India Design Motifs – The Conch, Part Three

BY: SUN STAFF - 26.10 2017

Lord Visnu - Bronze - Kumbhakonam, Tamil Nadu

A study of the historical, spiritual and cultural elements of Vedic design.

Today we'll consider the conch (shankha) from the standpoint of it being one of the attributes of Lord Krsna. In Vedic iconography, an 'attribute' is generally described as being an object or characteristic associated with a divine personality. Attributes are typically described in sastra as being the paraphernalia used by the transcendental person as a weapon (like the chakra or mace), a tool (like the plough), or a means of benedicting (like the lotus).

Not only is the conch the blowing-horn tool of Sri Krsna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, as an attribute of Lord Vishnu it represents not only a weapon and a tool, but also the demons themselves, who are vanquished while the Lord preserves the Absolute Truth.

The Supreme Personality of Godhead and His shankha are described in Krishna Upanishad:

"The world rests as the lotus in the palm of my hand, the cosmos revolves around my finger like a discus. I blow the music of life through my conch and wield my mace to protect all creatures."

As previously described, Lord Krsna/Visnu is typically depicted with His four main attributes: Pancajanya (shankha), kaumodaki (mace), Sudarshana chakra (weapon), and padma (lotus). Just as Krishna is often seen holding His flute, Mahavishnu is often depicted holding His bow (sarnga) and His sword (nandaka), along with conch and chakra. But no matter the combination of attributes depicted, The Lord's Pancajanya Shankha and Sudarshana Chakra are His most important items of paraphernalia.

The Lord's Pancajanya conch is described in sastra not only as a transcendental horn, but also as a fire-emanating shankha. As mentioned, the name Pancajanya means "possessing control over the five classes of beings'. Similarly, the name of Arjuna's conch, Devadatta, refers to it as a God-given weapon whose triumphant blast strikes terror in the enemy. This terrifying blast is also reminiscent of fire.

Dasavatar - Andhra Pradesh, 19th 

Pancajanya, held in His upper left hand with the chakra in His upper right hand, are always depicted in traditional images of Lord Vishnu's ten primary incarnations, the dasavatara. The conch and chakra are held by the first four avataras: Matsya, Kurma, Varaha and Nrsimha. Of the remaining six (Vamana, Parasuram, Rama, Krsna Balarama, Buddha, and Kalki), only Lord Buddha traditionally holds the conch. However, Kalki Avatar is sometimes also shown with conch and chakra. The latter images of Kalki are often in a Horse form (like Hayagriva) holding paraphernalia, rather than Krsna mounted on a horse.

In depictions of the Lord Buddha, the most recently manifest dasavatara, Brahma and Indra are often shown at the base of the Lord's asana, offering the attributes of conch and chakra. Krsna/Vishnu, the mahapurusa, is also known as dakshina-deva, or the right-hand God.

Similar appellations are applied to the Buddha with His right-curling hair and his body endowed with 32 auspicious signs, including the conch marked on His throat. This mark associates the transcendental sound of the conch with the Buddha's bold preaching of dharma. Thus the conch is one of the eight primary auspicious symbols of Buddhism.

Lord Vishnu - Lithograph, c. 1940