Shriman Narayan

LORD VISHNU SAVES HIS DEVOTEE ELEPHANT: Lord Vishnu is one of the three major gods of the Hindu trinity – the other two being Brahma and Shiva, considered as the creator and destroyer of all existences respectively. Vishnu is the one who supports, sustains, and governs the Universe. Whenever the balance of power on earth is upset in favour of evil, Lord Vishnu is believed to descend to earth in a mortal form or avatar to save the world.

Ten such avatars are described, of which Lord Rama and Lord Krishna are the most important. Nine of Lord Vishnu’s avatars are thought to have already occurred; the tenth, and the last, is yet to come. Lord Vishnu, who has a thousand names, is married to Goddess Lakshmi. He always provides salvation to those who appeal to him in their hour of need.

Many many centuries ago, a virtuous and wise king called Indradyumna ruled the Pandya kingdom. Indradyumna was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu. He always began his day by thinking of Lord Vishnu and praying to him. Early one morning when he was thus engaged, the famous Sage Agastya arrived at the gates of his palace. The sage told the doorkeeper that he wished to see the king. The doorkeeper carried this message to Indradyumna, but the king could not leave his pooja halfway; so he said to one of his servants: “Receive Sage Agastya with great respect, and take him into my royal chambers. Make him comfortable, and tell him that I will be with him presently.” The servant ran out to do the king’s bidding. But when Agastya saw the servant coming back to meet him at the gate instead of the king himself, he became very angry indeed. “How dare Indradyumna send a mere servant to meet me?” he fumed. “Doesn’t he know who I am? He will pay for his arrogance!” In a rage, Agastya cursed Indradyumna and said, “I curse you, oh proud, mighty king! May you be turned into an elephant!” After he had spoken these words, he turned to leave in a huff but just then, Indradyumna came running out of his palace.

“O great sage,” he said, “I am so sorry that I could not be here to receive you with honour, and welcome you into my home. I was doing my daily pooja and I came as soon as I finished.” Indradyumna held out his hands beseechingly to Agastya. “I am so happy that you have graced my home with a visit.” Agastya heard the king’s gracious words and was moved by the sincerity in his voice. He realised that Indradyumna had not acted in arrogance, and had not meant to insult him at all. He was filled with remorse at the curse that he had heaped on the king. But it was too late–there was nothing he could do about it. A curse, like an arrow, cannot be called back once it has flown from the bow! The best thing that Agastya could do was to lessen the severity of his curse.

So Agastya quietly said, “Since you are such a great devotee of Lord Vishnu, I decree that when the Sudarshan Chakra or sacred wheel of Lord Vishnu touches you, my curse will end, and you will be free….” The moment Agastya left Indradyumna’s palace, the king turned into an enormous male elephant with a strong and powerful body, long trunk, and sharp tusks. He trumpeted shrilly, and then wandered into the dense jungles nearby. The elephant roamed aimlessly in the jungle, eating whatever he could find. After several days, while he was wandering along he spotted a large herd of elephants in the distance. They were walking peacefully behind their leader, a magnificent tusker. The newcomer watched them and thought, ‘It will be good for me if I can lead this herd of elephants. But I must get them to accept me first! And for that, I’ll have to challenge and defeat their leader.’ The bold elephant charged fearlessly towards the herd of elephants, trumpeting loudly and angrily. Many of the elephants in the herd ran away as they saw the strange elephant thundering towards them. But the leader of the herd stood his ground. As the newcomer rammed into him, he put up a spirited fight. What a clashing of tusks and trunks it was! What noisy trumpeting and pushing and shoving! The other elephants in the herd watched nervously as their king and his huge challenger fought long and hard. But finally, after a gruelling battle, the newcomer triumphed. As his rival limped away into the jungle, the newcomer walked up to his herd. The elephants in the herd raised their trunks in supplication.

