Vishnu is one of the three main gods of the Hindu trimurti
(three forms). The trimurti is often depicted in art as one man
with three heads. Brahma is the Creator. Vishnu is the Preserver.
Shiva is the Destroyer.
The name Vishnu comes from the Sanskrit root 'vish',
meaning to pervade. Some Hindu legends describe Vishnu as an
eternal deity, and associate him with the primeval waters that
pervaded the world before creation. Another name for Vishnu is
Narayana, meaning 'one who moves waters'.
To understand Vishnu's role as Preserver, one must accept
two basic Hindu beliefs. The first is that humans may escape the
cycle of samsara by following predetermined paths of duty. The
second is that good and evil are in constant contention for their
reign over the world.
It is believed that whenever evil outweighs good with an
opportunity to emerge victorious, Vishnu descends to earth in
some mortal form to save humanity. Vishnu is not allowed to
tamper with events directly. Rather, he intervenes and guides
humans to act in ways that will restore proper balance between
good and evil.
The puranas speak of the ten avataars of Vishnu. These
incarnations detail the divine help given by Vishnu during
various stages of human evolution, by appearing on earth in
different forms. These avatars are said to demonstrate that
divinity re-establishes Dharma or righteousness and destroys
injustice from time to time, by appearing on earth in various
The ten avataras are Matsyavatara (fish), Koorma (tortoise),
Varaaha (boar), Narasimha (the man lion), Vaamana (the dwarf),
Parasurama (the angry man), Rama (the perfect human), Balarama
and Krishna (the divine statesman). The 10th avatar which is yet
to appear is Kalki.
Matsyavatara, or the form of the fish was taken up by Vishnu
during a deluge that submerged the earth. Vishnu commanded a
rishi to gather together samples of all species and wait in a
boat. The gigantic golden fish then dragged the boat through the
deluge and then enabled Bhrama to start the act of creation all
over again. Yet another legend has it that a demon once stole the
four Vedas and hid them under the sea. Vishnu assumed the Matsya
form and retrieved them and then restored them to their original
fragrance. This legend is held at the Parimalaranganathar temple
at Mayiladuturai, near Thanjavur (Tamilnadu).
The Koorma Avatara where Vishnu took the form of a tortoise,
is described in the legend of the celestial nectar Amrita.
Vishnu took the form of a wild boar - the Varaaha Avatara,
dived into the ocean, and saved Bhoomi Devi who sank into the
bottom of the ocean, with his massive snout. Vishnu as
Varahamurthy is enshrined at Tiruvidandai near Chennai, and at
the Kanchipuram Kamakshiamman temple.
In his Narasimhaavataaram, Vishnu destroyed the demon king
Hiranyakashipu and demonstrated his omnipresence in a powerful
Vishnu took the form of Vamana the midget to destroy the demon
Bali. He visited Bali during a sacrifice where the latter was
arrogantly distributing gifts of the seeker's choice, to show
his power of wealth. Vamana meekly asked for three feet of land
measured by his small feet. All on a sudden he assumed the
massive form of Trivikrama, dominating the universe; with his
first foot he covered the earth, with the second the heavens.
When there was no room for the third, Bali, who never went back
on his word offered his head, and Vishnu sent him to the
netherworld. Trivikrama is enshrined at Tirukkovilur, Kanchipuram
and Sirkazhi in Tamilnadu.
Vishnu then took up the form of Parasurama, to quell the
arrogance of the Kshatriya rulers who harmed the sages and
The Ramayana speaks of the glory of the Rama Avatar, and the
Mahabharata speaks of Balarama and Krishna.
Some schools of thought believe that Krishna was the eighth
incarnation of Vishnu and the ninth was Buddha and that Vishnu
took up the avataar of Buddha to purify Hinduism of excessive
ritualism. He preached detachment, and the middle path consisting
of eight fold virtues of right views, right resolve, right
speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right
mindfullness and right meditation.
It is believed that at the end of the current epoch, there
will be a deluge when Kalki - the tenth and the last avatara of
Vishnu, will ride forth on a horse to redeem humankind and
There is a legend for each one of Vishnu's first nine
avatars and how each one intervened to preserve the universally
required balance of good and evil. Vishnu's tenth avatar,
Kalki, the horseman, has not yet descended to earth. It is
believed that his arrival will mark the end of this present age
of evil, known as the Kali Yuga.
Vishnu often appears dressed in yellow robes, hence his name
Pitambara, or the yellow-vested one. Although his traditional
vehicle is a giant mythical bird called Garuda, Vishnu may also
be depicted amid the cosmic waters, reclining on the back of the
coiled serpent named Sesha.
If Vishnu is depicted as reclining on the back of Sesha, this
is a sign that order is prevailing in the cosmos, and a proper
balance between good and evil is being maintained throughout the
universe. If Vishnu is depicted as riding or standing near
Garuda, this is a sign that he is ready to descend to earth and
interact with mortals to preserve cosmic order.
Vishnu's wife is Lakshmi, goddess of fortune, wealth, and
prosperity. She is often depicted together with Vishnu, seated on
Vishnu is a popular deity and is worshipped widely throughout
India. He has 1,000 names, and devotees who engage in his name
recitation and repetition are believed to accumulate great