Lord Vishnu is one of the three Hindu trinity gods in Hindu Dharma (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva). While Brahma is responsible for the creation of the Universe and Shiva for destruction, Lord Vishnu is the preserver of the Universe.
Meaning of Vishnu
The name Vishnu is taken from the word “Vish,” which means to spread in all directions, and therefore he comprises the entire Universe, which is ever-expanding. The word Vishnu means ‘one who pervades, one who has entered into everything.’
He is 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.
Four arms represent the fulfillment of manifestations in all spheres of life. They symbolize domain over four directions of space and thus the absolute power over all Universe.
In the case of Vishnu, the four arms are also said to represent three fundamental functions or tendencies [creative tendency (shristi), the cohesive tendency (sthithi); and dispersion and liberation(laya)] and fourth being the notion of individual-existence (ahamkara) from which all individualized forms arise.
A concise picture of the Vishnu image is presented in Gopala Tapani Upanishad:
- His feet bear the auspicious signs of a celestial standard, a royal parasol.
- His chest is adorned with srivatsa locks of hair, the brilliantly shining kaustubha gem, and rows of forest-flower garlands (vanamala).
- His four hands hold shankha (conch), chakra (discus), Gada (mace), and Padma (lotus).
- He is adorned with armlets, garlands, jewels, diadem, and (makara-kundala) earrings shaped like Makara (Vahana of Goddess Ganga and Lord Varuna).
Attributes of Lord Vishnu
The Vishnu Purana talks about the six divine attributes of the consort of Goddess Lakshmi, collectively called Ṣaḍ-aiśvaryas.
Those six divine qualities or traits of Lord Vishnu are :
- Jñāna (knowledge): Lord Vishnu has complete knowledge of each and everything in existence. His knowledge is not limited by space or time. He is always aware of everything in the past, present, and future.
- Bala (strength): Lord Vishnu possesses unparalleled strength. He can lift mountains just by a mere thought.
- Aiśvarya (command): He has full command over His entire creation. Everything happens according to His will, without any hindrance whatsoever.
- Vīrya (valor): Lord Vishnu is Vīra, a hero of unmatched valor. No one can defeat Him in a duel, except Himself—[Vīrya can also be understood as a tendency to be unaffected by external factors].
- Śakti (ability): Lord Vishnu is Sarva-śaktimān. He is fully capable of doing everything that others can do. At the same time, He can also do that which others cannot.
- Tējas (independence): Lord Vishnu is independent of everything other than Him. He does not need the assistance of someone other than Himself for doing anything.
Even though Lord Vishnu is said to have infinite attributes according to Vishnu Purana, Brahma Moksha Kanda of Garuda Purana talks about Sri Vishnu’s 32 auspicious traits.
तस्मादाहुर्लक्षणेत्येव् सर्वे तलक्क्षणं श्रुणु चादौ खगेन्द्र:।
नारायणे पूर्ण गुणे रमेशे द्वात्रिंश संख्याणी सुलक्षणानि ।। 4।।
Narayana, the lord of Lakshmi, is possessed of Thirty Two auspicious traits. O lord of birds, I tell them serially. The person who hears the same obtain quick deliverance.
Five forms of Vishnu
According to Sri Vaishnavism, Lord Vishnu assumes five forms:
- Para Form – Para is the highest form of Vishnu, found only in Sri Vaikunta, also called Moksha, along with his consort Lakshmi, surrounded by liberated souls like Ananta, Garuda, and a host of Muktas (liberated souls).
- Vyuha form – Vishnu assumes four forms, which exercise different cosmic functions and control living beings’ activities.
- Vibhava form – Vishnu assumes various manifestations, called Vibhavas, more popularly known as Avatar from time to time, to protect the virtuous, punish evil-doers and re-establish righteousness.
- Antaryami form – “Dwelling within” or “Suksma Vasudeva” form, Vishnu exists within the souls of all living beings and in every substance.
- Arcavatara or Image manifestation – Sri Vishnu is visible and therefore easily approachable by devotees since Para, Vyuha, Vibhava, and Antaryami forms can only be imagined or meditated upon because they are beyond our reach.
Avatars of Vishnu
Lord Vishnu has taken many Avatars for different purposes. His ten avatar (Dashavatara) is popular among Hindus around the world.
- Matsya – The Fish
- Kurma – The Tortoise
- Varaha – The Boar
- Narasimha – The Lion Man
- Vamana – The Dwarf
- Parashurama – The Lumberjack
- Lord Rama – King of Ayodhya
- Lord Krishna – Most important Avatar of Vishnu
- Lord Buddha – Siddhartha Gautama, later known as Buddha
- Kalki – Yet to be born
Bhagavata Purana lists 24 Avatars of Sri Vishnu. Even though there are innumerable incarnations of the Lord Vishnu, some of the important ones are mentioned in the Srimad Bhagavatam Canto 1 chapter 3.
अवतारा हि असङ्ख्येया हरेः सत्त्व-निधेर् द्विजाः
यथाविदासिनः कुल्याः सरसः स्युः सहस्रशः
avatārā hi asaṅkhyeyā hareḥ sattva-nidher dvijāḥ
yathāvidāsinaḥ kulyāḥ sarasaḥ syuḥ sahasraśaḥ
O brāhmaṇas, the incarnations of the Lord are innumerable, like rivulets flowing from inexhaustible sources of water.
Lord Vishnu in Vedas
Rig Veda (1.22.20) clarifies that Vishnu empowers all the heavenly Devas extolled and glorified in the Vedas.
Rig Veda 1.22.20 – Vishnu occupies a prominent position. All the other deities always look to His feet.
Rig Veda 10.113.2 – Vishnu is glorified because of who and what He intrinsically is. Indra, on the other hand, is only glorious circumstantially.
Rig Veda 1.156.2 – Vishnu is the most ancient of all, yet also the most recent. Nothing and no one creates Vishnu, yet Vishnu creates everyone and everything.
Yajurveda Samhita 5.20 – Roaming around the earth in fierce avatars like Lion etc. Residing in the mountains, all-pervading Vishnu is highly adorable through his Manhood (Bravery). All the lokas reside under the three giant strides of him.
Vishnu Mangalam Mantra,
मङ्गलम् भगवान विष्णुः, मङ्गलम् गरुणध्वजः।
मङ्गलम् पुण्डरी काक्षः, मङ्गलाय तनो हरिः॥
Mangalam Bhagwan Vishnuh, Mangalam Garunadhwajah।
Mangalam Pundari Kakshah, Mangalaya Tano Harih॥
ॐ नमो भगवते वासुदेवाय
Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya।।
and Mula Mantra,
ॐ नमो नारायण
Om Namo Narayanaya।।
There is much information and knowledge recorded in ancient scriptures regarding God Vishnu. Ancient sages who realized Vishnu compiled the knowledge in various Puranas in a literary form. Below are a few of them,
- Lord Brahma was born from the navel of Lord Vishnu
- Mohini – Female Avatar of Lord Vishnu
- Bhrigu once cursed Lord Vishnu
- There is an asteroid name after Lord Vishnu
- There are a total of 24 Vishnu Avatars
- There are 108 Divya Desam, Sacred sites of Vishnu