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XII. Vishnu, the All-Pervading Godhead

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Rig-veda 1.154


विष्णो॒र्नु कं॑ वी॒र्या॑णि॒ प्र वो॑चं॒ यः पार्थि॑वानि विम॒मे रजां॑सि ।

यो अस्क॑भाय॒दुत्त॑रं स॒धस्थं॑ विचक्रमा॒णस्त्रे॒धोरु॑गा॒यः ॥१॥

viṣṇoḥ nu kam vīryāṇi pra vocam yaḥ pārthivāni vi-mame rajāṃsi

yaḥ askabhāyat ut-taram sadha-stham vi-cakramāṇaḥ tredhā ūru-gāyaḥ

Of Vishnu now I declare the mighty works, who has measured out the earthly worlds and that higher seat of our self-accomplishing he supports, he the wide-moving, in the threefold steps of his universal movement.


प्र तद्विष्णु॑: स्तवते वी॒र्ये॑ण मृ॒गो न भी॒मः कु॑च॒रो गि॑रि॒ष्ठाः ।

यस्यो॒रुषु॑ त्रि॒षु वि॒क्रम॑णेष्वधिक्षि॒यन्ति॒ भुव॑नानि॒ विश्वा॑ ॥२॥

pra tat viṣṇuḥ stavate vīryeṇa mṛgaḥ na bhīmaḥ kucaraḥ giri-sthāḥ

yasya uruṣu triṣu vi-kramaṇeṣu adhi-kṣiyanti bhuvanāni viśvā

That Vishnu affirms on high by his mightiness and he is like a terrible lion that ranges in the difficult places, yea, his lair is on the mountain-tops, he in whose three wide movements all the worlds find their dwelling-place.


प्र विष्ण॑वे शू॒षमे॑तु॒ मन्म॑ गिरि॒क्षित॑ उरुगा॒याय॒ वृष्णे॑ ।

य इ॒दं दी॒र्घं प्रय॑तं स॒धस्थ॒मेको॑ विम॒मे त्रि॒भिरित्प॒देभि॑: ॥३॥

pra viṣṇave śūṣam etu manma giri-kṣite uru-gāyāya vṛṣṇe

yaḥ idam dīrgham pra-yatam sadha-stham ekaḥ vi-mame tribhiḥ it padebhiḥ

Let our strength and our thought go forward to Vishnu the all-pervading, the wide-moving Bull whose dwelling-place is on the mountain, he who being One has measured all this long and far-extending seat of our self-accomplishing by only three of his strides.


यस्य॒ त्री पू॒र्णा मधु॑ना प॒दान्यक्षी॑यमाणा स्व॒धया॒ मद॑न्ति ।

य उ॑ त्रि॒धातु॑ पृथि॒वीमु॒त द्यामेको॑ दा॒धार॒ भुव॑नानि॒ विश्वा॑ ॥४॥

yasya trī pūrṇā madhunā padāni akṣīyamāṇā svadhayā madanti

yaḥ ūm̐ iti tri-dhātu pṛthivīm uta dyām ekaḥ dādhāra bhuvanāni viśvā

He whose three steps are full of the honey-wine and they perish not but have ecstasy by the self-harmony of their nature; yea, he being One holds the triple principle and earth and heaven also, even all the worlds.

तद॑स्य प्रि॒यम॒भि पाथो॑ अश्यां॒ नरो॒ यत्र॑ देव॒यवो॒ मद॑न्ति ।

उ॒रु॒क्र॒मस्य॒ स हि बन्धु॑रि॒त्था विष्णो॑: प॒दे प॑र॒मे मध्व॒ उत्स॑: ॥५॥

tat asya priyam abhi pāthaḥ aśyām naraḥ yatra devayavaḥ madanti

uru-kramasya saḥ hi bandhuḥ itthā viṣṇoḥ pade parame madhvaḥ utsaḥ

May I attain to and enjoy that goal of his movement, the Delight, where souls that seek the godhead have the rapture; for there in that highest step of the wide-moving Vishnu is that Friend of men who is the fount of the sweetness.


