Vishnu (left) and Lakshmi on Shesha Naga, ca 1870
|Weapon||Sudarshana Chakra and the Kaumodaki|
Vishnu (IAST: viṣṇu, Devanagari: विष्णु) is the Supreme God in the Vaishnavite tradition of Hinduism. Smarta followers of Adi Shankara, among others, venerate Vishnu as one of the five primary forms of God. He is exalted as the highest God in Śruti like the Taittiriya Shakha and the Bhagavad Gita.
The Vishnu Sahasranama declares Vishnu as Paramatma (supreme soul) and Parameshwara (supreme God). It describes Vishnu as the All-Pervading essence of all beings, the master of—and beyond—the past, present and future, the creator and destroyer of all existences, one who supports, sustains and governs the Universe and originates and develops all elements within.
In the Puranas, Vishnu is described as having the divine colour of clouds (dark-blue), four-armed, holding a lotus, mace, conch and chakra (wheel). Vishnu is also described in the Bhagavad Gita as having a 'Universal Form' (Vishvarupa) which is beyond the ordinary limits of human perception.
The Puranas also describe each of the Dasavatara of Vishnu. Among these ten principal avatars described, nine have occurred in the past and one will take place in the future, at the end of Kali Yuga. In the commentary of creator Brahma in Vishnu Sahasranamam, he refers to Vishnu as "Sahasrakoti Yuga Dharine", which means that these incarnations take place in all Yugas in cosmic scales. The Bhagavad Gita mentions their purpose as being to rejuvenate Dharma and vanquish negative forces as also to display His divine pastimes in front of the conditioned/fallen souls. In almost all Hindu denominations, Vishnu is either worshiped directly or in the form of his ten avatars, such as Rama and Krishna.
The Trimurti (English: ‘three forms’; Sanskrit: trimūrti) 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 been called "the Hindu triad" or the "Great Trinity". Of the three members of the Trimurti, the Bhagavata Purana, which espouses the Vaishnavite viewpoint, explains that the greatest benefit can be had from Vishnu.
The traditional Sanskrit explanation of the name Viṣṇu involves the root viś, meaning "to settle, to enter", or also (in the Rigveda) "to pervade", and a suffix nu, translating to approximately "the All-Pervading One". An early commentator on the Vedas, Yaska, in his Nirukta, defines Vishnu as 'vishnu vishateh; one who enters everywhere', and 'yad vishito bhavati tad vishnurbhavati; that which is free from fetters and bondages is Vishnu.'
Adi Sankara in his commentary on Vishnu Sahasranama, the thousand names of Vishnu, states derivation from this root, with a meaning "presence everywhere" ("As he pervades everything, vevesti, he is called Visnu",). Vishnu itself is the second name in the sahasranama. 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 which pervades everything is Vishnu.
The number of auspicious qualities of Vishnu as the supreme God are countless, with the following six qualities being the most important:
In the Rigveda, Vishnu is mentioned 93 times. He is frequently invoked alongside other deities, especially Indra, who he helps in killing Vritra, and with whom he drinks Soma. His companionship with Indra is reflected by his later titles Indrānuja and "Upendra", both referring to Vishnu as being the brother of Indra. Vishnu is called Upendra because he appeared in the family of Aditi (Indra's mother) in one of his incarnations, Vamana. His distinguishing characteristic in the Vedas is his association with light. This association is found because the lord is indifferent from the Divine Bhramjyoti, which is the cause of material as well as spiritual effulgence.
One celebrated act of Vishnu in the Rigveda is the 'three steps' by which he strode over the universe and in three places planted his step. The 'Vishnu Sukta' of the Rig Veda (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:
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 traverses in his strides both vertically and horizontally.
In hymns I.22.17, 1.154.3, 1.154.4 he strides across the earth with three steps, in VI.49.13 , VII.100.3 strides across the earth three times and in I.154.1,I.155.5,VII.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 said to have made dwelling for men possible, the three being a symbolic representation of its all-encompassing nature. This all-enveloping nature and benevolence to men were to remain the enduring attributes of Vishnu. As the triple-strider he is known as Tri-vikrama and as Uru-krama for the strides were wide.
In some Rigvedic hymns, Indra seeks the help of Vishnu in destroying Vritra, indicating that he is not sufficient to accomplish it on his own.
