Here is an imaginary conversation between a visitor and a devotee of Ramakrishna Math, Ulsoor, Bangalore.
Visitor: I saw conch (shankha) and discus (cakra) depicted on the wall in front of the temple. Is this a Vishnu temple?
Devotee: We believe that Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, Ganesha, Hanuman, etc. are all different ways to approach the same Supreme God. We also consider Sri Ramakrishna to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Independent of that, the conch and discus represent the motto of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission that Swami Vivekananda coined – “Aatmano mokshaartam jagat hitaaya ca”, which means “For the liberation of self and welfare of the world”..
Visitor: Yes. I have heard of that motto. How is that motto related to conch and discus?
Devotee: The discus represents Karma Yoga, which is “Jagat hitaaya ca”. The conch represents Jnaana Yoga, which is “Aatmano mokshaartam”.
Discus is constantly spinning. It is an indication of activity. It is called Sudharshana Cakra. That shows that activity should be with the right attitude for it to be Karma Yoga. The right attitude of work is as an offering to God. The constant spinning also indicates that there will be no end to work. The world will always be imperfect. Work done is only a means to our own inner development.
Conch represents Jnaana. Conch is an indication of sound. Knowledge is transmitted from Guru to the disciple through teaching in the form of sound. The sound of a Conch resembles the sound of Om, which is interpreted as the knowledge about the Self (Atma jnaana). This is also symbolically presented in the Bhagavata. Lord Vishnu touched the cheeks of child Dhruva with his Conch and Dhruva instantly had Atma jnaana.
Visitor: Oh, that is very nice. Swami Vivekananda talks of four Yogas. What about the other two?
Devotee: Yes. They are represented by the other two things in the hands of Lord Vishnu. Mace (gada) is a symbol of Raja Yoga, which is mind control. Lotus (padma) is a symbol of Bhakti Yoga.
Mace is heavy and used to control. It is an indication of mind control. When we want to lift something heavy, we usually hold our breath. Thus the heavy mace indicates praanaayaama, one of the important techniques to control the mind.
Lotus is in the shape of the heart, the seat of all emotions, particularly love. When the devotee feels love for God, it is felt in the heart as an inner ethereal glow. God is meditated as seated in the heart. Gita says, “ishwarah sarva bhutaanaam hrid deshe arjuna tishthati” – God is seated in the heart region of all living beings. Lotus has its origin in the mud below the water. Bhakti Yoga has the capacity to elevate a sinner into a saint. Gita says, “api cet suduraachaaro bhajate maam ananya bhaak saadhureva sa mantavyah” – Even if a person with previously bad character worships Me without any worldly desire, he should be considered as a saint.
Visitor: But only shanka and charka are depicted on the wall. Why not the depict the other two Yogas also?
Devotee: Raja Yoga is also represented by discus. Mental activity is also an activity, though internal. Bhakti Yoga is also represented by conch. Conch is also in the shape of the heart. Like lotus, conch also has its origin in the mud below the water. You can see that in many depictions of Lord Vishnu, the lotus and mace are skipped for brevity. Only conch and discus are always shown.
Visitor: That is a wonderful explanation. What else does the conch and discus depict?
Devotee: Discus also depicts dharma. Conch depicts moksha. These two are the higher of the four goals of life (purushaarthas). When Swami Vivekananda coined the motto, these two are indicated. “jagat hitaaya” indicates dharma. “aatmano mokshaartham” indicates moksha.
Visitor: What does Swami Vivekananda say about the other two goals: artha and kaama?
Devotee: Swami Vivekananda does not talk much about them. However, Sri Ramakrishna repeatedly talks about them. “kaamini kaanchana tyaaga” – renunciation of lust and greed – is an expression that can be found again and again in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (Kathaamritha).
Visitor: Oh, I have read the Gospel and have known the motto of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. However, I never mapped them to the four goals of life as mentioned in the Vedas and other scriptures.
Devotee: Yes. What Sri Ramakrishna has talked about in the Gospel is nothing but the teachings of the Vedas and Gita in words that are more suitable to today’s people.
Visitor: Yes. That is true. Thanks for the wonderful explanations.
Devotee: Jai Ramakrishna !!!
Visitor: Jai Ramakrishna !!!