5. THE COSMIC PERSON
“Oh King, the rivers are the veins of the Cosmic Person and the trees are the hairs of his body. The air is his breath, the ocean is his waist, the hills and mountains are the stacks of his bones and the passing ages are his movements.”
Srimad Bhagavatam 2.1.32-33
The remote valley of the river Gandhaki, high in the Himalayas, is inaccessible for nine months of the year, walled in by snow and ice. When the snows thaw and spring briefly gives way to summer, pilgrims find their way in from the plains below, seeking the treasures that lie in its icy torrents. Rolling down the river bed are not precious stones or gold, but small black pebbles, smooth and round, adorned with strange circular markings. These stones are called shalagram and are said to be produced from the semen of Vishnu, as is the universe itself. They are sought after as forms of Vishnu to be worshipped in home or temple. To get a stone, the worshipper must go on pilgrimage to the valley where they are found. After reciting special mantras the pilgrims reach into the icy waters and, if they are fortunate, one of the sacred pebbles appears within reach to be taken and worshipped as a form of Vishnu.
Shalagram stones, signifying the presence of Vishnu, the Cosmic Person, are found in homes and temples all over India and beyond. Long ago Vedic sages described Vishnu as the One whose existence spans the cosmos. When our universe first came into being it was only one of countless seminal seeds springing from the gigantic body of Mahavishnu, the Great Vishnu, seeds which floated in the Causal Ocean like clusters of bubbles (see chapter 3). Each seed became a golden egg into which Vishnu entered as the Purusha, the Cosmic Person. Appearing inside its dark hollow, he transformed primeval matter into earth, water, fire, air and ethereal space. As his universal body developed, corresponding elements of the physical and mental world came into being. His mouth became Speech, presided over by the fire-god; his nostrils became Breathing and the sense of Smell, controlled by the wind-god; his eyes became the sense of Sight, controlled by the sun-god; Movement appeared along with his legs, rivers along with his veins, and Mind along with his heart. The moon was his mind and the demigods Brahma and Shiva were his intellect and ego.
In the Hindu world consciousness pervades the universe and all within it. A human being, an elephant, a cow, a dog, an ant, a tree, mountains, rivers, the planet earth itself – all are conscious. The sun, moon and stars shine their consciousness upon us, and conscious beings fill the space between us with their invisible presence. All these beings exist within the Cosmic Person.
The universe is the form of the Cosmic Person. Vedic cosmology divides the space inside the universe into fourteen layers of planetary systems, from the Patala planets, which are the soles of his feet, to the heavenly planets called Satyaloka, which are his one thousand heads. An ancient Vedic hymn called Purusha Sukta describes the form of the Cosmic Person and relates how all within this world is a part of his universal form. This hymn is recited every day by priests and devout Hindus as part of their worship of Vishnu.
In this daily worship different physical elements are used as constant reminders of the sacred origins of matter. All matter is imbued with the presence of the divine, but it is easy to forget this. As fire is present in wood, and can be drawn out given the right conditions, so spirit is present in matter, but can only be seen by one who has acquired the right vision. The ritual of daily worship in which the elements of matter are resanctified awakens the dormant sense of divine presence, enabling the worshipper to see that presence even in everyday objects. A deity of the personal form of God can be made out of wood, stone, earth or paint, or can be created in the mind, and then worshipped with the sanctified elements of matter. One such traditional form of deity is the shalagram, the small black pebble from the bed of the river Gandhaki.
The method of worship has been handed down through lineages of brahmana families and gurus for thousands of years. Although the actions performed are simple enough, they cannot be done mindlessly. Before receiving initiation into the worship of a deity the student must understand that the deity is not mere stone or wood, but an embodiment of the supreme Vishnu. Nor is it an idol, an imaginary invented image, but is formed following the teachings of the tradition as they have been handed down in order to faithfully reproduce Vishnu’s form, thus summoning his presence. Though the details of worship vary from one tradition to another, all follow a common formula, based around the recitation of prayers and a ceremony during which the deity is bathed in water and then rubbed with oil and anointed with sandalwood paste. The basic elements used are water, ghee, scented oil, incense, a burning ghee lamp, fruits, milk, food-grains and leaves from the sacred Tulasi plant. To these may be added fire kindled in the agni-hotra sacred fire ceremony, into which are made offerings of ghee and grains. The fire acts as the mouth of the Cosmic Person, receiving the offerings. The prayers of purusha-sukta, describing the Cosmic Person, are chanted during the worship.
