According to the Indian Puranas, Vishnu is described possessing the divine blue colour of water-filled clouds and four arms resting on his Sheshnaag. The Bhagavad Gita describes him as a 'Universal Form' or Vishvarupa that is beyond the ordinary limits of human perception.
Vishnu's eternal and supreme abode is Vaikuntha, the realm of eternal bliss. Within the material universe his abode is the Ksheera Sagara, where he reclines and rests on Ananta Shesha. The Lord is most commonly worshipped in his Dasavatara forms. Lord Vishnu in Rig Veda has also been accorded the highest place. Among the 1000 names of the Lord, the name Vishnu is the second name in the Vishnu Sahasranama.
Etymology of Lord Vishnu
According to the ancient texts and scholars, Vishnu is described as 'one who is everything and inside everything', or 'one who enters everywhere'. The term 'Vishnu' is associated with the idea of being free from fetters and bondage. In the Padma Purana, Danta provides a list of 108 names for Vishnu, encompassing the ten primary avatars and various qualities, attributes, and aspects of God.
Furthermore, both the Garuda Purana and the "Anushasana Parva" of the Mahabharata go beyond, enumerating over a thousand names for Vishnu, each name signifying a unique divine quality or attribute. One of the prominent names included in this extensive list is 'the omnipresent', emphasizing Vishnu's pervasive nature.
Among the many notable names given to Vishnu, some include 'Hari', 'Lakshmikanta', 'Jagannatha', 'Janardana', 'Govinda', 'Hrishikesha', 'Padmanabha', and 'Mukunda'.
The concept of Vishnu has been interpreted and revered differently across ancient texts and by various scholars throughout history. These names and descriptions paint a vivid and diverse picture of the divine attributes associated with Vishnu in Hindu theology, enriching the understanding and devotion to this revered deity.
Iconography of Lord Vishnu
Lord Vishnu’s iconography shows him with dark blue, or blue-grey or black coloured skin, and as a well dressed jewelled man. He is typically shown with four arms, but there are also two armed representations which are discussed in Hindu texts and artworks. In his four arms, Lord Vishnu is known to hold a chakra, conch shell, mace and a lotus respectively. The items he holds in various hands varies, giving rise to 24 combinations of iconography, each combination representing a special form of Vishnu. Each of these special forms is given a special name in texts such as the Agni Purana and Padma Purana. Lord Vishnu’s iconography either portrays him in a standing pose, seated in a yoga pose or simply reclining.
Lord Vishnu and the concept of Trimurti
Within Vaishnavism, the Trimurti, also known as the Hindu Triad or Great Trinity, symbolizes the three fundamental forces (gu?as) that orchestrate the continuous cycle of creation, preservation, and destruction in the universe. Each of these forces finds representation in a Hindu deity.
Brahma: The presiding deity of Rajas, embodying passion and the power of creation. Vishnu: The presiding deity of Sattva, epitomizing goodness and the principle of preservation. Shiva: The presiding deity of Tamas, embodying darkness and the force of destruction.
The Trimurti themselves transcend the influence of the three gunas; they remain unaffected by these forces. In Hindu tradition, this divine trio is often referred to as Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh. All three aspects hold the same significance of three in One, representing different manifestations of the Supreme Being, united as a singular, divine entity.
As the cycle of existence perpetuates, the Trimurti's interplay of creation, preservation, and destruction ensures the balance and evolution of the cosmos. This profound concept elucidates the dynamic nature of the divine forces that shape and govern the universe, inspiring reverence and devotion among millions who seek to understand the mysteries of existence and the divine essence within.
Weapons of Lord Vishnu
Lord Vishnu worshipped as the preserver of the creation is seen possessing four hands. With his upper right hand he holds a discus or the chakra that symbolises the mind, with his upper left hand he holds a bow representing the causal power of illusion, and with his lower right hand he holds a conch. The conch shell is spiral and symbolizes all of interconnected spiralling cyclic existence, while the discus symbolizes him as that which restores dharma with war if necessary when the cosmic equilibrium is overwhelmed by evil. One of his arms sometimes carries a gadda or a club and mace which symbolize authority and power of knowledge. In the fourth arm, he holds a lotus flower which symbolizes purity and transcendence.
