VISHNU: HIS AVATARS, IMAGES, STORIES AND RELATIONS WITH OTHER GODS

VISHNU

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Vishnu, Raja Ravi, Varma and Lord Garuda
Vishnu is known as the Preserver and is a god with many incarnations. Generally regarded as nice, eternally young and attractive, he is often depicted with a crown and reclining on a multi-headed serpent with a lotus flower emerging from his navel. He usually has four arms. One carries a mace, which represents the basic force from which all other forces are derived. The others hold a conch, a disc, and a ball or a lotus. Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth is Vishnu's wife. Their mount in Garuda, the man-eagle.

Vishnu is the second god in the Hindu triumvirate (orTrimurti) — the three gods who are responsible for the creation, upkeep and destruction of the world. The other two gods are Brahma and Shiva. Vishnu’s role is to return to the earth in troubled times and restore the balance of good and evil.Vishnu's worshippers, usually called Vaishnava, consider him the greatest god. They regard the other gods as lesser or demi gods. Vaishnava worship only Vishnu. Vishnu monotheism is called Vaishnavism. [Source: BBC |::|]

The historical Vishnu is good example of a single god that was coalesced from multiple gods over time. In the early Vedic verses Vishnu was a dwarf capable of crossing the universe in three strides. He was a minor deity who performed these feats mainly to amuse the other gods and was mentioned only five times in the Rig Veda. His antics as a dwarf made him popular and he became a major god, it is believed, after he was merged with an early sun god.

In the Rig Veda, which is the holiest of the four Vedas, Vishnu is mentioned numerous times alongside other gods, such as Indra. He is particularly associated with light and especially with the Sun. In early texts, Vishnu is not included as one of the original seven solar gods (Adityas), but in later texts he is mentioned as leading them. From this time, Vishnu appears to have gained more prominence, and by the time of the Brahmanas (commentaries of the Vedas), he is regarded as the most important of all gods. Two of Vishnu's incarnations, Rama and Krishna, are also the subject of the epic stories Ramayana and Mahabharata, respectively. |::|

See Separate Articles on BRAHMA, VISHNU AND SHIVA factsanddetails.com and GANESH. HANUMAN AND KALI factsanddetails.com .

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; Heart of Hinduism (Hare Krishna Movement) iskconeducationalservices.org ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Shyam Ranganathan, York University iep.utm.edu/hindu ; Vedic Hinduism SW Jamison and M Witzel, Harvard University people.fas.harvard.edu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), Wikisource ; Hinduism by Swami Nikhilananda, The Ramakrishna Mission .wikisource.org ; All About Hinduism by Swami Sivananda dlshq.org ; Advaita Vedanta Hinduism by Sangeetha Menon, International Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of the non-Theistic school of Hindu philosophy) ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs ; Hindu Texts: Sanskrit and Prakrit Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Manuscripts Vol. 1 archive.org/stream and Volume 2 archive.org/stream ; Clay Sanskrit Library claysanskritlibrary.org ; Sacred-Texts: Hinduism sacred-texts.com ; Sanskrit Documents Collection: Documents in ITX format of Upanishads, Stotras etc. sanskritdocuments.org ; Ramayana and Mahabharata condensed verse translation by Romesh Chunder Dutt libertyfund.org ; Ramayana as a Monomyth from UC Berkeley web.archive.org ; Ramayana at Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org ; Mahabharata Online (in Sanskrit) sub.uni-goettingen.de ; Mahabharata holybooks.com/mahabharata-all-volumes ; Mahabharata Reading Suggestions, J. L. Fitzgerald, Das Professor of Sanskrit, Department of Classics, Brown University brown.edu/Departments/Sanskrit_in_Classics ; Mahabharata Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org ; Bhagavad Gita (Arnold translation) wikisource.org/wiki/The_Bhagavad_Gita ; Bhagavad Gita at Sacred Texts sacred-texts.com ; Bhagavad Gita gutenberg.org gutenberg.org

