Nature of Vişhņu

In the Rigveda there are forty five mantrās to the deity Vişhņu spread over seven sūktās. We will be discussing only the six mantrās in the 22nd hymn in the first mandala, (1.22.16)-(1.22.21), popularly known as shad vaişhņavam.

We will give a brief picture of the functions of VişhņuVişhņu creates or manifests the universe of seven planes, unveils its laws and maintains the universe under these laws. This happens not only in the macrocosm, but also in the microcosm, the subtle body of man. “Vişhņu paces out the vast framework of the inner-worlds in which our soul-action takes place. It is by him and with him that we rise into his highest seats where we find waiting for us the Friend, the Beloved and the Beatific Godhead.” [Sri Aurobindo]

The purāņic triad of Vişhņu-Brahmaņaspati-Rudra is intimately related to the Vedic triad of Vişhņu-Brahmaņaspati-Rudra. We give a brief description of the connection. Brahma in the Veda means mantra and Brahmaņaspati is the Lord of mantrās. In the Veda Brahmaņaspati creates all by speech. He brings out all things from the darkness of Inconscience and gives them life-forms and mental-forms.

Rudra forcibly leads this creation upwards. He puts down all those who arrogantly obstruct his courses and kills the evil opponents. Though thus terrible, he is beneficent, and compassionate to the distressed.

Vişhņu pervades the entire manifestation and organizes it into several planes or worlds, each plane, based on a particular principle. For instance this world, earth, is dominated by matter. The midworld, antarikşha, is dominated by life-energies, emotional energies etc. The world of heaven, dyu, is dominated by the mental energies. The highest station is said to be Vişhņu‘s supreme step. He creates the path by which the mortals can reach the supreme station after traversing the intermediate worlds.

Symbolism of Vişhņu

“When Vişhņu is said to sleep on the folds of the snake ananta upon the ocean of sweet milk, ananta is clearly seen to be not the common serpent, nor the milk the material sweet milk, nor the ocean an expanse of milky liquid. The symbolic meaning is that the All-pervading Vişhņu rests on the coils of the Infinite in the blissful ocean of Eternal Existence. It may be said that the authors of the purāņās were priests, gross minds who knew not even the truth of the solar and lunar eclipses; how could they be in the know of profound varieties? They mean only the usual physical serpent and the material ocean of real milk and it is we who read into them the symbolic meaning we could point out that there is no necessity for us to imagine so. These poets themselves have imprinted the symbolic thought by means of figures and words and made known impenetrable truths for the benefit of all. Note, those words are: Vişhņu means all-pervading, the serpent Sheşha is ananta, the infinite; sweet milk is a symbol of bliss; the ocean is a symbol of the Eternal Existence.”

All pervading godhead (RV 1.154)

  1. Of Vişhņu now I declare the mighty works, who has measured out the earthly worlds and that higher seat of our self-accomplishing he supports, he the wide-moving, in the threefold steps of his universal movement.
  2. That Vişhņu affirms on high by his mightiness and he is like a terrible lion that ranges in the difficult places, yea, his lair is on the mountain-tops, he in whose three wide movements all the worlds find their dwelling-place.
  3. Let our strength and our thought go forward to Vişhņu the all-pervading, the wide-moving Bull whose dwelling- place is on the mountain, he who being One has measured all this long and far-extending seat of our self-accomplishing by only three of his strides.
  4. He whose three steps are full of the honey- wine and they perish not but have ecstasy by the self-harmony of their nature; yea, he being One holds the triple principle and earth and heaven also, even all the worlds.
  5. May I attain to and enjoy that goal of his movement, the Delight, where souls that seek the godhead have the rapture; for there in that highest step of the wide-moving Vişhņu is that Friend of men who is the fount of the sweetness.
  6. Those are the dwellings-places of ye twain which we desire as the goal of our journey, where the many-horned herds of Light go travelling; the highest step of wide-moving Vişhņu shines down on us here in its manifold vastness.


