|Affiliation||Supreme Being, Supreme God, Trimurti|
|Abode||Vaikuntha, Ksheera Sagara|
|Mantra||Om Vishnave Namah, Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaye, Om Namo Narayanaye, Om Sri Hari Vishnu, Hari Om|
|Weapon||Sudarshana Chakra, Kaumodaki gada|
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Vishnu (//; Sanskrit: Viṣṇu) is a popular Hindu deity. He is the Supreme God of Vaishnavism, one of the three most influential denominations in contemporary Hinduism. He is also known as Lord Narayana, the Supreme God and also known as Lord Hari. He is one of the five primary forms of God in the Smarta tradition, and "the Preserver" among the Trimurti, the Hindu Trinity of the primary aspects of the divine.
In Hindu sacred texts, Vishnu is usually described as having dark complexion of water-filled clouds and as having four arms. He is depicted as a blue being, holding a padma (lotus flower) in the lower left hand, the Kaumodaki gada (mace) in the lower right hand, the Panchajanya shankha (conch) in the upper left hand and the discus weapon Sudarshana Chakra in the upper right hand.
Adherents of Hinduism believe Vishnu's eternal and supreme abode beyond the material universe is called Vaikuntha, which is also known as Paramdhama, the realm of eternal bliss and happiness and the final or highest place for liberated souls who have attained Moksha. Vaikuntha is situated beyond the material universe and hence, cannot be perceived or measured by material science or logic. Vishnu's other abode within the material universe is Ksheera Sagara (the ocean of milk), where he reclines and rests on Ananta Shesha, (the king of the serpent deities, commonly shown with a thousand heads). In almost all Hindu denominations, Vishnu is either worshipped directly or in the form of his ten avatars, the most famous of whom are Rama and Krishna. The Puranabharati, an ancient text, describes these as the dashavatara, or the ten avatars of Vishnu. Among the ten described, nine have occurred in the past and one will take place in the future as Lord Kalki, at the end of Kali Yuga, (the fourth and final stage in the cycle of yugas that the world goes through). These incarnations take place in all Yugas in cosmic scales; the avatars and their stories show that gods are indeed unimaginable, unthinkable and inconceivable. The Bhagavad Gita mentions their purpose as being to rejuvenate Dharma, to vanquish those negative forces of evil that threaten dharma, and also to display His divine nature in front of all souls.
The Trimurti (three forms) is a concept in Hinduism "in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the maintainer or preserver, and Shiva the destroyer or transformer." These three deities have also been called "the Hindu triad" or the "Great Trinity", all having the same meaning of three in One. They are the different forms or manifestation of One person the Supreme Being or Narayana/Svayam Bhagavan.
Vishnu is also venerated as Mukunda, which means God who is the giver of mukti or moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirths) to his devotees or the worthy ones who deserve salvation from the material world.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Sacred texts - Shruti and Smriti
- 3 Shruti
- 4 Smriti
- 5 Sangam literature
- 6 Theological attributes
- 7 Relations with deities
- 8 Iconography
- 9 Avatars
- 10 Beyond Hinduism
- 11 Thousand names of Vishnu
- 12 In popular culture
- 13 See also
- 14 References
- 15 Further reading
- 16 External links
The traditional explanation of the name Vishnu involves the root viś, meaning "to settle" (cognate with Latin vicus, English -wich "village," Slavic: vas -ves), or also (in the Rigveda) "to enter into, to pervade," glossing the name as "the All-Pervading One". Yaska, an early commentator on the Vedas, in his Nirukta, (etymological interpretation), defines Vishnu as viṣṇur viṣvater vā vyaśnoter vā, "one who enters everywhere". He also writes, atha yad viṣito bhavati tad viṣnurbhavati, "that which is free from fetters and bondages is Vishnu".
Adi Sankara in his commentary on the Sahasranama states derivation from viś, with a meaning "presence everywhere" ("As he pervades everything, vevesti, he is called Vishnu"). Adi Sankara states (regarding Vishnu Purana, 3.1.45): "The Power of the Supreme Being has entered within the universe. The root viś means 'enter into'." Swami Chinmayananda, in his translation of Vishnu Sahasranama further elaborates on that verse: "The root vis means to enter. The entire world of things and beings is pervaded by Him and the Upanishad emphatically insists in its mantra 'whatever that is there is the world of change.' Hence, it means that He is not limited by space, time or substance. Chinmayananda states that, that which pervades everything is Vishnu."
Sacred texts - Shruti and Smriti
Shruti is considered to be solely of divine origin. It is preserved as a whole, instead of verse by verse. It includes the four Vedas (Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda) the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads with commentaries on them.
Smṛti refers to all the knowledge derived and inculcated after Shruti had been received. Smrti is not 'divine' in origin, but was 'remembered' by later Rishis (sages by insight, who were the scribes) by transcendental means and passed down through their followers. It includes the Bhagavata Purana and the Vishnu Purana which are Sattva Puranas. These both declare Vishnu as Para Brahman Supreme Lord who creates unlimited universes and enters each one of them as Lord of Universe.