An essential part of a brahmana’s worship is the recitation of the gayatri mantra, which begins with meditation on the sun as the representative of God. The sun is the eye of Vishnu, which sees all; by its energy all living things flourish. Vishnu himself enters into the sun as the sun-god. The daily appearance of the sun is greeted as a moment of great auspiciousness when brahmanas recite the gayatri mantra. The mantra is repeated again at noon and at sunset, calling upon the sun, which illuminates the earthly and heavenly realms, to enlighten the mind of the meditator with divine inspiration.
Another prayer, commonly used at the beginning of worship or meditation, offers respect to mother Earth and asks for her protection: ‘Oh mother Earth, the worlds are maintained by you. Oh goddess, you are upheld by Lord Vishnu. Kindly purify this seat and daily maintain me.’ The earth and the sun span the world of human experience. The sun, the ‘eye of God’, gives forth energy and life, fertilising the earth, who is the mother from whose womb all life-forms are born.
In the Vedic literatures mother Earth is personified as the goddess Bhumi, or Prithvi. She is the abundant mother who showers her mercy on her children. Her beauty and profusion is vividly portrayed in the beautiful Hymn to the Earth in the Atharva Veda, from which the following verses are taken:
Your castles and fortresses are built by divine engineers. In every province of yours people are working hard. You bear all precious things in your womb. May God, the lord of life, make you pleasing on all sides. (43)
O mother, bearing folk who speak different languages and follow different religions, treating them all as residents of the same house, please pour, like a cow who never fails, a thousand streams of treasure to enrich me. (44)
May you, our motherland, on whom grow wheat, rice and barley, on whom are born five races of mankind, be nourished by the cloud, and loved by the rain. (42)
O mother, with your oceans, rivers and other bodies of water, you give us land to grow grains, on which our survival depends. Please give us as much milk, fruits, water and cereals as we need to eat and drink. (3)
Verses from Atharva Veda 12.1, paraphrased from the translations quoted by O. P. Dwivedi and B. N. Tiwari in Environmental Crisis and Hindu Religion, Gitanjali, New Delhi, 1987.
Earth’s production of food is dependent on the principles of karma which lie at the root of the workings of the universe. All actions bring reactions, linking everything together in a seamless web. Hence the supply of food is influenced by the moral or spiritual behaviour of humanity. This may seem irrelevant in these scientific times, when we are able to control so much for ourselves, but it is nevertheless a fundamental principle of Hinduism. In Hindu tradition food is offered daily to God in the temple. Without these offerings the earth will not be satisfied and neither will we be. It is not that the earth is herself worshipped, but that she is satisfied when she sees that her own produce is being offered back to God, its original source.
It is often supposed that humans can get what they want from this world provided they are prepared to work hard enough for it. With their greater intelligence they can create wealth for themselves by exploiting the earth’s resources, whereas animals are forced to follow their instincts and are only capable of struggling for survival. This ability of human beings to exploit their environment is supposed to mark them out as superior to animals. At any rate, this concept has been at the root of the expansion of human domination of the planet, particularly in the West, over the last five hundred years.
How different this concept is from that taught by the Vedas! According to the Isa Upanishad, this planet does not belong to humanity, any more than it belongs to the other species living on it:
Everything in the universe belongs to the Lord. You should therefore only take what is really necessary for yourself, which is set aside for you. You should not take anything else, because you know to whom it belongs.
So long as we treat the planet carefully and take only our share, acknowledging that it and everything else belongs to God, the planet will provide for our needs; but as soon as we try to take nature’s gifts without offering anything in return we become no better than thieves.
The Srimad Bhagavatam tells a story from long ago of a time when the world was governed by the cruel and selfish King Vena. Blinded by pride in his own wealth, Vena stopped all religious functions and started his own cult, with himself as the deity. He ordered everyone to worship him instead of Vishnu. When they saw that the true worship of God had been stopped, the sages of the world foresaw disaster. They knew that as soon as religious activities were stopped there could be no peace or prosperity.