Vishnu, Preservation, Balance and Right Action


Vishnu sahasranama manuscript, 1690

Vidya Dehejia, a professor at Columbia University, wrote: “An important Hindu belief is that there is normally a balance of good and evil in the world. Sometimes the balance shifts and there is more evil than good in the world. This is thought to be unfair to people on earth and the god Vishnu, in his role as the preserver descends to earth to restore the balance of good and evil. It is thought that Vishnu has actually descended to earth nine times already and will once more in the future... A theory of ten incarnations, or avatars, is associated with Vishnu, who is believed to have been born on earth on nine occasions; the tenth is yet to come. The most popular avatars are Rama, prince of Ayodhya, a model of a warrior-king, hero of the Ramayama epic, and Krishna, the cowherd prince, beloved of the cowherd girls of Brindavan and teacher of Arjuna in the famous philosophical poem Bhagavad Gita. [Source: Vidya Dehejia, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Vishnu preserves and maintains order in the universe. Whenever destructive forces, usually symbolized by demons, threaten to overwhelm the world, Vishnu descends in the form of an avatar to restore moral order. His concern for human political and social activities expresses the gentle and just-minded side of the One. It is believed that in our present universe, Vishnu has already appeared in nine incarnations, taking such animal forms as a fish and a tortoise and various human forms such as Krishna, Rama, and the Buddha. It is believed he will appear once more in the future. As Rama, he symbolizes the importance of loyalty and obedience. As Krishna, he is the divine lover as well as a slayer of demons. Krishna’s consort, Radha, and his female devotees, in their passionate longing for him, symbolize the soul’s desire to be one with God.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]


ancient statue Vishnu with Lakshmi at Ajanta Caves

Vishnu is associated with “right action” and is considered an upholder of Hindu values. He preserves the universe by staying awake. If he falls asleep creation will withdraw intro a seed from it which it will emerge when creation occurs again. His role as preservers is greatly valued by Indians who worship Vishnu and pay homage to him in many ways. Vaishnavites, devotees of Vishnu, are one of the largest Hindu sects. See Sects.

Vishnu Images, Symbols and Representations

Vidya Dehejia, a professor at Columbia University, wrote: “The Hindu god Vishnu is distinguished by the war discus (chakra) and the conch-shell trumpet (shankha) that he holds in his hands. Vishnu wears a tall crown and rich jewelry and is often accompanied by his divine consort, Lakshmi, goddess of fortune. [Source: Vidya Dehejia, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Vishnu is represented with a human body, often with blue coloured skin and with four arms. His hands always carry four objects in them, representing the things he is responsible for; 1) The conch, which produces the sound 'Om', representing the primeval sound of creation; 2) the chakra, or discus: symbolising the mind; 3) the lotus flower, a symbol of glorious existence and liberation; and 4) the mace, representing mental and physical strength. The objects have even more symbolic meanings than those listed here.

Vishnu is usually represented in two positions: 1) Standing upright on a lotus flower with Lakshmi, his consort, close by him; and 2) Reclining on the coils of a serpent, with Lakshmi massaging his feet. They are surrounded by the Milky Ocean. Vishnu rides on the eagle-like King of Birds, Garuda.

In a typical Hindu painting of Vishnu's incarnation as the fish Matsya, Vishnu is shown emerging from the mouth of a fish in a pond full of lotus flowers. Onlookers are worshipping him while a demon looks defiant and disgruntled.

Iconography of Vishnu

Vishnu is sometimes used to symbolize the universe with his left eye representing night; his right eye representing day; clouds emerging from his hair; and the sun emanating from his mouth. From his nose comes the breath of life, which if properly directed can produce enlightenment. The conch shell, a symbol closely associated with Vishnu, is also associated with creation and is often blown at temples to indicate the presence of Vishnu. Vishnu sculpture often feature the god inside a flaming wheel.