In another interpretation, the characteristic of Vishnu as the supreme God appeared much earlier in the Vedic texts. For example, the following Vedic hymns express that point of view:
The foreword of P. Sankaranarayan's translation of Vishnu sahasranama, Bhavan's Book University, cites Rig Veda V.I.15b.3, for the importance of chanting Vishnu's name, "O ye who wish to gain realization of the supreme truth, utter the name of Vishnu at least once in the steadfast faith that it will lead you to such realization."
The general view is that Vedas place Indra in considerably superior position to Vishnu. Several hymns in Vedas explicitly subordinates Vishnu. As per the English translations of the Rigveda, Vishnu always extols and lauds the Majesty of Indra. He sings the praise of Indra. The eighth mandala of Rigveda clearly says that Vishnu derived his energy from Indra. The three steps of Vishnu was possible only because he derived his energy from Indra.
However, Jon Gonda, 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' success possible.
Moreover, even when Vishnu is described as subordinate to Indra, such a description is found in only the hymns to Indra, but in a kathenotheistic religion like the Rig Vedas, each god, for the time being, is supreme in the mind of the devotee. Vishnu is not a mere sacrificial deity; he is a God who lives in the highest celestial region, compared with those who live in the atmospheric or terrestrial regions; Moreover, Vishnu is a god who is content with mere prayer, unlike almost all of the other gods who receive sacrificial offerings such as havis or soma.
In the Rigveda, Shakala shakha: Aitareya Brahmana Verse 1 : "Agnir vai devānām avamo Viṣṇuḥ paramas, tadantareṇa sarvā anyā devatā" declares that Agni is the lowest or youngest god and Vishnu is the greatest and the oldest God. In the Brahmanas, the supremacy of Lord Vishnu is clearly announced. Here He is repeatedly addressed as "Yajnapati" or the one whom all the sacrifices are meant to please. Even if the sacrifices are offered to the demigods, Lord Vishnu is the one who accepts the sacrifice and allots the respective fruits to the performer. There is mention of one such incident where a demoniac person performs a sacrifice by abducting the rsis forcefully. The sacrifice was meant to bring about the destruction of Indra. But the rsis,who used to worship indra as a demigod were intelligent enough to alter a single pronunciation of the ved-mantra. The purpose of the entire sacrifice was reversed. When the fruit of the sacrifice was given, as in when the demon was on the verge of dying, he clearly calls out to lord 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.
Sayana writes that Aitareya Brahmana 1-1-1 ("Agnir vai devānām avamo Viṣṇuḥ paramas,tadantareṇa sarvā anyā devatā") doesn't indicate any hierarchy among gods. Even in Rigveda Samhita, where 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 ; for he represents (in the Rigveda) the sun in its daily and yearly course. The words 'avama' and 'parama' is to be understood as 'First' and 'Last' respectively. To prove this meaning to be the true one, Sayana adduces the mantra (1,4. As'val. Sr. S. 4, 2), agnir mukham prathamo devatanam samgathanam 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 avarardhya (instead of avama), and Visnu parardhya(instead of parama),i.e., belonging to the lower and higher halves (or forming the lower and higher halves).
Prof.Muller says "Although the gods are sometimes distinctly invoked as the great and the small, the young and the old (Rv. i. 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 slave of 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" .
The oldest of the Upanishads, that form the philosophical culmination of the Vedas, are dated to the 7th or 8th centuries BCE. The upanishads,right from Gopal tapani upanishad to the Brhad ranya upanishad state His Godhood.The Katha-upanishad, describes Vishnu in supremacy -
He who has no understanding, who is unmindful and always impure, never reaches that place, but enters into the round of births. But he who has understanding, who is mindful and always pure, reaches indeed that place, from whence he is not born again. But he who has understanding for his charioteer (intellect), and who holds the reins of the mind, he reaches the end of his journey, and that is the highest place of Vishnu.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, teaches Arjuna the nature of the Supreme being and the different processes of Yoga, ultimately culminating in devotional surrender, similar to that of the catursloki of the Bhagavata Purana.