The sages first went to King Vena and demanded that he change his ways; reasoning with him in persuasive words, they explained to him that his first duty as ruler was to promote piety and religion in society; that if brahmanas made offerings to God the demigods controlling the workings of the world would be pleased and reward humanity with natural prosperity. Vena, however, ridiculed their advice. He insisted that, as the rightful king, he was the divine embodiment of all the demigods, and should be the only object of worship for everyone.
King Vena’s beliefs have a parallel in modern times. Today’s secular governments, under the influence of modern economists and scientists, argue that religion and traditional customs, being unscientific, are no longer of any value because they have been replaced by rational and objective scientific and economic theories; all we now need for success, they argue, is more and more expenditure on science and technology and economic development. In other words we should make our offerings to a new god, the god of science, technology and economics.
When Vena refused to change, the sages decided they had no alternative than to remove him for the good of everyone. They cursed him and such was the power of their words that he immediately died. They then prayed for a divine incarnation of Vishnu to take his place. The new king became famous as Prithu, the subduer of the earth. He established townships and organised agriculture for the first time. Most importantly, he reintroduced religious functions and subdued the planet earth, not by raping her, as the phrase suggests to inhabitants of the twentieth-century, but by pleasing her and invoking her motherly instinct. Because of the unjust rule of Vena and the bad elements which had flourished in human society as a result, she had withheld her riches. She said to King Prithu, “My seeds, roots and herbs, which are meant to be offered to God, were being used by untruthful men of no spiritual understanding, therefore I have hidden them, but you can now extract them by pleasing me.”
Bhumi, mother Earth, is conscious of the behaviour of human beings, and she responds to that behaviour. If they treat her kindly she supplies them with everything they need, but if she is mistreated she can keep back all these things. The way to please her and ensure abundance is through religious activity. Being herself a servant of God, she is pleased when she sees God being worshipped. In the Bhagavad Gita this principle is explained:
All beings live on food grains, which are dependent on rain. Rain is produced by yajna (religious ceremony) which is based upon the performance of duties as taught in the Vedic scriptures.
As the story is told in the Bhagavatam, Bhumi took the form of a cow and asked Prithu to bring a calf. He then milked from her all the herbs and grains which she was keeping. When the mother cow sees her calf, she is overwhelmed with love and her milk flows freely. The symbol of the cow and her calf used here therefore emphasises that the relationship between the earth planet and her inhabitants is that of a mother and her children. What is needed is love and affection, not scientific exploitation, to bring out her life-nourishing goodness.
In a manner reminiscent of the rule of King Vena, modern rulers exploit the earth, extracting food grains, seeds and herbs as well as valuable minerals and other resources, but they make no offerings in the temple for the pleasure of Vishnu or any other form of God. Sometimes stocks of grains are destroyed to keep the prices down, or farmers are paid to stop producing. Worst of all, they sometimes build up huge surplus stocks of food-grains in one part of the world while elsewhere people are forced to starve, all in the name of trade laws and the pursuit of profit. The earth is a devotee of Vishnu, and her service is to provide all living beings with food, as a mother feeds her children. If we abuse her kindness and waste what she gives us, she becomes unhappy. She does not like to give her abundance to selfish men who fail to honour God and who use what she gives them only for themselves. Therefore, feeling neglected and uncared for, she may again stop supplying food for such people, and they may themselves starve. There is evidence that this process may have already begun to affect even the affluent West. In North America, despite all efforts of the latest agricultural technology, declining fertility, loss of topsoil and water shortages are beginning to pose a serious threat to cereal production.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells how everything was originally created in abundance. In the beginning of the universe, he says, the Lord of all creatures sent his children into the world and told them to be happy and prosperous through performing sacrifice for Vishnu, by which all their desires would be fulfilled. The demigods, Krishna says, are servants of Vishnu placed in charge of the various universal elements. They will be pleased by humanity’s offerings and will arrange for the proper supply of all that it needs. Food grains – life’s greatest necessity – will be plentiful only if society is religious. This is because grains are dependent on sufficient rainfall, which in turn depends on religious action, or following the laws of God as prescribed in the scriptures. According to the Vedic tradition, therefore, prosperity and happiness will be the natural result of living a religious life in harmony with nature. Any amount of human endeavour which does not take account of the need for pleasing God will bring the same result, but rather, as in the case of Vena, will bring disaster.