Vishnu’s four arms, he holds a lotus blossom, the mace Kaumodaki, a conch and the Sudarshana Chakra

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Vishnu is usually depicted with four arms and wears a tall conical crown. Typically, one of his hands makes the fear-allaying gesture. His animal mount is Garuda, a man-bird and ancient solar symbol of power. In Vishnu’s nine previous avatars, he appeared as a fish, tortoise, boar, man-lion, dwarf, the ax-bearer Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, and the Buddha. Vishnu’s tenth appearance, yet to come, will be Kalki. His two most popular avatars are Krishna and Rama, both of whom, like Vishnu, are portrayed with dark blue-gray colored skin.Vishnu’s usual attributes are: The Great Goddess Devi. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

In iconography Vishnu may appear as any of his ten incarnations but often stands in sculpture as a princely male with four arms that bear a club, discus, conch, and lotus flower. He may also appear lying on his back on the thousand-headed king of the serpents, Shesha-Naga, in the milk ocean at the center of time, with his feet massaged by Lakshmi, and with a lotus growing from his navel giving birth to the god Brahma, a four-headed representation of the creative principle. Vishnu in this representation is the ultimate source of the universe that he causes to expand and contract at regular cosmic intervals measuring millions of years. On a more concrete level, Vishnu may become incarnate at any moment on earth in order to continue to bring sentient creatures back to himself, and a number of great religious teachers (including, for example, Chaitanya in Bengal) are identified by their followers as incarnations of Vishnu. *

Vishnu, His Incarnations and Other Gods

Vishnu is worshiped in the form of his incarnations and sometimes viewed as embodiment of the entire pantheon of Hindu gods. He is often depicted with other gods, such as Agni, Indra and Yama, placed on other parts of his body. Brahma was created from a lotus flower that sprouted from Vishnu's navel. Lord Jagannath, a reincarnation of Vishnu, was created by a celestial carpenter who shaped the deity, his brother and sister from a miraculous log. Vishnu’s wife is Lakshima.

Vishnu often takes an earthly from to save the world. The 10 incarnations he uses are 1) Matsya, the fish that saved the first man from the great flood; 2) Kurma, a tortoise that serves as a base for the mountain that supports the universe and is the creature that found the sacred ambrosia in the milk can; 3) a boar with the body of a man who holds the Earth goddess in his hands; 4) a man-lion who attacks the king of the demons with his paws; 5) a dwarf who obtains the earth, sky and hell and helps the gods gain possession of the world; 6) Rama in human form with an ax; 7) Rama, the hero of the Ramayana; 8) Krishna; 9) Buddha; and 10) a man-horse. By far the most important incarnations are Rama and Krishna. Rama is sometimes called the God of Truth. He is often depicted with a bow. See Ramayana and Mahabharata Above, See Krishna Below.

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Shiva and Vishnu
The incarnation of Vishnu known to almost everyone in India is his life as Ram (Rama in Sanskrit), a prince from the ancient north Indian kingdom of Ayodhya, in the cycle of stories known as the Ramayana (The Travels of Ram). On one level, this is a classic adventure story, as Ram is exiled from the kingdom and has to wander in the forests of southern India with his beautiful wife Sita and his loyal younger brother Lakshman. After many adventures, during which Ram befriends the king of the monkey kingdom and joins forces with the great monkey hero Hanuman, the demon king Ravana kidnaps Sita and takes her to his fortress on the island of Lanka (modern Sri Lanka). A huge war then ensues, as Ram with his animal allies attacks the demons, destroys them all, and returns in triumph to North India to occupy his lawful throne. Village storytellers, street theater players, the movies, and the national television network all have their versions of this story. In many parts of the country, but especially in North India, the annual festival of Dussehra celebrates Ram's adventures and his final triumph and includes the public burning of huge effigies of Ravana at the end of several days of parties. Everyone knows that Ram is really Vishnu, who came down to rid the earth of the demons and set up an ideal kingdom of righteousness--Ram Raj--which stands as an ideal in contemporary India. Sita is in reality his consort, the goddess Lakshmi, the ideal of feminine beauty and devotion to her husband. Lakshmi, also known as Shri, eventually became the goddess of fortune, surplus, and happiness. Hanuman, as the faithful sidekick with great physical and magical powers, is one of the most beloved images in the Hindu pantheon with temples of his own throughout the country. *

Vishnu and His Incarnations

When Vishnu descends to earth, he takes on the form of a human, animal or other being. Each form is called an incarnation or avatar. Vishnu has appeared in various incarnations nine times on this earth, with the tenth predicted. Together the ten forms are known as the Dashavatara. With each incarnation Vishnu has a different task or challenge to accomplish.


