Ten Incarnations And Thousand Names : The Glory Of Sri Vishnu

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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.

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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.

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 immortality.

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.

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.

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 for.

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. 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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