Icons Of Vishnu

Adimurti of Vishnu seated on Ananta, the Endless serpent; 6th century AD; Badami cave III, Karnataka

All the qualities and attributes representing Lord Vishnu’s manifestations are symbolised in his images. Each symbol, pecutarity of attitude, ornament, expression etc., signifies a particular quality of the deity. Lord Vishnu is depicted in three attitudes; Sayana-murti, sleeping above the causal ocean on the coils of the serpent, Sheshanclug; Sthanaka-murti, standing with four arms and adorned with his various attributes; Asuna-murti, sitting posture. These are also classified as Vira or abhicharika, yoga and bhoga respectively.
Images of Lord Vishnu are shown with a royal parasol, a lock of hair on his chest called Shri-vasta, and a shining jewel called Kaustubha. In his four hands are a conch, a discus, a mace and a bow or a lotus. He wears armlets, a garland, a diadem and earrings shaped as sea monsters.

The four arms of Lord Vishnu represent the four stages of development of the four forms of life, also dominion over the four directions of space and absolute power; the four aims of life i.e. pleasure, success, righteousness and liberation which results in the division of human life into four ages or yugas. Number four also represents four aspects of human destiny and the four vedas. These four attributes of Lord Vishnu are symbolically represented in what he holds in his four hands.

  1. The upper right hand holds the discus, symbol of the mind.
  2. The upper left hand holds the bow, the symbol of the causal power of illusion from which arises the universe and the lotus, symbol of the moving universe.
  3. The lower right hand holds the conch, symbol of the five elements which represent the creative tendency.
  4. The lower left hand holds the mace, symbol of the notion of individual existence.

These four symbols are further explained as: the Discus or Sudarshan chakra has six spokes which are the symbolic equivalent of a six-petalled lotus which represents the limitless power of creation and destruction which goes on continuously. Its nature is to revolve and, therefore, Sudarshan chakra means the will to multiply. The six spokes of the discus also represents the changeless, motionless supreme power with the circle round the wheel, as the divine power of illusion. Symbolically, as the power of the mind can destroy all forms of ignorance, so the discus destroys the demons.

Lord Vishnu
Anantashayana Vishnu; 6th century AD; Deograh

The Lotus:

The lotus is the symbol of eternity, plenty and good fortune. It arises from the mud and yet remains pure and clean. Even water drops stay on its leaves with difficulty and when they do so, they take the lustre of pearls which is again a quality of purity. Lotus is the symbolic unfolding of Creation.

The Bow, The Arrow & The Quiver:

The bow of Lord Vishnu called Sharnga represents the destructive aspect associated with the disintegrating tendency and is the origin of senses. It is called the divine power of illusion. The arrows are the senses which represent the field of activity of the intellect, and the quiver is the storehouse of actions.

The Conch:

The conch or Shankha of Lord Vishnu has a number of spirals evolving from one point and is the symbol of the origin of existence. The sound it creats on blowing is associated with the primeaval sound from which creation developed. From this are evolved the principles of the five elements.

The Mace:

The mace of Lord Vishnu is called Kaumodaki or the power of knowledge. Knowledge is the essence of life from which all physical and mental powers are derived. Except time, nothing else can conquer knowledge. As such, the mace is identified with Kali, the goddess who has the power over time and destroys all those who oppose it

The body of Lord Vishnu is adorned with the following:

  1. A shining gem called Kaustubha adorns his chest This represents Consciousness present in all that shines like the moon, the sun, fire and speech. It enjoys all creation.
  2. On the left breast of Lord Vishnu is present Shri-vatsa, a lock of golden hair. It represents the source of the natural world and all that is enjoyed.
  3. Vaijayanti main or the garland of victory round the neck of Lord Vishnu is made of either five rows of fragrant flowers or five rows of jewels representing the five spheres of the senses. The garland is also called Vanamala and is considered as the power of the god.
  4. Lord Vishnu wears ear-rings shaped like sea monsters, the makara, and they represent the two methods of knowledge, the intellectual knowledge and the intuitive perception.
  5. The deity wears armlets which represent the three aims of worldly life, viz., pleasure, success, righteousness.
  6. The crown of the deity is the unknowable reality.
Lord Vishnu
Lord Vishnu on Garuda; Sawai Singh Museum, Chamba, Himachal Pradesh

The deity is always depicted wearing a thin yellow dhoti called Pitambara which drapes round the hips through which the dark body of the god shines. Pitambara represents the Vedas, and the body is the divine reality shining through the sacred utterances of the Vedas.

The chariot of Lord Vishnu represents the mind and the five spheres of perception or the five senses.

Lord Vishnu’s colour is black Even though black colour is associated with the qualities of disintegration or tamasa which are Shiva’s attributes, and white is considered as the colour of cohesion, or the sattva quality, which are the attributes of Lord Vishnu, yet Lord Vishnu is depicted as black or dark blue in colour and Shiva as white. This is explained as: both qualities, Le., tamasa and sattva are interdependent and inverted in relation to the degree of manifestation, i.e. Lord Vishnu, whose nature is sattva or has the cohesive tendency, is depicted externally as black, and Shiva, whose inner self is dark or tamasa, is depicted as white. Even though Lord Vishnu is depicted as black, his incarnations take on the colour of the age in which they appear such as white, red, yellow and black. The attributes of Lord Vishnu are also shown in different colours. For instance, his bird vehicle Garuda is white like the white lotus flower; the mace is black; Lakshmi the consort of Lord Vishnu is golden in colour; the discus is shining like the Sun; the jewel Kaustubha is the colour of dawn; Shrivatsa, the lock of hair on his chest, is the colour of the jasmine flowers; the conch is the colour of the full moon; the garland has five colours; the arrows are like lightning, and the snake is depicted like a cloud.

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