Idols of Lord Vishnu
Lord Vishnu commonly venerated as Narayana or Hari is also worshipped by his devotes in different forms. Several idols of the lord are installed in temples and adorned by the pilgrims. Some of the idols of the Lord are Vasudeva, Samkarshana, Pradyumna, Aniruddha, Madhava, Govinda, Vishnu, Kesava, Upendra, Hari, Purushottama, Jagannatha, Janardana, Achyuta, Jagannatha, Hamsa, Vishwarupa, Lakshmi Narayana, Yajnavaraha, Madhusudana, Shridhara, Harshikesha, Padmanabha, Damodara, Vaikunth Anatha, Trailokya Mohana, Ananta, Adimurti, Lakshmi, Bhu and Nila, Mahavishnu and Shayanavishnu.
Attendants of Lord Vishnu
Lord Vishnu, the preserver and sustainer of life is attended, revered and flanked by several attendants such as Garuda, Ananta, Vishvakshena, Sudarshana and Jaya-Vijaya.
Consorts of Lord Vishnu
The legends of Vishnu suggest that the Lord had three wives Goddess Saraswati, Goddess Lakshmi and Goddess Parvati. He however, gave away Saraswati and Parvati to Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva respectively. Besides, Bhudevi is also regarded as the consort of the Lord.
Incarnations of Vishnu
According to the Indian Puranas, Lord Vishnu possesses the divine power that helps during the various stages of human evolution by incarnating on earth in different forms. The 10 most famous incarnations of Vishnu are collectively known as the 'Dasavatara.' According to the Bhagavad Gita the purpose of incarnation of Vishnu is to re-establish Dharma or righteousness and destroy injustice. The list is also included in the Garuda Purana.
In the list of 10 avatars the majority of avatars are categorised as 'lila-avatars' and the first four are believed to have appeared in the Krita Yuga. The Treta Yuga witnessed the incarnation of the next three, the eighth incarnation in the Dwapara Yuga while the ninth incarnation in the Kali Yuga. The 10 avataras are Matsya Avatar (fish), Kurma Avatar (tortoise), Varaha Avatar (boar), Narashima Avatar (the man lion), Vamana Avatar (the dwarf), Parasurama (the angry man), Lord Rama (the perfect human), Balarama and Lord Krishna (the divine statesman). The 10th avatar, which is yet to appear, is Kalki, he is expected towards the end of this present age of decline, as a person on earth, seated on a white horse.
Minor Incarnations of Lord Vishnu
The minor incarnations includes several other incarnations of Lord Vishnu besides his Dasavatara forms. These include Kapila, Dattatreya, Hayagriva, Hayashirsha, Yajna, Lord Dhanwantri, Ved Vyas, Rishabha, Nara and Narayana, Balarama, Narada, Varadaraja, Manmatha, Prithu and Mohini.
Legends of Lord Vishnu
Lord Vishnu worshipped as the Supreme Being in Vaishnavism is associated with several legends and mythological fables. The legend of Lord Vishnu and Sage Bhrigu recites about the test of the Lord taken by the sage to decide upon the supremacy of the Lord among the trinity, Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. The next legend of Lord Vishnu and Shukrh states about the former being cursed by the later for killing his mother. According to the third legend of Lord Vishnu and Vrinda where the later cursed the lord for deceiving her and killing her husband Jalandhara. As per the Legend of Lord Vishnu and Bhasmasura the later was blessed with the boon of turning to ashes anyone on whose head he placed his hand. The legend of Lord Vishnu and Brahma narrates about the former preaching about the modesty and humility.
Lord Vishnu in Dashavatara
The Dashavatara, also known as the '10 Primary Avatars' of Vishnu, comprises a list of significant incarnations through which Vishnu descends to the earthly realm. This sacred compilation finds consistent mention in various ancient texts, including the Agni Purana, Varaha Purana, Padma Purana, Linga Purana, Narada Purana, Garuda Purana, and Skanda Purana. Among these, the Garuda Purana Saroddhara, a profound commentary by Navanidhirama on the Garuda Purana, also presents the same list of Vibhavas or Avatars.
