Vishnu: The God of Preservation

Vishnu is seen as the divine arbitrator. He protects justice and moral order by mediating disagreements, whether they involve humans or gods. He is an archetype you might call on when seeking patience; you might identify with his gentle, merciful nature.

One third of the trinity of gods who represent the three phases of cosmic existence, Vishnu sustains the universe and upholds its many laws.

Vishnu is typically depicted with sky-blue skin, which symbolizes his formless and infinite power. He also has four arms: a pair at the front of his body representing his physical presence in the material world, and two at the back symbolizing his existence in the spiritual realm. In each hand he holds an object: a lotus that represents purity and beauty, a conch shell that stands for the sacred Om sound, mace for strength and the destruction of evil, and a chakra that symbolizes the mind, intelligence, and the end of self-delusion.

Vishnu’s wife is Lakshmi, the goddess of beauty and wealth.

Images and statues of Vishnu often show him in a vast ocean, resting atop a hundred-headed cobra, which represents the many desires of the mind. Vishnu sits over them, showing that he has control over these desires rather than being dominated by them.

The Story of Vishnu

According to Hindu belief, Vishnu has incarnated on Earth at least nine times to destroy evil and restore justice in the world. Each time he comes as a different manifestation or avatar and serves a different purpose.

As Matsaya, a fish, Vishnu saves the Vedas, the Hindu texts containing all the knowledge of the world, from massive floods that threaten the earth. When he appears as Kumra, a tortoise, Vishnu recovers the valuable things that were lost at the bottom of the ocean during the floods, including the nectar of immortality.

Vishnu incarnates as Varaha, a boar, and battles the demon Hiranyakashyap, who pulled the earth to the bottom of the ocean. Varaha dives into the depths of the sea and brings the earth back to safety.

Vishnu also returns as Narasimha, a being with the head and claws of a lion and the body of a man; as Vamana, a dwarf, to conquer King Bali; and as Parashurama, a fierce warrior. In the incarnation as Parashurama, Vishnu uses his axe to kill Kartavirya, a king with a thousand arms who stole Parshurama’s father’s holy calf.

Another incarnation of Vishnu includes Rama, a king and ideal man. Lord Rama is said to be the seventh incarnation of Vishnu and the main character in the classic Hindu epic the Ramayana. Lord Rama represents righteousness, truth, and strength of character. This representation isn’t known for a single mission or triumph, but for holding on to his ideals in the face of many challenges. Rama has been given the status of a god by Hindu followers.

And another includes Krishna, the deity. Like Rama, Lord Krishna is also revered as a god in the Hindu faith. However, Krishna is seen as more playful, endearing, and accessible than Lord Rama, who personifies perfection. There are many tales about Krishna’s pranks and love escapades with the cow maidens. As the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, Krishna is also the protagonist in another Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. At a very young age, Krishna slays a number of powerful demons, including Kansa, the king of the snakes. According to tradition, Krishna is the only incarnation of Vishnu who was aware of his divine powers from infancy. For this reason, Krishna is commonly equated with Vishnu rather than being considered only an earthly incarnation.

In some branches of Hinduism, Gautama Buddha is believed to be the ninth incarnation of Vishnu, while others state that Balarama, Krishna’s brother, is the ninth avatar.

Kalki, the prophesied god, is the 10th representation of Vishnu, who has not yet appeared on Earth. When Kalki arrives, it is said that he will come to destroy evil and restore the moral order of humanity by the end of the Kali Yuga period, the current era in the Hindu calendar. Since we are only 5,000 years into Kali Yuga, which is said to last 432,000 years, it may be a long time before the Kalki avatar appears.

The Vahana of Vishnu

Like other gods, Vishnu has a vahana, or vehicle, which transports him and is also an extension of his powers. He rides on Garuda, a large bird-like creature with the body of a man with a white face, wings, and an eagle’s beak.

Worshiping Garuda is believed to remove the effects of poison. This might be because Garuda is known for feeding only on snakes. The image of Garuda is often used to protect the wearer from a snake attack and its poison. The mantra Garudi Vidya is used to remove all kinds of evil.

Inspiration from Vishnu

People might pray to Vishnu or identify with him for various reasons. His many representations make Vishnu a common source for inspiration because he is seen as someone who is easier to relate to than a more distant god.

You might call upon Vishnu if you’re looking for protection, patience, knowledge, or prosperity. You can also call upon his many avatars. For example, you might call upon Rama when seeking strength or Krishna when you’re looking to enhance the playful and accessible side of your spirit.

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About the Author

Melissa Eisler

Certified Yoga and Meditation Instructor and Writer
Melissa is the Senior Content Strategist at the Chopra Center. Also a yoga instructor, she is passionate about motivating people to live a healthy, balanced, and purposeful life. Melissa is the author of The Type A's Guide to Mindfulness: Meditation for Busy Minds and Busy People , a practical guide for new meditators in the modern world, and the creator of , a personal blog about mindfulness and life balance in the digital age. Melissa teaches Vinyasa classes at her favorite studio in San Diego, meditation and yoga to kids and families in the oncology ward at...Read more