ता वां॒ वास्तू॑न्युश्मसि॒ गम॑ध्यै॒ यत्र॒ गावो॒ भूरि॑शृङ्गा अ॒यासः॑ ।

अत्राह॒ तदु॑रुगा॒यस्य॒ वृष्ण॑: पर॒मं प॒दमव॑ भाति॒ भूरि॑ ॥६॥

tā vām vāstūni uśmasi gamadhyai yatra gāvaḥ bhūri-śṛṅgāḥ ayāsaḥ

atra aha tat uru-gāyasya vṛṣṇaḥ paramam padam ava bhāti bhūri

Those are the dwelling-places of ye twain which we desire as the goal of our journey, where the many-horned herds of Light go travelling; the highest step of wide-moving Vishnu shines down on us here in its manifold vastness.


The deity of this hymn is Vishnu the all-pervading, who in the Rig-veda has a close but covert connection and almost an identity with the other deity exalted in the later religion, Rudra. Rudra is a fierce and violent godhead with a beneficent aspect which approaches the supreme blissful reality of Vishnu; Vishnu’s constant friendliness to man and his helping gods is shadowed by an aspect of formidable violence,– “like a terrible lion ranging in evil and difficult places”,– which is spoken of in terms more ordinarily appropriate to Rudra. Rudra is the father of the vehemently-battling Maruts; Vishnu is hymned in the last Sukta of the fifth Mandala under the name of Evaya Marut as the source from which they sprang, that which they become, and himself identical with the unity and totality of their embattled forces. Rudra is the Deva or Deity ascending in the cosmos, Vishnu the same Deva or Deity helping and evoking the powers of the ascent.

It was a view long popularised by European scholars that the greatness of Vishnu and Shiva in the Puranic theogonies was a later development and that in the Veda these gods have a quite minor position and are inferior to Indra and Agni. It has even become a current opinion among many scholars that Shiva was a later conception borrowed from the Dravidians and represents a partial conquest of the Vedic religion by the indigenous culture it had invaded. These errors arise inevitably as part of the total misunderstanding of Vedic thought for which the old Brahmanic ritualism is responsible and to which European scholarship by the exaggeration of a minor and external element in the Vedic mythology has only given a new and yet more misleading form.

The importance of the Vedic gods has not to be measured by the number of hymns devoted to them or by the extent to which they are invoked in the thoughts of the Rishis, but by the functions which they perform. Agni and Indra to whom the majority of the Vedic hymns are addressed, are not greater than Vishnu and Rudra, but the functions which they fulfil in the internal and external world were the most active, dominant and directly effective for the psychological discipline of the ancient Mystics; this alone is the reason of their predominance. The Maruts, children of Rudra, are not divinities superior to their fierce and mighty Father; but they have many hymns addressed to them and are far more constantly mentioned in connection with other gods, because the function they fulfilled was of a constant and immediate importance in the Vedic discipline. On the other hand, Vishnu, Rudra, Brahmanaspati, the Vedic originals of the later Puranic Triad, Vishnu-Shiva-Brahma, provide the conditions of the Vedic work and assist it from behind the more present and active gods, but are less close to it and in appearance less continually concerned in its daily movements.

Brahmanaspati is the creator by the Word; he calls light and visible cosmos out of the darkness of the inconscient ocean and speeds the formations of conscious being upward to their supreme goal. It is from this creative aspect of Brahmanaspati that the later conception of Brahma the Creator arose.

For the upward movement of Brahmanaspati’s formations Rudra supplies the force. He is named in the Veda the Mighty One of Heaven, but he begins his work upon the earth and gives effect to the sacrifice on the five planes of our ascent. He is the Violent One who leads the upward evolution of the conscious being; his force battles against all evil, smites the sinner and the enemy; intolerant of defect and stumbling he is the most terrible of the gods, the one of whom alone the Vedic Rishis have any real fear. Agni, the Kumara, prototype of the Puranic Skanda, is on earth the child of this force of Rudra. The Maruts, vital powers which make light for themselves by violence, are Rudra’s children. Agni and the Maruts are the leaders of the fierce struggle upward from Rudra’s first earthly, obscure creation to the heavens of thought, the luminous worlds. But this violent and mighty Rudra who breaks down all defective formations and groupings of outward and inward life, has also a benigner aspect. He is the supreme healer. Opposed, he destroys; called on for aid and propitiated he heals all wounds and all evil and all sufferings. The force that battles is his gift, but also the final peace and joy. In these aspects of the Vedic god are all the primitive materials necessary for the evolution of the Puranic Shiva-Rudra, the destroyer and healer, the auspicious and terrible, the Master of the force that acts in the worlds and the Yogin who enjoys the supreme liberty and peace.

