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Gods of India


Vishnu is seen much more as the God with the human face. Vishnu is blue colored and has four or more hands. He is shown holding the wheel and the conch-shell. He is always clothed in yellow. The wheel represents the Universal Mind and the powers of creation and destruction that form the revolving universe. The conch-shell is associated with the origin of existence through its spiral from and its connection with water. Vishnu also holds the club which symbolizes authority or the power of knowledge as the essence of life. He has an open upraised palm in the Abhaya Mudra, expressing reassurance. He sometimes holds a lotus and is also known as Narayan. His vehicle is Garuda (eagle) half-man, half-bird. Vishnu is normally shown reclining on a bed made up of the coils of the serpent king, Sheshanaga, with Lakshmi, his consort, seated at his feet. Brahma is shown to have been born from a lotus springing from the navel of Vishnu.

Lord Vishnu, Vishnu in India

According to Hindu mythology a cosmological substance is left over from the last age of creation from which a new cycle may be brought into existence. This is symbolized by Sheshnag, the many-headed serpent king. Shesha means the leftover floating on the ocean which is thought to be like the Universe. During the interval in the cycle of creation, Vishnu lies asleep on the coils of Sheshanag, protected by its hood, until he is ready to begin a new cycle. According to another story, Shesha was used as a rope, twisted around the world axis resting on a tortoise with which the gods and the demons churned the waters of creation. Vishnu is a striking example of the way in which the changing demands of religious life in India brought about changes in the status of deities, or the qualities they represented. Although Vishnu is mentioned in the Rig-Veda, he became closely associated with the sun and eventually, in the Mahabharata and the Puranas, he acquired a prestige that he has never lost. Ultimately he was invested with the qualities of permanence, continuity and preservation. With the passage of time, Vishnu acquired the characteristics of several deities including a number of popular folk ones who were absorbed into the Vishnu cult in the form of incarnations. In the Mahabharata he became identified with Krishna in his more martial aspects but these were subsequently replaced by qualities of romantic love. Vishnu also took on the attributes of several deities in various animals forms such as the tortoise, the boar and the fish. It is likely that these developments took place slowly and were the result of the absorption of the cults that prevailed in different areas of India. Eventually these diverse elements became reduced and systemized into a group of twenty-four Vishnu incarnations. According to the Vaishnavites, the god took these different forms in order to save the world from impending disaster. Some of the famous ten incarnations are the Matsya (Fish), Kurma (Tortoise), Varaha (Boar), Narasimha (Half man and half lion), Vamana (Dwarf), Parasurama (Rama with axe), Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Kalki. From the 2nd century, a new and passionate devotional worship of Vishnu’s incarnation as Krishna developed in the south India. By 1000 AD, Vaishnavism had spread across south India, and was closely associated with the devotional form of Hinduism preached by Ramanuja. Lord Vishnu sleeps for four months, from June to July and from October to November. This four-months period is also the time when many of the other gods sleep and it is considered unlucky to perform any ceremonies during this period. When Vishnu and the other gods wake up, it is considered the right time to hold engagement and marriages. To celebrate the event, various ceremonies are held and in some places a cow dung-cake fire is lit and people gather around it singing hymns.


Matsya is the first incarnation of Lord Vishnu in which the lower part of his body is like a fish (Matsya) and the upper part is like a man. He has four arms. In his two arms he holds a conch-shell and a wheel, while the other two arms hold a lotus or a mace or are in the protection and boon giving modes. There are several stories behind this Vishnu incarnation. According to one of them, he turned into a fish so that he can rescue a ship in which Manu, the progenitor of the new human race, had taken refuge from a devastating flood. The same story is found in the Mahabharata where the fish is described as having a horn. In the Bhagvada Purana the story is further elaborated by the addition of a fight between Matsya and the demon Hayagriva, who had stolen the Vedas when Brahma was asleep.


