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The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple or Thiruvarangam is a colossal temple to the Hindu god Vishnu (or, more specifically, it is dedicated to Ranganātha, a reclining form of Vishnu).  Located on an island in the Cauvery river in Tamil Nadu, the temple is one of the most illustrious (and largest) temples in India. The complex includes 21 monumental ornamental towers (including the 72 meter (236 foot)  Rajagopuram), 39 pavilions, fifty shrines, all within a 156 acre complex which includes six miles of concentric walls.  The shrines, walls, and towers are bedecked in stunning stone statuary painted in all of the brilliant colors of South India.

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The story of the temple’s creation is steeped in Hindu myth: Lord Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu completed his devotions to Vishnu by worshiping a mysterious idol.  After killing Ravana and returning victorious from Sri Lanka (as detailed in the Ramayana) Rama gave this sacred statue to King Vibhishana.  The king planned on taking the statue to Sri Lanka, but when he set it down while resting on an island, it became rooted to the spot.

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The temple itself was built by the Chola Dynasty, India’s longest lived dynasty.  There is a further legend of the temple’s construction: a Chola king chased a parrot into the deep forest and found the idol overgrown by jungle.  He built the complex around the statue and the temple was maintained and expanded by the great dynasties of Southern India–the Chola, Pandya, Hoysala and Vijayanagar dynasties.  The oldest parts of the building seem to date back to the 10th century AD, but written sources do not accurately convey the precise chronology.  The great temples of South India are themselves primary historical sources, but alas, they are not as particular about dates as historians might like.

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It is difficult to even begin to describe the sumptuous beauty and complexity of the ornaments of Sri Ranganathaswamy.  The colorful and intricate statues of the figures from Vishnu’s lives and incarnations have an otherworldly and alien beauty not found elsewhere.  Nor will I attempt to  describe the meaning of Vishnu’s iconography (although if you are as smitten by his reclining beauty as I am you can read about Ananta Shesha, the many headed cobra god which serves as his divine couch).

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The Avatar Kurma Churns the Ocean of Milk with Help from Devas and Asuras

The Avatar Kurma Churns the Ocean of Milk with Help from Devas and Asuras

Today is World Turtle Day when we celebrate all things chelonian. “That is wonderful, but what does it have to do with the fabulous Hindu tableau above?” you are probably asking. Well, the second avatar of Lord Vishnu, the preserver of all life, (who appears again and again in the world as different incarnations) was the turtle deity Kurma. The story is told above, but here is a streamlined narration to go with the painting.

Vishnu as Kurma

Vishnu as Kurma

The story begins with an elephant mishap: the great sage Durvasa presented a magnificent garland to Indra, king of the gods, who in turn presented the wreath to his magnificent war elephant. Unfortunately the elephant had limited aesthetic appreciation of the gift and trampled it. Deeply offended, Durvasa cursed the gods to lose their strength, radiance, and immortality. Thus cast down, the gods desperately looked for a solution from Vishnu, who advised them to quaff the nectar of immortality. Sadly there was no nectar available and the only way to produce more was to churn the ocean of milk with such force that the sacred milk clarified into the elixir.

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To complete the task, the gods allied themselves with the demon Asuras (power-hungry beings of near divinity who frequently fought the gods). The gods took the pillar-like Mount Mandara as a great butter churn and, with help from Vasuki, the king of all snakes, they began to churn the ocean of milk. So great was the force of gods and Asuras combined that Mount Mandara begin to sink into the ocean. Vishnu then transformed himself into the vast turtle Kurma and swam beneath the Mountain. His flippers churned the froth. The gods, demons, and great snake all exerted themselves to their utmost, and the turbulent ocean of milk became refined. Fourteen precious treasures arose from the sea, culminating in the sacred nectar of immortality.

