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VISHNU. [Source: Dowson's Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology] Root, vish, 'to pervade.' The second god of the Hindu triad.

In the Rigveda Vishnu is not in the first ranks of gods. He is a manifestation of the solar energy, and is described as striding through the seven regions of the universe in three steps, and enveloping all things with the dust (of his beams). These three steps are explained by commentators as denoting the three manifestations of light - fire, lightning, and the sun; or the three places of the sun - its rising, culmination, and setting. In the Veda he is occasionally associated with Indra. He has very little in common with the Vishnu of later times, but he is called "the unconquerable preserver," and this distinctly indicates the great preserving power which he afterwards became.

In the Brahmanas Vishnu acquires new attributes, and is invested with legends unknown to the Vedas, but still very far distant from those of the Puranas. In Manu, the name is mentioned, but not as that of a great deity. In the Mahabharata and in the Puranas he is the second member of the triad, the embodiment of the Satwaguna, the quality of mercy and goodness, which displays itself as the preserving power, the self-existent, all-pervading spirit. As such, his votaries associate him with the watery element which spread everywhere before the creation of the world. In this character he is called Narayana, 'moving in the waters,' and is represented pictorially in human form slumbering on the serpent Sesha and floating on the waters. This, too, is the position he assumes during the periods of temporary annihilation of the universe.

The worshippers of Vishnu recognize in him the supreme being from whom all things emanate. In the Mahabharata and in the Puranas he is the Prajapati (creator) and supreme god. As such, he had three Avasthas or conditions: --
1. That of Brahma, the active creator, who is represented as springing from a lotus which grew from Vishnu's navel while he was sleeping afloat upon the waters.
2. Vishnu himself, the preserver, in the Avatara or incarnate form, as in Krishna.
3. Siva or Rudra, the destructive power, who, according to a statement of the Mahabharata, sprang from his forehead. But though the Mahabharata generally allows Vishnu the supremacy, it does not do so invariably and exclusively. There are passages which uphold Siva as the greatest of the gods, and represent Vishnu as paying him homage. The Saiva Puranas of course make Siva supreme.

Vishnu's preserving and restoring power has been manifested to the world in a variety of forms called Avataras, literally 'descents,' but more intelligibly, 'incarnations,' in which a portion of his divine essence was embodied in a human or supernatural form possessed of superhuman powers. All these Avataras became manifest for correcting some great evil or effecting some great good in the world. The Avataras are ten in number, but the Bhagavata Purana increases them to twenty-two, and adds that in reality they are innumerable. All the ten Avataras are honoured, but the seventh and eighth, Rama and Krishna, are honoured as great mortal heroes and receive worship as great gods. Krishna is more especially looked upon as a full manifestation of Vishnu, and as one with Vishnu himself, and he is the object of a widely extended and very popular worship. See Avatara.

The holy river Ganges is said to spring from the feet of Vishnu.

As preserver and restorer, Vishnu is a very popular deity, and the worship paid to him is of a joyous character. He has a thousand names (Sahasranama), the repetition of which is a meritorious act of devotion.

His wife is Lakshmi or Sri, the goddess of fortune, his heaven is Vaikuntha, and his vehicle is the bird Garuda. He is represented as a comely youth of a dark-blue colour, and is dressed like an ancient king. He has four hands. One holds the Panchajanya (q.v.), a Sankha or conch-shell; another the Sudarsana or Vajranabha, a chakra or quoit weapon; the third, a Gada or club called Kaumodaki; and the fourth, a Padma or lotus. He has a bow called Sarnga, and a sword called Nandaka. On his breast are the peculiar mark or curl called Srivatsa and the jewel Kaustubha, and on his wrist is the jewel Syamantaka. He is sometimes represented seated on a lotus with Lakshmi beside him, or reclining on a leaf of that plant. Sometimes he is portrayed reclining on the serpent Sesha, and at others as riding on his gigantic bird Garuda.

Of the thousand names of Vishnu the following are some of the most common: -- Achyuta, 'unfallen, imperishable;' Ananta, 'the endless;' Anantasayana, 'who sleeps on the serpent Ananta;' Chaturbhuja, 'four-armed;' Damodara, 'bound round the belly with a rope;' as Krishna; Govinda or Gopala, 'the cowkeeper' (Krishna); Hari; Hrishikesa, 'lord of the organs of sense;' Jalasayin, 'who sleeps on the waters;' Janarddana, 'whom men worship;' Kesava, 'the hairy, the radiant;' Kiritin, 'wearing a tiara;' Lakshmipati, 'lord of Lakshmi;' Madhusudana, 'destroyer of Madhu;' Madhava, 'descendant of Madhu;' Mukunda, 'deliverer;' Murari, 'the foe of Mura;' Nara, 'the man;' Narayana, 'who moves in the waters;' Panchayudha, 'armed with five weapons;' Padmanabha, 'lotus-navel;' Pitambara, 'clothed in yellow garments;' Purusha, 'the man, the spirit;' Purushottama, 'the highest of men, the supreme spirit;' Sarngin or Sarngipani, 'carrying the bow Sarnga;' Vasudeva, Krishna, son of Vasudeva; Varshneya, 'descendant of Vrishni;' Vaikunthanatha, 'lord of Vaikuntha (paradise);' Yajnesa, Yajneswara, 'lord of sacrifice.'

Modern Languages MLLL-4993. Indian Epics. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. The textual material made available at this website is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one. No claims are made regarding the status of images used at this website; if you own the copyright privileges to any of these images and believe your copyright privileges have been violated, please contact the webmaster. Page last updated: October 16, 2007 12:22 PM