The Symbolic Meaning of Vishnu’s Encounter with Madhu and Kaitabh
Madhu actually means honey and he represents attachment (raag) to this world, which seems sweet to us. Kaitabh means a pricking thorn and signifies our aversion (dvesha) to things we deem as unpleasant. Both of these traits, which do much to make up our overall nature or temperament (prakriti or svabhav), is a residue carried over from numerous previous births. Both are products of maya and need to be annihilated.
In another interpretation, Madhu is honeyed praise, while Kaitabh is sour criticism, both of which enter through our ears, but are two side of the same mayic coin and need to be discarded. In either of the interpretations, the two demons attack our intelligence, symbolized by Brahma who is the patron deity of intellect. The Bhagavad Gita says:
“When your intellect, though perplexed by what you have heard, shall stand immovable and steady, then shall you attain self-realization”. (2.53)
Shesha Shayi Vishnu
The goddess as restful sleep is an apt metaphor signifying her motherhood. When a mother sees her small child tired after playing in the fierce sun, she catches hold of him, feeds him and pats him to sleep, even against his own wishes, knowing very well that the sleep will restore his energy. Indeed, while our whole day is spent in emptying our shakti, the compassionate goddess takes it on herself to continue replenishing it. So she puts Vishnu to rest, tired after the exhausting task of maintaining the universe, and when the next creative cycle begins, relieves him from his slumber.
However, we cannot win over the two demons of attachment/aversion or praise/criticism, relying solely on our own powers, like Lord Vishnu who was unable to defeat them even after many years of fierce battle. The only way to win over maya is to surrender ourselves to Mahamaya, the goddess who created it in the first place. The fact that the two demons asked to be killed in a dry spot is also loaded with spiritual symbolism. Both these pairs of traits can only be destroyed on the ground of Vairagya (disenchantment), which is the dry state of existence, devoid of all worldly rasa.
However, the state of the goddess symbolized by sleep is not her brightest manifestation. The Gita says:
“The pleasure arising from sleep is known as tamasic.” (18.39)