In the Yajur Veda, Taittiriya Aranyaka (10-13-1), Narayana suktam, Lord Narayana is mentioned as the supreme being. The first verse of Narayana Suktam mentions the words "paramam padam", which literally mean "highest post" and may be understood as the "supreme abode for all souls". This is also known as Param Dhama, Paramapadam, or Vaikuntha. Rig Veda 1:22:20a also mentions the same "paramam padam". This special status is not given to any deity in the Vedas apart from Lord Vishnu/Narayana. Narayana is one of the thousand names of Vishnu as mentioned in the Vishnu Sahasranama. It describes Vishnu as the All-Pervading essence of all beings, the master of—and beyond—the past, present and future, one who supports, sustains and governs the Universe and originates and develops all elements within. This illustrates the omnipresent characteristic of Vishnu. Vishnu governs the aspect of preservation and sustenance of the universe, so he is called "Preserver of the universe".
Vishnu is the Supreme God who takes manifest forms or avatars across various ages or periods to save humanity from evil beings, demons or Asuras. According to the extant Hindu texts and traditions, Lord Vishnu is considered to be resident in the direction of the "Makara Rashi" (the "Shravana Nakshatra"), which is about coincident with the Capricorn constellation. In some of the extant Puranas, and Vaishnava traditions, Vishnu's eye is considered to be situated at the infinitely distant Southern Celestial Pole.
Following the defeat of Indra and his displacement as the Lord of Heaven or Swarga, Indra asks Lord Vishnu for help and thus Lord Vishnu takes his incarnations or avatars to Earth to save mankind, thus showing his position as Supreme God to all of creation.
In the Puranas, Indra frequently appears proud and haughty. These bad qualities are temporarily removed when Brahma and/or Shiva give boons to Asuras or Rakshasas such as Hiranyaksha, Hiranyakashipu and Ravana, who are then able to defeat Indra in wars between Devas and Asuras. The received boons often made Asuras virtually indestructible.
Indra has no option but to seek help from Vishnu. Indra prays before Vishnu for protection and the Supreme Lord obliges him by taking avatars and generating himself on Earth in various forms, first as a water-dweller (Matsya, fish), then as an amphibious creature (Kurma avatar or Tortoise), then as a half-man-half-animal (Varaha the pig-faced, human-bodied Lord, and Narasimha the Lord with lion's face and claws and a human body). Later, Vishnu appears as human beings (Vamana the short-heighted person), Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Buddha and finally as Kalki for performing his task of protecting his devotees from demons and anti-religious entities.
Vishnu's supremacy is attested by his victories over those very powerful entities. It is further attested by the accepted iconography and sculptures of Vishnu in reclining position as producing Brahma emerging from his navel. Brahma the creator is thus created in turn by Vishnu out of his own person. Instead Vishnu takes various avatars to slay or defeat those demons. But it is to be noted that Vishnu also provided boons to Akupresura, a bear faced demon who was destroyed by Lord Shiva.
Vishnu's actions lowered Indra's ranking among Hindu deities and led to the ascendancy of Vishnu.
Few temples are dedicated to the Sun or Suryanarayana, nor indeed Indra, nor does Indra figure largely in the Hindu religion.
Indra is almost completely absent from the deities considered as the chief or most important deity.
In the Rigveda, Vishnu is mentioned 93 times. He is frequently invoked alongside other deities, especially Indra, whom he helps in killing Vritra and with whom he drinks Soma. His distinguishing characteristic in the Vedas is his association with light. Two Rigvedic hymns in Mandala 7 are dedicated to Vishnu. In 7.99, Vishnu is addressed as the god who separates heaven and earth, a characteristic he shares with Indra.
The Rig Veda describes Vishnu as younger brother to Indra as Vamana. In Vaishnava canon the 'Vishnu' who is younger brother to Indra is identified as Vamana, Avatar of Vishnu, hence referred to as Vishnu by Vaishnavites. Vishnu is the Supreme God who lives in the highest celestial region, contrasted against those who live in the atmospheric or terrestrial regions. Vishnu is content with mere prayer, unlike almost all of the other gods who receive sacrificial offerings such as Havis, which is given using clarified butter, or Soma. Later foreign translators have view that Vedas place Indra in a superior position to Vishnu's Avatar of Vamana but in fact Vamana helps Indra by restoring his Kingdom.
An alternate translation is provided by Wilson according to Sayana:
When Thy (younger brother) Viṣṇu (Vamana) by (his) strength stepped his three paces, then verily thy beloved horses bore thee. (Rigveda 8:12:27)
Wilson mentions Griffith's possible translation as a footnote. However the following verse from Rigveda renders the above translation by Wilson more probable.