The Viṣṇu Smṛti (700-1000CE) is one of the latest books of the Dharmaśāstra tradition of Hinduism and also the only one which does not deal directly with the means of knowing dharma, focusing instead on the bhakti tradition and requiring daily puja to the god Viṣṇu. It is also known for its handling of the controversial subject of the practice of sati (the burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre). The text was not actually composed by the sage Viṣṇu himself, but rather by an individual or group writing much after his death. This group brought together a collection of all of the commonly known legal maxims which were attributed to the sage Viṣṇu into one book as the Indian oral culture began to be recorded more formally.
Vishnu takes form as an all-inclusive deity, known as Purusha or Mahāpurusha, Paramātma [Supreme Soul], Antaryāmi [In-dweller], and he is the Sheshin [Totality] in whom all souls are contained.
Vishnu is the only Bhagavan (which in Sanskrit means "possessing bhāga Divine Glory"), as declared in the Bhagavata 1.2.11 in the verse: "vadanti tat tattva-vidas tattvam yaj jnanam advayam brahmeti paramatmeti bhagavan iti sabdyate". The meaning of the verse is as follows: "Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this nondual substance Brahman, Paramatma and Bhagavan.
Vishnu possesses six such divine glories, namely,
However, the actual number of auspicious qualities of Vishnu is countless, with the above-mentioned six qualities being the most important. 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 Sringara 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 called Trivikrama.) The Sanskrit for "to stride" is the root kram; its reduplicated perfect tense 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.
In Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a school of Vaishnavism, the Satvata-tantra describes three different forms, or aspects, of Vishnu as Maha Vishnu, Garbhodaksayi Vishnu and Kshirodakasayi Vishnu, with each form having a different role in the maintenance of the Universe and its inhabitants:
"For material creation, Lord Krishna's plenary expansion assumes three Vishnus. The first one, Maha-Vishnu, creates the total material energy, known as the mahat-tattva. The second, Garbhodakasayi Vishnu, enters into all the universes to create diversities in each of them. The third, Kshirodakasayi Vishnu, is diffused as the all-pervading Supersoul in all the universes and is known as Paramatma. He is present even within the atoms. Anyone who knows these three Vishnus can be liberated from material entanglement."
In Sri Vaishnavism, another school, Vishnu assumes five forms:
See also Pañcaratra
During the Vedic period, both Vishnu and Shiva (as identified with Rudra) played relatively minor roles, but by the time of the Brahmanas (c. 1000-700 BCE), both were gaining ascendance. By the Puranic period, both deities had major sects that competed with one another for devotees. Many stories developed showing different types of relationships between these two important deities.
Sectarian groups each presented their own preferred deity as supreme. Vishnu in his myths "becomes" Shiva. The Vishnu Purana (4th c. CE) shows Vishnu awakening and becoming both Brahmā to create the world and Shiva to destroy it. Shiva also is viewed as a manifestation of Vishnu in the Bhagavata Purana. In Shaivite myths, on the other hand, Shiva comes to the fore and acts independently and alone to create, preserve, and destroy the world. In one Shaivite myth of the origin of the lingam, both Vishnu and Brahmā are revealed as emanations from Shiva's manifestation as a towering pillar of flame. The Śatarudrīya, a Shaivite hymn, says that Shiva is "of the form of Vishnu". Differences in viewpoints between the two sects are apparent in the story of Śarabha (also spelled "Sharabha"), the name of Shiva's incarnation in the composite form of man, bird, and beast. Shiva assumed that unusual form to chastise Vishnu in his hybrid form as Narasimha, the man-lion, who killed Hiranyakashipu, an ardent devotee of Shiva. However, Vaishnava followers including Dvaita scholars, such as Vijayindra Tirtha (1539–95) dispute this view of Narasimha based on their reading of Sattvika Puranas and Śruti texts.
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. An example of a collaboration story is one given to explain Shiva's epithet Mahābaleśvara, "lord of great strength" (Maha = "great", Bala = "strength", Īśvara = "lord"). This name refers to a story in which Rāvaṇa was given a linga as a boon by Shiva on the condition that he carry it always. During his travels, he stopped near the present Deoghar in Jharkhand to purify himself and asked Narada, a devotee of Vishnu in the guise of a Brahmin, to hold the linga for him, but after some time, Narada put it down on the ground and vanished. When Ravana returned, he could not move the linga, and it is said to remain there ever since. The story of Gokarna in Karnataka is also similar in that Ravana, on the way to Lanka from Kailasa, gave the lingam to Ganesha to keep until he bathes, but Ganesha fits it in the earth, so the lingam is called Mahabaleshwara.
