Vishnu and Avataras

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VISHNU AND AVATĀRAS The god Vishnu, a relatively minor figure in the Vedas (which hold many but not all of the primary roots of Hindu tradition), emerges in the Sanskrit epics and Purāṇas to become one of the pair of most powerful male deities. As sectarian Shaivas are those whose primary devotional allegiance is to Shiva, Vaishnavas are worshipers of Vishnu in one or more of his manifestations. In many ways, Vishnu represents an entire pantheon of gods assembled under one name, a supreme being with multiple incarnations popularly known as avatāras. Historically, these numerous divine beings had obscure but sometimes colorful origins in regional clan deities and cults of deified heroes. Gradually they were gathered under the umbrella designation of Vishnu and regarded as his appearances with various names, mythologies, and rituals. Alongside Shaivas on one hand and devotees of many forms of Devī, the goddess, on the other, Vaishnavas represent the core of the Hindu devotional tradition. Although many Hindus concentrate faith in one god as supreme deity, Hinduism has always been comfortable with devotees who worship in temples, shrines, and home altars that embrace more than one sacred being.

Vishnu in the Vedas

Of the more than one thousand hymns of the Rig Veda, Vishnu is addressed in only five, and his name appears fewer than a hundred times in all the others. Yet his most celebrated feat, the taking of three great strides, the last extending beyond human comprehension and presumably embracing the three cosmic levels of earth, midspace, and heaven, endows him with a permanent reputation for allpervasiveness. He is associated with major Rig Vedic deities, including Indra, whom he assists in the conquest of the powerful demon of obstruction Vritra, and with whom he drinks the sacred soma offering. Detailing yajña, sacrifice, Brāhmaṇa texts direct the sacrificer to take three strides to reach heaven and the highest light. In so doing, the sacrificer becomes both Vishnu and the sacrifice (Shatapatha Brāhmaṇa–10). Such a homology of the god, worshiper, and sacrifice assures Vishnu a prominent and lasting role in a religion that focuses on ritual. Communication between gods in heaven and humans on earth is secured by identifying Vishnu with the yūpa, at once the sacrificial pole and a cosmic axis mundi.

In addition to myths featuring Indra, Soma, and Agni, Vishnu also plays a part in various accounts, from the Rig Veda to the Brāhmaṇas, of a boar and a dwarf, prefiguring two of the famous avatāras narrated in greater detail in subsequent Sanskrit epics and Purāṇas. A central motif in these developing myths is cosmogony, the creation or rescuing of the earth from chaos or the Asuras (enemies of the gods) through sacrifice, often personified in the form of Prajāpati, Lord of creatures. For example, the Asuras, unaware of Vishnu's talent for a three-step across the universe, are fooled when they readily consent to give up as much of the earth as the dwarf can lie upon or cross in three strides. And the boar, called Emūsha in some variants, stars as an "earth-diver" type of creator who raises out of primeval waters the entire earth on his tusk. Two other early myths involve Prajāpati and either a fish or a tortoise, yet another pair of avatāras of Vishnu that achieved widespread popularity in post-Vedic texts.

At the close of the Vedic textual period, most Upanishads paid scant attention to Vishnu. The early Brihadāraṇnyaka placed Vishnu in a creative role, alongside Prajāpati and other deities, as overseers of ritual impregnation. In the later Kaṭha Upanishad, Vishnu's highest step occurs with the first mention of the term for rebirth, saṃsāra: one with proper knowledge of the self attains that heaven from which he will not be reborn. But more significantly, by the third century b.c., the Mahā-Nārāyaṇa Upanishad, book 10 of the Taittirīya Āraṇyaka, connected Vishnu with cosmic Purusha, Prajāpati, time personified as Kāla, order, truth, the highest light, and in fact the Absolute, brahman. Among all these associations with supreme cosmic entities was inserted Nārāyaṇa, a Rishi and son of Dharma who became known as "Purusha Nārāyaṇa" in the Shatapatha Brāhmaṇa (e.g., The identification of Vishnu with Nārāyaṇa proved to be momentous in post-Vedic theological circles that led to the establishment of sectarian Vaishnavism.

