by Jayaram V
Vishnu means the giver and provider of things.
The Vedas describe him as the god
of three strides, upholder of law and
giver of boons. In course of time he became Narayana, which literally
means, the dweller of waters and dweller of human beings. The word nara
means both water (naram) and human (nara).
resides in the milky waters of Vaikunth on a bed made of the coils of the
the thousand hooded great serpent, Adishesha of infinite dimensions.
Goddess Lakshmi, his consort attend upon him. Symbolically the ocean
stands for bliss and consciousness, the serpent for time, diversity,
desire and illusion, and the goddess Lakshmi for the material things and
powers of the creation.
color of Vishnu is the color of a dark blue cloud. It is the color of
the sky, denoting his cosmic dimensions and his connection with the Vedic
gods of rain and thunder and his relationship with the earth. He is
usually depicted with one face, four arms, usually in a standing posture
or in a resting posture. He wears a necklace made of the famous Kaustubha
gem that rests on his left chest and another garland of flowers and gems
by name Vaijayanti.
four arms hold sankha (a conch), chakra (discus), gada (mace) and padma
(lotus) respectively. The conch stands for the five elements, the sound of AUM, salagrama, goddess Lakshmi, the waters, purity and perfection. The
discus is the terrible weapon of Vishnu which he used to destroy the evil
and protect the righteous. It symbolically represents the light
bearing sun, which illuminates and removes darkness. It also stands for
higher consciousness which destroys all illusions. The mace represent the
power of knowledge while the lotus symbolizes beauty, harmony, purity,
water element, creation and self realization.
As stated in the Bhagavad gita, whenever evil gains ascendance, God
incarnates on earth to restore dharma, punish the evil and protect the
weak and the righteous. Generally all incarnations of God are associated with
Lord Vishnu, because Vishnu is the preserver of the worlds and the purpose of
an incarnation is also the same. The list
of Vishnu's incarnations varies. The number of incarnations that is
generally accepted is ten of which nine have already taken place, while
the tenth one is yet to come. In some versions we come across a list of 23
incarnations of Vishnu , which includes the names of Dattatreya, Satvata and Vedavyasa.
generally accepted nine incarnations are: the fish incarnation (matsyavatara),
the tortoise incarnation (kurmavatara),
the boar incarnation (varahavatara),
the man lion incarnation (narasimhavatara),
the dwarf incarnation (vamanavatara), the incarnation of
Parasurarama (parasuramavatara), the incarnation of Rama
incarnation of Balarama
(balaramavatara), and the incarnation of Sri
Krishna (krishnavatara). The tenth incarnation, the incarnation of Kalki,
a ferocious god is yet to come. The list of incarnations some time include
the incarnation of Buddha in the place of Balarama.
truth about incarnations: The fact is that a lot of myth is woven around
the theory of incarnations. As we have already noted, some of the
incarnations ascribed to Vishnu were previously ascribed to Brahma.
Secondly none of the incarnations declared themselves as incarnations of
Vishnu. Attempts were made to bring the Buddha as an incarnation of
Vishnu. This was probably to bring Buddhism into the fold of Vaishnavism
in response to the increasing popularity of Saivism whose followers viewed
both Vaishnavism and Buddhism with the same disdain.
we are not certain about the authenticity of the list of incarnations or
the events associated with many of the incarnations, the idea of
incarnation itself is a plausible and logically acceptable idea. It perfectly
fits into the concept of God as the creator and upholder of dharma and rta
(order and balance) in the universe.
more enlightened version of the theory of incarnation is that God chooses
different ways to restore order and balance in the universe. One is by the
direct descent, with all his powers latent in human form and with all his attendant
or associate divinities also joining him on the earthly plane to
assist Him in His work. This is the incarnation proper (purnavatara) such
as the incarnation of Rama or Krishna. He assumes this form only when an
evil of gigantic dimensions rises its head and start fomenting trouble
only an aspect (amsa) of Him manifests on the earth in the form of a great
soul for a specific purpose, generally as a seer, a guru , a ruler, or an
artist. The incarnation of Vedavyasa or Dattatreya comes under this
category called partial manifestation or amsavatara.
