Some Hindus believe that Harihara is the Supreme God. In the Hindu tradition the supreme gods are Visnu and Siva. Visnu is known as Hari and Siva is known as Hara. In Sanskrit Hari means a yellowish or khaki color, which represents the sun and the Soma plant. Put together Hari and Hara are Harihara, which is a combination of the two gods. Harihara is also commonly known as Shankaranarayana; “Shankara” is Siva while “Narayana” is Visnu. Devotees believe that Siva and Visnu are different aspects of the same reality. Sometimes they are thought to have been brought together because they were ‘rivals’ but there is no evidence to show that this is the case. Harihara is occasionally used in philosophical terms to indicate Visnu and Sivas unification of different aspects of the Supreme God (Olson). The most famous philosophical analogy is the yogurt and milk analogy, which says that yogurt is a groundwork of milk but yogurt cannot be used as milk. Siva is an expansion of Krishna but Siva cannot act as Krishna. Also Siva has a connection with the material world while Visnu and Krishna do not. It is thought that Visnu is a part of Krishna as the whole.
Harihara was very popular in Cambodia in the beginning of the seventh century. It is thought to be popular in Cambodia because previous Cambodian rulers had worshiped Siva in the seventh and eighth century. The rulers tried to maintain and control southern Cambodia, which had a strong connection to Visnu. The northern rulers wanted an icon that would represent the unification of the south and north, which lead to Harihara. Evidence of Harihara worship was most commonly found deity during the seventh century in the Preangkorian Khmer empire (see Lavy 22-31). Archaeological evidence relates to clay Harihara figurines, which suggest that Harihara was the main deity being worshiped in seventh century Cambodia. The worship of Harihara did not spread to India or Southeast Asia until many centuries later. The worship of Harihara began to die out of the Khmer culture in the thirteenth century.
Temple for worship of Harihara are very rare. One of the main temples for worship is in Shankaranarayana village. Shankaranarayana is located east of Kundapura in Karnataka, India. The village gets its name from the temple. The temple is thought to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World that was created by Maharshi Parashurama (Meister 167-170).
The main festival for Shankaranarayana is the Shankaranaraya Jaatre. The festival begins four days before Makar Sankranti, and celebrates the sun passing from one zodiac sign to another, and runs for a week. The first six days of the event consist of a variety of rituals devoted to Harihara. The last day of the festival is the main event, when Rathotsava is celebrated. This occasion frequently falls on January 16. At the Rathotsava festival, more then ten thousand people from different parts of India come to worship (Meister 170-173).
When Harihara is depicted with four arms, the right side is shown as Siva while the left side is Visnu. Siva is portrayed as being the destroyer and in his right upper hand holds a trident; the points on the tridents are believed to represent trinities for example, past, present, and future or creation, maintenance and destruction. Some people also believe that it represents the three channels of energy or nadis. The right side of the head of Harihara consists of Siva’s matted locks with a headdress. Siva’s third eye is visible on the right side of the forehead as well. On the left side of Harihara Visnu is shown calm and holding in his upper left hand the wheel emblem; his head is also portrayed with a crown; the crown represents Visnus’ supreme authority while the wheel represents the circle of life, unity, the sun, and reincarnation (Lavy 21).
Although not widely known, Harihara is a significant and interesting deity within the Hindu tradition.
Lavy, Paul A. (2003) Journal of Southeast Asia Studies: “As in heaven, so on earth: the politics of Visnu, Siva and Harihara images in Preangkorian Khmer civilization.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Meister, Michael A. (1976), Artibus Asiae. Vol. 38, Artibus Asiae Publishers.
Olson, Carl (2007) Hindu Primary Sources. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
The Puranaswere composed as a tool to popularize the religion of the Vedas and still contain the essence of the Vedas (Sharma 1).The Puranas utilize themes from the Vedas to create connections with stories and deities of contemporary importance during their time of composition (Rodrigues 273).The works of the Puranasare derived from different ages and have been compiled under different circumstances (Wilson ix).It is not easy to date the Puranas.For instance, it is noted that the Visnu Purana lacks any cleat particulars that aid in ascertaining the date of composition (Wilson lxix).The Puranaswere composed in Sanskrit and therefore, were not directly accessible to the common person and were disseminated by Brahmin scholars (Sharma 5).It is believed that Puranas were composed within the oral tradition of recitations in temples, courts, and for royal patrons (Rodrigues 290).The Puranas have been regarded as traditional Indian history compiled and transmitted in order to preserve the past as a repository of values for the present and future (Matchett 138).