Him whose three places that are filled with sweetness, imperishable, joy as it may list them, Who verily alone upholds the threefold, the earth, the heaven, and all living creatures. (Rig veda 1:154:4)
Wilson offers an alternate translation for Rigveda 10:113:2:
Viṣṇu offering the portion of Soma, glorifies by his own vigor that greatness of his. Indra, the lord of heaven, with the associated gods having slain Vritra, became deserving of honour. (Rigveda 10:113:2)
This verse sees Vishnu as one who is glorified by his own strength, while Indra became deserving of honor after having slain Vritra only in association with other gods.
However Vishnu's praise for other gods does not imply worship. Wilson translates:
Viṣṇu, the mighty giver of dwellings praises thee, and Mitra and Varuna; the company of Maruts imitates thee in exhilaration. (Rigveda 8:15:9) (page 280)
The following verses show categorically Vishnu as distinguished from other gods in Rigveda.
He who presents (offering) to Viṣṇu, the ancient, the creator, the recent, the self-born; he who celebrates the great birth of that mighty one; he verily possessed of abundance, attains (the station) that is to be sought (by all). (Rigveda 1:156:2) (page 98)
No being that is or that has been born, divine Viṣṇu, has attained the utmost limit of thy magnitude, by which thou hast upheld the vast and beautiful heaven, and sustained the eastern horizon of Earth.(Rigveda 7:99:2) (page 196)
The divine Viṣṇu, the best of the doers of good deeds, who came to the pious instituter of rite (Indra), to assist (at its celebration), knowing (the desires of the worshiper), and present at the three connected period (of worship), shows favor to the Arya, and admits the author of the ceremony to a share of the sacrifice. (Rigveda 1:156:5) (page 99)
Jan Gonda, the late Indologist, states that Vishnu, although remaining in the background of Indra's exploits, contributes by his presence, or is key to Indra's success. Vishnu is more than a mere companion, equal in rank or power to Indra, or sometime the one who made Indra's success possible.
Descriptions of Vishnu as younger to Indra are found in only the hymns to Indra, but in a kathenotheism religion like that of the Rigveda, each god, for a time, is supreme in the mind of the devotee.
In the Rig Vedic texts, the deity or god referred to as Vishnu is the Sun God, who also bears the name 'Suryanarayana'. By contrast, the 'Vishnu' referred to in 'Vishnu Purana', 'Vishnu Sahasranamam' and 'Purusha Sooktham' is Lord Narayana, the Consort of Lakshmi. Vaishnavites make a further distinction by extolling the qualities of Vishnu by highlighting his differences from other deities such as Shiva, Brahma or Surya.
Hymn 7.100 refers to the celebrated 'three steps' of Vishnu (as Trivikrama) by which he strode over the universe and in three places planted his step. The 'Vishnu Suktam' (RV 1.154) says that the first and second of Vishnu's strides (those encompassing the earth and air) are visible to men and the third is in the heights of heaven (sky). This last place is described as Vishnu's supreme abode in RV 1.22.20:
The princes evermore behold / that loftiest place where Vishnu is / Laid as it were an eye in heaven.(trans. Griffith)
Griffith's "princes" are the sūri, either "inciters" or lords of a sacrifice, or priests charged with pressing the Soma. The verse is quoted as expressing Vishnu's supremacy by Vaishnavites.
Though such solar aspects have been associated with Vishnu by tradition as well as modern-scholarship, he was not just the representation of the sun, as he moves both vertically and horizontally.
In hymns 1.22.17, 1.154.3, 1.154.4 he strides across the earth with three steps, in 6.49.13, 7.100.3 strides across the earth three times and in 1.154.1, 1.155.5,7.29.7 he strides vertically, with the final step in the heavens. The same Veda also says he strode wide and created space in the cosmos for Indra to fight Vritra. By his stride he made dwelling for men possible, the three forming a symbolic representation of the dwelling's all-encompassing nature. This nature and benevolence to men were Vishnu's enduring attributes. As the triple-strider he is known as Trivikrama and as Urukrama, for the strides were wide.
The Brahmanas are commentaries on the Vedas and form part of the Shruti literature. They are concerned with the detail of the proper performance of rituals. In the Rigveda, Shakala Shakha: Aitareya Brahmana Verse 1 declares: agnir vai devānām ava mo viṣṇuḥ paramus, tadantareṇa sarvā anyā devatā - Agni is the lowest or youngest god and Vishnu is the greatest and the highest God.
The Brahmanas assert the supremacy of Lord Vishnu, addressing him as "Gajapati", the one whom all sacrifices are meant to please. Lord Vishnu accepts all sacrifices to the demigods and allots the respective fruits to the performer In one incident, a demonic person performs a sacrifice by abducting the Rishis (sages), who meditate by constantly chanting God's name. The sacrifice is meant to destroy Indra. But the rishis, who worship Indra as a demigod, alter one pronunciation of the Veda Mantra, reversing the purpose of the sacrifice. When the fruit of the sacrifice is given and the demon is on the verge of dying, he calls to Vishnu, whom he addresses as Supreme Godhead and "the father of all living entities including himself".
