Tag Archives: Agni

Vishnu – Dwadashanamas – Part One


(1) Vishnu in the Vaishnava tradition is the Supreme God; the all-pervading essence of all beings; and, one who supports, sustains and governs the Universe. And, yet it would be rather incorrect to regard Vishnu as a single deity standing all by itself. Vishnu is the culmination or convergence of several gods; and, is , in fact, a comprehensive manifestation of numerous gods.

(2) The saga of Vishnu’s evolution, expansion and his ultimate supremacy is truly fascinating.

In the early Rig Veda he is one of the lesser gods; and he soon evolves, expands in the Vishnu Sukta, where he transcends into a brilliantly shining divine being that pervades and protects all existence. The virtues and powers of major Vedic gods Indra, Surya and Soma merge into Vishnu. By extension, Agni who is a form of Surya; Vishwakarma (maker of all things) who too is regarded a form of Surya (yenemā viśvā bhuvanāny ābhṛtā viśvakarmaṇā viśva-devyāvatā- RV_10,170.04); and, Vayu the complement of Indra all merge into Vishnu. They all are identified with Vishnu; and come to be known as forms of Vishnu.

The Brahmana texts elevate Vishnu to far greater heights. Here Vishnu is celebrated as the supreme god into whom all gods including the very symbol of Vedic spirit Agni merge. Vishnu is regarded the source of all gods; all other gods derive their glory and splendour from Vishnu; and are emanations of his expressions.

(3) In the later texts, the ancient divinities like Narayana merge into Vishnu; and become indistinguishable from Vishnu. Towards the end of Mahabharata, Vasudeva-Krishna joins the stream and is regarded as Vishnu. Then there is the transcendental aspect of Vishnu as Para-Vasudeva. That is followed by the prominent members of vrishni yadava clan (vyuha) – Krishna’s brother, son and grandson- as also their subdivisions , all regarded as various aspects of Vishnu. True to his name, Vishnu enlarged infinitely (vyapad vishnuhuh). 

The Puranas and the texts of the Bhakti-cult wove elaborate and highly creative legends glorifying the Supremacy of Vishnu and rejoicing his countless manifestations, avatars. In the later ages, gods such as Srinivasa, Venkateswara, Ranganatha, Padmanabha, Satyanarayana and other were all regarded not merely as forms of Vishnu, each with certain special affiliations, but as Vishnu himself.

Around these major forms of Vishnu, whole pantheon of minor and supporting deities took form; each assigned a specific aspect of Vishnu.

(4) Thus, like the proverbial inverted- tree with its roots in the air; and its branches and sub-branches spreading, flourishing elaborately downwards, the all encompassing Vishnu branched out, expanded and permeated the entire universe with his limitless expressions. All things merge in him; and all things emanate from him.

The awe-inspiring Vishva-roopa spectacle presented in Bhagavad-Gita is a colossal demonstration of the same principle.

(5) When we talk of Vishnu, we do not refer to a single deity but to Vishnu-tatva the all encompassing core-principle, the ever flowing stream of bliss (rasa) that pervades all existence.

A. Vishnu

In Rig Veda

1.1. Vishnu in the early Rig Veda is one of the thirty-three Devas; and, is classified among gods of celestial region (dyu-sthana devatha) along with Varuna, Savitar and Pushan. Just about five or six suktas are devoted to him. He is ranked among the lesser- gods but is associated with the major god Indra.  In early texts, Vishnu is not one of the seven solar deities (Adithya-s), but later he becomes their chief.

1.2. He is described as a young and a handsome person with a huge and a lustrous body (brhat sarirah yasya sah – RV 1.155.06) He resembles Surya and has rays in his appearance. He has big-feet (urugaaya) and moves in huge strides (uru-krama). He lives and wanders in the mountains (girisha, giristhah) just as a mighty lion that lives  and roams atop a forested hill. He is ever active, full of youth (yuva) and energy. But, he is not flippant or childish (akumarah)

(bṛhaccharīro vimimāna ṛkvabhir yuvā-akumāraḥ praty ety āhavam  – RV 1.155.06)

1.3. Vishnu initially had a lower position to that of Indra. He is Indranuja and Upendra, the younger brother of Indra. He is also the close friend of Indra (Indrasya yujyah sakhah) (RV 1,022.2); and often partakes Soma drink in the company of Indra. Vishnu helped Indra in vanquishing Vrtra and in destroying ninety-nine fort-cities of Shambara

..(indrāviṣṇū dṛṃhitāḥ śambarasya nava puro navatiṃ ca śnathiṣṭamRV 7.99.5).

1.4. The six riks forming the first portion of the Vishnu Sukta (RV 1.154) are most significant in the evolution; and the ever expanding glory and splendor of Vishnu. The significance of this Sukta is enormous. The Sukta not only sets up the identity of Vishnu with Surya the sun but also goes beyond to state that Vishnu is the very source of all gods and the savior of all existence.

RV_1,154.01a viṣṇor nu kaṃ vīryāṇi pra vocaṃ yaḥ pārthivāni vimame rajāṃsi |
RV_1,154.01c yo askabhāyad uttaraṃ sadhasthaṃ vicakramāṇas tredhorugāyaḥ ||
RV_1,154.02a pra tad viṣṇu stavate vīryeṇa mṛgo na bhīmaḥ kucaro giriṣṭhāḥ |
RV_1,154.02c yasyoruṣu triṣu vikramaṇeṣv adhikṣiyanti bhuvanāni viśvā ||
RV_1,154.03a pra viṣṇave śūṣam etu manma girikṣita urugāyāya vṛṣṇe |
RV_1,154.03c ya idaṃ dīrgham prayataṃ sadhastham eko vimame tribhir it padebhiḥ ||
RV_1,154.04a yasya trī pūrṇā madhunā padāny akṣīyamāṇā svadhayā madanti |
RV_1,154.04c ya u tridhātu pṛthivīm uta dyām eko dādhāra bhuvanāni viśvā ||
RV_1,154.05a tad asya priyam abhi pātho aśyāṃ naro yatra devayavo madanti |
RV_1,154.05c urukramasya sa hi bandhur itthā viṣṇoḥ pade parame madhva utsaḥ ||
RV_1,154.06a tā vāṃ vāstūny uśmasi gamadhyai yatra gāvo bhūriśṛṅgā ayāsaḥ |
RV_1,154.06c atrāha tad urugāyasya vṛṣṇaḥ paramam padam ava bhāti bhūri ||

The essential nature of Vishnu, as he evolves rapidly in Vishnu Sukta of Rig Veda, is his association with light, brilliance and his omnipresence.


