Vishnu (विष्णु), also known as Narayana and Hari, is one of the principal deities of Hinduism. He is the supreme being within Vaishnavism, one of the major traditions within contemporary Hinduism. Vishnu is known as “The Preserver” within the Trimurti, the triple deity of supreme divinity that includes Brahma and Shiva. In Vaishnavism, Vishnu is the supreme being who creates, protects, and transforms the universe. Whenever the world is threatened with evil, chaos, and destructive forces, Vishnu descends in the form of an avatar (incarnation) to restore the cosmic order and protect dharma. The Dashavatara are the ten primary avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu. Out of these ten, Rama and Krishna are the most important.
Vishnu (विष्णु) means ‘all pervasive’ and, according to Medhātith (c. 1000 CE), ‘one who is everything and inside everything’. Vedanga scholar Yaska (4th century BCE) in the Nirukta defines Vishnu as viṣṇur viṣvater vā vyaśnoter vā (‘one who enters everywhere’); also adding atha yad viṣito bhavati tad viṣnurbhavati (‘that which is free from fetters and bondage is Vishnu’).
Other notable names in this list include :
- Padmanabha, and
Particularly in Vaishnavism, the Trimurti (also known as the Hindu Triad or Great Trinity) represents the three fundamental forces (guṇas) through which the universe is created, maintained, and destroyed in cyclic succession. Each of these forces is represented by a Hindu deity:
- Brahma: the presiding deity of Rajas (passion, creation)
- Vishnu: the presiding deity of Sattva (goodness, preservation)
- Shiva: the presiding deity of Tamas (darkness, destruction)
In Hindu tradition, the trio is often referred to as Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh. All have the same meaning of three in One; different forms or manifestations of One person the Supreme Being.
The avatars of Vishnu descend to empower the good and to destroy evil, thereby restoring Dharma and relieving the burden of the Earth. An oft-quoted passage from the Bhagavad Gita describes the typical role of an avatar of Vishnu:
Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases I send myself forth.
For the protection of the good and for the destruction of evil,
and for the establishment of righteousness,
I come into being age after age. — Bhagavad Gita 4.7–8
Vedic literature, in particular, the Puranas (‘ancient’; similar to encyclopedias) and Itihasa (‘chronicle, history, legend’), narrate numerous avatars of Vishnu. The most well-known of these avatars are:
- Krishna (most notably in the Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, and Mahabharata; the latter encompassing the Bhagavad Gita), and
- Rama (most notably in the Ramayana).
Krishna in particular is venerated in Vaishnavism as the ultimate, primeval, transcendental source of all existence, including all the other Demigods and Gods such as Vishnu.
In the Mahabharata, Vishnu (as Narayana) states to Narada that He will appear in the following ten incarnations:
Appearing in the forms of a swan [Hamsa], a tortoise [Kurma], a fish [Matsya], O foremost of regenerate ones, I shall then display myself as a boar [Varaha], then as a Man-lion (Nrisingha), then as a dwarf [Vamana], then as Rama of Bhrigu’s race, then as Rama, the son of Dasaratha, then as Krishna the scion of the Sattwata race, and lastly as Kalki.— Book 12, Santi Parva, Chapter CCCXL (340), translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, 1883-1896
Specified avatars of Vishnu are listed against some of the Puranas in the table below. However, this is a complicated process and the lists are unlikely to be exhaustive because:
- Not all Puranas provide lists per se (e.g. the Agni Purana dedicates entire chapters to avatars, and some of these chapters mention other avatars within them)
- Manava Purana, the only Upa Purana listed 42 avatars of Vishnu.
- Some avatars consist of two or more people considered as different aspects of a single incarnation (e.g. Nara-Narayana, Rama, and his three brothers)
The Dashavatara is a list of the so-called Vibhavas, or ’10 [primary] Avatars’ of Vishnu. The Agni Purana, Varaha Purana, Padma Purana, Linga Purana, Narada Purana, Garuda Purana, and Skanda Purana all provide matching lists. The same Vibhavas are also found in the Garuda Purana Saroddhara, a commentary or ‘extracted essence’ written by Navanidhirama about the Garuda Purana (i.e. not the Purana itself, with which it seems to be confused):
The Fish, the Tortoise, the Boar, the Man-Lion, the Dwarf, Parasurama, Rama, Krisna, Buddha, and also Kalki: These ten names should always be meditated upon by the wise. Those who recite them near the diseased are called relatives.— Navanidhirama, Garuda Purana Saroddhara, Chapter VIII, Verses 10-11, translated by E. Wood and S.V. Subrahmanyam
Apparent disagreements concerning the placement of either the Buddha or Balarama in the Dashavarara seem to occur from the Dashavarara list in the Shiva Purana (the only other list with ten avatars including Balarama in the Garuda Purana substitutes Vamana, not Buddha). Regardless, both versions of the Dashavarara have a scriptural basis in the canon of authentic Vedic literature (but not from the Garuda Purana Saroddhara).
