Tag Archives: Vishnu

Symbolisms Associated With the Vishnu Icons

Image worship

1.1. In the Vishnudharmottara- purana, a text dated around sixth century AD, King Vajra earnestly seeks instructions from his teacher sage Markandeya, “how can one depict in an image, the Supreme Being who is devoid of form, smell and emotion; and destitute of sound and touch?” The sage   explains ”the entire universe should be understood as the modification (vikriti) of the formless (prakriti) .The worship and meditation of the Supreme is possible for an ordinary being only  when the formless is endowed with a form; and that form is full of significance “.

1.2. An image is a form which brings the mind to focus on abstraction. One should adopt the stage of abstraction that is nearest to him and which can help.

The image of a deity in the Indian tradition is a Bimba the reflection or Prathima the personification of the virtues, the glory and the attributes that one associates with the deity. It is explained that the Bimba like the reflection of the distant moon in a tranquil pool is the virtual image of one’s concept/ mental image of one’s deity; but it is  not the god/deity itself. It is a suggestion or a pretext (nimitta) for the deity.

1.3. The worshipper is aware that the forms (murti), sounds (mantras) and diagrams (mandalas) employed in worship are human approximations and are inadequate representations of God (prathima svalpa buddhinaam). Yet, he finds through them an approach to the Supreme.

1.4. Sage Markandeya explains, the qualities that we admire in a divine being are within us. And, when we worship the images that personify such attributes, we awaken those divine aspects latent in us. When we are filled by that grace, there is no space left for base desires and pain; we have become that deity.

Iconography and symbolism

2.1. The polytheism gave tremendous impetus to all branches of Indian arts, literature and iconography. It provided for depiction and worship of divinity according to ones ideal in love, adoration and earnestness.

2.2. The Indian figurative art and Iconography, over the ages, succeeded in making a coherent use of images to represent abstraction; and to gracefully unite forms and ideas in a loving marriage. The image and its symbolisms are idioms of beauty grace and power nurtured and honed by generations of artists.

2.3. Indian code of symbols appears to have come from ancient times and its origins are lost in the mists of prehistory. It is based on the assumption that there exists a natural affinity between forms and ideas.

The Indian iconographic traditions have developed an elaborate set of idioms, phrases and symbolisms that give eloquent expression to the attributes, powers, and disposition of the gods and goddesses embodied in an image. For instance, multiplicity of heads denotes presence of their concurrent abilities; and multiplicity of hands denotes their versatile abilities. The three heads of a divinity indicates trio guna (guna-triad: sattvarajas and tamas) or shakthi traya  [iccha (will), jnana (consciousness) and kriya (action) shakthi or powers]. Four heads represent comprehension or enveloping four Vedas; or overseeing four directions. Five heads stand for five principles or elements (pancha-bhuthas) or five divine attributes or five stages of the evolutionary process.

[Shristi(creation), shthithi (expansion), samhara (withdrawal), triodhana (concealing) and  anugraha (preserving till the commencement of the next cycle of evolution)]

The use of an animal icon would seek to represent particular abstract qualities associated with that animal such as wisdom, agility or power. Gestures (mudra) of the hand or the holding of a certain object (ayudha) are meant to articulate the deity’s powers, associations and dispositions.


Not all divine representations are made through icons. Shiva is represented usually by a conic linga or an un-carved rock; Vishnu and Narasimha are worshipped at homes as Saligrama (a special types of smooth dark stones found on bed of the Gandaki river); Ganapathi is best worshipped in the roots of the arka plant, and he is also represented by red stones (sona shila) or turmeric cones or pieces (haridra churna). The Devi in Kamakhya temple is worshipped in a natural fissure of a rock. Yet, all these divinities have specified well defined iconographic forms.

Iconography of Vishnu image

3.1. As regards Vishnu, one of the most popularly worshipped gods in the Hindu pantheon, the iconographic features of his image are discussed in detail in a large number of texts of the Vaikhanasa and Pancharatra traditions. The texts of the shilpa sastra have also prescribed with great care and diligence the iconographic features of Vishnu images of various forms. Among the Vishnu-oriented Shilpa texts, the 5th -6th century texts Brahmiya Chitra Karma ShastramRupamandana and Vishnudharmottara purana are the prominent ones. There are in addition, numerous Dhyana-slokas, or word-pictures in verse that present graphic details of the form, substance and attributes of the murti. These verses are meant for contemplation and guidance of the Shilpi, the sculptor.

3.2. Vishnudaharmottara – Chapter 44. 9-13 specifies that one should make Vishnu, the God of gods, seated on Garuda, with the bosom shining with the Kaustubha (jewel), wearing all ornaments, resembling in color the water-laden cloud; and clothed in a blue and beautiful garment. Four faces should be made ; and arms twice that. The Eastern face is called Soumya (placid), the Southern Narasimha (man-lion), the Western Kapila and the Northern Varaha (boar-like). Vishnu wears Vanamala (long garland of flowers), and in his right hands (should be shown) an arrow, a rosary, a club and so forth, and OH great king, in his left hands should be shown a skin, a garment, and a bow.

    • Deva-Devam tattha Vishnum karaye Garuda-sthitham // 9//
    • Kausthubho -udbhavitoraskam , sarva-abharana -dharinam /
    • sajala-ambuda-sa-chhayam , pita-divyambaram tattha //10//
    • Mukhas-cha karya chatvaro bahuvo ,dvi-gunas tattha /
    • Soumyan -to vadanam Purvam , Narashimhantu-Dakshinam /11//
    • Kapilam Paschimam vaktram , tattha Varaham-Uttaram /
    • Tasya Dakshina-hastheshu baanaksha musula -ayudham //12//
    • Charma-cherum Dhanush-Indra-chapeshu vana-malinam //13//



3.3. A concise picture of the Vishnu-image is also presented in Gopala-uttara-tapini-upanishad (45-48): His feet bear the auspicious signs of a celestial standard, a royal parasol. His chest is adorned by srivatsa locks of hair, the brilliantly shining kaustubha gem and rows of forest-flower garlands (vanamala). His four hands hold shankha (conch), chakra (discus), gada (mace) and padma  (lotus).He is adorned with armlets, garlands, jewels, diadem and earrings shaped like  makara the sea monster (makara-kundala).