1.5. The first six riks of Vishnu Sukta (RV 1.154) revealed to sage  Medhātithi son of sage Kanva is the first Sukta in Rig Veda to be addressed entirely to Vishnu.

The Sukta   describes with awe and wonder the most celebrated three strides (Tri vikramana) of Vishnu (idam vishnum vichakrame). It said that the first and second of Vishnu’s strides (those encompassing the earth and air) were visible and the third was in the heights of heaven (space) (RV 1.155.1).This last stride is described as Vishnu’s supreme abode (paramam padam)   which only the enlightened (Suri) behold in their hearts, like the brilliantly shining sky. With those three great strides Vishnu came to be addressed as Tri-vikrama and as Uru-krama.

RV_1,022.17a idaṃ viṣṇur vi cakrame tredhā ni dadhe padam |
RV_1,022.17c samūḷham asya pāṃsure ||
RV_1,022.18a trīṇi padā vi cakrame viṣṇur gopā adābhyaḥ |
RV_1,022.18c ato dharmāṇi dhārayan ||
RV_1,022.19a viṣṇoḥ karmāṇi paśyata yato vratāni paspaśe |
RV_1,022.19c indrasya yujyaḥ sakhā ||
RV_1,022.20a tad viṣṇoḥ paramam padaṃ sadā paśyanti sūrayaḥ |
RV_1,022.20c divīva cakṣur ātatam ||
RV_1,022.21a tad viprāso vipanyavo jāgṛvāṃsaḥ sam indhate |
RV_1,022.21c viṣṇor yat paramam padam ||

1.6. There are several interpretations to these three colossal strides of Vishnu. To start with, Vishnu is identified with Surya; and the strides are the path traversed by sun in morning (samarohana), noon (Vishnu pada) and evening (gayasiras). The three strides are also said to represent the three realms of earth (bhu), mid-air (bhuvah) and outer- space (suvah); as also wakefulness, dream and sleep. Vishnu, with these strides, is also said to have recovered for the Devas the worlds we see (iman lokan); the Vedic corpus; and the very speech system.

vishnu as surya2

1.7. Yaska-charya while commenting  on the line “idam visnur vicakrame tredhā. ni.dadhe padam.samūḷham asya pāṃsure”, opines, when Surya shines forth with the brilliance of his rays he becomes Vishnu.

12,19: “ā.ni.dadhe.padam.samūḷham.asya.pāṃsure/”.
12,19: tridhā.nidhatte.padam/
12,19: tredhā.bhāvāya.pṛthivī.ām.antarikṣe.divi.iti.śākapūnih/
12,19: samārohane.visnu.pade.gaya.śirasi.ity.aurṇavābhah/
12,19: samūḷham.asya.pāṃsure.pyāyane’antarikṣṛśyate/
12,19: api.vā.upamā.arthe.syāt.samūḷham.asya.pāṃṛśyata.iti/
12,19: pāṃsu1p.pādaiḥ.sūyanta.iti.vā,.pannāḥ.śerata.iti.vā,.piṃśanīyā.bhavanti.iti.vā/

Yaska_charya in his glossary Nirukta (12, 19) concurs with the argument of two of his predecessors- Sakapuni and Aurnavabha- the three strides of Vishnu could refer to the three realms of earth, the mid-region and the heavens traversed by Surya. He says the three regions represent the three forms of Surya – as fire on earth (prithviagni), the lightening (vidyut) in the mid-region and as the burning energy (Surya) in the heavens.

1.8. Yaska-charya says that with the first step Vishnu pervades all creation through his energy; with the second he enters all creation by light; and with the third he encompasses all things and beings.   He concludes that since Surya pervades (vashir, vyapta), enters (praveshena)   and encompasses (vivis) all the three regions with his splendor and energy, he indeed is Vishnu. The realms are his manifestations when Vishnu is called Surya.

1.9. Another hymn (1-155-6) of Rig Veda suggests Vishnu set in motion the wheel of time (kaala chakra), consisting ninety-four elements : Samvathsara (year-1);Aayana (Half-year: 2);Ritu (seasons -5); Maasa (months-12); Paksha (fortnights-24);Aho-ratri (solar days-30);Yama( roughly hours or parts of the day- 8); and Lagnas in each day(12).  

caturbhiḥ sākaṃ navatiṃ ca nāmabhiś cakraṃ na vṛttaṃ vyatīṃr avīvipat |
bṛhaccharīro vimimāna ṛkvabhir yuvākumāraḥ praty ety āhavam

The chakra in the hands of Vishnu is also regarded as the solar splendor (RV 5,063.04). It also denotes the cyclical nature of time (sūryo jyotiś carati citram āyudham).

With the identification of Vishnu with Surya, Vishnu is hailed as the soul (atman) of the universe. The virtues and powers of Surya merged with that of Vishnu.

1.10. Though Vishnu was identified with Surya, the sun, his movement across the space was both vertical and horizontal. The second mantra of the ‘Vishnu Sukta‘ says that the three enormous strides of Vishnu created space; empowered gods to secure and permeate all the three realms; and with that all the regions of the universe dwell in peace. It also enabled habitation of earth by human beings (bhuvaneṣu jīvase | RV. 9.86.38).

This all enveloping nature and benevolence towards all existence became in the later texts the substance for enlarging upon the enduring and endearing attributes of Vishnu.

1.11. A mantra in Rig Veda (indraś ca viṣṇo yad apaspṛdhethāṃ tredhā sahasraṃ vi tad airayethāmRV_6,069.08) says that Vishnu along with Indra took the famous three strides for the sake of all beings. Even elsewhere in Rig Veda, Indra, Indra-Vishnu, Vishnu are all used together, suggesting Indra and Vishnu are one. In this process, Vishnu, in place of Indra, became the lord of the universe. The attributes and titles that once applied to Indra were transferred to Vishnu. Not merely that; Indra-nila azure sky-blue as that of sapphire or emerald associated with Indra the lord of blue-sky and of dark clouds , now became the body-color of Vishnu . Indra is called Hari and Vishnu is Upendra.

