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For other uses of the name Vishnu, see Vishnu (disambiguation).

Vishnu (Hindi: (विष्‍णु) is a form of God, to whom Hindus pray. For Vaishnavas, He is the only Ultimate Reality or God, as is Shiva for Shaivites. In Trimurti belief, He is the second aspect of God in the Trimurti (also called the Hindu Trinity), along with Brahma and Shiva.

Known as the Preserver, He is most famously identified with His avatars, or incarnations of God, most especially Krishna and Rama. Additionally, another important name for Vishnu is Narayana.

  • Followers of Vaishnavism, unlike Smartas, do not believe that Vishnu is one of many personal forms of God or Saguna Brahman but believe Him to be the Ultimate Reality (i.e., Brahman) exclusively. A Smarta, on the other hand, would consider Vishnu and Shiva to be different aspects of the same Supreme Being. See Ishta-Deva for greater discussion.
  • Unlike Shaivism, Vaishnavism, the other denomination of Hinduism, believes that Vishnu incarnates periodically for the establishment and protection of righteousness, good dharma and destruction of evil adharma; see avatar for more information.
  • Smartas who follow Advaita philosophy, believe that aspects of God such as Vishnu or Shiva are personal attributes of the impersonal (without attributes) Brahman. Other Hindus, however, believe that Vishnu is not limited to personal characteristics as typically depicted in the displayed image, is beyond any personal characteristics and can transcend all attributes. (This view is similar to the some views of God in Semitic religions such as Islam or Judaism.) These Hindus believe that God can transcend all personal characteristics yet can also have personal characteristics for the grace of the embodied human devotee. Personal characteristics are considered a way for the devotee to focus on Nirguna Brahman. These same Hindus also believe that if they can hear the voice of God similar to how Judeo-Christian religions believe that God communicates, then it is not neccessarily wrong to view a form of God as long as it is recognized that God is not limited to a particular form. Nonetheless, there are many sects of Hindus, most notably Vadakalai Iyengars, who believe that Vishnu's authentic form is not beyond human comprehension, and that He is just as He is shown in most pictures.

Vaishnavite Hindus also worship Vishnu as an abstract form (i.e., God with vague form) as a saligrama. Use of the saligrama is similar to the use of lingam, a form of Shiva



The traditional Hindu explanation of the name Viṣṇu involves the root viś, meaning "to settle, to enter", or also (in the Rigveda) "to pervade", and a suffix nu, translating to approximately "the All-Pervading One". For example Adi Sankara, in Swami Tapasyananda's translation of his commentary on Vishnu Sahasranama (Ramakrishna Math publications) states derivation from this root, with a meaning "presence everywhere" ("As He pervades everything, vevesti, He is called Visnu"). Adi Sankara states (regarding Vishnu Purana, 3.1.45): "The Power of the Supreme Being has entered within the universe. The root Viś means 'enter into.'"

Regarding the suffix, Manfred Mayrhofer (Indo-Aryan etymological dictionary, 1996, II.566f.) proposes that the nasal is analogous to jiṣṇu "victorious". Mayrhofer further suggests that the name goes back to an already Indo-Iranian *vinu, and was replaced by ranu in Zoroastrian Iran.

The root viś is also associated with viśva "all" (possibly by popular etymology, the word is generally believed to derive from Indo-Iranian *vi-k'o-, influenced by sarva "all", but a minority opinion does, indeed, derive viśva as from vik'-so, (J. Knobloch (1980)).

Suggestions involving other roots include include vi-ṣṇu "crossing the back", vi-ṣ-ṇu "facing towards all sides" and viṣ-ṇu "active", as well as attempts to explain Vishnu as an amalgate of two unrelated words, or as being derived from a non-Aryan root (see Mayrhofer, A Concise Etymological Sanskrit Dictionary (1976) III.231f., J. Gonda, Aspects of Early Visnuism (ISBN 8120810872, reprint 1993) for a collection of references). The name is continued in Prakrit veṇhu, viṇhu.

pre-Puranic Vishnu

In the Rigveda, Vishnu is mentioned 93 times. He is frequently invoked with other gods, especially with Indra, whom he assists in killing Vritra, and with whom he drinks Soma. His companionship with Indra is still reflected by his later epitheta Indrānuja and Upendra. His distinguishing characteristic in the Vedas is his association with Light, or even his identification with the Sun. He appears as striding across the heavens in three paces, by Rigvedic commentators explained as denoting the threefold manifestations of light in the form of fire, lightning, and the Sun, or as designating the three daily stations of the Sun in rising, culminating, and setting.

