At the end of a Day of Brahmā the Eternal Life known to us as Vishnu assumes the form of Rudra the Destroyer, and enters into the seven rays of the sun. The ancient scriptures tell of this and of the utter dissolution of the world that follows – of how Narayana, as a single beam of fiery truth, dries up all the rivers, lakes and seas and sucks away the liquid buried in the earth, in the nether worlds and in the bodies of all that had lived. Then, like the great Howler, Vishnu becomes the wind and inhales all the human airs – prana, apana, samana – along with the gods and wailing ghosts who fly feebly before his omnivorous mouth. Smells and tastes are gobbled up and disappear together with the other senses and even the mind itself. A great fire springs forth in the breach, reducing the residue to ashes, and Hari becomes a thousand rains, covering them and creating one vast ocean, empty of all life. All is naught then but an endless sea, a limitless chaos in which the One Eternal Lord goes to sleep. Absorbed in yoga, pervading the immeasurable waters for thousands of ages, Vishnu Narayana floats within the dark night of non-being called pralaya.
Floating and yet boundless – where is the limit of this god? Where is the sea said to surround him? What cycle could his chakra now describe, and where the measure of the Law he once embodied? The darkness of Duration stretches everywhere, and not even a hint of the gunas, of Time's beginning, of the spiral of becoming, can be found. In the absolute sleep of nirvikalpa, Vishnu Narayana rests. He lies on no particular side because he fills every side, and yet he reclines upon the bosom of the Mother Deep, the pure, homogeneous veil of Parabrahm. He sleeps upon that which abides in the realm of the unmanifest, symbolized thus as the limitless, surrounding sea.
Will the darkness of non-being eternally endure, wrapped in this insentient slumber? What interrupting spark, what sound within the soundlessness, could have initiated the universal process of becoming which had been so thoroughly dissolved? Or had that been a singular event called life, now to be followed by the endless night of death? Ah no, that cannot be. For though the waters that enfold his slumber never cease to preserve their uncreate purity, yet Vishnu Narayana's presence in potentia is embraced therein. His breath, at one with the homogeneity of Aditi in sleep, will eventually awaken to breathe upon her pristine veil, flutter, and stir it into a barely perceptible motion. Parabrahm does not create, nor can anything be said to approach its omnipresent and unalterable wholeness. Neither does the Mother Deep produce the spark of future worlds. But within her bosom, the oneness of that which she veils has spread its luminosity as a residual seed-bed, a matrix into which the reflection of that eternal Absolute drops the first unfelt and imperceptible beginning of differentiation. Thus made fertile, Aditi becomes male-female and her ubiquitous substance becomes the waters of incubation.
The great deep of Aditi is the impenetrable veil between the Unknowable and the Creative Logos, which periodically 'expands' itself into the universe. The outbreathed spirit of Narayana, the first-born light of the One Ray, moves within its abstract depths and transforms its limitless subjectivity into an equally limitless objectivity, its darkness into light and the first shadowy hint of becoming. The notion of 'expanding' into a universe is purely a metaphoric one, for it is inconceivable that the omnipresent and unlimited should expand, contract or do anything at all. One may consider, rather, the idea of a surface to the ocean, an objectifiable 'edge' of subjectivity, a barely perceivable suggestion of some thing over which Narayana hovers and which expands thus from without. In this way the self-moving Lord removes the darkness and becomes manifest. In the words of Manu, he, "wishing to produce beings from his Essence, created, in the beginning, water alone", in which he cast the seed that would become the Creative Logos.
Lying upon the serpent Shesha Ananta, Vishnu Narayana cannot be said to be manifest, for the thousand-headed ruler of serpents symbolizes the infinite and endless, whose coils encircle the basis of the world axis, signifying cosmic energy at rest. The ocean itself, with which Narayana is so closely identified, represents the full immersion of unchanging awareness, unaffected by the cycles of manifestation. But whilst the name Ananta refers to 'infinite duration', that of Shesha alludes to a 'remainder' which, at the end of an immense cycle of being and dissolution, remains as an epiphany of the creative process itself, the process whereby the spirit of the One awakens and fructifies the watery womb of the Mother. The dry waters of abstract Space become wet, the point in the encircled sphere of occult symbolism becomes a dividing line, and the downward-pointing triangle of Vishnu, god of the moist principle, begins its descent into manifestation.
