Hindu mythology can be quite confusing for a non-Hindu. Why, it can be confusing and for a Hindu too. The different and contradictory world views that co-exist and even support and complement one another can bewilder even the most dedicated scholar or devotee.
In mythology, all forms are symbolic. (pg.7)
This one sentence, in my opinion, is the key to understanding and appreciating not only this richly illustrated book, but also Hindu mythology and Hinduism itself. The 7 Secrets of Vishnu (Westland, 2011) has nearly half of its 220 pages devoted to images from calendar art, paintings, sculptures, etc. “to make explicit patterns that are implicit in stories, symbols and rituals of Vishnu” (p.xi).
By decoding the symbols and patterns present in stories and images from Hindu mythology, and particularly those pertaining to Vishnu, Pattanaik attempts to provide an understanding of a worldview that is never literal. He has attempted to do this through representations of gender, differences between [hu]man and animals, the struggle between the Devas and Asuras, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the “wisdom of letting go”. Vishnu is explained through all these.
Symbolically, spiritual reality is male (Purusha), while material reality is female (Prakriti). Both realities are interdependent, and one cannot exist without the other, and this is best represented in art through intimate images of man and woman.
Without material reality [Lakshmi], spiritual reality [Vishnu] cannot be discovered, and without spiritual reality, material reality has no purpose… Thus Vishnu and Lakshmi validate each other. One cannot exist without the other. (p.5)
Well-known stories from Hindu mythology are de-constructed in an attempt to understand the symbolism behind it. For example, the Raasleela of Krishna and the milkmaids of Gokul is not about overt sexuality or clandestine love; it is about perfect love and ideal love and unabashed love of the divine. Similarly, the Kurukshetra war in the Mahabharata is not about violence or justice; it is about “restoring humanity, outgrowing animal instincts, and discovering the divine” (p.181).
A book of on Vishnu can never be complete without a discussion on his various avatars, which is popularly accepted to be 10 in all; the Bhagawat Purana, however lists 22 avatars of Vishnu. While acknowledging the popular perception of the (10) avatars of Vishnu as following the evolution of man, Pattanaik also points out that the human avatars of Vishnu follow the varna system: Brahmin (Parashurama), Kshatriya (Rama), Vaishya and Shudra (though born a Kshatriya, Krishna was brought up as a cowherd, a Vaishya, and served Arjuna as a charioteer, a Shudra, in the Kurukshetra war).
Simple stories are revealed to have deeper meanings. For instance, Mohini’s giving of the pot of immortality-inducing nectar to only the Devas, might seem partisan at first glance. However, it is revealed that it is a way of restoring balance as the Asuras also have a “power that enables them to survive death” (p.83). Their guru Shukracharya possesses the knowledge to revive the dead through Sanjivni Vidya.
Other stories and symbols explained are why Brahma is not worshipped, the significance and the placement of the urdhava namam (the mark on Vishnu’s forehead), the symbolism of Vishnu’s mace, conch shell, and the chakra, and many, many more.
The biggest strength of the 7 Secrets of Vishnu is its simple language and its exhaustive illustrations supporting the narrative. I do, however, have a few issues to pick with Pattanaik.
First, while explaining that spiritual reality is male and material reality is female, he acknowledges that this has led to reiterating “women’s subordinate position in a male-dominated society” (p.5). He also explains that this has nothing to do with gender politics and everything to do with human physiology. While man creates life outside his body, providing the trigger to life, the woman creates life inside her body, giving form to life. The male and female bodies are doing in the reproductive sense, what spiritual reality and material reality do in the metaphysical context (p.7). But this explanation does not really shed light as to why Lakshmi (who represents material reality) is always shown pressing Vishnu’s (who represents spiritual reality) feet in all art forms? There is a rather feeble and unconvincing explanation that “there is something about Vishnu… He does not seek her and this is precisely why she [Lakshmi] wants to follow him and serve him” (p.75). Really?
Second, while the exhaustive, supportive illustrations are really appreciated, I certainly did not like the fact that many of them have not been properly acknowledged. Just captioning a plate as “Cambodian temple carving showing Indra on elephants” (p.66) is not sufficient. Where in Cambodia is this? In a temple? In a museum? Or is it part of a private collection? Or is it somewhere else? One of the hallmarks of a good research is that it can be identified and replicated under similar conditions. Symbolically speaking, replication here means visiting the site of these carvings, something that I would like to do. But if I do not know where they are, how can I visit these places and see and understand for myself what this book aims to achieve? I am surprised that the publishers were not more particular about getting the details from Pattanaik.
The very first photograph in the book is that of Mohini, the female version of Vishnu. The vague caption reads, ” festival image or utsav moorti of Vishnu as Mohini from a south Indian Temple” (p.2). And therein lies my third issue with the book and its author. The photograph is not a representation of Mohini, but is that of Andaal, one of the 12 and only female Alvar saint. The symbols associated with Andaal are a parrot in her hand or her shoulder, hair tied up in a high side bun, and an open-ended garland of flowers around her shoulders. Mohini is usually represented with a pot containing nectar (as is shown on pages 34, 82 and 83 of the book) and does not have any of the symbols associated with Andaal.
In the Author’s Note, Pattanaik states that “it is significant that the stories of Vishnu rose to prominence after the rise of Buddhism” (p.ix). I expected the author to discuss the reasons for this in detail in the book, but he only skims over the details, though he admits that “from a historical point of view, the inclusion of Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu does have political motivation…” (p.203). This is my fourth issue with the book.
This is a good buy for those seeking to further their knowledge of Hindu mythology. The stories and symbols are explained simply and clearly and the de-construction and supporting illustrations, as mentioned before in this review, really enhance the quality of the book. However, I would not agree with the book’s title about revealing secrets about Vishnu, as the book is more about explaining and demystifying Vishnu. But for the issues that I raised in the review section, this would have been an excellent book.
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