According to various Puranas, Vishnu is the ultimate omnipresent reality and is shapeless and omnipresent. However, a strict iconography governs his representation, whether in pictures, icons, or idols:
- He has four arms and is male: The four arms indicate his all-powerful and all-pervasive nature. His physical existence is represented by the two arms in the front, while the two arms at the back represent his presence in the spiritual world. The Upanishad Gopal Uttartapani describes the four arms.
- The srivatsa mark is on his chest, symbolising his consort Lakshmi.
- He wears the auspicious "Kaustubha" jewel around his neck and a garland of flowers (vanamaalaa). Lakshmi dwells in this jewel, on Vishnu's chest.
- A crown adorns his head: The crown symbolizes his supreme authority. This crown sometimes includes a peacock feather, borrowing from his Krishna avatar.
- He wears two earrings: The earrings represent inherent opposites in creation — knowledge and ignorance; happiness and unhappiness; pleasure and pain.
- He rests on Ananta, the immortal and infinite snake.
Vishnu is always to be depicted holding four attributes:
- A conch shell or Shankha, named Panchajanya, is held by the upper left hand. It represents Vishnu's power to create and maintain the universe. Panchajanya represents the five elements or Panchabhoota – water, fire, air, earth and sky or space. It also represents the five airs or Pranas that are within the body and mind. The conch symbolizes that Vishnu is the primeval Divine sound of creation and continuity. It also represented as Om. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna avatara states that of sound vibrations, 'He is Om'.
- The chakra, a sharp-spinning discus-like weapon, named "Sudarshana", is held by the upper right hand. It symbolizes the purified spiritualized mind. The name Sudarshana is derived from two words – Su, which means good, superior, and Darshan, which means vision or Sight; together, it is "Superior Vision". The chakra represents destruction of ego in the awakening and realization of the soul's original nature and god, burning away spiritual ignorance and illusion, and developing higher spiritual vision and insight to realize god.
- A mace or Gada, named "Kaumodaki", is held by the lower right hand. It symbolizes that Vishnu's divine power is the source of all spiritual, mental and physical strength. It also signifies Vishnu's power to destroy materialistic or demonic tendencies (anarthas) that prevent people from reaching god. Vishnu's mace is the power of the Divine within us to spiritually purify and uplift us from our materialistic bonds.
- A lotus flower or Padma is held by the lower left hand. It represents spiritual liberation, Divine perfection, purity and the unfolding of Spiritual consciousness within the individual. The lotus opening its petals in the light of the Sun is indicative of the expansion and awakening of our long dormant, original spiritual consciousness in the light of god. The lotus symbolizes that god is the power and source from which the universe and the individual soul emerges. It also represents Divine Truth or Satya, the originator of the rules of conduct or Dharma, and Divine Vedic knowledge or jnana. The lotus also symbolizes that Vishnu is the embodiment of spiritual perfection and purity and that He is the wellspring of these qualities and that the individual soul must seek to awaken these intrinsic Divine qualities from Vishnu by surrendering to and linking with Him.
To this may be added, conventionally, the vanamaala flower garland, Vishnu's bow (Shaarnga) and his sword Nandaka. A verse of the Vishnu Sahasranama stotram states;vanamālī gadhī shārngī shanki chakri cha nandaki / shrīmān nārāyaņo vişņo vāsudevo abhirakşatu//; translation: Protect us Oh Lord Narayana who wears the forest garland,who has the mace, conch, sword and the wheel. And who is called Vishnu and the Vasudeva.
In general, Vishnu's body is depicted in one of the following three ways:
- Standing on a lotus flower, often with Lakshmi, his consort, beside him on a similar pedestal.
- Reclining on the coiled-up thousand-hooded Shesha Naga, with Lakshmi seated at his feet; the assemblage rests on the "Kshira Sagar" (ocean of milk). In this representation, Brahma is depicted as sitting on a lotus that grows out of Vishnu's navel.
- Riding on the back of his eagle mount, known as Garuda. Another name for Garuda is "Veda atma"; Soul of the Vedas. The flapping of his wings symbolizes the power of the Divine Truth of Vedic wisdom. Also the eagle represents the soul. Garuda carrying Vishnu symbolizes the soul or jiva atma carrying the Super soul or Param atma within it.
The 11th century Javan statue of Vishnu mounting Garuda, mortuary deified depiction of King Airlangga
Vishnu holding Panchajanya in his upper left hand
Vishnu reclining on the Shesha Naga with his consort Lakshmi massaging his feet.
A statue in Bangkok, Thailand depicting Vishnu mounted on his vahana Garuda, the eagle
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