Aitareya Brahmana 1:1:1 mentions Vishnu as the Supreme God. But in the Vaishnava canon, in different ages, with Vishnu in different avatars, his relationship with the asuras or demons, was always adversarial. The asuras always caused harm, while the sages and devas or celestial beings, did penance and called to Vishnu for protection. Vishnu always obliged by taking an avatar to vanquish the asuras. In the Vaishnava canon, Vishnu never gave or granted any boons to the asuras, distinguishing him from the gods Shiva and Brahma, who did. He is the only God called upon to save good beings by defeating or killing the asuras.
Sayana writes that in Aitareya Brahmana 1:1:1 the declaration agnir vai devānām ava mo viṣṇuḥ paramus,tadantareṇa sarvā anyā devatā does not indicate any hierarchy among gods. Even in Rigveda Samhita, avama and parama are not applied to denote rank and dignity, but only to mark place and locality.
In Rigveda 1:108:9,: yadindrāghnī avamasyāṃ pṛthivyāṃ madhyamasyāṃ paramasyāmuta sthaḥ | i.e., in the lowest place, the middle (place), and the highest (place). Agni, the fire, has, among the gods, the lowest place; for he resides with man on the earth; while the other gods are either in the air, or in the sky. Vishnu occupies the highest place. The words avama and parama are understood as 'First' and 'Last' respectively. To support this claim, Sayana adduces the mantra (1,4. As'val. Sr. S. 4, 2), agnir mukham prathamo devathanam samathanam uttamo vishnur asit, i.e., Agni was the first of the deities assembled, (and) Vishnu the last.
In the Kausitaki Brahmana (7.1) Agni is called Aaradhya (instead of avama), and Visnu parardha(instead of parama),i.e., belonging to the lower and higher halves (or forming the lower and higher halves). The Vishnu Purana gives tremendous importance to the worship of Vishnu and mentions that sacrifices are to begin only with both the lighting of fire or 'Agni', pouring of sacrificial offerings to Vishnu in 'Agni' so that those offerings reach and are accepted by Vishnu. Worship of Vishnu through Yajnas (or Homams) and other rituals, will not achieve the desired result if Agni's role is neglected.
Muller says "Although the gods are sometimes distinctly invoked as the great and the small, the young and the old (Rig veda 1:27:13), this is only an attempt to find the most comprehensive expression for the divine powers, and nowhere is any of the gods represented as the subordinate to others. It would be easy to find, in the numerous hymns of the Veda, passages in which almost every single god is represented as supreme and absolute."
However this notion is not completely correct as per the following verses, which shows Rigveda describe one or more gods as subject to other god(s).
I invite to this place, with reverential salutations, for my good, that divine Savita, whose functions neither Indra, nor Varun.a, nor Mitra nor Aryaman nor Rudra nor the enemies (of the gods), impede. (Rigveda 2.038.09)
The Vishnu Smṛti, is one of the later books of the Dharmashastra tradition of Hinduism and the only one that focuses on the bhakti tradition and the required daily puja to Vishnu, rather than the means of knowing dharma. It is also known for its handling of the controversial subject of the practice of sati (self-immolation of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre). The text was composed by an individual or group. The author(s) created a collection of the commonly known legal maxims that were attributed to Vishnu into one book, as Indian oral culture began to be recorded more formally.
Vishnu is the only Bhagavan as declared in the Bhagavata 1:2:11 in the verse: vadanti tat tattva-vidas tattvam yaj jnanam advayam brahmeti paramatmeti bhagavan iti sabdyate, translated as "Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this non-dual substance as Brahman, Paramātma and Bhagavan."
- aiśvaryasya samagrasya vīryasya yaśasaḥ śriyaḥ
- jñāna-vairāgyayoś caiva ṣannāḥ bhaga itīṇganā
- jñāna-śakti-balaiśvarya-vīrya-tejām.sy aśeṣataḥ
- bhagavac-chabda-vācyāni vinā heyair guṇādibhiḥ
- "The substantives of the word bhagavat (bhagavat-śabda-vācyāni) are unlimited (aśeṣataḥ) knowledge (jñāna), energies (śakti), strength (bala), opulence (aiśvarya), heroism (vīrya), splendor (tejas), without (vinā) objectionable (heyair) qualities (guṇādibhiḥ)."
Tamil Sangam literature (300BCE to 500CE) mentions mAyOn, or the dark one, as the supreme deity who creates, sustains and destroys the universe. Paripadal 3 describes the glory of Thirumal in the most superlative terms.
