Viṣṇu (Sanskrit: विष्णु) is one of the principal deities of Hinduism:
The "preserver" in the Hindu triad (Trimūrti), Viṣṇu is revered as the Supreme Being in Vaiṣṇavism as identical to the metaphysical concept of Brahman (Ātman, the self, or unchanging ultimate reality),
and is notable for adopting various incarnations (Avatārs such as Rāma and Kṛṣṇa) to preserve and protect dharmic principles whenever the world is threatened with evil, chaos, and destructive forces.
In the Smārta Tradition of Hinduism Viṣṇu is also one of the 5 equivalent deities worshipped in Pañcāyatana pūjā.
Viṣṇu (Sanskrit विष्णु) means 'all pervasive', and according to Medhātithi (circa 1000 CE), 'one who is everything and inside everything'.
Vedānga scholar Yāska (4th c. BCE) in the Nirukta defines Viṣṇu as
'Viṣṇur viṣvater vā vyaśnoter vā',
meaning 'one who enters everywhere',
adding 'atha yad viṣito bhavati tad viṣnurbhavati',
meaning 'that which is free from fetters and bondage is Viṣṇu'.
3. The 108 Names of Viṣṇu
In the 10th part of the Padma Purāṇa (4-15th century CE), Danta (Son of Bhīma and King of Vidarbha) lists 108 names of Viṣṇu (17.98-102):
These include the 10 primary Avatārs (see Daśāvatāra, below) and descriptions of the qualities, attributes, or aspects of God.
4. The 1000 Names of Viṣṇu
The Anuśāsana Parva of the Mahābhārata and the Garuda Purāṇa (chapter XV) both list over 1000 names for Viṣṇu, each name describing a quality, attribute, or aspect of God.
Known as the Viṣṇu Sahasranāma, 'Viṣṇu' here is defined as 'the omnipresent'.
Other notable names in this list include Hari ('remover of sins'), Kāla ('time'), Vāsudeva ('Son of Vāsudeva', i.e. Kṛṣṇa), Ātman ('the soul'), Puruṣa ('the divine being') and Prakṛti ('the divine nature').
5. Mahā Viṣṇu
Mahā Viṣṇu ('Great Viṣṇu') - also known as Kāraṇodakaśāyī Viṣṇu - is another important name that denotes his being the source and creator of the total material energy (also known as mahat-tattva).
Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu (stimulation of energy to create diverse forms) and Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu (diffusion of the param-ātman or 'super-soul' in the hearts of all living beings) are expansions of Mahā Viṣṇu.
In Hindu mythology, Viṣṇu is depicted as having:
- A dark blue to black complexion
- Earrings in the shape of sharks
- A garland of flowers hanging from His neck (Vaijayanti); honey bees flying around it symbolise the verses of the Yajurveda.
- 4 Arms:
- Upper-left hand holding the Pañchajanya shankha (conch-shell)
- Lower-left hand holding a Padma (lotus flower)
- Upper-right hand handing the Sudarśana Chakra (discus)
- Lower-right hand the Kaumodakī gada (mace)
- The Kaustubha gem on his chest
- Yellow-coloured silk trousers
The bow of Viṣṇu is known as Sharanga and His sword is known as Nandaka.
A traditional depiction of Viṣṇu is that of Him reclining on the coils of the serpent Śeṣa, accompanied by his consort Lakṣmī, as he "dreams the universe into reality".
7. The Trimūrti
In Vaiṣṇavism, the so-called 'Great Trinity’ or Trimūrti represents the 3 fundamental forces (Guṇas) through which the universe is created, maintained, and destroyed in cyclic succession.
Each of these forces is represented by a Hindu deity:
1) Brahma: Represents Rajas (passion, creation)
2) Viṣṇu: Represents Sattva (goodness, preservation)
3) Śiva: Represents Tamas (darkness, destruction)
They all are believed to represent different forms or manifestations of One God, the Supreme Being.
The concept of the Avatār (or incarnation) within Hinduism is most often associated with Viṣṇu, the preserver or sustainer aspect of God within the Hindu Trimūrti:
The Avatārs of Viṣṇu descend to empower the good and to destroy evil, thereby restoring Dharma and relieving the burden of the Earth.