He does not descend at all, but chooses a particular human being as his
vehicle and sends into him knowledge or messages, answers and solutions.
Many prophets, inventors, and saints of revelations who were able to open
specific channels of communication with God or whom God would choose to
speak, come into this category. Some one like Neale Donald Walsch of the
Conversations with God fame, if he is telling the truth, can look for a
place in the list here.
He would incarnate somewhere else in one of the three aforesaid ways, but
incorporeally and help the earth in a general way. We do not have much
idea about these incarnations. But strictly speaking all the
manifestations of Brahman as various gods and goddesses in various worlds,
including that of the Trinity are but his incarnations only and can be
included in this category.
Minor incarnations of
These are gods who descended into this world for a specific
task and with an aspect of Lord Vishnu. Mention may be made of Dattatreya,
Kapila, Dhanvantari, Mohini, Hayagriva, Naranarayana, Vedavyasa and Yajna.
Son of Atri and Anasuya, who achieved complete mastery of the Vedas,
Dattatreya had perfected the rites associated with soma juice and invoking
of higher powers through magic and some kind of tantra. He also assisted
those who were outside the pale of Vedic religion with the teachings of
the Vedas and helped in their assimilation into the Vedic society.
Probably for this he was given the stamp of impurity and denied his due
honors. However it seems that subsequently his status as a divinity was
recognized and restored. He is described as having three heads, four hands
and always followed by four faithful dogs. The three heads denote his
connection with the entire Trinity, not just Vishnu. His four hands,
signify his divinity and supernatural status and the four dogs following
him symbolically represent the four Vedas and his mastery over them.
Kapila: Kapila was
the founder of Sankhya school of philosophy, the author of Kapilasutras.
Sankhya philosophy gained immense popularity in ancient India and provided
inspiration to many scholars to speculate about existing religious
beliefs. Probably the inclusion of Kapila as a minor incarnation of Vishnu was an
attempt to bring some rapprochement between Sankhya philosophy and the
Brahmanism, just as there was an attempt to consider the Buddha as an
incarnation of Vishnu to bring a rapprochement between Buddhism and
Vaishnavism. Sage Kapila said to have cursed the sixty thousand sons
of Sagara and reduced them to ashes, which later prompted Bhagirath to
undergo severe penances and bring down the Ganges that was flowing in the
heavens. We are nor sure whether this Kapila is the same as the founder of
the Sankhya philosophy.
He was probably a famous physician in ancient India, endowed with an
excellent knowledge of herbal medicines and miraculous healing powers. In
the mythological story of Sagarmanthan (the churning of oceans), we come
across the name of Dhanvantari. After the gods and demons started churning
the ocean in search of immortality, Dhanvantari said to have appeared
before them with a vessel containing the ambrosia in his hands. We
therefore do not know whether Dhanvantari is a title given to an expert
physician or the name of an individual. Whatever be the truth, Vishnu is
also a great healer because healing is a part of his work of preservation.
Since Dhanvantari was a great physician, he was probably accepted as
a minor incarnation of Vishnu.
He reintroduced the lost knowledge of Yajurveda to the mankind, through
Yajnavalkya and probably existed in the post Rigvedic period. He is
believed to be an aspect of Vishnu as the Sun god and is described as a
deity with the head of a horse. In the images he is depicted as having eight arms carrying the various emblems of Vishnu.
Mohini deluded the demons and prevented them from partaking the ambrosia.
Mohini is regarded as an incarnation of Vishnu because delusion is an
important weapon in the armory of Vishnu, for which he is also called
the creator of illusion. Mohini deluded even Siva resulting in the birth
of sage Maya Machchindra.
