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Devanagari विष्णु
Sanskrit Transliteration viṣṇu
Affiliation Bhagavan (Trimurti)
Abode Vaikunta, Ksheera Sagara
Mantra Om Namo Narayanaya, Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya,Om Vishnave Namaha
Weapon Sudarshana Chakra and the Kaumodaki
Consort Lakshmi, Bhudevi
Mount Garuda

Vishnu (Sanskrit: विष्णु) is a main Vedic God (including His different avataras and/or expansions), venerated as the Supreme Being in the Vaishnavism. He is also commonly known as Narayana or Hari. Smarta followers of Adi Shankara, among others, venerate Vishnu as one of the five primary forms of God. The Vishnu Sahasranama declares Vishnu as Paramatman (supreme soul) and Parameshwara (supreme God). It describes Vishnu as the All-Pervading essence of all beings, the master of—and beyond—the past, present and future, one who supports, sustains and governs the Universe and originates and develops all elements within. This illustrates the omnipresent characteristic of Vishnu. Vishnu governs the aspect of preservation and sustenance of the universe, so he is called "Preserver of the universe".

In the Puranas, Vishnu is described as having the divine colour of water filled clouds, four-armed, holding a lotus, mace, shankha ( conch) and chakra (wheel). Vishnu is also described in the Bhagavad Gita as having a 'Universal Form' (Vishvarupa) which is beyond the ordinary limits of human perception or imagination.

His eternal or permanent abode beyond the material universe is Vaikuntha which is a realm of eternal bliss and happiness. It is also known as Paramdhama, which means final or highest place for liberated souls, where they enjoy eternal bliss and happiness. Vaikuntha is situated beyond the material universe and hence, can not be perceived or measured by material science and logics.

His other abode within the material universe is Ksheera Sagara, where he reclines and rests on Shesha. It is known to be the topmost realm in the material universe, even higher than Satyaloka where Brahma resides. Vishnu manages and sustains the universe from there. Hence, Ksheera Sagara is also sometimes known as local Vaikuntha of the material universe, which is approachable by demigods in order to meet the lord in case of any emergency or disturbance in universal balance.

In almost all Hindu denominations, Vishnu is either worshipped directly or in the form of his ten avatara, most famous of whom are Rama and Krishna. The Puranabharti describes each of these Dasavatara of Vishnu. Among the ten principal Avatara described, nine have occurred in the past and one will take place in the future, at the end of Kali Yuga. These incarnations take place in all Yugas in cosmic scales, the avatars and their stories show that gods are indeed unimaginable, unthinkable and unbelievable. The Bhagavad Gita mentions their purpose as being to rejuvenate Dharma and vanquish negative forces, the forces of evil that threaten Dharma, as also to display His divine nature in front of the conditioned/fallen souls.

The Trimurti (English: ‘three forms’; Sanskrit: trimūrti) is a concept in Hinduism "in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the maintainer or preserver, and Shiva the destroyer or transformer." These three deities have been called "the Hindu triad" or the "Great Trinity". Of the three members of the Trimurti, the Bhagavata Purana, which espouses the Vaishnavite viewpoint, explains that the greatest benefit can be had from Vishnu.


A 13th-century Cambodian statue of Vishnu
At Chennakesava Temple at Belur, Karnataka India
A 4th–6th century CE Sardonyx seal representing Vishnu with a worshipper. The inscription in cursive Bactrian reads: " Mihira, Vishnu (left) and Shiva".
12th century stone sculpture of God Vishnu flanked by two apsaras one with a fan(left) and the other with Tambura(right).

The traditional explanation of the name Viṣṇu involves the root viś, meaning "to settle" (cognate with Latin vicus, English -wich "village", Slavic: vas -ves, or also (in the Rigveda) "to enter into, to pervade", glossing the name as "the All-Pervading One". An early commentator on the Vedas, Yaska, in his Nirukta, defines Vishnu as vishnu vishateh "one who enters everywhere", and yad vishito bhavati tad vishnurbhavati, "that which is free from fetters and bondages is Vishnu".

Vishnu itself is the second name in the Vishnu Sahasranama, the thousand names of Vishnu. Adi Sankara in his commentary on the Sahasranama states derivation from viś, with a meaning "presence everywhere" ("As he pervades everything, vevesti, he is called Vishnu",). Adi Sankara states (regarding Vishnu Purana, 3.1.45): "The Power of the Supreme Being has entered within the universe. The root viś means 'enter into.'" Swami Chinmayananda, in his translation of Vishnu sahasranama further elaborates on that verse: "The root Vis means to enter. The entire world of things and beings is pervaded by Him and the Upanishad emphatically insists in its mantra 'whatever that is there is the world of change.' Hence, it means that He is not limited by space, time or substance. Chinmayananda states that that which pervades everything is Vishnu." The female form or avatar of Vishnu is Mohini.


The number of auspicious qualities of Vishnu as the supreme god are countless, with the following six qualities being the most important:

  • Jñāna (Omniscience), defined as the power to know about all beings simultaneously
  • Aishvarya (Sovereignty), derived from the word Ishvara, which consists in unchallenged rule over all
  • Shakti (Energy), or power, which is the capacity to make the impossible possible
  • Bala (Strength), which is the capacity to support everything by will and without any fatigue
  • Vīrya (Vigor), which indicates the power to retain immateriality as the supreme being in spite of being the material cause of mutable creations
  • Tejas (Splendor), which expresses His self-sufficiency and the capacity to overpower everything by His spiritual effulgence

Smriti and Shruti


In the Yajur Veda, Taittiryia Aranyaka (10-13-1), Narayana sukta, Lord Narayana is mentioned as the supreme being. The first verse of Narayana sukta mentions the words "paramam padam" which literally means "highest post" and may be understood as the "supreme abode for all souls". Rigveda (1.022.20a) for Vishnu also mentions the same "paramam padam". This special status is not given to any deity in the Vedas apart from Lord Vishnu and Lord Narayana. This perhaps is an indication that Narayana is just the another name for Vishnu himself, thus establishing the his supremacy. Narayana is also one of the thousand names of Vishnu as mentioned in the Vishnu Sahasranama.