Vishnu and his Avatars from the 11th century

Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA, writes: “Of the three gods that are constitutive of the Hindu trinity, Vishnu (the Preserver) alone has avatars or incarnations. His principal counterpart, Shiva (the Destroyer), has offspring, such as Ganesh, but no avatars.... The main lore about the avatars of Vishnu is to be found in the Puranas, though of course the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are critical sources for the two heroic avatars of Vishnu. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA ==]

“According to the Matsya Purana (47.32), "When the end of an Age rolls around and time has lost its strength, then Lord Vishnu is born among men. When the gods and demons go to war, then Hari [Vishnu] is born." Again, in the words of the Garuda Purana (1.13), "For the protection of his creation, the unborn, undying Vasudeva [another name for Vishnu] made various avataras", and (142.2): "When lord Hari descended in order to annihilate the law of the demons and to preserve the law of the Vedas and other laws . . . the unborn god assumed avataras." ==

“Though the word avatar is usually translated into English as "incarnation", and less often as "descent", an avatar can also be understood as an exemplar, as in the case of Rama, or as a vehicle for transmitting ideas to human beings; an avatar might also be viewed as an expression of God’s playfulness, wrath, or mere concern for human welfare – and as a warning. The Supreme Being (as Vishnu) might choose to incarnate itself in forms lower than humans, so that what the Greeks called the hubris or pride of man is checked; it might choose to manifest itself in forms – such as half man, half lion – that are incomprehensible from the standpoint of ordinary rationality, but that point to the animal tendencies within us, just as they suggest both that the enterprise of being human is always fraught with the most hazardous consequences, and that those forms of life which we habitually consider below us might have in them the intimations of divinity.” ==

Vishnu's Avatars

The ten incarnations of Vishnu are: 1) Matsya (fish): which some Hindus believe is similar to the biblical representation of Noah; 2) Kurma (turtle), Churning of the Ocean; 3) Varaha (pig/boar), the avatar in which Vishnu recovered the stolen Vedas; 4) Narasimha (half lion, half man), in which Vishnu managed to vanquish a demon who had gained immunity from attacks from man, beast or god; 5) Vamana (dwarf sage with the ability to grow); 6) Parasurama (fierce man/hunter), in which Vishnu rids the earth of irreligious and sinful monarchs; 7) Rama, the great warrior and ideal man, who killed the demon King Ravana and rescued his wife Sita in the Ramayana; 8) Krishna (mentally advanced man), the hero of the epic poem the Mahabharata and as the Baghavad Gita; and 9) The Buddha (the all knowing one). who appeared in the 5th century B.C. In some traditions, Balarama replaces Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu. 10) Kalki, the tenth incarnation, is expected towards the end of this present age of decline, as a person on earth, seated on a white horse.


Vishnu avatars

Professor Lal writes: Vishnu is generally held to have ten incarnations, but the number ten is much less ‘traditional’ than is commonly believed. The Matsya Purana (47.32-52), for instance, enumerates twelve avatars, while the Garuda Purana (1.12-35) mentions twenty-two. The Bhagavata Purana likewise mentions twenty-two incarnations, but after enumerating them, it adds: "The incarnations of Vishnu are innumerable, like the rivulets flowing from an inexhaustible lake. Rishis, Manus, gods, sons of Manus, Prajapatis, are all portions of him." The ten incarnations of Vishnu take us from lower forms of evolution to divinities that appear in the guise of men. Though some might read in the narrative of the avatars a strict linear progression, the numerous texts belie such a mechanical interpretation. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA ==]

“Vishnu is first said to have come down in the form of a fish (matsya), which saved the Vedas from being consumed by the asuras (demons), followed by a tortoise (kurma) and boar (varaha). In the form of a boar, Vishnu killed the mighty asura Hiranyaksha, whereupon the latter’s elder brother, Hiranyakashipu, swore to avenge his brother’s death. According to the Vishnu Purana, Hiranyakashipu practiced such immense austerities that the rivers and oceans trembled before him, the volcanoes spit fire, and the astral bodies went astray. Hiranyakashipu subjected his own son Prahlad, a devotee of Vishnu, to immense pain and suffering, and consequently Vishnu had to descend in the form of Narasimha, half-man and half-lion, to put an end to the demon’s life. These four incarnations are held to have appeared in the satya-yuga, or the first epoch of the world.