When Narayana awoke from his unobserved dream, a pure and wondrous lotus arose from his navel. It grew and spread its petals in immeasurable splendour in all directions around a centre that was the umbilicus connecting all that had been to all that was yet to be. From the remainder thus emerged the opening bloom and at its heart the Logos of creation, Lord Brahmā by name. Some variants of this rich and oft-told myth speak of his emergence from a golden egg nestled midst the petals of the flower. Others liken the egg to the vast surrounding sea, calling it hiranyagarbha, the ovum of the world. It is a circumscribed emblem for the fertilized water of the divine Parent, brought forth on the blossom of manifest life out of which Brahmā, in all his creative radiance, appears and addresses the barely awakened god. "Tell me, who are you, lying hidden here in darkness in this dreadful, desolate, solitary sea?" Hearing these words, Vishnu Narayana took heed and spoke to Brahmā in a voice of rumbling clouds: "Bhoh! Bhoh! Know me to be the god Narayana, origin and dissolution of the worlds, great Lord of Yoga, the Supreme Person. See inside me the entire world, the continents with their mountains, the oceans and the seven seas, and also yourself, the grandfather of the worlds." The myth continues, weaving many strands back and forth, tracing the entrance of Vishnu Narayana into Brahmā's body and Brahmā's entrance into his. They exchange perspectives with one another, Vishnu seeing the worlds to be within Brahmā, Brahmā becoming lost in the beginninglessness and endlessness of Vishnu's abode. Thus, moving from the manifest to the unmanifest and back again, the primeval and universal unconsciousness of the First-Born becomes the conscious intelligence of creation, emerging from his mouth, as it were, in the three-syllabled echo of the one Sound:
The idea of Vishnu Narayana is thus extended, 'expanded' and drawn forth to encompass the created as well as the uncreate. In the Puranas it is written that the wise say that Narayana 'exists' both with and without characteristics. Without them he is beyond the three gunas; with them he combines the tamas of his passively coiled basis, the sattva of his creative preservation and the rajas of his dissolving power. Through this one can see how Vishnu took his place in the trimurti of foremost Hindu gods as a deified personification of the sattvika guna. But in his fullest symbolic expressions as Vishnu Narayana or as Maha Vishnu, he is adimula, the basis or first cause of the universe, whose passive proximity is sufficient to animate a counterpart. Once this shakti is animated, he is Lakshminarayana, the inseparable cosmic reality from which the creative power of four-faced Brahmā springs. Referring to the back-and-forth exchange between the Creative Logos and its parent, one could say that Brahmā, when introverting into his source, finds that his adimula transcends his ability to survey it. This causes him, as it were, to become extrovert once again and cogitate objectively on how to project the universe. The world can be seen as the result of this cogitation.
The etymology of the name Narayana provides clues to the extraordinarily broad and yet elusive nature of the first-born deity. Nara means 'man', referring to the original, archetypal man. Water is the 'body' of Nara, the vesture of the divine Spirit, and ayana is the motion upon it, the cycling movement of becoming. Thus, Narayana refers to the primeval cosmic Man as well as to motion in substance, both related to the incubation of divine consciousness. The breadth of his domain, powerfully allegorized in myth, was measured by three gigantic strides, which relate directly to the meaning of the name Vishnu, from vish, meaning 'to enter' or 'pervade'. In the Rig Veda, Maha Vishnu is simply treated as a manifestation of solar energy, crossing the seven regions of the upper and lower worlds in three steps. It is said that the worlds were formed from the dust of his strides, the last of which was the highest, leaving an eye fixed in heaven which shines down brightly and is seen only by awakened Seers. With his vast pervading motion, the Wide-Moving One thus made a broad space for the action of mahat, closely identified in the Vedas with Vishnu in the person of Indra. For with these three steps the First-Born extended his presence throughout the macrocosmic and microcosmic realms of spirit, soul and body.
