VIṢṆU . In the age of the Ṛgveda, India's oldest religious document (c. 1200–1000 bce), Viṣṇu must already have been a more important divine figure than it would appear from his comparatively infrequent appearances in the texts. He is celebrated in a few hymns, of which stanzas 1.22.16–21 came to be a sort of confession of faith, especially among the Vaikhānasa Vaiṣṇavas, who adapted them for consecratory purposes and for invoking the god's presence and protection. These stanzas eulogize the essential feature of the character of the Vedic Viṣṇu: namely, his taking, from the very place where the gods promote human interests, three steps, by which he establishes the broad dimensional actuality of the earthly space in which all beings abide (see also Ṛgveda 1.154.1 and 3, etc.). His highest step is in the realm of heaven, beyond mortal ken. Thus, his penetration of the provinces of the universe, in accordance with the traditional Indian interpretation of the character of the original god as the representative of pervasiveness, must be considered a central feature in the vast complex of ideas for which the name of the early Viṣṇu stood.
Virāj, the idea of extending far and wide the female principle of creation and the hypostasis of the universe conceived as a whole, came to be one of Viṣṇu's epithets. Being essential to the establishment and maintenance of the cosmos and beneficial to the interests of humans and gods, his pervasiveness obtained ample room for the former and divine power for the latter. To the sacrificer, who ritually imitates Viṣṇu's three strides and so identifies with him, the god imparts the power to conquer the universe and attain "the goal, the safe foundation, the highest light" (Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 184.108.40.206). Viṣṇu's pervasiveness also manifests itself in the central cosmic axis, the pillar of the universe, whose lower end is visibly represented by the post erected on the sacrificial ground. This axis reaches the earth in the center or navel of the universe, putting the cosmic levels into communication with each other; it thus provides a means of traveling to heaven as well as a canal through which heavenly blessings reach humanity. In this navel is located the sacrifice with which Viṣṇu is constantly identified.
In the Ṛgveda Viṣṇu is Indra's ally and intimate friend. In the later Vedic Brāhmaṇa literature, two Ṛgvedic myths connected with Viṣṇu, or with Viṣṇu and Indra, are further developed so as to become, like two other myths, the seeds of some of the god's avatāra s. After Indra slew a boar that kept the goods of the asura s (antigods), Viṣṇu, (i. e., the sacrifice) carried the animal off, with the result that the gods obtained the goods of their enemies. This boar, then identified with the creator god Prajāpati, is also said to have raised up the earth (Śatapatha Brāh. 220.127.116.11); in course of time Viṣṇu fuses with Prajāpati, and in the Mahābhārata (3.142.56, Bombay ed.) it is he who saves the overcrowded earth by raising it up. The great fish (Śatapatha Brāh. 1.8.1) that delivers Manu, the first human, from the deluge appears later as a form of Brahma (Mahābhārata 3.185) and becomes in the postepic Purāṇas an avatāra of Viṣṇu.
A conglomeration of religious currents contributed to the development of post-Vedic Viṣṇuism. In the centuries before the beginning of the common era, Viṣṇu fused with several divine, mythical, and heroic or legendary figures. Among them are (1) the primeval cosmic man (Puruṣa), embodying the idea that creation is the self-limitation of the transcendent person (Ṛgveda 10.90), which became the keystone of Vaiṣṇava philosophy; (2) the creator god Prajāpati; (3) Nārāyaṇa, a divine figure featured in the narrative of three ascetics who do not succeed in beholding him because this is a privilege of those who follow the path of bhakti (Mahābhārata 12.321ff.); and (4) Kṛṣṇa, who in the Bhagavadgītā (Mahābhārata 6.23–40) teaches, in human shape, how to combine a socially normal life with a prospect of final liberation. Although the names of these figures, when borne by Viṣṇu, came to represent particular aspects of his character and activities, they often also continued to indicate the principal persons of sometimes almost independent mythical themes. This plurality of names also helped to overcome incongruities caused by the fact that Viṣṇu is both the supreme being and a deity responsible for particular duties and activities: "the only [triune] God, Janārdana [Kṛṣṇa], is called Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva, accordingly, as he creates, preserves, or brings to an end" (Viṣṇu Purāṇa 1.2.62).