For the formations of Brahmanaspati’s word, for the actions of Rudra’s force Vishnu supplies the necessary static elements,– Space, the ordered movements of the worlds, the ascending levels, the highest goal. He has taken three strides and in the space created by the three strides has established all the worlds. In these worlds he the all-pervading dwells and gives less or greater room to the action and movements of the gods. When Indra would slay Vritra, he first prays to Vishnu, his friend and comrade in the great struggle (1.22.19), “O Vishnu, pace out in thy movement with an utter wideness” (IV.18.11), and in that wideness he destroys Vritra who limits, Vritra who covers. The supreme step of Vishnu, his highest seat, is the triple world of bliss and light, priyaṃ padam, which the wise ones see extended in heaven like a shining eye of vision (1.22.20); it is this highest seat of Vishnu that is the goal of the Vedic journey. Here again the Vedic Vishnu is the natural precursor and sufficient origin of the Puranic Narayana, Preserver and Lord of Love.

In the Veda indeed its fundamental conception forbids the Puranic arrangement of the supreme Trinity and the lesser gods. To the Vedic Rishis there was only one universal Deva of whom Vishnu, Rudra, Brahmanaspati, Agni, Indra, Vayu, Mitra, Varuna are all alike forms and cosmic aspects. Each of them is in himself the whole Deva and contains all the other gods. It was the full emergence in the Upanishads of the idea of this supreme and only Deva, left in the Riks vague and undefined and sometimes even spoken of in the neuter as That or the one sole existence, the ritualistic limitation of the other gods and the progressive precision of their human or personal aspects under the stress of a growing mythology that led to their degradation and the enthronement of the less used and more general names and forms, Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra, in the final Puranic formulation of the Hindu theogony.

In this hymn of Dirghatamas Auchathya to the all-pervading Vishnu it is his significant activity, it is the greatness of Vishnu’s three strides that is celebrated. We must dismiss from our minds the ideas proper to the later mythology. We have nothing to do here with the dwarf Vishnu, the Titan Bali and the three divine strides which took possession of Earth, Heaven and the sunless subterrestrial worlds of Patala. The three strides of Vishnu in the Veda are clearly defined by Dirghatamas as earth, heaven and the triple principle, tridhātu. It is this triple principle beyond Heaven or superimposed upon it as its highest level, nākasya pṛṣṭhe (1.125.5), which is the supreme stride or supreme seat of the all-pervading deity.

Vishnu is the wide-moving one. He is that which has gone abroad,– as it is put in the language of the Isha Upanishad, sa paryagāt,– triply extending himself as Seer, Thinker and Former, in the superconscient Bliss, in the heaven of mind, in the earth of the physical consciousness, tredhā vicakramāṇaḥ. In those three strides he has measured out, he has formed in all their extension the earthly worlds; for in the Vedic idea the material world which we inhabit is only one of several steps leading to and supporting the vital and mental worlds beyond. In those strides he supports upon the earth and mid-world,– the earth the material, the mid-world the vital realms of Vayu, Lord of the dynamic Life-principle,– the triple heaven and its three luminous summits, trīṇi rocanā. These heavens the Rishi describes as the higher seat of the fulfilling. Earth, the mid-world and heaven are the triple place of the conscious being’s progressive self-fulfilling, triṣadhastha (1.156.5), earth the lower seat, the vital world the middle, heaven the higher. All these are contained in the threefold movement of Vishnu.1

But there is more; there is also the world where the self-fulfilment is accomplished, Vishnu’s highest stride. In the second verse the seer speaks of it simply as “that”. “That” Vishnu, moving yet forward in his third pace affirms or firmly establishes, pra stavate, by his divine might. Vishnu is then described in a language which hints at his essential identity with the terrible Rudra, the fierce and dangerous Lion of the worlds who begins in the evolution as the Master of the animal, Pashupati, and moves upward on the mountain of being on which he dwells, ranging through more and more difficult and inaccessible places, till he stands upon the summits. Thus in three wide movements of Vishnu all the five worlds and their creatures have their habitation. Earth, heaven and “that” world of bliss are the three strides. Between earth and heaven is the Antariksha, the vital worlds, literally “the intervening habitation”. Between heaven and the world of bliss is another vast Antariksha or intervening habitation, Maharloka, the world of the superconscient Truth of things.4