Paripadal(3)by kaduvan iLaveyinanAr:
"thIyinuL theRal nI poovinuL naaRRa nI kallinuL maNiyu nI sollinuL vaaymai aRaththinuL anbu nI maRaththinuL mainthu nI vEthaththu maRai nI boothaththu madhalu nI vencudar oLiyu nI thingaLuL aLiyu nI anaiththu nI anaiththinut poruLu nI"
The last line states that Lord Vishnu is the supreme deity who is the inner controller (Antaryamin) of the entire universe. This is one of the Lord's glories, which is first mentioned in Vedas and later propounded by Alwars in Prabhandams and Sri Vaishnavaite Acharyas in various commentaries
āyiram viritteḻu talaiyuṭai aruntiṟaṟ
pāyaṟ paḷḷip palartoḻu tētta viritiraik kāviri viyaṉperu turuttit tiruvamar mārpaṉ kiṭanta vaṇṇamum
On a magnificent cot having a thousand heads spread out, worshipped and praised by many, in an islet surrounded by Kaveri with bellowing waves, is the lying posture of the one who has Lakshmi sitting in his chest
The actual number of Vishnu's auspicious qualities is countless, although his six most-important "divine glories" are:
- Jnana (Omniscience); defined as the power to know about all beings simultaneously;
- Aishvarya (Sovereignty), derived from the word Ishvara which means unchallenged rule over all;
- Shakti (Power or Energy), the capacity to make the impossible possible;
- Bala (Strength), the capacity to support everything by will and without any fatigue;
- Virya (Vigour), the power to retain immateriality as the Supreme Spirit or Being in spite of being the material cause of mutable creations;
- Tejas (Splendor), which expresses self-sufficiency and the capacity to overpower everything by spiritual effulgence.
Other important qualities attributed to Vishnu are Gambhirya (inestimatable grandeur), Audarya (generosity), and Karunya (compassion). Natya Shastra lists Vishnu as the presiding deity of the Sṛngara rasa.
The Rigveda says: Vishnu can travel in three strides. The first stride is the Earth. The second stride is the visible sky. The third stride cannot be seen by men and is the heaven where the gods and the righteous dead live. (This feature of three strides also appears in the story of his avatar Vamana/Trivikrama.) The Sanskrit for "to stride" is the root kram; its reduplicated perfect is chakram (guņa grade) or chakra (zero-grade), and in the Rigveda he is called by epithets such as vi-chakra-māņas = "he who has made 3 strides". The Sanskrit word chakra also means "wheel". That may have suggested the idea of Vishnu carrying a chakra.
- See also Pañcaratra
In Shree Vaishnavism, another school dating from around the 10th century AD, Vishnu assumes five forms:
- In the Para Form, Para is the highest form of Vishnu found only in Sri Vaikunta also called Moksha, along with his consort Lakshmi, (and Bhumi Devi and Nila devi, avatars of Lakshmi) and surrounded by liberated souls like Ananta, Garuda, and a host of Muktas (liberated souls).
- In the Vyuha form, Vishnu assumes four forms, which exercise different cosmic functions and controls activities of living beings.
- In the Vibhava form, Vishnu assumes various manifestations, called Vibhavas, more popularly known as Avataras from time to time, to protect the virtuous, punish evil-doers and re-establish righteousness.
- In the Antaryami; "Dwelling within" or "Suksma Vasudeva" form, Vishnu exists within the souls of all living beings and in every substance.
- In the Arcavatara or Image manifestation, Vishnu is visible and therefore easily approachable by devotees since Para, Vyuha, Vibhava and Antaryami forms can only be imagined or meditated upon because they are beyond our reach. Such images can be
- Revealed by Vishnu, for example, a self-manifested (Swayambhu) icon (murti), e.g. The Mahavishnu Temple at Tirunelli, The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple at Srirangam, The Tirumala Venkateshwara Temple, etc.; or
- Installed by Devas or celestial beings such as such as Guruvayur Temple installed by Vayu; or
- Installed by humans, and consecrated according to Vaishnava Agama shastras or scriptures such as Lord Jagannatha of Jagannath Temple (Puri) at Puri.
Relations with deities
The three gods of the Trimurti clan are inseparable and in harmony in view of their common vision and universal good. They are perfectly ideal in all respects.
Both Asuras and Devas played supportive roles in this story by keeping company with Vishnu in his incarnated forms. Hanuman is a vanara who is completely dedicated to Rama. He gives Vishnu company and obeys his command, while playing an important part in Rama's life. He is regarded in Vaishnava canon because it is through blessings that Hanuman is born. Thus, Hanuman, Vishnu's constant companion, with his idol appearing temples of Rama, Krishna and Narasimha, i.e. all of Vishnu's avatars, is considered by Vaishnavas.
Syncretic forces produced stories in which the two deities were shown in cooperative relationships and combined forms. Harihara is the name of a combined deity form of both Vishnu (Hari) and Shiva (Hara). This dual form, which is also called Harirudra, is mentioned in the Mahabharata.
