Vishnu Sleeping on the Cosmic Ocean

Northern Madhya Pradesh, possibly Khajuraho
11th century
Ester R. Portnow Collection of Asian Art, a Gift of the Nathan Rubin-Ida Ladd Family Foundation

Here, Vishnu sleeps in between the yugas, or cycles of time, on the cosmic ocean which lies outside space and time. His head is protected by the hood of Shesha, the cosmic serpent, and his feet are massaged by his consort Lakshmi. From his navel emerges Brahma, the creator God, seated on a lotus. His weapons, including the mace and the conch shell, lie relaxed in his hands. The waves beneath him are crowded by the creatures that were churned up when the cosmic ocean was created: the horse, the divine physician, and celestials playing musical instruments.

Built during the florescence of creativity of the Chandela rulers in a remote area of Madhya Pradesh, eleventh century Khajuraho sculpture represents a unique moment of Hindu art and religion merging together to form a powerful architectural spirituality. A worshipper would have encountered this image as one of several bands of sculptures in successive waves of higher and higher towers. He would have meditated upon it as one mythical moment in a spiritual progression involving several Hindu narratives.