In the Rigveda, Vishnu is mentioned 93 times. He is frequently invoked alongside other deities, especially Indra, who he helps in killing Vritra, and with whom he drinks Soma. His distinguishing characteristic in the Vedas is his association with light. Two Rigvedic hymns in Mandala 7 are dedicated to Vishnu. In 7.99, Vishnu is addressed as the god who separates heaven and earth. This characteristic he shares with Indra.

Hymn 7.100 refers to the celebrated 'three steps' of Vishnu by which he strode over the universe and in three places planted his step. The 'Vishnu Sukta' ( RV 1.154) says that the first and second of Vishnu's strides (those encompassing the earth and air) are visible to men and the third is in the heights of heaven (sky). This last place is described as Vishnu's supreme abode in RV 1.22.20:

The princes evermore behold / that loftiest place where Visnu is / Laid as it were an eye in heaven. (trans. Griffith)

Griffith's "princes" are the sūri, either "inciters" or lords of a sacrifice, or priests charged with pressing the Soma. The verse is quoted as expressing Vishnu's supremacy by Vaishnavites.

Though such solar aspects have been associated with Vishnu by tradition as well as modern-scholarship, he was not just the representation of the sun, as he traverses in his strides both vertically and horizontally.

In hymns 1.22.17, 1.154.3, 1.154.4 he strides across the earth with three steps, in 6.49.13, 7.100.3 strides across the earth three times and in 1.154.1, 1.155.5,7.29.7 he strides vertically, with the final step in the heavens. The same Veda also says he strode wide and created space in the cosmos for Indra to fight Vritra. By his stride he said to have made dwelling for men possible, the three being a symbolic representation of its all-encompassing nature. This all-enveloping nature and benevolence to men were to remain the enduring attributes of Vishnu. As the triple-strider he is known as Tri-vikrama and as Uru-krama for the strides were wide.

The general view is that Vedas place Indra in considerably superior position to Vishnu's Avatar of Vamana. Vamana helps Indra by restoring his Kingdom as mentioned in the Vamana Purana.

An alternate translation is provided by Wilson (page 269 of document) according to Sayana.

When Thy (younger brother) Viṣṇu (Vamana) by (his) strength stepped his three paces, then verily thy beloved horses bore thee. (Rigveda 8:12:27)

Wilson also mentions the possible translation as given by Griffith as a footnote. However the following verse from Rig Veda renders the above translation by Wilson more probable.

Him whose three places that are filled with sweetness, imperishable, joy as it may list them, Who verily alone upholds the threefold, the earth, the heaven, and all living creatures.(Rigveda 1:154:4)

Wilson also offers alternate translation for Rigveda 10:113:2 (pages 318–319)

Viṣṇu offering the portion of Soma, glorifies by his own vigor that greatness of his. Indra, the lord of wealth, with the associated gods having slain Vr.tra, became deserving of honour. (Rigveda 10:113:2)

This verse glorifies Viṣṇu as one who is glorified by his own strength, while Indra became deserving of honour after having slain Vrtra only in association with other gods.

However Viṣṇu praising other gods need not be taken as worship. Wilson translates as follows.

Viṣṇu, the mighty giver of dwellings praises thee, and Mitra and Varuna; the company of Maruts imitates thee in exhilaration. (Rigveda 8:15:9) (page 280)

The following verses show categorically Viṣṇu as distinguished from other gods in Rig Veda.

He who presents (offering) to Viṣṇu, the ancient, the creator, the recent, the self-born; he who celebrates the great birth of that mighty one; he verily possessed of abundance, attains (the station) that is to be sought (by all). (Rigveda 1:156:2) (page 98)

No being that is or that has been born, divine Viṣṇu, has attained the utmost limit of thy magnitude, by which thou hast upheld the vast and beautiful heaven, and sustained the eastern horizon of Earth.(Rigveda 7:99:2) (page 196)

Vishnu blesses Indra:

The divine Viṣṇu, the best of the doers of good deeds, who came to the pious instituter of rite (Indra), to assist (at its celebration), knowing (the desires of the worshiper), and present at the three connected period (of worship), shows favour to the Arya, and admits the author of the ceremony to a share of the sacrifice. (Rigveda 1:156:5) (page 99)

However, Jan Gonda, the late Indologist, states that Vishnu, although remaining in the background of Indra's exploits, contributes by his presence, or is key to Indra's success. Vishnu is more than a mere companion, equal in rank or power to Indra, or sometime the one who made Indra's success possible.

Moreover, even when Vishnu is described as subordinate to Indra, such a description is found in only the hymns to Indra, but in a kathenotheistic religion like that of the Rigveda, each god, for the time being, is supreme in the mind of the devotee. But in the Vaishnava canon the 'Vishnu' who is subordinate to Indra is identified as being none other than Vamana, who is Vishnu's Avatar, and he is different from the Supreme God Sreeman Narayana or Narayana who is referred to as Vishnu by Vaishnavites. Vishnu is not a mere sacrificial deity; he is a God who lives in the highest celestial region, compared with those who live in the atmospheric or terrestrial regions; Moreover, Vishnu is a god who is content with mere prayer, unlike almost all of the other gods who receive sacrificial offerings such as havis or soma.

Vishnu with his consort Lakshmi resting on Shesha Nag from The Atha Naradiyamahapuranam. The Naradeya Purana describes the mechanics of the cosmos. Narada and Brahma are also pictured.