In the later legends of the Puranas and Epics, Nara and Narayana; Arjuna and Vasudeva-Krishna preserve the old association between Indra and Vishnu. Accordingly, in the Mahabharata, while Krishna is the representation of Narayana; Arjuna , the Nara, is the spark (Amsha) of Indra. 

In a similar manner, with the fall of the mighty Varuna, the first of the Great Kings, his kingship initially passes on to Indra while his spiritual powers are inherited by Prajapathi. In the next phase, Vishnu and Prajapathi together inherit Varuna’s glory and majesty. The powers and attributes that were once associated with Varuna are divided into two distinct spheres; Vishnu the power of creation and encompassing all existence; and, Prajapathi the symbolic spiritual power. In the Brahmana texts both Vishnu and Prajapathi are identified with Yajna.

Indra too had a brief span of life as the premier god; and he did not become a Supreme God. Instead, he had to yield place to another god. Eventually, Indra surrenders to Vishnu the newly emerging super- god; and bequeaths to him most of his powers and virtues. Similarly Prajapathi who was not endowed with any other special powers pales into insignificance just as his two predecessors – Varuna and Dayus. Prajapathi loses his power and authority over creation, sustenance and ordered existence to Vishnu. Prajapathi merges into Vishnu just as the other gods

As regards Agni and other gods : Agni is the devatha of earth-realm (bhu), Indra is of the mid regions (bhuvar) and Surya is celestial realms (suvah); and Vishnu as tripat   (pervade three regions) encompasses all the three. Vishnu is thus said to symbolize the essence (rasa) of all existence.

By extension, Agni who is a form of Surya; Visvakarma (maker of all things) who too is regarded a form of Surya (yenemā viśvā bhuvanāny ābhṛtā viśvakarmaṇā viśvadevyāvatāRV_10,170.04), and Vayu the complement of Indra all merge into Vishnu. They all are identified with Vishnu; and come to be known as forms of Vishnu.

In a similar move, along with Agni , Soma  too was identified with Vishnu  .

Vishnu (until then a minor god)   emerges as the all compassing god, the god of all gods.  The virtuous attributes and powers of all other gods are transferred to the incomparable God Vishnu. Into Vishnu all the gods merge; and in him they find their identities.

Thus , by the end of Rig Veda,its until then major gods such as Varuna, Prajapathi, Surya, Indra and Soma all merged  into Vishnu. Eventually, it is Vishnu (neither Varuna; nor Prajapathi; nor  Indra; nor Agni; nor Soma) that is revered as the omniscient and omnipresent Godhead; he is ‘ashrutkarna’ ‘whose ears hear all things; and Svayambhuva – Self-existent or Self manifested.

1.12. There are sufficient indications in the Rig Veda and Vishnu Sukta in particular about the virtues of Vishnu: his compassion, being the savior of all existence, the protector of those in distress, his powers, valor etc (RV 6: 49; 13; 7: 100, 1; 155). He is also hailed as the protector of the fetus (bruna), bestower of progeny (RV 7:36), friend (bandhu) of the good people (1. 154.5), a compassionate protector (3, 55, 10) etc.

His all-enveloping nature and benevolence towards all existence were expanded and glorified in the later texts. Vishnu’s three great strides and his act of rescuing the Devas, their lore, their values etc inspired the development of series of avatars. The puranas enlarged upon the enduring and endearing attributes of Vishnu. The legends of the Vamana- King Bali; and the celestial Boar were woven around the hymns of Vishnu Sukta.

Vamana as trivikrama

1.12. Yaska_charya explains, the term Vishnu is derived from the root “vishair” which brings forth the sense of pervasion (paryaptha). Vishnu literally means that which pervades (vyapad vishnuhuh). He explains, the essence of the term Vishnu is its brilliance, universal pervasion and omnipresence. That essential nature of Vishnu is brought forth through several expressions: Vishnu is ‘Vishnu vishateh ‘ one who enters everywhere; he is veveshti vyapnoti vishvam yah, the one who enters and covers the whole universe, or is omnipresent; and ‘yad vishito bhavati tad vishnurbhavati, that which is free from fetters and bondages is Vishnu.’ In other words, Vishnu is not limited by space, time or substance. The Vishnu Sukta thus elevates Vishnu to sublime heights and regards him as the omnipresent dimension of the Supreme Lord.

1.13. With that, Vishnu at once emerged as the omnipresent divine-principle supporting and sustaining all the realms (bhuvanani vishvah); and as the spiritual source of the highest order. The Vedic seers urge the aspirants to celebrate the glory and magnificence of Vishnu the friend (bandhu) who is praised widely (urugaya). Vishnu, they say, is the ever flowing stream of bliss; and pray to him for spiritual enlightenment and bliss. For, though Vishnu is cosmic in nature, he dwells (jivase) in each being as its essence, spirit and strength (RV 1.155.04)

yasya̱ trī pū̱rṇā madhu̍nā pa̱dānyakṣī̍yamāṇā sva̱dhayā̱ mada̍nti |

ya u̍ tri̱dhātu̍ pṛthi̱vīmu̱ta dyāmeko̍ dā̱dhāra̱ bhuva̍nāni̱ viśvā̍ || 1.154.04

Behold the glorious achievements of Vishnu, who is the close friend of Indra and who established a cosmic order for protection of all beings in all the realms (RV 1.154.4)

tada̍sya pri̱yama̱bhi pātho̍ aśyā̱ṁ naro̱ yatra̍ deva̱yavo̱ mada̍nti |

u̱ru̱kra̱masya̱ sa hi bandhu̍ri̱tthā viṣṇo̍ḥ pa̱de pa̍ra̱me madhva̱ utsa̍ḥ ||1.154.05

May I attain his favorite path in which god – seeking men delight – (the path) of Vishnu with giant strides, in whose exalted station is a (perpetual) flow of felicity – for he is truly a friend (to all).’  (RV: 1.154.5)

design star

1.14. Thus, by the end of Rig Veda, Vishnu swiftly and gracefully strode across, evolved into the ever flowing stream of bliss, the very essence that protects and pervades all existence with its brilliance.