As Pervader, Vishnu Narayana enters into, takes possession of and overwhelms unfolding Nature. He is, even while spreading out through the world, representative of that which is centripetal and tends towards cohesion. In these seemingly opposing aspects he is merely embodying, so to speak, oneness everywhere. That is, he infuses his own undifferentiated essence into the differentiated world, and in doing so is said, from time to time, to 'descend' in human form to earth when the world is especially in need of his grace. Coming as an Avatar, a revelation of God in humanity, Vishnu reveals the divine nature in man, drawing men through its realization in themselves into his own being, wisdom and bliss. It is said that the real substance of the concealed Spiritual Sun is Aditi's nucleus, the kernel from which proceed all the powers of Vishnu Narayana in his active solar reflection. This energy is both central and radiant. It combines the compassion of outward-reaching light and life with the singularity of truth and law found only at the very core of things. Thus, Maha Vishnu carries forth in his strides the framework of worlds based upon one cohesive harmony which endures unchanged through all the cycles of time over which he broods. And so, moved by this radiant side of his nature, the First-Born incarnates this righteousness when the changing world seems most to fly away from it.
There are three fundamental types of Avatars spoken of in the sacred literature of India. The avatara proper is said to be complete, while the anisha avatara, though permanent, is only partial, and the avesha avatara is partial and temporary. Of all the incarnations attributed to Vishnu, Krishna is singled out as being total, implying a full presence of the god in the world, as compared to the more confined though complete avatara of King Rama. Incarnations like Parashurama were both partial and temporary, the aspect of Deity involved withdrawing before the human abode had completed its life. In addition to the ten better known of Vishnu's Avataras, there were at least twelve others, including the sages Narada and Vedavyasa as partial incarnations. This further illustrates the levels and degrees of Deity manifest in human form in the world. One might imagine that this sort of thing is merely a particularized analogue illustrating the presence in the entire phenomenal cosmos of the divine noumenal essence. But it is more than that. An Avatar, even an incomplete or partial one, is a conscious revelation of God in humanity. Through the recognition of him, individuals experience within themselves that which alone is capable of seeing, knowing and standing, as it were, in the presence of God. One may ask, does the reality of the god depend upon such internal individual recognition? Or is his reality so fundamentally essential to consciousness at every level of manifestation that it is the basis of all awareness, from that of the mineral, to the plant, to the animal or human being?
A statement quoted by H.P. Blavatsky from the Vishnu Purana affirms that "all the gods, the Manus, the Seven Rishis, the Sons of the Manu, the Indras, all are but the impersonated potencies (vibhutayah) of Vishnu". The omnipotence of the god is forcefully expressed in such descriptions, but lesser representations of his power may, at times, more clearly reveal something of his essential nature. The gandharvas and apsaras, the celestial harmonies and unmanifest potentialities, are heavenly beings born of the centripetal sattvic tendency towards light and are, therefore, minor forms of Vishnu as well. Now sattva is the cohesive tendency in the whole of Nature which holds the world together and is the centre-tending cause of concentration – hence light. This is why Vishnu is said to dwell in everything as the inner cohesion through which each exists, and it is also why he is believed to bring the concentrated light of truth into the world through the solar orb and also through the self-conscious intelligence of man. This notion provides highly suggestive clues to understanding the abstruse connection between cohesion, life-force, light and truth. The avataric movement between abstract and embodied godhood can be seen as another cyclic illustration of this connection. Through such associations of ideas a complete identification of God with the universe is affirmed, a theme central to Hindu thought. Between God and the universe, between God and man, there is only an apparent division. Seeing through these separations, the Daitya Prahlada, after a long period of intense meditation upon the Lord, exclaimed:
Vishnu is called Evaya Marut – the source from which sprang the Maruts and that which they become. Rudra, as the 'father' of these same battling powers, can be seen as the deva ascending in the cosmos, whilst Vishnu is the same god helping and evoking the powers of the ascent. Thus the cycle of descent and ascent could be said to be completed in Maha Vishnu. It is said that in the beginning the First-Born, desirous of creating the whole world, became threefold: creator, preserver and destroyer. Metaphysically, these three 'persons' are simply the gunas of the differentiating world of spirit and matter. Whereas Vishnu is primarily identified with sattva, he cannot exist independent of the other gunas in any aspect of the cycle of being, whether conceived as an imagined point of beginning, a movement of evolution, or one of involution. Concern with questions about the primacy of Vishnu over Shiva or the latter god over the former is fruitless. Such disputations are best left to those having narrowly sectarian concerns. Legends abound which tell how one god created the other, or of their continual outmanoeuvring of one another.