Perumal (Tamil: பெருமாள்)—also known as Thirumal (Tamil: திருமால்), or Mayon (as described in the Tamil scriptures)— was accepted as a manifestation of Vishnu during the process of the syncretism of South Indian deities into mainstream Hinduism. He is a popular Hindu deity among Tamilians in Tamil Nadu, as well as among the Tamil diaspora. Revered by the Sri Vaishnava denomination of Hinduism, Perumal is venerated in popular tradition as Venkateshwara at Tirupati and Sri Ranganathaswamy at Srirangam.
Vishnu is a Rigvedic deity, but not a prominent one when compared to Indra, Agni, and others. Just 5 out of 1028 hymns of the Rigveda are dedicated to Vishnu, although he is mentioned in other hymns. Vishnu is mentioned in the Brahmana layer of text in the Vedas, thereafter his profile rises, and over the history of Indian scriptures, states Jan Gonda, Vishnu becomes a divinity of the highest rank, one equivalent to the Supreme Being.
Though a minor mention and with overlapping attributes in the Vedas, he has important characteristics in various hymns of Rigveda, such as 1.154.5, 1.56.3, and 10.15.3. In these hymns, the Vedic scriptures assert that Vishnu resides in that highest home where departed Atman (Self) resides, an assertion that may have been the reason for his increasing emphasis and popularity in Hindu soteriology. He is also described in Vedic literature as the one who supports heaven and earth.
Trivikrama: The Three Steps of Vishnu
Several hymns of the Rigveda repeat the mighty deed called the Trivikrama, which is one of the lasting mythologies in Hinduism since the Vedic times. It is an inspiration for ancient artwork in numerous Hindu temples such as the Ellora Caves, which depict the Trivikrama legend through the Vamana avatar of Vishnu. Trivikrama refers to the celebrated three steps or “three strides” of Vishnu. Starting as a small insignificant-looking being, He undertakes a herculean task of establishing his reach and form, then with his first step covers the earth, with second the ether, and the third entire heaven.
The Shatapatha Brahmana contains ideas which Vaishnavism tradition of Hinduism has long mapped to a pantheistic vision of Vishnu as supreme, he as the essence in every being and everything in the empirically perceived universe.
In this Brahmana, states Klaus Klostermaier, Purusha Narayana (Vishnu) asserts, “All the worlds have I placed within mine own self, and my self has I placed within all the worlds.” The text equates Vishnu to all knowledge there is (Vedas), calling the essence of everything as imperishable, all Vedas and principles of the universe as imperishable, and that this imperishable which is Vishnu is the all.
The Vaishnava Upanishads are minor Upanishads of Hinduism, related to Vishnu theology. There are 14 Vaishnava Upanishads in the Muktika anthology of 108 Upanishads. It is unclear when these texts were composed, and estimates vary from the 1st century BCE to the 17th century CE for the texts.
These Upanishads highlight Vishnu, Narayana, Rama, or one of his avatars as the supreme metaphysical reality called Brahman in Hinduism. They discuss a diverse range of topics, from ethics to the methods of worship.
Vishnu is the primary focus of the Vaishnavism-focused Puranas genre of Hindu texts. Of these, according to Ludo Rocher, the most important texts are the:
- Bhagavata Purana,
- Vishnu Purana,
- Nāradeya Purana,
- Garuda Purana, and
- Vayu Purana.
The Purana texts include many versions of cosmologies, mythologies, encyclopedic entries about various aspects of life, and chapters that were medieval-era regional temple-related tourist guides called mahatmyas. One version of cosmology, for example, states that Vishnu’s eye is at the Southern Celestial Pole from where he watches the cosmos. In another version found in section 4.80 of the Vayu Purana, he is the Hiranyagarbha, or the golden egg from which were simultaneously born all feminine and masculine beings of the universe.
The Vishnu Purana also discusses the Hindu concept of supreme reality called Brahman in the context of the Upanishads; a discussion that the theistic Vedanta scholar Ramanuja interprets to be about the equivalence of the Brahman with Vishnu, a foundational theology in the Sri Vaishnavism tradition.
Like other Puranas, it discusses a wide range of topics including cosmology, genealogy, geography, mythology, legend, music, dance, yoga, and culture.
Some versions of the Purana texts, unlike the Vedic and Upanishadic texts, emphasize Vishnu as supreme and on whom other Gods depend.
The Agama scripture called the Pancharatra describes a mode of worship of Vishnu.