His form is enchanting and auspicious (divya mangala vigraha); radiant like the sharad -full moon ; his eyes glow  like blue lotus blossoming  amidst the pool of clear water ; his brows like a well strung bow; his nose slender  and shapely like the petals of champak flower ; the  serene, cool, gentle smile, pure like cow’s milk , dancing on his full and well shaped red lips  lights up the whole world ; his chin firm and well proportioned; his throat bright and sound  shaped like a conch; the tilaka adorning his forehead between the brows is luminous like crescent moon in a clear cloudless sky; his arms long , strong and supple like the elephant’s trunk; his chest wide , strong and healthy; he is adorned with golden-hue–silk garments (pitambara);he is richly and tastefully ornamented; and he is the very embodiment of all the grace , beauty and joy in the universe.


3.3. The most common representations of Vishnu are as standing (sthanaka) in sama-bhanga on a lotus-pedestal (padma); or as seated (asana) relaxed and comfortable.

He is also represented as Yoga-Narayana seated in yogic posture on a pedestal of white lotus.

The other most common depiction of Vishnu is as reclining (shayana) on the coils of Sesha the serpent with multiple heads. There are variations in his shayana attitudes

(Please click here for details)


Vishnu tattva, the essence

4.1. Vishnu is the middle one of the Hindu Trinity –Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Each of the Trinity is associated with one of the three states of consciousness and three states of relative conditions (guna).

4.2. Brahma is the wakeful state (jagrat); Vishnu is the vision of the dream (svapna); and Shiva is experienced in dreamless-sleep (sushupti).It is said the knowledge of outward forms is obtained in wakeful state; knowledge of inner principles is obtained in states of mental-vision which is the dream state; while the perception of the formless reality is gained in absolute stillness, the complete silence of mind.

4.3. Among the gunas, Vishnu represents sattva guna which is cohesion. It is a centripetal tendency; it stays at the centre and draws all things towards it. All that is in the universe tends towards a centre, towards cohesion, towards existence, towards light and truth. Vishnu is the inner cause, the power by which things exist and are held together. Vishnu is the centre of the universe towards which everything tends. Vishnu represents that sattva tendency.

4.4. The Vishnu image symbolizes his attributes as one who dwells in everything and in whom everything dwells; one who defeats the power of destruction and who overcomes all; one who  preserves , protects and the pervades all existence.

Symbolisms in Vishnu image


5.1. The image of Vishnu is a group of symbols; its every aspect, attribute and ornamentation is of significance and is intended as an object of worship and adoration. The symbols and symbolisms associated with the Vishnu image coherently present him as the Supreme Being who pervades and protects the universe.

Let’s see how those symbolisms are built into the Vishnu image.

5.2. Colour

Vishnu is always represented as dark blue like a rain-bearing cloud (neela megha-shyama) or blue like   clear sky – (Indra-nila , azure sky-blue as that of sapphire or emerald ) – the infinite, formless, pervasive substance of spatial universe, symbolizing his nature of limitless brilliance that pervades all universes.

Though Vishnu is represented dark, his associates are in different colours; each according to his/her disposition. Vishnu presents a multi-coloured splendour.

His consort Lakshmi is glowing like molten gold (tapta kanchana sannibha); Bhudevi , his other consort, is of the colour of acacia flower; Garuda , his ride,  is white; Sesha the serpent on which he reclines is dark like a cloud; the conch (shankha ) in his hand has the mellow brightness of  the full moon; the discus (chakra)  is shining  brilliant like the sun; the mace (gada) is dark; the lotus (padma) is fresh bright and enchanting; the kaustubha jewel on his chest  sparkles in  the colour of dawn; srivatsa the lock of hair on his chest  is like jasmine flower; the rows of forest flower garlands that swing across his chest  are of five colours; and the arrows he holds  are like lightening (Garuda purana 1.11)

5.3. Four Arms


Four arms represent the fulfilment of manifestations in all spheres of life. They symbolize domain over four directions of space and thus the absolute power over all universe.

In the case of Vishnu, the four arms  are also said to represent three fundamental functions or tendencies [creative tendency (shristi)cohesive tendency (sthithi); and , dispersion and liberation (laya)]  and fourth being the notion of individual-existence (ahamkara) from which all individualized forms arise.

vishnu with ayudhas

5.4. Four Ayudhas

Vishnu in each of his four hands holds an ayudha, an attribute: shankha (conch), chakra (discus), gada (mace) and  padma (lotus).


The Shankha, conch, is the symbol of the origin of existence. It is associated with water the first element, the source of all life. It has the form of multiple spirals evolving from a point to ever increasing spheres. When blown, it produces a sound associated with the primal sound from which creation expanded. Shankha represents the creative (shristi) aspect of Vishnu.

The Shankha that Vishnu holds is named pancha-janya, born of five; and it represents the pure-notion of individual existence (sattvika ahamkara) from which evolved the principles of five elements (bhutas).


 Chakrattalvar, or Sudarshana

The discus Sudarshana-chakra, beauteous to behold has six spokes equivalent to six petals of a lotus. Its nature is to revolve. It represents the universal mind, the will to multiply. (Vishnu purana 1-22-68). Chakra represents the cohesive (sthithi) aspect of Vishnu.

The chakra is in the design of a wheel. The wheel is symbolic of life, ever –renewing itself in a cycle of time. The wheel of radiance symbolizes the Sun.  Its six spokes represent the six seasons, the six cycles of the year. The nave, in which the spokes are set, the centre, represents changeless and motionless reality .The spin of the wheel creates the illusion of duality, the Maya.


The Chakra corresponds to the active notion of the individual existence (Rajas-ahamkara); and is associated with the fire principle.

The early representations of chakra were large in size forming a halo behind Vishnu’s head. The chakra was later stylized into a small ornamental ayudha held gracefully with two fingers.


The gada, mace, named Kaumudiki is that which dazzles and intoxicates the mind. It is called the stupefier of the mind (Vishnu purana 1.22.69).The mace in Vishnu’s hands is the symbol of primal knowledge (adya-vidya).

The mace Kaumudiki is often referred to as the female, the dazzler who destroys all that opposes it. Kaumudiki is compared to Kali the power of time. Nothing can conquer the time. (Krishna Upanishad -23)



The Lotus, the immaculate flower rising from the depths of water, ever remote from the shore and unfolding in all its glory represents the evolving universe, the expansion of creation. It evolves   from the formless endlessness of casual waters.

