Viṣṇu as Trivikrama

Viṣṇu Measures the Universe in Three Strides (Trivikrama), 12th century Odisha; Art Institute Chicago

Śrīla Madhvācārya says:

vārāhe vāma-pādaṁ tu
tad-anyeṣu tu dakṣiṇam
pādaṁ kalpeṣu bhagavān
ujjahāra trivikramaḥ

“Standing on His right foot and extending His left to the edge of the universe, Lord Vāmana became known as Trivikrama, the incarnation who performed three heroic deeds.”

King Bali saw a brahmin boy or brahmachārin arrive at the place where he was conducting a yajña, and after duly honoring him, asked the boy what he wished to have from him as a sacrificial gift. Śukra, the guru of the asuras, knowing that the young brahmachārin was none other than Viṣṇu himself, warned his disciple Bali to be careful while making promises. Noble and generous-hearted Bali, however, paid no heed to this warning and said if Viṣṇu himself, who was the Yajña-puruṣa or the divine embodiment of the sacrifice, should come to him to ask for a favor on the grand occasion, then he considered it to be the greatest honor, and would certainly promise anything he asked. The boy then asked the emperor to bestow on him the gift of just three paces of space, which was of course readily agreed to. At once this Vāmana, so designated in Sanskrit for his small dwarfish stature, assumed a gigantic form and with one pace, he measured the whole of bhūlōka and with another the whole of the Antarīkṣa-lōka or the mid-world between heaven and earth. There was thus nothing left to measure, and Bali then requested the God to use his one head for the measuring out of the third pace. Immensely pleased, Vāmana, by the pressure of his foot, sent Bali to the Pātāḷalōka, the nether world of the auras, there to be sovereign with the support of Viṣṇu himself, who was now Trivikrama, the God of three strides. The Vāmana-avatāra thus defeated Bali, the demon-king, and regained the three worlds for the devas who had been exiled, and cleansed the world from its sins; for, from his feet arises the Gangä.

In modern Vaiṣṇavism Viṣṇu is constantly called Trivikrama, and the three steps of Viṣṇu are philosophically interpreted as symbolic of his supreme transcendence. The context in which the myth is narrated is a competition between devas and asuras for the dominion of the earth: Viṣṇu appears again as the deliverer of the devas from their enemies. There are several strange features in the narration which may allow us to think that the myth was an attempt to harmonize and synthesize several heterogeneous elements of an early Viṣṇu theology. The asuras have defeated the devas and are masters over the earth, and concede to the devas as much land as “this Viṣṇu lies upon.” They then enclose him by means of various metres. “By it they obtained this earth.”

Sculptures of Trivikrama can be distinguished into three sorts depending upon whether the left foot is raised to the level of the right knee, or to the level of the navel, or to the forehead. These three levels are intended to represent the earth, the mid-region and the heavenly world. His eight arms in the iconography of Trivikrama, conjures up all the spacial realms of the universe conquered by the god. “Seven” is not only a spacial number; it is also a ritual number. The altar of the Agnicayana, for example, is composed of seven layers. “Seven”, more than any other Vedic number, refers to ritual entities. For instance, there are seven ṛṣis; Agni, the ritual fire has seven tongues; Sūrya has a seven-horsed chariot, the seven sisters are the seven prayers. When “one” is added to the ritual number “seven”, meanings such as “the wholeness of the sacrifice” and “the surpassing of the greatness of the sacrifice” can result. Accordingly, “eight” in the context of Viṣṇu theology may symbolize sacerdotal supremacy. This symbolic meaning fits the myth of the Vāmana-avatāra, which stresses the presence and/or power of the sacrifice. Most accounts of the story in the purāṇas also retain the reference to the sacrifice. In the Vāyu Purāṇa’s telling, Bali performs a sacrifice at which Viṣṇu appears, preceded by Bṛhaspati, the sacerdotal deity.

References:

Srinivasan, Doris. Many heads, arms, and eyes : origin, meaning, and form of multiplicity in Indian art. Germany: Brill, 1997.

Gopinatha Rao, T. A.. Elements of Hindu Iconography. India, Motilal Banarsidass, 1985.

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