Vishnu’s Four Signs of Preservation

For centuries, a Kumbh Mela or ‘Aquarius Festival’ has been held at Haridwar, in Uttarakhand (northern India) when, once every 12 years, the planet Jupiter is in the sign of Aquarius as the Sun enters Aries in early spring. An ‘Ardh Mela’ or half-Mela is held at 6-year intervals, when Jupiter is opposite Aquarius, in Leo.

An even more ancient tradition, attested in the Puranas,1 is the Magh Mela held every year at Prayag, several hundred kilometers downriver from Haridwar.

Prayag, located along the same line of longitude as Mount Kailash, is said to be where the non-physical river Saraswati descends into the physical world, forming a triple confluence with the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. For thousands of years, saints, yogis, and the spiritually devout have gathered here, at the holy confluence of earthly and heavenly waters, for ritual bathing during the month of Capricorn (Makara).

Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj

Sometime during the last few hundred years, the Magh Mela at Prayag amalgamated with the Haridwar Kumbh Mela, so that once every 12 years, when Jupiter is in Taurus, the Magh Mela becomes a full-fledged Kumbh Mela. An Ardh Mela is again observed at 6-year intervals, when Jupiter is in the opposing sign of Scorpio.

These festivals, held at Prayag and at Haridwar, form the original core of the contemporary Kumbh Mela tradition. But other festivals exist, some also stretching back to antiquity, which fit into the same cosmic scheme and nowadays are considered Kumbh Melas:

  • The Trimbakeshwar Simhastha festival is held on the banks of the Godavari river in Nashik district, Maharashtra, whenever Jupiter and the Sun are both in Leo. Around 100 years ago, this festival adapted itself to the modern Kumbh Mela symbology, and is now considered one of the four canonical locations of the Kumbh Mela.
  • A related Simhastha festival has been held for centuries in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, also when Jupiter is in Leo, but when the Sun is in Aries (at the same time as the Ardh Mela in Haridwar). As with the original Simhasta at Trimbak, the Ujjain festival was incorporated into the modern Kumbh Mela canon in the last century.
  • The Mahamaham festival in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, is held when Jupiter is in Leo and the Sun is in Aquarius (either 6 months before or after the Trimbak Kumbh Mela). At this time, it is said that all of the holy rivers of India flow into the large bathing tank at Kumbakonam.

The key elements of these interrelated cosmic rituals are the 12-year orbit of Jupiter, and Vishnu’s four zodiacal signs of preservation: Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius.

These four signs have been associated with Vishnu since at least the time of the Rig Veda (RV I.154), where Vishnu’s three world-measuring strides are extolled. In each of his successive steps, Vishnu is described as being “like a terrible Lion”, and then a “wide-moving Bull”, and finally “that Friend of men who is the fount of sweetness”.2 These images evoke three of the fixed signs of the zodiac: Leo, Taurus and Aquarius.3

Tracing these three steps back to their source, we find that Vishnu (whose vahana or vehicle is Garuda, the Eagle) issued from Scorpio, whose higher symbol is precisely the Eagle. From there, Vishnu took three measured strides through the fixed signs of the zodiac, – culminating in his third and highest step, “that goal of his movement, the Delight, where souls that seek the godhead have the rapture”4 – Aquarius, kumbha, the sign of the Friend, the sacred vessel that contains and distributes the spiritual waters.

These four signs are also the four symbolic locations that, it is said, Vishnu dropped some of the nectar of immortality from the kumbha or water pot after the churning of the milky ocean.5 This is a relatively recent addition to the churning myth, however. Neither the Vishnu Purana nor any other traditional source mentions spilling the nectar at four places. But the timing of the Kumbh Mela festivals suggests that these four ‘locations’ are in fact Vishnu’s four signs of preservation: Scorpio (the Eagle), Leo (the Lion), Taurus (the Bull) and Aquarius (the Friend).

When Jupiter (Guru) visits each of these four signs or locations, the sacred waters of spiritual initiation and illumination are poured out upon the Earth, at designated holy places. This is the universal core of the modern Kumbh Mela phenomenon.

  1. Agni Purana, Surya Purana, Mahabharata and others.
  2. Rig Veda I.154, Sri Aurobindo’s translation
  3. Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet, Secrets of the Earth, Aeon Books 2009
  4. Rig Veda I.154.5.
  5. Vishnu Purana I.9.