The lotus is the symbol of purity, spiritual wealth, abundance, growth and fertility.    It is sometimes taken as the emblem of six transcendental powers (bhaga: jnana, shakthi, bala,      aishvarya, virya and tejas) which characterizes divinity (bhaga-van).

The lotus is associated with the notion of purity and cohesive tendency (sattva) from which springs Dharma and jnana.

5.5. Bow, arrows and quiver


The Vishnu image is at times endowed with a bow and a set of arrows. His bow is Saranga; and hence he is Saranga-pani the one who holds the saranga. The bow targets the distant and the unknown. In the Vishnu imagery, the bow is the instrument through which feelers are sent into the unknown spheres of illusory creation.

Bow is the destructive aspect of the notion of individual existence (tamasa ahamkara). This aspect is associated with the disintegrating tendency (laya) and is the origin of sensory perception. The bow therefore corresponds to the power of duality (maya) (Vishnu purana 1-22-70)

The arrows of Vishnu are the senses, the fields of activity of the intellect (Vishnu purana 1.22-73).

The quiver is the store house of actions.

5.6. Sword and the sheath

The sharp and blazing sword Nandaka (source of joy) represents sharp incisive intellect whose substance is wisdom (vidya) (Vishnu purana 1.22-74). The flaming sword is the powerful weapon which destroys ignorance.

The sheath which holds –hides the sword of knowledge is avidya. It represents darkness which is also an attribute of the divinity. The sword shines forth when it is drawn out of the sheath.

5.7. Kaustubha

On the chest of Vishnu shines a brilliant gem Kaustubha, the treasure of the ocean. The Jewel represents consciousness, which manifests itself in all that shines: the sun, the moon, the fire and the speech. The splendorous jewel Kaustubha represents consciousness, the consciousness of all living things. It is the enjoyer of all creation.

5.8. Srivatsa

Srivatsa (the beloved of Sri) is often mentioned along with Kaustubha. But unlike KaustubhaSrivatsa is not a gem or an ornament.  It is a mark on his body. It is, in fact, a lock of hair situated on his right chest (vakshasthala sthitha), curling towards the right. Its colour resembles that of the jasmine; (shukla varna dakshinavarta romavali) .Vishnu is thus Srivatsankita, the one who bears the sign of Srivatsa. It is said to symbolize Vishnu’s yogic powers (yoga shakthi). It also represents the source of the natural world, the basic nature (pradhana).

In the earlier depictions of the Vishnu image, Srivatsa was indicated as a small sized triangle (in the form of three leaves) on his right chest. In the images of the latter periods, Srivatsa is in the form of small-sized Lakshmi (Vyuha – LakshmI) with two arms. Some say, it is meant to suggest that in this form, the jagrat state, Lakshmi the energy, is differentiated from Vishnu (the Purusha).

[Interestingly, the Srivatsa sign also adores the images of the Jain Thirthankaras and of the Buddha as well.]

5.9. Vanamala

Vanamala is the garland of five rows of forest flowers of different hues, hanging around the throat of Vishnu. Vaijayanthi (garland of victory) is a garland of five rows of jewels or five elements (bhuthas) that also adorns Vishnu.

According to yoga theorythe throat is the seat of Vishuddha chakra –the centre of extreme purity- which symbolizes pure consciousness, and creativity. It is the centre associated with the faculty of higher discrimination; and with the formless space. Throat is also the centre where pashyanti vak the formless speech manifests as audible sound (sabda).   The garlands around the throat of Vishnu symbolize the display of manifestation (of duality) surrounding the formless nirguna. Vanamala is Vishnu-maya, the power of illusion of one who pervades all existence.

5.10. Garuda

Garuda, the golden eagle (suparna) is represented as a half -human and half- bird of immense size and strength, equal in splendour to Agni. Vishnu rides Garuda in his jagrat (wakeful) state, after the creative-process is set in motion.

Garuda means wings of speech, ‘whose wings transport from one word to another with the speed of light’. Garuda as three Vedas carries Vishnu the Yajna-pathi, with Rig (rhythm); Sama (sound); and Yajur (substance) all of which are elements of speech as also the ritual.

Garuda Garuda

the son of Kashyapa (vision) is hailed as personification of courage. ‘The triad beautiful of the wing is courage itself, made into a bird ‘(shatapatha Brahmana:

Vishnu 3

5.11. Sesha the Serpent

It is believed, when creation is withdrawn, the universe does not totally cease or is it wiped out. The universe that was destroyed persists in a subtle form as a reminder of what once was; and as a germ of what will be the next universe. That potent reminder (Sesha) of the destroyed universe is embodied in Sesha the serpent coiled itself and floating upon limitless ocean of casual waters.

Sesha, the primordial serpent, whose other name is Anantha, represents the non-evolved form of nature (prakrti).Vishnu sleeps in voga-nidra on Sesha floating on water, until he wills the next cycle of creation.

Anantha (the endlessness) is also the name of Vishnu. Some scholars say that Sesha (reminder) or Anantha is Vishnu himself in his potent state, as the universe that hibernates before the onset of the next cycle of evolution.


References and Sources

1 .Vishnudharmottara- purana –Part Three

2. Vishnu Kosa by Prof SK Ramachandra Rao

3. Gopala-uttara-tapini-upanishad

4. The myths and gods of India by Alain Daniélou

5. The line drawings from Brahmiya Chitra Karma Shastram By Dr. G Gnanananda

And From Drdha Monge

The other pictures are from internet.


Posted by on October 2, 2012 in Vishnu


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Vishnu – Dwadashanamas – Part Two

Continued from Part One— Vishnu

B. Narayana

4.1. Narayana in Rig Veda is not the name of a god; but is the name of the Rishi to whom the hymn Purusha- Sukta was revealed. Purusha Sukta running into sixteen riks occurs in the last book (mandala 10: 7.90.1-16) of Rig Veda. Purusha- Sukta – commencing with the line sahasraśīrṣā puruṣaḥ sahasrākṣaḥ sahasrapāt – is the only hymn dedicated to Purusha; and is repeated in other Vedas with slight modifications.

The devatha invoked in the Sukta is Purusha the transcendental “primordial person” from whose body the universe was created. He was both sacrificer and the sacrificed, and his rite was the simulated prototype for all later Vedic sacrifices.

