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16 February, 2014

7 Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art - Narayana's Secret

Image 2.6 - Baby on a banyan leaf

The peacock feather links Vishnu to Krishna, who usually sports the feather.

The lotus flower indicates renewal.

The peacock feather informs the devotee not to distinguish between Vishnu & Krishna.

The banyan leaf indicates permanence.

The Waters indicate destruction as it dissolves all things material when their time is up.

Baby on a banyan leaf

       Image 2.6 shows a newborn child on a banyan leaf.  Once, a sage called Markandeya was granted a glimpse of Pralaya, the end of the world.  This vision was marked by heavy rains and waves rising to consume the earth, until everything was submerged Water, especially the sea, represents formlessness.  It is the symbol of entropy, dissolution.  How does one visualise nothingness in art?  Which form represents formlessness?  One does it by showing the sea.  A stormy sea shows the process of destruction while a still sea shows the moment before rebirth.

       The sight of the dying world filled Markandeya with dread and despair.  It was then he heard a gurgling happy sound.  He turned around and found a baby lying on a banyan leaf, cradled by the waves of destruction.  A baby is the symbol of rebirth or renewal of life.  Markandeya saw the baby and realised that what one considers the end is actually just a phase, a part of the process; after the end comes the beginning.  This is fundamentally different from Greek and Biblical worldview, where death is a full-stop.  In the Hindu world view, death is a comma; there is no full-stop.

       That the baby is lying on the leaf of a banyan tree is significant.  The banyan tree is believed to be immortal; it represents that which cannot be destroyed.  What cannot be destroyed even when all forms dissolve to become formless?  It is the soul.  Thus the baby is cradled by the soul.  Markandeya is being told that the indestructible soul is witnessing the end of the world dispassionately.  It may seem cruel and uncaring as it whips up the malignant storm, but when the waters calm, the soul will rest and re-merge in innocence like a gurgling baby.

       The banyan leaf lies within a lotus.  The flower is the lotus of Brahma, that which blooms when Narayana awakens.  Thus, the image simultaneously captures death (water) and rebirth (leaf and flower).

Image 2.7 Baby Narayan sucking his right toe

The right side indicates spiritual stillness, as against the left side with the beating heart, which symbolises material restlessness.

The sucking of the right toe indicates the value given to things spiritual (right side) and to things material (lower body)

The lower body represents matter while the upper body represents the spirit.

       The baby in the image 2.7 holds a flute in his right hand and his right big toe with his left hand.  The right side in Indian art represents the soul and intellect because the left side, with the beating heart, represents movement, hence matter and emotions.  By holding the right toe with the left hand, God is connecting the spiritual with the material, the intellectual with the emotional, all the while making music with the flute, indicating a playful approach to life.  The world exists to be enjoyed and explored by the soul in the spirit of play.  The infant form of God conveys both innocence and the idea of material renewal.

      In Hindu belief, the soul is permanent and ever present.  But, it is beyond form; how then does one represent it in art?  One has no choice but to take recourse to form.  Any form will be imperfect and incomplete.  Typically, the soul is visualised as male, and in Images 2.6 and 2.7, as a baby.  Both these forms are inherently flawed.  However, we have no choice but to use imperfect forms to communicate a perfect truth.

Image 2.8 - Death of HIranakashipu

God as a man-lion disemboweling the Asura who thought he could outwit death.

Death of Hiranakashipu

       Image 2.8 is based on a story that draws attention to the nature of the soul.  The story comes from the Vishnu Purana, the lore of Vishnu, and speaks of a conflict between father and son.  The father, whose name is Hirankashipu, believes he is immortal because he has secured a boon that prevents him from being killed by any human or any animal, any god or any demon, by a weapon or a tool, inside any dwelling or outside, above the ground of under it, during the day or the night.  Since he considers himself immortal, Hiranakashipu is convinced he is a God, worthy of worship.  But his son, Prahalad, believes his father is mortal; he insists that he will only worship Narayan, the formless, timeless, omnipresence God.

       'Where is this Narayan present?' asks the father.

       'Every where, ' says the son, 'even in the pillars of your palace.'

       To prove his son wrong once and for all, Hiranakashipu breaks down a palace pillar.  We can see it in the background - a vertically split pillar.