It is commonly held that there are eighteen major or Mahapuranas together with many lesser Puranas, called Upapuranas (Rodrigues 290).The number eighteen may not be intended to single out specific Puranas from the others, but instead it may be a symbol of their close connection with the Mahabharata, just as there were eighteen paravans in the Mahabharata, eighteen chapters in the Bhagavadgita, eighteen days of the Mahabharata battle, and eighteen armies fighting in it (Matchett 134).The Puranas make up a great deal of literature derived from the oral tradition and are usually categorized along with the Epics as they tell of historical information together with myth.The Mahapuranasand Upapuranaswere written in Sanskrit and most contain five laksanas, or distinguishing marks.The five distinguishing marks are: Sarga, the creation of the universe; Pratisarga, secondary creations, or the destruction and renovation of worlds; Vamsa, genealogy of gods and patriarchs; Manvantara, the creation of the human race; and, Vamuanucaritam, dynastic histories (Sharma 4).The five laksanas provide order for the events of the Purana and provides the listener with a view of time and space in which the narrated events occur (Narayana Rao 89).It is suggested that the five distinguishing marks found in Mahapuranas and Upapuranasare shared with other traditional religious scriptures of the world, including the Bible (Sharma 4).
A further classification is found within the eighteen Mahapuranasdistinguishing between goodness (Sattva), passion (Rajas) and ignorance (Tamas) (Sharma 4).The Visnu, Naradiya, Bhagavata, Garuda, Padma and Varaha Puranas are considered to be pure or that of goodness and purity (Wilson xii).These are believed to be Vaishnava puranas.The second classification includes the Matsya, Kurma, Linga, Siva, Skanda and Agni puranas which are Tamasa or are considered to be Puranas of the darkness.These Puranas prevail from the quality of Tamas which refers to ignorance and gloom and are seen to be indisputably Saiva puranas (Wilson xii).Finally, the third classification includes Brahmanda, Brahmavaivartta, Markandeya, Bhavishya, Vamana and Brahma Puranas which are designated from Rajasa, or as being passionate.These Puranas are to represent the property of passion (Wilson xii).The Visnu Purana, according to the Padma Purana, is found within the Sattva category (Sharma 4).
The form of the Puranas is one of a dialogue and the immediate narrator is commonly believed to be Lomaharshana or Romaharshan, the disciple of Vyasa (Wilson x).Vyasa is a Sanskrit term meaning ‘arranger’ or ‘compiler’ of the Puranas as spoken by Brahma (Wilson x).The Puranas have different speakers for different listeners and no speaker ever directly narrates in any of the Puranas (Narayana Rao 94).The two poems, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are considered to be safe sources for ancient legends of the Hindus, and it is believed that most, if not all, Puranas are drawn from these texts (Wilson lvi).Further, the Visnu Purana contains twenty-three thousand slokas and has six major sections (Sharma 309).
The first of the six books within the Visnu Purana focuses on the details of creation of the universe through the dialogue of Maitreya, attending the sage Parashara (Sharma 309).The first book first explains how the universe proceeds from eternal crude matter and how forms are created and developed from the simple substances previously evolved, or the concept how forms reappear after temporary destruction.This book tells of how creations are periodical and termination occurs when not only all gods and all other forms are annihilated but at the end of the life of Brahma, when again, the elements are merged into a primary substance (Wilson lvii).This is said to take place at the end of every Kalpa, or day of Brahma, and affects only the forms of inferior creatures and lower worlds (Wilson lvii).Visnu is claimed to adopt the form of Brahma to create the universe and when the universe is to be destroyed, Visnu then adopts the form of Siva and performs the act of destruction (Sharma 309).