An oft-quoted passage from the Bhagavad Gītā describes the typical role of an Avatār of Viṣṇu:
Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases I send myself forth.
For the protection of the good and for the destruction of evil,
and for the establishment of righteousness,
I come into being age after age.
— Bhagavad Gītā 4.7–8
Vedic literature, in particular the Purāṇas (meaning 'ancient', similar to encyclopaedias) and Itihāsa (meaning 'chronicle', 'history', and 'legend'), narrate numerous Avatārs of Viṣṇu:
The most well-known of these Avatārs are Kṛṣṇa (most notably in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, Bhāgavata Purāṇa, and Mahābhārata; the latter encompassing the Bhagavad Gītā), and Rāma (most notably in the Rāmāyaṇa).
Kṛṣṇa in particular is venerated in Vaiṣṇavism as the last and most full Avatār, who lived right before the beginning of the present Age of Kali, the Age of Destruction and suffering, and gave the most latest and complete instructions.
9. The Mahābhārata
In the Mahābhārata, Viṣṇu (as Nārāyaṇa) states to Nārada that He will appear in the following 10 incarnations:
Appearing in the forms of a swan [Haṁsa], a tortoise [Kūrma], a fish [Matsya], O foremost of regenerate ones, I shall then display myself as a boar [Varāha], then as a Man-lion (Nṛsiṁha), then as a dwarf [Vāmana], then as Rāma of Bhrigu's race, then as Rāma, the son of Daśaratha, then as Kṛṣṇa the scion of the Sattvatā race, and lastly as Kalki.
— Mahābhārata (translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, 1883-1896), Book 12, Śānti Parva, Chapter CCCXL (340)
The Daśāvatāra is a list of the so-called Vibhāvas or ‘10 (primary) Avatārs’ of Viṣṇu:
The Agṇi Purāṇa, Varāha Purāṇa, Padma Purāṇa, Linga Purāṇa, Nārada Purāṇa, and Garuda Purāṇa all provide matching lists.
The same Vibhāvas are also found in the Garuda Purāṇa Saroddhara, a commentary or ‘extracted essence’ written by Navanidhirāma about the Garuda Purāṇa (i.e. not the Purāṇa itself, with which it seems to be confused):
The Fish, the Tortoise, the Boar, the Man-Lion, the Dwarf, Paraśurāma, Rāma, Kṛṣṇa, Buddha, and also Kalki: These 10 names should always be meditated upon by the wise. Those who recite them near the diseased are called relatives.
— Garuda Purāṇa Saroddhara by Navanidhirāma (translated by E. Wood and S.V. Subrahmaṇyam), Chapter VIII, Verses 10-11
Apparent disagreements concerning the placement of either the Buddha or Balarāma in the Daśāvatāra seems to occur from the Daśāvatāra list in the Śiva Purāṇa (the only other list with 10 Avatārs including Balarāma in the Garuda Purāṇa substitutes Vāmana, not Buddha).
Regardless, both versions of the Daśāvatāra have a scriptural basis in the cannon of authentic Vedic literature (but not from the Garuda Purāṇa Saroddhara).
Perumāḷ (Tamil: பெருமாள்), or Tirumāl (Tamil: திருமால்), also known as Māyoṇ (as he is described in the Tamil scriptures), was appropriated as manifestation of Lord Viṣṇu in later Hinduism and is a popular Hindu deity among Tamils in Tamil Nadu as well among the Tamil diaspora.
Viṣṇu is a Ṛg Vedic deity, but not a prominent one when compared to Indra, Agṇi and others:
Just 5 out of 1028 hymns of the Ṛg Veda are dedicated to Viṣṇu, although He is mentioned in other hymns.
Viṣṇu is mentioned in the Brāhmaṇa layer of text in the Vedas, thereafter his profile rises and Viṣṇu becomes a divinity of the highest rank, one equivalent to the Supreme Being.
Though a minor mention and with overlapping attributes in the Vedas, he has important characteristics in various hymns of Ṛg Veda, such as 1.154.5, 1.56.3 and 10.15.3:
In these hymns, the Vedas assert that Viṣṇu resides in that highest home where departed Ātmans (souls) reside, an assertion that may have been the reason for his increasing emphasis and popularity in Hindu soteriology. He is also described in the Vedic literature as the one who supports heaven and earth.
