- Vishnu in his various forms is one of the most worshipped gods in the Indian pantheon. His tradition, known as VAISHNAVISM, constitutes the second largest sect within Hinduism.Vishnu first appears in the VEDAS as a rather insignificant divinity, with only minor ritual impor-tance. There are only 64 mentions of him in the RIG VEDA, most of them in passing, with only a handful of hymns addressed to him alone. He is celebrated in the Vedas mostly for his “three steps” that saved the world, in his incarnation as VAMANA AVATA R.Vishnu first gains prominence in the later Vedic period, apparently after being identified with VASUDEVA, a non-Vedic god popular in west-ern India in the last centuries before the Common Era, and with the god Narayana of the Vedic BRAH-MANA literature. By the time of the MAHABHARATA and RAMAYANA epics his prominence was assured. He was identified both with the gods KRISHNA, hero of the Mahabharata, and RAMA, hero of the Ramayana.Eventually, Vishnu’s cult reached full devel-opment when he was recognized as Mahavishnu (great Vishnu), preserver of the universe, who entered into the world when needed in succes-sive AVATA Rs or “descents.” Before the world is created, Vishnu sleeps on the cosmic MILK OCEAN on the back of the divine serpent ADISHESHA. Out of his navel grows a lotus from which BRAHMA the creator god emerges to create the universe. Once Lord Venkateshwara, popularly known as Balaji, is one of the manifestations of Lord Vishnu. (Institute for the Study of American Religion, Santa Barbara, California) the world is created Vishnu reigns in his heavenly realm of Vaikuntha.Iconographically, Vishnu is depicted as being of dark blue color with four arms. He is seated on a throne. In his four hands he holds a conch, a war discus, a mace, and a lotus. He wears the Kaustubha gem around his neck and has a tuft of hair on his chest called Shrivatsa. His vehicle is the man-eagle GARUDA. His spouse is LAKSHMI, or Sri. In the highest understanding he exists as all things and also transcends them.Vishnu as the sustainer divinity takes human or animal incarnations when needed to maintain or defend the world. The BHAGAVAD GITA says that whenever there is a decrease in righteousness and an increase in unrighteousness in the world, Vishnu (there KRISHNA) sends himself forth. Only Vishnu among the gods is seen to take on incar-nations as part of a divine duty. Other gods such as SHIVA and the Goddess will be found in various forms, but these will not be referred to in general as avatars or incarnations.There are different lists of avatars or incarna-tions of Vishnu in different texts and traditions, variously containing 10, 12, or 22 god names. The most common list of avatars is MAT S YA (fish), KURMA (tortoise), VARAHA (boar), Nara-simha (man-lion), VAMANA (dwarf), PARASHURAMA (RAMA with the axe), Rama of the RAMAYANA, KRISHNA, BUDDHA, and KALKI (his future incarna-tion). Sometimes Krishna’s brother BALARAMA is made the 11th avatar and sometimes both Krishna and Balarama are classified as one avatar.Whenever Vishnu takes an avatar, he is subject to birth and death just as a human is. Krishna of the MAHABHARATA, for instance, dies by being shot in the heel.Further reading: R. G. Bhandarkar, Vaisnavism, Saivism, and Minor Religious Systems (Poona: Bhandarkar Ori-ental Research Institute, 1982); K. Bharadvaja, A Philo-sophical Study of the Concept of Visnu in the Puranas (New Delhi: Pitambar, 1981); Kalpana S. Desai, Iconog-raphy of Visnu (In Northern India, up to the Mediaeval Period) (New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1973); Cor-nelia Dimitt and J. A. B. van Buitenen, eds. and trans., Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978); J. Gonda, Aspects of Early Visnuism, 2d ed. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1969); ———, Visnuism and Siva-ism: A Comparison (London: Athlone, 1970); Nanditha Krishna, The Book of Vishnu (New Delhi: Viking, 2001); Sushil Kumar Patel, Hinduism in India: A Study of Visnu Worship (Delhi: Amar Prakashan, 1992); A. K. Ramanu-jan, trans., Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Visnu by Nammalvar (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981); Margaret Stutley, An Illustrated Dictionary of Hindu Iconography (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985); Pandrimalai Swamigal, The Ten Incarnations: Dasvatara (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1982).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.