Vishnu, major god of Hinduism
and Indian mythology, popularly regarded as the preserver
of the universe. In the ancient body of literature called
the Veda, the sacred literature of
the Aryan invaders, Vishnu ranks with the numerous lesser
gods and is usually associated with the major Vedic god
Indra in battles against demonic forces.
In the epics and Puranas—writings
belonging to subsequent periods in the development of Hinduism—Vishnu
(especially in his incarnations) becomes prominent. Some
Puranic literature refers to him as the eternal, all-pervading
spirit and associates him with the primeval waters believed
to have been omnipresent before the creation of the world.
So regarded, Vishnu is depicted frequently in human form,
sleeping on the great serpent Shesha and floating on the
The concept of Vishnu as preserver is comparatively late.
It is based chiefly on two beliefs: humans may attain salvation
by faithfully following predetermined paths of duty, and
good and evil powers (gods and demons) contend for dominion
over the world.
the balance of power is upset in favor of evil, and then
Vishnu is believed to descend to earth in a mortal form
(his avatar) to save humankind or the world. Ten such avatars
(descents or incarnations) are commonly recognized, of which
Rama and Krishna
are the most important. Nine descents are thought to have
already occurred; the tenth and last is yet to come.
believe that Vishnu's role as preserver (or redeemer) arose
from the characteristic practice of assimilating local legendary
heroes and gods into the Hindu pantheon by attributing their
deeds to one of the major Hindu deities.
Vishnu is depicted as dark blue or black (his avatars appear
in other colors). Normally, he is depicted with four arms:
One hand holds a lotus; a second holds a conch;
a third holds a discus (which always returns by itself
after being thrown); and the fourth carries a mace.
The petals of the lotus are believed to symbolize the unfolding
of creation; the conch is said to symbolize that from which
all existence originates; and the discus and the mace reputedly
were obtained by Vishnu as rewards for defeating the god
is said to possess also a special sword called Nadaka
and a special bow called Sarnga. His wife is Lakshmi
(also known as Shri), goddess of beauty and fortune. He
rides a huge creature, half bird and half man, called Gandara.
His home is in a heaven called Vaikuntha (where the
Ganges River is believed to flow from its source at Vishnu's
feet). The god has a thousand names, the repetition of which
is regarded as an act of devotion.
Hindu god Vishnu appears on Earth in ten incarnations,
called avatars, to destroy injustice and save humankind.
Sacred Hindu writings called the Puranas describe
these incarnations. Vishnu is always depicted in dark
blue or black and usually with four arms, though his
avatars may take other forms, such as the golden fish
(top left panel) and the man lion (panel below the
fish). In his tenth avatar, still to come, Vishnu
will appear with a white horse (bottom right panel)
to destroy the universe.
This painting was created about
1890 in Jaipur in northern India and is now in the
Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England.
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