Vishnu, major god of Hinduism
and Indian mythology, popularly regarded as the preserver of the universe.
In the ancient body of literature called the Veda, the sacred literature
of the Aryan invaders, Vishnu ranks with the numerous lesser gods and is
usually associated with the major Vedic god Indra in battles against demonic
forces. In the epics and Puranas-writings belonging to subsequent periods
in the development of Hinduism-Vishnu (especially in his incarnations)
becomes prominent. Some Puranic literature refers to him as the eternal,
all-pervading spirit and associates him with the primeval waters believed
to have been omnipresent before the creation of the world. So regarded,
Vishnu is depicted frequently in human form, sleeping on the great serpent
Shesha and floating on the waters.
The concept of Vishnu as preserver
is comparatively late. It is based chiefly on two beliefs: humans may attain
salvation by faithfully following predetermined paths of duty, and good
and evil powers (gods and demons) contend for dominion over the world.
Occasionally, the balance of power is upset in favor of evil, and then
Vishnu is believed to descend to earth in a mortal form (his avatar)
to save humankind or the world. Ten such avatars (descents or incarnations)
are commonly recognized, of which Rama and Krishna are the most
important. Nine descents are thought to have already occurred; the tenth
and last is yet to come. Scholars believe that Vishnu's role as preserver
(or redeemer) arose from the characteristic practice of assimilating local
legendary heroes and gods into the Hindu pantheon by attributing their
deeds to one of the major Hindu deities.
Vishnu is depicted as dark blue
or black (his avatars appear in other colors). Normally, he is depicted
with four arms: One hand holds a lotus; a second holds a conch; a third
holds a discus (which always returns by itself after being thrown); and
the fourth carries a mace. The petals of the lotus are believed to symbolize
the unfolding of creation; the conch is said to symbolize that from which
all existence originates; and the discus and the mace reputedly were obtained
by Vishnu as rewards for defeating the God Indra. Vishnu is said
to possess also a special sword called Nadaka and a special bow called
Sarnga. His wife is Goddess Lakshmi (also known as Shri), goddess of beauty
and fortune. He rides a huge creature, half bird and half man, called Gandara.
His home is in a heaven called Vaikuntha (where the Ganges River is believed
to flow from its source at Vishnu's feet). The god has a thousand names,
the repetition of which is regarded as an act of devotion.