However, in the Rig Vedic texts, the deity or god referred to as Vishnu is none other than the Sun God who also bore the name Suryanarayana, who in turn was also called Vishnu. So the 'Vishnu' referred to in the Rig Veda is none other than the Sun God Suryanarayana or Surya and he in turn, is entirely different from the Vishnu who is Sreeman Narayana (the Lord/Consort of Sree or Lakshmi, who is also the central deity in 'Vishnu Puranam', 'Vishnu Sahasranamam', 'Purusha Sooktham' (wherein he is identified very clearly not as the Sun or Suryanarayana (the purveyor of the skies), but as Narayana or Vishnu and further identified as the Supreme Lord who has Sreedevi (Lakshmi) and Bhoodevi (Goddess Earth or Bhoomi) as his wives/consorts("Hreeshcha-tey-Lakshmeeshcha-patnyauh"). The Vaishnavites make a further distinction by extolling the qualities of Vishnu or Narayana by highlighting him as a personality or entity much different from other deities like Siva, Brahma or the minor deity Surya the Sun who also bears the name Vishnu.

In the Puranas Indra frequently becomes proud and haughty. This act of his incurs the displeasure of his creators namely Brahma, who along with Siva the Destroyer God start by giving boons to demons or Asuras like Hiranyaksha, Hiranyakashyapu, Ravana, who are able to defeat Indra in wars between the Devas and Asuras. Indra in turn has no option but to take advice of the sages who say that no one can save him but the Protector God Sreeman Narayana or Vishnu the Supreme Lord. Indra goes and prays before Vishnu for protection and the Supreme Lord obliges him by taking avatara or birth or generating himself on Earth in various forms i.e. first as amphibean, water-born being namely the Matsya or fish, then as a creature capable of living on land as well as water, i.e. the Koorma avatara (Tortoise), then half-man, half-animal namely Varaha (the Pig-faced/human-bodied Lord) and Narasimha (Lord with Lion face and claws and human body). Later the same Narayana or Vishnu appears as full-fledged human being in the form of Vamana (the short-heighted person), Parashuram, Ram, Krishna, Balarama or Buddha and finally as Kalki avataram for performing his task of protecting his devotees from the Asuras or anti-God, anti-religious entities.

The Vaishnava canon claims absolute clarity in identification of the Supreme Lord Vishnu (Sreeman Narayana or Narayana) from the Vishnu of the Rig Veda who they claim is none other than the Sun GodSuryanarayana, who incidentally is also bears a secondary name Vishnu. In the Vaishnava canon, it is none other than Lord Vishnu or Sreeman Narayana who is their Supreme God who takes manifest forms or avatarams across various 'yugas (ages or periods) to save humanity from the clutches of evil beings, who became powerful after receiving boons from the two other Gods of the Trinity viz. Brahma and Shiva. They believe the acts of Sreeman Narayana also called Vishnu were certainly not performed by the minor deity Suryanarayana, or the Sun, also known as Vishnu of the Rig Vedas to be the Sun God Surya or Suryanarayana, who was also called and worshipped as Vishnu during the Rig Vedic period. This is borne out by the fact that neither are there are in number, very few temples dedicated to the Sun or Suryanarayana, nor indeed of the Vedic God Indra, nor is there any pronounced importance followed by worship of Indra in the Hindu religion, which practice was discontinued after Indra's defeat at the hands of the demons and Asuras and his forced abdication of the throne.

Following the defeat of Indra and his displacement as the Lord of Heaven or Swarga, according to the Vaishnava canon, the Supreme Lord of the universe Sreeman Narayana or Vishnu takes his incarnations or avatarams on earth to save mankind, thus taking the place of the Supreme God with him not being worshipped and eulogized by Vaishnavites alone, but also getting recognized by Shaivites and the Smarthas. A direct consequence of this was the almost complete absence of Indra and to a lesser extent, of the Sun or Suryanarayana, a minor deity from Hindu temples from the deities being considered fit for worshipping as the chief or most important deity. A glaring example being quoted in support of non-worship of deities like Indra or non-prominence of other major Gods like Shiva and Brahma, (who is in any case not having more than a temple or two on earth) by Vaishnavites is the fact of their Supreme Lord Vishnu or Narayana taking avatarams to defeat and kill either the demons or Asuras like Hiranyaksha, Hiranyakashyipu or Ravana who have vanquished Indra himself and/or demons who have empowered themselves by pleasing and getting boons from other powerful Gods like Brahma and Shiva. These demons received boons making them virtually indestructible by any person. But Narayana or Vishnu outwits them by appearing as half-human half-animal before demons like Hiranyakashyipu (who had taken a boon that he will not be killed at any specific time of the day or by any human or animal) or Ravana (who becomes invincible by taking a boon from God Shiva that he will not be killed by any Deva – a celestial being with godly powers) who is considered the greatest among devotees of Shiva gets slayed by Vishnu, who appears before him as a mere human being i.e. Lord Rama, the son of Dasharatha.

The Vaishnava canon thus claims supremacy of Vishnu even among the Gods by quoting his victories over or killing of those very powerful entities who are themselves devotees of other Gods like the creator Brahma or the destroyer Shiva. The Vaishnava canon finally distinguishes Narayana or the Supreme Lord Vishnu from other deities like Shiva the Destroyer or Brahma the creator, first by pointing out the accepted iconography or sculptures of Vishnu in reclining position as having the creator Brahma sprouting or emerging from Vishnu's navel i.e. showing Brahma himself as having been created by Vishnu out of his own person. This is interpreted as the creator being created by his own creator i.e. Brahma himself being created by Vishnu and going on to create the Universe on the instructions of Vishnu. Secondly, Rudra or Shiva is none other than the Son of Brihaspati. Thirdly, there is the act of the creator Brahma and the destroyer God Shiva go on to give boons to demons or Asuras and as a consequence of granting boons to evil beings, they divest themselves of their powers to eliminate them, which are now vested with the Supreme Lord among the Gods i.e. Vishnu or Narayana also called Sreeman Narayana, who takes various avatars or forms to come to earth to slay or defeat those demons. This is again interpreted as the triumph of Lord Vishnu or Narayana because it would mean that Shiva and Brahma can only grant boons to good beings and since they cannot distinguish between the two types of beings, they have to entrust this responsibility to the God who protects all good beings. Thus, they have no option but to leave all devotees under the care of the Protector Lord, i.e. the Supreme Lord of the Vaishnava canon, i.e. Lord Narayana or Vishnu. Third and lastly, the Vaishnava canon makes the final distinction in addition to the above two qualities of Lord Vishnu or Narayana, so as to reinforce his pre-eminence and supremacy among all the Gods because Sreeman Narayana or Vishnu in his myriad forms never ever grants a wish to evil beings, as is done according to the Puranas by both the creator God Brahma or the destroyer God Shiva. So they regard Sreeman Narayana or Vishnu as a protector God who makes a clear distinction between bad and good beings and never favours or grants boons or wishes to evil entities as would be done by both Shiva and Brahma and is thus regarded by them as the only God worthy of worship as the preferred deity.

