7 Secrets of Vishnu

The Background

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.

According to Devdutt Pattanaik, author of the 7 Secrets of Vishnu (and the book under review here),

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 of calendar art, paintings, sculptures, etc. “to make explicit patterns that are implicit in stories, symbols and rituals of Vishnu” (p.xi).

The Book

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 Review

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.

The Verdict

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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20 thoughts on “7 Secrets of Vishnu

  1. Thanks for this nice review. You have pointed out some of the issues you saw with the book and while reading your review, I was also feeling that it is good if someone explains the meanings of different sacred and mythological reppresentations but when someone tries to justifies all of them (kind of trying to say “my religion has got everything right including all those things that apparently look wrong”), I feel a little sceptical.

    BTW, another book on this theme, which I liked very much is in Hindi “Bhartiya mithikon mein pratikatmakta” by Dr Usha Puri Vidyavachaspati (Sarthak prakashan Delhi 1997). I am sure that she does not write as well as Pattnaik who is a great communicator, and her book is more scholarly, but I liked it.

    • Pattanaik does explain the meanings of different sacred symbols and associations, and I never got the feeling that he says that my religion has got everything right. But he also gets very defensive about two things in particular– (i) representation of women in Hindu art and (ii) the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. In a roundabout way, he justifies it by offerring metaphysical explanations that do not really work. I would have appreciated it more if he had said that “women’s representation in Hindu art shows her in a subservient light’ and left it at that. Similarly, it is a fact that Hinduism was threatened by the rise of Buddhism and it is quite possible that it had to reinvent itself. Even Pattanaik admits that. But he also goes one step further and justifies the Buddha’s inclusion in the 10 avatars of Vishnu, a move that is rejected by Buddhist mythology. It only perpetuates what many Hindus feel — that Buddhism is a sub-sect of Hinduism, which I feel is grossly incorrect.

      Everyone is a communicator, Pattanaik, you and me. But when one gets defensive, the purpose of communication is lost.

      Thank you so much for suggesting Ushaji’s book. I will definitely get a copy for myself.

  2. A very crisp and sensible review. Hindu mythology is deeper than an ocean and one can at best skim its surface. I agree with your indignation about the Laksmi pressing Vishnu’s feet explanation. It was Vishnu, who came to Tirupathi looking for Lakshmi who had left him and borrowed humongous quantities of money from Kubera to construct the golden city to satisfy Lakshmi’s foster father. Lore has it that the Lord is still paying back the interest on the loan :) And the author says Vishnu is not interested in her?

    • Is the good Lord paying back the interest to Kubera or are his devotees? :-)

      I’m still bristling with indignation at Pattanaik’s justification for the way women are portrayed in Hindu art. I would have Pattanaik more if he had said that women have a subservient position in Hindu art and left it at that !

    • Yay ! You’re back. This blog was missing your presence, you know. :-D

      The 7 secrets of Vishnu is worth a read in spite of the issues I have with the author.

      The header is a cropped image of the entrance to Akbar’s tomb in Sikandara, near Agra. Post coming up soon :-)

  3. Excellent article. I’m sure Devdutt Pattanaik will have a lot to reflect on when he goes through this. Very elaborately discussed also. Intrigued me enough into reading the book… Thanks Sudha… :)

  4. Good review. I should pick up some pointers from you in review writing. I just wrote my review on this book too. It looks like we pick up the same books from Blogadda :)!

  5. I have not read the series, or this particular book…but I am curious. Symbols are powerful, meaningful and intuitively influential. And, like a picture can speak or replace 1000 words, symbols can encapsulate (in its subtle and/or hidden details) an entire doctoral explanation for an issue that could run for 500 pages (in words). I have always appreciated that dimension of Hindu, Buddhist and other Eastern mythologies, iconography and symbols

    But I will admit that a lot of interpretation of these symbols are “man driven” or “male dominated”…and carry an elitist, sometimes a subtle classist, and sexist bias…that the analyst himself might not be aware of.

    To me religion, like any other areas of human endeavor, construction, reconstruction and sustenance, must evolve. What was known through experience, exploration, experimentation, intelligence, learning, intuition, human search 50,000, 5,000, 2,000 or 800 years ago…must evolve further. Even those timeless truths about “love, pursuit of truth, justice and fairness for all, neighborliness, goodness, kindness, purity of the heart and the mind, etc.” that most religions, philosophies and traditions emphasize, support or encourage require constant investigation, clarification and detailed development. What is love in the modern world of “excessive nuclearization of the family” ; “in highly tribalistic societies” ; “in societies that go to war and combat constantly” or “in societies where mediocre men have risen to power and suddenly decide who is in or who is out”? How does one love, with fairness and justice, someone who thinks a Black person cannot be a President or a Brown person cannot be their equal or their boss? Is understanding only a one way effort? If one makes no effort to understand, appreciate and support a woman, a person of color, an immigrant, a minority or someone who might disagree or be different then are you supposed to love that person while they sit on your head, follow you around, harrass you, spy on you and try to speak untruths about you? Love for the individual versus the group ; love for the group versus justice for an individual ; justice for an individual versus justice for a group ; love and justice for an individual versus love and justice for a group. These are complicated questions…then…and now! Some people and societies do not even raise them…because they see everything from their prism or their prison (the unenlightened mind).

    It is time men in many countries, communities and cultures (including the US of A) stop using religion constantly to either justify their sexism or promote it. And they must also stop assuming sexism did not exist in the past or in religion or in their philosophy. And if we need to bridge spirituality and philosophy with modernity, modernization, globalization and certain timeless truths (that we can share with people) then male bias, limitations and human limitations (as well as bias) in religious doctrines, dogmas, interepretations and implementations must be owned up to. Otherwise religion, or its interpretations, might not evolve…no matter how many analyses we do.

    This is where science (at least the unbiased version of science – as science too can get selective and dogmatic) can help evolve religion, while spirituality and philosophy can ask the difficult, value-centered and complicated questions that science but delve into to keep itself “balanced, ethical, socially relevant, helpful and humanistic”

    Meera Srinivasan

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