According to Hindu mythology, Vishnu is a member of a cosmic triad, the three gods who have the responsibility for creating, maintaining and destroying the universe. The destroyer we have already discovered in the figure of Shiva. The cosmic creator is Brahma. The god who sustains the cosmos between the times of creation and destruction is Vishnu.
Vishnu and Shiva are each at the center of a vast religious following among Hindus. The religion of Vishnu is known as Vaishnavism, and it is the most popular Hindu religion. Brahma, on the other hand, does not have a significant following. Do not confuse Brahma, the personal creator god, with Brahman, the Upanishadic term for the absolute reality that is beyond conception.
Vishnu was a deva in the Vedic period, but he was not specially prominent. The Vedas referred to him as the younger brother of Indra, and called him the three-stepper. Other sources relate the story of how Vishnu acquired this epithet. Bali, a demon king, invited the gods to a great sacrifice in their honor. Bali offered to fulfill any wish of each of his divine guests.
Vishnu, who appeared only as a dwarf, asked only be given as much land as he could take with three steps. Bali reluctantly agreed. Vishnu suddenly grew to immense proportions. His first step covered the earth. The second step reached the sun. According to the story, there was no space left for a third step. Bali then lowered his head in acknowledgement of Vishnu’s superiority.
In iconography, Vishnu is identified by the symbolic attributes he carries in each hand. In one hand he has a conch shell or Shankha, which represents his power to create and maintain the universe. In another, a sharp-spinning discus-like weapon, signifying the purified spiritualized mind. In a third he has a mace or Gada, which symbolizes Vishnu's divine power. In the fourth he holds a lotus flower or Padma, which represents represents spiritual liberation and divine perfection.
Vishnu’s most salient feature is his avataras or incarnations. The word avatara literally means to descend into. According to Vaishnava mythology, the god descends to earth and assumes an earthly manifestation at critical junctures in the world’s history. Tradition maintains that Vishnu has done this nine times in this era, and would do so again before the end.
Vishnu’s previous avataras include a boar, who carried the earth out of the primordial waters; a fish, that rescued the first human named Manu in the Hindu flood story; a turtle, a dwarf and a man-lion. He also appeared as the Buddha in his 9th incarnation. Thus the Buddha, the sage and teacher of Buddhism, has become incorporated into the Hindu pantheon.
Finally, in his tenth avatara Vishnu will return at the end of the age as Kalki, a horse-riding apocalyptic judge.
From the standpoint of religious practice, Vishnus’s most important avataras have been Krishna and Rama. Both figures are widely revered among Hindus. As Rama, Vishnu appeared on earth as a royal figure who defeats his wife’s abductor in the great epic the Ramayana. Rama is regarded as a great example of moral conduct and his marriage to Sita is appalled as the Hindu ideal.
Krishna’s Popularity in India and in the Western World
Krishna is a name that many Westerners would recognize. In the last half century, many in the West have become familiar with the name Krishna due a movement known as ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The Hare Krishna (as it is also known) was founded in 1966, by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. It belongs to the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, a devotional tradition based on the teachings of a 15th century saint and reformer named Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The focus of this tradition is abstinence of karmicly negative activities, such as eating meat, abusing sex and intoxication. It also involves the frequent chanting of the name of god. Its from their chanting that these Vaishnavites acquire the name Hare Krishnas, which is the name of one of the mantras that they recite.
Krishna’s popularity in India derives from two sources specially. One is his image as a playful and adventurous young man. One of the most delightful pieces of Vaishnavite literature is the Gita Govinda. This book tells the story of Radha’s passionate love for him. It is easily some of the most erotic literature in world religion. The Gita Govinda illustrates how on the path of devotion one might long for god as a lover longs for his beloved.
The other source of Krishna’s popularity is his role in the Bhagavad Gita. This text, which is usually translated as “Song of the Lord”, is probably composed between 1400 B.C.E. and 100 C.E. Its author or authors are unknown. Although it is usually read as an independent story, the Bhagavad Gita is actually part of the Mahabharata, which is probably the world’s longest epic poem, with around 100,000 verses. The Gita has been a great influence on Indian thinkers throughout its history, but it has also impressed many intellectuals in the West, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Stearns Eliot.