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Vishnu's consort is Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth (also known as Maya). The Samvit (the primary intelligence/dark matter) of the universe is Vishnu, while the other five attributes emerge from this samvit and hence Maya or dark energy of the universe is Lakshmee is his ahamata, activity, or Vishnu's Power.This power of God, Maya or Shakti, is personified and has multiple names: Shree, Lakshmi, Maya, Vishnumaya or Mahamaya. She is said to manifest as Kriyashakti, (Creative Activity) and Bhutishakti (Creation). This world requires Vishnu's creativity. He therefore needs Lakshmi to always be with Him. Her various avatars as Lord Vishnu's consorts are Varahavatar (Bhoodevi) or Bhoomi, Ramavatar Seeta, Krishnavatar Rukmini)
Saraswati and Ganga
According to Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Lord Vishnu had three wives Lakshmi, Saraswati and Ganga. Due to their constant quarrelsome nature among them. Once Ganga tried to be close with Vishnu, this rebuked Saraswati but Lakshmi tried to pacify them but faced a curse rather. As per the curse, Lakshmi to appear as Tulasi. Sarawati cursed Ganga to run as a river in the world and Saraswati was cursed to run as a river in the netherworld. After this, Lord Vishnu transformed and became Brahma and Shiva to pacify Saraswati and Ganga.
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According to various Puranas, Vishnu is the ultimate omnipresent reality and is shapeless and omnipresent. However, a strict iconography governs his representation, whether in pictures, icons, or idols:
- He has four arms and is male: The four arms indicate his all-powerful and all-pervasive nature. His physical existence is represented by the two arms in the front, while the two arms at the back represent his presence in the spiritual world. The Upanishad Gopal Uttartapani describes the four arms.
- The Shreevatsa mark is on his chest, symbolizing his consort Lakshmi.
- He wears the auspicious "Kaustubha" jewel around his neck and a garland of flowers (Vanamala). Lakshmi dwells in this jewel, on Vishnu's chest.
- A crown adorns his head: The crown symbolizes his supreme authority. This crown sometimes includes a peacock feather, borrowing from his Krishna-avatar.
- He wears two earrings: The earrings represent inherent opposites in creation — knowledge and ignorance; happiness and unhappiness; pleasure and pain.
- He rests on Ananta, the immortal and infinite snake.
Vishnu is always to be depicted holding four attributes:
- A conch shell or Shankha, named Panchajanya, is held by the upper left hand. It represents Vishnu's power to create and maintain the universe. Panchajanya represents the five elements or Panchabhoota – water, fire, air, earth and sky or space. It also represents the five airs or Pranas that are within the body and mind. The conch symbolizes that Vishnu is the primeval Divine sound of creation and continuity. It also represented as Om. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna avatara states that of sound vibrations, 'He is Om'.
- The Chakra, a sharp, spinning, discus-like weapon, named "Sudarshana", is held by the upper right hand. It symbolizes the purified spiritualized mind. The name Sudarshana is derived from two words – Su, which means good, superior, and Darshana, which means vision or sight; together. The Chakra represents destruction of ego in the awakening and realization of the soul's original nature and god, burning away spiritual ignorance and illusion, and developing higher spiritual vision and insight to realize god.
- A mace or Gada, named "Kaumodaki", is held by the lower right hand. It symbolizes that Vishnu's divine power is the source of all spiritual, mental and physical strength. It also signifies Vishnu's power to destroy materialistic or demonic tendencies (Anarthas) that prevent people from reaching god. Vishnu's mace is the power of the Divine within us to spiritually purify and uplift us from our materialistic bonds.
- A lotus flower or Padma is held by the lower left hand. It represents spiritual liberation, Divine perfection, purity and the unfolding of Spiritual consciousness within the individual. The lotus opening its petals in the light of the Sun is indicative of the expansion and awakening of our long dormant, original spiritual consciousness in the light of god. The lotus symbolizes that god is the power and source from which the universe and the individual soul emerges. It also represents Divine Truth or Satya, the originator of the rules of conduct or Dharma, and Divine Vedic knowledge or Jnana. The lotus also symbolizes that Vishnu is the embodiment of spiritual perfection and purity and that He is the wellspring of these qualities and that the individual soul must seek to awaken these intrinsic Divine qualities from Vishnu by surrendering to and linking with Him.
To this may be added, conventionally, the vanamaala flower garland, Vishnu's bow (Shaarnga/Kodand) and his sword Nandaka. A verse of the Vishnu Sahasranama stotram states;vanamālī gadhī shārngī shanki chakri cha nandaki / shrīmān nārāyaņo vişņo vāsudevo abhirakşatu//; translation: Protect us Oh Lord Narayana who wears the forest garland,who has the mace, conch, sword and the wheel. And who is called Vishnu and the Vasudeva.
In general, Vishnu's body is depicted in one of the following three ways:
- Standing on a lotus flower, often with Lakshmi, his consort, beside him on a similar pedestal.
- Reclining on the coiled-up thousand-hooded Shesha Naga, with Lakshmi seated at his feet; the assemblage rests on the "Kshira Sagar" (ocean of milk). In this representation, Brahma is depicted as sitting on a lotus that grows out of Vishnu's navel.
