Interestingly, given that Roman and Greek civilizations are, of course, dead (and their mythology alive only in young adult fiction and mythological anthologies) and I've no idea about Scandinavian or Egyptian mythology and their continuance into modern times (but I do know that they haven't found their way into American fiction), mythology in India therefore becomes one of the few countries where it's part of a living tradition. Its been kept alive mainly because, in India, mythology has traditionally been a part of our oral traditions and mythology and religion are often interchangeable. More importantly, its also a part of people's lives - think the first Indian film, Raja Harishchandra (circa 1913), kitsch calendar art based on Raja Ravi Varma's images (circa 1920) that are installed in every Hindu home and the Ramayana series by Ashok Banker and the Immortals of Meluha Series by Amish that swept Indian bestseller lists in the 2000's. Therefore, and thank the Lord(s) for this, Indian mythology has remained available to adults as well as children in a way that no other country's mythology has. And since its a living tradition, our heroes and heroines also tend to change their profile/update their appearance depending on the generation telling the story.
Brahma had a mostly one time role as creator and doesn't get a lot of importance any more. Since he was also cursed with having no temples dedicated to him (of course, someone will always go off and do the forbidden thing, so you'll find a couple- the largest is in Himachal Pradesh) that probably plays a part.
Shiva is the destroyer therefore, to the likes of us who have been raised on a constant stream of films of one man taking on the system, he's the sexy one you don't want to anger. Given that his and Sati/Parvati's is also the mercurial love story that includes death, reincarnation, great sex and interesting progeny, you understand someone making a bestselling series on Shiva (that will soon be made into a movie starring Hrithik Roshan). But traditionally, the sexy ripped muscle hermit/householder with the complicated love life and great love-making skills respects and turns in moments of trouble to the all powerful Sustainer, Vishnu.
Vishnu, or the sustainer of life, has a lot less appeal in this age of villainousness than Shiva. However he is the fount of all creativity and therefore I can't write this blog without writing about him before I get to any other God or equally importantly, his avtars. But his supremacy is also attested by his victories over those very powerful entities who are themselves devotees of other Gods such as Brahma or Shiva and unlike Brahma or Shiva, you never hear of Vishnu losing a battle or being outwitted by a devotee. Instead, Vishnu takes various avtars to slay or defeat those demons blessed by other Gods. And finally, Vishnu never grants a wish to evil beings. In fact, there's iconography that Vishnu in a reclining position as Brahma emerges from his navel. Since the Bhagavata Purana's state that Shiva is the Son of Brahma, it places the Trio in an interesting relationship. Even a section in the Mahabharata declares Vishnu as Paramatman (the supreme soul) and Parameshwara (supreme God). It describes Vishnu as the all-pervading essence of all beings.
|A 4th–6th century CE Sardonyx seal representing Vishnu with a worshipper. The inscription in cursive Bactrian reads: "Mihira, Vishnu (left) and Shiva"|
|Vishnu (Beikthano in Burmese) on his mount, the garuda, in the traditional Burmese depiction.|
|An image from the personal temple of King Chandra Gupta II (ruled 376-415 C.E.) of a five-foot (or so) tall statue of Vishnu's Boar Avatar (here show rescuing the Earth, who is hanging on his tusk), from Udayagiri Caves.|
- A crown adorns his head: The crown symbolizes his supreme authority. This crown sometimes includes a peacock feather, borrowing from his Krishna avatar.
- He wears two earrings: The earrings represent inherent opposites in creation — knowledge and ignorance; happiness and unhappiness; pleasure and pain.
- The srivatsa mark on his chest (lock of golden hair) represents the source of the natural world and the auspicious "Kaustubha" jewel, representing consciousness, is around his neck.Lakshmi dwells in this jewel, on Vishnu's chest. The garland of victory (Vaijayanti or Vanamala ) worn around his neck is made of either five rows of fragrant flowers or five rows of jewels representing the five spheres of the senses.
- Lord Vishnu wears ear-rings shaped like sea monsters, the makara, and they represent the two methods of knowledge, the intellectual knowledge and the intuitive perception.