The Rishi of the Purusha Sukta is Narayana; and , its Devata is Purusha. It is said, the Rishi and his deity (devatha) merged into one; and , thus Narayana became the Purusha (Satapatha Brahmana 13. 6. 1.1).

puruṣo ha nārāyaṇo’kāmayata atitiṣṭheyaṃ sarvāṇi bhūtānyahamevedaṃ sarvaṃ
syāmiti sa etam puruṣamedham pañcarātram
yajña kratum apaśyattamāharattenāyajata teneṣṭvātyatiṣṭhatsarvāṇi bhūtānīdaṃ
sarva mabha vadatitiṣṭhati sarvāṇi bhūtānīdaṃ sarvam bhavati ya evam
vidvān puruṣamedhena yajate yo vaitadevam veda

[This perhaps is just as Rishi Vamadeva merged into Shiva becoming one of the five faces of Shiva to represent the aspect of Vama or “preserver” associated with the element of water.]

4.2. Purusha Sukta visualizes the universe as a cosmic person. The universe visualized in human imagery is the Purusha (purusha evedam vishvam). He is endowed with countless heads and limbs. He has Agni in the face and mouth; the sun in eyes; moon in the mind; directions around as ears; vayu as his vital currents; Vedas as his speech; and the whole universe is settled in his heart. The space and time, the years, seasons, all creation and the very earth itself emanates from his feet.

candramā manaso jātaś cakṣoḥ sūryo ajāyata |  mukhād indraś cāgniś ca prāṇād vāyur ajāyata ||

chandāṃsi jajñire tasmād yajus tasmād ajāyata ||

 pādo ‘sya viśvā bhūtāni tripād asyāmṛtaṃ divi ||

Purusha is cosmic in nature, fills and enlivens the entire universe; yet, he also dwells hidden in heart-cave of each being as its essence, spirit and strength. He is the antaryamin, the very life of life. Purusha in this sense is the Atman. The essentials of our existence are all settled in the Purusha, like the spokes of the wheel in its hub.

Visualizing the cosmos in the image of a person is a grand analogy; and no other  device appears  to  match that . A reciprocal reflection of that image is the man who finds in his own being a miniature universe. He finds within him the ‘sun’, the ’moon’, the ‘earth’, the ’fire’ and the ‘space’. Man is the fragmentary universe (vyasti); and Purusha is the totality (samasti). The man and universe exist in one another. The potency of the whole is contained in each fragment. Hence they are in me; and I am in them” (mayi te teṣhu chā api aham – Bhagavad Gita 9.29)

Purusha is not a personal deity who creates out of nothingness. It  is the cosmic process that creates and destroys because that is in its nature; just as a man’s blood creates new cells; his hair on head and body spring forth and wither away; and his stomach digests other forms of life. 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.

4.3. In the Samkhya context, the term Purusha has the meaning of pure consciousness or spirit, as compared to matter (prakriti) which includes our senses and intellect. Prakriti evolves, changes and binds; yet, it is inert and needs the presence of Purusha to enliven, push and impel. Purusha here is the stimulator who causes creation. It is through Prakrti that Purusha manifests himself. And, every form of creation bears this sign of duality.

When he is animated by the desire to create, Purusha is Prajapathi the creator (srashta)  and protector (Palaka) of all beings. Some scholars explain the giving up (sacrificing) his innate nature of purity, formlessness and transcendence is indeed the sacrifice of Purusha (Purusha medha). In a sense, Purusha was dismembered. Prajapathi could become the creator only as a result of Purusha’s sacrifice; and all the innumerable forms of creation emanated from a common foundation, the fire of desire (Kama) of the Prajapathi. Though Purusha was dismembered , he fills, enlivens all this Universe ; and,  lies hidden in all forms of existence.  Sri Ramanuja, therefore,  described him as the primordial creator adi-karta cha bhutanam.

ime vai lokāḥ pūrayameva puruṣo yo’yam pavate so’syām puri śete tasmāt puruṣastasya yadeṣu lokeṣvannaṃ tadasyā nnam medhas tadyadasyaitadannam medhas tasmāt puruṣamedho’tho  yadasminmedhyānpuruṣānālabhate tasmādveva puruṣamedhaḥ //Sh.Br.

4.4. Purusha Sukta had enormous impact on the development of Vishnu; as also in molding the Vaishnava doctrines, theology and world-view.

The concept of Purusha pre-dates the emergence of Vishnu or Shiva forms. The Purusha imagery comprehends the powers associated with Agni, Indra, Vayu, Surya and yajna; and transcends, pervades all existence. For instance, it was said, the power, energy and splendor of the sun are derived from Purusha the resplendent spirit dwelling inside the solar orb, brilliant like the burnished gold. Purusha in the solar orb and the Purusha abiding in the eye were said to be established in one another. Prajapathi, who is the form of Purusha when animated, was considered the Agni on earth. Purusha was the very essence and the purpose of the yajna. Purusha pervades all existence and also resides in heart-cave of all beings.

During the later periods, Purusha came to be recognized as Vishnu and  Purusha Sukta the eulogy of Vishnu, because the all-pervading Vishnu by then was identified with Surya, Agni, and Yajna (yajno vai vishnuh). The virtues and powers of Purusha and his associations with elements in nature were analogues to Vishnu relations with the Vedic deities. And, with that, Vishnu, Narayana and Purusha were all treated as one.

4.5. Some concepts emanating from Purusha Sukta appear to have guided the doctrine and theology of Vishitadvaita. For instance, the Purusha Sukta put forward the premise of the formless absolute entity (amurta) voluntarily assuming a cognizable form (murta) in order to be accessible to the aspirants. It was an act of boundless compassion (karunya) and love for the beings. Purusha is cosmic in nature and pervades all universe; yet, it resides in each being as its very essence (antaryamin).

Similarly, in Vishistadwaita, Narayana the Parama Purusha (the supreme person) is the embodiment of the Absolute the Brahman who assumed the divinely auspicious charming form (divya mangala vigraha) out of compassion for all beings. The transcendental Para Vasudeva assumed the Vyuha forms and Avatars for the benefit of all beings. Narayana Paramatman dwells in all beings and matter as the Antaryami or ‘Suksma Vasudeva’  like the ‘Smokeless flame’ seated in the ‘lotus of the heart ‘. Narayana just as the Purusha is the source of all existence and all that exists resolves in to him.

