Cultures & Traditions

Vishnu

Vishnu, the invincible protector and preserver of the universe, serves as a hero figure who reestablishes cosmic order in many Hindu stories. He embodies the characteristics of goodness and mercy. When the balance of the universe is disturbed by evil or destructive forces, Vishnu will prevail over the spiritually ignorant demons and restore dharma or moral order. Vishnu is associated with many different incarnations or avatars, whose form he assumes while restoring universal order in these stories.

Vishnu’s Attributes

Attributes are objects that carry special meaning or symbolism. They can be used to both identify a figure and gain insight into the figure’s purpose or character. Vishnu’s three common attributes include the conch shell, wheel or discus, and club. These attributes all serve as weapons to destroy ignorance, which traps humans in the endless cycle of death and rebirth (samsara ), in addition to carrying individual meaning. [See, for example, 2013.4] The conch shell is used as a musical instrument. Its sound is intended to ward off demons. The clockwise spiraling of the conch is symbolic of infinite space and the balance of the laws of nature. The wheel or discus originally referenced the sun wheel. This attribute represented the cycle of life and death. It is also considered a weapon. The club is a weapon that protects the wearer and also represents the power of natural laws and time, which destroy everything in their path.

Vishnu’s Incarnations or Avatars

Vishnu commonly appears as a youthful, four-armed, kingly figure, wearing a crown and holding in his hands a conch shell, wheel or discus, and club. His mount is Garuda, a hybrid man-bird, on whom he rides into battle. As a preserver or savior figure, Vishnu returns to the earth periodically in a series of incarnations to vanquish disruptive forces of ignorance, save his devotees from peril, and restore universal order. His incarnations likely incorporate local or regional gods whose cults became intertwined with his over the centuries. The hybridity (intermingling of various human and animal forms) of Vishnu’s many avatars follow an evolutionary trajectory. They begin with forms of animal-man, then man, and finally divinity. Vishnu’s ten most common incarnations include:

Matsya the fish

Matsya, Vishnu’s first incarnation, takes the forms of both fish and man. His four arms hold the four attributes typical of Vishnu: the lotus, conch shell, club, and wheel. Matsya is associated with the story of Manu, one of the first ancestors of mankind, who was ordered by a fish to build an ark in preparation for a great flood. The ark held pairs of each animal aboard, and when the flood arrived, the ark was pulled by a large fish.

Kurma the tortoise

In this second incarnation, Vishnu appears as a hybrid figure with the upper body of a four-armed human holding various attributes and lower body that has been replaced by a tortoise. In Hindu mythology Vishnu transformed himself into a tortoise so that his hard shell could provide support to the mountain as it churned the ocean of milk in an attempt to cause the nectar of immortality to rise to the surface, allowing the gods to become invincible against the demons they engaged in battle.

Varaha the boar

In this third incarnation of Vishnu, either a man with the head of a wild boar or a boar alone, he rescues the world when it is seized by the demon Hiranyaksha and dragged down to the demon’s abode below the waters. The gods appealed to Vishnu to rescue the world from the watery depths and restore order.

Narasimha the lion

Vishnu’s forth incarnation is Narasimha, a half man and half lion, whose purpose was to defeat the demon King Hiranyakashipu. It is said that Hiranyakashipu could not be killed by man or animal, inside or outside, by night or day, by any weapon. Narasimha (neither man nor animal) killed him on the threshold of his house (neither inside nor outside) at dusk (neither day nor night), by mauling him with his claws (without weapons).

Vamana the dwarf

Vamana is the fifth incarnation and the first with an entirely human form. Vamana is typically depicted with two arms, carrying a parasol, water jug, or book.

Bali, who had overtaken the three realms of heaven, earth, and underworld and banished the gods from heaven, was tricked by Vishnu as Vamana into releasing heaven and earth only to be relegated to the underworld as king.

Parashurama

Vishnu’s sixth incarnation is Parashurama, a young brahmin (priest) shown dressed as an ascetic with a battle axe and sometimes a sword or bow and arrow. This avatar recalls the story of a lengthy battle between the castes of brahman and warriors after the theft of the priest Jamadagnya’s magical, wish-granting cow by the king.

Rama

Rama, “pleasing,” is portrayed as a young king, usually holding a bow and arrow and accompanied by his wife, Sita. He is the hero of the Ramayana epic and personifies the ideal, righteous ruler and the vanquisher of evil.

The epic recounts Rama’s story as the first born son of Dashartha, king of Ayodhya, who is banished from the court by his plotting stepmother in an attempt to secure her own son’s position as king. He retreats into the forest with his faithful wife, Sita, and his half-brother, Laksmana. During their exile, Sita is abducted by the demon king of Lanka, Ravana, and Rama begins a lengthy quest to rescue her. After prolonged battle, King Ravana is killed and Sita freed from captivity. At which time, they all return to Ayodhya, where Rama is established as king.

Krishna

Krishna is the most widely venerated of all Vishnu’s incarnations and considered by many a god in his own right. Within the context of Vishnu’s avatar, Krishna’s central purpose is to destroy the tyrannical King Kansa of Mathura.

Warned that one of his cousin Devaki’s children would grow up to destroy him, King Kansa imprisoned both her and her husband and slayed their children. However, Krishna somehow survived and was taken to the cowherding village of Vrindaban, where he was raised by Nanda and his wife Yashoda. When the moment came for him to fulfill his destiny and destroy Kansa, Krishna left his village and travelled to Mathura. After Kansa’s demise, Krishna established himself as prince of Dwarka, settling with his 16,108 wives and continuing his heroic ventures.

Buddha

The Buddha is Vishnu’s ninth incarnation. He appears seated on a lotus flower in serene meditation. He has the traditional top-knot, long earlobes, and ascetic garments of the Buddha.

This incarnation dates to a time when Buddhism achieved wide popularity in India, particularly amongst the lower castes (a social class of people). The brahmans (priests), who felt threatened by these teachings, denounced the Buddha as a simple incarnation of Vishnu who came to the earth to preach a false religion and separate the steadfast Hindus from the heretics.

Another interpretation explains that Vishnu came to the earth as Buddha to combat the arrogance and oppressiveness of the brahmans and to rid Hinduism of misused and overblown rituals. Buddha’s teachings regarding the path to enlightenment appeared in Hinduism around that time.

Kalki

The tenth incarnation of Vishnu is Kalki, who will appear at the end of time in the form of an ominous rider, gripping a sword and riding a white horse. His coming will signal the end of the present age, a time of steady moral and spiritual decline. Kalki will punish the wicked, comfort the virtuous, and restore the rule of Dharma (law), before he finally destroys the Universe. After a hiatus, the world will begin again in a period of purity and peace, and Kalki will return to the heavens.

Excerpt from

DMA Connect, 2012.

Related Multimedia

Art historian Darielle Mason describes the story of Vishnu’s creation.

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