In the Brahmanas

2.1. Vishnu is elevated to far greater heights in the Brahmana texts.

The Brahmanas are centered on the yajna. The Taittiriya and Aitareya Brahmanas hail Vishnu as the Yajna-purusha and identify him with yajna (yajno vai Vishnuhuh) — (Aita.Br: 1.15.4), (Tait.Br: 2.1.83), (Satha,Pata.Br 1,1,3,1), (Pancha Vim.Br. . He is the protector and preserver of the Yajna (TB He is the Yajna pathi (master of the Yajna) whom all the sacrifices are meant to please.

2.2. It is said the Devas derive their power (shakthi), pervasion (vyapthi) and position (pada) from Vishnu, as he is the very source of all gods. He is the Supreme God (AB: 1:1:1).

2.3. Devas gained the realm of earth, thanks to the prowess of Vishnu and therefore Aitareya Brahmana (1.30.19) declares Vishnu as the guardian and protector of the gods (devanam dvarapah). Vishnu  is the face (Vishnu mukhah vai devaha) and the comprehensive image of all gods (vishnur sarva devatah).

2.4. While Vishnu is Aditya (Sun), the gods are his brilliant rays. It is said the primary meaning of the term Deva “to shine” (div to shine divyati) was thus derived.

2.5. Satapatha Brahmana (14, 1, 1 . 5) declares Vishnu as the best and the foremost (sresta) among all the gods .

(tadviṣṇuḥ prathamaḥ prāpa sa devānāṃ śreṣṭho’bhavat tasmādāhur viṣṇurdevānāṃ  śreṣṭha iti).

According to Kapishthala -Katha-samhita, Agni is to be located ; and worshiped as Vishnu. 

Aitareya Brahmana (1:1:1) praises Vishnu as the greatest or oldest god (parama), higher than Indra and higher than Agni , the least or the youngest among gods (avama). All other gods are ranked in between (tadantarena sarva anya devata) – 

Agnir vai devānām avamo Viṣṇuḥ paramas, tadantareṇa sarvā anyā devatā

This is an astounding statement.

Agni, in Rig Veda, occupied a very special position. The Rig Veda opens with a rik in salutation to Agni (agnimīḷe purohitaṃ yajñasya devam ṛtvijam | … RV. 1.1.1). Agni is not merely the principal deity, he is also the chief priest  (pāñcajanyaḥ purohitaḥ) who conducts the yajna; he is the mantra; he is the yajna (tam īmahe mahā-gayam); he is the offering; he is the one that receives the offerings. Airareya Brahmana (1,1) hails Agni as the first among the gods (Agnirve Devo prathamaha).

The Rig Veda often refers to Agni as the Rishi (agnir ṛṣiḥ pavamānaḥRV.9.66.20); the first and the foremost among the Rishis (tvam agne prathamo aṅgirā ṛṣir1.31.1; ṛṣiḥ śreṣṭhaḥ – 3.21.3); he is the knower-of everything (agne kaviḥ kāvyenāsi viśvavit10.91.3); and, the one that pervades all life and existence . He is the enjoyer, devour (sarva baksha), digester, heat, lust and passion. He spreads, takes over and rules. Agni is the fire of life, the subtle energy in all beings and the fire of inner awakening. He is the symbol of life, wisdom, knowledge, compassion and lordship.  Agni is the symbol of Paramatman and all the other gods are different aspects or manifestations of Agni.He is the Vedic symbol of the Supreme.

Similarly, Indra is the most prominent god in Rig Veda. He is the first among the gods and is described as “Yo jata eva prathamo manasvan – RV_2,012.01” he who from his very birth is the first among the Devas, the lord of the universe etc. More hymns are addressed to Indra than to any other deity in the Rig Veda, with the exception of Agni. For; he was revered for his beneficent character, as the bestower of rain and the cause of fertility. He was feared as the awful ruler of the storm and wielder of lightning and thunder.

Considering the Brahmanas’ preoccupation is with the Yajna, it is surprising Agni was relegated to such low position in those texts. There is no explanation anywhere how or why such an amazing turn – around came about. From then on Vishnu is regarded the Supreme Lord of the universe.

In the Upanishads

3.1. The Kathopanishad regarded as one among the major ten Upanishads states that the final destination of one’s spiritual journey is the abode of Vishnu  he who holds the reins of the mind, he reaches the end of his journey, and that is the highest place of Vishnu.

vijñāna-sārathir yas tu manaḥ pragrahavān naraḥ / so ‘dhvanaḥ pāram āpnoti tad viṣṇoḥ paramaṃ padam // KaU_3.9 //

The other Upanishads like Maitri Upanishad regarded Vishnu as the Supreme Being.

3.2. It appears; therefore, by the time of later Upanishads Vishnu was regarded the highest divinity, the core-principle of existence and the very purpose of spiritual pursuit.

3.3 . By the time of Amarakosa almost all the gods and divine beings had merged into Vishnu-tattva. The Amara has as many as forty-six synonyms for Vishnu.

(1.1.37) viṣṇur nārāyaṇaḥ kṛṣṇo vaikuṇṭho viṣṭaraśravāḥ
(1.1.38) dāmodaro hṛṣīkeśaḥ keśavo mādhavaḥ svabhūḥ
(1.1.39) daityāriḥ puṇḍarīkākṣo govindo garuḍadhvajaḥ
(1.1.40) pītāmbaro ‘cyutaḥ śārṅgī viṣvakseno janārdanaḥ
(1.1.41) upendra indrāvarajaścakrapāṇiścaturbhujaḥ
(1.1.42) padmanābho madhuripur vāsudevas trivikramaḥ
(1.1.43) devakīnandanaḥ śauriḥ śrīpatiḥ puruṣottamaḥ
(1.1.44) vanamālī balidhvaṃsī kaṃsārātir adhokṣajaḥ
(1.1.45) viśvambharaḥ kaiṭabhajidvidhuḥ śrīvatsa lāñchanaḥ
(1.1.46) purāṇapuruṣo yajñapuruṣo narakāntakaḥ
(1.1.47) jalaśāyī  viśvarūpo  mukundo muramardanaḥ

floral design3

Only those Vedic gods whose characters were not explicitly known, and who offered significant traits to be developed into rich and complex mythology survived and flourished. For instance; Vishnu and Rudra were minor gods, but their profile indicated traits which could be expanded and enriched veraciously. Let’s take the case of Vishnu; he had the nucleus of ‘tri-pada-vikrama’ the collasal figure measuring the universe with his three enormous strides; his solar nature; lustrous body; his friendship with Indra; vague references to his unparallel valor;– all these were excellent material for developing him into concrete mythological supreme god…From Indra he imbibed the demon-killing valor; from Surya and Savitr the brilliance and sheen associated with gold; from Mitra the kindly  , compassionate and benevolent attitudes towards all existence; and , from Bhaga the fortune bestowing generosity. From solar gods in general he inherited associations with Devayana; and consequently his roles as a savior……The component Vedic gods disappear one after another, after bequeathing their virtues to their successor. They last only so long as their living trait remains relevant to the spiritual needs or material aspirations of the society. “