Both Shiva and Vishnu manifest the attributes of Mahadeva and both are inextricably bound up each with the other, but it is the relationship with Indra that reveals more the qualities truly central to Vishnu's character. Born through the mystic power of his own self-ideation, Vishnu is the basis of intelligent awareness in the world, mahat being its expression through man. This is why the centripetal, cohesive character of universal Law is readily translatable into perceived morality amongst human beings, bringing the reigning solar nature of Maha Vishnu into an immediate and exemplary contact with human experience. Mahat, even as it is released (centrifugally, as it were) into the world by Indra, is essentially a centripetal force reflecting consciously the cohesive movement of Law. In his Ramachandra Avatar, Lord Vishnu manifested to the highest degree these joined qualities in embodied form. The whole of the rhapsodic and profoundly occult Ramayana is a paean to these solar virtues exemplified in the divinely archetypal Philosopher-King, who brought to bear a nobly self-conscious and completely sacrificial mind and heart upon the cyclic struggle between opposites, which is stirred up at the dawning of a new era. In King Rama the laws of existence were perfectly mirrored by the laws of moral behaviour to which he chose to adhere. In its more concretized expressions such righteousness becomes the basis for religions and socio-political codes, which is why some scholars have claimed that all religion is essentially a form of Vaishnavism.
In the Vamana Purana there is a story about two ancient Rishis called Nara-Narayana. Together their penances were so great that they finally alarmed the gods. Indra sent nymphs to arouse their passions and disturb their meditation. Seeing them, Narayana placed a flower on his thigh, from which sprang a nymph far more lovely than those sent by Indra, who then returned with the rejected emissaries to devaloka. Now Nara-Narayana were incarnations of Vishnu, said to have been Arjuna and Krishna in their previous incarnations. One was grass-coloured and powerful, the other blue with four arms. As Narayana represents the godhead in humanity, so Nara-Narayana symbolize the human and divine soul in companionship and in communion – together an expression of God as a gracious, mediating presence. It is this communion that enables what men call grace to manifest, the Higher Self casting its clear avataric light upon the consciousness of the personal mind and revealing to it the true dimensions of its source, Vishnu Narayana beaming forth the world.
Mahat falling into matter takes on the dual characteristics of manas, Nara-Narayana, the two birds seated, one over the other, on the branches of the tree of life. The dualism of differentiated existence becomes the dualism of consciousness, expressed in the gaps existing between levels of thought, intention and action, and the tug of war between abstract ideals and their concretized reflections. All human beings experience their dual nature in unique ways, but it is generally expressed in larger patterns socially, affecting philosophy as well as behaviour. Just as spiritual ideals become concretized in religious dogma, so too the essential unity of Nara-Narayana is obscured by the tendency to focus upon the separative appearances of things. This propensity to celebrate dualism, accentuating a perceived difference between God and man, arises not merely in Salvationist religions such as Christianity, but thrives at the very heart of the Vaishnava tradition. Worshipping Vishnu as the Supreme Being, the Madhavas have utilized their powers of mind to determine that the One and the many are eternally different, that the world is not maya, and that salvation exists only through the grace of God.
It seems ironic that the deific power which enabled the conscious formulation of any religious belief should be utilized to deny the fundamental identity which must exist between the mind that knows and that which is known. But perhaps this in itself is an inevitable expression of the compassionate presence of Vishnu Narayana in the world. As human beings have grown closer in consciousness to the earth, and as it has become for them more difficult to see through appearances, often their only release from stone-cold materialism is provided by an externalized, dualistic concept of the divine nature. The devotion shown by masses of such blindly trusting worshippers is deeply touching, and one could not deny that the religious precepts they enact reflect, at some level, a loftier concept of morality and Law. But in the end, ascent to the spiritual through emulating the centripetal, cohesive oneness of Lord Vishnu requires that one altogether abandon any form of mental dualism, accept that the world is indeed maya, merge into and become one with Krishna.
