Vishnu (/ˈvɪʃnʊ/; [ʋɪʂɳʊ]; Sanskrit: विष्णु, lit. 'the pervader', Viṣṇu), also known as Narayana and Hari, is one of the principal deities of Hinduism. He is the supreme being within Vaishnavism, one of the major traditions within contemporary Hinduism.
Vishnu is known as "The Preserver" within the Trimurti, the triple deity of supreme divinity that includes Brahma and Shiva. In Vaishnavism tradition, Vishnu is the supreme being who creates, protects and transforms the universe. In the Shaktism tradition, the Goddess, or Devi, is described as one of the supreme, yet Vishnu is revered along with Shiva and Brahma. A goddess is stated to be the energy and creative power (Shakti) of each, with Lakshmi the equal complementary partner of Vishnu. He is one of the five equivalent deities in Panchayatana puja of the Smarta tradition of Hinduism.
According to the Vaishnavism sect, the highest form of Ishvar is with qualities (Saguna), and have certain form but is limitless, transcendent and unchanging absolute Brahman, and the primal Atman (Self) of the universe. There are many both benevolent and fearsome depictions of Vishnu. In benevolent aspects, he is depicted as an omniscient sleeping on the coils of the serpent Adishesha (who represents time) floating in the primeval ocean of milk called Kshira Sagara with consort Lakshmi.
Whenever the world is threatened with evil, chaos, and destructive forces, Vishnu descends in the form of an avatar (incarnation) to restore the cosmic order and protect Dharma. Dashavatara are the ten primary avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu. Out of the ten, Rama and Krishna avatars are most important.
Vishnu (or Viṣṇu, Sanskrit: विष्णु) means 'all pervasive' and, according to Medhātith (c. 1000 CE), 'one who is everything and inside everything'. Vedanga scholar Yaska (4th century BCE) in the Nirukta defines Vishnu as viṣṇur viṣvater vā vyaśnoter vā ('one who enters everywhere'); also adding atha yad viṣito bhavati tad viṣnurbhavati ('that which is free from fetters and bondage is Vishnu').
In the tenth part of the Padma Purana (4-15th century CE), Danta (Son of Bhīma and King of Vidarbha) lists 108 names of Vishnu (17.98–102). These include the ten primary avatars (see Dashavarara, below) and descriptions of the qualities, attributes, or aspects of God.
The Garuda Purana (chapter XV) and the "Anushasana Parva" of the Mahabharata both list over 1000 names for Vishnu, each name describing a quality, attribute, or aspect of God. Known as the Vishnu Sahasranama, Vishnu here is defined as 'the omnipresent'.
Other notable names in this list include :
- Hari ('remover of sins')
- Kala ('time')
- Vāsudeva (the son of Vasudeva)
- Atman ('the Self')
- Purusa ('the divine being')
- Prakrti ('the divine nature')
- Lakshmikanta (the husband of Lakshmi)
- Jagannatha (Lord of the universe)
- Govinda (omnipresent ruler of the Indriya, supreme being who can be known through the vedas, protector of cows)
Vishnu iconography shows him with dark blue, blue-gray or black coloured skin, and as a well dressed jewelled man. He is typically shown with four arms, but two armed representations are also found in Hindu texts on artworks.
The historic identifiers of his icon include his image holding a conch shell (shankha named Panchajanya) between the first two fingers of one hand (left back), a chakra – war discus named Sudarshana – in another (right back). The conch shell is spiral and symbolizes all of interconnected spiraling cyclic existence, while the discus symbolizes him as that which restores dharma with war if necessary when cosmic equilibrium is overwhelmed by evil. One of his arms sometimes carries a gada (club, mace named Kaumodaki) which symbolizes authority and power of knowledge. In the fourth arm, he holds a lotus flower (padma) which symbolizes purity and transcendence.
The items he holds in various hands varies, giving rise to twenty four combinations of iconography, each combination representing a special form of Vishnu. Each of these special forms is given a special name in texts such as the Agni Purana and Padma Purana. These texts, however, are inconsistent. Rarely, Vishnu is depicted bearing the bow Sharanga or the sword Nandaka. He is depicted with the Kaustubha gem in a necklace and wearing Vaijayanti, a garland of forest flowers. The shrivatsa mark is depicted on his chest in the form of a curl of hair. He generally wears yellow garments.
Vishnu iconography show him either in standing pose, seated in a yoga pose, or reclining. A traditional depiction of Vishnu is that of Him reclining on the coils of the serpent Shesha, accompanied by his consort Lakshmi, as he "dreams the universe into reality.
The concept of avatar within Hinduism is most often associated with Vishnu, the preserver or sustainer aspect of God within the Hindu Trinity or Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu's avatars descend to empower the good and fight evil, thereby restoring Dharma. Traditional Hindus see themselves not as "Hindu", but as Vaishnava (Worshippers of Vishnu), Shaiva (Worshippers of Shiva), or Shakta (Worshipper of the Shakti). Each of the deities has its own iconography and mythology, but common to all is the fact that the divine reality has an explicit form, a form that the worshipper can behold.
The Vishnu avatars appear in Hindu mythology whenever the cosmos is in crisis, typically because the evil has grown stronger and has thrown the cosmos out of its balance. The avatar then appears in a material form, to destroy evil and its sources, and restore the cosmic balance between the ever-present forces of good and evil.
The most known and celebrated avatars of Vishnu, within the Vaishnavism traditions of Hinduism, are Krishna, Rama, Narayana and Vasudeva. These names have extensive literature associated with them, each has its own characteristics, legends and associated arts. The Mahabharata, for example, includes Krishna, while the Ramayana includes Rama.
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