Kurma is the second incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He is shown in the form of half-man half-tortoise. The lower half is of the tortoise. He is normally shown as having four arms. In the upper two arms, he carries the conch-shell and the wheel while the lower two arms are in the protection and the boon giving postures and carries a mace and lotus. When the gods were in danger of losing their authority over the demons, Vishnu advised them to churn the ocean so that they might procure amrita which would make them strong and immortal. He promised to become a tortoise on which would rest the mountain Mandara, which was used as the churning stick. Together with amrita, the churning brought to the surface the other thirteen objects that had been lost in the deluge. They were Lakshmi (consort of Vishnu), Sura (goddess of wine), Chandra (the moon), Apsaras (celestial nymphs), Kaustabha (the precious gem for Vishnu’s body), Uchchaihshravas (the divine horse), Parijata (the wish granting coral tree) Surabhi (the cow that grant all desires), Airavata (the four-tusked elephant), Pachajanya (conch-shell) and Sharanga (the invincible bow). However, after more churning, the power of the amrita was almost neutralized by the appearance of its opposite, halahala (poison). Shiva held this poison in his throat and saved mankind. The poison was so powerful that it turned Shiva’s throat blue, giving his the name ‘neel-khantha’ or the blue-throated one. The churning also brought out Dhan-vantari (physician of the gods), carrying the pot of amrita in his hands.



Varaha, the boar is the third incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Its images are divided into two main groups which includes those entirely in animal form and those having an animal’s head on a human body with four arms. The two hands hold the wheel and the conch-shell and the other two hold a sword, mace or lotus, or they may be in the protection and boon giving modes. Vishnu turned himself into a boar and descended to the bottom of the ocean to rescue the earth which had been abducted and hidden there by a demon. After a long struggle Vishnu slew the demon, rescued the earth and brought it to the surface and made it ready to support life by modeling the mountains and shaping the continents. In this way the world was brought in once again to begin another cycle.



Narasimha is the fourth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and is in the form of half-man (Nara) and half-lion (Simha). He has four hands, out of which two hands carry a wheel and a conch-shell and the other two are in the boon giving and protection modes or tearing the stomach of the demon king. Vishnu assumed this form in order to overcome a demon king who could not be slain by a man or by a beast, either inside or outside a palace, by day or by night. Adopting the form of a lion-headed man, Vishnu approached the palace at dusk and hid himself in a pillar at the entrance, out of which he sprang and killed the demon-king, Hiranyakashipu. According to some scriptures, the incident took place inside a pillar, while according to others Narasimha placed the demon on his lap and tore out his entrails. The symbolism here is of the lion like characteristics of fierceness, bravery and independence that claim almost universal admiration. The Narsimha Jayanti is held in the month of April or May as the killing of the demon king Hiranyakashipu by Vishnu in the form of Narasimha. People observe a fast and meditate on this day and seek his blessings to have the qualities of devotion like of Prahlad.



Vamana is the fifth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He is represented as a dwarf holding a water-pot in one hand and an umbrella in the other hand. He wears a ring of Kusha grass on his third finger and occasionally carries a book. He has long hair, wears ear ornaments and covers his body with a deer-skin or lion cloth. Vamana symbolizes the underdeveloped stage of mankind. The story behind this is related to Bali, the great grandson of Hiranayakashipu. Bali’s rule was so successful that his reputation began to overshadow that of Indra who was obliged to seek Vishnu’s help in order to regain his supremacy. He does not used harsh measures against such a praiseworthy ruler and resorted to a strategy. He disguised himself as a dwarf and asked Bali to give him a piece of land three paces wide on which he could sit and meditate. Bali granted the request and Vishnu then used his supernatural powers to take possession of heaven and earth in two steps thus depriving Bali of his kingdom. But, in recognition of Bali’s generosity, Vishnu, refrained from taking the third step and gaining the netherworld as well but installed Bali as its monarch. The story of Vishnu’s dwarf symbolizes the power of Vishnu to cover the universe. The Vamana Dwadeshi festival is celebrated in August or September. The worship of Vishnu and Bali is recommended on this day. It is said that those who observe the day in due form and give freely to Brahmins will reborn as kings who will possess the celestial kingdom, like Bali.