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The picture at the top (which you should enlarge!) shows the gods on the left and the Asuras on the right. The king of nagas is acting as a drill rope wrapped around Mount Mandara. Vishnu sits atop the mountain and does not seem especially turtle-like. Fortunately I have included some paintings and drawings of him as a great turtle.

Hopefully you can learn a valuable lesson from this powerful myth! (Do not give treasured wreathes to elephants? Milk is healthy? Be kind to turtles? I don’t know…)

Anyway Happy World Turtle Day!

Maybe the point is that turtles are beautiful and should be considered sacred

Maybe the point is that turtles are beautiful and should be considered sacred

Vishnu in glory

Vishnu in glory in Vaikuntha (with Lakshmi and Ananta-Shesha)

Vishnu is one of the supreme Vedic beings of Hinduism.  He is an all-powerful deity who sustains and protects the universe–indeed, all beings within the universe are part of him.  Vishnu is the past, present and future.  He creates, sustains, and ultimately destroys all aspects of existence.  The multiple avatars of Vishnu—worldly incarnations which he assumes to directly experience and affect existence—lie at the center of Hindu myth.  Vishnu has lived many lives as Varaha, Rama, Krishna, and Buddha (well, at least to some of the devout), and performed many heroic deeds but his true divine nature transcends human understanding.

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When not incarnated as an avatar (and slaying demons, seducing milkmaids, or explaining the Bhagavad Gita to Arjun), Vishnu dwells in an abode known as Vaikuntha which transcends the material universe.  Sometimes Vaikuntha is imagined as floating atop a sea of milk or suspended in the infinite blackness of space.  In this numinous cosmological state of being, Vishnu reclines with his consort Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, beauty, and prosperity. In his four arms he holds a great conch shell, a mace, a chakra, and a lotus (padmus) which may or may not be the universe itself.

Vishnu-Ananta

Most interestingly, in his ultimate aspect of godhood, Vishnu reclines on another supreme deity, Ananta-Shesa, the king of all nagas, who is simultaneously a dasa (servant) of Vishnu and an incarnation of Vishnu himself.  Ananta-Shesa is sometimes portrayed as a five or seven headed cobra, but he is most commonly imagined as a naga (snake spirit) with immense numbers of cobra heads. Each one of these snake heads supports a planet and all of the heads constantly sing praises to Lord Vishnu. In Hindu iconography the heads are typically topped with crowns (but maybe you should imagine exoplanets instead).

vishnuWhen Kalki–the final incarnation  of Vishnu–manifests himself and ends the Kali Yuga (the current fallen incarnation of the universe) Ananta-Shesha will be one of the only things left.  The great snake god is eternal and stands outside the eternal cycle of death and rebirth of the universe.

Vishnu_and_Lakshmi_on_Shesha_Naga,_ca_1870

The Endless Knot

In Chinese art the endless knot (Chinese: 盤長; pán cháng) is one of the eight auspicious symbols or “eight treasures” which were borrowed from Indian Buddhism (which in turn probably borrowed the symbols from earlier Hindu mysticism).  Among the eight, the mystic knot is especially popular, since it “ties together” so many different metaphorical concepts.

Since it has no end, the knot is said to represent that which is divine and eternal:  essentially it is an Asian version of the infinity symbol.  To people who believe in reincarnation, the knot represents samsara, the eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth in which all living beings are imprisoned.  Each different faith conceives of such endlessness differently and to different worshippers the knot has different sources and varied meanings.  In Hindu religious paintings the knot was found upon the breast of Vishnu the preserver of the universe, while Buddhists see it as the intestines of the Buddha. To some it is a symbol of individual longevity, while others regard it as emblematic of the eternal nature of perfect love.

 

Or the permanent nature of a tattoo…

To the most subtle philosophers the knot is itself a sort of koan which cannot be untied or solved.  It represents being and non-being knotted together inextricably.  The emptiness around the knot defines the knot itself just as emptiness and nothingness pervade and define the apparent reality of existence (according to Buddhist monks and atomic physicists anyway).