In the process Purusha, Narayana  , vasudeva and Vishnu all merged in to each other.This became the basis for the Bhagavatha Dharma

Narayanaya  vidmahe  Vasdudevaya  dhimahi

Tanno  Vishnuh  prachodayath  



4.6. According to Sri Ramanuja, whatever is, is Brahman. His Brahman is not an impersonal Absolute;  but, is a Savisesha Brahman, a saguna Brahman i.e., Brahman endowed with countless auspicious attributes (ananta kalyana guna). He is the infinite ocean of compassion (apara karuna sindhu).  He is eternal (nitya); His nature is truth (satya), knowledge (jnana) and bliss (ananda).

He is Narayana, he who originated from ‘that which has all forms and no form’. Narayana Parama-purusha alone exists; the entire existence dwells in him and he abides in all as antaryamin. Loving devotion and surrender to Narayana is the only path to Moksha, the liberation; and even that is possible only with the loving grace of Narayana. Sri Ramanuja explains Narayana as “He who is the dwelling place, i.e., the source,  support and dissolving ground of all Jivas, including inert matter.” Moksha consists in the jiva remaining in undisturbed bliss in presence of Narayana in Vaikunta.

4.7. Sri Ramanuja’s concept of the Supreme is closer to that of the Rig Veda, which primarily follows Saguno-pasana. The Supreme Reality of Rig Veda, though it is beyond description or definition, is the abode of all auspicious qualities; he is sat-chit-ananda. He is the omniscient and the original cause of the world (tasyedu visva bhuvanadhi mrudani). He manifests himself as the world (Visvarupah).  He is  Jagat_pati, the Lord of the Universe, of all beings. He is the sustainer and the protector. He is omniscient, compassionate and easily accessible to devotees (Niyanta sunrutanam). Rig Veda firmly believes in grace of God; and calls upon all humans to establish a relationship with Deva as one would do with a son, a friend, a father or a mother. There is faith that the Devas respond to prayers and fulfill the desires of the devotees.


5.1. The famous philosopher Dr.Surendranath Dasgupta in his monumental History of Indian philosophy makes an interesting observation. In the Rig Veda, he observes, Vishnu is called as Gopa, Sipivishta, Urukrama, etc., but not as Narayana. Then he goes on to say, similarly, Bhagavad Gita does not use the term Narayana; but, the Mahabharata identifies Narayana with Vishnu. This, according to him, could show that Bhagavad Gita was composed much before Mahabharata tale was reduced to writing. He opines, Bhagavad Gita was composed when Narayana was yet to be equated with Vishnu. The name Narayana, he says, appears for the first time in the Satapatha Brahmana (xii, 3.4. L,) where, however,  it is not connected with Vishnu.

6.1. The term Narayana is a compound of Nara (Man, more particularly the foundation of all men) and Ayana (the goal); meaning, Narayana is he who directs towards the ultimate goal moksha of the humans. In Mahabharata, Krishna is often referred to as Narayana and Arjuna as Nara. Here Narayana guides Nara the man towards true understanding and liberation. The epic, in fact, commences with salutations to Narayana and Nara (Narayanam namaskrutyam naram chaiva narottamam).

6.2. The expression Narayana also suggests several other meanings; the more common of which, as given in Manu Smriti (1.10) are: ‘the primal waters’; ‘that which does not perish’; ‘the spirit that abides (ayana) in the water (Nara, apah) of existence’ and being the ‘goal of all knowledge’. Narayana’s association with water is very intimate. Narayana, it is said, Narayana as Purusha not only resides in water  in his natural state (prui sete) ; but,  is the very essence of water. These explanations are meant to suggest that Narayana is an infinite cosmic ocean from which all creation arises, in which all beings live and into which all that exists   resolves.

āpo narā iti proktā āpo vai narasūnavaḥ / tā yad asyāyanaṃ pūrvaṃ tena nārāyaṇaḥ smṛtaḥ // Mn_1.10 //

6.3. Further, the creation and destruction of the universe, it is believed, is neither its beginning nor its end. They are just segments of a long spread out cyclical process. When creation is withdrawn, the universe does not totally cease or is it wiped out. The universe that was destroyed persists in a subtle form as a reminder of what once was; and as a germ of what will be the next universe. That potent reminder (Sesha) of the destroyed universe is embodied in Sesha the serpent coiled itself and floating upon limitless ocean of casual waters. Sesha whose other name is Anantha (the endlessness) represents the non-evolved form of nature (prakrti).Vishnu the pervader and preserver rests on Sesha floating on water, until he wills the next cycle of creation. Vishnu then is Narayana the one who abides in water. Narayana also means ‘the abode of man and of all existence’

[There is an interesting sidelight to Narayana’s association with water. It was mentioned to me; and am not sure if it is based in a text. This has reference to the ever –going conflict between two powerful sages of the early Vedic era – Brighu and Angirasa. Brighu was the son of Varuna the Vedic deity of water-principle. The Brighu clan and followers were close to life on rivers and seas. The vast stretch of the mouths of the mighty Sarawathi as it branched into number of rivulets and joined the occasion was the domain of the Brighus. The Brighus were the people of the sea. The Angirasas were, on the other hand, closely associated with mountains, hills, dales, and vast open spaces; they lived mainly in the foothill regions of the Himalayas. The Angirasas were mountain dwellers.


The myth of churning sea-water with a mountain-head is largely seen as a symbolic representation of the oscillating conflict between the people of the sea (Brighus – Asuras) and the people of the hills (Angirasas- Devas).The Angirasas eventually won the battle; Vishnu the leader of the Angirasas (Devas) took Lakshmi (aka Bhargavi meaning Brighu’s daughter), the daughter of the vanquished sea-people, as his wife. Vishnu also derived his riches like the Kaustuba gem, Panchajanya etc from the sea; and resided among the people of the sea (Brighus). Vishnu who in early Rig Veda was a mountain dweller (giristha) eventually made his home in water. He became Narayana. ]

C.  Vasudeva –Krishna

71. Krishna son of Vasudeva of the vrishni-yadava clan is the soul and spirit of the Mahabharata. Krishna alone rescued the epic from degenerating into internecine family feud; and elevated it into a conflict of great significance in order to uphold Dharma. He taught the world that the ultimate conflict was not about land, riches or power but about the human spirit, the Dharma.

7.2. Towards the end of Mahabharata, Vishnu came to be equated with Narayana and with the Supreme Being. At many places in the epic Krishna and Vasudeva are mentioned as forms of Vishnu/Narayana (MB Udyoga parva and Shanthi parva). In Bhagavad- Gita, Krishna is the virtual Supreme Being. The Anu-gita which appears at the end of Mahabharata reveres Krishna as Vishnu. There are at least six instances in Mahabharata (including the one of Bhagavad Gita) where Krishna displays his awe inspiring cosmic form (vishva rupa) to demonstrate his divine essence.

