VISNU is one of the gods of the Trinity. Visnu represents the power of sustenance. The other two powers manifest in the world, namely creation and destruction are personified as Brahma and Siva respectively. Visnu is wedded to Laksmi the goddess of wealth. The significance is that sustenance or maintenance involves wealth. In order to maintain anything the maintainer must necessarily possess wealth.
In the Visnu Purana, Sage Vyasa refers to Visnu as the supreme all-pervading Reality, the Reality which is the substratum of the microcosm and macrocosm. The root ‘vis’ means ‘to pervade’. Visnu is the core of the human personality. He is the Atman which manifests Itself through body, mind and intellect as the individual. The same Visnu pervades the entire cosmos as Brahman.
Visnu is said to be lying on a great serpent, Sesa or Ananta, in an ocean of milk, ksirabdhi in heaven, Vaikuntha. He is said to be in yogic sleep, yoganidra. The body of the serpent is coiled to form Visnu’s bed. The serpent has a thousand heads and its hood is turned inward looking at its own coiled body. Visnu’s consort, Lakshmi, sits at his feet serving him.
Visnu represents the supreme within the human body, mind and intellect. The picture of Visnu lying on the serpent-bed in the milky ocean suggests the means of recognizing the Atman, the innermost core of man’s personality. The ocean is the mind with its infinite thoughts. The milky ocean stands for the sattvika mind. A sattvika mind is pure and serene. It is the highest quality of the mind. The other two states of the mind are rajasika, and tamasika. The rajasika mind is ever agitated. Tamasika is dull and stupid. When the mind is in the latter two states man gets involved in the mundane world. Only the sattvika mind lifts man to the higher realm of Divinity. In a sattvika mind alone can man recognize his Godhead.
The serpent is the ego with its many desires. In a sattvika mind the ego is turned inward. An extroverted ego loses sight of the Divinity within. When the same ego turns its attention inward, when its concentration is upon the inner Self instead of the outer objects of the world it recognizes the supreme Self, Atman. The thousand heads of the serpent turning inwards indicates that the thoughts are directed to single-pointed concentration meditation upon the Atman. When man holds his mind thus in deep meditation upon his supreme Self he realizes Visnu, the all pervading Reality.
Visnu is shown to be in yogic sleep—yoganidra. Yoga is derived from its root yuj, to unite. This indicates his perfect union with the infinite Reality. Nidra means sleep. A man who is totally absorbed in the supreme Self is asleep as it were to the happenings of the terrestrial world, reveling in the infinite bliss of Self-realisation. He is disinterested in the experiences of the finite world.
Goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Visnu, sits at his feet, serving him. Lakshmi symbolizes the wealth, power and glory of this world. When man seeks the higher Truth and is disinterested in the world the sense-objects seek him. When Visnu is sought, Lakshmi necessarily follow the seeker. But the trouble in the world today is that people try to seek Lakshmi directly. The moment runs after wealth, starts desiring, craving, asking and begging for it, the object of desires leaves him. That is the law.
Visnu is the one eternal, unmanifest Reality. The manifest world of plurality has emerged from the unmanifest Reality. Brahma, the creator of the world is shown as emerging from the navel of Visnu while he is lying on the serpent-bed. The naval portion represents the psychological centre, cakra from where sound originates in the form of paravak, transcendent speech. This inaudible sound passes through two more stages of developments, namely pasyanti and madhyama, before it becomes audible speech, called vaikhari. This audible sound is the quality of space, akasa. Space is the first of the five elements which constitutes the entire universe. The production of sound therefore symbolizes creation. This idea of the manifested world created from the unmanifested Reality is illustrated by Brahma emerging from the navel of Visnu.
Visnu is known to be blue in colour and clothed in yellow garb. He wears a crown and stands upon a lotus. He has four hands. All these are significant symbols indicating that Visnu is none other than the supreme Self, the changeless Reality around which all the terrestrial changes take place, the imperishable essence in the perishable world.
The blue colour of Vishnu indicates His infinite stature, Blue is associated with the infinite since immeasurable entitites like the sky or ocean appear blue in colour. Yellow is usually attributed to the earth for two reasons: one, the earth (silica) glows with a yellow fire when introduced in a colourless flame; and two, anything that is buried in the earth for a long period of time gathers a yellowish colour. Visnu, blue in colour and clothed in yellow, therefore, represents the descent of the infinite, immeasurable, transcendental Truth to the terrestrial realm i.e. God in a human form.
When the Infinite expresses through a finite form, there is a manifestation of an individual, jiva. The individual comes in contact with and reacts to the world with the help of four subtle instruments in him. They are the four constituents of his subtle body, viz., manas mind, buddhi intellect, ahankara ego and citta conditioned consciousness. The four hands of Visnu represent them.
The crown on Visnu’s head signifies his supreme sovereignty and lordship over the entire world of plurality. He is the one who maintains and protects all things and beings in the entire universe.
The deity stands upon a lotus. The lotus represents Truth. ‘Standing upon the lotus’ therefore, means that the ground or substratum which supports a God-man is the Brahman i.e., a God-man is ever rooted in the supreme Truth.
In his four hands Visnu holds a sankha conch, cakra discus, gada mace and padma lotus. The lotus indicates the final goal of human evolution. By showing the lotus, Visnu invites mankind to reach this goal of perfection by realizing his pure Self within.
The Lord blows his sankha conch, calling the people of the world to lead a pure and noble life so that they may shift their attention and interest from the material world to the supreme Self within. This call is the whispering of the conscience within. The conscience of man tells him to give up sensuous appetites and extrovert living and directs him to the higher life. But man does not heed this sacred voice from within. He continues with his passionate living until he experiences knocks and shocks leading to disappointment and dissatisfaction with life. The mace in the third hand is meant as a warning to draw man’s attention to this stern law of nature. If man, despite the growing sense of restlessness and agitations in his bosom, still persists in his sensual indulgences and does not turn towards the spiritual path, he meets with total disaster. The discus is meant to show man this inevitable end that he would reach if he were totally heedless to the warnings of nature.
On the other hand, a seeker who listens to the call from within and follows the spiritual path leading to the Truth, does not experience the knocks of the mace or the destruction of the discus. He lives a life of contentment and bliss until he reaches the abode of Truth and becomes one with Visnu.
Visnu’s message conveyed by his four hands is true not only with reference to an individual but to a society, community or a nation as well. As long as people do not heed the sacred advice of the scriptures and take to the spiritual values of life, they meet with sorrow and suffering in life. If this warning also is not heeded and the people continue to live extrovertedly fulfilling merely their sense gratifications, they are bound to meet with disaster. This is what history has been recording from generation to generation as evidenced by the rise and fall of nations and empires.
Source: Excerpts from the Book on “The symbolism of Hindu Gods and Rituals”.