My favorite interpretation of the endless knot however is not so abstruse and cosmic but has a rather more human cast. Some sages assert that the knot represents compassion and wisdom, which are components of each other. Without wisdom, compassion is empty and to no avail, whereas without compassion, there is no true wisdom. Each concept grows out of and encompasses the other.

A Conch Used as a Trumpet

Conches are large sea snails.  True conches are from the family Strombidae, but there are a number of other large marine snails which are also colloquially called conches including horse conches (Fasciolariidae), crown conches (Melongenidae), and the “sacred chank” (a member of the Turbinellidae family).  These powerful marine snails are fascinating organisms in their own right—but today’s post is not about biology, rather it concerns music. When properly prepared, conches can be made into lovely and powerful wind instruments. Such shell trumpets have been found in use by cultures from around the world and specimens have been found dating back to the Neolithic era (although the musical use of shells might predate even that).

3000 year old Strombus galeatus shell modified as a musical instrument by pre-Inca people of Peru

Different cultures obviously use different shells for their trumpets and the instruments also serve varying purposes.  The magnificent big pink queen conch (Lobatus gigas) from the Caribbean was used as a trumpet by the Carib, the Arawak and Taíno peoples.  In India, the shell of the big predatory sea snail, Turbinella pyrum has long been crafted into the shankha, a religious musical instrument emblematic of the Hindu preserver god Vishnu (who last appeared in Ferrebeekeeper slaying the demon of Lake Lonar).  The shankha (also known as the sacred chank in English) can be intricately carved.  Though initially used as a charm to ward off the dangers of ocean travel, it long ago came to be associated with Vishnu worship and with nagas—water serpent deities.  Buddhists from the subcontinent also esteem the same instrument  as one of the eight auspicious symbols of that faith.  The Tibetan Buddhists call such a trumpet a “Tung.”

Vamavarta shankhas, c. 11-12th century

The Triton shell, Charonia tritonis, is used as a wind instrument throughout its Pacific range.  In Polynesia the instrument is called a “pu” whereas in Japan the horn is known as the horagai.  Likewise the Triton’s shell is a military instrument in traditional Korean music (where it is known as a nagak).

A Korean Bugler plays a Nagak

The cultures of the Mediterranean also made extensive use of conch-horns as foghorns and signaling devices and it is through Greek art and literature that conch horns made their way into mainstream Western art of the last two millennia.

Triton blowing on a Conch from the Bailey Fountain in Brooklyn

There seem to be two major ways of crafting a wind instrument from a large gastropod– both of which essentially involve creating an aperture in the whorl of a large gastropod shell. Mitchell Clark summarizes them with admirable clarity in his excellent article about shell-trumpets writing:

 There are two basic places this hole may be placed, and so there are two basic approaches that can be taken for making a conch shell into a shell trumpet. A hole is made either at the apex (the tip of the spire) of the shell, or, alternatively, in one of the whorls to the side of the spire…. In some cases the hole itself forms the mouth hole; in others, a mouthpiece is added.

The sound of such a trumpet is a rich rumbling primal roar—but it is usually only one note in one key.  Although pitch can be modified with finger holes or embouchure, such an approach is unusual.  But enough talk about shell trumpets!  Below is a Youtube video of a um…contest-winner playing one.

