By Dr. G.B. Deglurkar, Pune

Viṣṇu being the preserver of the universe is considered as the most influential member of the Brahmanical triad. In the ṛgveda six sūkta-s only are allotted to him even then he is considered important. His importance increased when brahmanical cult centred round Him.

Many scholars have dealt abundantly with the iconography of Viṣṇu, despite that a vast scope remains for many more aspects to be explored with further available material both of literature and monuments. T.A. Gopinath Rao is a pioneer amongst these scholars who gave us a voluminous work “Elements of Hindu Iconography”. He was followed by J.N. Banerjea (Development of Hindu Iconography) who enriched iconography by adding various dimensions to it.  However, while writing on the Caturviṁśantimūrti-s of Viṣṇu none of them has noticed the respective śakti of these 24 forms.

Viṣṇu’s Caturviṁśantimūrti-s, (twenty four forms) their names like Keśava, Nārāyaṇa, Mādhava, etc. and the process of their emanations have been accounted for in various texts such as Agni, Padma, Skanda Purāṇa-s, Īśānaśivagurudevapaddhati, Vṛddhahāritasmṛti, etc. However, it is noticed that their śakti-s have not been referred to by anyone who wrote on Viṣṇu’s iconography. Lakṣmī, Bhūdevī, Puṣṭī as consorts of Viṣṇu are known.

The present article aims at bringing out one of the unnoticed dimensions of Viṣṇu’s iconography, that is about the Śakti-s (and not consorts) of Viṣṇu. It will not be out of place here to discuss the difference between consort and Sakti to avoid confusion. Consort can be regarded as Śakti but not vice-a-versa. It can be presumed that (exceptions apart) no god has more than one spouse, the other one if shown along with the deity is his Śakti. For instance, when Brahma is depicted flanked by two female deities then one of them is his spouse Sāvitrī and the other one is Gāyatrī, his Śakti. Since he has propounded the Gāyatrī hymn where in lies his strength it became his Śakti. Similarly Viṣṇu has Lakṣmī as his wife and Bhūdevī his Śakti – strength. Kārtikeya is shown sometimes in the company of two female deities Mahāvallī and Devasenā. In this case the earlier one is his spouse while the latter one his Śakti for he is the chief of divine army hence his strength lies therein. If we do not take this situation in this way then there will be lot of confusion for how would we account for the association of same female deity when shown in the company of more than one god? For example, Sarasvatī a goddess of learning who very often is seen along with Brahmā, Gaṇeśa, Viṣṇu and saṅkarṣaṇa (who is held as manifestation of jñana and according to Mahābhārata was the expounder of Satvata vidhi, IV.66.40.) who are related to learning. In such a situation one has to take sarasvatī as his Śakti and not a spouse. To support this presumption another example can be cited. The names of saptamātṛkā-s are given in feminine form as Brahmāni, Māhesvarī, Vaiśṇavī, etc. And not after names like sāvitrī, pārvatī, Lakṣmī, etc. Moreover we know from the story of gajāsurasaṁhāra that these Śakti -s were presented/offered to Lord śiva by the respective gods to make use of in the fight against the demon in the guise of an elephant. Once it is clear that the Śakti-s are different than the consorts our thesis discussed in the following pages would become acceptable.


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The texts such as Īśānaśivagurudevapaddhati, Bṛhattantrasāra and Vṛddhahāritasmṛti, provide lists of Caturviṁśantimūrti-s of Viṣṇu along with the names of their Śakti-s only (T.A. G. Rao, ibid, Vol.1, pt. 1,233). It should be noted that the names in these lists do not tally with each other, they vary. For the sake of convenience and ready reference the list from ‘Vaiṣṇava Iconography in Nepal’ given by Pratapaditya Pal, 1985, is given below:


1) Keśava – Kīrti –
2) Nārāyaṇa – Kānti –
3) Mādhava – Tuṣṭi –
4) Govinda – Puṣṭi –
5) Viṣṇu – Dhṛti –
6) Madhusūdana – Śānti –
7) Trivikrama – Kriyā –
8) Vāmana – Dayā –
9) Śrīdhara – Medhā –
10) Hṛṣīkeśa – Harṣā –
11) Padmanābha – Śraddhā –
12) Dāmodara – Lajjā –
13) Saṅkarṣaṇa – Sarasvatī –
14) Vāsudeva – Lakṣmī –
15) Pradyumna – Prīti –
16) Aniruddha – Rati –
17) Puruṣottama – Vasudhā –
18) Adhokṣaja – Trayī –
19)Narasiṁha – Vidyutā –
20) Acyuta – Sugandhā –
21) Janārdana – Umā –
22) Upendra – Vidyā –
23) Hari – Śuddhi –
24) Śrīkṛṣṇa – Buddhi /Bhakti –

While surveying the temples in the Marathwada, region of Maharashtra, I came across a temple of Lakṣmī (earlier taken as of saiva) at Anwa in Aurangabad district. It is observed that the mandowara (outer wall) of this temple is studded with sculptures mostly of female deities who are shown holding emblems like lotus, conch, disc and mace in different order differentiating one deity from the other. The disposition of the emblems suggests similarity with those held by Keśava, Nārāyaṇa, Mādhava, etc. Obviously then they have relations with these forms of Viṣṇu. The difference between any two of these has to be made out by the way in which the emblems are found distributed among their four hands. (T.A.G. Rao, Vol. 1 pp. 227-28). Agni Purana states, “एतस्तु मूर्तयो ज्ञेया दक्षिणाध: क्रमात (etastu mūrtayo jñeyā dakṣiṇādhaḥ kramāt)” (J.N. Banerjea, Development of Hindu Iconography, pp. 410). The Agnipurana further states,    रुप: केशव: पदमशडखचक्रगदाधर: l नारायण: शडखपदमगदाचक्री प्रदक्षिणम ll “(Omrūpaḥ keśavaḥ padmaśaṅkhacakragadādharaḥ / nārāyaṇaḥ śaṅkhapadmagadācakrī pradakṣiṇam//)” that is the emblems are to be placed clockwise, starting from lower right hand and ending with lower left hand. In the temple referred to above a deity who holds attributes padma, saṅkha, cakra and gadā in this fashion has to be taken as the śakti of keśava and the one who holds śaṅkha, padma, gadā, cakra clockwise is to be presumed nārāyaṇa’s śakti. As per the above list the earlier one is then kīrti and the latter one kānti. Here comes the difficult / hard task of justifying match of these two respectively to be followed by other pairs given in the above list. And for this we have to seek either significance or implied meaning of these names. Here are some examples :

  1. Keśava – Kīrti –

Viṣṇu is to be named as Keśava when he killed the dreadful demon keśī and Keśava also means the one whose rays of fame spread all over. While the root kīrt means to praise, to glorify. So kirti means praise, glorification and fame. Thus one who helps glorifying the fame of Keśava is kīrti.

  1. Nārāyaṇa – Kānti –

Nārāyaṇa means the one who lives in water Manusmrti says – आपो नारा इति प्रोक्ता आपो वै नरसूनव: l ता यदस्यायनं पूर्वं तेन नारायण: स्मृत: l l (मनुस्मृति 1.10.) Nārāyaṇa also means the one whose intimate union is longed for by all creatures. While along with other meanings kānti means desire, wish. All creatures desire to become one with him as Nārāyaṇa.

  1. Mādhava – Tuṣṭi –

Viṣṇu as Mādhava kills the demon Madhu, Literal meaning of the word Mādhava is – Mā   means māyā, Lakṣmī, prosperity. Dhava means husband, groom. So Mādhava is a groom of Lakṣmī; while tuṣṭi means satisfaction, contentment, or happiness. Killing demon and also by giving affluence he brings happiness and makes creatures contented.