The noun maya is related etymologically to the term for 'measure', both formed from the root ma, which means 'to lay out or measure a ground or outline', 'to create or display'. It is the maya of Narayana which, through Brahmā, produces the universe and, through Shakti, generates and animates the display. Once the world unfolds in all its mayavically ordered splendour, consciousness partakes of its substance and bathes in its seemingly omnipresent reality. Who, indeed, can comprehend the nature and extent of this maya while participating so fully in it? The godlike Sage Narada, believing himself capable of such understanding, once asked the First-Born Lord to be taught the secret of his maya. In response to his prolonged and fervent austerity, Vishnu appeared to Narada in his ashrama and instructed him, not by words, but by subjecting him to a harrowing adventure.
He was ordered to plunge into a body of water, from which he emerged in the shape of a girl called Sushila, the virtuous daughter of the king of Varanasi. Over the years, Sushila grew up and married a neighbouring king and bore him many children, but her happy life was disturbed in time by a feud which broke out between her husband and her father. In a single mighty battle, many of her grandchildren, her sons, her husband and her father were all slain. Her lamentation was pitiable, and nary a dry eye observed her standing at the foot of a gigantic funeral pyre topped by the pathetic earthly remains of all whom she had loved. As she laid the torch to the kindling and the flames mounted high, she cried, "My son, my son!" And when the fire was at its roaring peak, she threw herself into the conflagration. The blaze immediately cooled and the smoke-filled air cleared to reveal a calm and limpid pond amidst whose waters Sushila found herself swimming, but as the holy Narada once again. Vishnu appeared and addressed him: "Who is this son whose death you are bewailing?" Narada bowed, confused and ashamed, and Vishnu told him: "This is the semblance of my maya, woeful, sombre, accursed. Not the lotus-born Brahmā, nor any other of the gods, Indra, nor even Shiva, can fathom its depthless depth. Why or how should you know this inscrutable mystery?"
The pure Vishnu principle is the source and plan of life in its measured prototype and it is also the world of dream, the existential realm of experience. Vishnu (Vishnu Narayana) is the inner cause, the power by which things exist, having no concern for the outer form, which is the realm of Brahmā. In his Krishna Avatar the First-Born, though manifesting the knowledge of inner principles, reveals the transcendental unity of his true nature with the source of knowledge, of knowing and the known. Even heroes like Arjuna, representing the human soul, are engaged in a pursuit of principles which is, in reality, a state of mental vision in a dream. The subtlest distinction in the mind between subject and object ensures that the dream of the world prevails. The tiniest gap between knower, knowing and known seals the dreamer's eyes in further sleep. As with the holy Seer Narada, even the greatest Sages seem to be subtly ensnared in the world dream, the maya of Vishnu.
The story is told of the saint Markandeya who, possessing life unending, was wandering through the interior of the Lord's vast body as he slept on the ocean of pralaya. Blissfully unaware of where he actually was, Markandeya moved about here and there visiting holy places. Suddenly, by accident, it seems, the ageless old saint slipped out of the mouth of the all-containing god. Narayana had been sleeping peacefully with his lips slightly open, breathing sonorously and rhythmically in the immense silence of the Night of Brahmā. The astonished saint, plunging headlong into the cosmic ocean, could see only endless darkness and was seized with fear. He did not at first behold the sleeping god because of his maya, and he questioned what sort of world it was which seemed to be annihilation. Inside Vishnu Narayana he had perceived a world that seemed real, not knowing that it was but a dream within the mind of a sleeping god.
Now the primal substance of God appeared to Markandeya to be a bewildering mirage. He could not believe that it was real. Only gradually he became aware that before him stretched a sleeping form and he was filled with joy. Partly submerged in the surrounding darkness, the enormous shape resembled a great mountain range just breaking out of the primordial sea. It glowed with a wonderful light from within and the saint swam nearer to learn who it was. Through the fathomless waters he approached the softly floating form, when, to his terror and amazement, the god seized and swallowed him!
