Vishnu is one third of the gods in the holy
Hindu triumvirate, along with Brahma and Shiva. Considered the second god,
Vishnu is known as the preserver or the pervader. In Sanskrit, Vishnu means all
pervasive or “the one who is everything and is inside everything” and therefore,
is essentially, the essence of all beings.
While Brahma is referred to as the creator
and Shiva as the destroyer, the Hindu Trimurti is completed by Vishnu who is
considered to be the supreme being that protects and preserves the universe. He
has further been described as the master of the past, present and future, and
the god who sustains and governs the universe and develops all the beings within
it. Vishnu is, therefore, also referred to as Paramatman or supreme soul and
Parameshware, which means supreme god.
Among the different Hindu sects, it is in
Vaishnavism where devotees venerate and worship Vishnu as the primary or
supreme god. The devotees who solely worship Vishnu are known as Vaishnava.
According to Vaishnavism, Vishnu is the supreme being, the greatest god that
creates, protects and transforms, and all other gods are demi gods or lesser beings.
37.5" Large Superfine Lord Guruvayurappan (Vishnu) | Handmade | Madhuchista Vidhana (Lost-Wax) | Panchaloha Bronze
Vishnu goes by many names. In fact, Vishnu
has over one thousands names, which are listed in Hindu texts, including the
Mahabharata and the Garuda Purana. All the many names of Lord Vishnu are
collectively known as the Vishnu Sahasranama, which quite literally means a
thousand names and defines him as omnipresent. “Sahasra” maeans thousand and
“nama” means name. Each unique name of Vishnu describes a characteristic,
element, or attribute that he has. Among his most popular or notable names are Hari, which means remover of sins, Purusa or divine being, Kala meaning time, Prakrti or the divine nature, and Atman or the self, just to name a few. The thousand names of Vishnu
are repeated or chanted by his worshippers as an act of devotion to him.
Aside from having many names, Vishnu also
has multiple avatars. This is because it is believed that Vishnu manifests the
relevant parts of himself that are needed anytime he is required to fight evil
and protect Dharma or the cosmic law of Hinduism. Among Vishnu’s roles is to
return the universe to peace during troubled times, to restore cosmic order,
and preserve the balance of good and evil. Therefore, whenever there is a
threat of evil or chaos and destruction ensues, Vishnu reveals himself in the
form of an avatar or incarnation.
Circular Dashavatara Panel
Vishnu has ten primary avatars, which are
known as the Dashavatara:
The first avatar is the Matsya,
which is in the form of a fish that some Hindus have come to believe is similar
to Noah in the Catholic bible.
The second avatar is the Kurma
that is a turtle or tortoise. This relates to the churning of the milky ocean,
which is the story that explains how the gods defeated the demons and achieved
Next is the Varaha in the form
of a boar or pig. It is in this incarnation that Vishnu recovered the stolen
Vedas or holy scriptures.
The Narasimha is the fourth
avatar of Vishnu that takes the shape of a half lion and half man. Vishnu took
this form in order to vanquish a demon that had shown immunity to the attacks
of men, beasts, and gods.
Vishnu’s fifth avatar is the
Vamana, which is a dwarf god or sage that has the ability to grow. As a dwarf,
Vishnu used his small size to trick the evil demon Bali into giving Vishnu as
much of his empire as Vishnu could reach within three steps. Upon taking the
first step, Vishnu grew so large that by his third step, he had covered the
earth and the heavens and returned them to the gods.
Narasimha - The Fourth Incarnation of Lord Vishnu
The sixth avatar is Parasurama,
which is a fierce man, hunter or warrior. It is in this incarnation that Vishnu
removes irreligious and sinful monarchs from the earth.
Rama, considered the greatest
warrior and the ideal man, is the seventh avatar of Vishnu. In the form of
Rama, Vishnu kills the demon King Ravana, who abducted his wife, Sita.
The eighth avatar is known as Krishna who is a mentally advanced man. In fact, Krishna is the hero of the epic
Mahabharata and is well-known for delivering his message, the Baghavad Gita.
The second to the last among
the ten avatars is that of Buddha, who is considered the all-knowing one.
However, in other Hindu traditions, Buddha is replaced by Balarma as an
incarnation of Vishnu.
Last of the ten avatars is
Kalki who is portrayed as a person seated on a white horse in earth. Kalki is
the incarnation who is foreseen to end the Kali Yuga, which is a period in the
cycle of existence.
Dashavatara : Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu (From Left - Matshya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vaman, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Balarama and Kalki)
Among all the avatars of Vishnu, the ones
that are considered to be the most important are Rama, who is the subject of
the great epic Ramayana, and Krishna, the hero of the Mahabharata.
While Vishnu is believed to represent
Sattva or goodness and preservation, he has both benevolent, as well as violent
and fearsome depictions. With all his names, avatars, and depictions, Vishnu’s
most popular icon shows him as a man with dark blue or black colored skin,
having four arms, who is well-dressed and adorned with jewels, particularly the
Kaustubha, which is the large jewel around his neck. In his four hands, Vishnu
is portrayed as holding objects which represent those that he is responsible
In his left back hand, Vishnu holds a
spiral conch shell, known as the Panchajanya, which represents the cyclical and
interconnected nature of existence. The conch shell also produces the “om”
sound, which is the primordial sound of creation. In his right back hand,
Vishnu clutches a Sudarshana, which is a war discus or chakra. This represents
Vishnu’s role of restoring Dharma and cosmic equilibrium, even if it means
having to go to war. In Vishnu’s left front hand is a lotus flower which is a
symbol for liberation, glorious existence, purity, and transcendence. Finally,
in Vishnu’s right front hand is a mace, called the Kaumodaki, which signifies
mental and physical strength, as well as authority and the power of knowledge.
Vishnu Lakshmi Seated on Sheshanaga
Portrayals of Vishnu show him in different
positions. In some icons, Vishnu is standing on a lotus flower with his consort,
Lakshmi, nearby. In other instances, Vishnu is portrayed sitting in a yoga
position. There are also other depictions that illustrate Vishnu reclining on
the coils of a serpent, while surrounded by the milky ocean and with Lakshmi
massaging his feet. In this portrayal, Vishnu is said to be in the midst of dreaming
the universe into reality. Yet another depiction of Vishnu has him riding the
king of the birds, which is an eagle named Garuda that serves as his vahana or
his vehicle in the world.
48" Half Vishnu & Half Lakshmi (Lakshmi Narayana) | Handmade | Madhuchista Vidhana (Lost-Wax) | Panchaloha Bronze from Swamimalai
With his role as protector and preserver, many
Hindus today regard Vishnu as the most important of all the gods. It is not
surprising that there are thousands of temples all over India dedicated to the
worship of Vishnu.
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