The deity of this hymn is Vişhņu the all-pervading, who in the Rig-veda has a close but covert connection and almost an identity with the other deity exalted in the later religion, Rudra. Rudra is a fierce and violent godhead with a beneficent aspect which approaches the supreme blissful reality of Vişhņu; Vişhņu’s constant friendliness to man and his helping gods is shadowed by an aspect of formidable violence, – “like a terrible lion ranging in evil and difficult places”,- which is spoken of in terms more ordinarily appropriate to Rudra. Rudra is the father of the vehemently-battling Maruts; Vişhņu is hymned in the last Sūkta of the fifth Mandala under the name of Evaya Marut as the source from which they sprang, that which they become, and himself identical with the unity and totality of their embattled forces. Rudra is the Deva or Deity ascending in the cosmos, Vişhņu the same Deva or Deity helping and evoking the powers of the ascent.It was a view long popularised by European scholars that the greatness of Vişhņu and Shiva in the -Puranic theogonies was a later development and that in the Veda these gods have a quite minor position and are inferior to lndra and Agni. It has even become a current opinion among many scholars that Shiva was a later conception borrowed from the Dravidians and represents a partial conquest of the Vedic religion by the indigenous culture it had invaded. These errors arise inevitably as part of the total misunderstanding of Vedic thought for which the old Brahmanic ritualism is responsible and to which European scholarship by the exaggeration of a minor and external element in the Vedic mythology has only given a new and yet more misleading form.The importance of the Vedic gods has not to be measured by the number of hymns devoted to them or by the extent to which they are invoked in the thoughts of the Rishis, but by the functions which they perform. Agni and Indra to whom the majority of the Vedic hymns are addressed, are not greater than Vişhņu and Rudra, but the functions which they fulfill in the internal and external world were the most active, dominant and directly effective for the psychological discipline of the ancient Mystics; this alone is the reason of their predominance. The Maruts, children of Rudra, are not divinities superior to their fierce and mighty Father; but they have many hymns addressed to them and are far more constantly mentioned in connection with other gods, because the function they fulfilled was of a constant and immediate importance in the Vedic discipline. On the other hand, Vişhņu, Rudra, Brahmanaspati, the Vedic originals of the later Puranic Triad, Vişhņu-Shiva-Brahma provide the conditions of the Vedic work and assist it from behind the more present and active gods, but are less close to it and in appearance less continually concerned in its daily movements.Brahmaņaspati is the creator by the Word; he calls light and visible cosmos out of the darkness of the inconscient ocean and speeds the formations of conscious being upward to their supreme goal. It is from this creative aspect of Brahmaņaspati that the later conception of Brahma the Creator arose.For the upward movement of Brahmaņaspati’s formations Rudra supplies the force. He is named in the Veda the Mighty One of Heaven, but he begins his work upon the earth and gives effect to the sacrifice on the five planes of our ascent. He is the Violent One who leads the upward evolution of the conscious being; his force battles against all evil, smites the sinner and the enemy; intolerant of defect and stumbling he is the most terrible of the gods, the one of whom alone the Vedic Rishis have any real fear. Agni, the Kumara, prototype of the Puranic Skanda, is on earth the child of this force of Rudra. The Maruts, vital powers which make fight for themselves by violence, are Rudra’s children. Agni and the Maruts are the leaders of the fierce struggle upward from Rudra’s first earthly, obscure creation to the heavens of thought, the luminous worlds. But this violent and mighty Rudra who breaks down all defective formations and groupings of outward and inward life, has also a beginner aspect. He is the supreme healer. Opposed, he destroys; called on for aid and propitiated he heals all wounds and all evil and all sufferings. Tile force that battles is his gift, but also the final peace and joy. In these aspects of the Vedic god are all the primitive materials necessary for the evolution of the Puranic Shiva-Rudra, the destroyer and healer, the auspicious and terrible, the Master of the force that acts in the worlds and the Yogin who enjoys the supreme liberty and peace.For the formations of Brahmaņaspati’s word, for the actions of Rudra’s force Vişhņu supplies the necessary static elements, – Space, the ordered movements of the worlds, the ascending levels, the highest goal. He has taken three strides and in the space created by the three strides has established all the worlds. In these worlds he the all-pervading dwells and gives less or greater room to the action and movements of the gods. When Indra would slay Vŗtra, he first prays to Vişhņu, his friend and comrade in the great struggle (1.22.19), “O Vişhņu, pace out in thy movement with an utter wideness”, (IV.18.11), and in that wideness he destroys Vŗtra who limits, Vŗtra who covers. The supreme step of Vişhņu, his highest seat, is the triple world of bliss and light, paramam padam, which the wise ones see extended in heaven like a shining eye of vision (1.22.20); it is this highest seat of Vişhņu that is the goal of the Vedic journey. Here again the Vedic Vişhņu is the natural precursor and sufficient origin of the Puranic Narayana, Preserver and Lord of Love.In the Veda indeed its fundamental conception forbids the Puranic arrangement of the supreme Trinity and the lesser gods. To the Vedic rişhis there was only one universal Deva of whom Vişhņu, Rudra, Brahmaņaspati, Agni, Indra, Vāyu, Mitra, Varuna are all alike forms and cosmic aspects. Each of them is in himself the whole Deva and contains all the other gods. It was the full emergence in the upanishads of the idea of this supreme and only Deva, left in the riks vague and undefined and some- times even spoken of in the neuter as That or the one sole existence, the ritualistic limitation of the other gods and the progressive precision of their human or personal aspects under the stress of a growing mythology that led to their degradation and the enthronement of the less used and more general names and forms, Brahma, Vişhņu and Rudra, in the final Puranic formulation of the Hindu theogony.

In this hymn of Dirghatamas Auchathya to the all-pervading Vişhņu it is his significant activity, it is the greatness of Vişhņu’s three strides that is celebrated. We must dismiss from our minds the ideas proper to the later mythology. We have nothing to do here with the dwarf Vişhņu, the Titan Bali and the three divine strides which took possession of Earth, Heaven and the sunless subterrestrial worlds of Patala. The three strides of Vişhņu in the Veda are clearly defined by Dirghatamas as earth, heaven and the triple principle, tridhatu. It is this triple principle beyond Heaven or superimposed upon it as its highest level, nakasya prsthe (I. 125.5), which is the supreme stride or supreme seat of the all-pervading deity.

