“Don’t they speak, these statues?” he asked, one hot June afternoon.
Malda Museum in West Bengal, with its galleria of Hindu and Buddhist icons, is empty but for the Curator Sudhir Chakravarti and myself. A well-dressed middle-aged gentleman enters and very politely seeks permission to look around. We watch curiously, as he goes round the hall, intrigued by his eager expectancy, minute scrutiny and impatient sighs. At length, approaching us, he suddenly leans across the table and whispers conspiratorially, “Don’t they speak—these statues?”
Admirably composed, Sudhir Chakravarti replies, “Yes, they do, but very seldom and only in an esoteric tongue.” Our visitor nods knowingly and leaves, promising to return when the statues are in a talkative mood. Sudhir Babu chuckles over the strange encounter, but the eccentric query keeps ringing in my ears as I muse over the numerous icons, sculpted flawlessly with breathtakingly delicate etchings.
This statue of Vishnu, for instance, is it but a beautifully carved block of stone that I discovered by chance during excavation of a tank? Vishnu’s enigmatically smiling lips and the delicate curves of his consorts’ mouths, are they not trembling with the mysteries of creation, preservation and destruction, had I but ears for their silent speech?
Time and space seem to melt away and, as in a mist, from afar,
I hear the sonorous voice of the Vedic rishi intoning:
Nasad asita sad asit tadanim
Nasid rajo na vyoma pareyat
Kim avariva kuha kasya sharma
Hrambhah kim asid gahanam gabhiram...
“At first there was neither Being nor Non-being,
No kingdom of air, no sky beyond it.
Who straddled what, and where? Who gave shelter?
Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?
There was no death then, nor immortality,
No sign of stirring, no curtain of day or night.
Only one thing, Breath, breathed, breathing without breath
Nothing else, nothing whatsoever.
Also, there was Darkness, darkness within darkness,
The darkness of undiscriminated chaos.”
– Padma Shri P. Lal, The Golden Womb of the Sun,
(Hymns from the Rig Veda), Writers Workshop, Calcutta
Water, only water and darkness all around; and on the water of non-existence the seer-poet glimpsed an awe-inspiring sight: on the endless coils of Ananta Shesha Naga—the limitless remainder—lay the giant Purusha, asleep in the inertia of nescience.
“Then rose Desire, primal Desire,
The primal seed, the germ of Spirit.
The searching Sages looked in their hearts, and knew:
Being was a manner of non-Being.”
This desire appeared in the form of a lotus growing from the Purusha’s navel, the centre of vital energy. This lotus is the many-rayed sun, the life-giver, and also creation in its myriad aspects. Seated on it is Brahma, red complexioned, representing the rajasic stimulus, which gives body to the sattvic concept of creation.
But with creation came its opposite, for without conflict the inertia enveloping the Purusha cannot be dissipated. The primal conflict took shape with the birth of the Ego, drunk with the honey (Madhu) of its own supposed greatness, seeking deceitfully (Kaitava) to destroy the nascent creation. It is then that out of the Purusha appeared Vishnu, the Preserver, for bringing about the “balance” between creation and destruction that is represented by Shesha on which he rests. Vishnu is the divine worker, constantly protecting creation from the strivings of the forces of the Dark to engulf it and have chaos come again. Shesha’s infinite hoods signify Vishnu’s all-pervasiveness. The “kshir-sagar” on which he reclines is the ocean of eternal existence whose essence is pure bliss, the rasa of sweetness.
The serpent is not just cosmic evolution but also the individual evolutionary force, thekundalini shakti ascending from the base of the spine where it lies asleep in the tamasic physical consciousness, like a snake coiled up in its hole. Its rise through successive yogic plexuses evolves man from ignorance into, ultimately, universal consciousness. Finally, breaking through the lid at the top of the head that veils the supreme truth, he reaches the divine consciousness. That same consciousness has then to be drawn down and established at the base—this is the serpent biting its own tail.
In the sphere of cosmic evolution, it is the serpent—symbolizing the evolutionary force—that prompted man to transcend his state of animal contentment by tasting the fruit of knowledge to develop his intellect. At each stage of evolution, at every crucial transition, it is the Preserver who manifests himself as an avatara to ensure that the new stage is firmly established.
The first traces of life appeared in the element that enveloped the world: water. This is the Matsya avatara. As land gradually appeared, the next evolutionary stage took the shape of the amphibian, the turtle or tortoise, the Kurma avatara. With the appearance of vegetation and the forests came the mammal, the Varaha avatara. Gradually, the human body took shape, though its nature remained bestial: the Narasimha, man-lion, avatara, whose body is human but mind is animal-like but with the majesty of the king of beats. Finally comes man, first dwarfish—the Vamana avatara. Then, discovering the axe and tools to conquer nature, comes Parashurama, fighting his way until he becomes chief of an agricultural community (Rama the champion archer, Balarama with his plough). Then an all-round development occurs and Krishna enjoys all that is good in life but also looks beyond their transience to that which is eternal: the atman. Man learns to sympathize with all sufferers, moves towards non-violence and detachment, aiming at Nirvana as the solution to the problem of evil and suffering in Buddha.