  1. Govinda – Puṣṭi –

Sanskrit word ‘go’ means organs of sense so Govinda means master of organs of sense. Puṣṭi means enrichment, growth. Puṣṭi helps the master of sensory organs to enrich the knowledge of sensory organs.

  1. Viṣṇu and Dhṛti –

Viṣṇu is one of the trinity who upholds the universe by sustaining. Word Dhṛti derives from root dhṛ. It means to hold, to resort or to nourish. So Dhṛti is a śakti of Viṣṇu to hold, to resort or to nourish the universe.

  1. Madhusūdana – śānti –

Viṣṇu as Madhūsudana killed the demon Madhu and established quititude and so śānti is śakti of Madhusūdana. Again root sud denotes to kill or to destroy and the word śānti is derived from the root śam. śam suggests the meaning of control over the mind and sensory organs. For arising knowledge by destroying futile world life śama is required. So śānti as śakti of Madhusūdana is important.

  1. Trivikrama – kriyā –

As Viṣṇu covers the entire universe by three strides, it suggests his unique action. In this powerful deed of Trivikrama lies his śakti. Kriyā denotes this.

  1. Vāmana – Dayā

Viṣṇu as Vāmana is seemingly a dwarf. Daya: यत्नादपि परिक्लेशं हर्तुं सा हृदि जायते l इच्छाभूमी सुरश्रेष्ठ सा दया परिकीर्तिता ll (yatnādapi parikleśam hartum sā hṛdi jāyate | icchābhūmī suraśreṣṭha sā dayā parikīrtitā || ) As per this puranic description he assumes smallness for himself to ward off calamity faced by gods because of compassion of them. This compassion (Dayā) is his śakti. Again Vāmana denotes also anguṣṭhamātra puruṣa (an individual or a soul). Compassion (Dayā) is the basic nature of an individual.

  1. Śrīdhara – Medhā –

Śrīdhara means the one who upholds Lakṣmī and who is splendid and Medhā means intelligence. This power helps him to support Lakṣmī and to become glorious.

  1. Hṛṣīkeśa – Harṣā –

Hṛṣīkeśa is the master of Hṛṣīka (organs). He makes universe blossom with his bright rays. Harṣā is śakti which satisfies them and brings happiness to them.

  1. Padmanābha – Śraddhā –

Padmanābha is one who possesses the navel like lotus. Viṣṇu as Padmanābha created lord Brhama from his own navel, so the origin of the world is accepted from the navel of lord Viṣṇu. In the śruti, ‘ekoham bahusyām’, wish of the lord to create universe is reflected. This wish is indicated through śraddhā- śakti of Padmanābha. śrad+ dhā is the division of the word śraddha. Śrat means desire and root dhā denotes to hold, to create, so śraddhā in the form of śakti of Padmanābha helps to create the world.

  1. Dāmodara – Lajjā –

There are two different meanings of the word Dāmodara.

(1) One who bears entire universe within himself. The root Laj means to envelop, to cover. Lajjā as a power of illusion enables Dāmodara to envelop entire universe. Hence efficacy of Dāmodara of enveloping is his śakti.

(2) Whose stomach is encircled with a rope. Bhāgavata purāṇa tells as to how Lord Kṛṣṇa as a punishment for stealing was tied with a rope. This brought shame on the part of Kṛṣṇa who latter on repented. Hence Lajjā who makes the guilty to repent is śakti.

  1. Saṅkarṣaṇa – Sarasvatī –

Saṅkarṣaṇa has two different works to do. (1) one who possesses the power to attract the whole world. For engaging the whole world around himself only real knowledge is necessary and so Saraswatī goddess of knowledge is śakti of Saṅkarṣaṇa. (2) On the time of doom, Saṅkarṣaṇa attracts the whole universe, and holds it. And again at the time of creation power of knowledge helps him to create the universe. Therefore Saraswatī is śakti of Saṅkarṣaṇa to possess all the knowledge at the time of doom.

  1. Vāsudeva – Lakṣmī –

Vasu means prosperity. Vāsudeva means lord of prosperity, so Lakṣmī being the goddess of prosperity, lustre and splendour is śakti of Vāsudeva.