Krishna Jagadguru sepia

8.1. Krishna has long been worshipped and revered as Supreme god.  The great grammarian Panini (8th century BCE) in his Astadhyayi explains the term vasudevaka as the devotee of Krishna -Vasudeva. Later, Patanjali (3rd century BCE) in his Mahabhashya too defines the term bhakta (devotee) as the ‘follower of Vasudeva, God of gods’- ke cit kaṃsa-bhaktāḥ bhavanti ke cit vāsudeva-bhaktāḥ (P_3,1.26.6).  Patanjali quotes a verse: “May the might of Krishna accompanied by Sankarshana increase! – saṅkarṣaṇa-dvitīyasya balam kṛṣṇasya vardhatām iti  -(P_2,2.24.4) “

8.2. The Arthashastra of Kautilya, of fourth century BC, refers several times to Krishna; while the Baudhayana Dharma Sutra  (Baudh of the same century gives twelve different names for Krishna, including popular ones like Keshava, Govinda, and Damodara.

8.3. The Jain god Halabhrit referred to in Jaina Puranas is identified as Baladeva or Balarama, elder brother of Krishna. He is shown with snake-hood, a club or ploughshare or both, and a wine cup.

8.4. The Ghata-jataka of the Buddhist Canon (5-6th century) carries the story of a certain Krishna who belonged to a royal family of Matura. He is the son of king Upasagara and queen Deva-garbha; but was given to the foster care of Nandagopa wife of Andaka-vrishni. This Krishna is described as a virtuous and revered person; a Rishi.

8.5. The noted historian Dr. D.C. Sircar, quoting Quintus Curtius Rufus (c. 41-54 AD) says that an image of Vasudeva-Krishna was carried in front by the army of King Paurava, as it advanced against the Greeks led by Alexander the Great (The Cultural Heritage of India, vol. 4. p. 115).

9.1. The archaeological evidences too indicate prevalence of Krishna – Vasudeva worship centuries before Christ. For instance:

The erudite researcher, Bharathkalyan cites a silver coin of the Vaishnava King Agathocles (Ca.180 BCE), from the border lands of the North-West India, depicting Krishna Vasudeva in Bactrian garb, holding Shanka, Chakra and Chatra.  

Krishna coin 180 BCE

Further, a stone pillar with a Garuda sculpture on top dedicated to the god Vasudeva the “God of gods”, was erected in front of Vasudeva temple by Heliodorus the Greek ambassador to the court of King Bhagabhadra (around 113 BCE, near Vidisha or Besnagar in MP).

Another second century inscription of Ghosundi (Rajasthan) mentions a pujā-silā-prākar (stone enclosure for worship) in Nārāyana-vata (park of Nārāyana) by king Gājāyana Sarvatāta constructed in service of gods Vasudeva and Sankarshana described as ‘Lords of all’.

And the Mora –well inscription assigned to first century found near Mathura (UP) refers to five heroes of vrishni clan viz Baladeva (Sankarshana), Vasudeva (Krishna), Samba (son of Krishna), Pradyumna (son of Krishna) and Aniruddha (son of Pradyumna).

4th–6th century CE Sardonyx seal representing Vishnu

Heliodorus was a Greek ambassador to India in the second century B.C. He was sent to the court of King Bhagabhadra by Antiakalidas, the Greek king of Taxila. The kingdom of Taxila was part of the Bactrian region in northwest India, conquered by Alexander the Great in 325 B.C. By the time of Antialkidas, the area under Greek rule included what is today Afghanistan, Pakistan and Punjab.

Heliodorus was presumably not the only foreigner who took to  Vaisnava devotional practices ; certainly there must have been many others

The column Heliodorus erected at Besnagar in central India in about 113 B.C is considered one of the most important archaeological finds on the Indian subcontinent.

The inscriptions on the Heliodorus pillar  read:

brahmi-on-columnDevadevasa Va[sude]vasa Garudadhvajo ayam
karito i[a] Heliodorena bhaga
vatena Diyasa putrena Takhasilakena
Yonadatena agatena maharajasa
Amtalikitasa upa[m]ta samkasam-rano
Kasiput[r]asa [Bh]agabhadrasa tratarasa
vasena [chatu]dasena rajena vadhamanasa

Trini amutapadani‹[su] anuthitani
nayamti svaga damo chago apramado


“This Garuda-column of Vasudeva (Vishnu), the god of gods, was erected here by Heliodorus, a worshipper of Vishnu, the son of Dion, and an inhabitant of Taxila, who came as Greek ambassador from the Great King Antialkidas to King Kasiputra Bhagabhadra, the Saviour, then reigning prosperously in the fourteenth year of his kingship.”

“Three immortal precepts (footsteps)… when practiced diligently lead to heaven: self-restraint (dama), charity, (thyaga) consciousness (apramada).” 


Inscription on the board,  set up by the Archaeological Survey of India , at  the base of the pillar


10.1. The exact relationship between Krishna and Vishnu is complex;  and is a subject of endless debate. Strangely, Krishna became the point of departure for Vaishnava Schools of the North and the South. In the older traditions of the South, Narayana or Vishnu is the summum bonum , the source, support and dissolving ground of all Jivas. Krishna is an aspect or an avatar of Vishnu; not necessarily subordinate to Vishnu. However, the traditions of Gaudiya (Bengal) Vaishnavas, the Nimbarka Sampradaya and follower of Vallabha-charya consider Vasudeva-Krishna as Svayam Bhagavān “The Lord Himself “; and not  different from the ultimate and absolute Brahman. Vasudeva-Krishna   is the source of all avatars, and is the source of Vishnu or Narayana and all other gods.

D. Para-Vasudeva

11.1. The central doctrine of the Pancharatra ideology is that the absolute, formless Brahman, out of loving- compassion, voluntary assumed bodily forms so that the devotees may gain access to his subtle form. He manifests himself in five-fold forms: Para or the supreme form of his transcendent being; Vyuha or the group of his forms called Vasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha brought together in worship and adoration as a complete body of divine power,  and who represent  the cosmic consciousness, intellect, mind, and the ego respectively; Vibhava or his glory seen through his incarnations or Avatars; Archa or his presence manifest in his idols and images worshipped by devotees; and Antaryamin or his immanent presence within the Universe.

