By Amy Underdown, London, UK
Vishnu is one of the three gods in the Hindu Trimurti. Known as the Preserver, it is his role to maintain the stability and order of the universe, with the other two spaces in the triumvirate occupied by Brahma the Creator and Shiva the Destroyer.
Whenever the world is at risk of evil or chaos, it is Vishnu’s duty to appear in the form of an avatar and restore balance. There are ten primary avatars of Vishnu, known as Dashavatara, with Krishna and Rama being two of the most significant. Vishnu’s importance should therefore not be understated, with his popularity being widespread and many Hindu households choosing to bring in a Vishnu statue in order to grant protection and positivity to their families. His strongest worshippers make up the Vaishnavism sect, one of the largest sects in Hinduism, which treats Vishnu as the supreme being within the religion, though this is disputed by other sects.
Another widely disputed (and highly confusing) debate surrounds which of the three gods in the Trimurti appeared first, which to some gives an edge in the conflict of which deity is the most important and powerful – an argument mostly fought out over Vishnu and Shiva. Different Hindu texts state different things. In the Shrimad Bhagvatam, for example, it is written that Shiva emerged from a burning tower after a dispute between Brahma and Vishnu. On the other hand, the Shiva Purana claims that Vishnu came to be after Shiva rubbed some nectar on his ankle. The Vishnu Purana instead writes that Lord Shiva originated from the eyebrows of Vishnu.
The main caveat to this debate is that in Hinduism, time is understood to be cyclical rather than linear. Thus, the idea of what came ‘first’ is thrown into question. In fact, it means that all these stories can truthfully co-exist, as time repeats itself in new ages and repeatedly starts again. Furthermore, in yet another twist to this time-bending story, all deities have technically always existed in some form seeing as souls have no beginning nor end.
To cut a long story short, the start of Vishnu’s existence is an impossible one to pinpoint. One area that isn’t up for dispute, though, is the strong association within Hinduism between the work of avatars and Vishnu. Whilst the ancient texts differ in their lists of avatars representing Vishnu, his role as the preserver of the world through his incarnations is highly celebrated across Hinduism. This is reflected in the depictions of Vishnu through art as he is sometimes shown along his avatars, ranging from a boar to a man-lion.
He is also often shown alongside his consort Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, prosperity and fortune. The story of their meeting is a small moment in a large narrative involving the curse of Indra, the great churning of the sea and Shiva earning his nickname ‘blue throat.’ In amongst this lengthy story, the beautiful Lakshmi appears and is permitted to choose her husband. Their immediate marriage takes place during all the excitement, celebrated by the other deities.
The union of these two deities and what they represent is another cause for their extensive popularity. Lakshmi’s promise of prosperity goes hand in hand with Vishnu’s position as the figurehead of universal peace, with his blessings also granting happiness, and protection from evil energies.
This positive protection is further represented through other artistic interpretations of Vishnu. He is also often seen resting on the serpent god, Sheshnaag, who has one thousand heads. Sheshnaag is in turn surrounded by a vast ocean of milk, which represents the purity of man’s consciousness. This purity transcends into Vishnu’s home, which is called Vaikuntha, which is free of sadness and poverty.
With all of these significant qualities, alongside his role of mediating all disputes between humans and demons, it is perhaps no wonder that Vishnu is a popular choice of deity to bring into the home. Though his importance is often pitted against that of Shiva, his widespread admiration is untouchable.