In the epic period (c. 500 bce–200 ce) Viṣṇu definitely assumed that aspect of the godhead that he holds up to the present day, that of preserver and protector of the world, lord and ruler of all. Yet many of his names and epithets continue to refer to character traits proper to a great god in the mythological sphere. Moreover, the deeds and characters of parochial gods, especially those of Indra, are transferred to him. Whereas in the Ṛgveda he is not credited with warlike activities of his own but rather assists Indra in his encounters with demons, he is already at an early date described as fighting and killing antagonists who, like Jambha, the disturber of sacrifice, were in older versions slain by Indra.
In the extensive postepic Vaiṣṇava literature many mythical episodes are inserted to show that God, when devoutly worshiped, is willing to appear in one of his forms in order to help or protect his devotees. For instance, in the story of the two demons Madhu and Kaiṭabha—who in the older version (Mahābhārata 3.194) intimidated Brahmā and in the later version (Jayākhya Saṃhitā 2.45ff.) stole the Veda so that the world fell to a bad state—the gods and demons praise Viṣṇu, who by his supernormal knowledge restores the Veda and who, after a battle of many thousands of years, kills the demons with a body consisting of mantra s that represent his śakti (superempirical creative power). From this story originates his epithet Madhusūdana, or "destroyer of Madhu."
Viṣṇu is usually depicted as a four-armed, dark blue young man bearing in his hands a conch (an auspicious object that represents fertility and is supposed to strengthen the divine powers), a discus (his invincible flaming weapon), a mace, and a lotus (which, rising from the depths of the waters, evidences their life-supporting power). He wears the miraculous jewel Kaustubha (which emerged from the churning of the ocean). The characteristic curl of hair on his chest is called the śrīvatsa ("favorite of the goddess Śrī"), and characterizes him as the universal sovereign. These mythological attributes are often used as aids to devotion. The mere presence of Viṣṇu riding the eagle Garuḍa, the theriomorphic manifestation of his nature and energy, suffices, in myth, literature, and plastic arts, to subdue the demoniac serpents.
In the post-Vedic period Viṣṇu's consort is known by two names, Śrī and Lakṣmī; originally these were two different goddesses, the former representing fortune and prosperity, the latter being closely connected with the ripe corn. Like Viṣṇu, Śrī-Lakṣmī is eternal and omnipresent. Associated in every possible way with the lotus symbol, she is said to have risen from the ocean to preside over earthly welfare. It is with the Goddess in such form that Viṣṇu is united in all of his incarnations: He, "the husband of Śrī," is the creator; she, creation; she is the earth, he, its support; he is one with all male beings, she, with all female beings; and so on. In mythical imagery, Lakṣmī never leaves Viṣṇu's side. In later Hinduism, she is, as Viṣṇu's śakti, the instrumental and material cause of the universe, God himself being the efficient cause. Indissolubly associated with each other, they constitute the personal brahman, also called Lakṣmī-Nārāyaṇa. Nevertheless, they are distinct: She alone acts, but everything she does is the expression of his wishes. Lakṣmī also makes an appearance in various mythical stories under different names (Mahālakṣmī, Bhadrakali, etc.). Many of these denote special aspects of Prosperity (Śrī-Lakṣmī); some appear, as companions of Viṣṇu, as the goddesses Victory (Jayā), Renown (Kīrti), and so on. While his alliance with his second consort, Bhūdevī, the Earth, stamps him as a bigamist, Viṣṇu's relations with many incarnations of his spouse are often characterized by youthful passion, reckless adventure, and human—often too human—emotions. He ravishes Rukmiṇī—even though she has been intended for Śiśupāla, whom he beheads—and marries her (Mahābhārata 2.37ff.); soon she is said to be an incarnation of Śrī, destined to marry Viṣṇu-Kṛṣṇa (Harivaṃṣa 104ff).