11.2. The approach to the divine is graded. The devotee worships the Vibhava form or the incarnation of God such as Rama and others; then moves on to worship the Vyuha forms. And, from Vyuha form he progresses to worship the subtle forms of Vasudeva. Only the Suris the truly wise ones (gods and emancipated souls) can experience and enjoy His Para form abiding in the highest realm paramapada

He is called Para because he is free and pure, altogether unconditioned by phenomenal process. Para is often referred to as ‘the first form’, ‘the best of the Purushas’ and ‘the Highest Light’ etc; But, Para is not the Absolute –Supreme –formless Brahman. Para is a representation of Brahman.

12.1. Adi – murti or Adi-Vishnu or Para-Vasudeva represents the Pancharatra ideology of the transcendental form (para) of godhead Narayana (Vishnu) abiding in the highest realm paramapada. He is called para because he originated from ‘that which has all forms and no form’, ‘Brahman without beginning, middle and end’; and because he  is the all pervading divinity and the primal source of all other divine forms and manifestations. He is visualized as pure and resplendent like a clear crystal; and as the divinely auspicious charming form.

The identification of Vasudeva-Krishna with Vishnu or Para –Vasudeva had enormous impact on the Pancharatra theology.

Adi Murthi

Let’s talk about the Vyuha of the Pancharatra School in the next post.

Continued in

Part Three

The Vyuha




(i) Narayana being one of the most popular forms of Vishnu, number of texts and dhyana-slokas carry the iconographic details of Narayana. The more prominent of such texts are: Chitra-karma sastram; Parasara Samhita; Sesha Samhita; Rupamandana; and Aditya hrudaya. While the general features of Narayana resemble that of Vishnu , Sesha Samhita says, Narayana image should be placed in a solar orb (savitr –mandala) ; he should be seated upon a white lotus;  and bedecked with armlets, crocodile-shaped earrings (makara – kundala) , a rich crown , the kaustubha gem and Srivatsa  on the chest; and  decorated with flowing garlands (vanamala) . He should be dressed in bright yellow or red  garments; and holding conch and discus in his hands. The expression on his face should be bright, beautiful, smiling and evoking happiness in the hearts of the viewers. His complexion should resemble molten golden –hue or luster of blue cloud. (Sesha Samhita 34, 16)

(ii) The usual descriptions of Narayana are that he has four arms representing four vyuhas; and carrying conch, discus, mace and lotus. His complexion is blue like that of sky.  His countenance is tranquil (shanta). His bearing is dignified, standing in equipoise (sama-banga) on a white lotus. He wears yellow silk garments (pitambara) and is richly adorned with gems, ornaments and flower garlands.


krishna with gods

Krishna is the most adorable of all gods. There are virtually countless forms of Krishna-depictions; and, can hardly be enumerated.  The texts , therefore, suggest, Krishna may be visualized in whatever form one desires. But , they lay down some broad guidelines.

[It is said in Vaikhanasa agama: Krishna‘s forms are indeed infinite; and,  are beyond enumeration . Whoever desires to worship Krishna, let her/him choose one of Krishna’s forms ; and , devote to it entirely, diligently and lovingly – Krishna rupani asankyanivaktum asaktyani; tasmad ethestya rupam karayeth]

(i) To start with, the Krishna iconographic depictions are conceived in three broad forms. They are his Saumya or Lalita-rupa – gracious, delightful and beautiful form; the Aradhya-rupa– worship-worthy divine form , either two-armed , four-armed or eight-armed (Trilokya-mohana)  carrying various ayudhas ; and, the third  is the Vishwa-rupa, or his cosmic form displaying his infinite form as Vishwa or Virat  Purusha pervading every element of the  entire cosmos .

[However, the spectacular Vishwa-rupa depictions and themes are mostly confined to Bhagavad-Gita illustrations]

It is mostly the blend of his two forms – the Saumya and the Aradhya – that have given rise to his Lila –rupa (depicting his various playful deeds and adorable sports) that is widely illustrated and painted in various Schools of art. The Lila Krishna is the most lovable infant/ boy/ and lover. Every mother loves to see Krishna in her little son; and every girl pines to see her lover in the image and spirit of Krishna.

The Lila-rupa is now the prime form of Krishna images. It combines in itself the three other Rupas or forms (Saumya, Aradhya and Vishwa) of Krishna; and projects him as Lila-Krishna or Lila-Purusha.

Again, Krishna’s icons in Lila-rupa may be classed under three broad groups :

: – The first one comprises of his sanctum images, the images installed in temples to which formal worship is offered. For instance:   the universally revered mage of Venu Gopala or Banke Bihari at Vrindavana standing in Tribhangi, with flute on his lips. He is richly decorated with Kaustuba jewel and Srivatsa mark on the chest; and Swastika insignia on his feet.

The sanctum-images of Krishna, Aradhya rupa, try to mirror his cosmic nature. The blue or dark bodied  like a rain-bearing cloud (abhravapu) Krishna corresponds to the sky and the ocean; one defining cosmic vastness and the other cosmic depth; and, both conjointly the Infinity, which as Vishnu’s incarnation Krishna represented [except in Tanjore and Mysore paintings where his figure glows with golden lustre].

: – The second relates to his deeds as the protector of the virtuous and the destroyer of the evil.

The icons depicting Krishna eliminating the evil form another group of Krishna’s iconographic visualization. He subdues the evil ones, such as Kalinga the python, puts an end to agents of death such as Baka, Puthana and Kubalyapitha and others. Here, the detached Krishna eliminates evil, protects environment and Yamuna; removes the polluting venom; puts out forest fires and so on.

As Govardhana-dhari, Krishna lifts mount Govardhana on his left hand little finger for protecting Vrindavana, its people, animals, nature and so on, from Indra’s ire.

His major act of valour in his adolescence was the elimination of Kamsa and Chanura; and establishing a just social order.

Apart from these acts of bravery, Krishna also dispels misgivings and imparts true understanding and knowledge. [Much later in his life, Krishna, as Partha Sarathi,  on the battle field, teaches Arjuna the true perspective of life; and the ways that wise persons act in life].

krishna chatustala0005

: – And, the third is his human forms, where he is the highly  ideal and most beloved  boy, youth and son; and, the sublime, divine lover

In this category of Lila rupa, Krishna as an infant is shown either on the swing or on the lap of Mother Yashodha or on a banyan leaf (vata-patra-shayi) or enjoying a lump of fresh butter (Navaneetha Krishna). In his childhood, Krishna as Bala Krishna is depicted variously as the most lovable ever mischievous little boy stealing butter, breaking pots and playing pranks; as Gopi-Krishna, he plays, sings and dances merrily with the village girls; and in the Radha – Krishna rupa he is with Sri Radha, idealized Love.