“In his sixth incarnation, Vishnu appeared as Parasurama, or "Rama with the axe", armed with the mission of liberating the Brahmins from the yoke of the Kshatriyas. The seventh, eighth, and ninth avatars of Vishnu suggest the heroic, and to some degree, historic element. It is quite likely that Rama was a local hero, who was ultimately elevated to the status of a divinity; and in the Ramayana, which celebrates his exploits, he is described as an avatara of Vishnu who had perforce to kill the demon-king, Ravana. Krishna, the eighth avatara, was similarly most likely a hero or minor king at first, and in the Mahabharata he is described as a prince of the Yadava clan. He was eventually absorbed into the pantheon of Vishnu’s avatars, but assumed such importance that he was taken to be the Supreme Being himself. The Buddha appears as the ninth avatar, according to the puranas, and some scholars have pointed to this as an illustration of the tendency within Hinduism to absorb its rivals. Finally, the tenth avatar is yet to appear at the end of the present or kali-yuga: it is represented as Kalki, a figure seated on a white horse, with a drawn sword flashing away, cutting at the forces of evil.” ==

Vishnu as the Dwarf Sage Vamana: His Fifth Avatar

In the story of the dwarf sage Vamana, the evil demon Bali took over the earth and kicked all of the gods out of the heavens. Vishnu, in the form of the dwarf, tricked Bali into promising to give him as much of Bali's empire as he could cover in three steps. As Vamana Vishnut then grows to an immense size: so large that he covers the earth in one step and the heavens with his second step, thus returning their ownership to the gods. [Source: BBC]

Professor Lal writes: Bali, the chief of the Daityas or asuras in the treta-yuga, or the second age, had acquired immense powers on account of his austerities, and again Vishnu was approached by the devas, who sought freedom from Bali’s tyrannical behavior. In the guise of a dwarf, Vamana, Vishnu appeared before Bali, who in his generosity agreed to grant the dwarf as much land as he could cover in three steps. Little did he know what Vamana was capable of doing: with his first two steps, he astrode the entire earth, heavens, and universe; and as Vamana had no place for placing his foot anywhere, he stepped on Bali’s forehead. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA]

Vishnu Stories and Art

As one of the most important gods in the Hindu pantheon, Vishnu is surrounded by a number of extremely popular and well-known stories and is the focus of a number of sects devoted entirely to his worship. Vishnu contains a number of personalities, often represented as ten major descents (avatars) in which the god has taken on physical forms in order to save earthly creatures from destruction. In one story, the earth was drowning in a huge flood, so to save it Vishnu took on the body of a giant turtle and lifted the earth on his back out of the waters. A tale found in the Vedas describes a demon who could not be conquered. Responding to the pleas of the gods, Vishnu appeared before the demon as a dwarf. The demon, in a classic instance of pride, underestimated this dwarf and granted him as much of the world as he could tread in three steps. Vishnu then assumed his universal form and in three strides spanned the entire universe and beyond, crushing the demon in the process. [Source: Library of Congress *]


Vishnu with Madhu and Kaitabha


Vidya Dehejia, a professor at Columbia University, wrote: “The Hindu god (and his many avatars) are the focus of a thrilling assortment of sculptures and paintings, dating from the fourth century through the twentieth. One of the earliest pieces is a sculpture depicting the lion-man Narasimha ripping open the belly of a demon. In a stunning eighteenth-century miniature, Krishna, perhaps Vishnu’s best-known avatar, calmly balances a mountain on his pinkie while a crowd, rendered in painstaking detail, takes refuge underneath it from a demon-generated storm. For all his heroics, Vishnu could be a bad boy. Witness the eighteenth-century watercolor portraying Krishna in childhood, sneaking a handful of butter as his mother slaves away at the churn. [Source: Vidya Dehejia, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Vishnu and the Churning of the Milky Ocean