Restored to the world of Vishnu's dream, Markandeya found himself extremely confused, a mental state which persisted until, after a period, he again slipped out through the god's mouth into the darkness beyond. This time he observed the First-Born as a child in cheerful play, undismayed by the terrible emptiness about him. The saint kept his distance but the infant greeted him and, calling him "child", bid him come near. Being an ageless ancient, Markandeya was insulted by such an address, but Vishnu ignored this and commenced to give him instructions. He said, "I am the primeval cosmic man, Narayana. He is the waters; He is the first being; He is the source of the universe and its death." Receiving these instructions, Markandeya was swallowed once more, and, sucked up within the god's mouth, he found himself again within the body of the dream world. But this time he no longer wandered from place to place. Instead, he rested in lonely quietude and listened to the song of the immortal Kalahansa in the divine Self, in the body of the universe whose breathing is the song, whose message to Markandeya was, "This am I, the atman, the highest being. I am he who is free and divine. I bring forth the universe and I abide in the cycle of time that dissolves it." Markandeya, moved by the Great Breath, traversed back and forth over the objectifiable edge of subjectivity. He crossed from the dream into the waking state and back again, emulating the essential movement of the First-Born. For the insentient emerging into the sentient is everywhere due to Narayana, the immanence of cosmic intelligence. This is true at the dawn of manvantara and at every point in existence which follows in time. Markandeya slipped and floundered but followed, as it were, the wind swirling into dissolution, wherein darkness only surrounds, and discerned the glowing expansion (from without) of the mayavic world rising before his very eyes. In his peripatetic wanderings within the body of the dream, the saint (like many a pilgrim) sought, unconsciously perhaps, to imitate the Lord's three strides. To mark and measure the holy places, to gather the darsha rising there, he peacefully moved, striding within the luminous haze of Vishnu Narayana's maya.
But the three steps taken by the god lead beyond the illusory world, beyond the solar disc which overbroods and hides within its face the source of all the radiant energy that weaves maya's robes. Marking and measuring the realm of dream, Vishnu pervades everything. But while entering into and irradiating the whole universe which is himself, he is yet One and indivisible, undiminished and unchanged. His infusion of Oneness into the many is manifested in every atom of life as well as in the person of his Avatar. Moved by his radiant and compassionate side, the First-Born thus expands through his maya while never ceasing to be unaffected by it. His presence in the world is thus cohesive, binding together the illusory forms by a conscious intelligence which is both life and truth and which functions in everything as Law.
Vishnu Narayana is in the world and is the world, and thus is in and one with Man. If one recognizes the Avatar, one is flooded with grace – not from an external, separate god but from the awakening within of the knower which is joined to that which is known and places one in its presence. Real worship needs to come into the presence of God through this awakening, to ascend to true wisdom beyond the dream through emulation of his centred Oneness of concentrated consciousness while preserving the moist and radiant compassion of his pervasiveness. The ideal of such worship shines forth in the poetically inspiring example of Prahlada. By attempting to internalize his spirit of devotion, one could come to seal consciously the companionship of Nara-Narayana within oneself and infuse the maya of one's own microcosm with the immaculate light of the Unmanifest Logos.
The maya of Vishnu Narayana surrounds us like a vast ocean of being, causing us to imagine that our own conscious life exists in separate units and that its source must be out there somewhere, like the great form of the god rising in the sea. But in reality we are locked within his illusory form and cannot see the endlessness of his eternal, unborn essence stretching infinitely through Aditi's unmanifest substance. One has to radically reverse one's point of view if one wishes to slip out of the mouth of maya and glimpse the realm that lies beyond form. It does not present its reality to anyone but the fearless devotee who succeeds in truly making of himself or herself a zero. When one has become as no-thing in one's own consciously positive awareness, one will be ready to recognize Vishnu Narayana in human form and slip through his sweet song of knowledge into a vaster ocean of truth.