The first book also illustrates the creation of beings that Brahma produced.Demons were created from Brahma’s thighs, gods emerged from Brahma’s mouth, ancestors or pitris were created from the sides of Brahma and the humans were created last (Sharma 309).The four varnas or classes of people are credited as being derived from Brahma: the brahmanas from his mouth; the kshatriyas from his chest; the vaishyas from Brahma’s thighs; and the shudras from his feet (Sharma 309).
The second book tells the story of India receiving its name from Bharata and explains of the seven circular continents, their surrounding oceans and to the limits of the world (Wilson lx).Although the topographical system described are mythological fictions containing no truth with respect to India or the Bharata, the mountains and rivers are verifiable along with verifiable truths surrounding cities and nations that are described (Wilson lx).This second book also tells of Bharata as a king turned Brahman, who attains liberation, which is peculiar to this Purana (Wilson lx)
The third book explains the authorities of their religious rites and beliefs together with describing the caste duties, the obligations of different stages of life and the celebration of rites, in harmony with the Laws of Manu (Wilson lxi).These descriptions are a distinguishing feature of the Visnu Purana which is further characteristic of being work of an earlier time than the other Puranas (Wilson lxi).The Visnu Purana directs no self-imposed observances, no holidays, no birthdays of Krsna, no nights dedicated to Lakshmi, no sacrifices and no models of worship other than those corresponding to the rituals put forth in the Vedas.
The fourth book includes comprehensive information about ancient history including dynasties and individuals which is thought to be somewhat of a genuine chronicle of persons and possibly occurrences (Wilson lxii). Although aspects surrounding the longevity of the princes of some earlier dynasties can be discredited, it is understood that a consistency in the succession of persons is based on a credible foundation (Wilson lxii).
The fifth book contains another distinguishing characteristic of the Visnu Purana in that it is almost entirely occupied with the life of Krsna (Wilson lxviii).This unique characteristic is an argument against its antiquity and this book leads some to question its originality (Wilson lxviii).Finally, the sixth book tells of the dissolution of the world and the end of all things by fire and water and then proceeds to tell of universal renewal (Wilson lxix).The annihilation of the universe and the release of the spirit from bodily existence, as described in the Visnu Purana, is often comparable to other doctrines.The telling of the cyclical dissolution of the world followed by the perpetual renovation of the world in the sixth and final book of the Visnu Purana, exhibits commonly accepted opinions of the ancient Hindu world (Wilson lxix).
Matchett, Freda (2005) “The Puranas” in The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, Gavin Flood (ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Narayana Rao, V. (1993) “Purana as Brahminic Ideology” in Purana Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts, Wendy Doniger (ed.). Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.
Rodrigues, H. (2006) Hinduism: The eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Sharma, P.R.P (2007) Encyclopaedia of Puranas. New Delhi: Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd.
Wilson, H.H. (1989) The Visnu Purana: A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition. Delhi: Nag Publishers.
Further Reading and Related Websites
Ramanujan, A.K. (1993). “On Folk Mythologies and Folk Puranas” in Purana Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts, Wendy Doniger (ed.). Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.
The Vaisnava-Sahajiya cult is found in Bengal, and is part of the larger tantric bhakti, or devotional movements.The cult’s roots can be traced back to the eleventh or twelfth century C.E., although the Vaisnava-Sahajiya cult rose as a separate entity in the sixteenth century.Because information about the cult is very difficult to find, this article will mainly discuss the Vaisnavas in Bengal as a whole and specify, where possible, the differences between the Vaisnavas and Vaisnava-Sahajiyas.
Caitanya (1486-1533), was a major figure in the development of the Vaisnavas.He was very instrumental in asserting the doctrine that the god Krsna is a supreme deity and not simply an incarnation of Visnu (Dimock 107-108).In his lifetime, Caitanya travelled through the South of India, and with him brought back many religious texts, including the Brahma-samhita and the Krsna-karnamrta.Although he did popularize the Krsna-centric bhakti movements, Caitanya was not the originator of the tradition in Bengal.Caitanya is believed by some to be either an incarnation of Krsna, or the god Krsna himself (Dimock 108).Some in the cult even see him as the ultimate divine figure in human form.Later biographers, such as Murari, even used events from Krsna’s life to fill gaps in Caitanya’s life (Stewart 1997 225).It is interesting, then, that Caitanya is only known to have written a total of eight devotional, not philosophical, verses (Dimock 109).Caitanya died in 1533, and there are very many mythical accounts of how this occurred.To those who believe he was a god, he did not die but ascended to heaven. While others claim he died of a foot infection (Stewart 1991 231).It was then left to other theologians and philosophers to write and outline the doctrine of the cult.
