Hinduism is one of the most ancient religions in the world, today practiced by nearly a billion people in the world. Originally called “Sanatana Dharma” by Hindus, Hinduism is characterized by beliefs in “samsara” (reincarnation), “karma” (all actions have consequences), “moksha” (freedom from the cycle of reincarnation), aspects including the “yogas” and “vedas” from literary works such as the Upanishads and the Vedas, and the concept of multiplicity, or the ideology that there are multiple gods that represent one divine being. There are some Hindus that don’t necessarily believe in the concept of multiplicity. Instead they simply pick one god to worship. However, many Hindus believe in the Trinity: Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). Vishnu, in particular, was seen as a prominent figure in Hinduism for many generations because of his unique nature and reincarnations, and thus continues to be worshipped today.
Vishnu symbolizes the preserver, the protector, and the sustainer of the world created by Brahma as well as the law of the Vedas. Compared to other deities, he was believed to have a very collected and benevolent nature with his “central character as guardian, protector and preserver of the world” (Dimmit and van Buitenen 64). Vishnu is portrayed with having blue skin and four arms, and as dressed with extensive jewelry, flower garlands, a wrapped skirt, and a large crown. In the four hands, Vishnu carries a conch shell, a “chakra” (a discus), a lotus flower, and a club-like mace. Vishnu is also believed to live in heaven known as “Vaikuntha and floats somewhere in the sky above the seven heavens” (Dimmit and van Buitenen 61). Vishnu is believed to sleep in a cosmic ocean of milk, the bed he sleeps on being his serpent Anantha-Sesha. This sleeping form of Vishnu is known as Narayana. Narayana’s consort Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune and prosperity, massages his feet as he lies down on Anantha-Sesha. Lakshmi’s presence “balances his male intellect and spiritual sophistication with female physicality and passion” (Cummins et al. 79), essential to Vishnu and his performance. She repeatedly incarnated herself as consort to each of his avatars, for “Where he is, so is she” (Pattanaik 75). Vishnu’s vehicle is a loyal eagle named Garuda on which Vishnu travels. These unique characteristics of Vishnu are essential to his duty as the preserver and protector of the created world, helping him with “full control of time and space and subjective realities” according to Pattanaik (35). Not only did these defining aspects of Vishnu allow him to carry out his duties as the preserver, but his consecutive avatars allowed him to do so as well.
Throughout Vishnu’s continuing existence, Vishnu has reincarnated himself in order to carry out his duty of preserving and protecting the world as well as the law of the Vedas. In what is known as the “Dashavatar,” or the ten reincarnations of Vishnu (typically believed to be unique to Vishnu only), Hindus believe he has reincarnated himself already nine times and his tenth reincarnation is yet to come. Vishnu’s first avatar was a fish, known as Matsya Avatar. In this incarnation, Vishnu’s purpose is to save the Vedas as well as rescue a pious and devoted man as well as other creatures from an immense flood in order to ensure “the survival of life on Earth” (Cummins et al. 126), which is surprisingly similar to the story of Noah’s Ark. Through this avatar, it is evident how Vishnu symbolizes himself as a preserver and protector of the created world.
Vishnu’s next avatar was a turtle, known as Kurma. In this incarnation, Vishnu helps the gods, who were cursed by a sage named Durvasa for exhibiting pride because of wealth, fight against the demons. According to Pattanaik, Vishnu took on the form of Kurma to teach the lesson that “Wealth eludes the insecure” (59). Once again, through this avatar Vishnu’s role as a protector and preserver is evident as he protects the gods to help them regain and preserve their divine powers.
