Known as the preserver, Vishnu is one of three supreme Hindu deities, along with Brahma and Shiva. Vishnu's role is to protect humans and to restore order to the world. His presence is found in every object and force in creation, and some Hindus recognize him as the divine being from which all things come. Vishnu appears in a number of Hindu texts, including the Rig-Veda, the Mαhabharata, and the Ramayana.
deity god or goddess
Early Roles. In the Vedas, a collection of ancient sacred texts that includes the Rig-Veda, Vishnu is only a minor god. Associated with the power of light, he floated on the surface of the primeval ocean on top of a thousand-headed snake called Shesha. Vishnu's most famous feat in the Vedas was to take the three steps that measured the extent of the world, an act that was part of creation. Some stories credit Vishnu with a major role in creation; others say he assisted the god Indra. Early myths also portray Vishnu as a messenger between humans and the gods. Over time, the character of Vishnu combined the attributes of a number of heroes and gods, and he eventually became one of the most important and popular Hindu deities.
Forms of Vishnu. According to Hindu mythology, Vishnu comes to earth in a variety of animal and human forms called avatars. These avatars are incarnations of the god that contain part of his divine spirit and power. Hindus believe that an avatar of Vishnu appears whenever the world or humans are in danger, and in this way, the god helps to overcome evil, bring justice, and restore order.
Vishnu had ten principal avatars. The first, Matsya, was a fish that saved the first human, Manu, from a great flood by leading his ship to safety. Kurma, the second avatar, was the tortoise that recovered some precious objects that the gods had lost during another great flood. Also saved from the flood was Lakshmi, a goddess of fortune and beauty who became Vishnu's wife. Vishnu appeared on earth a third time as Varaha, the boar. Varaha rid the world of a demon giant named Hiranyaksha, who had dragged the earth to the bottom of the ocean and threatened to keep it there. After a thousand-year struggle, Varaha killed the demon.
primeval from the earliest times
attribute quality, property, or power of a being or thing
incarnation appearance of a god, spirit, or soul in earthly form
Vishnu's fourth avatar, the man lion Narasinha, freed the world from another demon, Hiranyakashipu, who had forbidden worship of the gods. When the evil king Bali gained control of the
*see Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
world, Vishnu appeared on earth a fifth time as Vamana, the dwarf. Vamana persuaded Bali to give him whatever land he could cover in three steps. The dwarf then changed into a giant, and his steps extended over both heaven and earth. Vishnu's sixth avatar was Parasurama, a young man who freed the Hindu priests from a class of warriors known as the Kshatriyas.
Vishnu's most popular and well-known avatars were Rama and Krishna, the great heroes of the epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Rama, the seventh avatar, saved humans from the demon king Ravana, while Krishna rid the world of many demons and took part in a long struggle against the forces of evil. The ninth avatar of Vishnu was the Buddha, the religious leader whose beliefs weakened the opponents of the gods and who founded the Buddhist faith. Vishnu's tenth avatar, Kalki, has not yet arrived on earth. He will come one day, mounted on a white horse, to oversee the final destruction of the wicked, restore purity, renew creation, and bring forth a new era of harmony and order.