The force and the thought of man, the force that proceeds from Rudra the Mighty and the thought that proceeds from Brahmanaspati, the creative Master of the Word, have to go forward in the great journey for or towards this Vishnu who stands at the goal, on the summit, on the peak of the mountain. His is this wide universal movement; he is the Bull of the world who enjoys and fertilises all the energies of force and all the trooping herds of the thought. This far-flung extended space which appears to us as the world of our self-fulfilment, as the triple altar of the great sacrifice has been so measured out, so formed by only three strides of that almighty Infinite.5

All the three are full of the honey-wine of the delight of existence. All of them this Vishnu fills with his divine joy of being. By that they are eternally maintained and they do not waste or perish, but in the self-harmony of their natural movement have always the unfailing ecstasy, the imperishable intoxication of their wide and limitless existence. Vishnu maintains them unfailingly, preserves them imperishably. He is the One, he alone is, the sole-existing Godhead, and he holds in his being the triple divine principle to which we attain in the world of bliss, earth where we have our foundation and heaven also which we touch by the mental person within us. All the five worlds he upholds.6 The tridhātu, the triple principle or triple material of existence, is the Sachchidananda of the Vedanta; in the ordinary language of the Veda it is vásu, substance, ūrj, abounding force of our being, priyám or máyas, delight and love in the very essence of our existence. Of these three things all that exists is constituted and we attain to their fullness when we arrive at the goal of our journey.

That goal is Delight, the last of Vishnu’s three strides. The Rishi takes up the indefinite word “tat” by which he first vaguely indicated it; it signified the delight that is the goal of Vishnu’s movement. It is the Ananda which for man in his ascent is a world in which he tastes divine delight, possesses the full energy of infinite consciousness, realises his infinite existence. There is that high-placed source of the honey-wine of existence of which the three strides of Vishnu are full. There the souls that seek the godhead live in the utter ecstasy of that wine of sweetness. There in the supreme stride, in the highest seat of wide-moving Vishnu is the fountain of the honey-wine, the source of the divine sweetness,– for that which dwells there is the Godhead, the Deva, the perfect Friend and Lover of the souls that aspire to him, the unmoving and utter reality of Vishnu to which the wide-moving God in the cosmos ascends.7

These are the two, Vishnu of the movement here, the eternally stable, bliss-enjoying Deva there, and it is those supreme dwelling places of the Twain, it is the triple world of Sachchidananda which we desire as the goal of this long journey, this great upward movement. It is thither that the many-horned herds of the conscious Thought, the conscious Force are moving – that is the goal, that is their resting-place. There in those worlds, gleaming down on us here, is the vast, full, illimitable shining of the supreme stride, the highest seat of the wide-moving Bull, master and leader of all those many-horned herds,– Vishnu the all-pervading, the cosmic Deity, the Lover and Friend of our souls, the Lord of the transcendent existence and the transcendent delight.8


1 viṣṇor nu kaṃ vīryāṇi pra vocaṃ, yaḥ pārthivāni vimame rajāṃsi; yo askabhāyad uttaraṃ sadhasthaṃ, vicakramāṇas tredhorugāyaḥ.


2 Arya, vol. 1, No 11; CWSA, volume 15: language


3 Arya, vol. 1, No 11; CWSA, volume 15: these three


4 pra tad viṣṇuḥ stavate vīryeṇa, mṛgo na bhīmaḥ kucaro giriṣṭhāḥ; yasyoruṣu triṣu vikramaṇeṣu, adhikṣiyanti bhuvanāni viśvā.


5 pra viṣṇave śūṣam etu manma, girikṣita urugāyāya vṛṣṇe; ya idaṃ dīrghaṃ prayataṃ sadhastham, eko vimame tribhir it padebhiḥ.


6 yasya trī pūrṇā madhunā padāny, akṣīyamāṇā svadhayā madanti; ya u tridhātu pṛthivīm uta dyām, eko dādhāra bhuvanāni viśvā.


7 tad asya priyam abhi pātho aśyāṃ, naro yatra devayavo madanti; urukramasya sa hi bandhur itthā, viṣṇoḥ pade parame madhva utsaḥ.


8 tā vāṃ vāstūny uśmasi gamadhyai, yatra gāvo bhūriśṛṅgā ayāsaḥ; atrāha tad urugāyasya vṛṣṇaḥ, paramaṃ padam ava bhāti bhūri.