  1. Pradyumna – Prīti –

Pradyumna means one who possesses beautiful form like gold or one who possesses the highest prosperity. Prīti denotes to be satisfied or to feel affection. Because of his qualities like exquisiteness, splendour, prosperity, he causes the world to feel affection for himself with the help of his śakti Prīti.

  1. Aniruddha – Rati –

Aniruddha is one of the four forms of Hari. Saṅkarācārya explains the word Aniruddha as न केनापि प्रादुर्भावेषु निरुध्द इति अनिरुध्द: l (na kenāpi prādurbhaveṣu niruddha iti aniruddhaḥ| ) Aniruddha is one who cannot be stopped from any new creation. Aniruddha possesses enormous power of creation. Rati being śakti of Aniruddha helps him to his work of creation.

  1. Puruṣottama – Vasudhā –

Purusottama is the greatest among all the puruṣas. He is superior to any kṣara or akṣara. Vasudhā denotes the meaning of holding vasu (wealth, prosperity), so Vasudhā means earth. The one who dwells in the house of body, that soul is this Puruṣottama. Just as soul upholds the world which includes beings and non-beings, similarly, earth upholds all the beings and non-beings. Therefore Vasudhā is described as the śakti of Puruṣottama.

  1. Adhokṣaja – trayī –

अधोभूते ह्यक्षगणे प्रत्यग्रूपप्रवाहिते l जायते तस्य वै ज्ञानं तेनाधोक्षज उच्यते ll

Adhobhūte hyakṣagaṇe pratyagrūpapravāhite l jāyate tasya vai dnyānam tenādhokṣaja ucyate ll

He looked down and knowledge gets flowed, therefore he is Adhokṣaja. Again Adhokṣaja state is the highest physical state in the samādhi. This physical state is seen while Viṣṇu enjoys yoganidrā. Trayī means vedatrayī so ultimately knowledge. This trayī is the śakti of Adhokṣaja in his work of flowing the knowledge in the world.

  1. Narasiṁha – Vidyutā –

Narsiṁha means the man having the head of siṁha. He is greatest human being. Vidyutā is his sakti. विशेषेण द्योतते इति l (Viśeṣeṇa dyotate iti l) Meaning is that which illuminates distinctly. By darkening the lustre of others’ vidyutā helps Narasiṁha to establish his lustre in the world.

  1. Acyuta – Sugandhā –

Acyuta means steady. One can connect the steadiness with the earth as she provides the steadiness to living-nonliving – beings. Gandha is a basic characteristic of the earth and so sugandhā is the śakti of acyuta.

  1. Janārdana – Umā –

Janārdana is one who destroys sorrows of people. Umā means who can measure paramātmā, the ultimate authority who makes well of all. Hence Umā is sakti of Janārdana helping to destroy the sorrows of people.

  1. Upendra – Vidyā –

Viṣṇu in the form of Upendra works as the creator of the universe. So Vidyā – knowledge is śakti in his work of creation.

  1. Hari – Śuddhi –

Hari destroys the worldly ocean. Word Śuddhi is derived from the root śudh which means to purify. Without purifying one’s mind one cannot go at par of worldly ocean so Śuddhi is Śakti of Hari.

  1. Śrīkṛṣṇa – Buddhi / Bhakti –

Viṣṇu as being Kṛṣṇa attracts all the individuals towards him. There is a difference in the name of śakti of Kṛṣṇa amongst scholars. According to some Buddhi is śakti of Kṛṣṇa and according to some Bhakti. If Buddhi is considered as śakti of Kṛṣṇa it is niscayatmika Buddhi who helps Kṛṣṇa for one pointed attraction of individuals towards Kṛṣṇa. Bhakti is derived from word Bhaj. It means to resort, to engage in. If Bhakti is considered as śakti of Kṛṣṇa, she helps Kṛṣṇa to provide resort to the devotees.