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Hindu God: Vishnu

Background and History

  • Hinduism is an ancient religion from India. Hinduism believes in a variety of gods, many of which are often in contention with one another for power over regions of the universe. Each 'God' has different physical features and different powers and tasks to perform which are explained in the mythologies of India. Many of the Hindu gods date back several thousand years while others, which are said to be manifestations of other gods or newly created gods entirely, are more modern. Vishnu is one of these Hindu 'Gods'.
  • Vishnu is one of the oldest gods in Hinduism. He appears in the earliest sacred texts, called the Vedas, composed circa 1000 BCE. Vishnu has grown in importance within the pantheon of Hindu society since then. In the first few centuries of the Common Era (c. 200-500 CE), Vishnu started to become central to the core religious beliefs amongst many Hindus in north and south India. Unlike the earlier centuries, during this period Vishnu took on new qualities and characteristics as new religious literature was composed. It was then that Vishnu became the god known today: the preserver of the universe. Previously, Vishnu was a companion god who was one of many. Eventually, Vishnu became one of the three most important gods because of his role in preserving the earth and the rest of the cosmos.
  • Vishnu preserves the universe by taking a direct role in the lives of his devotees. Vishnu incarnates, or descends from the heavens, into the body of an animal or even a man in order to prevent catastrophe or assist in eliminating evil forces from the world. As the preserver and lord of the universe, Vishnu came to be associated with many warlike characteristics, something not previously given to him in the religious literature like the Vedas, which are considered to be divinely inspired. In each of his 10 main bodily incarnations in the world either save the world through heroic acts, eliminate evil forces, or cultivate wisdom to give directly to humanity so that they may find the path of righteousness. Some of his incarnations are worshiped as individual deities themselves.
  • One such incarnation is King Rama, whose story is known in the epic story called the Ramayana. King Rama successfully recovers his kidnapped wife from the demon king of Lanka, Ravana, and takes his place as lord of the virtuous kingdom in India. Another incarnation is the great fish who saves Manu, the first human, from a giant flood that will engulf the whole world. Yet another and extremely famous incarnation of Vishnu, is the Buddha. As Buddhism gradually became one of the most powerful religions in ancient India, Hinduism fought back by incorporating the Buddha into Hindu mythology. As such, the teachings of the Buddha, according to devout Hindus, are either secretly sacred knowledge of the universe, or, according to others, deliberately deceiving teachings in order to point humanity back towards the teachings found in canonical Hinduism.




The Hindu God Vishnu


Role in Hindu Society

  • All of the incarnations of Vishnu may be worshiped individually. Each represents one particular quality or another. For instance, King Rama is the embodiment of dharma, or righteousness, both in how he governs his kingdom and in how he combats and defeats evil. Further, in addition to being the ideal King, Rama is viewed as the ideal son for mothers, the ideal husband for wives, and the ideal brother for siblings. Like Rama, another famous incarnation of Vishnu, Krishna, represents some important qualities of Hinduism and in ancient and modern Hindu society in general.
  • Lord Krishna has thousands of tales dedicated to only his heroic and philosophical acts. Two important events illustrate Krishna’s importance. 
  • The first is Krishna’s fame derived from killing Kamsa, an usurper to the Kingdom in Mathura, located near present day Delhi. Krishna satisfied the gods by killing Kamsa, a demon. The other event is told in the famous poem The Bhagavad-Gita. In this story, Krishna is the advisor to Arjuna, a prince who is on the battlefield of Kurukshetra facing his cousins to decide the fate of all of India. Krishna advises Arjuna to fight, as it is his duty, being born as the perfect human warrior. Krishna also reveals his true form as the one singular God to Arjuna. All facets of the cosmos are actually part of Krishna just as all other gods are part of Krishna and are, in fact, all essentially Vishnu, of whom Krishna is just an incarnation.


Worshipers

  • Devotees of Vishnu are called Vaishnavas, literally meaning “followers of Vishnu.” This term also applies to those who worship Krishna, the Buddha, or King Rama as their primary or favorite deity. Vishnu is identified usually by being blue with a crown and four arms. In each of the four arms is a hand holding important items. One is a mace, used for warfare against evil. Next is a lotus, then a conch which, when blown, alludes to the upcoming death of a demon, and then finally a discus, which is considered to be the ultimate weapon against evil. This image of Vishnu is often depicted in illustrations. As a murti, or statue, Vishnu is typically just standing by himself.
  • To worship Vishnu, devotees will make offerings and recite prayers or mantras. Since Vishnu preserves the universe, he is one of the three most important Hindu deities. Often in the modern world he alternates with Shiva as the most powerful and most significant. Both have nearly an equal number of followers, although worshiping one or the other does not prevent one from worshiping the other at a different or even the same time.
  • To summarize: Vishnu has a long history in Hinduism and embodies many characteristics. His main features are his preservation of the universe through his incarnations that save or illuminate the world, and his ability to create life and boons for his devotees. In his various forms, he represents a plethora of other features, such as embodying the ideal human, the ideal advisor, spiritual teacher, or warrior.


