Saturday, 3 October 2009

Lord Vishnu

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Vishnu is commonly known as the second member of the Great Triad of gods, the others being Brahma and Shiva. His function is to preserve the universe through each cycle of creation and ensure that it is not subject to premature entropy and dissolution. Vishnu cannot prevent the ultimate meltdown of creation; he can only ensure that it does not happen before schedule. For the universe too has its designated span of existence and Vishnu keeps it in good order. This broadly was supposed to be his function when the initial worship of Vishnu began, but true to his nature as a Trickster God, he has mutated so many times since then that to make any final or categorical statement about Vishnu or his role in the Universe is foolhardiness. There are simply too many Vishnus, all coexisting in happy contradiction, for any definitive role or categorization. Vishnu is what you take him to be, and it is more pertinent to ask what worshippers mean by Vishnu rather than what Vishnu is all about.

His name means 'He who has entered' or more accurately 'He who has pervaded the universe'. Thus Vishnu is the support of the universe at the microscopic level. From this standpoint it was not too much trouble to make the deduction that Vishnu was indeed the Universe Itself, every atom and every galaxy being but the body of the god. This did not imply that Vishnu was distinct from or identical with the universe; he was regarded as simultaneously its creator, its very bodily existence as well as transcendent of it all. To explain this complex concept it was stated that Vishnu was Nara, the cosmic ocean pervading all before creation. He is also Narayana "Moving in the waters" once creation has come into being. This is a very long way away from Vishnu's initial origin in the Rig Veda as a minor solar deity, who was famous for having taken three steps that spanned creation and fighting the forces of darkness. When the Vedic religion had run out of impetus in about 300 BCE new gods were needed to satisfy the changed psychological needs of the people. Of the Vedic deities, only Shiva, Vishnu and Surya were vague enough and fluid enough to provide the reassuring link with the past as well as to radicalize modes of belief. In the 13th century CE when the worship of Surya, the sun god, went into unexplained decline, Vishnu absorbed his following as he too was a solar deity. It was not the last time such a thing would happen.

The Vedic Vishnu is interesting in that he possesses, in seminal form, the most important attributes of Vishnu in his later ascendancy. It is one of the ironies of fate that he is described as deriving his power from Indra, king of the gods. In the Pauranic era, the situation will reverse exactly and Indra will become a timorous weakling, constantly running to Vishnu for aid. What is significant is one Vedic phrase that will fix his nature forever - "Vishnu, the Unconquerable Preserver, strode three steps over the universe." In this we have both the future Vamana incarnation as well as Vishnu in his role today. Vedic commentators always held that he was a manifestation of Solar Energy and the three steps represent either the three manifestations of light - fire, lightning and the sun; or the three phases of the sun, its rising, culmination[noon] and setting. Given this background it is easy enough to understand why the waning cult of the sun in places like Orissa and Gujarat was easily absorbed by the ascendancy of Vishnu. An interesting example of the confusion that prevailed, and of hedging one's bets, was the magnificent star shaped temple at Warrangal [circa1153]. Built by king Rudradeva it was simultaneously dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Surya!

Vishnu is most famous for having ten avatars or incarnations of himself. These are various forms he assumed while engaged in the task of preserving the universe and destroying the forces of darkness. What is really difficult to untangle is if the avatars were local deities absorbed into the larger, more sophisticated and prestigious Vishnu cult or if the Vishnu cult splintered into various avatar-centric sub-groups. The best guess is that it was a combination of both factors. Geographically, Vishnu worshipped as Vishnu instead of in avatar form is confined only to South India. But paradoxically that area also has some of the oldest evidence of avatar worship especially of the Coorma Avatar, Narasimha and Parashurama. This sculptural evidence comes as early as the 4th and 5th CE and predates any sign of independent Vishnu worship. In fact there is even a composite form of Narasimha and Coorma avatar called Vaikunta Vishnu that was and is popularly worshipped. In the north of India it was always Rama and Krishna. In the east it was only Krishna, including the famous Jaggannath temple which is nominally a Vishnu temple but has a Krishna image in worship. In the west too it is only Krishna, with the Nathdwara style dominating Gujarat and Sindh while the bhakti movement gave to Maharashtra state the worship of Vitthal, a form of Krishna. So Vishnu is both worshipped and invisible.

Shiva and Vishnu soon established ascendancy over Brahma. What was left unresolved to this day is the question of primacy between them. Both sides claim their god is superior while conceding almost equal status to the contender. The Padma Purana is typical in its tenor - "In the beginning of time the great Vishnu, desirous of creating the world, became threefold; Creator, Preserver, Destroyer. Some worship Brahma, others Vishnu, yet others Shiva; but Vishnu, one yet threefold, creates, preserves and destroys: therefore let the pious make no difference between the three." The Vishnu Purana is not happy with such equivocation and forcefully states, "The world was produced from Vishnu; it exists in him; he is the cause of its continuation and cessation; he is the world." That is clear enough as an uncompromising assertion of supremacy. Naturally the Shaivas have their own texts with similar stories. One of the delightfully naive stories as to why Vishnu is regarded as supreme is set forth in the Tests of Bhrigu, a rishi who wanted this vexing question solved forever. The sage deliberately misbehaved with both Brahma and Shiva and they launched into curses against him. Being a liberated soul these were ineffectual. He then proceeded to actually kick a sleeping Vishnu on the chest to wake him up, whereupon the god was only concerned that the great sage may have injured his foot against that adamantine chest. Since he demonstrated the greatest self control and forgiveness Bhrigu declared Vishnu to be the greatest god.