In the Vedic hymns, Viṣṇu is invoked alongside other deities, especially Indra, whom he helps in killing the symbol of evil named Vṛtra. His distinguishing characteristic in Vedas is his association with light.
Two Ṛg Vedic hymns in Maṇḍala 7 refer to Viṣṇu. In section 7.99 of the Ṛg Veda, Viṣṇu is addressed as the god who separates heaven and earth, a characteristic he shares with Indra.
In the Vedic texts, the deity or god referred to as Viṣṇu is Sūrya or Savitṛi (Sun god), who also bears the name Sūrya-Nārāyaṇa.
Again, this link to Sūrya is a characteristic Viṣṇu shares with fellow Vedic deities named Mitra and Agṇi, wherein different hymns, they too "bring men together" and cause all living beings to rise up and impel them to go about their daily activities.
In hymn 7.99 of Ṛg Veda, Indra-Viṣṇu are equivalent and produce the Sun, with the verses asserting that this Sun is the source of all energy and light for all.
In other hymns of the Ṛg Veda, Viṣṇu is a close friend of Indra.
Elsewhere in Ṛg Veda, Atharvaveda and Upaniṣadic texts, Viṣṇu is equivalent to Prajāpati, both are described as the protector and preparer of the womb.
In the Yajurveda, Taittirīya Āraṇyaka (10.13.1), Nārāyaṇa Sūkta, Nārāyaṇa is mentioned as the Supreme Being:
The first verse of Nārāyaṇa Sūktam mentions the words paramām pādam, which literally mean highest post and may be understood as the supreme abode for all souls. This is also known as Param Dhama, Parama pādam or Vaikuṇṭha. Rig Veda 1.22.20 also mentions the same paramām pādam.
In the Atharvaveda, the story of a boar appears who raises goddess earth from the depths of cosmic ocean, but without the word Viṣṇu or his alternate Avatār names.
In post-Vedic mythology, this legend becomes one of the basis of many cosmogonic myth called the Varāha legend, with Varāha as an Avatār of Viṣṇu.
13. Trivikrama: The Three Steps of Viṣṇu
Several hymns of the Ṛg Veda repeat the mighty deed of Viṣṇu called the Trivikrama, which is one of the lasting histories in Hinduism since the Vedic times:
It is an inspiration for ancient artwork in numerous Hindu temples such as at the Ellora Caves, which depict the Trivikrama legend through the Vāmana Avatār of Viṣṇu:
Trivikrama refers to the celebrated 3 steps or "3 strides" of Viṣṇu:
Starting as a small insignificant looking being, Viṣṇu undertakes a herculean task of establishing his reach and form, then with his 1st step covers the earth, with 2nd the ether, and the 3rd entire heaven.
viṣṇornu kaṁ vīryāṇi pra vocaṁ yaḥ pārthivāni vimame rajāṁsi ।
yo askabhāyaduttaraṁ sadhasthaṁ vicakramāṇastredhorugāyaḥ ॥1॥
I will now proclaim the heroic deeds of Viṣṇu, who has measured out the terrestrial regions,
who established the upper abode having, wide-paced, strode out triply (...)
— Ṛg Veda 1.154.1
The Viṣṇu Sūkta 1.154 of Ṛg Veda says that the 1st and 2nd of Viṣṇu's strides (those encompassing the earth and air) are visible to the mortals and the third is the realm of the immortals.
The Trivikrama describing hymns integrate salvific themes, stating Viṣṇu to symbolize that which is freedom and life.
The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa elaborates this theme of Viṣṇu, as his herculean effort and sacrifice to create and gain powers that help others, one who realizes and defeats the evil symbolized by the Asuras after they had usurped the 3 worlds, and thus Viṣṇu is the saviour of the mortals and the immortals (Devas).
The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa contains ideas which Vaiṣṇavism tradition of Hinduism has long mapped to a pantheistic vision of Viṣṇu as Supreme; he is the essence in every being and everything in the empirically perceived universe.
In this Brāhmaṇa Puruṣa Nārāyaṇa (Viṣṇu) asserts, "all the worlds have I placed within mine own self, and mine own self have I placed within all the worlds".