Vaishnavism

  • The science of Vedanta is thorough and extensive. Not only it contains the knowledge of the Absolute Truth, but also describes the route by which one can achieve her or his own individual understandings of the Absolute. This in itself distinguishes it from most faiths we find these days which usually don’t include higher rules of spiritual self-realization, however rely mainly on basic moral principles and the blind faith of the followers in their relation with the religious institutions as the ways of getting in touch with God, or for being rescued. On the other hand, the Vedic system permits everybody individuality to take up the procedure in whichever way they think is most suitable. The Vedic texts, gurus and sages provide the required directions and insights for growth, however an individual can work with complete freedom of thought, and not on the basis of a few institutional belief. Therefore, a person is permitted the liberty to search the different ways within the Vedic system to perceive and understand the Ultimate Reality and recover one’s own association with God.
  • This religious knowledge is for the whole world, not just some part of it or for a specific category of people. These Vedic scriptures have such a wide variety of information and knowledge that can assist one know God and the procedure of realizing Him that anybody from any backdrop can find help by including them to their life. These scriptures provide a lot of explanations of God, His pastimes, His beauty, characteristics and personality which aren’t obtainable somewhere else. Regardless of whether one is just inquiring or is already a genuine follower, these explanations, particularly from the  Srimad-Bhagavatam  , have capability to fill one’s soul with the juice of religious love for the Supreme Being.
  • Saints like Shukadeva, who was previously immersed in the delight of the Brahman, abandoned that delight to become immersed in the religious love of Lord Krishna in His activities in Vrindavana. And Shankaracharya, although he was the great evangelist of nondualism philosophy, appreciated the characteristics and beauty of Lord Krishna so much that he penned the book, “Prabodha Sudhakar” in admiration of Krishna. Therefore these scriptures disclose the complete procedure from knowing the particulars of God’s formation up to getting into the Divine delight of religious love for the most loving and beautiful Supreme Being.
  • In this process, the veneration of Lord Krishna as well as His expansions as Rama, Narayana, Vishnu, etc. is as old as the Vedic custom itself. Actually, it’s the core of Vedanta as per the explanations and proposal of Srila Vyasadeva. Therefore, the inference of Vedic philosophy is basically the principle of Vaishnavism, the adoration of the personal form of God, particularly as Krishna or Vishnu. Basically the track of Vaishnavism is  sanatana-dharma  , which is the tradition of acting as per the perpetual character of the soul as well as revival our perception to our spiritual identity and also the loving association we have with the Supreme.
  • In several areas throughout India and beyond the Vaishnava  bhakti  movement has expanded. It has also created poetry and numerous volumes of religious literature by many believers in that tradition. The Vaishnava sect is among the three main types of Hinduism, the other two are Shakta and Shaivism. Vaishnavas have four main factions: the Gaudiya  sampradaya  , established by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who is considered as an avatar of Krishna Himself, the Vallabhas established by Vallabhacharya, the Madhvas founded by Madhvacharya, and the Ramanujas established by Ramanujacharya.
  • Basically, a Vaishnava is an individual who acknowledges Sri Krishna as the Supreme Being and adores Him or any of His incarnations or expansions. The fundamental nature of Vaishnavism is stated in the procedure of bhakti-yoga, union with God by religious observance. There is nothing more convincing than love and dedication to give one the motivation to absorb one’s views in thinking of another, the dearly loved. Bhakti  puts less stress on sacrifice, austerity and ritual and more on the  sadhana  and tradition which can enhance one’s dedication. This is something which anybody can develop and follow irrespective of disposition, background, status or caste.  Bhakti  is not just for Vaishnavas, but Shaivites also create  bhakti  for Lord Shiva. But, Shiva doesn’t return in quite the identical way or in the many ways of joyful exchange as does Lord Krishna.
  • Therefore the procedure of divine realization performed by all Vaishnavas is bhakti-yoga  .  Constituents of this religious procedure are easily accepted in all other religions of the world, however bhakti-yoga has been established into a many-sided science. Therefore, all systems of religion and philosophy reach their conclusion in Srila Vyasadeva’s Vedanta, as conclusively and specifically explained in the  Srimad-Bhagavatam  .
  • The key dissimilarity between the Vaishnava philosophy and all others of the world is that the objective is also the means of achieving the goal. To put in other words,  bhakti , religious ritual to the Supreme, is achieved by taking part in religious service to the Supreme. This religious procedure of taking part in service to God purifies and refines one’s consciousness to the stage where she or he becomes totally divinely realized, at which time an individual knows her or his real religious individuality. The Supreme also discloses Himself to such a pure soul, and hence one’s association with the Lord gets awakened. After that  bhakti  is no more just a procedure to be followed, but it develops into a natural flow of sentiment and pull for the Supreme who returns such love. Then the spiritual, eternal, loving activities as well as pastimes, together with a person’s religious realizations and delight, knows no bounds.