- Riding on the back of his eagle mount, known as Garuda. Another name for Garuda is "Veda atma"; Soul of the Vedas. The flapping of his wings symbolizes the power of the Divine Truth of Vedic wisdom. Also the eagle represents the soul. Garuda carrying Vishnu symbolizes the soul or jiva atma carrying the Super soul or Param atma within it.
The most commonly believed incarnations of Vishnu are:
- Matsya, the fish that kills Damanaka to save the vedas and also saves Manu from a great flood that submerges the entire Earth.
- Kurma, the turtle that helps the Devas and Asuras churn the ocean for the nectar of immortality.
- Varaha, the boar that rescues the Earth and kills Hiranyaksha.
- Narasimha, the half-lion half human, who defeats the demon Hiranyakashipu.
- Vamana, the dwarf that grows into a giant to save the world from King Bali.
- Parashurama, "Rama of the battle axe", a sage who appeared in the Treta Yuga. He killed Kartavirya Arjuna's army and clan and then killed all the kshatriyas 21 times.
- Rama, the prince and king of Ayodhya who killed the Demon King Raavan.
- Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu.
- Buddha, the ninth avatar of Vishnu.
- Kalki, the tenth Avatar of Vishnu and said to be the harbinger of the end Kali Yuga.
Some versions of the above list include Hayagreeva among the Dashavataras while some include Buddha as ninth avatar of Vishnu. Another 22 avatars are given in Chapter 3, Canto 1 of the Bhagavata Purana, although it states that "the incarnations of the Lord are innumerable, like rivulets flowing from inexhaustible sources of water".
The true Vaishnaav, the devotee of Vishnu, is the one with whom God is thoroughly pleased. He dwells apart from Maya. Performing good deeds, he does not seek rewards. Spotlessly pure is the religion of such a Vaishnaav; he has no desire for the fruits of his labors. He is absorbed in devotional worship and the singing of Kirtan, the songs of the Lords Glory. Within his mind and body, he meditates in remembrance on the Lord of the Universe. He is kind to all creatures. He holds fast to the Naam, and inspires others to chant it. O Nanak, such a Vaishnaav obtains the supreme status.
While some Hindus consider Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, Buddhists in Sri Lanka venerate Vishnu as the custodian deity of Sri Lanka and protector of Buddhism. Lord Vishnu is also known as upulvan, or uthpala varna, meaning "Blue Lotus coloured".Some postulates that Uthpala varna was a local deity who later merged with Vishnu while another belief is that Uthpala Varna was an early form of Vishnu before he became a supreme deity in Puranic Hinduism. According to Chronicles "Mahawamsa", "Chulawamsa" and folklore in Sri Lanka, Buddha himself handed over the custodianship to Vishnu. Others believe that Buddha entrusted this task to Sakra(Indra) and Sakra delegated this task of custodianship to god Vishnu. In contrary to vedic Hinduism, in assimilation of Hindu god Vishnu into Sinhalese Buddhism, Vishnu becomes a mortal being and a Bodhisattva aspiring Buddhahood. Additionally, Vishnu is considered as the god of home and hearth representing mercy, goodness, order and stability. Many Buddhist and Hindu shrines are dedicated to Vishnu in Sri Lanka. In addition to specific Vishnu "Kovils" or "devalayas", all Buddhist temples necessarily house shrine rooms (Devalayas) closer to the main Buddhist shrine dedicated to Vishnu. John Holt in his groundbreaking study examines the assimilation, transformation, and subordination of the Hindu deity Vishnu within the contexts of Sri Lankan history and Sinhala Buddhist religious culture. He then explores the role and rationale of medieval Sinhala kings in assimilating Visnu into Sinhala Buddhism. According to Holt the veneration of Vishnu in Sri Lanka is evidence of a remarkable ability, over many centuries, to reiterate and reinvent culture as other ethnicities have been absorbed into their own. Though the Vishnu cult in Ceylon was formally endorsed by Kandyan kings in early 1700s, Holt states that vishnu images and shrines are among conspicuous ruins in the medieval capital Polonnaruwa. In Buddhist mythology,when Vishnu failed to traverse the universe in three steps,he was given the title "Ardha Vishnu (Half-Vishnu)" and when Vishnu banished demons from the Vaishali (Vishala)in India, he became "Mulu Vishnu or Whole Vishnu". The extreme significance of god Vishnu in Sinhala society is reflected in recitals of the traditional " Offerings to dwarfs and crossing the door frame (bahirwayanta dola pideem saha uluwahu peneema)" that starts with Sri Vishnu invocation.In the recitals,mentioning of the aspiring Buddhahood of Vishnu which is of prime importance to Buddhists and wishes for him to live five thousand and more years highlight the central role of Vishnu in the psyche of Sri Lankan Buddhists.