Vishnu takes on his third incarnation as a boar, known as Varaha, “at the request of the first ancestor of men” (Cummins et al. 135) when the demon Hiranyaksh sinks the earth goddess Bhu Devi to the bottom of the ocean and there is no land for humans to build their homes. According to Cummins et al., Indian hunters admired boars because of the animals’ strength, speed, and bravery, which is why Vishnu was believed to take on the form of Varaha to quickly track Bhu Devi, protect the earth once again, and to kill Hiranyaksh (135). Hiranyaksh’s brother, Hiranyakashipu, vows to avenge Hiranyaksh’s death by killing all Vishnu devotees and Vishnu himself. Ironically, however, Hiranyakashipu’s son Prahlada is a pious devotee of Vishnu. Vishnu, as a result, takes on the form of a lion, known as Narasimha and kills Hiranyakashipu to protect Prahlada and other pious devotees as well as preserve the world from wrathful demons such as Hiranyakashipu, once again carrying out his duty as the preserver and protector of the world.
The fifth avatar of Vishnu is known as Vamana or Trivikrama, which is Vishnu’s “first fully human avatar…who assumes the form of a dwarf…and initiated as a Brahmin youth” (Cummins et al. 151). As this avatar, Vishnu reclaims the earth, sky, and heavens in three enormous steps when King Bali exhibits arrogance to the gods. Vamana’s purpose was to teach that “Ignorance breeds insecurity and arrogance” (Pattanaik 91). Vishnu protects and preserves the earth and the Vedas once again by emphasizing the roles of each caste by expressing that “The Brahmin learns the veda; the ksatriya conquers earth; the vaisya wins wealth and prosperity; and the sudra gains happiness” (Dimmit and van Buitenen 82).
Vishnu took on the sixth incarnation as Parashurama, a Brahmin warrior who was characterized as carrying an axe. The purpose of this avatar was to “end the dominance of the Kshatriyas, the warrior caste, who had ‘taken to unrighteous ways’ and have become a burden on the earth” (Cummins et al. 159), once again completing Vishnu’s duty to preserve and protect the earth from unrighteousness.
Vishnu’s next incarnation is one of Hinduism’s most famous and prominent figures: Rama, “the greatest Kshatriya of all time, a model for all Hindu rulers” (Cummins et al. 162). Rama’s life story was described in the famous Hindu epic Ramayana, written by Valmiki between seventh and fourth centuries BCE. The purpose of taking the form of Rama was to get rid of the demon Ravana who pridefully was granted excessive power and who kidnapped Rama’s wife Sita. The moral taught by this avatar was to “Outgrow the beast to discover the divine” (Pattanaik 127), once again symbolizing Vishnu’s duty of preserving righteousness and faith in the supreme power. Even today, Rama is a well-worshipped figure in many temples, often depicted with his brother Lakshman, Sita, and his most loyal devotee Hanuman.
Vishnu’s eighth incarnation is also another one of Hinduism’s most famous and prominent heroes, known as Krishna. There are many Hindus who solely worship Krishna. Krishna is well known for his role in the famous epic Mahabharata as well as the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita where he emphasized the importance of “dharma,” or duty and action, bhakti (devotion), and he shows himself as Vishvarupa (full form of Vishnu) to Arjuna, expressing himself as the supreme and divine power. Vishnu is believed to have taken the form of Krishna, once again like Rama, to preserve righteousness and faith in the supreme power by killing his uncle Kamsa who was filled with excessive pride and power, and through his major role and teachings in the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita, as Pattanaik indicates that Krishna’s purpose was to teach the lesson, “Know the thought before the action” (157).
After Krishna’s death, the Kali Yuga, the last phase of the cycle of existence, entered. Hindus have held the belief that this is the age when everything would gradually disappeaer and then the world would end in total destruction. While Buddha is not recognized as much among many Hindus as an incarnation of Vishnu, some Hindus believe Vishnu took on the form of Buddha to preserve the Hindu religion from demons and enemies by teaching demons to devalue neither the Vedas nor the teachings of the true Hindu religion. Because of the Kali Yuga Age, Cummins et al. explain that “Buddha’s teachings are … seen as symptomatic of the widespread devolution of morality and wisdom that is inevitable in the Kali Yuga,” suggesting that “As the Buddha, Vishnu hastens the end of the world” (231).
