lion (Nrisingha), then as a dwarf (Vamana), then as Rama, the son of
Dasharatha, then as Krishna the scion of the Sattwata race, and lastly as
Kalki. When equated to other divinities, he was supposed to have a very
composed and generous nature. He was identified with the characteristics
central to that of a guardian, protector and preserver of the world.
In this incarnation, the lord is said to have saved Manu, the progenitor of mankind, and the saptarishis, the seven sages along with their wives during the deluge. The world was repopulated through them later on.
He incarnated himself as Kurma (the tortoise) in order to support Mount Manadar which started sinking during the churning of the ocean
In this, the Lord killed the demon Hiranyaksha and lifted the earth out of the floodwaters in which it had been submerged.
Narasimha ( Man-lion)
When Prahlada, the great devotee of Vishnu was being severely tortured by his father, Hiranyakashipu, he emerged out of the pillar and killed him
Vamana (the Dwarf)
This avatar was taken on the request of Indra to regain his heavenly kingdom from the Asura King Bali. Vamana approached Bali for three steps of land and measured heaven and earth on the first two steps. The third step was kept on Bali’s head and he was pushed to the netherworld.
Born as the son of the sage couple, Jamadagni and Renuka, he exterminated the tyrannical Kshatriyas led by Kartyavira, who were oppressing people.
He types the ideal man. His story, the Ramayana has now become an immortal epic.
Rama the strong, the elder brother of Sri Krishna is the eighth incarnation. His many adventures include the slaying of the ape Dvivida and the demon Dhenuka, shaking the ramparts of Hastinavati and dragging river Yamuna out of its course.
He is the supreme statesman, warrior, hero, philosopher and teacher. Nay, God Himself. He is the great expounder of the ‘Song Celestial’, Bhagavadgita.
The tenth vatara is yet to come. He will descend upon the earth at the end o the present age (Kali Yuga). He will destroy the enemies of Dharma and re-establish it in all its glory.
Key TakeawaysVishnu is one of the three main gods of Hinduism, along with Brahma and Shiva. He is considered the preserver of the universe and is often depicted as a peaceful and benevolent deity.Vishnu is often depicted with blue skin, holding a conch shell, a discus, a mace, and a lotus flower. These objects represent his power, protection, and beauty.Vishnu is associated with several avatars or incarnations, including Rama and Krishna, who are considered the most important. Each avatar has a unique story and mythology.The worship of Vishnu is considered a path to spiritual liberation and is often associated with devotion and service.Vishnu is also associated with the concept of dharma, or righteous behavior, and is believed to uphold and protect the natural order of the universe.Vishnu is often worshipped along with his consort, Lakshmi, who is the goddess of wealth, prosperity, and fortune.The worship of Vishnu is popular throughout India and is particularly important in the Vaishnavism tradition.Vishnu is considered a powerful and benevolent deity who provides protection and blessings to his devotees.
Vishnu is one of the three main gods of Hinduism, along with Brahma and Shiva. He is considered the preserver of the universe and is often depicted as a peaceful and benevolent deity.
Vishnu is often depicted with blue skin, holding a conch shell, a discus, a mace, and a lotus flower. These objects represent his power, protection, and beauty.
Vishnu is associated with several avatars or incarnations, including Rama and Krishna, who are considered the most important. Each avatar has a unique story and mythology.
The worship of Vishnu is considered a path to spiritual liberation and is often associated with devotion and service.
Vishnu is also associated with the concept of dharma, or righteous behavior, and is believed to uphold and protect the natural order of the universe.
Vishnu is often worshipped along with his consort, Lakshmi, who is the goddess of wealth, prosperity, and fortune.
The worship of Vishnu is popular throughout India and is particularly important in the Vaishnavism tradition.
Vishnu is considered a powerful and benevolent deity who provides protection and blessings to his devotees.
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