The ten Avatars are as follows:
1. Matsya (The Fish)
2. Kurma (The Tortoise)
3. Varaha (The Boar)
4. Narasimha (The Man-Lion)
5. Vamana (The Dwarf)
6. Parasurama (Rama with the Axe)
7. Rama (Lord Rama)
8. Krishna (Lord Krishna)
9. Buddha (The Enlightened One)
10. Kalki (The Future Avatar)
These divine manifestations are objects of meditation for the wise and are believed to bring solace and blessings to those who recite their names, especially in times of illness.
Some discrepancies exist in the order and inclusion of certain Avatars, particularly Buddha and Balarama. While some lists, such as the one in the Shiva Purana, include Balarama instead of Buddha, both versions find scriptural support in authentic Vedic literature, though not necessarily from the Garuda Purana Saroddhara.
Lord Vishnu as Perumal
Perumal, an integral figure in Tamil scriptures, emerged as a significant manifestation of Vishnu during the syncretic phase of South Indian deities blending into mainstream Hinduism. This captivating deity holds immense popularity among the Tamil community in Tamil Nadu and resonates deeply with the Tamil diaspora as well. Within the Sri Vaishnava denomination of Hinduism, Perumal garners profound reverence and devotion.
Perumal is adored and worshiped in various forms, with two prominent manifestations being Venkateshwara at the revered temple of Tirupati and Sri Ranganathaswamy at the sacred site of Srirangam. These temples stand as iconic centers of pilgrimage and devotion, drawing devotees from far and wide to bask in the divine presence of Perumal.
Lord Vishnu in Vedic Literature
In the ancient Rigvedic texts, Lord Vishnu held a position that was not as prominent as deities like Indra and Agni. Out of the 1028 hymns in the Rigveda, only five were dedicated explicitly to Vishnu, although he was mentioned in other hymns as well. As the Vedic scriptures progressed into the Brahmana layer, Vishnu's significance grew, and over the course of Indian history, he ascended to become a divine being of the highest rank, on par with the Supreme Being, according to Jan Gonda, a renowned scholar.
Despite his relatively minor presence and occasionally overlapping attributes in the Vedas, Vishnu possessed crucial characteristics in various hymns. These hymns affirmed that Vishnu resided in the supreme abode where departed souls found their dwelling, potentially contributing to the increased emphasis and popularity of Vishnu in Hindu soteriology, the study of salvation and liberation. Additionally, the Vedic literature portrayed Vishnu as the sustainer of heaven and earth, emphasizing his role as a cosmic force of preservation.
As time progressed, the adoration and worship of Lord Vishnu expanded and flourished, finding expression in various forms and avatars. The multifaceted nature of Vishnu's character and his profound connection to the eternal cosmic order solidified his place as a central figure in Hindu theology.
Lord Vishnu in Brahmanas
Within the Shatapatha Brahmana, the Vaishnavism tradition of Hinduism finds profound insights that align with a pantheistic conception of Lord Vishnu as the supreme being. He is the essence permeating every being and everything within the observable universe. Klaus Klostermaier highlights the assertion of Purusha Narayana (Vishnu) within this Brahmana, declaring that he encompasses all the worlds within himself, and simultaneously dwells within all the worlds. Vishnu is equated to the embodiment of all knowledge present in the Vedas, and the text emphasizes that the essence of everything is imperishable, as are the Vedas and the fundamental principles governing the universe.
Lord Vishnu in Upanishads
The Vaishnava Upanishads form a collection of minor Upanishads within Hinduism, primarily centered around Vishnu theology. Among the 108 Upanishads found in the Muktika anthology, 14 are dedicated to Vaishnava themes. The exact dates of composition for these texts remain uncertain.
These Upanishads place a significant emphasis on Vishnu, Narayana, Rama, or one of his divine avatars as the supreme metaphysical reality known as Brahman in Hinduism. Through their teachings, they delve into a diverse array of topics, covering ethics and the various methods of worship. By exploring the nature of the divine, the Vaishnava Upanishads offer profound insights into the ultimate truth and the ways to connect with the divine essence within the spiritual journey.