Holi Celebrations

Yesterday, March 20th, 2011 was the Hindu festival of Holi, the festival of colors. According to myth, Hiranyakashipu, a king among the demons, was granted a boon by Brahma after undergoing a long period of intense asceticism.  Brahma decreed that Hiranyakashipu could not be killed “during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or in the sky; neither by a man nor an animal.”  Emboldened by his apparent invulnerability, Hiranyakashipu initiated an evil scheme to supplant the gods (because of his wickedness, I am going to include him in my “deities of the underworld” category as I customarily do whenever I write about the Asura).  He demanded that all beings worship him instead of the rightful deities and he visited hideous torments upon those who disobeyed.  The demon’s own son Prahlada was one such protestor. Prahlada maintained stalwart and absolute devotion to Vishnu, despite his father’s threats.  In order to make an example for the rest of the world, Hiranyakashipu poisoned his son, but the poison turned to nectar.  Enraged the demon ordered Prahlada put to death by being crushed by elephants, but this too went awry.  After several other attempts to kill Prahlada also failed, Hiranyakashipu decided to burn his son on a great pyre.  In order to ensure that nothing went amiss Hiranyakashipu decreed that his sister Holika, who had her own boon of fire resistance from Brahma, would hold Prahlada in the flames.  However when the fire was lit Holika, despite her gift of being completely flame resistant, was burnt to death and her nephew Prahlada was spared.

Lord Narasimha Killing the Demon Hiranyakashipu

Vishnu, the demon-slayer (who from time to time assumed mortal shapes such as human, pig, or turtle) then came to Hiranyakashipu as a lion avatar, Narasimha.   Narasimha attacked the demon king at twilight as the latter was on the steps to his dwelling. Vishnu in his Narashima avatar-form clawed the renegade demon to death while holding him (the demon) on his (Vishnu’s) lap.  The conditions of the boon were met because a god incarnated as a lion monster is neither man nor animal and Vishnu was holding the demon above the ground but not in the sky. Additionally twilight is neither day nor night and steps are neither in nor out of a dwelling.  However, what exactly went wrong for Holika and caused the utter failure of her special power still remains a topic of debate among Hindu theologians

Holi with old-fashioned color squirt guns

These fateful events are celebrated on Holi which also celebrates the passing of winter and the coming of spring. Holi is the festival of color and the first day of the festival (which is always a full moon) is celebrated by all manner of dying, painting, and friendly pelting of family and friends with colorful pigments. As an artist I love the idea of a festival of color and spring is clearly the perfect time for such a celebration. I have tried to fill this void in my life with Easter-egg dying but the color has been leaching out of Easter as it loses its preeminence among Christian festivals.  So, to celebrate Holi, and the return of color to the world after the austerity of winter, I am going to devote the rest of this week to some of my favorite colors and pigments.  Feel free to chime in with your favorite colors of any sort, this is a topic which I love dearly.

I haven't been to India yet, but I think I'm going to love it.

Varaha Fighting Hiranyaksha

In the epic stories of Hinduism, Lord Vishnu, the sovereign protector of the universe, was always fighting power hungry demons and monsters (for example one such myth explains the formation of Lake Lonar).  Some of Vishnu’s opponents, however, were much more terrible than others.  Among the very worst was a filthy albeit incredibly puissant asura named Hiranyaksha (asuras were malevolent and greedy demon-gods).  Hiranyaksha was the son of Diti, an earth-goddess who sought–through means of her monstrous children–to overthrow Indra (the king of the gods). Hiranyaksha had golden eyes and a written pledge from Brahma that no god or man or beast could kill him.  Through some oversight, the boar alone was missing from the list.

Not satisfied with the many atrocities he had committed and the many beautiful things he had stolen, Hiranyaksha grew truly ambitious. He stole the entire earth and carried it to the bottom of a polluted ocean.

From time to time, Vishnu took on mortal incarnations–or more properly, “avatars”–to conduct his battles against the forces which sought to destroy or subvert the world. In his third avatar lifetime, Vishnu appeared in the form of a colossal boar, named Varaha in order to fight Hiranyaksha. Varaha sprang out of Brahma’s nostril as a tiny pig, but he grew and grew until he had reached a size sufficient to lift the entire world.  This great boar dived down into the cosmic ocean to find Hiranyaksha and kill him. For an entire millennium, the two opponents battled in the poison depths. Finally Varaha gained an advantage. With his tusks he tore open the demon and with his great mace he smashed Hiranyasha’s head. Varaha/Vishnu then lifted the earth back to its correct position with his snout!

