(Last Updated on : 08/05/2010)
Lord Vishnu in Rig Veda
is accorded a high place. There are a number of questions that are raised regarding the position of Lord Vishnu in the Rig Veda, and whether or not he is the Supreme Deity, the one Reality (sat) as described by the hymns. This is because there are a greater number of hymns singing the glory of Lord Agni
and Rudra than that of Vishnu. In some places Vishnu is addressed along with Indra and Agni and is regarded as a solar deity (aditya). In view of this, some scholars are of the opinion that Vishnu of the Rig Veda is one among the other deities and He was raised to the status of a Supreme Being at a later period by the Epics and Indian Puranas
However, all arguments notwithstanding, there is no doubt that Vishnu is accorded a higher place in the Rig Veda even though fewer hymns are addressed to him. The scriptural text itself states that Agni is the lowest of all the deities and Vishnu is the highest. Whether or not Vishnu is the Supreme Deity is to be determined with reference to the essential characteristics which define the ultimate Reality. Vedanta Desika
has offered several definitions of Havara or Supreme Lord. These serve as the criteria to determine the Supremacy of a deity. From the philosophical standpoint, the important criteria are that a deity which claims the status of the Supreme Being should be all-pervasive (sarva-vyapi), that it should be immanent in all beings as inner controller (antaratma), that it should be the ground (adhara) of all that exists in the universe and that it should be the sovereign of the entire universe (sarve-svara). If we examine the hymns of the Rig Veda addressed to the different deities including Vishnu, taking into consideration the interpretations offered by ancient Vedic commentators and exponents of the Vedanta, we see that Vishnu of the Rig Veda qualifies fully to be considered as the Supreme Being (Isvara). This can be made clear by examining the meaning and implications of a few selected hymns addressed to Vishnu.
In the first place, the all-pervasive character (sarvavyapakatva) of Vishnu has been explicitly brought out in more than one hymn of the Rig Veda. This characteristic feature, which is an important determining criterion of the Supreme Being, is not found in respect of any other deity. Even if it be found implicitly in respect of any other deity, that deity is to be regarded as Vishnu according to the principle adopted by the Vedanta sutra. Eight hymns appearing in the very first mandala of the Rig Veda Samhita speak about the greatness of Vishnu by repeatedly referring to the three strides with which He measured the entire universe. The description of Vishnu with three strides signifies symbolically that the entire universe- the lower region (prithvi), the upper region (antariksa) and the higher region (dyuloka) - is pervaded by Vishnu. This implies that Vishnu along with the creation of the entire universe pervades all that is created. The created entities derive their existence (satta) by the immanence of the creator as its inner self. The Upanishad expresses this truth in a different way. `Brahman wills to become many; it creates and it enters into the same as its inner soul`. According to the Vedic etymology (nirukta) of Yaska, the term Vishnu means the one who pervades everything (yad visito bhavati tad vishnur-bhavati). It is also interpreted as the one who enters into all (vishnuh visaterva) The Ahirbudhnya Samhita, an authoritative Pancharatra treatise, upholds both the meanings. The philosophical significance of the three strides of Vishnu has been brought out more explicitly in the Satapatha Brahmana. The passage says: Vishnu is the very sacrifice (yajna). He measured the entire universe for the sake of divine beings (devatas); the strides are: the pervasion of the entire physical earth by the first step, the entire upper region (antariksa), by the second and the heavenly region by the third step.
Some ancient commentators on the Vedas and also a few Western scholars have taken the view that Vishnu is Sun God (surya) and the three steps represent the rising sun in the early morning, the sun in the noon and the setting sun in the evening. The three steps are also interpreted as the manifestation of sun in three different forms, first as agni (fire) in the earthly region, the second one as vidyut (lightning) in the upper region (antariksa) and the third in the higher celestial region (divi) as surya (sun). Both the interpretations, though plausible stand opposed to the correct etymological meaning of the term Vishnu as explained earlier, It also conflicts with the Rig Vedic hymn which speaks of an eternal Vishnupada (either in the sense of abode of Vishnu or as Vishnu-svarupa). The sun or the realm of sun (suryaloka) is not eternal.
The number three, as Madhava has interpreted, covers not merely the three worlds, Prithvi, Antariksa and Dyuloka, but the three Vedas (Rig Veda, Yajur Veda
and Sama Veda
), the three time factors-past, present and future, the three kinds of jivas devas, danavas and human beings, the three types of existents-sentient beings (cetana), non-sentient matter (achetana) and the mixed ones (mishra). The implication of it is that everything that exists in the spatio-temporal universe is pervaded by Vishnu. If this meaning is accepted it becomes obvious that Vishnu of the Rig Veda is the Supreme Being by virtue of His all-pervasive character. The purpose of Vishnu`s pervasion is to provide protection to all beings in the universe. This is made evident in the words `Vishnuh gopah.` Gopah means one who is the protector of the universe and He carries out this function by upholding the dharma (dharmani dharayan).
The most important hymn which establishes beyond any doubt the supremacy of Vishnu is the one which speaks of the eternal abode (paramapada) of Vishnu. The hymn runs as follows: "The enlightened seers (suris) always see that supreme abode of Vishnu, like the shining sun pervading the entire sky as if it were an eye fixed in the heaven". The word Vishnu in this hymn refers to Para-Brahma because the supreme abode as existent eternally should belong to the eternal Supreme Being. The suris (seers) as explained by Ramanuja
are the nitya-suris, those individual souls who are eternally free (those who never had any bondage unlike the released souls). They are endowed with perfect knowledge implying that they are omniscient. Only such individuals can have the vision of Vishnu and His eternal abode. The word paramapada also means the svarupa or nature of Vishnu in the sense that he is to be attained. The bound souls and all other deities cannot have a direct vision of this abode. The Katha Upanishad
also refers to paramapada of Vishnu. The Vishnu Purana also reiterates this. Human eye cannot grasp it because it is a transcendental spiritual entity. It is only through the spiritual knowledge acquired after release from bondage that it is possible to have the vision of Vishnu`s abode.
One other hymn states explicitly that Vishnu is the protector of all (sarvaratksaka) by using the term trata and also that He is the Lord (inasya) which implies Lord of everything (sarvasya swamin). The expansion of the three worlds by His three strides is described as an extraordinary feat of masculine character by using the expression paurhsyam. Such an epithet is not found in respect of any other devata in the Rig veda.