The text equates Viṣṇu to all knowledge there is (Vedas), calling the essence of everything as imperishable, all Vedas and principles of universe as imperishable, and that this imperishable which is Viṣṇu is the all.
Viṣṇu is described to be permeating all object and life forms where he is "ever present within all things as the intrinsic principle of all", and the eternal, transcendental self in every being.
The Vedic literature, including its Brāhmaṇas layer, while praising Viṣṇu, do not subjugate others gods and goddesses. They present an inclusive pluralistic henotheism.
The Vaiṣṇava Upaniṣads are minor Upaniṣads of Hinduism, related to Viṣṇu theology. There are 14 Vaiṣṇava Upaniṣads in the Muktikā anthology of 108 Upaniṣads. It is unclear when these texts were composed, and estimates vary from the 1st-century BCE to 17th-century CE for the texts.
These Upaniṣads highlight Viṣṇu, Nārāyaṇa, Rāma or one of his Avatārs as the supreme metaphysical reality called Brahman in Hinduism. They discuss a diverse range of topics, from ethics to the methods of worship.
Viṣṇu is the primary focus of Vaiṣṇavism-focused Purāṇas genre of Hindu texts.
Of these the most important texts are the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, Viṣṇu Purāṇa, Nārada Purāṇa, Garuda Purāṇa and Vāyu Purāṇa.
The Purāṇa texts include many versions of cosmologies, mythologies, encyclopaedic entries about various aspects of life, and chapters that were medieval era regional Viṣṇu temples-related tourist guides called māhātmyas.
One version of the cosmology, for example, states that Viṣṇu's eye is at the Southern Celestial Pole from where he watches the cosmos.
In another version found in section 4.80 of the Vāyu Purāṇa, he is the Hiraṇyagarbha, or the golden egg from which were simultaneously born all feminine and masculine beings of the universe.
17. Viṣṇu Purāṇa
The Viṣṇu Purāṇa presents Viṣṇu as the central element of its cosmology, unlike some other Purāṇas where Śiva or Brahma or goddess Śakti are.
The reverence and the worship of Viṣṇu is described in 22 chapters of the first part of Viṣṇu Purāṇa, along with the profuse use of the synonymous names of Viṣṇu such as Hari, Janārdana, Mādhava, Achyuta, Hṛṣīkēśa and others.
The Viṣṇu Purāṇa also discusses the Hindu concept of Supreme Reality called Brahman in the context of the Upaniṣads;
a discussion that the theistic Vedanta scholar Rāmānuja interprets to be about the equivalence of the Brahman with Viṣṇu, a foundational theology in the Śrī Vaiṣṇavism tradition.
18. Bhāgavata Purāṇa
Viṣṇu is equated with Brahman in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, such as in verse 1.2.11, as
"learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this non-dual substance as Brahman, Paramātma and Bhagavān."
The Bhāgavata Purāṇa has been the most popular and widely read Purāṇa texts relating to Viṣṇu Avatār Kṛṣṇa, it has been translated and available in almost all Indian languages.
Like other Purāṇas, it discusses a wide range of topics including cosmology, genealogy, geography, mythology, legend, music, dance, yoga and culture.
As it begins, the forces of evil have won a war between the benevolent devas (deities) and evil Asuras (demons) and now rule the universe.
Truth re-emerges as the Viṣṇu Avatār first makes peace with the demons, understands them and then creatively defeats them, bringing back hope, justice, freedom and good – a cyclic theme that appears in many legends.
The Bhāgavata Purāṇa is a revered text in Vaiṣṇavism.
The Purāṇic legends of Viṣṇu have inspired plays and dramatic arts that are acted out over festivals, particularly through performance arts.
19. Other Purāṇas
Some versions of the Purāṇa texts, unlike the Vedic and Upaniṣadic texts, emphasize Viṣṇu as Supreme and on whom other gods depend. Viṣṇu, for example, is the source of creator deity Brahma in the Vaiṣṇavism-focussed Purāṇa texts:
Viṣṇu's iconography typically shows Brahma being born in a lotus emerging from his navel, who then is described as creating all the forms in the universe, but not the primordial universe itself.