Sangam and Post-Sangam literature
The Sangam literature refers to an extensive regional collection in the Tamil language, mostly from the early centuries of the common era. These Tamil texts revere Vishnu and his avatars such as Krishna and Rama, as well as other pan-Indian deities such as Shiva, Muruga, Durga, Indra, and others. Other terms found for Vishnu in this ancient Tamil genre of literature include Mayavan, Mamiyon, Netiyon, Mal, and Mayan.
These Tamil epics share many aspects of the story found in other parts of India, such as those related to baby Krishna such as stealing butter, and teenage Krishna such as teasing girls who went to bathe in a river by hiding their clothes.
Ideas about Vishnu in the mid-1st millennium CE were important to the Bhakti movement theology that ultimately swept India after the 12th century. The Alvars, which means “those immersed in God”, were Tamil Vaishnava poet-saints who sang praises of Vishnu as they traveled from one place to another. They established temple sites such as Srirangam, and spread ideas about Vaishnavism.
Their poems, compiled as Alwar Arulicheyalgal or Divya Prabhandham, developed into an influential scripture for the Vaishnavas. The Bhagavata Purana’s references to the South Indian Alvar saints, along with its emphasis on bhakti, have led many scholars to give it South Indian origins, though some scholars question whether this evidence excludes the possibility that bhakti movement had parallel developments in other parts of India.
Vishnu Associated deities
Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of wealth, fortune, and prosperity (both material and spiritual), is the wife and active energy of Vishnu. When He incarnated on earth as the avatars Rama and Krishna, Lakshmi incarnated as his respective consorts: Sita and Radha or Rukmini.
Among Vishnu’s primary mounts (vahana) is Garuda, the demigod eagle. Garuda is a sacred bird in Vaishnavism. In the Garuda Purana, Garuda carries Him to save the elephant, Gajendra.
One of the primordial beings of creation, Shesha, or Adishesha, is the king of the serpents in Hindu mythology. Residing in Vaikuntha, Vishnu sleeps upon Adishesha in a perpetual slumber in his form of Narayana.
Vishvaksena, also known as Senadhipathi (both meaning ‘army-chief’), is the commander-in-chief of the army of Vishnu.
Shiva and Vishnu are both viewed as the ultimate form of God in different Hindu denominations. Harihara is a composite of half Vishnu and half Shiva, mentioned in literature such as the Vamana Purana (chapter 36), and in artwork found from mid 1st millennium CE, such as in the cave 1 and cave 3 of the 6th-century Badami cave temples.
Vishnu: Outside the Indian subcontinent
Wisnu is the God of justice or welfare, wisnu was the fifth son of Batara Guru and Batari Uma. He is the most powerful son of all the sons of Batara Guru.
Some of the earliest surviving grand Vishnu temples in India have been dated to the Gupta Empire period. The Sarvatobhadra temple in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, for example, is dated to the early 6th century and features the ten avatars of Vishnu. Its design is based on a square layout and Vishnu iconography broadly follows the 1st millennium Hindu texts on architecture and construction such as the Brihat Samhita and Visnudharmottarapurana.
Archaeological evidence suggests that temples and iconography probably were already in existence by the 1st century BCE. The most significant Vishnu-related epigraphy and archaeological remains are the two 1st century BCE inscriptions in Rajasthan which refer to temples of Sankarshana and Vasudeva, the Besnagar Garuda column of 100 BCE which mentions a Bhagavata temple, another inscription in Naneghat cave in Maharashtra by a Queen Naganika that also mentions Sankarshana, Vasudeva along with other major Hindu deities and several discoveries in Mathura relating to Vishnu, all dated to about the start of the common era.
The Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, is dedicated to Vishnu. The temple has attracted huge donations of gold and precious stones over its long history.
List of Vishnu temples
- 108 Divya Desams
- Venkateswara Temple
- Padmanabhaswamy Temple
- Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam
- Jagannath Temple, Puri
- Badrinath Temple
- Swaminarayan temples
- Candi Wisnu, Prambanan, Java, Indonesia
- Angkor Wat, Cambodia
- Birla Mandir
- Dashavatara Temple, Deogarh
- Pundarikakshan Perumal Temple
- Kallalagar temple , Madurai
Key Teachings Associated with Lord Vishnu
In conclusion, Lord Vishnu, one of the central deities in Hinduism, embodies the principles of preservation, duty, devotion, compassion, upholding righteousness, and spiritual evolution. Through his various avatars, he imparts timeless teachings that guide humanity toward a balanced and righteous existence. His teachings emphasize the importance of maintaining harmony in the universe, fulfilling responsibilities with sincerity, surrendering to the divine, practicing forgiveness and compassion, upholding moral values, and ultimately seeking spiritual liberation. His teachings continue to inspire millions of people to lead meaningful lives filled with righteousness, devotion, and self-realization.
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