4. VISHNU, THE SLEEPING CREATOR
At the temple of Budhanilakanth, just north of Kathmandu, is an ancient deity of the creator Vishnu. Carved from black stone, half submerged in the waters of a small lake, he reclines on the body of the cosmic serpent Anantasesh, coiled under him like a floating bed. His serene thirty-foot long form, constantly attended by priests and pilgrims, lies wrapped in mystic sleep. The creator and ultimate controller of the material realm, the One who is described in Bhagavad Gita as the source of all material and spiritual worlds and the origin of all living beings, this final source of life and power, has withdrawn himself from the drama he has set in motion and is forever asleep.
Vishnu is one of the names given in the Vedic scriptures for the supreme being. Although Hindus believe in many lesser gods called demigods, they know that there is only one Supreme, the source of all others. Vaishnavas know Him as Vishnu, the Lord of all creation. Before this world existed, before there were any demigods or sun, moon or stars, Vishnu existed in his own eternal realm.
But why is Vishnu sleeping? Why is he not taking part in the world he has made? To understand this we must hear the Hindu story of creation, as told in the Puranas. Creation does not happen only once. As the cycle of seasons endlessly repeats itself, Vishnu creates the world of matter and withdraws it into his existence time after time.
This is how he creates.
There exists an eternal realm of light, stretching in all directions for infinity. As the light of this world comes from the sun, so the brilliance of that spiritual sky comes from the dazzling rays shining from the personal form of God. That energy of God, called brahman, is the basis of creation.
In one corner of that never-ending sky, Vishnu, the lord of all beings, created a cloud. In its shadow he brought into being a great ocean. The water of that ocean was quite unlike the water of this world. It is from that ocean that this world was made, so it is called the waters of creation. In the coolness of its waters Vishnu lay down to sleep. While he slept, submerged in the water, he began to breathe deep, regular breaths. Time came into being. Aeons passed.
Then came sound, the basis of the world. From sound came ether and the sense of hearing. The combination of ether and the sense of hearing created texture, which in turn produced air and the sense of touch. The mixing of air and the sense of touch created form, from which came fire and the sense of sight. The combination of fire and the sense of sight created flavour, which in turn produced water and the sense of taste. By the mixture of water and the sense of taste odour was created, and from it came earth and the sense of smell. Together these elements made up the ingredients for creation.
The Vedic scriptures describe how each element was created and how they are all related, one to another. They show how the senses of hearing, touching, seeing, tasting and smelling are each related to a particular element and how all are woven together to form a living world where all the parts depend on each other. If a disturbance is made in one part of this web its balance will be upset and a disturbance will be caused somewhere else. This disturbance may not just be in the outside world, but also in the internal health of our own body and senses. This kind of effect can be seen in the twentieth century in the damage done to nature and to our own health by the continued industrial exploitation of the environment.
With his outward breath Vishnu scattered clouds of tiny bubbles into the waters, and every time he breathed in they were sucked back inside him. Each of these bubbles, which seemed so small in comparison with his gigantic sleeping form, grew into an entire universe like ours, whose lifespan was equal to a single breath of Vishnu. All these universes were clustered around the form of Vishnu like foam in the ocean.
When all the elements of matter were present, Vishnu expanded himself and entered each universe, bringing it to life by filling it with souls, tiny particles of his own spiritual nature. These souls were filled with desires for enjoying the world. To fulfil their desires they needed material bodies. So began the second phase of creation.
From Vishnu inside each universe Brahma was born. Brahma created the planets and stars and all the thousands of demigods, each of whom was given charge of a particular part of the cosmic order. Indra was given the rain, Vayu the wind, Surya the sun, Candra the moon and Varuna the waters. Goddess Bhumi was given the earth.
Brahma and the demigods created the myriad life-forms of the universe, among them human beings. The demigods were given the power to grant great blessings to their worshippers. For Hindus these demigods are not just mythical figures. They are the powers behind the elements of the natural world such as wind, rain and the earth itself. These elements are usually taken for granted as being automatic forces working as part of a complex machine, but really they are under the higher control of the demigods. Even the earth planet itself is controlled, by Bhumi, and therefore Hindus always treat the earth with great respect, considering her as their mother who gave them life and without whom they would die. However, powerful though the demigods are, behind them lies Vishnu, and it is really he who creates and controls all. Without him they can do nothing.
It is said that the oceans are Vishnu’s waist, the hills and mountains are his bones, the clouds are the hairs on his head and the air is his breathing. The rivers are his veins, the trees are the hairs on his body, the sun and moon are his two eyes and the passage of day and night is the moving of his eyelids. In the words of the Bhagavad Gita:
“Everything rests on me as pearls are strung on a thread. I am the original fragrance of the earth. I am the taste in water. I am the heat in fire and the sound in space. I am the light of the sun and moon and the life of all that lives.”
Once the world came to life, filled with numberless living beings, Vishnu expanded himself into a third form and entered the hearts of all beings to sit alongside each individual soul as the Supersoul.
The individual soul, called the atma, is the basis of life. By its presence as the self, it gives energy to the body. The world is thus a combination of matter and spirit, innumerable life forms and the soul within them. When the soul leaves one body, that body dies. The soul then enters another body, like an actor changing clothes. Moving from body to body in search of happiness, it passes through all forms of life, from insect to demigod. Materially these life-forms are not of the same importance, but spiritually they are equal because they are all coverings for the soul. It is this soul that Vishnu accompanies in the heart of each being as the Supersoul.
The Mundaka Upanishad gives a simple allegory for understanding the Supersoul. There are two birds sitting on the branch of a tree. One bird is tasting the fruits of the tree, some bitter, some sweet. The other bird is a friend, watching the first bird. The friend is patiently waiting for the first bird to turn to him and share his friendship, but the first bird is unaware of his presence. The tree is the body, the bird who tastes its fruits is the individual soul, and the friendly bird is the Supersoul – Vishnu – who offers his protection, friendship and love.
For Hindus, this world is not made of inanimate matter, to be wasted and exploited for selfish ends. When they see the sunrise and feel its scorching heat, when they taste water or smell the earth in the monsoon rains, they are reminded of Vishnu. Vishnu is both inside it and outside this world, and it cannot be separated from him. All is sacred, God-given and mystically created. It all came from Vishnu and it will all return to him in the end.
Although Vishnu is sleeping in the ocean of creation he is not unaware of the actions of his offspring, the tiny souls. In their hearts he is following them as they journey through the vastness of time and space. Waiting. Watching.
“Everywhere are his hands and legs, his eyes, heads and faces. His ears are everywhere. He knows all things, past, present and future. He also knows all beings. But no one knows him.”
He knows all beings, but they do not know him. It is they who are unaware of him. That is why he is sleeping. It is really not he who sleeps, it is the souls of this world, who are asleep to him. He only waits for them to turn from the worldly tree and return to him and to their original home in the eternal world of light. That is another world, and another story.