Vishnu in Epics and Purāṇas

In the last half of the first millennium b.c., Vishnu and Shiva came into prominence, each expressing a range of essential myths, rites, and symbols of the past, both Vedic and non-Vedic. Over the succeeding centuries, they were joined by an array of local, regional, and eventually pan-Indian goddesses who also achieved status in popular worship. Aspects of Vedic Vishnu that served best to highlight him in a new age that produced epic roles in the Sanskrit Mahābhārata, Harivaṃsha, and Rāmāyaṇa included his role as the sacrifice, and particularly as the sacrificial victim Purusha-Prajāpati, the primal person whose body became the distributed cosmos. As cosmic pole (skambha), Vishnu was everywhere present as essential cosmic energy. To the scattered earlier cosmogonic folklore of the boar, fish, tortoise, and dwarf were added weightier cycles of two great heroic figures, Krishna and Rāma, who became the most famous of all manifestations. In the system of avatāras that emerged well into the first millennium a.d., these two, in widely separate ways, were considered to be descents of Vishnu into the human world to restore dharma, sacred order, in a time of lawlessness and chaos. Each appears at the shift of an age, or yuga, within the great cycle of time, and each is said to be the ideal king for the new age.

Multiple cults of regional clan leaders and deified heroes, some of them thought to be Rishis, appear to have formed, reformed, and coalesced during the period of composition of the Mahābhārata, about 500 b.c. to a.d. 200. The great epic reveals the names of Vāsudeva, Nārāyaṇa, Krishna, Bala-Rāma, Nara, and Hari, as well as communities known as Bhāgavatas (worshipers of Bhagavan, the Lord), Pāñcarātras, and others, but gives no transparent view of their developing relationships. The Nārāyaṇīya section in book 12 provides some degree of focus. But the words of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gītā (c. 200 b.c.)—verses often considered the essence of the Mahābhārata in its portion of the sixth book—declare a divine mission and provide a rationale employed later in the concept of avatāras: "For the preservation of good and destruction of evil ..I come into being in age after age" (Gītā 4.8). The relationship of the warrior Arjuna's charioteer, Krishna, to the god Vishnu is complex and certainly mystifying to Arjuna. In a crucial moment, transcendent Vishnu reveals his bodily form in the terrifying splendor of a thousand suns, and Arjuna beholds all the gods and the fiery dissolution of the universe. Quickly he begs for the mercy of normal human vision and then learns that it is only through steadfast devotion (bhakti) that such a theophany occurs and god himself may be entered (Gītā 11.3–55).

In other epic passages, including the Harivaṃsha, and in the Purāṇas, particularly the Vishnu and Bhāgavata, Krishna is portrayed quite differently, as a valiant warrior dispatching monsters and demons, and then again as the cowherd Gopāla and lover of gopīs, milkmaids who represent the adoring souls of humans, more often found languishing in separation from the god than relishing his embrace. In sculpture, wood carvings, and later medieval paintings, Krishna is seen conquering the serpent Kāliya, hoisting up Mount Govardhana in a rescue mission, or as a lithe, dark blue figure, surrounded by cattle and rolling hills, enchanting all with his flute, but crowned and still royal. The Gītā Govinda, a twelfth-century Sanskrit devotional poem by Jayadeva, provided a name for the gopī favored by the dark lord, and a cult of Rādhā and Krishna was born. Krishna's many heroic deeds are recited with great affection, and in fact his entire life fascinates his devotees, including his childhood antics. Bāla-Krishna stealing butter from the pantry is a favored scene. Another episode echoes the revelation to Arjuna: Krishna's mother looks into her child's mouth when she thinks he has been eating dirt and discovers the entire universe, earth, moon, and stars.

Rāma, prince of Ayodhya, is hero of the Rāmāyaṇa, perhaps the earlier of the two epics. His character is more focused and transparent than that of Krishna. Popularly known to Vaishnavas as Rāmacandra, he is portrayed as a handsome blue figure, crowned, an arrow in one hand, bow in the other. Vishnu's descent in this instance of the avatāra series is to restore the rightful kingdom to Rāma, who has been unjustly exiled, and to defeat the usurping demon Rāvaṇa, king of Lanka. The epic centers on Rāma and Sītā as ideal man and wife, each the model of virtue, truth, and beauty. Rāma's heroic younger brother, Lakshmaṇa, and monkey allies championed by Hanuman are crucial in a war to rescue the abducted Sītā. The Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇa traditionally attributed to Vālmīki was followed by other, substantially different regional versions in several languages, including Tamil, Hindi, and Bengali between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. Before tens of thousands of devotees, the Hindi Rāmāyaṇa of Tulsīdās is dramatized annually as the Rām-Līlā.

