- Pronunciation: VISH-new
- Origin: Hindu
- Role: God of Preservation and Protection
- Current Reincarnations: 9
- Consort: Lakshmi
- Children: Aiyappa, Kamadeva
- Symbols: Conch, lotus flower, mace, chakra
Who Is Vishnu?
In Hindu mythology, Vishnu is part of the triumvirate. He is the second god and along with the other two, they are responsible for the creation, maintenance, and eventual destruction of the world. The first god of the triumvirate is Brahma, who is the creator, while the third is Shiva, who is the destroyer.
Vishnu is responsible for returning to earth when the land and inhabitants are in trouble and restoring the delicate balance between good and evil. While fulfilling his duties, he has been incarnated nine times. In the Hindu religion, it is believed that his tenth and final reincarnation will signify the end of the world.
Vishnu’s followers are called Vaishnava. They consider him to be the greatest god out of the three. Brahma and Shiva are considered lesser gods and the Vaishnava only worship Vishnu.
As just mentioned, Vishnu has been reincarnated nine times during his returns to earth. Here are descriptions of each incarnation, along with the prediction for the tenth and final visit.
Vishnu was first reincarnated as a fish. Hindus believe that this is a tribute to the biblical story of Noah.
This reincarnation was in the form of a turtle and resulted in the churning of the ocean.
Vishnu was reincarnated as a pig or boar and recovered the stolen Vedas.
Reincarnated as half lion and half man, Vishnu conquered a demon who had become unbeatable by mortals.
This reincarnation was in the form of a dwarf sage with the ability to grow. Vishnu tricked Bali, an evil demon who had taken over the earth and heavens, into giving him as much of his empire as he could take in three steps. Since Vishnu was a dwarf, Bali agreed. Vishnu suddenly grew so large that he was able to cover the entire earth in just one step. He recovered the heavens with his second step and took back control for the gods.
Vishnu was reincarnated as a fierce hunter and voided the earth of irreligious and sinful monarchs.
Reincarnated as a warrior, Vishnu kills the demon King Ravana.
Vishnu was reincarnated as a mentally advanced man and became the hero of Mahabharata in an epic poem. He delivered the Baghavad Gita as Krishna, which was his famous message.
As Buddha, Vishnu was reincarnated as the all-knowing one. He appeared in the 5th century BCA.
Kalki is the expected tenth reincarnation of Vishnu. He will be seated on a white horse and symbolize the end of the world.
Legends and Stories
Most of Vishnu’s stories surround his many reincarnations. Here is one of the most beloved stories of Vishnu, which tells the story of the churning of the Milky Ocean.
The Milky Ocean
Vishnu told the other gods to churn the Milky Ocean. This would recover many lost treasures, including an elixir containing immortality and the goddess Lakshmi. The recovered items would allow the gods to defeat demons.
Vishnu knew the gods would be unable to do this themselves, which is why he struck a deal with the demons. He promised them a share of the treasures, including the elixir of immortality, if they would help churn. The demons agreed to the deal.
Vishnu told both the gods and demons that Mount Madura would be the perfect choice for a churning stick. They should use the giant serpent, Vasuki, as a rope. Vishnu had the demons hold the head of the snake while the gods held the tail. The snake coiled around the mountain and each side pulled alternatively, which rotated the mountain in the water.
But as the ocean churned, the mountain began to sink. Vishnu was incarnated as a turtle and placed the mountain on his back. He acted as a foundation stone and allowed the churning to continue. According to some variations of the myth, it took 1,000 years of churning before any treasures reappeared.
Once the elixir of immortality rose to the top of the water, the demons rushed to grab it. But Vishnu assumed the form of Mohina, a beautiful woman. She captured the attention of the demons and without them noticing, she swapped the elixir of immortality for an elixir of alcohol. She returned the elixir of immortality to the gods.
Lakshmi also rose from the ocean on a lotus flower. She saw all the gods and chose the one she felt was most worthy. Her and Vishnu became inseparable.
There is a bit of controversy regarding Vishnu’s family. His consort was the goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. It is mostly accepted that the Indian Cupid, Kamadeva, is Vishnu’s son. Because of the many reincarnations and avatars of Vishnu, he has several strings of offspring. Aiyappa is the son of Mohini, the feminine version of Vishnu. The fifth avatar of Vishnu, Lord Rama, had twin sons named Lava and Kusha. Another avatar of Vishnu, Lord Krishna, is said to have had 16,108 wives and nearly countless children with them.
In artistic representations, Vishnu is shown with a human body, blue skin, and four arms. His hands are usually each carrying an object, all with symbolic meaning. The items include a conch, a chakra, a lotus flower, and a mace.
He is usually shown in one of two positions. He is either standing up straight on a lotus flower with the goddess Lakshmi nearby or reclining on the coils of a serpent. In this position, his consort is usually massaging his feet and they are surrounded by the Milky Ocean. He also rides on Garuda, an eagle who is the King of Birds.
The items Vishnu holds are his main symbols. These include the conch, which represents the primeval sound of creation, and the chakra, which symbolizes the human mind. The lotus flower is an example of liberation and glorious existence and the mace represents physical and mental strength.