Who is Vishnu? What God is Vishnu?
By Amy Underdown, London, UK
Vishnu is one of the three gods that make up the Hindu triumvirate, joined by Brahma the Creator and Shiva the Destroyer. Known as the Preserver, Vishnu has one of the largest, if not the biggest, following of any Hindu God. His most devoted worshippers, called Vaishnava, make up one of several major traditions in Hinduism and consider Vishnu to be the most supreme being within the religion.
As the Preserver, Vishnu is tasked with overseeing the balance of good and evil in the universe, returning to earth when there is trouble afoot. He is the figurehead of universal peace and preserver of the world, and his blessings grant happiness, protection from evil energies, and prosperity. As well as this, he also mediates all disputes between humans, deities and demons – so maybe it is no wonder why he is a popular choice of deity to bring into the home! So far, Vishnu has been incarnated nine times in order to fulfil his earthly duty, with Hindus believing that he will be reincarnated one final time before the world as we know it comes to an end.
His constructive, rather than destructive, powers mean that he is considered by some to be the most powerful god in the Trimurti and beyond, though this is not undisputed. There is an opposing school of thought which claims that Shiva is undoubtedly the most powerful deity in Hinduism. This rivalry of belief is rooted in the idea that Shiva has the power to destroy everything that Vishnu currently preserves, whilst those in Vishnu’s camp see his role to be the most critical to our everyday earthly lives.
This preserving responsibility is said to be represented through Vishnu’s four arms, each of which holds an item that symbolises an aspect of his great authority. The first of these four items is the conch, which represents the original noise of creation due to the ‘om’ sound that it produces. This is followed by the discus, which represents the mind. In his third hand is the lotus flower, a symbol seen in many Asian religions, which in this instance represents the beauty of creation and the freedom that comes with it. And finally, the club symbolises strength, in both a mental and physical sense, as well as the idea that nothing can ultimately conquer time.
With over one thousand different names, many earthly avatars, and multiple different depictions throughout the ancient texts and art, Vishnu is central to the practice of Hinduism and its history. Though interpretations of Vishnu have evolved over time, his popularity today is testament to the notion that he is an immensely powerful deity.