Varaha lifts the world from the poison sea (by Harish Jahari)

The story nicely follows up on the porcine theme of last month’s post and Hiranyaksha is an interesting addition to the Deities of the Underworld category, but what real relevance can such an abstract story have for us?  Surely nobody could be so greedy and insane as to try to steal the entire earth and drown it in poisons.  And if such a terrible thing were to happen, what reviled but titanic force could spring from Brahma’s head to assume the role of the big pig and rescue earth from wicked corpora…um demons.

Lake Lonar

Approximately 650,000 years ago, an outer space object–either a comet or a meteor– struck the Deccan plateau (an immense basaltic flow on the Indian subcontinent dating back to the twilight of the dinosaurs).   The resultant crater in Maharashtra is now the sight of a very interesting saltwater lake, Lake Lonar.  The geology of this region has been intensely studied because the great basaltic mass of the Deccan traps is thought to mirror the igneous geology of Mars and the moon.

Lake Lonar proper is nearly circular with a diameter of 1.2 kilometers.  The greater meteor crater rim is about 1.8 kilometers and the crater measures 500 feet deep in the deepest part of the lake.  In addition to the obvious features of an extraterrestrial impact (um, a large round hole), the region features many other unique geological signs of such an event. Maskelynite, a material only naturally known from meteorites and meteorite impact areas, is found around Lake Lonar, as are silicate minerals with planar deformation features (distinctive high-stress crystalline irregularities which have only been found in silicates from meteorites, craters, and nuclear test areas).  The deeper geology of the lake region displays shatter cones in the bedrock, and extreme deformation of the basalt layers. Finally the surrounding region has been spattered with a non-volcanic ejecta blanket. 

Lake Lonar: pink-beige indicates bare ground, blue and off-white indicate human-made structures, dark blue indicates water, green indicates vegetation, and dull purple indicates fallow fields (NASA: Terra Satellite)

By measuring the accumulated radiation in certain crystals (aka thermoluminescence) scientists had assigned an approximate age of 50,000 years to the crater. However a 2010 study of isotopic Argon in Lonar impact melt rock estimated the true time of impact to be 650,000 years ago (give or take 80,000 years).  The compelling 2010 study drily notes “The discrepancy between the thermoluminescence age and the new isotopic 40/Ar/39Ar age is flagrant.”

Daitya Sudan, a temple to Vishnu

Several abandoned temples and archaeological sights are also located around the lake.  For example, the beautiful Daitya Sudan Temple to Vishnu was built by the Chalukya Dynasty which ruled of Maharashtra from the 6th and 12th centuries.  The local town, Lonar, still has an active temple to Vishnu, the great protector of the universe who features prominently in local legend.  According to the Skanda Purana (a canon of Hindu scripture universally cited when a story is doubtful or can not be found elsewhere) a great underworld demon, Lonasur, lived where Lake Lonar is today.  From time to time the demon would venture from his subterranean abode to torment the countryside and challenge the gods. Assuming the form of an extremely beautiful young man, Vishnu…somehow convinced the demon’s sisters to divulge where the monster could be found.  The god then lifted up the countryside like a great lid and found the demon hiding in his huge circular lair. After Vishnu slew the demon, the demon’s dwelling place filled up with water made salty by the fiend’s blood.    

Although threatened by India’s ever growing sprawl, Lonar Lake is a rich wetland with abundant wildlife—particularly birds.  The jungles, fields, and lake are a birder’s paradise featuring flamingos, grebes, black-winged stilts, dabchicks, ducks, shell-ducks, shovellers, teals, herons, rollers, parakeets, hoopoes, weavers, larks, tailorbirds, magpies, robins, swallows, peacocks, coots, white-necked storks, lapwings, grey wagtails, black droungos, green bee-eaters, and tailorbirds (to name just some).

The Jungle around Lake Lonar

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