In contrast, the Śiva-focussed Purāṇas describe Brahma and Viṣṇu to have been created by Ardhanārīśvara, that is half Śiva and half Pārvatī; or alternatively, Brahma was born from Rudra, or Viṣṇu, Śiva and Brahma creating each other cyclically in different aeons (kalpa).
In some Vaiṣṇava Purāṇas, Viṣṇu takes the form of Rudra or commands Rudra to destroy the world, thereafter the entire universe dissolves and along with time, everything is reabsorbed back into Viṣṇu.
The universe is then recreated from Viṣṇu all over again, starting a new Kalpa. For this the Bhāgavata Purāṇa employs the metaphor of Viṣṇu as a spider and the universe as his web.
Other texts offer alternate cosmogonic theories, such as one where the universe and time are absorbed into Śiva.
The Agama scripture called the Pāñcarātra describes mode of worship of Viṣṇu.
21. Sangam & Post-Sangam Literature
The Sangam literature refers to an extensive regional collection in the Tamil language, mostly from the early centuries of the Common Era.
These Tamil texts revere Viṣṇu and his Avatārs such as Kṛṣṇa and Rāma, as well as other pan-Indian deities such as Śiva, Murugan, Durgā, Indra and others.
Viṣṇu is described in these texts as Māyoṇ, or "one who is dark or black in colour" (in north India, the equivalent word is Kṛṣṇa). Other terms found for Viṣṇu in this ancient Tamil literature include mayavan, mamiyon, netiyon, mal and Māyoṇ.
Kṛṣṇa as Viṣṇu Avatār is the primary subject of two post-Sangam Tamil epics Silappatikāram ("the Tale of an Anklet") and Maṇimēkalai ("jewelled belt, girdle of gems"), each of which was probably composed about the 5-6th century CE.
These Tamil epics share many aspects of the story found in other parts of India, such as those related to baby Kṛṣṇa such as stealing butter, and teenage Kṛṣṇa such as teasing girls who went to bathe in a river by hiding their clothes.
22. Bhakti Movement
Ideas about Viṣṇu in the mid-1st millennium CE were important to the Bhakti movement theology that ultimately swept India after the 12th century:
The Āḻvārs, which literally means "those immersed in God", were Tamil Vaiṣṇava poet-saints who sang praises of Viṣṇu as they travelled from one place to another.
They established temple sites such as Śrīraṅgam, and spread ideas about Vaiṣṇavism.
Their poems, compiled as Nālāyira Divya Prabhandham, developed into an influential scripture for the Vaiṣṇavas.
The Bhāgavata Purāṇa's references to the South Indian Āḻvār saints, along with its emphasis on bhakti, have led many scholars to give it South Indian origins, though some scholars question whether this evidence excludes the possibility that bhakti movement had parallel developments in other parts of India.
23. Vaiṣṇava Theology
The Bhāgavata Purāṇa summarizes the Vaiṣṇava theology, wherein it frequently discusses the merging of the individual soul with the Absolute Brahman (Ultimate Reality, Supreme Truth), or "the return of Brahman into His own true nature", a distinctly Advaitic or non-dualistic philosophy of Śankara.
The concept of Mokṣa is explained as Ekatva (Oneness) and Sāyujya (Absorption, intimate union), wherein one is completely lost in Brahman (Self, Supreme Being, one's true nature).
This, states Rukmiṇī, is proclamation of "return of the individual soul to the Absolute and its merging into the Absolute", which is unmistakably Advaitic in its nature.
In the same passages, the Bhāgavata includes a mention of Bhagavān as the object of concentration, thereby presenting the Bhakti path from the 3 major paths of Hindu spirituality discussed in the Bhagavad Gītā.
The theology in the Bhagavad Gītā discusses both sentient and the non-sentient, the soul and the matter of existence. It envisions the universe as the body of Viṣṇu (Kṛṣṇa).
Viṣṇu in Gītā's theology pervades all souls, all matter and time.
In Śrī Vaiṣṇavism sub-tradition, Viṣṇu and Śrī (goddess Lakṣmī) are described as inseparable, that they pervade everything together. Both together are the creators, who also pervade and transcend their creation.