Excerpts from ‘The Indian Theogony’ by Dr. Sukumari Bahttacharji (Cambridge University Press, 1970)

Yoga Narayana Vishnu

Continued in

Part Two

  Narayana, Krishna and  Para-Vasudeva 


— Trivikrama

(i) The Rig Veda does not of course offer the iconographic details of Trivikrama. Those forms and details were evolved at a much later period. There are numerous forms of Trivikrama depictions. In the puranas, the gigantic Trivikrama image got entwined with the legend of the dwarfish Vamana. The Vaikhanasa-agama (ch.58) offers a detailed account of Trivikrama measuring out the three realms. He is depicted in three variations:

(i) with left-leg lifted up to the level of the knee of the right leg (which is placed firmly on the ground) to signify act of measuring the earth;(2) left leg lifted up to the level of the navel (nabhi) to signify occupation of the mid-regions; and, (3) left leg raised to the level of forehead, to signify occupation of celestial regions and beyond. The images of Trivikrama are to be scaled in superior (uttama) dasa-tala measure.

(ii) Sometimes, Trivikrama is depicted with  six  arms ; and also with  two or four arms (as in Badami caves); or with eight arms (as in Mamallapuram) holding a variety of ayudhas. But there is no uniformity among the texts about the ayudhas.


(iii)According to Vishnudharmattara (85; 55-77) the face must be lifted up to blow the conch held in two hands; and the eyes must be wide open. The other hands should carry cudgel (danda), noose (pasha), discus (chakra), mace (gadha), sword (khadga) and lotus (padma).The well known image of Trivikrama at Mamallapuram carries a different set of ayudhas, such as bow, arrow, shield etc along with the usual ones.

(iv) Trivikrama, as a form of Vishnu, is usually visualized in dark complexion, like that of a ‘water bearing cloud’ wearing a red garment. At times, his body is depicted in red color. He is richly ornamented. His huge form must evoke awe , reverence and wonder in the hearts of the viewers.

Vamana holding an umbrella as also king Bali and several deities are shown separately in the same panel.

— Vishnu

(i) As mentioned earlier, there are no specific indications in the Rig Veda about the iconographic features of Vishnu. The Vishnu of Rig Veda is essentially a shining blissful spiritual source; he is yet unattached. His associations with his consort Lakshmi, Ananta sepent, water etc were all yet to come about. But centuries later most elaborate iconographic systems were developed depicting Vishnu in varieties of forms, postures and dispositions along with his entourage. Among the various texts devoted to Vishnu-iconography, the 5th century Vaishnava texts Brahmiya Chitra-karma sastram and Vishnudharmottara present graphic details of Vishnu icon. Generally, Vishnu is depicted either as standing (sthanaka), seated (asana) or lying down (sayana); and there are numerous variations in each type of depiction. The image of Vishnu is made with eight, four or two arms. (Please click here for details).

(ii) The general features of Vishnu the God of godsas depicted in texts are: His head should be in the form of an umbrella, his neck like conch, his ears like sukthi; he should have high nose, strong thighs and arms. His chest must bear Srivatsa crest symbolizing Lakshmi his divine consort; and also the foot-print of sage Brighu. He should be richly adorned with a beautiful crown, set of ear-rings, garlands of flowers (Vanamaala) and the Kaustubha gem. His complexion should be new-cloud-like-blue as of the limitless sky symbolizing his infinite nature, and he should be clad in yellow robes. His serene and gracious countenance should be lit up with blissful gentle smile uplifting the hearts of the devotees.

(iii) But usually, Vishnu is depicted with four arms representing his presence in the transactional and spiritual worlds.  The two hands on the right side display the abhaya mudra or lotus, and discus; and, his hands on the left hold the conch and mace. And, in case he is made with only two arms, then the right hand bestows peace and hope (shanthi-kara-dakshina hastha); and ,the left holds the conch. This is how the image of the Lord Vishnu is to be made for prosperity. 

When Vishnu is two armed and carries discus and mace, he is known as Loka-paala-VishnuMost of such images are believed to be of the Kushana period ( first to third century); and, are  usually small in size , easily  carried.

two armed Vishnuclitwo-armed-kushana-vishnu

(iv) Vishnudharmottara (part 44.1-21) presents a unique portrayal of the four-faced Vishnu (chatur -mukhi Vishnu). It mentions that the image of Vishnu, the god of gods, should be made with four faces and eight arms. The Eastern face (turned towards the viewer should be a peaceful (saumya) human face representing Vasudeva and the virtue (guna) of bala (power). The face to the right, the Southern face, should be Narasimha representing Sankarshana and jnana (knowledge).The face to the left , the North face, should be Varaha (the celestial boar) representing Pradyumna and aishwarya ( wealth, prosperity) . And, the face to the back, the west face,should be Kapila (raudra or ferocious) representing Aniruddha and shakthi (strength).

[According to Vaikhanasa ideology, the four aspects of Vishnu -Purusha, Satya, Achyuta and Aniruddha– are identified with Dharma (virtue), Jnana (wisdom), Aishvarya (sovereignty) and vairagya (dispassion). Of the four faces of Vishnu, Purusha is to the East; Satya to the South; Achyuta to the west; and Aniruddha to the North.  Purusha facing east is fair in complexion, wearing yellow garments.Satya to the South is collyrium (kajal) Blue hued (?)  ; wearing red garments.Achuyuta located to the west of Vishnu is golden colored; wearing dark blue garments. And Aniruddha located to the north of Vishnu is coral colored.]