Vishnu's consort is Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Maya is the samvit (the primary intelligence) of Vishnu, while the other five attributes emerge from this samvit and hence Maya is his ahamata, activity, or Vishnu's Power. This power of God, Maya or Shakti, is personified and is called Shri or Lakshmi, Maya, Vishnumaya, or Mahamaya, and She is said to manifest Herself in, 1) kriyāshakti, (Creative Activity) and 2) bhütishakti (Creation) of Universe. Hence this world cannot part with his creativity i.e., ahamta, which is a feminine form which in its feminine form is called Shri or Lakshmi or Maya. He therefore needs consort Goddess Lakshmi to be with Him always, untouched by any. Thus goddess Lakshmi has to accompany Vishnu in all His incarnations.
Vishnu is also associated with Bhudevi or Prithvi, the earth goddess; Tulsi; Ganga, goddess of river Ganges and also Saraswati, goddess of learning. In the Brahma Vaivarta Purana, verses 2.6.13-95 it is described that Vishnu has three wives, who constantly quarrel with each other, so that eventually, he keeps only Lakshmi, giving Ganga to Shiva and Saraswati to Brahma.
Vishnu's vehicle is Garuda, the eagle, and he is commonly depicted as riding on his shoulders. Another name of him is "Veda-Atma" or The Soul of the Vedas and Vedic truth.
As Guru Kshethram, the guru of the devas, he is the arch-enemy of Shukra, the guru of the Asuras.
Vishnu is always to be depicted holding the four attributes associated with him, being:
To this may be added, conventionally, the vanamaala flower garland and Vishnu's bow, the Shaarnga, 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 is depicted in one of the following three ways:
Reviewers linked the imagery of the blue-skinned Na'vi in James Cameron's Avatar film to Vishnu as one of their possible conceptual prototypes, and called his traditional depiction on Garuda "'Avatar' prequel".
There are ten avatars of Vishnu (dashavatara) commonly considered as the most prominent:
Some versions of the above list include Hayagriva amongst the Dasavataras. Apart from the above mentioned ten principal avatars, another 22 avatars are also given in Chapter 3, Canto 1 of the Bhagavata Purana. Following this list the Bhagavatam states that as well as these avatars "the incarnations of the Lord are innumerable, like rivulets flowing from inexhaustible sources of water".
Vishnu has a large number of names and followers that are collected in the Vishnu sahasranama ("Vishnu's thousand names") from within the larger work Mahabharata. The character Bhishma recites the names before Krishna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, praising him (Vishnu) as the supreme god. These Sahasranama are regarded as 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 are:
VISHNU (Sanskrit, "the worker," from root vish, "to work"), a solar deity, in later Hindu mythology a god of the first importance, one of the supreme trinity with Brahma and Siva, but in the Rig Veda only a minor deity. In the Vedic scriptures his only anthropomorphic characteristics are the frequently mentioned strides that he takes, and his being a youth vast in body. His essential feature is the three strides (vi-kram) with which he traverses the universe. Two of these steps are visible to men, but the third or highest is beyond mortal sight. These steps are symbolic of the rising, culminating and setting of the sun, or alternatively the course of the solar deity through the three divisions of the universe. To-day Vishnu is adored by the Vishnavite sects as the equal or even the superior of Brahma, and is styled the Preserver. He is represented with four arms, and black in colour; in one hand he holds a club and in the others a shell, a discus and a lotus respectively. He rides on the Garuda, half man and half bird, having the head, wings, beak and talons of an eagle, and human body and limbs, its face being white, its wings red and its body golden. In his character as preserver of men Vishnu has from time to time become incarnate to rid the world of some great evil (see also Brahmanism and Hinduism).
Vishnu is one of the three main gods in Hinduism. Vaishnavas believe that Vishnu is the highest God. Vishnu is the preserver god, which means he protects the earth from being destroyed and keeps it going, according to this religion, and he has come to earth in nine forms (called avatars) so far, with one yet to come. His most famous forms are Rama and Krishna. Vishnu's wife is Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of fortune.
Vishnu is usually shown with light blue skin and four arms.
There are ten avatars of Vishnu (in the order they appeared):
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