The Bhāgavata Purāṇa, in many passages, parallels the ideas of Nirguṇa Brahman and non-duality of Ādi Śankara. For example,
Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this non-dual substance Brahman, Paramātmā or Bhagavān.
— Bhāgavata Purāṇa 1.2.11
The Bhāgavata Purāṇa suggests that God Viṣṇu and the soul (Ātman) in all beings is one.
In the Bhakti tradition of Vaiṣṇavism, Viṣṇu is attributed with numerous qualities such as omniscience, energy, strength, lordship, vigour, and splendour.
The Vaiṣṇava tradition started by Madhvācārya considers Viṣṇu in the form of Kṛṣṇa to be the supreme creator, personal God, all-pervading, all devouring, one whose knowledge and grace leads to "mokṣa".
In Madhvācārya Vaiṣṇava theology, the supreme Viṣṇu and the souls of living beings are two different realities and nature (dualism),
while in Rāmānuja’s Śrī Vaiṣṇavism, they are different but share the same essential nature (qualified non-dualism).
Relations with Deities
Lakṣmī, the Hindu goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity (both material and spiritual), is the wife and active energy of Viṣṇu. She is also called Śrī or Thirumagal in Tamil because she is the source of 8 auspicious strengths for Viṣṇu.
When Viṣṇu incarnated on the Earth as the Avatārs Rāma and Kṛṣṇa, Lakṣmī incarnated as his respective consorts: Sītā (Rāma's wife) and Rukmiṇī (Kṛṣṇa's wife).
Lakṣmī and Padmāvatī are wives of Lord Viṣṇu at Tirupati. In Hinduism, Lord Viṣṇu had incarnated as Lord Veṅkaṭeśvara at Tirupati, although this grand form of him is not counted as one of the Daśāvatārs.
Viṣṇu's mount (Vāhana) is Garuda, the eagle. Viṣṇu is commonly depicted as riding on his shoulders. Garuda is also considered as Vedas on which Lord Viṣṇu travels.
Garuda is a sacred bird in Vaiṣṇavism.
In Garuda Purāṇa, Garuda carries Lord Viṣṇu to save the Elephant Gajendra.
Viṣvaksena also known as Senathipathi (all literally "army-chief"), is the commander-in-chief of the army of the Hindu god Viṣṇu
27. Harihara and Harirudra
Śiva and Viṣṇu are both viewed as the ultimate form of god in different Hindu denominations.
Harihara is a composite of half Viṣṇu and half Śiva, mentioned in literature such as the Vāmana Purāṇa (chapter 36), and in artwork found from mid-1st millennium CE, such as in the cave 1 and cave 3 of the 6th-century Badami cave temples.
Another half Viṣṇu half Śiva form, which is also called Harirudra, is mentioned in Mahābhārata.
28. Beyond Hinduism
Viṣṇu is referred to as Gorakh in the scriptures of Sikhism. For example, in verse 5 of Japji Sahib, the guru is praised as who gives the word and shows the wisdom, and through whom the awareness of immanence is gained.
Guru Nānak teaches that the Guru (teachers) are "Śiva (isar), Viṣṇu (gorakh), Brahma (barma) and mother Pārvatī (parbati)", yet the one who is all and true cannot be described.
The Chaubis Avtar text of Sikhism lists the 24 Avatārs of Viṣṇu and this includes Kṛṣṇa and Rāma of Hinduism, and the Buddha of Buddhism as Avatār of Viṣṇu.
Similarly, the Dāsam Granth includes Viṣṇu mythology mirror that founded in the Vaiṣṇava tradition. The latter is of particular importance to Sanātana Sikhs, including Udasis, Nirmalas, Nānak-panthis, Sahajdhari and Keshdhari sub-traditions within Sikhism;
- however, the Khalsa Sikhs disagree with the Sanātana Sikhs.
According to Sanātana Sikh writers, the Gurus of Sikhs were Avatārs of Viṣṇu, because the Gurus brought light in the age of darkness and saved people in a time of evil Mughal Era persecution.
While some Hindus consider Buddha as an incarnation of Viṣṇu, Buddhists in Śrī Lanka venerate Viṣṇu as the custodian deity of Śrī Lanka and protector of Buddhism.
Viṣṇu is also known as Upulvan or Utpala Varṇa, meaning Blue Lotus coloured.