According to the BBC: “The churning of the Milky Ocean is the story that explains how the gods finally defeated the demons and became immortal. In the story, Vishnu advised the other gods to churn the Milky Ocean in order to recover a number of lost treasures, including the elixir of immortality and Lakshmi, the goddess of success and wealth. Both of these items would enable the gods to defeat the demons who had taken taken over the universe. [Source: BBC |::|

“Knowing the gods would be unable to churn the great ocean themselves, Vishnu struck a deal with the demons. He told them they would get a share of the treasures, including the elixir of immortality, if they helped to churn. They agreed. Vishnu told the gods and demons they should use Mount Madura as a churning stick, and the giant serpent, Vasuki, as a rope. Vishnu managed to persuade the demons to hold the head of the snake, which was spitting furiously, while the gods held the tail end. The serpent was then coiled around the mountain. Each side alternately pulled the rope then allowed it to relax, causing the mountain to rotate in the water. |::|

“Before they could regain the treasures, however, there were many problems they had to face. As the gods and demons churned, the mountain began to sink into the soft sand bed of the sea. At the request of the gods, Vishnu incarnated as a turtle. He placed the mountain on his back to act as a foundation stone, thus allowing the churning to continue. Some reports say it was churned for a thousand years before anything came up. |::|

“When the elixir of immortality finally rose to the surface, the demons rushed to grab it. But Vishnu assumed the form of Mohini, a beautiful woman who captivated all the demons. By sleight of hand she changed the elixir for alcohol and returned the precious liquid to the gods. The churning also brought Lakshmi forth from the ocean. She came as a beautiful woman standing on a lotus flower. Seeing all the gods before her, she chose the god she felt was most worthy of her. Vishnu and she have been inseparable since.” |::|


Churning of the Milky Ocean


Narasimha: Vishnu in His Half-Man-Half-Lion Avatar

Professor writes: “ Few of the thousands of stories found in Hindu mythology have as much beauty, poignancy, and moral and intellectual daring as the tale of Narasimha, the man-lion who is the fourth incarnation or avatar of Vishnu. The circumstances under which Vishnu descends to earth in the form of Narasimha are to be found in the fact, as enumerated in the Puranas, that in his previous incarnation as the boar, Vishnu had killed the asura or demon Hiranyaksha, and consequently filled his elder brother, Hiranyakashipu, with a burning desire for revenge. While commanding the asuras to create havoc on earth, Hiranyakashipu himself prepared for the battle with Vishnu by practicing the most severe austerities, the effect of which was that he acquired the most tremendous powers. For scores of years he stood still on Mount Mandara, and though ant hills, grass, and plants grew on his body, he would not stir; the rivers and oceans trembled; the volcanoes roared and the earth shook; and the astral bodies went astray. The fiery smoke emanating from Hiranyakashipu’s very head left a massive trail of destruction, and the panic-stricken devas or gods, led by Indra, finally made their way to Brahma’s abode. Warning him that the worlds of his own creation would soon become extinct, the devas pleaded with Brahma to intercede, whereupon Brahma, declaring himself pleased at the immense austerities practiced by Hiranyakashipu, agreed to grant him any boon, hopeful that he would cease to terrorize the world and the devas. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA ==]

“Such is the tapas, the fire of Hiranyakashipu’s sacrifice and discipline, that even the gods must render him obeisance. Herein hangs another tale, which we shall perforce have to abandon for the moment: the gods do not always favor the just or the pious. Much like Ravana, his fellow asura, Hiranyakashipu receives from Brahma a boon that he shall "never be killed by these means: the striking and throwing weapons of my enemies, thunderbolt, dried tree-trunks, high mountains, by water or fire." Drought, fire, earthquakes, thunder, hurricanes, and all other manner of natural calamities: from all these he shall have immunity. Most decisively, Hiranyakashipu appears to have clinched his immortality when it is agreed that he shall "not be slain in heaven, on earth, in the daytime, at night, from neither above nor below", and most importantly neither by man nor animal. In his arrogance, however, Hiranyakashipu fails to distinguish between Vishnu and the other devas, and finds it beneath his dignity to ask that the boon should confer on him the power to withstand Vishnu. ==