Nara means human and Narayana means the Supreme Self. Arjuna and Sri
Krishna are popularly referred as Nara and Narayana. There are
mythological stories explaining the origin and exploits of Nara and
Narayana, who are also credited with the story of creation of Urvasi the
celestial nymph and the slaying of a demon with thousand armors (types of
ignorance). We however believe that any human being with awakened divinity
in Him and works for the welfare of humanity is a Nara-Narayana, an
incarnation of Vishnu on earth working for the preservation of the dharma
or righteousness. In the images Nara and Narayana are shown either jointly or
separately. When they are shown separately, Nara is shown with two heads
and wearing a deer skin while Narayana is shown on its left with four arms
carrying the usual emblems of Vishnu.
Vishnu is considered as Purusha who was born out of sacrifice and was also
sacrificed in turn. In the Bhagavad gita, Sri Krishna says that Brahman is
ever present in the Yajna (brahma nityam yajne pratisthitam) and
that God is the enjoyer (bhokta) as well as the lord (prabhu) of all
sacrifices. In His incarnation as Yajna, Vishnu is called Yajneswara or
Lord of the Sacrifice.
In this form he is usually depicted with two heads, seven hands, three
legs and four horns. His seven hands carry different objects which are
generally used in the performance of the Yajna.
Vyasa: Vedavyas is the author of the famous epic Mahabharata, the
Puranas and the Brahmasutras. He is also credited with the division of the
vedic hymns into the present form of the four Vedas. Vedavyasa is the
codifier and preserver of human memory and knowledge in the form of
immortal writings and hence his identification with Lord Vishnu. Vedavyas
is generally depicted as a seer, with knotted hair, slender in form and
darker in complexion, in the company of his four disciples, namely,
Jaimini, Paila, Vaisampayana and Sumantu.
aspects of Vishnu
The following gods are also considered to be incarnations
or manifestations of Vishnu. These gods are very popular and are
worshipped regularly by millions of devotees. They are actually
responsible for the popularity of Vaishnavisim Vishnu is generally
worshipped in various aspects, and seldom in his form.
Jagannath of Puri in Orissa
Pandurang Vithala or Vithoba of Pandharpur in Maharashtra
Ranganatha of Kanchipuram
Varadaraja of Kanchipuram as well as Tirupathi in Andhra Pradesh
Venkateswara or Balaji of Tirumala, in Andhra Pradesh
Srinivasa of Srirangam in Tamilnadu and Srirangapatna in Karnatka
Lord Satyanarayana: He the Lord of truth (Sathya), a very popular deity
who is generally worshipped in the households on specific
Deities of Vaishnavism:
Garuda is the bird vehicle of Lord Vishnu, who is found in every temple of
Vishnu generally in front of the sanctum sanctorum. In the Hindu mythology,
he carries Lord Vishnu whenever the latter travels from place to place. In the images he is shown
as standing or sitting on one knee, hands joined in adoration, with
an eagle nose, sharp features, and two wings. Some times he is shown with
additional hands of four or eight carrying a snake, a vessel of ambrosia,
a sword, a mace, a wheel, a conch etc. These are the objects of Vishnu which he carries in his
capacity as his attendant.
Hanuman: He is one
of the most popular gods of Hinduism today. He is generally shown as
standing reverentially or sitting devotedly at the feet
of Rama, sitting alone and cross legged in a meditative posture, flying in the air
carrying a mountain or standing tall with a mace on his shoulders or
by his side. He is shown as cheerful (prasannanjaneya), ferocious (Veeranjaneya), meditating
(dhayananjaneya) or in a mood of devotion (bhaktanjaneya).
(Please refer our separate article on Hanuman in this section and another
one on the symbolic significance of Hanuman in our symbolism section.)
Emblems of Vishnu:
A U shaped mark with a vertical stripe in between. Worn by devoted
Vaishnavites on their foreheads.
It is Vaishnava's equivalent of a Siva ling, a fossilized
shell of a mollusc, with a lot of whorls inside, resembling
a galaxy in motion, which is worshipped as a symbol of
Vishnu in the households of devote followers.
Suggested Further Reading