Vishnu means “giver” or “provider” of things. He is the Hindu Trinity’s preserver and upholder of dharma in popular Hinduism.
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He is the Supreme Self and the Lord of the Universe in Vaishnavism, manifesting in various ways as part of His obligatory duty. The Vedas honor him as a solar deity (Aditya) and praise him as the god of three strides, upholder of law, and bestower of boons.
Over time, he was renamed Narayana, which means “the dweller of waters and human beings.” The word nara can refer to both water (naram) and humans (nara).
Vishnu lives in Vaikunth’s milky waters on a bed made of the coils of the thousand hooded great serpents, Adishesha of infinite dimensions. His consort, Goddess Lakshmi, looks after him. The ocean represents bliss and consciousness, the serpent represents time, diversity, desire, and illusion, and the goddess Lakshmi represents material things and the powers of creation.
Vishnu’s color is that of a dark blue cloud. It is the color of the sky, indicating his cosmic dimensions as well as his relationship with the Vedic gods of rain and thunder, as well as his relationship with the earth. He is usually depicted with one face, four arms, and is either standing or resting. He wears a necklace made of the famous Kaustubha gem, which rests on his left chest, as well as another flower and gem garland called Vaijayanti.
His four arms each hold a sankha (conch), chakra (discus), gada (mace), and padma (lotus). The conch represents the five elements, the AUM sound, salagrama, goddess Lakshmi, the waters, purity, and perfection. Vishnu’s terrible weapon, the discus, is used to destroy evil and protect the righteous. It represents the light-bearing sun, which illuminates and dispels darkness. It also represents higher consciousness, which dispels all illusions. The mace represents knowledge power, while the lotus represents beauty, harmony, purity, the water element, creation, and self-realization.
According to the Bhagavad gita, whenever evil ascends, God incarnates on earth to restore dharma, punish the evil, and protect the weak and righteous. Because Vishnu is the preserver of the worlds and the purpose of an incarnation is the same, all incarnations of God are generally associated with Lord Vishnu. The number of incarnations of Vishnu varies. The accepted number of incarnations is ten, of which nine have already occurred and the tenth is yet to occur. Some versions include a list of 23 incarnations of Vishnu, including the names Dattatreya, Satvata, and Vedavyasa.
The nine incarnations are as follows: 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 (ramavatara), the incarnation of (krishnavatara). The tenth incarnation, a ferocious god named Kalki, is yet to come. The list of incarnations occasionally includes Buddha in the place of Balarama.
The Reality of Incarnations
In reality, much myth revolves around the theory of incarnations. As previously stated, some of the incarnations attributed to Vishnu were previously attributed to Brahma. Second, none of the incarnations declared themselves to be Vishnu incarnations. Attempts were made to bring the Buddha as a Vishnu incarnation. This was most likely done to incorporate Buddhism into Vaishnavism in response to the growing popularity of Saivism, whose adherents held both Vaishnavism and Buddhism in contempt.
While we cannot be certain about the veracity of the list of incarnations or the events associated with many of them, the concept of incarnation is a plausible and logically acceptable one. It is completely consistent with the concept of God as the creator and upholder of dharma and rta (order and balance) in the universe.
The more enlightened version of the incarnation theory holds that God chooses various methods to restore order and balance to the universe. One is by direct descent, with all of his latent powers latent in human form, and all of 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 Rama or Krishna’s incarnation. He takes on this form only when a massive evil rears its head and begins causing havoc everywhere.
Second, only an aspect (amsa) of Him manifests on earth as a great soul for a specific purpose, typically as a seer, guru, ruler, or artist. The incarnation of Vedavyasa or Dattatreya is classified as partial manifestation or amsavatara.
Third, He does not descend at all, but rather chooses a specific human being as his vehicle and sends knowledge or messages, answers, and solutions into him. This category includes many prophets, inventors, and saints of revelations who were able to open specific channels of communication with God or to whom God chose to speak. If he is telling the truth, someone like Neale Donald Walsch of Conversations with God may find a place on this list.
Fourth, He would incarnate elsewhere in one of the three ways mentioned above, but incorporeally, and help the earth in general. We don’t know much about these incarnations. However, all manifestations of Brahman as various gods and goddesses in various worlds, including the Trinity, are only his incarnations and can be included in this category.
Vishnu’s minor incarnations
These are gods who came to this world to perform a specific task and have an aspect of Lord Vishnu. Dattatreya, Kapila, Dhanvantari, Mohini, Hayagriva, Naranarayana, Vedavyasa, and Yajna should be mentioned.
Dattatreya: Dattatreya, son of Atri and Anasuya, had perfected the rites associated with soma juice and the invocation of higher powers through magic and some kind of tantra. He also helped those who were outside the Vedic religion to understand the Vedic teachings and assimilate into Vedic society. He was most likely given the impurity stamp and denied his due honours as a result of this. However, it appears that his divinity was later recognised and restored. He is said to have three heads, four hands, and is always followed by four loyal dogs.The three heads denote his connection with the entire Trinity, not just Vishnu.
His four hands represent his divinity and supernatural status, and the four dogs that follow him represent the four Vedas and his mastery over them.
Kapila: Kapila was the author of the Kapilasutras and the founder of the Sankhya school of philosophy. Sankhya philosophy was extremely popular in ancient India and inspired many scholars to speculate on existing religious beliefs. The inclusion of Kapila as a minor incarnation of Vishnu was most likely an attempt to reconcile Sankhya philosophy and Brahmanism, just as there was an attempt to reconcile Buddhism and Vaishnavism by considering the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu. Sage Kapila is said to have cursed and reduced the sixty thousand sons of Sagara to ashes, prompting Bhagirath to perform severe penances and bring down the Ganges that was flowing in the heavens.