“Emboldened by the boon, Hiranyakashipu and his asuras lose no time in bringing the entire world under their jurisdiction, dominating the devas, and creating a reign of absolute terror. This time, feeling betrayed by Brahma, the devas approach Vishnu, who consoles them with the observation that the seeds of Hiranyakashipu’s destruction are planted in his own home. If virtuous parents do not always have virtuous offspring, wicked-minded fathers do not always seed wicked-minded children. Hiranyakashipu’s own son, Prahlad, is a devoted follower of Vishnu, and his father’s ceaseless efforts to make him abandon his faith do not bear fruit. He is subjected to much pain and suffering; asuras are let loose at him; and he is thrown down a cliff. Yet Prahlad outlives all these attempts at terminating his life. Immensely pleased by his devotion, Vishnu at last decides to intercede directly. Descending to earth in the form of Narasimha, Vishnu appears before the complaisant Hiranyakashipu. As half man (nara) and half lion (simha), he is neither man nor lion; he springs out of a pillar; he strikes at twilight, when it is neither day nor light; and he attacks Hiranyakashipu at the threshold of his palace, under the arch of the doorway, neither on earth nor in the sky. Narasimha throws Hiranyakashipu upon his thighs and rips apart his bowels with his claws. ==


Narasimha killing Hiranyakashipu on his lap, as Prahlada watches at the left


“In the tale of Narasimha, there is that familiar overtone of sectarian conflict, since the Vaishnavite Prahlad is set against the Shavite Hiranyakashipu. There is also the all-too familiar conflict between father and son. But the figure of Narasimha does not merely remind us of the hubris of men, it speaks to the critical importance of liminality in forging any kind of emancipatory politics or theology. It is at the cusp, in the moment of liminality, in the state of in-betweenness, that ignorance is defeated and knowledge is acquired. This in-betweeneness also compels us to recognize that we are not always bound by either "a" or "b", not even by "not a" nor "not b". If we go only so far as common-sense logic appears to take us, we might not travel very far at all. The tale of Narasimha is also there to remind us of the risks which we must take if we seek to be true moral agents.”

Further Reading: An abbreviated account of the Narasimha story from the Matsya Purana is told in Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas, ed. and trans. Cornelia Dimmitt and J. A. B. van Buitenen (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978), pp. 76-78; the most well-known version is to be found in the Vishnu Purana: A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition, trans. H. H. Wilson (3rd ed., 1840; reprint, Calcutta: Punthi Pustak, 1972).

Vishnu, the Cosmic God: from the Puranas

On “Vishnu, the Cosmic God,” 'Vishnu Pura-na,' 3, 17,14-34 reads:
You are everything, earth, water, fire, air, and space,
the subtle world, the Nature-of-All (pradhana),
and the Person (pums) who stands forever aloof.
0 Self of all beings!
From the Creator (Brahma) to the blade of grass
all is your body, visible and invisible,
divided by space and time.


Vishnu as avatar Kurma, with a tortise

We worship you as Brahma, the Immense Being, the first shape,
who sprang from the lotus of your navel to create the worlds.
We, the gods, worship you in our selves,
we, the King of Heaven, the Sun, the Lord of Tears,
the Indweller, the twin gods of agriculture,
the Lord of Wind, the Offering, who all are your shapes
while you are our Selves.