Four faced Vishnu Kashmir c.10th century

There is another representation of Vishnu as Caturmurti – with four faces and four hands (not eight hands).The specimens of this type of depictions, now, are mostly in public and private museums outside India. One such Caturmurti is in   Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California, USA   ; and the other is in MuZéO collection Paris France.  Both are estimated to belong to mid 8th century; and both are from Kashmir region.


Caturmurti in a musem at LA USA   Caturmurti in a museum at Paris France

In these images, the crown on Vishnu’s head is surrounded by a large and a prominent discus (chakra) . Vishnu has placed his upper-right-hand on the head of Chakra-purusha who is short, stout and potbellied resembling a Yaksha. Similarly Vishnu’s upper-left-hand too is placed on the head of another short figure.  His normal right-hand holds a lotus, while his normal-left-hand holds a mace (perhaps). These are rare representations of Vishnu; and one hardly gets to see them in present-day India.

There are also depictions of Vishnu with ten arms holding several Ayudhas and served by Sesha , Garuda and other celestial beings

vishnu with ten arms

There is also a description of Asta-bhuja Vishnu, the Vishnu with eight arms. Of the eight hands the four on the right side must have the sword (nandaka), mace(kaumodaki), arrow and abhaya -hastha mudra of assurance and protection (the fingers raised and the palm facing the devotees); and the four hands on the left side esha and hold the bow(saranga), buckler, discus (sudarshana) and conch (panchjanya).

The same text mentions that Vishnu should be mounted on Garuda, bedecked in rich ornaments, long garland of forest- flowers (vanamala) with Kaustubha gem adorning his chest. He should be clothed in splendid yellow (pitambara) garments. His complexion should resemble water-laden fresh clouds.

Sources and References

Brahmiya Chitrakarma Sastram by Prof G Gnanananda

Vaidika Sahitya Charitre by Dr. NS Anantarangachar

Vishnu Sukta by Prof.SK Ramachandra Rao

Trivikrama and Vishnu drawings from

Other pictures from internet


Posted by on October 1, 2012 in Vishnu


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Agni And Soma Interplay: Life Thrives On Life

1.1. The whole of universe is viewed as a perpetual yajna. At each moment of its existence one form or the other of its energies is being transformed into another form of energy; one form of life is transformed into another form of life; one form of life or its derivatives is consumed by another form of life. This ceaseless activity of transformation and devouring of the one by another seems to be the very nature of universe.

1.2. It is said, the universe has a triple aspect: the devourer, the devoured and their relationship, which is the yajna. It is through this relationship that the universe exists and endures; thus yajna is identified with Vishnu, the all pervading preserver. “The yajna is Vishnu” (‘yajno vai Vishnuhuh’: Taittereya Brahmana 2.1.83)


1.3. The texts mention that all of universe could be broadly classified into two factors anna (the food) and annada (the one who eats or consumes). Every creature is the devourer of another and the food of some other. “I am food, I am food, I am food; I am the eater, I am the eater, I am the eater….the first born “(Taittereya Upanishad:3.10.06) – 

aham-annam-aham-annam-aham-annam;aham-annādo aham -annādo’-aham-annāda;aham-asmi prathamajā ṛtā sya , pūrvaṃ devebhyo amṛtasya nā bhāi

Similar statements occur in other texts:”The whole world is verily the food and the eater of food “(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: 1.4.6)

 etāvad vā idaṃ sarvam annaṃ caivānnādaś ca | soma evānnam agnir annādaḥ |

2.1. Existence involves devouring and being devoured. In other words, life thrives on life (jivo jeevasya jeevanam).The acts of devouring and being devoured are successive states of everything. The processes of life and death are entwined, each giving rise to the other.

2.2. In this process the ‘Agni-principle’ represents the ‘eater’, while the ‘Soma-principle’ represents the ’food’, which feeds the Agni. The two were born together : eka-yonyā-tmakāv agnīṣomau “All this universe of conscious and unconscious is made up of Agni (fire) and Soma (the offering)” (Mahabharata –Shanthi parva- 328.52). The process during which Agni the fire devours Soma the fuel is in the nature of yajna.

agniḥ somena saṃyukta ekayoni mukhaṃ kṛtam / agnī-ṣomātmakaṃ tasmāt jagat kṛtsnaṃ carācaram //12,328.052 //

2.3. The evolving universe is propelled by the interaction between these two forces of nature. Agni represents the ‘metabolism ‘of the universe. It is the agent for causing change. Soma, which stands for all that nourishes, is the fuel that sustains Agni. The pair, Agni and Soma, each need the other; and the two in tandem create, sustain and recycle the substances in the universe, ensuring continuity and evolution of life. This is the yajna.

3.1. There are many forms of yajna whether cosmic or human. Every form of creation human or otherwise has the character of yajna.”Any action of man which may promote betterment of man has the nature of yajna” (yogatrayananda – Shiva ratri)

3.2. It is explained that existence implies action. One can hardly remain for a moment without breathing, thinking or dreaming. Something or other is happening all the while to keep the body and mind alive. Action can be neutral having no moral value; or it can be positive; or negative. Even inaction is a form of action. We, all the while, take part in the yajna of life   either as instruments or its feed. The main activity of one’s existence is to take part in the ongoing ritual, yajna.

Let’s come back to the interaction between Agni and Soma,  a little later.


4.1. Agni is one of the most important deities of the Rig Veda. He is one of the Regents of space (Dikpala). He rules over the South-East (Agneya) and is called the first or the forward light (puro jyotishu). Agni the son of the heavens (gagana atmaja) is pictured as a priestly sage, beneficial to gods and men. He is the friendly mediator between men and gods. It is through Agni that man communicates with gods and dwellers of celestial spheres.

4.2. Agni is the purifier of all; and, all that purifies is yajna (Chandogya Upanishad: 4.16.1) – eṣa ha vai yajño yo’yaṃ pavate eṣa ha yannida sarvaṃ punāti. And, all that has been purified is worthy of being offered to gods; “He feeds gods through the mouths of Agni, the first among the gods “ (Aittareya Brahmana: 1.9.2).Agni is oblation eater Hutasa or Hutabhuj, the oblation carrier Havya vahana and the conveyer Vahi.

4.4. Agni had been controlled and domesticated and brought into the home, kept alive through careful tending; and is propitiated with offering. Agni is the friend and the center of household in the ritual sense or otherwise.   Agni is the protector of men and their homes; he presides over all sacraments. He is the witness to all the significant events and commitments that men and women make in their lives. Agni validates their life events on all solemn occasions.