      From this pillar emerges a fantastic creature called Narasimha, part lion and part human.  This creature crosses the boundary between the animal and the human world.  It emerges from the realm of impossibility, breaking all boundaries, challenging our notions of what is normal and what is not.  Narasimha is God, he is a form of Narayan.  One is being told that what is impossible for the human mind to conceive exists in the mind of God.  Hiranakashipu is blinded by power and assumes he knows the ends of the world.  But God makes the impossible possible.  God appears as a creature that Hiranakashipu believes is unnatural, hence non-existent.  Narasimha is supposed to be a god but evokes fear like a monster, hence seems demonic.  He is neither god nor demon, or both, may be, for father and son.

       This creature, neither man nor animal, or perhaps one who is both, drags Hiranakashipu to the threshold of the palace - neither inside a dwelling or outside.  There, at a twilight, which is neither day nor night, he places Hiranakashipu on his lap, which is neither under the ground nor on the ground nor above the ground, and tears him apart with his fangs, which are neither weapons nor tools.  Thus Hiranakashipu, who thought he was immortal, is killed, his arrogance shattered.

Image 2.9 - Narasimha with Lakshmi 

Vishnu as neither man nor lion indicates divinity makes room for creatures who cannot be easily classified.

Narasimha is a fearsome and bloodthirsty form of Vishnu, whose violence is tamed by the presence of his gentle consort, Lakshmi.

The upraised palm means do not be afraid.

The consort is always placed on the left, the side close to the heart.

The downward palm means, 'I will give what is destined or desired.

Narasimha with Lakshmi

       The son adores Narayan but also fears this creature who drinks his father's blood.  image 2.9 shows a more gentle form of Narasimha.  One fears that Narasimha in his violent form will destroy the world; so Goddess Lakshmi appears before Narasimha and reminds him of his responsibility to protect her and calms him down.  This image shows Narasimha with Lakshmi, the guardian and his ward, God and Goddess, adored by Prahalad and four gods who perhaps represent the four books of Vedic wisdom, or perhaps the four goals of worldly life: dharma, artha, kama and moksha.

       Prahalad's father is described as a demon, but the son is not considered one.  Both are Asuras, but contrary to popular belief, all Asuras are not demons.  It is intent and behaviour that can make anyone a demon.  Hiranakashipu is arrogant and this arrogance comes from power.  In arrogance, he assumes that he has knowledge of all possibilities.  He knows everything.  But the wise know that the human mind is finite and cannot hold the infinite expressions of the cosmos.  Like Narasimha, who is neither this nor that, or perhaps both, there is much in the world awaiting discovery.

Narasimha sits on the coiled serpent

       Narasimha sits on the coiled serpent, representing the stillness that is required to sense the presence of consciousness.  Here, God is united with the Goddess, spirit and matter are together.  Behind them is the split pillar, the split of matter and spirit, the split between our flesh and our soul.

Image 2.10 - Arjuna seeking Krishna's advice

Krishna, visualised here as Vishnu, represents the wise soul, that is witness to our confusions.

Arjuna represents our confused mind.

Arjuna seeking Krishna's advice

      Image 2.10 is a visualisation of a scene prior to the narration of the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism's most popular religious texts.  Literally translated, 'Bhagavd Gita,'  means the Song of God.  Here God takes the form of Krishna, who serves as a charioteer to Arjuna, a great archer who is suddenly confronted with the awesome reality before him - he is about to begin a war over property and principles in which he will be expected to kill family and friends.  And God is asking him to do it.  How can he?  Why?  He refuses to fight.  He turns to Krishna for guidance and, in response, Krishna speaks to him words that enlighten and empower him.

       Krishna explains to Arjuna the nature of the world.  He draws attention to the soul that is imperishable and matter that is ever-transforming, hence giving the impression of birth and death.  Things die only to be born again.  What then is the purpose of life?  The Gita reveals that matter exists to draw our attention to the soul to make us aware of that permanent, unchanging principle.  And to realise it, we have to negotiate our way through life, through society.  We have to function as members of society, do our duties, fight for what we believe is right, and surrender to the wisdom of the cosmos.  Life is about living, about participating, and escape is not an option.  Actions born of desire, we are told, entrap us in a never-ending wheel of birth and death.  Escape is possible if one is willing to discipline the mind, rein in desire and act dispassionately, doing one's duty, stripped of any desire to dominate the world or indulge the ego.