During an excavation in an abandoned village of Russia in the Volga region, archaeologist Alexander Kozhevin excavated an ancient idol of Vishnu. The idol dates from between the 7th and 10th centuries. In the interview Kozhevin, stated that, "We may consider it incredible, but we have ground to assert that Middle-Volga region was the original land of Ancient Rus. This is a hypothesis, but a hypothesis, which requires thorough research."
Thousand names of Vishnu
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Vishnu's many names and followers are collected in the Vishnu Sahasranama, (Vishnu's thousand names) from within the larger work Mahabharata. The character Bheeshma recites the names before Krishna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, praising him (Vishnu) as the supreme god. These Sahasranama are regarded as the essence of all Vedas by followers of Vaishnavism, who believe sincere chanting of Vishnu Sahasranama results in spiritual well-being and a greater awareness of God.
The names are generally derived from the Anantakalyanagunas (meaning: infinite auspicious attributes). Some names of Vishnu are:
- Achintya—Incomprehensible, beyond understanding, also interpreted as remover of all worries from devotees
- Amara—immortal, deathless
- Ananta—endless, eternal, infinite
- Anirudha—One who is uncontrollable & unstoppable, one amongst the quadruple form (Chatur-Vyuha) of Lord Vishnu (i.e. Vasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna, Aniruddha)
- Brynaam - One who nurtures the natural world
- Damodara—One who was tied with a cord (daama) around his waist (udara) in Krishna avatara by his mother Yasoda, One who has entire universe as his abode
- Govinda—One who is attainable by Vedic chanting, one who is finally known by vedas, Protector of cows
- Hari—One who takes away (all the pains & the material existence of his devotees and destroys sansara for them i.e. gives them moksha)
- Hayagreeva—horse-necked incarnation taken to save vedas
- Jagannatha —owner/Ruler of the world/universe
- Janardana—one who is worshiped for Wealth
- Keshava—one whose Kesa (hair) is long, uncut and beautiful, one who destroyed the asura or demon Keshi in the Krishna avatara, one who is himself the three: kah Brahma; ah Vishnu and Isha Shiva
- Kṛshna—born during the third epoch or yuga, his deeds range from cow protection (go rakshya) to absolving the earth of sins
- Madhava—Husband (Dhava) of Lakshmi (Ma i.e. Mother), Lord of Knowledge
- Madhusudana—Destroyer of demons Madhu-Kaitabh in order to rescue Brahma
- Narayana—The final refuge of all Nara (Jivas), one who resides (ayana) in all the jivas (nara), one who rests (ayana) on water (nara) within the universe
- Padmanabha—lotus-naveled one, from whose navel sprang the lotus which contained Brahma, who created the universe
- Parthasarathy—charioteer of Arjuna/Partha
- Perumal, Thirumaal, Aravamudhan and Maalavan (in Tamil language)
- Purushottama—The Supreme Purusha or Supreme God
- Ram—born during the second epoch or Yuga, his deeds primarily established the ideal living principles for a man
- Hrishikesha—Lord of the senses or Lord within the heart; "hri" root meaning the heart
- Satyanarayana—combination of Satya and Narayana meaning 'protector of truth'
- Shikhandee—He who wears a peacock feather.
- Sooryanarayana—the one who destroys the evil/sins and who comforts us) described in Vishnu kautuvam, One whose form is Sun
- Shreedhara—One who sustains Lakshmi (Shri), One on whose chest resides Lakshmi
- Shreeman—the pride of Shree or Lakshmi); Often Sriman is combined with the name, Narayana, to form a compound word, Shreeman Narayana.
- Shreenivasa—the abode of Shree) (also specifically referring to his form in the temple at Tirupati). Also the form of Vishnu at Tirupati is well known as Venkateswara.
- Trivikrama—who measured the entire universe in three footsteps in Vamana avatara
- Vishala—immense, The Unstoppable One
- Vamana—who took Vamana avatara to help Indra
- Vāsudeva—One who resides in all living beings and in turn all living beings reside in him, one amongst the quadruple form (Chatur-Vyuha) of Lord Vishnu (i.e. Vasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna, Aniruddha); it also means "the son of Vasudeva", i.e. Krishna
- Shree-eesha—one who has Shree or Lakshmi as his consort / Husband of Goddess Lakshmi
- Guruvayurappan—Lord of Guruvayur (Temple made by Guru Bṛhaspati & Vayu), in Malayalam language.
- Jagannatha—Lord of Jagat or the World.
- Sohama—the most intelligent: the strongest form of Vishnu with a thousand brains
According to the Siddhartha-samhita there are twenty-four forms of Lord Vishnu. The twenty-four forms are
Upulvan, Uthpala Varna - In Sri Lanka, Vishnu is also referred to as Upulvan ( Blue Lotus Coloured)
In popular culture
4034 Vishnu is an asteroid discovered by Eleanor F. Helin
Vishnu rocks are volcanic sediments in Grand canyon. Consequently, the mass formation is also being proclaimed as Vishnu temple.
Media related to Vishnu at Wikimedia Commons
- Keshava Namas
- Great Architect of the Universe
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