Lastly, many Hindus still believe the final avatar of Vishnu, known as Kalki, is yet to come, when it is time to finally annihilate the world at the end of the Kali Yuga and “lead the world into the Satya Yuga, or Age of Truth” (Cummins et al. 235). Kalki is said to enter the world towards the end of the Kali Yuga, to be trained by Parashurama (the sixth avatar of Vishnu), and to defeat and wipeout all evil. According to Cummins et al., “Kalki’s purpose is to restore righteousness and wipe out all evils of the Kali Yuga…[and] He will usher in Satya Yuga, when ‘pure religious principles are observed and protected’ and having completed his appointed task, Kalki will return to his heavenly abode in Vaikuntha” (235). With this final avatar, Vishnu completes his duty of preserving and protecting the righteousness and faith of the world as well as the law of the Vedas.
While Vishnu was a prominent figure among Hindus due to his collected and gentle nature, his personal attributes and characteristics, and his reincarnations which all helped him in accomplishing his duty as the preserver and protector, the recognition of Vishnu’s prominence didn’t begin until post-Vedic Hinduism. Vishnu was first mentioned in the earliest scripture known as the Rig Veda, written somewhere between 1300 and 1000 BCE, but was only referenced to and seen as a minor deity compared to now minor deities such as Agni (god of fire) and Indra (god of lightning and thunder). He rose to prominence in post-Vedic Hinduism, along with Shiva, over the course of more than 500 years. According to Cummins et al., the initial worshipping of Vishnu took place in the Vedic manner around a sacrificial fire without a temple or an image of him, “The earliest known representations of Vishnu date to the first centuries CE,” and the first Vishnu temples date to around the fourth century CE (19). Vishnu “grew to be regarded as the source, goal, and sole deity of the universe by his devotees. He absorbed other deities into himself along the way” (Dimmitt and van Buitenen 64), which was lead up to Vishnu’s eminence among Hindus. Historically, it is assumed that Vishnu’s eminence rose from the general populace and spread to the aristocracy and the priestly orthodoxy (Cummins et al. 15).
In Hinduism, nearly all of the deities, including Vishnu, are worshipped and have been worshipped for generations in the same way. Typical worships include worshipping images or sculptures of the god’s feet and footprints, which is symbolic of the devotees’ respect and devotion to the god. Portrayals of Vishnu’s feet are known as “Vishnupadas.” The rest of Vishnu’s body is usually depicted surrounding the feet with attributes of Vishnu, including lotus flowers, a conch shell, a mace, and a chakra. Also, many devotees of Vishnu, particularly priests, apply marks in the shape of a U to their forehead. Such marks are known as “tilaks,” which are “believed to help focus mental energy, creating a third eye that offers intuition or insight” (Cummins et al. 257). Lastly, similar to other deities, paintings, sculptures, shrines, and ritual objects representing Vishnu are worshipped, and the ancient Vedic manner of worshipping him around a sacrificial fire continues to this day.
Interestingly, many of the ancient traditions and beliefs of the Hindu gods have been preserved and continue to be practiced among Hindus all over the world to this day. Vishnu continues to play a prominent role among Hindus as the preserver, protector, sustainer, and guardian of the earth, Hindu spiritual values, and the Vedic laws. Hindus will continue to worship and praise Vishnu’s unique attributes and reincarnations as well as preserve ancient Hindu practices as they await the coming of Kalki, Vishnu’s final reincarnation that will allow him to finally complete and accomplish his duties as a prominent figure among the Trinity.
Cummins, Joan, Doris Srinivasan, Leslie C. Orr, Cynthia Packert, and Neeraja Poddar. Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior. Ocean Township, NJ: Grantha, 2011. Print.
Dimmitt, Cornelia, and J. A. B. Van Buitenen. Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Purāṇas. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1978. Print.
Pattanaik, Devdutt. 7 Secrets of Vishnu. Chennai: Westland, 2011. Print.