Vişhņu is the wide-moving one. He is that which has gone abroad, – as it is put in the language of the Isha Upanishad, sa paryagat, – triply extending himself as Seer, Thinker and Former, in the superconscient Bliss, in the heaven of mind, in the earth of the physical consciousness, tredha vicakramanah. In those three strides he has measured out, he has formed in all their extension the earthly worlds; for in the Vedic idea the material world which we inhabit is only one of several steps leading to and supporting the vital and mental worlds beyond. In those strides he supports upon the earth and mid-world, -the earth the material, the mid-world the vital realms of Vāyu, Lord of the dynamic Life-principle, – the triple heaven and its three luminous summits, trīņi rocana. These heavens the rişhi describes as the higher seat of the fulfilling. Earth, the mid-world and heaven are the triple place of the conscious being’s progressive self-fulfilling, trisadhastha (1.56.5), earth the lower seat, the vital world the middle, heaven the higher. All these are contained in the threefold movement of Vişhņu.

But there is more; there is also the world where the self- fulfilment is accomplished, Vişhņu’s highest stride. In the second verse the seer speaks of it simply as “that”. “That” Vişhņu, moving yet forward in his third pace affirms or firmly establishes, pra stavate, by his divine might. Vişhņu is then described in a language which hints at his essential identity with the terrible Rudra, the fierce and dangerous Lion of the worlds who begins in the evolution as the Master of the animal, Pashupati, and moves upward on the mountain of being on which he dwells, ranging through more and more difficult and inaccessible places, till he stands upon the summits. Thus in three wide movements of Vişhņu all the five worlds and their creatures have their habitation. Earth, heaven and “that” world of bliss are the three strides. Between earth and heaven is the    Antariksha, the vital worlds, literally “the intervening habitation”. Between heaven and the world of bliss is another vast Antariksha or intervening habitation, Maharloka, the world of the superconscient Truth of things.

The force and the thought of man, the force that proceeds from Rudra the Mighty and the thought that proceeds from Brahmaņaspati, the creative Master of the Word, have to go forward in the great journey for or towards this Vişhņu who stands at the goal, on the summit, on the peak of the mountain. His is this wide universal movement; he is the Bull of the world who enjoys and fertilizes all the energies of force and all the trooping herds of the thought. This far-flung extended space which appears to us as the world of our self-fulfilment, as the triple altar of the great sacrifice has been so measured out, so formed by only three strides of that almighty Infinite.

All the three are full of the honey-wine of the delight of existence. All of them this Vişhņu fills with his divine joy of being. By that they are eternally maintained and they do not waste or perish, but in the self-harmony of their natural movement have always the unfailing ecstasy, the imperishable intoxication of their wide and limitless existence. Vişhņu maintains them unfailingly, preserves them imperishably. He is the One, he alone is, the sole-existing Godhead, and he holds in his being the triple divine principle to which we attain in the world of bliss, earth where we have our foundation and heaven also which we touch by the mental person within us. All the five worlds he upholds.” The tridhatu, the triple principle or triple material of existence, is the Sachchidananda of the Vedanta; in the ordinary language of the Veda it is vasu, substance, urj, abounding force of our being, priyam or mayas, delight and love in the very essence of our existence. Of these three things all that exists is constituted and we attain to their fullness when we arrive at the goal of our journey.

That goal is Delight, the last of Vişhņu’s three strides. The rişhi takes up the indefinite word “tat” by which he first vaguely indicated it; it signified the delight that is the goal of Vişhņu’s movement. It is the Ananda which for man in his ascent is a world in which he tastes divine delight, possesses the full energy of infinite consciousness, realises his infinite existence. There is that high-placed source of the honey-wine of existence of which the three strides of Vişhņu are full. There the souls that seek the godhead live in the utter ecstasy of that wine of sweetness. There in the supreme stride, in the highest seat of wide- moving Vişhņu is the fountain of the honey-wine, the source of the divine sweetness, – for that which dwells there is the God- head, the Deva, the perfect Friend and Lover of the souls that aspire to him, the unmoving and utter reality of Vişhņu to which the wide-moving God in the cosmos ascends.

These are the two, Vişhņu of the movement here, the eternally stable, bliss-enjoying Deva there, and it is those supreme dwelling places of the Twain, it is the triple world of Sachchidananda which we desire as the goal of this long journey, this great upward movement. It is thither that the many-horned herds of the conscious Thought, the conscious Force are moving – that is the goal, that is their resting-place. There in those worlds, gleaming down on us here, is the vast, full, illimitable shining of the supreme stride, the highest seat of the wide- moving Bull, master and leader of all those many-horned herds, – Vişhņu the all-pervading, the cosmic Deity, the Lover and Friend of our souls, the Lord of the transcendent existence and the transcendent delight.

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