In his supreme and at the same time triune character, Viṣṇu, the Lord and highest Person, the unmanifest primordial principle, absorbs the universe at the end of a yuga (age of the world) by successively becoming the glowing sun, the scorching wind, and a torrential rain (Matsya Purāṇa 1.67). When the world has again become the undifferentiated water from which it once arose, Viṣṇu—according to some, together with Lakṣmī—sleeps on a thousand-headed serpent called Śeṣa, "the remainder" (because it represents the residue that remained after the universe and all its beings had been shaped out of the cosmic waters of the abyss), or Ananta, "the endless one" (who, symbolizing eternity, is identical with the ocean out of which the world will evolve as temporal existence and ultimately also with Viṣṇu himself). With the serpent and the ocean upon which this animal floats, Viṣṇu then constitutes the triune manifestation of the single divine cosmic substance and energy underlying all forms of phenomenal existence. During his sleep the world is "thought," nonexistent. When he awakes, he engages in meditation for its recreation. A lotus grows from his navel, and on this flower is born the demiurge Brahmā, who creates the world. Then, while residing in the highest heaven (Vaikuṇṭha), Viṣṇu in the form of Puruṣa preserves the world until it is once again ripe for dissolution.
The development of many myths and mythical narratives attests to Viṣṇu's adaptability and versatility. For instance, the older sources (Mahābhārata 1.16ff.) state only that Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa advised the gods and the asura s to churn the ocean in order to acquire from it amṛta; then, in the form of an anonymous woman, he recovered this drink of continued life from the asura s. Later versions relate his appearance as a fascinating young woman, Mohinī ("the deluding one"), tricking the asura s and distributing the amṛta among the gods.
In innumerable tales attesting to the popular belief in Viṣṇu's intervention in the vicissitudes of individual lives, the mythical element is no less mixed up with legend than in the many hagiographic compilations, which, like devotional literature in general, reactivate the power inherent in the mythical stories. Invocation of the god's protection is therefore often accompanied by a reference to one of his great exploits or important mythical aspects. Thus Kṛṣṇa-Viṣṇu, who made the gods happy by slaying Kaṃsa (Mahābhārata 2.13.29ff.), will no doubt prove a competent and reliable helper. Hearing the holy story of the Rāmāyaṇa —the heroic deeds of Viṣṇu descending to the earth to save humankind—is said to be a dependable way to long life, moral purity, and good fortune (Rāmāyaṇa 7, final chap.).
Synthesizing its theology, philosophy, mythology, and religious practice, Vaiṣṇavism distinguishes five forms of God:
- God in his transcendent form with the six attributes: omniscience, activity based on independent lordship, ability, force, virtue combined with energy, and brilliant self-sufficiency.
- The avatāra s, in which God sends forth his Self to save the dharma (order, stability) and humankind and to protect the good and destroy the wicked, evidencing his providential concern with humanity as a whole. However full of the wonderful and miraculous, the avatāra myths represent Viṣṇu as an essentially human character whose actions are within the limits of human understanding.
- The emanations (vyūha ) of his power, namely, Vāsudeva (Kṛṣṇa), Saṃkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha (Kṛṣṇa's brother, son, and grandson), which, like the avatāra s, represent an attempt at maintaining a fundamental monotheistic principle while incorporating manifestations of his being. This is also an attempt to harmonize theology with mythology and philosophy, for by assigning to these figures functions in a systematic explanation of the universe, theologians can account for Viṣṇu's part in its creation, preservation, and absorption.
- The immanent God, the inner ruler.
- The Mūrti (image or statue), God's most concrete form.
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"Viṣṇu." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/visnu
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