Although some Purāṇas maintain longer catalogs, a classical list of ten avatāras of Vishnu endures, often beginning with Matsya, the fish. A well-known myth in the Shatapatha Brāhmaṇa features an unnamed tiny fish, cared for by Manu, that grows into a giant fish strong enough to save Manu from a universal flood by towing him in a boat. In the Mahābhārata, the Matsya, and other Purāṇas, this fish is identified either as Brahmāor Vishnu, and rescue from world annihilation now entails all beings, with Manu in charge of a new creation in which the Vedas must be heard anew. Paintings illustrating Purāṇa manuscripts charmingly show four personified Vedas and seven Rishis alongside Manu and family, all bobbing in a boat on an endless sea that represents an interlude between destruction and a new creation.

Kurma, the tortoise incarnation of Vishnu, also has Vedic cosmogonic origins. In the agnicayana sacrifice, a live tortoise, symbol of the three worlds and life-sap, was buried as foundation for the fire altar. In epics and Purāṇas, Kurma lies at the bottom of the cosmic ocean with Mount Mandara based on his back like an axis mundi. In the myth of the churning of the ocean, warring gods and demons employ the great serpent Vāsuki as churning rope to twirl this pole and produce from an ocean of milk fourteen cosmic treasures, including amrita, the drink of immortality, and the goddess Lakshmī.

Again the Vedic tradition is one source for the boar avatāra, Varāha, widely represented in early iconography. The assimilation of indigenous myths and cults of a sacred boar into Vedic tradition and thence into the Vaishnava pantheon is illustrated in an association of Varāha with every aspect of the sacrifice. He is shown either upright on his hind legs or standing on all fours. Often a naked young girl is suspended from one tusk, a symbol of Prithivī, the goddess Earth, brought up by the boar who dove to the bottom of the sea to rescue her.

Unlike the other great male god, Shiva, who appears in at least as many fearful and demonic guises as gracious and benign ones, the incarnations of Vishnu are almost always benevolent. One exception is his descent as Narasiṃha, the man-lion. This curious mixture came about when a clever demon, Hiraṇyakashipu, extracted a boon from Brahmā that no weapon could harm him, that he could not be killed by man or beast, by day or night, inside or outside his dwelling. The demon's son, Prahlāda, a passionate devotee of Vishnu, enraged his father, who tried every means to kill the boy. Vishnu therefore dispatched this troublesome demon by his own hands, appearing as a man-lion, at twilight, on the threshold. Usually depicted with fierce lion face, Narasiṃha is often shown in a macabre scene, Hiran across his lap being disemboweled.

The dwarf in the Shatapatha Brāhmaṇa who tricked the Asuras into giving up the world by recapitulating Rig Vedic Vishnu's three great strides across the cosmos now receives a name, Vāmana. Yet another demon, Bali, is fooled by the innocent-looking but wide-striding dwarf. Vāmana is often pot-bellied as a dwarf but lithe and virile when conquering.

Parashu-Rāma, Rāma-with-battle-ax, presents the anomaly of a Brahman priest who is a fierce warrior wielding a deadly weapon. His myths center on the perpetual struggle for supremacy between the two primary classes, Brahmans and Kshatriyas, priests and warriors. Depicted with his right hand holding an ax given by Shiva, Parashu-Rāma recalls the mythic annihilation of a warrior class that temporarily usurped sovereignty and inverted cosmic order.

Even the Buddha was drawn into the orbit of Vishnu. Just as Buddhists co-opted several Hindu gods (Indra was said to have become a Buddhist convert), so did Vaishnavas submerge the Buddha into one more incarnation of Vishnu. According to one source, Vishnu deliberately deceived and punished those incapable of knowing god. The Mahābhārata and several Purāṇas list Ham goose, Brahmā's mount, instead of the Buddha.

These nine avatāras are said to have descended in times of distress to rescue or re-create the world. That leaves only the tenth of the classic set, a Vishnu still to come. At the close of our current Kali yuga, worst of the four ages, Kalki will arrive to initiate the Krita yuga, the golden age restored once again. As an eschatological figure akin to both ancient Iranian Saoshyant and the Buddha Maitreya, he is to appear with flaming sword on a white horse, riding to end chaos, reestablish order, and reward or punish all according to their deeds.

Of the ten, it is Krishna and Rāma who emerged as such powerful magnets of devotion that worshipers often dismiss all others and think of one or the other instead of Vishnu. But regardless of manifestation, Vishnu's pervasiveness is never far from mind. Nammāḻvār, most famous of the twelve Tamil Vaishnava poet-saints of South India in the seventh to tenth centuries, spoke of Tirumāl (Vishnu) coming to him "happily, all grace, my lord who became fish, tortoise, man-lion, dwarf, wild boar, and who'll soon be Kalki, occupied me, became all of me, my lord dark as raincloud" (trans., A. K. Ramanujan).