The six Gosvamins were theologians who were sent by Caitanya to Vrndavana, which was a holy place for worshipers of Krsna.There, they were supposed to establish a pocket of Vaisnavas, and also outline the basic doctrine of the movement (Dimock 110).These six men, most of whom knew Caitanya personally before his death, were extremely influential in establishing the doctrine and rituals of the Vaisnavas in Bengal (Dimock 110).However, according to Dimock, they rarely made mention of Caitanya and his divinity.
The main sacred texts of the Vaisnava-Sahajiya cult are the puranas and the Vedic texts.Of the puranas, the Bhagavata is considered the greatest by the Vaisnavas, as it tells the story of the life of Krsna (Dimock 108).
As mentioned above, the Vaisnavas and Vaisnava-Sahajiyas of Bengal believe that the one supreme god is Krsna.Krsna to them is not just an avatara, or incarnation of Visnu, but a powerful god himself.The overall doctrine of the Vaisnavas is explained extremely well by Edward C. Dimock in his article “Doctrine and Practice among the Vaisnavas of Bengal.”The following three paragraph explanation of doctrine is paraphrased from information on pages 113-115 of this article.
In Vaisnava belief, divinity bears three aspects of reality: Brahman, Paramatman, and Bhagavat.The true essence of the highest of these, Bhagavat, is Krsna.In the Bhagavat are “infinite energizing powers,” or saktis.These saktis are also divided into three groups: svarupa-sakti, jiva-sakti, and maya-sakti.The most divine of these three is svarupa-sakti.The jiva-sakti, evident by its name, has connections to the Creature, or the jiva.The jiva is found in all humans and is not fully in the divine, but also not completely without the divine.In contrast, the maya-sakti is the cause of both pain and pleasure in the material world.It is felt only in the lower areas of life.Within the Bhagavat, the jiva shares the divine quality of pure bliss, or ananda.In order for the jiva to gain absolute bliss and complete independence from the maya (worldly existence), a person must be involved in bhakti, or devotion.Once this release takes place, the jiva is only affected by svarupa-sakti.
As Dimock explains, bhakti is “selfless dedication to the Bhagavat.”In bhakti, there must only be the desire to please the god Krsna, as opposed to the desire of the jiva to release itself from earthly pain, or to experience the complete bliss of the divine.To the Vaisnavas, knowledge, works, and ritual are not enough to secure absolute release, unless they are practiced in conjunction with bhakti.
The greatest quality expressed within the Bhagavat is “belovedness.”Earthly love is not as perfect as this “belovedness.” Therefore, only the pursuit of the love within Bhagavat can be truly satisfying, both to the devotee and the god.This mutual pleasure and love attracts the devotee to the god, and also the god to the devotee.Just as the bhakta (devotee) needs the god as the object of devotion, Krsna needs the devotee.By demonstrating Krsna’s beauty and sweetness towards the god through bhakti, the devotee allows Krsna to taste his own goodness.And through his love for the bhakta, Krsna understands his personal beauty.The bhakta assumes a worshipful attitude towards the god, which is known as bhava.The experience of the pure ecstasy that is the love relationship between Krsna and the bhakta is called rasa.The doctrine of the Vaisnavas goes much deeper than this; however, there is no place in this article for a full explanation.
The sexual imagery, doctrine, and practices of the Vaisnavas of Bengal relate directly to the stories of the Bhagavata.The Gopis in the Bhagavata are women who are the wives of others, but who still completely devote themselves to Krsna.In this devotional love, Krsna participates in “love play” with them (Dimock 123).Radha is the main Gopi in this story, and is often seen as the consort of Krsna.Also in the Bhagavata and poetic theory, women seem to be divided into two distinct categories: svakiya and parakiya.Svakiya refers to “she who is one’s own,” while parakiya refers to “she who is another’s” (Dimock 123).The Gopi in the story are parakiya.Because of this, their love for Krsna is considered pure and intense, as the desire to satisfy the beloved above one’s own pleasure can only result from a parakiya relationship.
