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.
|The Holy Trinity|
However, like Roman and Greek mythological histories, we've got three main gods in the Hindu triumvirate - Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh or The Creator, Preserver and Destroyer.
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 worshiper. The inscription in cursive Bactrian reads: "Mihira, Vishnu (left) and Shiva"|
Hinduism in India has 3 strong overall sects - Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktiism. Although their names were mentioned in the Vedas, both Vishnu and Shiva played relatively minor roles, but by the time of the Brahmanas,(the commentaries on the four Vedas), both were gaining ascendancy. By the Puranic period, both deities had major sects of devotees. Many of the ancient kings, beginning with Chandragupta II (Vikramaditya) (375-413 CE) were devotees. It flourished in predominantly Shaivite South India during the seventh to tenth centuries CE, and is still commonplace, especially in Tamil Nadu, as a result of the twelve Alvars, saints who spread the sect to the common people with their devotional hymns. The temples which the Alvars visited or founded are now known as Divya Desams. Their poems in praise of Vishnu and Krishna in Tamil language are collectively known as Naalayira (Divya Prabandha). In later years Vaishnava practices increased in popularity due to the influence of sages like Ramanujacharya, Surdas, Tulsidas, Eknath, Tyagaraja, and many others. Large Vaishnava communities now exist throughout India, and particularly in Western Indian states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. And since the 1900s, the ISKCON (Hare Rama Hare Krishna) movement has taken Vaishnavism to America, Europe, Africa, Russia and South America. Important sites of pilgrimage for Vaishnavs include: Guruvayur Temple, Sri Rangam, Vrindavan, Mathura, Ayodhya, Tirupati, Pandharpur, Puri, Mayapur, Nathdwara and Dwarka.
And like other Indian religions before and after, it incorporated and in turn has been incorporated into other religions like Krishnaism, Budhhism and Bahai'ism (more on that soon).
The iconography that surrounds Vishnu is also interesting. In general, Vishnu's body is depicted in one of three ways: either standing on a lotus flower, with his consort Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth, prosperity (both material and spiritual), fortune, and the embodiment of beauty) beside him on a similar pedestal or reclining on the "Kshira Sagar" (ocean of milk) on the coiled-up thousand-hooded Shesha Naga, with Lakshmi seated at his feet and Brahma seated on a lotus that grows out of Vishnu's navel. The third way he's picturised is riding on the back of his eagle mount, known as Garuda.
Like all the consorts, Lakshmi or Mahalakshmi is another manifestation of the Devi in her universal form of Shakti. She's often seen in two forms, although both combine to form Lakshmi. Bhudevi and Sridevi are both seated on either side of Sri Venkateshwara or Vishnu. Bhudevi is the representation of the material world or energy or Mother Earth while Sridevi is the spiritual world or energy.
Lakshmi is the embodiment of love, therefore it's through Love/Bhakti or Lakshmi that the atma or soul is able to reach God or Vishnu. She also plays a special role as the mediator between her husband Lord Vishnu and his devotees since she represents a more soothing, kind, warm and approachable mother figure who willingly intervenes in the lives of devotees. Lakshmi is also seen as the embodiment of God's superior spiritual feminine energy that purifies, empowers and uplifts the individual. Hence, she is called the Goddess of Fortune. Since her followers believe that she's the source of his power, they believe that without her, Vishnu will lose his power to preserve. She also embodies the spiritual world, also known as Vaikunta, the abode of Lakshmi-Narayana or Vishnu, or what would be considered Heaven in Vaishnavism.
Vishnu's vehicle is the eagle, Garuda. Another name for Garuda is 'Veda atma' or the Soul of the Vedas. The flapping of his wings symbolizes the power of the Divine Truth of Vedic wisdom. Also the eagle represents the soul. Garuda carrying Vishnu symbolizes the soul that carries the Super soul or Param atma within it.
Vishnu is also seen lying on the Anant Sheshnaag. In Hindu (post-Vedic) tradition, Shesha is the king of all Nagas, one of the primal beings of creation, and according to the Bhagavata Purana, an avatar of Vishnu. In the Puranas, Sheshanaga is said to hold all the planets of the Universe on his hoods and to constantly sing the glories of Vishnu from all his mouths. It is said that when Adishesa uncoils, time moves forward and creation takes place. When he coils back, the universe ceases to exist, therefore Vishnu is always seen on an awake Snake while Shiva's iconography shows a sleeping snake.
And while Sheshanaga is also considered a servant of as well as a manifestation of Lord Maha Vishnu, he's also said to have descended to Earth in four human forms or avatars: Lakshmana, the brother of Lord Sri Rama, Balarama, the brother of Lord Sri Krishna, Ramanuja and Manavala Mamunigal.
According to various Puranas, theres a strict iconography that governs his representations in pictures, icons, or idols: He's always represented as being black or more poetically, the divine blue colour of water-filled clouds. His attributes are also shown in specific colours. For instance, his bird vehicle Garuda is white ; the mace is black; Lakshmi the consort of Lord Vishnu is golden in colour; the discus is like the Sun; the jewel Kaustubha is the colour of dawn; Shrivatsa, the lock of hair on his chest, is the colour of the jasmine flowers; the conch is the colour of the full moon; the garland has five colours; the arrows are like lightning, and the snake is depicted like a cloud. The deity is always depicted wearing a thin yellow dhoti called Pitambara which drapes round the hips through which the dark body of the god shines. Pitambara represents the Vedas, and the body is the divine reality shining through the sacred utterances of the Vedas.
- 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.
Lord Vishnu and Lakshmi's realm is called Vaikuntha or Paramdhama, the realm of eternal bliss and happiness and the place of rest for liberated souls who have attained Moksha. Vaikuntha is situated beyond the material universe and hence, cannot be perceived or measured by material science or logic.
Vishnu's other abode within the material universe is Ksheera Sagara (the ocean of milk), where he reclines and rests on Ananta Sheshanag. It is the topmost realm in the material universe, even higher than Satyaloka where Brahma resides.
|Vishnu Vaikuntha, 9th century AD.|
Place of Origin: Kashmir
National Museum, Delhi
A recurring motif in the tales of Vishnu's avatars is them defeating evil and chaos, and reestablishing order and balance in the universe. For example, the very rare, queerly conceived and exceptionally ornate bronze image of Vishnu Vaikuntha from 9th Century, Kashmir shows Vishnu with four heads, three visible and at the back. The central one is his human form, Vasudeva, while the one on the right represents Narasimha - Sankarshana: half man and half animal, and the third on the left, the Boar avtar or Aniruddha. The fourth unseen is known as the Pradumnya: Kapila head, Vishnu's 'raudra' or wrathful form. The image has been installed on a high rectangular pedestal provided with a drain-pipe for draining out the liquids offered to the deity.
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.