The above actions of Vishnu automatically led to the lowering of status of Indra among Hindu deities and leads directly to the ascendancy of Vishnu or Narayana, as per the Vaishnava canon.


Four-armed Vishnu, Pandya Dynasty, 8–9th century CE.

In the Rigveda, Shakala shakha: Aitareya Brahmana Verse 1 : agnir vai devānām avamo viṣṇuḥ paramas, tadantareṇa sarvā anyā devatā declares that Agni is the lowest or youngest god and Vishnu is the greatest and the oldest God. In the Brahmanas, the supremacy of Lord Vishnu is clearly announced. Here He is repeatedly addressed as "Yajnapati" or the one whom all the sacrifices are meant to please. Even if the sacrifices are offered to the demigods, Lord Vishnu is the one who accepts the sacrifice and allots the respective fruits to the performer. There is mention of one such incident where a demonic person performs a sacrifice by abducting the rishis (Sanskrit name for sages who constantly meditate by chanting God's name) forcefully. The sacrifice was meant to bring about the destruction of Indra. But the rishis,who used to worship Indra as a demigod were intelligent enough to alter a single pronunciation of the ved-mantra. The purpose of the entire sacrifice was reversed. When the fruit of the sacrifice was given, when the demon was on the verge of dying, he clearly calls out to lord Vishnu,whom he addresses as Supreme Godhead and "the father of all living entities including himself". Aitareya Brahmana: 1:1:1 mentions Vishnu as the Supreme God. But in the Vaishnava canon, in different ages, with Vishnu in different forms, his relationship with the 'asuras' or evil-beings including demons (Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashyipu were considered demons) has always been adversarial, with the asuras always causing harm or killing good beings including sages and devotees of Vishnu, with the sages and 'devas' (celestial beings including Indra – not considered a God in Vaishnava canon) doing penance and calling out to Lord Vishnu for protection. In response to the call of devotees and being described as the one and only saviour of the world, Sreeman Narayana or Vishnu, being the Protector God, always obliges by taking avatarams (incarnations as Narasimha, Rama etc.) to finally vanquish and eliminate the asuras. In the Vaishnava canon, Narayana or Lord Vishnu is clearly defined as one who has never given or granted any boons to the asuras (to clearly distinguish him from other gods like Shiva and Brahma, who granted boons to demons or evil beings), but he is the only God called upon to save good beings by defeating or killing the very evil beings who became powerful or even invincible after being granted boons by the destroyer Shiva and the creator Brahma. In any case Lord Vishnu himself is not a Brahmana. He belongs to Satriyan group.

Sayana writes that Aitareya Brahmana 1-1-1 agnir vai devānām avamo viṣṇuḥ paramas,tadantareṇa sarvā anyā devatā does not indicate any hierarchy among gods. Even in Rigveda Samhita, where avama and parama are not applied to denote rank and dignity, but only to mark place and locality. In Rigveda 1:108:9,: yadindrāghnī avamasyāṃ pṛthivyāṃ madhyamasyāṃ paramasyāmuta sthaḥ | i.e., in the lowest place, the middle (place), and the highest (place). Agni, the fire, has, among the gods, the lowest place; for he resides with man on the earth ; while the other gods are either in the air, or in the sky. Vishnu occupies the highest place ; for he represents (in the Rigveda) the sun in its daily and yearly course. The words avama and parama is to be understood as 'First' and 'Last' respectively. To prove this meaning to be the true one, Sayana adduces the mantra (1,4. As'val. Sr. S. 4, 2), agnir mukham prathamo devatanam samgathanam uttamo vishnur asit, i.e., Agni was the first of the deities assembled, (and) Vishnu the last. In the Kausitaki-Brahmana (7.1) Agni is called avarardhya (instead of avama), and Visnu parardhya(instead of parama),i.e., belonging to the lower and higher halves (or forming the lower and higher halves). The Vishnu Purana gives tremendous importance to the worship of Vishnu, but mentions that sacrifices to Sreeman Narayana are to begin only with both the lighting of fire or 'Agni', pouring of sacrificial offerings to Narayana or Vishnu in 'Agni' so that those offerings reach the Supreme God Vishnu and are accepted by him. Worship of Lord Vishnu through Yagnyas (or Homams) and other rituals, will not bear fruit or the desired result in case 'Agni' is not given any role in the process.

Muller says "Although the gods are sometimes distinctly invoked as the great and the small, the young and the old (RV. i. 27. 13), this is only an attempt to find the most comprehensive expression for the divine powers, and nowhere is any of the gods represented as the slave of others. It would be easy to find, in the numerous hymns of the Veda, passages in which almost every single god is represented as supreme and absolute."

However this notion is not completely correct as per the following verses, which shows Rig Veda does recognize one or more gods being subject to other god(s).