To the Vaisnavas, the highest state and experience in earthly life is the act of sexual union (Dimock 125).One of the major separating factors between the orthodox Vaisnavas and the Vaisnava-Sahajiya sects is that the former use the imagery of sex only as symbolism, while the latter have ritualized the human erotic experience in tantric practices as an experience of the divine (Dimock 127).Through human coupling, devotees are able to experience first-hand the ecstasy and beauty of the god.
References and Further Recommended Readings
Dimock, Edward C. (1989) The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaisnava-Sahajiya Cult of Bengal. University of Chicago Press. (Recommended reading; not referenced in article.)
Dimock, Edward C. (1963) “Doctrineand Practice among the Vaisnavas of Bengal.” History of Religions (summer): 106-127.
Stewart, Tony K. (1997) “When Rahu Devours the Moon: The Myth of the Birth of Krsna Caitanya.” International Journal of Hindu Studies (August): 221-264.
Stewart, Tony K. “When Biographical Narratives Disagree: The Death of Krsna Caitanya.” Numen (December): 231-260.
Garuda is a Hindu deity and is not to be confused with the Garuda Purana, which will be briefly described later. Garuda is described as having the body of a human with a face of an eagle. His hair is tied in a top knot, and with beautiful strong wings, he is known for having an abundance of strength. In different epics, Garuda is described as having either two or four arms, wearing snakes as anklets and bracelets, similar to what Visnu is depicted as wearing (Dallapiccola 2002). The Indian myth of Garuda and how he became to be Visnu’s vahana is found in the Mahabharata, an 180,000 line poem written in Sanskrit by a sage called Vyasa, and is filled with courage, betrayal and maternal love (Mcleish 1996).
The myth of Garuda starts with Kasyapa, a tortoise-man, who had two wives named Vinata and Kadru (Wessing 208). He impregnated both his wives at the same time and mentioned that he would grant them both a boon since he was very pleased with the services they provided him. Kadru asked Kasyapa for a thousand nagas (half human beings and half serpents, usually of the feminine gender (Wessing 208) while Vinata asked Kasyapa for two sons, which would be more powerful and heroic than Kadru’s thousand nagas. After granting Kadru’s and Vinata’s boons, Kasyapa disappeared in the forest. (Mani 581)
Both Kadru and Vinata took great care of their eggs. On the 500th year, Kadru’s thousand eggs hatched and all kind of nagas came forth, but Vinata’s eggs showed no sign that they would be hatching anytime soon. It truly pained Vinata as she watched Kadru playing with her children, so that out of curiosity, Vinata secretly cracked open one of her eggs. Out came Garuda’s oldest brother, Aruna, a half grown child. He was upset not only having his egg cracked prematurely but for having his rest disrupted as well. For having done so, Vinata was punished and was to be Kadru’s slave. She would be freed 500 years from then, when her second egg would hatch naturally (Mani 581). Aruna would later become the vahana of Surya.
Garuda was born 500 years after the birth of Aruna, in the shape of a human, having a head of an eagle with a beak, and with wings and talons instead of toes and fingers. Due to his golden skin colour, Garuda was initially and accidentally worshiped as Agni, the god of fire.
While his mother was still enslaved to Kadru for having lost a bet, and Garuda was not able to bear the sight of his mother enslaved and performing Kadru’s demands. Garuda took it upon himself to free his mother from Kadru’s enslavement, and asked Kadru what the price of his mother’s freedom would be. She replied, “Amrta from Devaloka,” an elixir that would revive the strength of the gods and render them immortal. Garuda informed his mother of his journey to find the elixir to purchase her freedom and she wished him well. She asked that his wings be blessed by Vayu, his lower body by the sun and the moon and the rest of his body by the Vasus and he then embarked on his journey (Mani 581). As a final word of warning to Garuda, his mother warned him to not eat anything, for it would burn his throat.