The myths that constitute the Vishnu corpus are normally stories of his incarnations. Only the Vaishnava cult of South India used to ignore the avatars and worship Vishnu alone. This has led to some famous temples, Srirangam, Tirupati, and particularly the Padmanabha temple at Trivandrum, where the ruling king is supposed to be merely a steward of Vishnu who is the actual ruler. At present the most popular temple in India is the Tirupati shrine where Vishnu is worshipped as Balaji. The sheer scale and magnitude of worship that goes on here is incredible. One quirky fact may help to put things in perspective. One of the votive offerings made at the shrine is to shave off your hair completely. 600 fulltime barbers are currently employed at the temple to deal with the rush. Other temples do not deal with such volumes of traffic but they are also very crowded places indeed. One peculiar spin off to the popularity of Balaji is the proliferation of replica temples all over India as well as in other countries. It is a significant upsurge in Vishnu worship that has no precedents.

As a Trickster God, Vishnu displays behavior that is sometimes most distressing for naive devotees who believe that evil is always conquered by displays of moral superiority rather than by greater strength and cunning. Vishnu knows better and in discharging his duty towards maintaining cosmic balance he acts in ways that are shocking to the squeamish. Once Indra was locked in fruitless conflict with an invincible demon called Vrita and the king of gods was at his wit's end. The demon had a boon that he could not be killed either by night or day, by a wet or dry substance, on land or water, which pretty much made him invulnerable. On Vishnu's advice he made a truce with the demon and even feigned friendship for many years with him. One day they were walking on the seashore, right at the edge of land and sea at the twilight hour. The wily Vishnu entered the foam of the ocean, which was neither wet nor dry, and by hurling it at Vrita Indra was enabled to slay his foe while maintaining the integrity of the boon.
At other times he did not hesitate to kill women who were protecting and sustaining the forces of darkness. One such was the mother of Sukra, the preceptor of the demons and her power made them insolent and audacious. Realizing that she was threatening the stability of the universe Vishnu cut off her head. An angry Sukra cursed Vishnu to be born many times upon earth as a punishment, but the impish humor of the Trickster found in that an opportunity to perform mighty deeds for the benefit of the world. These births were to become the avatars of Vishnu. We see clearly how these stories attempt to reconcile divergent and incongruous patterns of behavior. In fact Vishnu seems to have a penchant for going against expectations and acting in ways that shock. Even the moral exemplar, Rama, could suddenly launch into actions that demonstrated the old truism - "The Hero may sometimes act like a villain but never as a fool."

In his treatment of Vrinda, wife of the asura king Jalandhara, he displayed a level of ruthlessness that is still shocking. Vrinda was the perfectly chaste wife of the demon king. In Indian myth that means her husband is invulnerable. The gods were getting thrashed regularly by this asura and unlike the bout with Vrita there was no loophole to exploit. Vishnu, having protean forms, assumed that of Jalandhara and paid Vrinda a conjugal visit while he was supposed to be on the battle field. The parallels with Uther Pendragon, father of Arthur, and his seduction of Ygraine are exact. It was obviously a popular mythical device to shatter the power of an invulnerable foe, as Jalandhara is instantly defeated. Vrinda realizes she has been deceived and before committing suicide curses Vishnu to suffer the torment of having his wife's honor besmirched. This is the explanation for the episode of Rama and Sita, but Vishnu probably felt it was a minor price to pay. This hard edge is not something devotees of Vishnu prefer to dwell upon but it is there nonetheless. If Vishnu is indeed the universe then he is the hardness and darkness of it too.

These episodes are atypical and not to be confused with the norm where Vishnu is concerned. They merely point out that Vishnu should never be underestimated or taken for granted as a pious softy. That is always a danger as Vishnu is usually described as mild, always amused and smiling, and when in his heaven, called Vaikuntha, he seems to be in perpetual slumber upon the coils of Anantha, the Infinite Snake which floats upon the cosmic waters. This is regarded in yogic circles as a symbol of his perfect control over the Kundalini energy which is the creative power of the universe. Since he has it under control there is no need to strive or be frenetic in activity. Everything naturally happens to such a being. In popular mythology, Vishnu has a lotus growing form his navel upon which sits Brahma, perpetually involved in the actions of the cosmos he has created. This contradicts the position that Vishnu is in charge of the world. Actually Brahma incessantly oversees that aspect of things, Vishnu waking up from his yogic slumber only when there is a crisis!