As Venu-Gopala or Madana-Gopala or Dhenu Gopala, Krishna adorned with pea-cock feather, vanamala (garland of forest flowers) and a string of gunja-seeds (gunja-avathamsam – siki-pincha),   playing on flute tends the cows (Gopalaka) and plays happily with his mates (Gopala-sukhavahanam).

Krishna Gopala

In Indian tradition, cow (gau) also represents the earth; for, she has earth-like forbearance and capacity to feed mankind. Allegorically, Krishna protects the earth from evils and sustains it. ‘Gau‘ also means the five ‘senses’ that human beings have. Thus, Gopala (Gah palayanti) is he who sustains and controls senses (indriyani). At another level, Krishna stands for the Supreme Self and Gopis for ‘jivatmas‘ or individual selves pining to unite with it. Radha defines the culmination of this longing before she unites with the Supreme Self.

Krishna Kalinga mardhana

(ii) Now, a well respected text of the Shilpa Shastra – Sri Brahmiya Chitra karma Shastram – of Vaishnava orientation devotes the entire of its chapter nine – Sri Krishna Lakshanam – to discuss the various iconographic representation of Krishna.

According to this text:

Krishna, it is said, is usually depicted as an adorable, lovable lad of less than fifteen years; or as a handsome and graceful young man. The boyhood of Krishna, it is suggested, could be split into five segments of three years each. The general prescription is , the images of Krishna of the age of less than three be scaled to five (pancha) tala measure (sixty angulas); the images of three to six years in six (shat) tala measure (seventy two angulas);the images of the age up to nine years in seven (sapta) tala measure (eighty-four angulas); the images of the age from nine to twelve years in eight (asta) tala measure(ninety-six angulas); and, the images of the age from twelve to fifteen years be scaled in nine (nava) tala measure( one hundred and eight angulas).

Certain depictions of boy-Krishna are  stylized and are ichnographically well recognized; these are : Bala_Krishna (infant Krishna playing in mother’s lap or on leaf of banyan tree , sucking his toe); Navanita-tandava (three-year old Krishna standing on his slightly bent left-leg in a dancing pose, the right-hand holding afloat a ball of butter) ;Kaliya-mardana( a seven to nine year Krishna dancing on the hoods of the Kalia serpent , holding in his left hand the tail of the serpent); Govardhana-dhara( twelve year Krishna holding up the Govardhana hill on the tip of his little finger) and Venu-gopala (twelve-fifteen year Krishna under a tree playing on the flute , he stands in tri-bhanga posture and wears a peacock feather in his hair).

Krishna as a young man is depicted lovingly in company of Rukmini or Radha or other gopis;

or as  Govardhana or as Partha-sarathy the teacher of Arjuna on the battle field.

The image of Krishna as a young person is scaled in ten (dasa) tala measure (120 angulas). His complexion resembles light-blue sky; he is clad in garments of golden-hue (the colour of Radha); lovingly adorned with ornaments, flowing garlands swinging across his chest, a beautiful light crown with a peacock feather tucked on top. He could be holding a flute or a baton (danda); his left hand bent at elbow and slightly lifted up in jest. He has a gentle, sweet smile playing on his lips and face; and a sparkle glowing in his eyes.

Krishna radha 3Krishna radha2

Krishna is depicted with two hands as also with four or eight hands. Bedecked with ornaments (sarva-abhara-bhushitam)   Trailokya–mohana form may have eight or sixteen arms carrying various ayudhas , such as shakthi (sphere), kumbha (pot), srunga (horn), musala ( pestle) , bana (arrow) , goad (ankusha) , noose ( pasha)  ; and gesturing boons (varada-hasta) or in meditative pose (dhyana-hasta)


(iii) Another text – Vidyarnava-tantra – mentions that Krishna could be represented differently according to the three segments of the day: morning, afternoon and evening.

In the morning, Krishna is seated on a jewelled throne (ratna-simhasana) in Padmasana (lotus-posture). He is shown as a small boy, blue in complexion; holding a ball of fresh butters; and, surrounded by cows, his fellow cowherd-friends and maidens. He looks happy and cheerful (hasantam) with an enchanting smile playing on his lips (manda-smita-mukhambuja)

In the afternoon, he is a grown-up boy, in his teens, wearing pea-cock feathers on his crown (Shikhi-pincha); bejewelled (ratna-kundala); adorned with Vanamala garland; and, draped in yellow silken garments (Pitambara). He holds a flute in his right hand; and in his left hand he has either a conch (shankha) or a stick (krida vetra) for sport.

And, in the evening, he is resplendent as a monarch of Dwaraka (Dwarakadisha), seated on a jewelled throne in an elegant pavilion surrounded by water bodies. He well decked, adorned with variety of ornaments and a handsome crown. Sometimes, he is depicted with four arms carrying the ayudhas associated with Vishnu – conch, discus, mace and lotus (shankha, chakra, gadha, padma). He is served by many beautiful looking women (surupani) and wise sages. Rukmini of blue complexion holding a red lotus flower (padma or rakta-indīvara) stands to his right; while Satyabhama of golden complexion holding a blue lotus flower (utpala,nīlotpala ) stands to his left.

Krishna symbolism

(iv) There is also a rare depiction of Krishna in the Tantric tradition.

Para Vasudeva

Isvara Samhita (4: 80 to 102) gives a detailed description of the Para Vasudeva. He has four arms and is resting on Adi-sesha, attended by Garuda, Visvaksena, Nitya-suris and others. He carries lotus (symbolizing creation), discus (protection), conch (salvation) and mace (destruction).He is shining like a clear crystal; and is dressed in golden yellow garments. His other features are similar to that of Vishnu.

lotus blue

Sources and References

I gratefully acknowledge the line-drawings and notes from Brahmiya Chitrakarma Sastram

by Prof G Gnanananda

Vishnu Kosha by Prof.SK Ramachandra Rao

Krishna with cow drawings from

 Other pictures from internet


Posted by on October 1, 2012 in Vishnu


Tags: , , , , , ,

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.

Vishnu Shayana

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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