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Classical Hindu ThoughtAn Introduction$

Arvind Sharma

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9780195658712

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195658712.001.0001

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(p.82) Chapter VIII Viṣṇu
Classical Hindu Thought

Arvind Sharma

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

If Brahmā is the otiose God, then Vishnu is the supreme, syncretic and living god. Of course, all the gods of the trinity, including Brahmā, have laid claim to supremacy; but the claim seems to have been most effective in the case of Vishnu, and perhaps a little less so in the case of Śiva. This chapter addresses the following question: How does Vishnu perform his role as a member of the trinity? Before trying to answer that question, the chapter describes about how Vishnu came into being, since that has had some bearing on it.

Keywords:   Hindu trinity, god, Brahmā, Śiva, Vishnu

If Brahmā is the otiose God then Viṣṇu is the supreme, syncretic and living god. Of course, all the gods of the trinity, including Brahmā, have laid claim to supremacy, but the claim seems to have been most effective in the case of Viṣṇu and perhaps a little less so in the case of Śiva. This claim of Viṣṇu is particularly staked out in the Viṣṇu and Bhāgavata Purāṇas.

The first takes the form of a dialogue between a teacher (Parāśara) and his disciple (Maitreya). The teaching of the Purāṇa is summed up by Parāśara as: ‘The world originated from Vishṇu; it is in Him that the world exists as a harmonious system; He is the sole sustainer and controller of the world, and in truth, the world is He’ (Vishṇu Purāṇa I, i, 35). It is explained that God is called by different names by different people, but He of course is one, and the only one. The world is His playful manifestation (līlā). The One without attributes (nirguṇa) joyfully expresses Himself as the world full of colour, sound, touch, and other qualities (saguṇa).1

However, as already noted, in later and in what, for the purposes of this book, has been considered standard Hindu mythology, the ‘three Gods, Brahmā, Vishṇu and Śiva form a triad representing three aspects of the Supreme. Brahmā is the creator, Vishṇu the preserver, and Śiva the destroyer of the world, the last being necessary for further creation.’2

How does Viṣṇu perform his role as a member of the trinity? Before trying to answer that question it might be worthwhile to say a few words about how he came into being, because that too has some bearing on it. The key word here is syncretic. Many scholars (p.83) think that ‘three streams of thought mingle to form Vaiṣṇavism’3, the ‘creed in which Viṣṇu is worshipped as the supreme God’4:

  1. (1) Viṣṇu proper, who is already mentioned in the Ṛg Veda where he

    is represented in the mantras as one of the solar deities and, as such, is associated with light and life. His essential feature, as depicted in the hymns, is his taking three strides (tri-vikrama) which in all probability refer to the rising, culmination, and setting of the sun. It was this worship of the sun, ‘the swift-moving luminary,’ that gradually transformed itself into the worship of Viṣṇu (‘the pervading’) as the supreme God. He had already attained supremacy in the time of the Brāhmaṇas; and in one of the older Upanishads, the goal of human life is represented as reaching the supreme abode of Viṣṇu.5

  2. (2) The conception of Nārāyaṇa, whose origin too may

    be traced in the Ṛg Veda, and which appears in a well-developed form in the Brāhmaṇas. The name signifies ‘the abode or resting place of men’ or, more generally, ‘the goal of all beings.’ One of the Brāhmaṇas states that Nārāyaṇa placed himself in all the world and in all the gods, and that they were all placed in him. In a relatively later Upanishad, the Mahānārāyana, in which this God occupies the position which Śiva does in the Śvetāśvatara Upanishad, his cosmic character is thus described: ‘Whatever in this universe is seen or heard, pervading all that—both inside and outside—Nārāyanạ stands.’ He is called in the epic ‘the son of dharma,’ implying that the conception is not cosmic alone, but also pre-eminently ethical in its character.6

  3. (3) The cult of the worship of Bhagavān (‘the worshipful’), associated with Kṛṣṇa, who may have preached theism the way Buddha preached his doctrines and Mahāvīra preached Jainism in the age of religious ferment which followed the Brāhmaṇa period of the Vedas.

    It soon assumed a sectarian complexion in the form of Bhāgavata religion; and one stage of it is found taught in the famous Bhagavadgītā, so tar as it is theistic … It was largely prevalent when Megasthenes visited India, so that the religion must have originated some considerable time before. This monotheistic creed came, in course of time, to be combined with the Vedic cult of Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa; and it was this combination that chiefly contributed to make the God of Vaiṣṇavism even more personal than that of Śaivism. Somewhat later Śrī Krishna, the prophet of the Bhāgavata religion, was deified and identified with Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa as an incarnation of him.7

(p.84) One special feature of Vaiṣṇavism is the doctrine of avatāra or divine descent to save the world from premature dissolution. ‘According to Hinduism generally, progress in the world is not continuous. Things grow worse and worse at times, when God intervenes catastrophically to inaugurate a reign of justice and happiness. This theory of avatārs helps what has all along been a noteworthy feature of Hinduism, viz. its absorption of other creeds into itself.’8 Thus Vaiṣṇavism is syncretic in a dual sense: it emerged as a synthesis of different streams of thoughts and beliefs and tends to merge different streams of thoughts and beliefs into itself. This provides the historical background for a consideration of the theological role of Viṣṇu as the ‘preserver’, as a member of the trimūrti. In keeping with the cyclical cosmology of Hinduism, the universe will undergo dissolution at the appointed hour and it is the duty of Śiva, the third member of the trinity, to preside over this. However, should the universe be threatened with destruction before the appointed hour, especially as a result of the activity of demons, it is the duty of Viṣṇu to rescue it, a duty he typically performs by intervening as an incarnation. Such incarnations are said to be numerous but ten of them are considered particularly memorable.