Some postulate that Utpala varṇa was a local deity who later merged with Viṣṇu while another belief is that Utpala Varṇa was an early form of Viṣṇu before he became a supreme deity in Purāṇic Hinduism.
According to Chronicles Mahāvaṁsa, Cūḷavaṁsa and folklore in Śrī Lanka, Buddha himself handed over the custodianship to Viṣṇu.
Others believe that Buddha entrusted this task to Śakra (Indra) and Śakra delegated this task of custodianship to god Viṣṇu.
Many Buddhist and Hindu shrines are dedicated to Viṣṇu in Śrī Lanka. In addition to specific Viṣṇu Kovils or Devalayas, all Buddhist temples necessarily house shrine rooms (Devalayas) closer to the main Buddhist shrine dedicated to Viṣṇu.
Viṣṇu iconography, such as statues and etchings, has been found in archaeological sites of Southeast Asia, now predominantly of the Theravada Buddhist tradition:
In Thailand, for example, statues of 4 armed Viṣṇu have been found in provinces near Malaysia and dated to be from the 4th to 9th-century, and this mirror those found in ancient India.
Similarly, Viṣṇu statues have been discovered from the 6th to 8th century eastern Prachinburi Province and central Phetchabun Province of Thailand and southern Đồng Tháp Province and An Giang Province of Vietnam.
Kṛṣṇa statues dated to the early 7th century to 9th century have been discovered in Takeo Province and other provinces of Cambodia.
Archaeological studies have uncovered Viṣṇu statues on the islands of Indonesia, and these have been dated to the 5th century and thereafter.
In addition to statues, inscriptions and carvings of Viṣṇu, such as those related to the "three steps of Viṣṇu" (Trivikrama) have been found in many parts of Buddhist Southeast Asia. In some iconography, the symbolism of Sūrya, Viṣṇu and Buddha are fused.
In Japanese Buddhist pantheon, Viṣṇu is known as Bichū-ten, and he appears in Japanese texts such as the 13th century compositions of Nichiren.
30. Iconography & Temples
Viṣṇu iconography shows him with a dark blue, blue-grey or black coloured skin, and as a well-dressed jewelled man. He is typically shown with 4 arms, but 2 armed representations are also found and discussed in Hindu texts on artworks.
The historic identifiers of his icon include his image holding a conch shell between first two fingers of one hand (left back), a chakra – war discus – in another (right back):
The conch shell is spiral and symbolizes all of interconnected spiralling cyclic existence, while the discus symbolizes him as that which restores dharma with war if necessary when cosmic equilibrium is overwhelmed by evil.
One of his arms sometimes carries a gadda (club, mace) which symbolizes authority and power of knowledge. In the 4th arm, he holds a lotus flower which symbolizes purity and transcendence.
The items he holds in various hands varies, giving rise to 24 combinations of iconography, each combination representing a special form of Viṣṇu. Each of these special forms is given a special name in texts such as the Agṇi Purāṇa and Padma Purāṇa. These texts, however, are inconsistent.
Viṣṇu iconography shows him either in standing pose, seated in a yoga pose, or reclining. Hindu texts on iconography describe design rules of these.
Some of the earliest surviving grand Viṣṇu temples in India have been dated to the Gupta Empire period:
The Sarvatobhadra temple in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, for example, is dated to the early 6th century and features the 10 Avatārs of Viṣṇu:
Its design based on a square layout and Viṣṇu iconography broadly follows the 1st millennium Hindu texts on architecture and construction such as the Bṛhat Saṁhitā and Viṣṇudharmottara Purāṇa.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Viṣṇu temples and iconography probably already existed by the 1st century BCE:
- The most significant Viṣṇu-related epigraphy and archaeological remains are the two 1st century BCE inscriptions in Rajasthan which refer to temples of Saṅkarṣaṇa and Vāsudeva,
- the Besnagar Garuda column of 100 BCE which mentions a Bhāgavata temple,
- another inscription in Nānāghaṭ cave in Maharashtra by a Queen Nayanika that also mentions Saṅkarṣaṇa, Vāsudeva along with other major Hindu deities
- and several discoveries in Mathura relating to Viṣṇu,
all dated to about the start of the common era.