Him whose high law not Varuna nor Indra, not Mitra, Aryaman, nor Rudra breaketh, Nor evil-hearted fiends, here for my welfare him I invoke, God Savitar, with worship.(Rigveda 2.038.09)

I invite to this place, with reverential salutations, for my good, that divine Savita, whose functions neither Indra, nor Varun.a, nor Mitra nor Aryaman nor Rudra nor the enemies (of the gods), impede. (Rigveda 2.038.09)

The following verse suggests Rudra gaining his strength from worship of Viṣṇu.

With offerings I propitiate the branches of this swift-moving God, the bounteous Visnu. Hence Rudra gained his Rudra-strength: O Asvins, ye sought the house that hath celestial viands.(Rigveda 7.040.05)

Viṣṇu Smṛti

Vishnu and Lakshmi riding on Vishnu's Vahana Garuda – Painting from Rajasthan, Bundi, c.1730 (in Los Angeles County Museum of Art )

The Viṣṇu Smṛti (700-1000AD) is one of the latest books of the Dharmaśāstra tradition of Hinduism and also the only one which does not deal directly with the means of knowing dharma, focusing instead on the bhakti tradition and requiring daily puja to the god Viṣṇu. It is also known for its handling of the controversial subject of the practice of sati (the burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre). The text was not actually composed by the sage Viṣṇu himself, but rather by an individual or group writing much after his death. This group brought together a collection of all of the commonly known legal maxims which were attributed to the sage Viṣṇu into one book as the Indian oral culture began to be recorded more formally.

Theological attributes

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Vishnu is the only Bhagavan as declared in the Bhagavata 1.2.11 in the verse: "vadanti tat tattva-vidas tattvam yaj jnanam advayam brahmeti paramatmeti bhagavan iti sabdyate". The meaning of the verse is as follows: "Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this nondual substance Brahman, Paramātma, and Bhagavan."

In the Vishnu Purana (6.5.79) the personality named Parashara Rishi defines six bhagas as follows:

aiśvaryasya samagrasya vīryasya yaśasaḥ śriyaḥ
jñāna-vairāgyayoś caiva ṣannāḥ bhaga itīṇganā

Jiva Gosvami explains the verse in his Gopala Champu (Pūrva 15.73) and Bhagavata Sandarbha 46.10:

jñāna-śakti-balaiśvarya-vīrya-tejā aśeṣataḥ
bhagavac-chabda-vācyāni vinā heyair guṇādibhiḥ
"The substantives of the word bhagavat (bhagavat-śabda-vācyāni) are unlimited (aśes.atah.) knowledge (jñāna), energies (śakti), strength (bala), opulence (aiśvarya), heroism (vīrya), splendor (tejas), without (vinā) objectionable (heyair) qualities (guṇādibhiḥ)."

Vishnu possesses six such divine glories, namely,

  • Jñāna Omniscient; defined as the power to know about all beings simultaneously;
  • Aishvarya Opulence, which persists in unchallenged rule over all;
  • Shakti Energy, or power, which is the capacity to make the impossible possible;
  • Bala Strength, which is the capacity to support everything by his will and without any fatigue;
  • Virya Vigour, or valour which indicates the power to retain immateriality as the Supreme Spirit or Being in spite of being the material cause of mutable creations;
  • Tèjas Resplendent, or Splendour, which expresses his self-sufficiency and the capacity to overpower everything by his spiritual effulgence; cited from Bhakti Schools of Vedanta, by Swami Tapasyananda.

However, the actual number of auspicious qualities of Vishnu is countless, with the above-mentioned six qualities being the most important. Other important qualities attributed to Vishnu are Gambhirya (inestimatable grandeur), Audarya (generosity), and Karunya (compassion). Natya Shastra lists Vishnu as the presiding deity of the Sringara rasa.

The Rigveda says: Vishnu can travel in three strides. The first stride is the Earth. The second stride is the visible sky. The third stride cannot be seen by men and is the heaven where the gods and the righteous dead live. (This feature of three strides also appears in the story of his avatar Vamana called Trivikrama.) The Sanskrit for "to stride" is the root kram; its reduplicated perfect is chakram ( guņa grade) or chakra ( zero-grade), and in the Rigveda he is called by epithets such as vi-chakra-māņas = "he who has made 3 strides". The Sanskrit word chakra also means "wheel". That may have suggested the idea of Vishnu carrying a chakra.

Vishnu (Beikthano in Burmese) on his mount, the garuda, in the traditional Burmese depiction.

Five forms

In Sri Vaishnavism, another school, Vishnu assumes five forms:

  1. In the Para Form, Para is the highest form of Vishnu found only in Sri Vaikunta also called Moksha, along with his consort Lakshmi, (and Bhuma Devi and Nila devi, avatars of Lakshmi) and surrounded by liberated souls like Ananta, Garuda, and a host of Muktas (liberated souls).
  2. In the Vyuha form which itself divides into four, Vishnu assumes four forms, which exercise different cosmic functions and controls activities of living beings.
  3. In the Vibhava form, Vishnu assume various manifestations, called Vibhavas, more popularly known as Avataras from time to time, in order to protect the virtuous, punish the evil-doers and re-establish righteousness.
  4. In the Antaryami; "Dwelling within" or "Suksma Vasudeva" form, Vishnu exists within the souls of all living beings and in every atom of matter.
  5. In the Arcavatara or Image manifestation, the Lord is easily approachable to the devotees since they cannot worship Para, Vyuha, Vibhava and Antaryami forms directly, which can only be imagined or meditated upon because they are beyond our reach. Such images can be
    1. revealed by the Lord himself, for example, a self-manifested ( Swayambhu) icon ( murti), e.g. The Mahavishnu Temple at Tirunelli, The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple at Srirangam, The Tirumala Venkateswara Temple etc.; or
    2. installed by devas or celestial beings such as such as Guruvayur Temple installed by Vayu; or
    3. installed by humans, and consecrated according to Vaishnava Agama shastras or scriptures such as Lord Jagannath of Jagannath Temple (Puri) at Puri.

