Vishnu ranks among the Maha Devas, the Great Gods. Brahma creates the Universe and Shiva destroys it, enabling Brahma to create it anew. Between creation and destruction, Vishnu preserves the universe’s cosmic order, its Dharma, when it is disturbed. The gods ask Vishnu to intervene and he leaves his formless state on the heavenly plane, descending to earth in the form of an avatar. Vishnu has manifested as ten avatars or incarnations, and each serves a specific form and purpose.
Vishnu’s avatars are;
Matsya, the Fish, who rescued the first man and the creatures of the earth from a great flood – a myth common to many cultures,
Kurma, the Tortoise, supported the stick on his back used to churn an ocean of milk to recover treasures,
Varaha, the Boar, after a thousand-year battle, raised the Earth out of from the sea with his tusks after the demon, Hiranyaksha, dragged it to the bottom of the ocean,
Narasimha, the Lion-Man, slew Hiranyakashipiu after Brahma had conferred a boon that the demon couldn’t be harmed or killed indoors or out, by day or night, nor by any weapon. The demon was causing trouble both in heaven and on earth, and when Hiranyakashipiu threatened his son Prahlada, a Vishnu devotee, Narasimha leapt from a pillar on a porch (neither indoors nor out) at dusk (neither day nor night) and tore out his heart with his claws,
Vamana, the Dwarf, appeared when Bali, a demon king, ruled the universe when the gods lost their power. Vamana visited Bali and begged for as much land as he could cover in three steps. Laughing, Bali granted the wish. As Vamana, Vishnu assumed the form of a giant whose first step bestrode the whole earth, the middle world with the second and with the third step, sent Bali down to rule the underworld,
Parasurama appeared as an angry, axe-wielding priest who came into the world to restore dharma to a social order corrupted by an arrogant Kshatriya (warrior) caste,
Rama, another popular Hindu deity, is the central figure in the Ramayana, an epic where Rama slays the multi-headed demon, Ravanna, who had kidnapped Rama’s devoted wife, Sita,
Krishna is a hugely popular deity in Hinduism. He was born mortal and is the playful butter loving toddler; the eternally beautiful, blue-skinned, flute-playing, gopi-seducing, cow-herding youth; and the worldly charioteer speaking to Arjuna on the battlefield in the epic, Bhagavad Gita, the definitive treatise on the practice of Hinduism.
Balarama is Krishna’s rarely worshipped, physically powerful, older brother who shares some of Krishna’s adventures. Later legends have Buddha or Jesus of Nazareth replacing Balarama as the ninth avatar (note 1),
Kalki, the mighty warrior, is Vishnu’s last incarnation and is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga, our present time. Kalki will come to rid the world of evil riding a white horse and carrying a flaming sword.
Vishnu in his traditional form is portrayed in one of two ways; standing (samabhanga) on a lotus with four arms and hands holding attributes and weapons (note 2).
Or he is portrayed resting on the coiled snake floating on the cosmic ocean (note 3). As Vishnu awakens, the universe is created. A lotus emerges from his navel and out of the unfolding lotus emerges Brahma, the Creator, who then manifests the universe which Vishnu maintains and preserves. After Shiva destroys the universe, Brahma is enfolded in the lotus, withdraws into his navel, and Vishnu falls asleep once again. As he sleeps, he dreams the universe as it will be created when the next cycle begins, a cycle without beginning or end, the Hindu concept of time (note 3).
A foundational Hindu belief is the importance of the interdependent balance of male and female energies in major deities. The male cognitive force (Purusha) is ineffective without the creative female energy of Shakti (Prakriti), personified in Vishnu’s case by Lakshmi, the Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune. If Purusha is the word, Prakriti is the meaning. A romantic aspect of the myths whenever Vishnu descends to earth as an avatar he is accompanied by Lakshmi in her reincarnated form. For example, when Vishnu incarnates as Rama, Lakshmi is born as Sita.
Vishnu’s vehicle (vahana) is Garuda, a giant eagle able to spread knowledge of The Vedas. Garuda has great courage and sometimes portrayed in winged human form with an eagle’s beak.
Beginning in the 6th century in south India, Vaishnavite (note 4) poet-saints (alvars) roamed south India singing Vishnu’s praises in a deeply personal manner (note 5). This intimate relationship with God in turn inspired a new devotional style of worship known as Bhakti. Out of which arose practices formerly associated with Tantric rituals, such as puja and material images representing the gods (murti) which were believed to be able to temporarily host the deity, given the appropriate rituals and intensity and purity of heart of the devotee.
Note 1 – Hinduism is all-inclusive. When a new focus of worship, such as Buddhism or Christianity emerges, from a Hindu perspective they manifest a fresh aspect of Brahman, the Ultimate Universal Soul, and are enfolded into Hindu belief.
Note 2 – In the first hand a conch, Sankha, represents the spread of the sacred sound ‘Om’; in the second the disc, Vajira, representing the chakra, the wheel of time; the third holds his club, Gada, representing the elemental force from which all physical and mental powers are derived; and in the fourth he holds the lotus, Padma, symbol of purity and unfolding creation.
Note 3 – Variously known as either Sesha (remainder) or Ananta (endless) who represent the sleeping universe.
Note 4 – Vaishnava is the sectarian belief that Vishnu or one of his avatars, Krishna in particular, is Supreme Lord. Vaishnavism has many sub-sects.
Note 5 – The equivalent for devotees of Shiva is Saivism and for the many aspects of Devi, Shaktism, all with many sub-sects.