- His armlets represent the three aims of worldly life, viz., pleasure, success, righteousness.He has four arms and each holds an item: The four arms indicate his all-powerful and all-pervasive nature. His physical existence is represented by the two arms in the front, while the two arms at the back represent his presence in the spiritual world.
- The conch or Shankha of Lord Vishnu has a number of spirals evolving from one point and is the symbol of the origin of existence. The sound it creates on blowing (Om) is associated with the primeval sound from which creation developed. From this are evolved the principles of the five elements – water, fire, air, earth and sky or space. It also represents the five airs or Pranas that are within the body and mind.
- The Lotus is the symbol of eternity, plenty and good fortune. It arises from the mud and yet remains pure and clean. Even water drops stay on its leaves with difficulty and when they do so, they take the lustre of pearls which is again a quality of purity.
- The mace of Lord Vishnu is called Kaumodaki or the power of knowledge and is held by the lower right hand . Knowledge is the essence of life from which all physical and mental powers are derived. Except time, nothing else can conquer knowledge. As such, the mace is identified with Kali, the goddess who has the power over time and destroys all those who oppose it.
- The chakra, a sharp-spinning discus-like weapon, named "Sudarshana", is held by the upper right hand. It symbolizes the purified spiritualized mind. The name Sudarshana is derived from two words – Su, which means good, superior, and Darshan, which means vision or Sight; together, it is "Superior Vision". The chakra represents destruction of ego in the awakening and realization of the soul's original nature and god, burning away spiritual ignorance and illusion, and developing higher spiritual vision and insight to realize God.
- The Bow, The Arrow & The Quiver:The bow of Lord Vishnu called Sharnga represents the destructive aspect associated with the disintegrating tendency and is the origin of senses. It is called the divine power of illusion. The arrows are the senses which represent the field of activity of the intellect, and the quiver is the storehouse of actions.
|Vishnu Vaikuntha, 9th century AD.|
Place of Origin: Kashmir
National Museum, Delhi
Vishnu Vaikuntha literally means 'Vishnu Cohesion' and is a part of the Kashmiri Vaishnava cult. The initial Vishnu Vaikuntha images, reported from the 4th century Gupta period, are three-headed. The fourth was added in about 8th century in Kashmir under its own Vaishnava cult. Its name Kapila is sometimes linked with sage Kapila, who is sometimes considered one of Vishnu's incarnations. Vishnu's cohesive form, the three visible heads of Vishnu Vaikuntha stand for all three classes of living beings: man, animal and semi-man (suggestive of supernatural, mythical and divine beings and can include gods and all spiritual beings). The invisible fourth head stands for the entire manifest and unmanifest universe. The Vishnu Dharmottara Purana, the earliest text that alludes to this form, perceives Vishnu Vaikuntha as the metaphysical Vaishnava principle, and not a mythical or legendary figure at all.
The interesting thing about Vishnu is how he has been literally reinvented to stay relevant to every age. Also, to me, the outstanding factor is the anarchy that his avtars have displayed. He's said to have 10 avtars and they incorporate every god that has relevance today from Rama, Krishna and Budhha to the yet to emerge Kalki. Equally, while these three avtars were born kings, his avtars have included Brahmin and King killers like Parshuram and Narasingha. The chronology of avtars has definite overtones of Darwin's theory of evolution and evolved from sea faring fish to amphibian to animal to a half man-half animal to man. It's also moved from simple to more and more complicated persona and increasingly represented the sidelined communities. If it helps, his tenth avtar, Kalki, is supposed to be arriving soon. The name Kalki is a metaphor for eternity or time. Its origins may lie in the Sanskrit word kalka which means foulness or filth. Hence, the name translates to the 'destroyer of foulness,' 'destroyer of darkness," or 'destroyer of ignorance.' and will end the Kalyug or the age of evil that we live in.
It's nice to know that there's hope out there still. After all, the Supreme Creator has promised us personal deliverance from the Age of Politicians.