After having embarked on his journey, Garuda found his father Kasyapa in the forest, where he told him of his journey and asked Kasyapa if he could have something to eat. Kasyapa replied by telling him the story of a fight between two brothers, Vibhavasu and Supratika, who were enemies at the time and had been transformed into an elephant and a tortoise, respectively. Kasyapa told Garuda that he could eat them without his throat burning. Since Vinata settled for two eggs that would lead her children to be powerful, Garuda had an enormous amount of power. Because of this power, he was not able to sit down to eat the elephant and the tortoise because anything he would approach or sit on would collapse within a blink of the eyes, due to the vibration his powerful wings created. (Mani 581)
Garuda faced many opponents and events throughout his journey before he had reached the heavens, where the Devas where protecting the pot of Amrta. The same moon and sun that had blessed Garuda’s lower body attacked him when he got closer to the pot of Amrta. Garuda not only defeated the moon and the sun but also defeated anybody that was against him, for his strength was unmatchable. The strength of his wings, when flapping, created a dust storm which blinded his opponents (Mcleish 1996). As he got closer to the tower of flames where the Amrta was kept, he noted two wheels with serpents protecting the elixir. Even though he was blinded by looking into the eyes of the serpents, he defeated the serpents with his beak, grabbed the elixir and flew away.
Mahavisnu, proud of Garuda’s achievements, granted him two boons. Garuda asked to become Visnu’s vahana and to be immortal without having to drink the elixir so that he could return safely and deliver the elixir to his mother Kadru. Indra attacked Garuda as he was flying away with the elixir, by striking him with lightning. Indra told Garuda that the only way they would become friends and be at peace would be if Garuda would return the elixir back to the heavens. In another version, Indra took the elixir before Garuda was able to take it and a few drops of the elixir spilled onto the ground. The drops of the elixir fell near the snakes that were protecting the pot. The snakes both split their tongues and tried to lick off as much elixir as they could which; is the reason why snakes are immortal and shed their skin to be re-born once again (Mcleish 1996).
Garuda replied that the elixir was not for him and that the only reason that he stole the elixir was to release his mother from her sister’s slavery. When he returned to his mother, she was released from Kadru’s enslavement. From that moment on, Garuda wanted to take revenge on Kadru. He decided that he would slowly eat all of Kadru’s nagas. After a certain time that Garuda was hunting and eating the nagas, they came to him with a deal that a naga would come to him day after day for him to feed on and Garuda accepted.
Throughout his life, Garuda faced many opponents and went through many adventures, such as helping Galava, a disciple of Visvamitra, fighting Airavata, searching for the Saugandhika flower and saving Uparicaravasu (Mani 584). To this day, Garuda is a sign of speed and force due to the abundant strength he has. The image of Garuda is widely used throughout Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Thailand and Mongolia. It is a symbol depicted from flags to royal crests and hotels, and even on the national airline of Indonesia. Although the image portrays a different form of Garuda, they all carry the same meanings: speed and strength.
In the early 1970’s, a statue dating from the 7th century was discovered in Kathmandu, Nepal, depicting Garuda kneeling and praying (Exhibit 1). Garuda is normally depicted as devouring snakes or carrying Visnu on his back, with two of his arms folded in anjalimudra (where the hands and palms are clasped together near the chest) and his other two arms holding Visnu’s feet (Dallapiccola 2002).
According to myth, after Garuda became Visnu’s vahana, and Visnu subsequently wrote the Garuda Purana, a set of instructions for Garuda to follow. The Garuda Purana contains all kind information regarding funeral rites, the reconstitution of a new body, judgement of deeds and the many stages between death and rebirth (Dallapiccola 2002). Although the Garuda Purana is extremely long and consists of many stories, it is still widely read by Hindus to this day.
References & Further Recommended Reading
DALLAPICCOLA, Anna L. (2002) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. New York: N.Y. Thames & Hudson
DOWSON, John (1979) A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology. London: Trubner’s Oriental Series.