“We salute you and accept you as our leader,” they said respectfully. “And since you have proved that you are Gajendra, or the king of elephants, we shall call you by that name henceforth…” Gajendra took his place at the head of the herd, and proved to be a strong and capable leader. He was wise too, and always led the herd to safe places where there was plenty of food and water. One day, he said to his faithful followers, “Come with me friends! I am going to take you to the Trikuta mountain. It’s a wonderful place, and we will flourish there…”

The herd moved slowly towards Trikuta mountain with Gajendra at its head. When they finally arrived at their destination, all the elephants were weary but happy. A serene lake filled with sparkling blue water lay at the foot of the mountain. Gajendra trumpeted joyously and led his herd into it. How the elephants enjoyed frolicking in the water! They rolled over in the lake and allowed the cool water to wash over their tired limbs. They squirted water on each other with their trunks and played noisy games. Now this lake was the home of a vicious crocodile. He had lived there for many years and was unused to sharing it with anyone. When the herd of noisy elephants arrived and began gambolling in the lake, the crocodile was furious. ‘These elephants will destroy my peace and quiet if they stay here,’ he thought. ‘I must do something to drive them away forever.’ The crocodile surveyed the elephants from below the surface of the water. He realised that Gajendra was their king, and the one who had brought them to his lake. The crocodile then decided to lie in wait for Gajendra. After they had played in the lake for hours, the elephants waded out of the lake one by one. Gajendra was the last to move out. But as he stepped out of the lake, he found that one of his hind legs was trapped in the lake. He shook it, and pulled it hard, but it was of no use. His leg was stuck fast!

Then, as Gajendra twisted around to see what was holding his leg down, he let out a gasp of horror. A large crocodile had seized his leg, and had closed his gigantic mouth around it! Gajendra began to trumpet loudly, and then, using all his strength, he tried to shake off the crocodile and heave his leg out of the water. But all his efforts were futile. The crocodile’s enormous jaws remained firmly clamped around his leg. Gajendra thrashed and flailed frantically in the water, but the crocodile did not loosen his deadly grip. Finally, an exhausted Gajendra called out to his herd for help. All the elephants immediately came to their leader’s help. They stood in a row and began to pull Gajendra with all their might. But alas! Not even a herd of mighty elephants could pull poor Gajendra put of the water. Finally, they grew tired and stopped their efforts. “There’s nothing more we can do for our king,” they said sadly.

“We will have to leave him to his fate. The crocodile that is holding him down seems to be possessed of superhuman strength…” Gajendra began to weep as he watched his faithful followers leave him and go. He was totally exhausted from his struggle, and felt desperate. The strength in his great body was also ebbing away. In utter despair Gajendra raised his trunk to the sky and looked heavenwards. Then he called out fervently, “Lord Vishnu! There is no help for me left in this world! You are the only one who can save me now. I am tired of my life as an elephant too. Please set me free and take me back with you….” With his trunk, Gajendra plucked a lotus from the lake and held it out to Vishnu. Lord Vishnu heard Gajendra’s heartfelt plea, and was moved. He climbed onto his mount, Garuda, and flew towards Gajendra. When Gajendra saw Lord Vishnu appear in the sky, tears of relief and joy sprang to his eyes. He bowed his head respectfully as Lord Vishnu stretched out his hand and drew him and his captor, who was still holding tightly to his leg, out of the water. Then Lord Vishnu released his fearsome Sudarshan Chakra that blazed like a thousand suns. It flew towards the crocodile and severed its head. At last, Gajendra was free of his deadly captor and the curse Sage Agastya had put on him! He immediately became a human being again. But as he stood before Lord Vishnu he said, “I no longer wish to live on this earth, but want to serve you instead. Please take me with you to your heavenly abode…” Lord Vishnu smiled and nodded in assent. So, King Indradyumna, Lord Vishnu’s great devotee went to live with his lord and became his celestial attendant forever…

Shriman Naranyan Narayan Hari Hari

|| Jai Shree  Krishna ||


Thinking about how we think about Landscapes!

Take a look at the painting above. It’s one of Thomas Cole’s most famous works, commonly known as The Oxbow.¹ It’s got a little something for everyone. A twisted old tree. A menacing thunderstorm. Soaring cumulonimbus clouds. A spot of sunlight. A meandering river. Well manicured farm fields. I could go on and on.

