In Hinduism, Vishnu is one-third of the “Trimurti” or trinity of gods who represent the three phases of cosmic existence: creation, preservation, and destruction. As the lord of preservation, Vishnu sustains the universe and upholds its laws. He is also seen as the divine arbitrator who protects justice and moral order by interceding in all disagreements, whether they involve humans or gods. He is known for his patience and his gentle, merciful nature.
Vishnu is typically depicted with sky-blue skin. This color symbolizes that like the sky, Vishnu is formless and infinite. 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, representing purity and beauty; a conch shell, standing for the sound aum, said to be the vibration of primeval creation; mace, for strength and the destruction of evil; and a chakra, emblematic of the mind, intelligence, and the end of self-delusion.
Images and statues of Vishnu often show him in a vast ocean, resting atop a hundred-headed cobra, Sesha or Ananta, representing the many desires of the mind. Vishnu sits over them, showing that he has control over these desires rather than being dominated by them.
Vishnu’s consort or wife is Lakshmi, the goddess of beauty and wealth. He rides on Garada, a mythological creature that is half-bird/half-man.
According to Hindu belief, Vishnu has incarnated on Earth at least nine times to destroy evil and restore justice in the world. His major manifestations or avatars are as follows:
- Matsaya (fish) In this form Vishnu saves the Vedas, the Hindu texts containing all the knowledge of the world, from massive floods that threaten the earth.
- Kumra (tortoise) As a tortoise, Vishnu recovers the valuable things that were lost at the bottom of the ocean during the floods, including the nectar of immortality.
- Varaha (boar) When Vishnu incarnates as Varaha, he battles the demon Hiranyakashyap, who pulled the earth to the bottom of the ocean. Varaha dives into the depths of sea and brings the earth back to safety.
- Narasimha (a being with the head and claws of a lion and the body of a man) In this incarnation, Vishnu finally kills the demon Hiranyakashyap, who had become a powerful tyrant threatening humankind as well as the gods.
- Vamana (dwarf) As the sage Vamana, Vishnu conquers King Bali, a demon who had seized control of heaven, earth, and the netherworlds.
- Parashurama (fierce warrior) In this sixth incarnation, Vishnu uses his axe to kill Kartavirya, a king with a thousand arms who stole Parshurama’s father’s holy calf.
- Rama (a king and ideal man) Lord Rama is 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 avatar 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.
- Krishna (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 Hinduism, some branches of thought hold that Gautama Buddha is the ninth incarnation of Vishnu, while others state that Balarama, Krishna’s brother, is the ninth avatar. The following is a brief description of both possible avatars.
- Balarama (also called Baladeva) is known for his extraordinary strength and prowess in warfare, using mace and his plough as weapons. In addition, he is famous for his loyalty and protection of Krishna. Those who believe that Balarama is the ninth avatar of Vishnu worship him as a god who helps people find transcendent bliss.
- Kalki (the prophesied god) In Hindu mythology, the tenth avatar of Vishnu has not yet appeared on Earth, but 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.
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