Visnu is one of the most important deities in the Hindu religious system. In western culture many people are aware of Visnu, even if they do not understand who or what he is in Hindu literature. He has even been mentioned and parodied on “The Simpsons” speaking volumes to how Visnu has permeated culture and pop culture all over the world. Hindu deities are often given very human characteristics. As in western religion Hindus tend to attribute more human characteristics view of their gods’ psychology, while still acknowledging their divinity (Barrett 608-615). In studies described by Barrett participants were asked to what degree they saw Visnu to be beyond normal human attributes. Even though most people thought that Visnu had supernatural powers, they still were more likely to remember more human attributes in stories about him. For example, they were more likely to remember Visnu moving from place to place rather than being in more than one place at a time. They also saw him as needing to be near a source to see or hear it, rather than show him as being able hear or see everything around him (Barrett 615). Visnu is often depicted as blue, associating him with the sky or the clouds. He is depicted as human like in appearance but with four arms. In his arms he wields a conch shell, a club, a discus and a lotus flower (Rodrigues and Robinson 167). Visnu also has a divine consort, Laksmi, the goddess of prosperity and good fortune (Rodrigues and Robinson 155). [For more information on Laksmi see Solomon].
The worship of Visnu is, of course, not just a modern development. Visnu was worshipped as the supreme deity by the Vaisnava communities of the Pancaratrins and the Bhagavatas of ancient Northern India (Reddy 1) and is still worshipped as the supreme god by vaisnavas today. Worship via images and rituals are very important, and many of the rituals performed by the Pancaratrins and the Bhagavatas are very similar to the way that worship is done in the modern Vaisnava Temples. Vaisnava image worship is very important. Visnu is typically thought of to have 5 forms, each representing a different aspect of the deity (Reddy 4); para refers to the “all pervading” (Reddy 4) nature of Visnu. The vyuhas are emanations “for the cosmological functions of creation, preservation, and dissolution” (Reddy 4). The vibhava are depictions of Visnu in a form of one of his avatars. The antaryamin depictions are those that appear within humans. Finally, there is the arcavatara form, which is Visnu in statue form. This final form is incredibly important to idea of image worship of Visnu as it is believed that the deity actually exists within the Statue. In this way by worshipping an image, you are directly worshipping the deity himself (Reddy 4). Sometimes images are worshipped as Visnu by Hindus, doubles as an image of the Buddha to Buddhists, such as those at Bodhgaya. This can, understandably, cause tension between the two groups (Kinnard 35). Another important part of worship, as described by the Vedas, is sacrifice. The sacrifice is an important task because, in a way, the sacrifice feeds the god. The sacrifice to Visnu by humans helps maintain the cosmic balance (Gonda 22). Perhaps the most important aspect of Hinduism concerned with Visnu is the Literature concerned with him. The legends and literature concerned with the deities are the best show of their power and their interaction with the mortals of this world. In these stories, the deities often are represented as “guardians of order and morality” (Valk and Lourdusamy 179). With their supernatural power and knowledge, the gods protect and restore the balance to a position of Dharma (Valk and Lourdusamy 179). As the preserver, Visnu is especially important in this task of protecting and preserving the karmic balance. The Vedas often identify Visnu with the sacrifice, showing his importance in the literature, and that he must be a figure of considerable power and notability. (Gonda 22) However, Visnu’s role in the Vedas seems to be secondary in comparison to other deities such as Indra or Soma, where in later texts he is the protagonist of the story (Syrkin 8). In the puranas, Visnu is a member of the trimurti where he is the preserver of creation, Brahma is the creator and Siva is the destroyer (Bailey 152). Visnu is represented as the “heroic force” in the trimurti. [For more information on the trimurti see Bailey]. A number of texts, including the sastras, state that all kings on earth were born with a bit of Visnu within them, illustrating the quality of Visnu’s character and power (Bailey 152). In the Mahabharata Visnu appears as Krsna, a very important character who helps to restore the Dharmic balance to the world. The Ramayana deals with Visnu as Rama and speaks of his righteous actions in the face of adversity (Buck 234).