Vishnu has a few mythical characters closely associated with him. Foremost is his wife Laxmi, Goddess of Fortune, and his greatest devotee. In fact one of her names is Vishnupriya, 'Dear to Vishnu', and the bhakti tradition holds that worship of Laxmi is so pleasing to Vishnu that you do not even have to consciously worship him! Their domestic life is usually harmonious, though Vishnu does have another wife, Bhudevi - the Earth Goddess. Some traditions hold that she is actually none other than Laxmi herself. At various times and at various incarnations Vishnu ends up marrying either or both of them so the point is unclear. In south India he is always depicted with the two of them as separate wives. One of Bhudevi's children went to the bad over the ages and became a cosmic nuisance called Narakasura. The Krishna avatar of Vishnu had to kill him off, so the trickster's penchant for the unexpected obviously continues.

Vishnu's vehicle is the mythical man bird Garuda, the king of all winged creatures. He is a superhumanly powerful force in the cosmos and seems to have been originally one of the yaksha deities who were absorbed into the mainstream religion. Garuda is called the senior servant of Hari (Vishnu). All Vishnu temples display him upon the flag post and there is usually a separate shrine for his worship. The junior servant of Hari is the great god Hanuman. Yet another divine personage closely associated with Vishnu is the sage Narada, who is also a great devotee of Vishnu. This sage is unique in having been born a deva or god but choosing a spiritual life of celibacy and devotion, unlike the rest of the heavenly crew.

Narada is the ideal sidekick for a Trickster god, being a sort of magnified Puck, hugely intelligent and having a congenitally strange sense of humor allied to a persuasive tongue. He has the run of all the worlds and since his very presence brings forth blessings to the land even the demons don't prevent him from coming and going as he wills. Narada is always looking to stir things up, and being an infallible psychologist he knows exactly what buttons to press. Sometimes he creates domestic strife in Vishnu's life solely for the amusement! To meddle is what he lives for and to make people fall in love when their families would oppose it, to give false hope to evildoers, to shake up the staid and conventional, and to completely puncture the pretensions of the delusional - these are his vocation. Narada of course is an active agent of Vishnu and he should really be regarded as an aspect of the god's power than as a separate entity.

Narada was once inadvertently responsible for the birth of the sacred heavenly river Ganga from the body of Vishnu. Narada fancied himself as a singer, and the rest of the world was too polite to tell the divine sage the truth - that he stank. One day, while on his travels and cheerfully warbling away, he came across some hideously mutilated and suffering beings. The compassionate Narada was aghast when he learnt the truth about them. They were the inner geniuses of the songs he had been so cavalierly massacring, reduced to such torment because the power of a god had literal consequences when used. He swore not to sing until he had mastered the art and he kept his promise so well that Narada is acknowledged as an unquestioned master of music today. However something needed to be done for the wounded spirits of music. Fortunately if their songs were sung by the perfect singer, they would be healed. Shiva was the perfect singer and he agreed on condition that the perfect listeners, Brahma and Vishnu, be present for the concert. He would sing only if he was in perfect rapport with his audience. None of this was a problem and the great god began to sing. So enraptured did Vishnu get with the song that his body began to melt in sympathy. Brahma was alert and he quietly captured this melted essence of Vishnu in his water pot. This became the river of salvation - Ganga.

Vishnu is depicted as a handsome young man, dressed in royal robes and being either dark blue or black in complexion. In his four hands he holds the symbols so dear to his devotees, these being - the conch-shell or Shanka called Panchajaya, the fiery quoit or discus weapon called the Sudarshana charka made from the rays of the sun, a mace called Kaumodaki, and the fourth hand holding a lotus or Padma. Students of the Tarot will instantly recognize that each one of these symbols represent one of the Great Elements of Earth, Water, Fire and Air and represents the ability of the Trickster god to pervade everything as befits his name. His bow is called Sarnga and his sword Nandaka. One of the peculiar identifying marks of Vishnu is that his chest has a curl of hair called the sri-vasta, or sign of Laxmi! Avatars of Vishnu are recognized by their having this curl. He is also depicted as wearing Laxmi's portrait over the sri-vasta, which is a pretty romantic thing to do as well as being something unique in Sanskrit literature.

The worship of Vishnu is one of the most theologically and ritually overdeveloped aspects of Indian faith so we shall not go into it here. What is of interest is the concept that by exclusively focusing on the God one could achieve salvation. This was a new note in India. The worshippers of Vishnu are generally more conservative in caste outlook and attitudes than those who follow the avatars. They are a veritable bulwark of tradition which is a mixed blessing, but the Vaishnavas have contributed more than their fair share to the cultural life of India so it all balances out. Vishnu would have been pleased with that. Finally one of the characteristic features of Vishnu worship is the repetition of his thousand names. Of these some of the more significant are Achyuta - the imperishable; Hrishikesha - lord of the organs of sense; Keshava - the radiant; Purusha - the supreme man/spirit; Purushottama - the supreme spirit/highest amongst men; Yajnesha - the lord of sacrifices; Svayambhu - the self existent; Mukunda - the deliverer and Vishwamvara - the protector of the world.

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