The presence of all gods and goddess in one body indicates that the whole cosmos is ultimately a single organism - everything is contained within God.

Multiple heads indicate multiple manifestations of the divine.

Image 2.11 - The Cosmic form of Krishna
The calm and youthful face indicates wisdom that helps overpower any calamity.

Multiple hands indicate the many forces that govern the cosmos.

Fire emerging from the many mouths indicates destruction, thus suggesting that even the worst of events have their roots in God.

The presence of several weapons indicates the many tools available to overcome primal insecurity.

Cosmic form of Krishna

      Enlightened by Krishna, Arjuna asks him to show his true form, for it is a very evident that Krishna is no ordinary mortal.  Krishna then shows his viswarupa or cosmic form also known as the all-inclusive expansive being that he is.  This is depicted in Image 2.11.  Arjuna observes that within Krishna are all the gods and all the demons and all the sages and all the hermits.  He is the sun and the moon, he is the stars and the planets, he is the rivers and the fires.  He is what was, is and will be.  He is all forms.  He is all directions.  He is all that is possible and all that is impossible.  Arjuna sees Krishna exhaling life and inhaling death.  Whole worlds emerge from his mouth and are ground by his teeth.

      This is the Hindu idea of God.  God is all things.  He is in all things.  He is outside all things.  He is She.  He and She are also it.  That which is animate and that which is inanimate - everything is God.  The human, the subhuman, the superhuman -- all are God.  God is formless and is expressed through all forms.  All that we see is God.  All that we sense is God.  God is not out there.  He is within us and around us.  He is all there is.  We are the observers who create the observation that is life.  We are thus not separate from our lives.  We and our world are the same.  This is Advaita or non-duality of being.

       We are God too -- we just have not discovered the truth of ourselves.  We are limited by our egos, our imperfect understanding of the world, our prejudices and our memories.  We need to break free from all this, from ourselves.  And, according to the Bhagavad Gita, this is possible only when we live life, struggle with the rules, the moralities and the ethics that the world subscribes to.

Image 2.12

Ayyappa a guardian god from Kerala, was created when Shiva united with Vishnu, the latter having taken the form of woman, Mohini.  He represents the union of hermit and householder traditions.  So while he is celibate like Shiva and demands celibacy from his worshippers, he also protects the world of householders just like Vishnu.

Krishna, a mortal incarnation of Vishnu, who walks the earth as kingmaker in the third quarter of the world's lifecycle.

Asuras and Rakshas also adore Narayan,  indicating that in Hindu lore they may be villains but they still play a valid and vital role in the cosmos.

The four Sanatana Kumars are pre-pubescent boys symbolising the mind that is pure and uncorrupted by experiences and memories.

VISHNU, the awakened Narayan, with his two wives, Bhu-devi and Sri-devi, who represents the tangible and intangible forms of wealth.

JAY & VIJAY are the ferocious door keepers of Vishnu's abode who turn away the unworthy.

RAM, a mortal incarnation of Vishnu, who walks the earth as King in the second quarter of the world's life cycle.

      And when w die, we should know that we will be reborn.  There will be another life, another chance to open our eyes and look at a new world with a new set of eyes.  With this new set of eyes will come a new way of looking at things, new rule and new prejudices.  Once again the lotus of Brahma will rise from Narayan's navel as in Image 2.12.  Once again, Lakshmi will demand attention and protection.  Once again Narad and Tumburu will fight to process her and Narad will stir us into jealousy and outrage.  We will struggle to maintain order, flying around on Garuda and disciplining ourselves like Hanuman: a new awakening and a new world order, another chance to get it right.

      Since the Hindu world is going through cycles of life and death, this life is but one of the many lives to lead.  There is therefore no dominant urge to be a hero.  There is a no sense of urgency.  And since all things depend on points of view, there is a lack of certainty in all things.  All things are relative and contextual and impermanent.  One yearns for that which is absolute, permanent and independent of all contexts.  That is the soul -- the soul whose sleep leads to destruction and whose awakening leads to creation, whose observation gives shape to the world.  The discovery of the one who creates the world, that observer, is the purpose of life.

Source: Excerpts from the book on 7 Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art by Devdutt Pattnaik.

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