As hinted to earlier, Visnu has a number of Avatars.An Avatar is a physical manifestation of Visnu.This physical manifestation occurs by Visnu’s own choice, as he is not bound to this form by karma. He uses these Avatars to fulfill a specific purpose in this world, often restoring the cosmic balance (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions ). Essentially these Avatars show Visnu’s true role- preservation of creation and righteousness. Visnu has ten major avatars associated with him, but there are others as well, depending on the tradition. In some traditions even the Buddha is an avatar of Visnu (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions). The ten main avatars of Visnu are Matsyavatara, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parasurama, Rama, Balarama, Krsna and Kalki. Matsyavatara (1stavatara) or the fish, rescues Manu, the ancestor of humanity (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions). Kurma (2ndavatara), also known as the tortoise, was an important player in the Legend of Amrita, essential to the immortality of the gods. The Varaha avatar (3rdavatara) also known as the Boar, was a form assumed by other gods, but Visnu took this form in order to “raise the earth from the Cosmic Ocean” (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions). Visnu’s Narasimha (4thavatara) form is a man-lion and battles the demon Hiranykasipu (Flick 238). Visnu’s Vamana avatar (5thavatara) used by Visnu to trick the demon king Bali, before defeating him (Flick 238). [For more information on Narasirhha and Vamana see Flick].Parasurama (6thavatara) was a brahman destined to live a warriors life. Rama (7thavatara) was the hero of The Ramayana, a very important epic in the modern Hindu world. Rama’s wife in the Ramayana is Sita, who is also divine. [For more information on Sita see Singaravelu]. Although Rama is a prince, he goes into exile to serve the dharmic balance. While in exile he accompanies Visnu’s true purpose, the slaying of the demon, Ravana (Buck 239). [For more info on Rama see Buck]. Usually the 8th avatar is said to be the Buddha and that Buddhists have just misunderstood the message given by him. The Buddha is viewed as a great teacher with great vision providing a path to enlightenment that anyone can follow, which is often attributed to Visnu. However some have a problem viewing the Buddha as an avatara of Visnu because of the differences in religious belief between Hindu and Buddhist practitioners. These people view Balarama as the 8thavatara The Balarama and Krsna(9thavatara) avatars of Visnu are linked. Balarama is the elder brother of Krsna (Oxford), where Krsna himself is a very important character in the great Hindu epic, The Mahabharata, within which Krsna advises the Heroes of the story about how to correct the adharmic balance of the cosmos. Within the Mahabharata is the set for the Bhagavad Gita, which is one of the most important pieces of Hindu literature. Within in it Krsna reveals to Arjuna his divine nature in an attempt to get him to fight to restore the balance to a Dharmic position. Krsna describes himself as “as the ultimate Purusa, higher even than Brahman” and it is within the Bhagavad Gita that Krsna reveals the 3 Yogas, as well as other revelations (Gier 84). The final avatar of Visnu, Kalki is usually depicted as a warrior who will punish the evil doer, and is seen as the next avatar of Visnu to come (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions).
Bibliography and Related Readings
Bailey, G. M. (1979) “Trifunctional Elements in the Mythology of the Hindu Trimurti.” Numen, Vol. 26, No. 2
Bowker, John(2000) Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Barrett, Justin (1998) “Cognitive Constraints on Hindu Concepts of the Divine.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 37, No. 4
Buck, Harry (1968) “Lord Rama and The Faces of God In India.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 36, No. 3.
Flick, Hugh (1993) “Book Review: The Myths of Narasimha and Vamana: Two Avatars in Cosmological Perspective.” Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 52, No. 1
Gier, Nicholas (1995) “Hindu Titanism.” Philosophy East and West Vol. 45, No.1
Gonda, J. (1983) “Vedic Gods and the Sacrifice.” Numen Vol. 13, No.1.
Reddy, Prabhavati (2006) “Vishnu’s Universe In Ritual Space: The Abhisheka Ceremony of Penn Hills’ Venkatesvara.” Journal of Ritual Studies 20 (2).
Robinson, Thomas, and Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) World Religions: A Guide to the Essentials. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers,.
Singaravelu, S. (1982) “Sita’s Birth and Parentage in the Rama Story” Asian Folklore Studies. Vol. 41.
Syrkin, A. (1988) “The Salutary Descent.” Numen, Vol. 35, No. 1.
Solomon, Ted (1970) “Early Vaiṣṇava Bhakti and Its Autochthonous Heritage.” History of Religions. Vol. 10, No. 1.
Valk, Ulo and Lourdusamy, S. (2007) “Village deities of Tamil Nadu in myths and legends: the Narrated Experience.” Asian Folklore Studies. Vol.66