Part of the genius behind Cole’s Oxbow is that it appeals to various cognitive processes that draw us into a landscape. There have been a few frameworks proposed to study how we perceive landscapes, one of which was devised by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, a husband and wife team in Michigan. The Kaplans’ theory is based on experiments with numerous collaborators where they surveyed the reactions of participants to various landscapes.

After poring over the data, the Kaplans noticed two cognitive processes—understanding and exploration—stood out. Within those processes, they further classified the way we react to different landscapes. Coherence and complexity are different ways we understand a scene, how we make sense of it based information that is physically present. Legibility and mystery are two ways we explore a landscape, how we extrapolate information where detail is lacking. Cole’s painting elicits in us a reaction to each of these, but one more so than the others. And that is precisely why it lures us in.

The Kaplans’ theoretical framework for landscape perception is a four-square of variables, with coherence occupying the upper left corner. Cole checks this first box with ease. As with all great art, The Oxbow displays a subtle orderliness that, while not necessarily obvious, balances the painting—the turbulent air and tortured trees give way to the glassy, defined river and neatly delineated farm fields—while imbuing it with suspense—our eyes sweep downwards from the dark clouds in upper left, following the trunk of the tree and canopies behind it down to the banks of the river, which disappears out the lower right.

From there our eyes are free to roam the details, picking out the umbrella jutting out from a promontory. Or following the slope back to find Cole himself tucked next to a rock, painting that very scene. Or the clearcuts on the hillside in the background. These details enliven the painting with complexity, which happens to be the Kaplans’ second variable, nestled in the upper right of their square. Our brain delights in such complexity, which is complexity with order. The bright river curling through the center of the painting, anchors the scene, giving order to the surrounding commotion. If we are ever overwhelmed with detail, we can always find our way back to the great silver arc. The availability of such landmarks also happens to be another of the Kaplans’ pillars, the somewhat oddly named legibility. Legibility is our ability to navigate a landscape within our brain. We rarely get lost in “legible” landscapes, but can be hopelessly disoriented in busy, messy ones.

That leaves us with one square still undefined. It is what the Kaplans consider to be the most important part of landscape perception, and the reason why I think so many people find The Oxbow so captivating. Mystery. The Kaplans define it as the “promise of new but related information”, and Cole’s painting has it in spades. The gusty thunderstorm provides motion to the scene, promising to upend the tranquility of the valley, or perhaps topple another tree. The dim, hazy horizon hints doesn’t reveal the remainder of the scene, instead leaving the viewer to discover it in his or her imagination. The river, too, hints that more lies beyond the frame.²

The Oxbow is a case of art imitating life more than a century before life caught up with a theoretical cognitive framework for studying landscape perception. Thomas Cole enshrined in oil and canvas a perfect landscape to delight our brains. In a way, it was an easy task to accomplish—after all, it’s an idealized scene. Replicating such complexity, motion, comfort, and mystery in real landscapes is much more difficult. Yet as we continue to modify the natural world apace, that is exactly what we will have to do if we want more than willy-nilly weeds. Just the other day, the National Park Service announced that it would be removing some Ponderosa pines from the floor of Yosemite Valley to restore the grand vistas of El Capitan. Such management also has an ecological benefit, restoring prairies that disappeared when fire was eliminated a century ago. But it is also a harbinger of what seems to be inevitable—the complete human management of the world’s ecosystems.

As we turn the world into our canvas, important choices will have to be made. Which ecosystems do we value at the expense of others? Who decides which ones have value? What tools will we use, and what is our vision? From my brief scan of the mighty stack of research on landscape perception, it’s clear that not everyone will have the same opinions. But there do seem to be hints of universality here and there. It will be a long time before we discover which landscapes, if any, bind us together. But in the meantime, I’ll be sifting through the papers, sharing my thoughts along the way. Stay tuned.

¹ The actual title is far longer, more Romantic with a capital R, and less catchy: View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm.

² It seems to be flowing to the lower right corner, though I have no way of knowing this for certain except that it just feels right. I suspect Cole knew this.


Kaplan, R., Kaplan, S., & Brown, T. (1989). Environmental Preference: A Comparison of Four Domains of Predictors Environment and Behavior, 21 (5), 509-530 DOI: 10.1177/0013916589215001