 5.1. Agni is represented as all that burns and devours or digests. Agni is Vaisvanara the all pervader; the one who spreads, takes over and consumes. Agni is the Sun, heat, stomach, lust, passion and speech. Digestive acids are considered forms of Agni;   food is the offering. The fire of anger, the fire of lust, and all that destroys opens possibilities of other forms of yajna. War is one of the other forms of yajna –maarana homa. Human life and its efforts to exist amidst adversities; and to survive is an ongoing yajna.

5.2. The nature of the Agni is the nature of existence, as well as its source and symbol. At each moment some form of Agni is busy devouring some form of life, of fuel. Even the Sun, a form of Agni, burns devouring its own substance and puts out energy. All aspects of combustion, of digestion, of processing and of creation are forms of Agni.

5.3. The splendors or the shining quality in anything is a subtle form of Agni; he is the power of the inner as well the outer illumination, the power of knowledge as well as of perception. He is the Lord of knowledge. Understanding the science of fire in all its forms is the key to all knowledge.

 [ To take Agni as the name of the ritual fire only is to mistake the signifier for the signified. He is many things: a flame, a stream, a bird, a tree, a boat, a lion, a horse, a chariot, a craftsman, a thinker, a warrior, a sage and a knower, a seer and a will, often the seer-will (kavikratu), and he fulfills many functions: messenger, guest, priest of the call, bringer of the oblation, knower of all things born, friend and leader of the human people, fosterer, purifier, and none of these exhaust his reality, for he is said to have many names and to be manifold in his forms. But he is always connected with the truth , satyam, ritam, possessing the truth, ritavân.

Similarities between Sumerian Anki and Vedic Agni by Jean-Yves Lung [


6.1. Soma is personified as a deity and is one of the most important Vedic gods. All of the 114 hymns of the ninth book of the Rig Veda, known as the Soma Mandala, are addressed to Soma Pavamana(purified Soma). The hymns are in celebration of Soma represented as the most powerful god, healer of diseases, bestower of riches, and lord of all other gods. Soma is referred to in the Rig-Veda as the soul of the Yajna (atmayajnasya).

6.2. The oblation, the ritual offering in the yajna; that is, the food of the Agni is Soma. Every substance thrown into the sacramental fire is a form of Soma. At the same time, Soma is the elixir of life which stimulates fire and intoxicates the beings – apāma somam amṛtā abhūmāganma jyotir avidāma devān |RV_8,048.03

6.3. It mixes freely with water and is responsible for sweetness (madhurya) in food. And, as food it nourishes all forms of life.  It enters the herbs and supports beings with long and healthy life.  All the food, all the offering, all fuel, the cold, the moist, the moon, the sperm, and the wine etc in the universe are Soma.


7.1. Soma is a rather difficult concept. I am aware that Soma is variously described as the moon, the manas, the elixir, the honey, the sweetness, the drink, the creeper, the cold, the wet etc. A particular version even presents Soma as electrum (gold-silver metallic compound).  Here, I restrict myself; I prefer to treat Soma as a wonderful concept of the Vedic people employed to suggest an essential functionary that, in combination with Agni the fire of life, brings into existence any good object. It is that which provides reality or substance to the un-manifest (satyvataraya agnau suyate tasmat somah).

7.2. Soma the gentle devoured substance is the partner of Agni the fiery devouring spirit. Soma the substance of the universe is ‘food’.” Food is the principle of all, for, truly, the beings are born from food, when born they live by food; and when they are dead they themselves become food “. (Taittereya Upanishad 3.2)

annaṅ brahmēti vyajānāt. annāddhyēva khalvimāni bhūtāni jāyantē. annēna jātāni jīvanti. annaṅ prayantya-bhisaṅ-viśantīti. ৷৷3.2.1৷৷

Agni – Soma interplay

8.1. It is not possible to say whether food is more important than the eater; fuel more important than the fire; substance more important than action. Both fire and offering are important to one another. Both arise from the same root and both are the essential aspects of yajna, and of all life. Agni and Soma, each compliment the other wonderfully well; and that is the essence of all existence.

8.2. The life begins with yajna and ends in a yajna. Semen is Soma, yoni the yajna-vedi the altar and passion is the fire. Agni is the desire, the thirst, the intentional will; and Soma is that which aids to fructify that desire. They together bring forth a new life. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (6.4.3) classifies the act of procreation under ‘Vajpayee yajna’. The Agni- Soma pair participates in all creative processes.

sa yāvān ha vai vājapeyena yajamanasya loko bhavati tāvān asya loko bhavati |
ya evaṃ vidvān adhopahāsaṃ caraty āsāṃ strīṇāṃ sukṛtaṃ vṛṅkte | atha ya idam avidvān adhopahāsaṃ caraty āsya striyaḥ sukṛtaṃ vṛñjate || BrhUp_6,4.3 ||

At the end, man’s body is thrown into the funeral fire as his last offering.

9.1. It is the interplay between food and the eater, of Agni (fire) and Soma (the offering or fuel), which marks the yajna of all our lives. The nature of Agni is to spread and take over; and that of Soma is to contract, consolidate and vanish. Agni takes over; Soma is devoured. These aspects occur in every phase of human life.

9.2. Agni is the warm outward breath; Soma is the cool inward breath. Agni (fire) is life, Soma is activity; Agni is the enjoyer, Soma is that which is enjoyed. Soma is the food that feeds Agni, the hunger, in man’s belly. Soma and Agni together sustain and carry forward the life.

9.3. All substances that are hot, fiery, dry or parched are in the nature of Agni; Substances that are moist, cooling, soothing and nourishing are in the nature of Soma. Agni is red, Soma is the color of night (Chandogya Upanishad: 6.4).Anger, aggression is Agni; that which restrains is Soma. To grab, to take over is Agni; that which consolidates and preserves is Soma. Combustion is Agni; the fluidity in all aspects of life is Soma.

10. At times Agni becomes its own Soma, just as the Sun burns itself to radiate energy. When a substance has spread to its maximum size, it has to contract. Hence, Agni becomes Soma at each stage of its contraction. Soma falling into Agni itself is transformed into Agni. The acts of devouring and being devoured are successive stages of everything. The alternation of Agni and Soma provides the impetus for growth; for all beings which procreate, grow and perish in the yajna, the ritual of life.