Lord Vishnu in Sangam and Post-Sangam Literature
The Sangam literature, a vast collection of Tamil texts primarily from the early centuries of the common era, holds great reverence for Lord Vishnu and his divine avatars like Krishna and Rama. Alongside Vishnu, the Tamil literary tradition also celebrates various pan-Indian deities like Shiva, Muruga, Durga, Indra, and others, reflecting the rich cultural tapestry of ancient Tamil Nadu.
In these ancient Tamil texts, Vishnu is often referred to as "mayon," signifying a dark or black complexion, akin to the term "Krishna" used in North India. Other names for Vishnu found in this genre include "mayavan," "mamiyon," "netiyon," "mal," and "mayan."
The avatar of Krishna as Vishnu assumes center stage in two significant post-Sangam Tamil epics, namely Silappadikaram and Manimekalai, likely composed around the 5th century CE. These epics share captivating aspects of Krishna's stories found in other parts of India, including the delightful tales of his childhood, such as stealing butter, and his playful mischief during his teenage years, where he teased girls by hiding their clothes while they bathed in a river.
Lord Vishnu in Bhakti Movement
During the mid-1st millennium CE, the concepts surrounding Lord Vishnu played a pivotal role in shaping the theology of the Bhakti movement, which eventually swept across India in the 12th century and beyond. Central to this movement were the Alvars, revered Tamil Vaishnava poet-saints who fervently sang praises of Vishnu as they journeyed from place to place. Through their devotion and poetic expressions, they not only established sacred temple sites like Srirangam but also disseminated profound ideas about Vaishnavism.
The verses and hymns composed by the Alvars were later compiled as Alwar Arulicheyalgal or Divya Prabhandham, which emerged as a significant scripture and source of inspiration for Vaishnavas. Their poetic compositions held deep spiritual meaning and became instrumental in nurturing the devotion and religious practices of followers of Vishnu.
Lord Vishnu in Other Religions
Beyond the culture and religion of Hinduism, Lord Vishnu is referred to as Gorakh in the scriptures of Sikhism. The Chaubis Avatar text of Sikhism lists the 24 Avatars of Lord Vishnu which also includes Lord Krishna and Lord Rama of Hinduism. Similarly, the Dasam Granth includes Vishnu mythology mirror that is found in the Vaishnav tradition. In Hinduism, there are some Hindus who consider Lord Buddha as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, while in some of the Buddhist cultures Lord Vishnu is worshipped as the custodian deity of Sri Lanka and the protector of Buddhism. It is known that the Sinhala Buddhist tradition encourages the worship of Lord Vishnu as a part of the Theravada Buddhism.
Vaishnava theology, as expounded in the Bhagavata Purana, encompasses profound insights into the merging of the individual Self with the Absolute Brahman, denoting the return of Brahman to its true nature. This concept aligns closely with the Advaitic or non-dualistic philosophy of Shankara, emphasizing the unity of the individual with the Supreme Reality.
The pursuit of moksha, or liberation, is elaborated as Ekatva ('Oneness') and Sayujya ('Absorption' or 'intimate union'), wherein one completely merges with Brahman, realizing their true nature as part of the Supreme Being.
Within the Bhagavata Purana, Vishnu is perceived as "Isvara, the Lord of All Being," and the universe is regarded as His breath, destined to be assimilated back into Him in a cyclical process, culminating in the dissolution of the world. This process has occurred in the past and will repeat in the future. Following this dissolution, Vishnu will breathe life into the universe once more, initiating a new cycle of creation.
The Bhagavata Purana also emphasizes the path of Bhakti, the path of loving devotion, presenting it as one of the three major paths of Hindu spirituality alongside Jnana (knowledge) and Karma (action) discussed in the Bhagavad Gita.
Temples of Lord Vishnu
Some of the earliest surviving grand Vishnu temples in India have been dated to the Gupta Empire period. Archaeological evidence suggests that Vishnu 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 are dated to about the start of the common era.