See also Pañcaratra

Relation with Shiva

Rama with Sita coronation ceremony after return from Lanka
Rama with Sita on the throne, their children Lava and Kusha on their laps. Behind the throne, Lakshamana, Bharata and Shatrughna stand. Hanuman bows to Rama before the throne. Valmiki to the left

The Trimurthis are inseparable and in complete harmony in view of their common vision and universal good. They complement each other. Lord Vishnu is widely seen as the brother of Shiva's consort Parvati. In fact Vishnu formalized the wedding of Shiva and Parvati and acted as Parvati's brother in all the ceremonies and performed 'Kanya Daan', while the creator-god Brahma acted as the priest of the wedding. The mother goddess Parvati is referred to as his sister in sacred hymns – 'Narayani' in Devi Stotram, 'Vaishnavi' in Ambashtakam and as 'Padmanabha Sahodari' in Lalita Sahasranama Stotram. In fact, it should be remembered that Goddess Durga(Parvati) and Vishnu (as his avatar Krishna) were actually born as brother and sister in Krishnavatar in Dwapara Yuga – Durga takes Yasoda's womb as 'Yogamaya', and Krishna takes Devaki's womb; both are interchanged. When Kansa tries to kill the baby, it skips out of his hands and transforms into Yogamaya, who laughs aloud and informs him, "You fool! Your nemesis is born elsewhere. Your end is near." Yogamaya then vanishes.

It should be noted that there is no concept of disagreement among the gods, and they are ideal in all respects. However, ordinary men, and sectarian groups not knowing this equilibrium and the sacred relationship among them, have in later ages woven several stories in vernacular presenting their preferred deity as Supreme and as 'sthala puranas' for the multitude of temples. These have nothing to do with the recognised original Puranas and other ancient Scriptures.

However, their equilibrium is best manifested in Gajasura Samharam followed by the Battle against Vinayaka. Similarly, Samudra manthan's episode and Hanuman's part in the entire Ramayana are also superlative examples of synergy between the two gods.

The rakshasa called Gajasura was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva. He underwent penance for many years to receive special boons. Shiva, who was moved by Gajasura's devotion, offered to fulfill a request. Gajasura asked Shiva to reside in his belly, and Shiva instantly agreed.

Meanwhile on Mount Kailash, Parvati was anxious to know her husband's whereabouts and finally approached her brother, Lord Vishnu, for help. Vishnu and Brahma disguised themselves as street players, and along with Shiva's bull carrier Nandi, they set out in search of Shiva. Then Vishnu, the omniscient director of the cosmic game, staged a small play. He transformed Nandi into a dancing bull and conducted him in front of Gajasura, with himself and Brahma playing musical instruments. The enchanting performance of the bull sent the demon into ecstasies, and he asked the flutist to tell him what he desired. The flutist asks for Shiva to be liberated. Hearing this, the demon king realised that the entertainer is none other than Lord Vishnu himself, and that his end is near. He also realises that Shiva cannot be made to live in his stomach forever because the whole world would become disordered. Gajasura then prayed to Lord Shiva that he should be allowed to be immortal in the memories of the people, to which Shiva agreed. Nandi made a dent in Gajasura's stomach and amid pitched chanting and prayers, Shiva emerged ripping apart the skin. To fulfill his wish, Lord Shiva severed Gajasura's head and freed him from the cycle of birth and death. Gajasura's head was subsequently used for Vinayaka, and thus he became immortal, with the world adoring Ganesha.

Although their names were mentioned in the Vedas, during the pure Vedic period, both Vishnu and Shiva (as identified with Rudra) played relatively minor roles, but by the time of the Brahmanas (c. 1000–700 BCE), both were gaining ascendance. By the Puranic period, both deities had major sects of devotees, creating a schism in the society.

Of significance is both the creator Brahma and Shiva the destroyer also played supportive roles by keeping company of Lord Vishnu in his incarnated forms. Hanuman the 'Vanara' completely dedicated to Ram, who gives him company and obeys his command while playing an important part in Ram's life is regarded in Vaishnava canon as being none other than Shiva the destroyer only, because it is through the blessings of Shiva that Hanuman is born to his mother Anjani for he also bears the name Anjaniputra. Thus, Hanuman the constant consort of Vishnu, with his idol being present in not just temples of Rama, but also in temples of Krishna, Narasimha i.e. all the avatarams of Vishnu is considered by Vaishnavas as being none other than Lord Shiva. Syncretic forces produced stories in which the two deities were shown in cooperative relationships and combined forms. Harihara is the name of a combined deity form of both Vishnu ( Hari) and Shiva (Hara). This dual form, which is also called Harirudra, is mentioned in the Mahabharata.

Relations with other deities

Vishnu with Lakshmi ( Lakshmi-Narayana) at Halebidu.

Vishnu's consort is Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Maya is the samvit (the primary intelligence)dark matter of the universe is Vishnu, while the other five attributes emerge from this samvit and hence Maya or dark energy of the universe is Lakshmi is his ahamata, activity, or Vishnu's Power. This power of God, Maya or Shakti, is personified and is called Shree or Lakshmi, Maya, Vishnumaya, or Mahamaya, and She is said to manifest Herself in, 1) kriyāshakti, (Creative Activity) and 2) bhütishakti (Creation) of Universe. Hence this world cannot part with his creativity i.e., dark energy of universe, which is a feminine form which in its feminine form is called Shree or Lakshmi or Maya. He therefore needs consort Goddess Lakshmi to be with Him always. Thus goddess Lakshmi has to accompany Vishnu in all His incarnations. Her various avatars as Lord Vishnu's consort are –

Varahavataram – Bhudevi

Ramavataram – Vedavati & Sita

Krishnavataram – Radha & Rukmini

Venkateswara – Padmavathi

Vishnu's vehicle is Garuda, the eagle, and he is commonly depicted as riding on his shoulders. Another name of him is "Veda-Atma" or The Soul of the Vedas and Vedic truth.