11.1. It is likely that the Agni and Soma was initially a bi-polar, a two humor fire- water medical theory. But that relation blossomed into the classical three humor (tri-dosha) doctrine of Ayurveda. The interplay of Agni and Soma is of vital importance in Ayurveda both at the physical and the subtle levels, as also in the Yoga of Ayurveda.

11.2. According to Ayurveda, a person’s constitution, health and disease are a result of the balance/imbalance of three biological humors – vata, pitta and kapha. If the functions of these three humors were well balanced, then the individual would be in a healthy condition. An imbalance within or between them, would lead to various kinds of ailments. This is the tri-dosha-siddhanta. The primary purpose of Ayurveda   is to restore/ maintain proper balance of vata, pitta and kapha.

11.3. These three humours correspond to the active elements of air, fire and water, which in turn are regarded the aspects of the Vedic deities Indra, Agni and Soma. Indra is equated with vata which is in the nature of Vayu (air); Agni is equated with pitta which is fire, combustion and transformation at all levels; while Soma as fundamental liquid of life is equated with kapha the biological water humour. While Vata controls all the movements in the body, pitta takes care of chemical reactions and biosynthesis of various compounds within the body. Kapha, on the other hand, deals with balanced growth, development and functioning of the body.

Samanagni  is the state when the three doshasvatapitta and kapha are well balanced.

12.1. At the subtle level, Indra represents prana the life-force; Agni represents tejas the fire or the sharpness of mind or intellect; while Soma represents ojas the essential body fluids. It is said, whenvata is purified or refined it rises to prana, a higher state of life-force; when pitta is purified it enhances the intensity of perception; and, when kapha is purified the essential body fluids are harmonized, then the mind is transformed. This is the Yoga in Ayurveda; and, it relates to balancing the three humors in their subtle essence as pranatejas and ojas. That is achieved through use of various substances and methods including herbs, medicines, rituals, mantras and meditation.

12.2. Agni and Soma, thus, together are of vital importance; and play complimenting roles in all stages of human development and evolution.




(i) Rig Veda (4.58.3) describes Agni as:“A great god with four horns, three feet, two heads, and seven hands. He has the form of a Bull bound in places, whose bellowing descends among the mortals ‘.

catvāri śṛṅgā trayo asya pādā dve śīrṣe sapta hastāso asya / tridhā baddho vṛṣabho roravīti maho devo martyāṃ ā viveśa  RV_04.058.03

(ii) Various Agama and Shilpa texts carry his iconographic descriptions. Among such texts, the Shilpa text Isvara samhita (Nrusimha kalpa: 7.14-20) contains an elaborate description of the Agni’s form.

 “Strongly built, with a large belly, Agni is red, with golden brown mustache and red matted hair. He is endowed with two heads sprouting from a single neck. He has four horns (representing four Vedas), two on each head. His each head has three eyes. His two heads together have seven tongues of golden hue (three in the right head and four in the left head) emitting seven colors of fires. Agni should be shown with seven hands, four on the right (holding the ladles sruk and sruva; as also a rosary and a sphere) and three on the left (holding a sphere (shakthi), a fan and a jug holding ghee).  He is dressed in smoke-colored garments, surrounded by flames; and his countenance is placid. He is seated on a ram; and has three feet representing the three ablutions in morning, midday and evening.With these three feet he stands in three worlds.  ”.

(iii) There are other descriptions of Agni with four arms. Agni is described as being red in color; having yellow eyes and two heads. He carries to gods the offerings of the yajna (havya vahana).   His four hands carry an ax, a torch, a fan and a ladle and sometimes a rosary and a flaming spear (shakthi). He is also described as tomara-dhara (one who wields the javelin); Abja-hasta (one with a lotus in hand); Sukasa (bright one) and Suchi (pure), He is the giver of wealth (dravino dasa).

Adorned with flames he is dressed in black. His standard is smoke (dhumaketu).He is accompanied by a ram and he sometimes rides it (chagaratha). At times he sits in a chariot drawn by seven red horses (Rohitashva), representing seven meters used in the hymns.. The seven winds are the wheels of his chariot and Vata the air is his charioteer. Agni has also seven tongues of fire (sapta jihva), each of which has a name.

(iv) Agni is commonly depicted as riding a ram or a chariot or in standing position (sthanaka) ever ready to receive the offerings submitted to him. He is not shown either as relaxing (sukhasana) or reclining (sayana).


(i) There is no specific iconographic representation of Soma. The stanzas addressed to Soma in the soma-suktha of Rig Veda urge Soma to manifest; but do not refer to his form. The theme of the hymns addressed to Soma generally runs as: “Oh Soma, Pavamana, the overwhelming power in the battles, manifest thyself for the good of our cattle, our people, our horses and useful plants. Protect us from the miser whoever he may be, protect us even from his voice .Open a way for us, carry us beyond difficulties” 

(ii) The iconography of Soma has got mixed up with that of Chandra the Moon, also addressed as Soma. The ancient text Vishnudharmottara (part three, ch.72, verses 1-8) mentions that “Soma should be given the form of the moon”. The text in its earlier passages (ch.68, verses 1-14) had described the form of Lord Chandra the master of the abode of the ancestors. It said:

Chandra drawn by ten horses

“The Lord Moon (Chandra) should be made with lustrous white body because he is composed of the essence of water; with four hands, and white garments. He should be adorned with all ornaments. His two hands hold two white lotuses representing beauty and grace. His chariot with two wheels should have Ambara (horizon) as the charioteer and driven by ten horses representing ten directions; and they are named (from left to right of the Moon) Sarja, Trimanasa, Vrsa, Vadi, Nara, Vach, Saptadhatu, Hamsa, Vyoma and Mrga. The insignia in the left corner of the chariot should bear the mark of lion representing Dharma.

His twenty-eight wives called Nakshatra (stars) should be depicted bright and beautiful. The Moon should be depicted with luster (kanthi), enchanting beauty (shobha) and as the delight of the whole world.

Chandra Moon S Rajam



References and sources:

The Myths and Gods of India  By Alain Danielou.
Most of the substance is from this book.
Pictures are from internet

Posted by on September 30, 2012 in Indian Philosophy, Speculation


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