The iconography of Vishnu that began with temple sculpture in the late centuries b.c. and flourished between the fourth and sixth centuries a.d. continued with coins and on to medieval paintings. Frequently he is youthful in appearance, dark blue, a shrīvatsa in his chest hair marking him as the favorite of Shrī-Lakshmī, his four hands holding a conch and lotus, with discus and mace as weapons. A prize from the churning of the ocean is the kaustubha jewel worn by Vishnu. Often he appears on Garuḍa, his eagle or hawk mount, a well-winged (suparṇa) figure in his own right, whose career echoes that of the Vedic eagle who carried a hero to steal soma. Garuḍa is known as the enemy of serpents, nāgas. But another theriomorphic mount for Vishnu is the cosmic serpent Shesha, known as Ananta, endless, a coil floating upon the ocean as foundation for the sleeping god. A recurrent scene depicts Vishnu lying asleep on Shesha, Lakshmī tending his feet, while a lotus sprouts from his navel to reveal the creator god Brahmā. In the late and synthetic Purāṇic theology of Trimūrti, a triune godhead, Brahmā creates, Vishnu preserves, and Shiva destroys each temporary world. Another conflation was Hari-Hara, Vishnu, and Shiva as one being performing all functions. The shālagrāma stone found in many home shrines is a fossil ammonite from a sacred river. It is pervaded by the god and therefore is Vishnu.

Lakshmī, at Vishnu's feet or by his side on Gupta coins, is his wife but also the famed goddess of good fortune, wealth, prosperity, and beauty. By the close of the Vedic texts, Lakshmī had merged with Shrī, an older Vedic goddess with similar characteristics. Vishnu's divine consort may also be known as Padmā, the lotus. In South Indian temples the god is often flanked by Shrī-Lakshmī and Bhū or Bhūmi, a variant of Prithivī, the earth. The goddess remained subordinate until such texts as the Lakshmī Tantra of the Pāñcarātra Āgamas promoted her to equality, even identity with Vishnu. Here, Lakshmī-Nārāyaṇa becomes as arresting and complicated a manifestation as Shakti-Shiva among other texts and rituals of Tantra. The Tamil Shrī Vaishnava treatises of the twelfth and later centuries and the emergence of Rādhā in the Gītā Govinda from Bengal, also in twelfth century, assured a permanent place for goddesses and feminine powers within Vaishnava tradition. In the fourteenth and later centuries, the popularity of openly erotic poems of Vidyāpati, Sūrdās, Caṇd.īdās, and the Sahajiyā mysticism of Bengal meant a more intricate demonstration of the Lord's love play (rāsa līlā) with the human soul, and a counterpoint to those such as Caitanya, who stressed his experience of Krishna's absence.

Vishnu in Faith and Practice

Vishnu as godhead and his principal avatāras, Krishna and Rāma, are most readily discernible in the context of bhakti, devotional movements in which the bhakta, devotee, fervently seeks the presence of god. To be with god—really to return to him, since the body of Purusha-Nārāyaṇa is the source of all being—is a desire that remains unqualified by time, as evidenced in the widespread belief in Vishnu's heaven, Vaikuṇṭha, on the Ganges River flowing from Mount Meru (or in variants, within the deepest ocean). Moksha is the sought-after release from further rebirths, but living for eternity in the presence of Lord Vishnu is a far higher reward for devotion. In funerary rituals Rāma may be invoked in several ways, including a chant "the name of Rāma is satya, truth!"

The mythology of manifestation according to the Bhagavad Gītā and several Purāṇas is one statement of Vishnu's pervasive nature. But the attempt to explain the relationship between the one and the many, a supreme being with multiple forms that do not exhaust his totality, was approached by different communities from several perspectives from the fifth century b.c. The highest being could be disclosed as unitary, two-, three-, four-, five-, or even sixfold, each expression supported by cosmology and mythology, including agricultural and pastoral symbols of sun, rain, earth, plows, pestles, and cattle. Vedic Purusha is again recalled, the primal being in four parts, three of them remaining unmanifest (Rig Veda 10.90.3). The doctrine of vyūhas emerged from the Pāñcarātra school, perhaps under the influence of Sāṃkhya philosophy, with its division of consciousness and matter, purusha and prakriti. An early branch envisioned four vyūhas, arrangements or emanations, proceeding from the supreme Vishnu as an aggregate of deified heroes: Saṃmkarshaṇa (Bala-Rāma), Vāsudeva, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha. Another perspective noted five by including Sāmba or Shāmba, and still another counted triads in pairs. Krishna devotees centered upon Vāsudeva as Krishna, the other four being his brother, two sons, and a grandson. By the time of the Vishnu and Bhāgavata Purāṇas, many of these cosmological perspectives had melded into a more uniform background for the doctrine of avatāras and proliferation of bhakti.