The 11th century Javan statue of Vishnu mounting Garuda, mortuary deified depiction of King Airlangga

According to various Purana, Vishnu is the ultimate omnipresent reality, is shapeless and omnipresent. However, a strict iconography governs his representation, whether in pictures, icons, or idols:

  • He is to be depicted as a four-armed male-form: The four arms indicate his all-powerful and all-pervasive nature. The physical existence of Vishnu is represented by the two arms in the front while the two arms at the back represent his presence in the spiritual world. The Upanishad titled Gopal Uttartapani describes the four arms of Vishnu.
  • Also on his chest is the srivatsa mark, symbolising his consort Lakshmi. It is on the chest of Vishnu, where Lakshmi resides.
  • Around his neck, he wears the auspicious " Kaustubha" jewel, and a garland of flowers (vanamaalaa). It is in this jewel, on Vishnu's chest that Lakshmi dwells.
  • A crown should adorn his head: The crown symbolizes his supreme authority. This crown is sometimes depicted having a peacock feather, borrowing the iconography from image of his Krishna avatar.
  • He is to shown wearing two earrings: The earrings represent inherent opposites in creation — knowledge and ignorance; happiness and unhappiness; pleasure and pain.
  • He rests on Ananta: the immortal and infinite snake
Vishnu holding Panchajanya in his upper left hand
Vishnu reclining on the Shesha Naga with his consort Lakshmi pressing his feet.

Vishnu is always to be depicted holding the four attributes associated with him, being:

  1. A conch shell or Shankha, named " Panchajanya", held by the upper left hand, which represents Vishnu's power to create and maintain the universe. The Panchajanya represents the five elements or Panchabhoota – water, fire, air, earth and sky or space. It also represents the five airs or Pranas that are within the body and mind. The conch symbolizes that Vishnu is the primeval Divine sound of creation and universal maintenance. it also represented as Om. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna avatara states that of sound vibrations, 'He is Om'.
  2. The chakra, a sharp-spinning discus-like weapon, named " Sudarshana", held by the upper right hand, which symbolizes the purified spiritualized mind. The name Sudarshana is derived from two words – Su, which means good, superior, and Darshan, which means vision or Sight; together, it is "Superior Vision". The chakra represents destruction of one's ego in the awakening and realization of the souls original nature and god, burning away of spiritual ignorance and illusion, and developing the higher spiritual vision and insight to realize god.
  3. A mace or Gada, named "Kaumodaki", held by the lower right hand, symbolizes Vishnu's divine power is the source all spiritual, mental and physical strength. It also signifies Vishnu's power to destroy materialistic or demoniac tendencies called anarthas; within the person's consciousness that hinders them from reaching god. Vishnu's mace is the power of the Divine within us to spiritually purify and uplift us from our materialistic bonds.
  4. A lotus flower or Padma, held by the lower right hand, represents spiritual liberation, Divine perfection, purity and the unfolding of Spiritual consciousness within the individual. The lotus opening its petals in the light of the Sun is indicative of the expansion and awakening of our long dormant, original spiritual consciousness in the light of god. The lotus in Vishnu's hand symbolizes that god is the power and source from which the universe and the individual soul emerges. It also represents Divine Truth or Satya, the originator of the rules of conduct or Dharma, and Divine Vedic knowledge or jnana. The lotus also symbolizes that Vishnu is the embodiment of spiritual perfection and purity. Also that He is the wellspring of these qualities and that the individual soul must seek to awaken these intrinsic Divine qualities from Vishnu by surrendering to and linking with Him.
A statue in Bangkok, Thailand depicting Vishnu mounted on his vahana Garuda

To this may be added, conventionally, the vanamaala flower garland and Vishnu's bow, the Shaarnga, and his sword Nandaka. A verse of the Vishnu Sahasranama stotram states;"vanamālī gadhī shārngī shanki chakri cha nandaki / shrīmān nārāyaņo vişņo vāsudevo abhirakşatu//"; translation: Protect us Oh Lord Narayana who wears the forest garland,who has the mace, conch, sword and the wheel. And who is called Vishnu and the Vasudeva.

In general, Vishnu is depicted in one of the following three ways:

  1. Standing upright on a lotus flower, often with Lakshmi, his consort, beside him on a similar pedestal;
  2. Reclining on the coiled-up thousand-hooded Shesha Naga, with his consort Lakshmi, seated at his feet; the assemblage rests on the "Kshira Sagar" ( ocean of Milk). In this representation, Brahma is depicted as sitting on a lotus that grows out of Vishnu's navel.
  3. Riding on the back of his eagle mount, known as Garuda. Another name for Garuda is "Veda atma"; Soul of the Vedas. The flapping of his wings symbolizes the power of the Divine Truth of Vedic wisdom. Also the eagle represents the soul. Garuda carrying Vishnu symbolizes the soul or jiva atma carrying the Super soul or Param atma within it.


Ten avatars of Vishnu ( Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Vamana, Krishna, Kalki, Buddha, Parshurama, Rama & Narasimha. Painting from Jaipur, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum

There are ten avatars (dashavatara) of Vishnu commonly considered as the most prominent:

  1. Matsya, the fish that kills Damanaka to save the vedas and saves mankind.
  2. Kurma, the turtle that helps the Devas and Asuras churn the ocean for the nectar of immortality.
  3. Varaha, the boar that rescues the Earth and kills Hiranyaksha
  4. Narasimha, the one (half-Lion half- human) who defeats the demon Hiranyakashapu (Nara = man, simha = lion).
  5. Vamana. the dwarf that grows into a giant to save the world from King Bali.
  6. Parashurama, A Sage, Rama with the axe, who appeared in the Treta Yuga. He killed Kartavirya Arjuna army and clan, and then killed all the ksatriyas for 21 times.
  7. Rama, Sri Ramachandra, the prince and king of Ayodhya and killed Demon King Raavana.
  8. Krishna (meaning 'dark coloured' or 'all attractive' or the Existence of Bliss, Who played a major role in Mahabharata
  9. Buddha
  10. Kalki ("Eternity", or "timeless", destroyer of time or "The Destroyer of foulness"), who is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga, the time period in which we currently exist.