As I muse thus, it seems that my Vishnu’s smile is becoming even more Mona Lisa-esque, as though he were telling me that this was not the only significance behind his manifestations; that they meant something even more. The Matsya avatara story appears to be an allegory about the careful preservation of the fine seeds of man-to-be by the avatara. The Kurma avatara who is the foundation of the churning out of amrita, the nectar of immortality, from the ocean, suggests the vital-physical man with all his cherished desires being churned out of creation. The Varaha is the animal man struggling to master the earth by imposing order on nature’s chaos. The Narasimha bridges the gap between man and beast and also shows us man turning to wield power consciously lower forms of life. In Vamana’s conquest of Asura Bali we see the as-yet-undeveloped God-man expanding with breath taking speed to take possession of all existence, vanquishing brute force to span the physical, vital and mental worlds—all three. Parashurama heralds a crucial stage in evolution depicting the vital-rajasic man bringing ethics into social life by repeatedly destroying the blind brute force of ego-drunk Kshatriyas and giving a chance to the divinely inspired sages to mould public life for the general weal. But the overpowering vital-rajasic force of Parashurama had to be restrained if man was to advance further. Hence the coming of Rama, the sattvic-mental man, perfect in every human relationship, ever guided by a sense of truth, honour, dharma, public spirit and domestic order. He establishes the mental, moral and emotional man against the anarchic animal (Bali the Vanara) andRakshasa forces, bringing about an ordered society fit for the civilized human being governing his life by reason, the finer emotions and high moral ideals. With vayam rakshamah (we protect) as their motto, the Rakshasas were a maritime nation who had harnessed the forces of nature—wind, rain, light, fire. Lacking agricultural self-sufficiency, they tried to subjugate those who subsisted on it. This is shown in the abduction of Sita who stands for the fruits of the earth. But once more, blind egotism, however powerful, was no match for the sattvic indignation of the simple forest dwellers led by Rama.
Rama had taken man beyond his purely selfish interests to a consciousness of being a responsible social being. Yet another step was needed: the clannish loyalties had to be transcended for reaching the concept of “vasudhaivah kutumbakam”. To establish this came Krishna, the Purushottama, manifesting the union of wisdom and works, leading man towards the Divine through Ananda and Bhakti, love and devotion. His brother Balarama dreamt of turning deserts into green fields. Their association represents the indivisible link between Vishnu and the waters of creation on which he rests, Balarama being an avatara of Ananta Shesha Naga. Together they eliminated, systematically, the powerful splinter groups that could not transcend their narrow clannish interests, leaving the sattvic-rajasic Pandavas to establish a rule of righteousness in the country.
Buddha, the compassionate, appears next, showing man the way out of suffering and the inexorable wheel of Karma through the eightfold path to Nirvana. However, his liberation remains negative as it rejects the world. Hence, the need for Kalki, the Divine Man, whose white horse is power in all its colours fused in white. Conqueror of Yama—duality, darkness—Kalki ushers in the kingdom of the Divine upon earth, destroying the Asuric forces.
But what of the icon itself that set me off thus? Vishnu’s blue complexion is his infinitude—blue like the ocean and the sky. His golden-yellow garment is the colour of the Divine Truth. In his four hands, he holds the discus (dynamism), the mace (strength), the lotus (magnanimity) and the conch (Aum, the eternal sound, the seed of creation). It is the union of these four that makes the Preserver who unites in himself Creation (lotus and conch) and Destruction (mace and discus). AUM itself contains this in embryo: A is the outgoing sound, creation; U is the breath held out, preservation; M is the breathless, the sound held in, destruction. As it issues from the conch, AUM reminds us:
“From Harmony, from heavenly Harmony
This universal frame began:
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
Arise, ye more than dead!...
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man…
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour…
Music shall untune the sky.”
— John Dryden,“Ode on St.Cecilia’s Day”
In the Vishnu Purana (I.22), Parashara gives Maitreya an interpretation of the icon. The Kaustubha jewel adorning Vishnu’s breast is not just the sun shining against the blue empyrean surrounded by the Vaijayanti garland of stars. It is “the pure soul of the world, undefiled and void of qualities.” The Vaijayanti garland of five gems represents the five elements. The mystic shrivatsa mark on his chest is Prakriti, the principle of creation. The Mace is the intellect; the discus is the whirling mind whose thought fly swifter than the wind and which can cut through anything. The ego in its twofold division of the elements and the senses is seen in the conch and the bow, while the arrows are the faculties of action and perception. The sword is holy wisdom concealed in the scabbard of ignorance. Thus, soul, nature, intellect, ego, the elements, the senses, the mind, ignorance and wisdom—all inhere in Hari. By meditating on these it is possible to arrive at the imperceptible idea of Vishnu, says the Purana.
Vishnu, significantly, is male. He is the Purusha, representing stability, the vast magnanimity of the male’s protection, the foundation on which Prakriti rings her capricious changes and indulges in sports of vital attachment.
To Vishnu’s left stands Pushti or Sarasvati, nourishing the mind and heart of humanity. However, without inner magnanimity (Shri, Aishvarya) and purity such nourishment is of little use. Holding a fly-whisk to cleanse the dirt of mind and body stands Sri to Vishnu’s right. The lotus in her hand is a symbol of “aishvarya”, generosity and beauty of mind, body and soul. In South Indian icons, Sarasvati is often replaced by Bhudevi holding a blue lotus. She is mother earth, providing food for her children. Vishnu himself is “tri-vikrama”, striding across the heavens as the sun in three paces at dawn, noon, evening and as light in the forms of fire, lightning and the sun.
So much has emerged from an eccentric query and a cold basalt image belonging to the 13th century, about five feet high, weighing over twenty maunds that had been dug up in Kaligram village of Malda district in West Bengal!
But it is not only Vishnu who piped “spirit ditties of no tone”, whispering to me his message of creation, preservation and destruction. There was also Surya, the Sun, who had much to tell me. But of that later.