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 (1st avatara) or the fish, rescues Manu, the ancestor of humanity (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions). Kurma (2nd avatara), also known as the tortoise, was an important player in the Legend of Amrita, essential to the immortality of the gods. The Varaha avatar (3rd avatara) 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 (4th avatara) form is a man-lion and battles the demon Hiranykasipu (Flick 238). Visnu’s Vamana avatar (5th avatara) used by Visnu to trick the demon king Bali, before defeating him (Flick 238). [For more information on Narasirhha and Vamana see Flick]. Parasurama (6th avatara) was a brahman destined to live a warriors life. Rama (7th avatara) 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 8th avatara The Balarama and Krsna(9th avatara) 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
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Written by Adam Lazzaretto (Spring 2008), who is solely responsible for its content.