As Shankara was the great eighth-century monistic philosopher of Advaita Vedānta and impersonal brahman, so were Yāmuna, and in particular, his successor, Rāmānuja, the principal architects of what came to be known as Vishishtādvaita, the qualified nondualism school of Vedānta. Rāmānuja was an eleventh-century student of Vedānta whose personal experience of Vishnu and Shrī-Lakshmī brought realization of brahman as a limitless being with whom an individual soul could unite. Passionate devotion to the point of complete self-surrender, prapatti, later became the hallmark of many South Indian Shrī Vaishnavas. Eventually this movement split into northern and southern subsects. The former stressed Sanskrit texts and cooperative grace, whereas the latter relied on Tamil hymns and the irresistible grace of god, a conviction that one is rescued by god alone without human effort. As chief priest of the Ranganatha temple in Shrirangam, Rāmānuja systematized Vaishnava devapūjā, divine worship, and traveled widely to disseminate theological and liturgical reforms that became fundamental to the overall success of bhakti in Hinduism.

A list of 108 sacred sites for Vaishnava pilgrims includes Shrirangam, Tirupati, and even Vaikuṇṭha, heaven. Among celebrated festivals are birthdays for Krishna and Rāma, Holi, and special times to honor regional poet-saints who made manifestations of Vishnu accessible in Tamil, Kannada, Marathi, Braj, Bengali, or a score of other languages.

David M. Knipe

See alsoBhagavad Gītā ; Bhāgavata Purāṇa ; Devī ; Hinduism (Dharma) ; Krishna in Indian Art ; Rāmāyaṇa ; Shiva and Shaivism


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The Bhagavadgītā in the Mahābhārata. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1981. Romanized Sanskrit text, translation, introduction to the classic Gītā.

Bhattacharya, Deben, trans. Love Songs of Vidyāpati. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1963. Fourteenth-century Maithili songs of Krishna and Rādhā, edited with introduction by W. G. Archer; 31 plates of paintings from the seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries.

Biardeau, Madeleine. Hinduism. The Anthropology of a Civilization, translated by Richard Nice. 1981. Reprint, Delhi: Oxford University, 1989. Convincing synthesis explains the transformation of Vedic religion into "a universe of bhakti" able to sustain the Vaishnava tradition along with other options.

Buitenen, J. A. B. van. Rāmānuja on the Bhagavadgītā. 1953. Reprint, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1968. Abbreviated and annotated translation of the foremost Vaishnava philosopher's influential commentary on the Gītā.

Desai, Kalpana. Iconography of Viṣṇu (in Northern India up to the Medieval Period). New Delhi: Abhinav, 1973. 104 plates of temple sculpture first century b.c. to fourteenth century a.d.

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Goldman, Robert P. The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki: An Epic of Ancient India. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1984. General introduction to the history and critical edition of the Sanskrit epic; translation of the Bālakāṇḍa, first of a seven-volume series.

Gonda, Jan. Viṣṇuism and Saivaism: A Comparison. London: Athlone, 1970. Concise, coherent depiction of myth, ritual, theology, and folklore; copious endnotes include further details.

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O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Hindu Myths. Baltimore: Penguin, 1975. Excellent sampler of basic myths in translation from the Rig Veda, Brāhmaṇas, Rāmāyaṇa, Harivaṃsa, and Purāṇas.

Ramanujan, A. K. Hymns for the Drowning. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1981. Beautifully translated selections from Nammāl ninth century. vār, best-loved Tamil poet-saint, circa ninth century.

Richman, Paula, ed. Many Rāmāyaṇas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Essays by twelve scholars on textual, oral, and dramatic versions in different regions and languages.

Schrader, F. Otto. Introduction to the Pāñcarātra and the Ahirbudhnya Samhitā. Chennai: Adyar, 1916. Slightly dated but still the best access to Vaishnava sources.

Soifer, Deborah A. The Myths of Narasiṃha and Vāmana: Two Avatars in Cosmological Perspective. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. Comparative study of these two avatāras as respective representations of cosmic destruction and re-creation as well as two complementary varṇas, Kshatriyas and Brāhmaṇas.