Words denote or connote specific meaning. A word denotes something as a name (say, Fever often denotes an injury). It may also stand for a designation or a symbol for something. It may connote or suggest certain meanings or ideas in addition to the explicit or primary meanings (Eg. Fire-place suggests hospitality, coziness or comfort). It may involve as a condition (Eg. Injury connotes pain). It is understood in Grammar that adjectives can only connote and nouns can denote. There is a word ‘Vyāla’or ‘Vidala’ in Sanskrit, which both denotes and connotes. It is both fascinating and intriguing. It is an epithet to Lord Vishnu, having esoteric meaning.
It is exoteric that our minds are always in conflicts. It is the handiwork of divine and demonic forces, existing in our consciousness. So there is division and multiplicity. Vidala/Bidala has the meaning of a thing in two parts, besides the meaning of cat. The word Vyāla means snake as Vyālasana refers to Lord Vishnu, having Shesha Nāg as his bed and that Vyalabhusana stands for Lord Shiva, wearing Takshaka Nāg as ornament. Note the two beings with opposite nature living together.
Vyāla is a very interesting and enigmatic name amongst the thousand and odd attributes or epithets of the Lord Vishnu, the Absolute Entity. Vyāla epithet is also applied to Lord Shiva. He (Purusha/Supreme Soul) rests and hides in the Primordial Gross Nature (Prakriti) and remains inscrutable. He manifests Himself at times to perform the various functions of maintenance and destruction of the Universe. This manifestation is called ‘the Avatara’ (= Incarnation or (A)eon, i.e. dawn) to establish (a)eonian, i.e. eternal peace. He is worshipped by different names. The names bring out qualities and deeds done in manifest forms. The Trimurthi (Trinity) in Hindu Philosophy do the balancing acts of creation-preservation-destruction. Unified form of three entities remains in Kalasha (pot of earth or bell-metal for holding sacred water during Puja time), the Sun (in three phases – morning, noon and evening) and Peepal tree. Brahma remains at bottom, Vishnu middle and Shiva at top. This is also the concept of temples in Tulu Nadu, named as Shri Brahma Mahalingeshwara Devasthana, where Shiva is worshipped as main Deity, in whom the remaining two Energies, i.e. Vishnutattva and Brahmatattva, remain converged.
The Preserver God (the second of the Trinity), is worshipped by numerous names, eulogizing his Lilas (Divine Plays) in His incarnations. This Eulogy is called ‘Vishnu Sahasranama’. The abstruse word ‘Vyāla’ is one of the names attributed to Vishnu in this Eulogy, which is beyond the understanding of most people. He is harsh and at the same time soft hearted to all concerned souls.
|Vyala (inset) in a new temple in Karkala|
|Vyala head forms in Temple Chariot Udupi|
The word means:
· Beasts of Prey or predatory animals: Lion, Wild Cats family, such as tiger, leopard, cheetah, wild cat, wild dog family, boar, (mythical) Sharabha, etc.
· Other animals: Ruttish, rogue or fierce elephant, bear, horse, deer family, etc.
· Hissing, Poisonous/Non-poisonous snakes
· Birds of Prey: Eagle, owl, mythical Gandabherunda, etc.
· Water Creatures: Fish, crocodile, etc.
‘Vyāla’ has got a noble and esoteric meaning. The Supreme Being (Fundamental consciousness = ಪರಮಾತ್ಮ), the God of all Gods, resides in hearts of allliving beings and gets things done - good or bad - as He wishes, to uplift, protect and annihilate. Vyāla is one who accepts or receives his true devotees in a special way. He removes our sins and kills all wicked. So He is both Supporter/Protector and Annihilator at the same time for the benefit all souls.
|Vyala (marked out) in Temple chariot Udupi|
Vyāla: Yali in Scupltures & Arts
The concept of Vyāla as a protector or guardian spirit is adopted in art and sculpture. Vyāla forms are incorporated in temple architecture with motifs of ferocious and cruel animals at entrances (at Gopurams and Sanctum Sanctorum), pillars, and walls at strategic positions as symbols of support and protection. Such type of carvings is called ‘Yali’ in South India. In Andhra, it is also called as Sharabham. In Tamil Nadu, it is known as Yaliappan.
Vyāla or Vidala is a mythical creature in two parts. It is invariably seen in Hindu temples, mostly in South India, including Tulu Nadu. Note the pictures of Vyala, taken by us from some Temples of Tulu Nadu. Besides, ample illustrations are also available in the web sites now.
These figures bring out the ambivalence of arrogance and fear. They reflect the subduing effect of conflicting emotions in human beings. It is believed that these guardian figures ward off evils and induce pure devotion in the minds of devotees. In Indian context, the concept is based on the dual personality of divine and demonic aspects existing in our consciousness. The primordial energy/force is lying unseen as formless entity in the Universe. He takes various forms, as exigencies arise in his incarnations to uphold Dharma (Righteousness) in the world. In His worldly form, He inherits the base qualities (Gunas = Attitudes, Strands, Modes), such as Sattva (Unactivity, Equanimity &Wisdom), Rajas (Activity & Restlessness) and Tamas (Inactivity, inertia & dullness), as found in the Nature, in combinations but in degrees. He is more of sattva than of other qualities. He is rewarding the oppressed on one hand and punishing the oppressor on the other as a ruse for liberation of oppressor’s soul from sin. The underlying principle is that the God-head in the Nature is all-pervading, protecting and liberating Jivas (Souls); so He is Vyala.