  1. (1) The Fish (Matsya): When the earth was overwhelmed by a universal flood Viṣṇu took the form of a fish and warned Manu (the first man in the present cycle) of the impending danger and then carried him to safety along with his family, in a ship attached to a horn on his head. Manu thus combined in himself the role of both Adam and Noah. In this incarnation Viṣṇu is also said to have saved the Vedas, which is curious since the Vedas are transmitted orally. Were they also reduced to writing, and much earlier than we think?

  2. (2) The Tortoise (Kūrma): The ambrosia of the gods was also lost in the Flood and had to be recovered. This was accomplished by the gods and the non-gods acting in concert by churning the ocean. Viṣṇu then assumed the form of a tortoise to provide a firm footing for the mountain Mandara which served as the rod, with the serpent Vāsuki serving as the rope.

  3. (3) The Boar (Varāha): In this incarnation Viṣṇu recovered the earth (p.85) from the abysmal depths into which it had been cast in anger by the demon Hiraṇyākṣa. There is a sculptural depiction of this scene from the Gupta period (fourth–fifth century).

  4. (4) The Man-Lion (Narasiṁha): Hiraṇyākṣa was succeeded by his brother Hiraṇyakaśipu, whose son Prahlāda, to the chagrin of his father, became a great devotee of Viṣṇu. When Prahlāda called for Viṣṇu's help while being persecuted by his father, Viṣṇu emerged from a pillar in the form of a man-lion and ripped Hiraṇyakaśipu apart after placing him on his thigh. Hiraṇyakaśipu's death had to be stage-managed in this way to circumvent the boon Hiraṇyakaśipu had won that he could not be killed at day or night, on land or in the sky, by man or animal.

  5. (5) The Dwarf (Vāmana): The pious demon-king Bali, noted for his liberality, posed a threat to the gods by his austerities. Viṣṇu neutralized him by appearing as a dwarf and was granted his request for a piece of land covered by his three strides. The dwarf assumed a gigantic form, covered the earth and sky with his two strides and relegated Bali to the nether regions with the third.

  6. (6) Paraśurāma (Rāma with the Axe): Viṣṇu incarnated himself as the son of Jamadagni, who was oppressed by King Kārtavīrya. There-upon Jamadagni's son, Paraśurāma, killed the king. The sons of the king retaliated by killing the Brāhmaṇa Jamadagni. To avenge his death Paraśurāma wiped out all the male members of the warrior class (kṣatriyas) twenty-one times. After each extinction the surviving women regenerated the class by bringing forth progeny through brāhmaṇas. This is curious because traditionally the varṇa of the father takes precedence in determining the varṇa of the child over that of the mother.

  7. (7) Rāmacandra (Rāma with the Bow): Viṣṇu incarnated himself as Rāma, the son of King Daśaratha, to save the world from the depredations of the demon Rāvṇna, who abducted Rāma's wife Sītā. Rāvaṇa was killed by Rāma and Sītā was rescued.

    Rāvaṇa was a brāhmaṇa in terms of his varṇa and Rāma a kṣatriya. Thus the incarnation of Rama represents an incarnational role reversal, when compared with that of Paraśurāma.

    Rāma is an extremely popular divinity in the Hindu world and his reign on earth parallels the Western concept of the Kingdom of God.

  8. (p.86) (8) Kṛṣṇa: Visṇụ's incarnation as Kṛṣṇa is at least as popular as Viṣṇu's incarnation as Rāma, perhaps even more. In this incarnation, which Hindu tradition places in the fourth millennium BCE:, Viṣṇu incarnated himself to save the earth from the oppressive rule of King Kaṁsa, who was finally killed by Kṛṣṇa after Kaṁsa's several attempts to get Kṛṣṇa killed were unsuccessful. Kṛṣṇa performed this feat as a child. In his youth he sided with the Pāṇḍavas in the Mahābhārata war and guided them to victory, after which he moved back to his kingdom in Western India, where in due course he and his kinsmen came to a tragic end.

  9. (9) Buddha: Different texts assign different motives for this incarnation of Viṣṇu. According to one set of accounts, Viṣṇu assumed this form to lead the wicked astray. According to another, Viṣṇu took this incarnation out of compassion to bring the bloody sacrifices of animals to an end.

  10. (10) Kalkin: This is the name given to the incarnation yet to come, when Viṣṇu will incarnate himself to bring the dark age to a catastrophic end and inaugurate a new era of peace.9

These traditional accounts are regarded by historians as combining several diverse elements and hence being syncretic in nature. For instance, the incarnation of Kṛṣṇa is said to combine three distinct dimensions—that of a hero god; a pastoral god; and a child-god. It is as a hero figure that Kṛṣṇa appears in the Mahābhārata, just as Rāma appears as the hero in Rāmāyaṇa. Kṛṣṇa's famous dialogue urging Arjuna to carry on the righteous struggle when Arjuna loses nerve, known as the Bhagavadgītā, forms part of the Mahābhārata. In the epic, Kṛṣṇa guides the Pāṇḍavas, who have been ousted by the Kauravas from the kingdom which rightly belongs to them, to victory over the Kauravas. The two other dimensions of the composite personality of Kṛṣṇa are celebrated in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa wherein his dalliance with the milkmaids as a pastoral god and his naughty pranks as a child-god are narrated.10


(1.) K.M. Sen, Hinduism (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), p. 76.

(2.) Ibid., p. 59, note 1.

(3.) M. Hiriyanna, The Essentials of Indian Philosophy (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948), p. 35.

(4.) Ibid., p. 34.

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Ibid., p. 34.

(7.) Ibid., p. 35.

(8.) M. Hiriyanna, The Essentials of Indian Philosophy, pp. 35–6.

(9.) A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1988), pp. 302–3; 306–7.

(10.) Ibid., p. 304–6.