Vishnu as a solar deity appears e.g. in RV 1.22.20:

The princes evermore behold / that loftiest place where Visnu is / Laid as it were an eye in heaven. (trans. Grittith)

Griffith's "princes" are the sūri, either "inciters" or lords of a sacrifice, or priests charged with pressing the Soma. The verse is later quoted as expressing Vishnu's supremacy by Vaishnavites, while in the Rigveda the Sun is not a high-ranking deity, c.f. e.g. RV 2.12.7,

He who gave being to the Sun and Morning, who leads the waters, He, O men, is Indra. (trans. Griffith)

where Indra appears as senior to the Sun.

In the Vedas, Vishnu appears not yet included in the class of the Adityas (unless it is implied that he is identical with Surya, and included as the eighth Aditya), but in later texts he appears as heading them. In the Brahmanas, he is associated with sacrifice, and on one occasion described as a dwarf.

His rise to supremacy is apparent in the epics (Mahabharata, Ramayana), and from this period he may be considered a manifestation of the Singular God. The division of Hinduism in Vaishnavism and Shaivaism appears only with the Puranas, where Vishnu's descents in ten principal Avatars become his distinguishing characteristic.

Theological attributes and more

Vishnu takes form as an all-inclusive deity, known as Purusha or Mahāpurusha, Paramātma [Supreme Soul], Antaryāmi [In-dweller], and He is the Sheshin [Totality] in whom all souls are contained. He is Bhagavat or Bhagavan, which in Sanskrit means "possessing bhāga (Divine Glory)".

Vishnu possesses six such divine glories, namely,

  • Jāna Omniscient; defined as the power to know about all beings simultaneously;
  • Aishvarya Sovereignty, which persist in unchallenged rule over all;
  • Shakti Energy, or power, which is the capacity to make the impossible possible;
  • Bala Strength, which is the capacity to support everything by His will and without any fatigue;
  • Virya Vigour, or valour which indicates the power to retain immateriality as the Supreme Spirit or Being in spite of being the material cause of mutable creations;
  • Tjas Resplendent, or Splendour, which expresses His self-sufficiency and the capacity to overpower everything by His spiritual effulgence.; cited from Bhakti Schools of Vedanta, by Swami Tapasyananda.

However, the actual number of auspicious qualities of Vishnu are countless, with the above-mentioned six qualities being the most important. Other important qualities attributed to God are Gambhirya (inestimatable grandeur), Audarya (generosity), and Karunya (compassion.)

Relations with other Deities

Vishnu's consort is Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth. Maya is the samvit (the primary intelligence) of Vishnu, while the other five attributes emerge from this samvit and hence Maya is his ahamata, activity, or Vishnu's Power. This power of God, Maya, is personified and is called Maya, Vishnumaya, or Mahamaya, and She is said to manifest Herself in, 1) kriyāshakti, (Creative Activity) and 2) bhtishakti (Creation) of Universe. Hence this world cannot part with His creativity i.e., ahamta, which is a feminine form and is called Maya.

His vehicle is Garuda, the eagle; who is a part of His creation. He needs no support for anything He does in and outside this world.


  • Vishnu is usually depicted as a four-armed male-form with new-cloud-like-blue skin, standing on a lotus flower, and holding four attributes: (i) a sharp-spinning weapon called chakra, the "Sudarshan", (ii) a conch shell, the "Panchajanya", (iii) a lotus flower, and (iv) a mace. According to various Purana, He is the ultimate omnipresent reality, is shapeless, and is present in omnipresent form called Hari. Apart from the standing appearance, His abode is "Kshira Sagar" (Milk Ocean) and He lies on a bed of a serpent with thousand mouth called Shesha Naga. He has a mark of sage Bhrigu's feet on chest and has a garland of flowers around His neck. He is accompanied by Lakshmi and has a mark shrivatsa on His heart depicting Her presence.
  • Note that even though Vishnu is portrayed with human features, the Puranas state that Vishnu pervades everything and is not anthropomorphic. Attributing anthrompormorphic characteristics to Vishnu is a common misconception held by non-Hindus. Vishnu has no particular material form but can manifest in any form, and is a center of all the forces, power, will, auspiciousness, goodness, beauty, grace, responsiveness, etc. This description of the Lord was again emphasized by a Ramakrishna Mission scholar, Swami Tapasyananda, in his book, Bhakti Schools of Vedanta. An illustration of the Lord's omnipresence is illustrated in His incarnation as Narasimha. In short, whatever we can think of, and whatever we cannot think of -- all are Vishnu. However this is not understood by many Hindus, including the Vadakalai Iyengars.

The Rigveda says: Vishnu can travel in three strides. The first stride is the Earth. The second stride is the visible sky. The third stride cannot be seen by men and is the heaven where the gods and the righteous dead live. (This feature of three strides also appears in the story of his avatar Vamana called Trivikrama.) The Sanskrit for "to stride" is the root kram; its reduplicated perfect tense is chakram (guņa grade) or chakra (zero-grade), and in the Rigveda He is called by epithets such as vi-chakra-māņas = "he who has made 3 strides". The Sanskrit word chakra also mans "wheel". That may have suggested the idea of Vishnu carrying a chakra.