Some versions of the above list include Hayagriva amongst the Dasavataras. Apart from the above mentioned ten principal avatars, another 22 avatars are also given in Chapter 3, Canto 1 of the Bhagavata Purana. Following this list the Bhagavatam states that as well as these avatars "the incarnations of the Lord are innumerable, like rivulets flowing from inexhaustible sources of water".

Thousand names of Vishnu

Vishnu sahasranama manuscript, ca. 1690.

Vishnu has a very large number of names and followers that are collected in the Vishnu sahasranama ("Vishnu's thousand names") from within the larger work Mahabharata. The character Bhishma recites the names before Krishna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, praising him (Vishnu) as the supreme god. These Sahasranama are regarded as the essence of all Vedas by followers of Vaishnavism, who believe sincere chanting of Vishnu Sahasranama results in spiritual well-being and a greater awareness of God.

The names are generally derived from the anantakalyanagunas (meaning: infinite auspicious attributes). Some names are:

  • Anish (Supreme)
  • Achintya (Incomprehensible, beyond understanding, also interpreted as remover of all worries from devotees)
  • Achyutha (infallible)
  • Akshaj (synonym for Lord Vishnu)
  • Amar (immortal, deathless, son of Aum)
  • Ananta (endless, eternal, infinite)
  • Anirudha (the one that cannot be stopped)
  • Balaji (another name of Vishnu)
  • Damodara (having a rope (dama) around his belly (udara): a name of Krishna)
  • Govinda (protector of the cows & Brahmins; master of the senses: a name of Krishna)
  • Hari (one who takes away)
  • Hayagriva (Horse-necked)
  • Jagannatha (Owner/Ruler of the world/universe)
  • Janardana (One who is worshiped by people for Wealth)
  • Keshava (slayer of Keshi, having long or much or handsome hair, from Atharvaveda viii, 6, 23)
  • Krishna (born during the third epoch or yuga, his deeds range from cow protection (go rakshya) to absolving the earth of load of sins)
  • Madhava (relating to the season of spring)
  • Madhusudana (he who destroyed the demon called Madhu-Kaitabh)
  • Narayana (said to mean "he who is the abode of nār (= ether)", i.e., the whole universe's shelter. Also means "The supreme Man who is the foundation of all men". Another meaning is "He who lays in the water".
  • Padmanabha (lotus-naveled one, from whose navel sprang the lotus which contained Brahma, who created the universe)
  • Parthasarathy (Charioteer of Arjuna/Partha)
  • Perumal Name he is known in Tamil
  • ThirumaalName he is known in Tamil
  • Maalavan Name he is known in Tamil
  • Purushottama – The Supreme Eternal Being
  • Ram (born during the second epoch or Yuga, his deeds primarily established the ideal living principles for a man)
  • Hrishikesh (Lord of the senses or Lord within the heart; "hri" root meaning the heart)
  • Satyanarayana (a combination of satya and Narayana meaning 'protector of truth')
  • Shikhandee: He who wears a peacock feather.
  • Suryanarayan (the one who destroys the evil/sins and who comforts us) described in Vishnu kautuvam.
  • Sridhara (consort of Sri = Laxmi or Ultimate wealth)
  • Sriman (the pride of Shri or Lakshmi); Often Sriman is combined with the name, Narayana, to form a compound word, Sriman Narayana.
  • Srinivasa (the abode of Shri) (also specifically referring to his form in the temple at Tirupati). Also the form of Vishnu at Tirupati is well known as Venkateswara.
  • Trivikrama (Conqueror of the three worlds, as in Vamana avatara).
  • Vishal (Immense, The Unstoppable One).
  • Vamana (dwarfish, small or short in stature, a dwarf brahmana)
  • Vāsudeva ( "All-Pervading god", with the long vowel A; it also means "the son of Vasudeva", i.e. Krishna)
  • Shree-esh (One who has Shree or Lakshmi as his consort / Husband of Goddess Lakshmi).
  • Guruvayurappan Lord of Guruvayur (Temple made by Guru (Brihaspati) & Vayu deva)
  • Jagannath is the south eastern name of Vishnu. The word juggernaut has its origin from this name of Vishnu (The Jagannatha temple is in Puri, Orissa where every year there is a festival in which huge chariots are drawn through the city. These chariots are the vahana (vehicle) for the 3 main gods of this temple – Jagannatha, Balabhadra (Jagannath's brother) and Subhadra (Jagannatha's sister). Hundreds of men are needed to pull each of these chariots. When they start moving, they keep moving and are difficult to stop. That is the idea behind the word juggernaut which means something huge that cannot be stopped.)
  • Sohama means the most intelligent, it is strongest form of Vishnu with a thousand brains and hands

According to the Siddhartha-samhita there are twenty-four forms of Lord Vishnu. The twenty-four forms are

  1. Vasudeva
  2. Sankarshana
  3. Pradyumna
  4. Anirudha
  5. Keshava
  6. Narayana
  1. Madhava
  2. Govinda
  3. Vishnu
  4. Madhusudana
  5. Trivikrama
  6. Vamana
  1. Sridhara
  2. Hrishikesha
  3. Padmanabha
  4. Damodara
  5. Purushottama
  6. Achyuta
  1. Nrisimha
  2. Janardana
  3. Hari
  4. Krishna
  5. Adhokshaja
  6. Upendra

Sourish comes from the Indian word which means, "Lord Vishnu"

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