We’re not sure if this Kapila is the same as the Sankhya philosophy’s founder.
Dhanvantari: He was most likely a well-known physician in ancient India, endowed with a vast knowledge of herbal medicines and miraculous healing abilities. Dhanvantari appears in the mythological story of Sagarmanthan (the churning of the oceans). Dhanvantari is said to have appeared before the gods and demons after they began churning the ocean in search of immortality, holding a vessel containing the ambrosia. As a result, we don’t know whether Dhanvantari is a title given to an expert physician or a person’s name. Whatever the truth is, Vishnu is a great healer because healing is part of his preservation work. Dhanvantari was probably accepted as a minor incarnation of Vishnu because he was a great physician.
Hayagriva: He probably existed in the post-Rigvedic period and reintroduced to mankind the lost knowledge of Yajurveda through Yajnavalkya. He is thought to be an aspect of Vishnu as the Sun god, and is described as a deity with a horse’s head. In the images, he is depicted with eight arms bearing various Vishnu emblems.
Mohini: Mohini tricked the demons and kept them from partaking in the ambrosia. Mohini is considered an incarnation of Vishnu because delusion is an important weapon in Vishnu’s arsenal, for which he is also known as mayavi, the creator of illusion. Mohini duped even Siva, giving birth to the sage Maya Machchindra.
Nara-Narayana: Nara means “human,” while Narayana refers to the Supreme Self. Nara and Narayana are popular names for Arjuna and Sri Krishna. Nara and Narayana are credited with the creation of Urvasi the celestial nymph and the slaying of a demon with a thousand armors, according to mythological stories (types of ignorance). We believe, however, that any human being who has awakened divinity within himself and works for the welfare of humanity is a Nara-Narayana, an incarnation of Vishnu on earth working for the preservation of dharma or righteousness. Nara and Narayana are depicted either together or separately in the images.
When shown separately, Nara is depicted with two heads and deer skin, while Narayana is depicted on its left with four arms and the usual Vishnu emblems.
Yajna: Vishnu is regarded as a Purusha who was born through sacrifice and was sacrificed in return. Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad gita that Brahman is always present in Yajna (brahma nityam yajne pratisthitam) and that God is both the enjoyer (bhokta) and the lord (prabhu) of all sacrifices. Vishnu is known as Yajneswara, or Lord of Sacrifice, in His incarnation as Yajna. In this form, he typically has two heads, seven hands, three legs, and four horns. His seven hands hold various objects that are commonly used in the Yajna performance.
Ved Vyasa: Vedavyas wrote the famous epic Mahabharata, as well as the Puranas and the Brahmasutras. He is also credited with dividing the Vedic hymns into the four Vedas that exist today. Vedavyasa is known as Lord Vishnu because he is the codifier and preserver of human memory and knowledge in the form of immortal writings. Vedavyas is typically depicted as a seer with knotted hair, a slender figure, and a darker complexion, accompanied by his four disciples, Jaimini, Paila, Vaisampayana, and Sumantu.
Other aspects of Vishnu
The following gods are also thought to be venerable manifestations of Vishnu (arcavatara). These gods are extremely popular and are regularly worshipped by millions of devotees. They are primarily responsible for Vaishnavism’s popularity. Vishnu is generally worshipped in various forms, but rarely in his actual form.
Lord Jagannatha of Puri in Orissa Lord Panduranga Vithala or Vithoba of Pandharpur in Maharashtra Lord Ranganatha of Kanchipuram Lord Varadaraja of Kanchipuram as well as Tirupathi in Andhra Pradesh Lord Venkateswara or Balaji of Tirumala, in Andhra Pradesh Lord Srinivasa of Srirangam in Tamilnadu and Srirangapatna in Karnatka Lord Satyanarayana: He is the Lord of Truth (Sathya), a well-known deity who is commonly worshipped in households on special occasions as part of penance (vratam).
Minor Vaishnav Deities:
Garuda: Garuda is Lord Vishnu’s bird vehicle, and he can be found in every temple of Vishnu, usually in front of the sanctum sanctorum. According to Hindu legend, he transports Lord Vishnu from one location to another. He is depicted in the images as standing or sitting on one knee, hands joined in adoration, with an eagle nose, sharp features, and two wings. He is sometimes depicted with four or eight additional hands holding a snake, an ambrosia vessel, a sword, a mace, a wheel, a conch, and so on. These are Vishnu’s objects, which he transports in his capacity as his attendant.
Hanuman: He is now one of Hinduism’s most popular gods. He is typically depicted standing reverently or devotedly at Rama’s feet, sitting alone and cross-legged in a meditative posture, flying through the air with a mountain on his shoulders or by his side, or standing tall with a mace on his shoulders or by his side. He is depicted as joyful (prasannanjaneya), ferocious (Veeranjaneya), meditating (dhayananjaneya), or in a devotional mood (bhaktanjaneya). (Please see our separate article on Hanuman in this section, as well as our article on Hanuman’s symbolic significance in our symbolism section.)
Emblems of Vishnu:
Namam: A U shaped mark with a vertical stripe in between. Worn by devoted Vaishnavites on their foreheads. Shank: or Conch Chakra: The discus Gada: or mace Kausthubham: The necklace Salagrama: It is the Vaishnava equivalent of a Siva ling, a fossilised shell of a mollusc with many whorls inside, resembling a galaxy in motion, that is worshipped as a symbol of Vishnu in devote followers’ households.