There are forms, such as Simha Vyala (Roaring Lion), Gaja Vyala (fierce and intoxicated Elephant), Ashwa Vyala (Galloping horse), Makara Vyala (Crocodile form) and Nri Yala (Yali with human features, i.e. Purushamriga). The Garuda on Flag Posts (in metals or on cloth flags) is also a Vyala, the sign of protection. Remember Lord Hanuman, sitting atopthe chariot of Arjuna during Kurukshetra war. Flags are also considered as sign of auspiciousness, strength and victory. Yaksha and Yakshi figures are also considered as guardian spirits.
Sometimes, it is portrayed as part lion, elephant, horse and part human. Some of the Vyalas are portrayed as leograph (part lion and part griffin).
Sharabha Vyala is part lion and part bird, more powerful than lion. This is the form Lord Shiva assumed to pacify the Vishnu form of Narasimha, seething in anger after killing Hiranyakashipu and protecting his son Prahlada.
Gandabherunda Vyala (powerful two-faced bird) is identified with Vishnu. Gandabherunda kills Sharabha. This symbol is now adopted as State Symbol by Karnataka.
The above fights between two Energy Entities is to be seen as a balancing act to liberate Vishnu energy in Narasimha and merge it back to its origin, i.e. Lord Vishnu. Similarly, part of Shiva Shakti in Sharabha is converged back to its original source, Lord Shiva. The underlying principle is that any unconquered energy develops ego, which is harmful. We may relate this principle to Varahavatara and Parshurama Avatara.
|Vyala face form in Ananta Padmanabha Temple Karkala|
Dāma, Vyāla & Kata
Rishi Vashistha tells the story of Dama, Vyala and Kata while teaching Spirituality to Rāma. There was a long-drawn fight between Devendra, King of Heaven, and Sambara, King of Demons (who was destined to be killed by Manmatha, son of Lord Krishna, in Dwapara Yuga). Sambara used his knowledge of illusive magic in the battle. Seeing no end to the war, Sambara created three Asuras – Dāma, Vyāla and Kāta – through magic powers. It is supposed that they were Atlantean soldiers, without any idea of life or death. They did not have desires (Vasanas), neither victory nor defeat, pleasures and pain nor any pairs of opposites. Thus they were invincible. On approaching, Devas were told by Brahma that Devendra would destroy them after thousand years. This would develop in them Ahamkara (ego) which would create fears and desires – a sign for Yama (Lord of Death) to come and take away their souls. When mortal fear of death (=Abhinivesha) crystallised in them, Devendra killed them. Seekers of ultimate truth (Realisation of Soul) should take Dāma (= rope), Vyāla (= mischievous or wicked) and Kata (Divison) together. In totality, it means mischievous rope of division or multiplicity. The story brings home the point of good (divine) thoughts and bad (demonic) thoughts in our consciousness.
Sphinxes in Ancient World
Grotesque or monstrous motifs also exist in other places of worship or historical monuments in the world. Such hybrid creatures are depicted in mythologies of the world. They are adopted in sculptures, which still exist. Some of the figures are comparable to Indian Vyala motifs.
Sphinx: In Greek mythology, it is a winged monster with a lion’s body and head of a woman. It strangled passersby, who were unable to answer its riddle (Read Oedipus’ story to know how he solved riddle). In Egyptian statue, it is with a lion’s body and head of a man (Pharaoh), ram or hawk.
Griffin: It is a mythical animal – part eagle and part lion – all powerful and majestic one.
Some hybrid creatures:
Hippogriff: Legendary horse-eagle
Sphinx: Mythical creature with lion’s body and human head
Pegasus: Winged stallion in Greek mythology
Chimera: Greek mythological monster
Lamassu (Assyrian deity): Bull/Lion with eagle or human parts.
Anzu (= Zu): Mesopotamian monster
Simurgh: Iranian mythical flying creature
Ziz: Giant griffin-like bird in Jewish mythology
Snow-lion: Celestial animal in Tibetan mythology.
Manussih: Depicted on Buddhist stoopas in Burma
Nue: Japanese legendary creature
Pixiu: Piyao – a Chinese mythical creature
The apotropaic purpose of Vyala is an auspicious one – a favorable omen, nullifying evil forces around. It takes away the negative aspects, as a guardian God or Protector, and instills feelings of awe, fear and respect in devotees on entering a place of worship. It is a psychological soothing - a universal philosophy. It is vindicated in Indian Vyalas of different forms, Griffins and Sphinxes. Such figures, as an art form, have now entered houses as decorative items.
(Note: For a lucid exposition of ‘Vyala’ by Dr. Bannanje Govindacharya, you can listen his discourses in Kannada, available in You Tube).
- Hosabettu Vishwanath, Pune