The Bhagavata Purana describes the various lilas of twenty-five avatara of Vishnu[1] (

1) Catursana 2) Narada Muni 3) Varaha 4) Matsya 5) Yajna 6) Nara Narayana 7) Kapila 8) Dattatreya 9) Hayasirsa 10) Hamsa 11) Prsnigarbha 12) Rsabha 13) Prthu 14) Nrsimha 15) Kurma 16) Dhanvantari 17) Mohini 18) Vamanadeva 19) Parasurama 20) Raghavendra 21) Vyasa 22) Balarama 23) Krishna 24) Buddha 25) Kalki


  • Vishnu is accepted as the Supreme God in Vaishnavism, or Vishnu monotheism. Followers of Vishnu believe that He is the Supreme Being and distinguish Him from Devas, or demigods, who are celestial beings similar to angels as discussed in Judeo-Christian traditions.
  • It is considered that He manifested Himself as a living being in ten avatars. He is also worshiped in the form of these avatars.

It is not clearly known when or how the worship of Vishnu began. In the Vedas, and the information on Aryan beliefs, Vishnu is associated with Indra. However, Shukavak N. Dasa, a Vaishnavite scholar, in reference at this link ( has commentated that Srivaishnavites would note that:

  • The praise of Indra and other devas in the Vedas are not intended for the particular deity, but for the Supreme Being, Brahman, who is the inner soul of devas and all other beings.
  • The various deities addressed in the hymns are simply different forms of this one Supreme Being.
  • Vaishnavas cite Rigveda 1.22.20, for the supremacy of Vishnu, "As the blazing sun pervades the entire sky like an eye fixed in the heavens, so the divine seers eternally perceive that supreme abode of Vishnu."
  • The foreword of P. Sankaranarayan's translation of Vishnu sahasranama, Bhavan's Book University, cites Rig Veda V.I.15b.3, for the importance of chanting Vishnu's name, "O ye who wish to gain realization of the supreme truth, utter the name of Vishnu at least once in the steadfast faith that it will lead you to such realization."

Nevertheless, it was only later in Hindu history that Vishnu became a member of the Trimurti and hence is one of the most important forms of God in contemporary Hinduism.


Missing image
An ancient statue of Vishnu as Narasimha, his fourth avatara

Vishnu has a number of names, collected in the Vishnu sahasranama ("Vishnu's thousand names"), which occurs in the Mahabharata. In Vishnu Sahasranama Vishnu is praised as the Supreme God.

The names are generally derived from the anantakalyanagunas (infinite auspicious attributes) of the Lord. Some names are:

  • Acyutah (infallible)
  • Ananta (endless, eternal, infinite)
  • Kesava (slayer of Keshi, having long or much or handsome hair, from Atharvaveda viii , 6 , 23)
  • Narayana (said to mean "He who is the abode of nār (= ether)", i.e., the whole world's shelter. There are two more meanings of Narayana found in a stuti of child-Krishna by Brahma).
  • Madhava (relating to the season of spring)
  • Govinda (leader of cowherds: a name of Krishna)
  • Vishnu
  • Madhusudana (He who destroyed the demon called Madhu)
  • Trivikrama (He who strides out three times)
  • Vamana (dwarfish, small or short in stature, a dwarf: a name of one of his avatars)
  • Aridhara
  • Hrsikesha (lord of the senses)
  • Padmanabha (lotus-naveled one, from whose navel sprang the lotus which contained Brahma, who created the universe)
  • Damodara (having a rope (dama) around his belly (udara): a name of Krishna)
  • Krishna (born during the third epoch or yuga, His deeds range from cow protection (go rakshya) to absolving the earth of load of sins)
  • Rama (born during the second epoch of yuga, His deeds primarily established the ideal living principles of a man)

Other names:

  • Gopala (cow protector: ref. Krishna)
  • Janardana (one who excites or agitates men)
  • Vāsudeva (son of Vasudeva: a name of Krishna)
  • Anantasayana (sleeping or reclining on Shesha Naga. Shesha Naga is often referred to as Ananta)
  • Sriman (the pride of Shri or Lakshmi); Often Sriman is combined with the name, Narayana , to form a compound word,Sriman Narayana, as the name Ramakrishna.
  • Srinivasa (the abode of Shri) (also specifically referring to His form in the temple at Tirupati). Also the form of Vishnu at Tirupati is well-known as Venkateswara.

Theological beliefs and philosophy

Major branches of Vaishnavism include:-

External links




Gaudiya (ISKCON):

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