We worship you in your demonic shapes, deceitful and stupid,
wild in their passions, suspicious of wisdom.
We worship you in the genii, the yakshas,
with their narrow-minds obdurate to knowledge,
their blunt faculties covetous of the objects of words.
0 Supreme Man! We bow to your fearful evil shapes
which wander at night, cruel and deceitful

0 Giver-of-Rewards (Jundardana)!
We worship you as the Eternal Law
whence virtuous men, who dwell in the heaven,
obtain the blissful fruit of their just deeds.
We bow to the Realized (Siddhas) who are your shapes of joy;
free from contacts, they enter and move within all things.
0 Remover-of-Sorrow (Hari)! We bow to you the serpent shapes,
lustful and cruel, whose forked tongues know no mercy.

0 Pervaderl We worship you as knowledge
in the peaceful form of the seers,
faultless, free from sin.
0 Dweller in the lotus of the Heart! We bow to you
as the self of Time which, at the end of the ages,
infallibly devours all beings.
We worship you as the Lord of Tears,
who dances at the time of destruction,
having devoured gods and men alike.


Vishnu as avatar Matsya with the infants

0 Giver of Rewardsl We worship yoitr human shape
bound by the twenty-eight incapacities (badha),
ruled by the powers of darkness.
We bow to you as vegetal life (mukhya rupa),
by which the world subsists and which-six in kind,
trees, [creepers, bashes, platits, herbs and bamboo]
supports the sacrifcial rites.

0 Universal Self! We bow to you under that elemental shape
from which beasts and tnen have sprung,
gods and living beings, ether and the elements,
sound and all the qualities.
0 Transcendent Self! We bow to you as the Cause of causes,
the Principal shape beyond compare,
beyond Nature (pradhana) and Intellect.

0 All-powerful (Bhagavan)! We bow to your shape
which the seers alone perceive and in which is found
no white nor other colour, no length nor other diniension,
no density nor other quality.
Purer than purity it stands
beyond the sphere of quality.
We bow to you, the birthless, the indestructible,
outside whom there is but nothingness.

You are the ever-present within all things,
as the intrinsic principle of all.
We bow to you, resplendent Indweller (Vasudeva)! the seed of all
that is!
You stand changeless, unsullied.
The Supreme stage is your core, the Universe your shape.
You are the unborn, Eternal. [Source: Translation by Alain Danielou, in his “Hindu Polytheism” (New York: Bollingen Series LXXIII, 1964).PP. 367-8,, Eliade Page website]

Vaishnavaism

Vishnu's worshippers, usually called Vaishnava, consider him the greatest god. They regard the other gods as lesser or demi gods. Vaishnava worship only Vishnu. Vishnu monotheism is called Vaishnavism. According to the Sri Vaishnava Home Page: Sri Vaishnavism is a multifaceted tradition that has both popular and philosophical aspects. Over its long history, Sri Vaishnavism has influenced nearly every aspect of Indian religious life., including its vibrant temple culture, the philosophical love poetry of the Alvar saints, the Vedanta discourses of the Upanishadic sages, the penetrating insight of the acharyas -- all culminating in the grand philosophy of Visishtadvaita. [Source: Sri Vaishnava Home Page \=\]


Vaishnava musical group

“Visishtadvaita is the system of thought embodied by the Vedanta, the philosophical portion of the Vedas, India's ancient scriptures. The central idea of Visishtadvaita is this: there exists an Ultimate Principle, an Absolute Being that is the source and substratum of all that exists. This immanent spirit is the inner guide and controller of the whole universe with all its diverse animate and inanimate elements. Communion with this gracious, omnipotent Supreme Being constitutes the supreme end of existence. Such communion is attainable exclusively through self-surrender and undivided, loving meditation.” \=\

Among the most famous Vaishnava temples are Srirangam, Tirupati and Tiruvahindrapuram, Famous Alvar saints include Andal, Nammalvar, Tiruppaan and Tirumangai. Ramanuja is one of the most influential philosophers of India, and the most important teacher of Sri Vaishnavism. His most well-known works are The Vedarthasangraha and The Sribhashya. Vedanta Desika is one of the foremost poets and philosophers of India. A versatile genius, he permanently set Ramanuja's philosophy on firm footing and produced lovely, moving stotras. Manavala Mamuni is perhaps the greatest and best loved Sri Vaishnava acharya. He is responsible for the renewal of Sri Vaishnavism in the 15th century.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Indian History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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