Parashurama is shown with an axe in his right hand. He is also shown as having four hands carrying a battle axe, sword, bow and arrow. Parashurama is the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. In this form he appeared for the first time in a completely human form but at the same time he maintains his status as a deity. According to the legends, a Kshatriya king had stolen Parashurama’s father’s wish-granting cow, Kamadhenu. Parashurama took his revernge for the theft by killing the thousand-armed king. But, in retaliation, the king’s sons killed Parashurama’s father. Vishnu took the form of Parashurama, not only to get revenge but also to rid the world of oppression by the kings, which he did in the course of twenty-one battles. There is another story. According to this story, the Rama, a brilliant archer, who did penance in the Himalayas to Shiva in gratitude for having this skill conferred on him. Shiva was pleased with his devotion and when fighting broke out between gods and demons, he ordered Parashurama to defeat the demons. Parashurama showed reluctance. Shiva then gave him reassurance and he managed to defeat the demons. On completing the task Shiva gave Parashurama many gifts and weapons, including a magnificent axe after which he was known as Parashurama. Parashurama Jayanti is also known as Akshya Tritiya. Lord Vishnu is also worshipped on this day. Fasting, austerities and prayers are the highlights of this day.


The Lord Rama or Ramachandra is the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The Lord Rama was the Prince of Ayodhya, but as per the history and mythology, Rama was a chief who lived in the 7th or 8th century BC, perhaps 300 years after King David ruled in Israel and the Iron Age was started in central Europe, or at about the same time when the Greeks began to develop city states. Rama was a very powerful figure in contemporary India. In the earlier stories, he wasn’t regarded as divine. Although he is now seen as an earlier incarnation of Vishnu than Krishna, he was added to the pantheon very late, probably after the Muslim invasions of the 12th century AD. He is normally shown as standing, having two arms in which he holds a bow. He usually has his wife Sita by his right side, holding a blue lotus. His brother Lakshman stands by his left side, holding a bow and arrow. Hanuman, the monkey god, is usually shown kneeling a little in front in the right side. The Lord Rama killed a ten-headed demon, Ravana, who held his wife captive. He has also deeply influenced the Indian psyche and has risen to be a deity whose life is a subject or literature and an example of moral excellence.

Lord Rama, Rama in India

As the hero of the Ramayana, he has also passed into the mythology of countries other than India whose cultures have been influenced by it. Rama is also considered a savior and friend and is said to have the power of intercession for the dead. When a dead body is carried for cremation, the pall-bearers loudly repeat the words ‘Ram nam satya hai’ (Rama’s name is truth). Rama represents the qualities of fidelity, gentleness and steadfastness. In the same way his wife Sita (incarnation of Lakshmi, wife of Vishnu), is regarded as the embodiment of all that is most admired in Indian womanhood – faithfulness and affectionate compliance. They are looked upon as an example of constancy in marriage. The story of Rama has now become part of the culture of India and is performed during the festival of Dussehra. Ram's supposed birthplace at Ayodhya has also become the focus of fierce disputes between Hindu and Muslims. Hindus have identified Ram’s birthplace as a site currently occupied by a mosque. One of India’s leading historians has argued that there is no historical evidence for this view. The Ramanavami festival is celebrated as the birth of Rama in the month of March or April all over India. During this festival, temples are beautifully decorated with light and flowers. Priests recite the Ramayana and highlight the important aspects of the life and character of Rama. The name of Rama is recited constantly as that is supposed to purify the heart.



The Lord Buddha is the ninth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He appeared at the starting of the present age. He has short curly hair and his feet and palms have marks of the lotus. He is calm and graceful and sits on a lotus flower. The lobes of his ears are shaped like a pendant and he wore a yellow robe. The hands are in a boon giving and protection mode. This incarnation is symbolic of the uneasiness that the Hindu priests felt for the Buddhists and their teachings which were becoming very popular with the masses. According to the Bhagwat Purana, as Vishnu advised the demons to abandon the Vedas, later they lost all their powers and enabled the gods to establish their supremacy. The doctrines supposedly put forward by Buddha were removed from Buddha’s teachings as understood by his followers. Ironically, the Buddhists turned to Hindu belief. The mythology and cosmology that was attached to Buddhism as it became popular mass religion was rooted in Hindu belief and the Hindu gods inhabited some of the lower heavens of the Buddhist cosmos. The Buddha Purnima festival is celebrated in the month of April or May. Three great events in Buddha’s life on the same day has made this festival as the most important festival in the Buddhist world. This festival is celebrated all over the world with great piety, devotion and fervor. Buddha’s images and portraits are taken out in a procession on this day.



Kalki, the last incarnation of Vishnu, will appear at the end of the Kali-yuga when moral excellence would no longer exist, the rule of law would disappear and there would be darkness. Then Kalki would ride on a horse, blaze like a comet, save mankind and re-establish Dharma or Righteousness. Kalki would usher in the Golden Age, a new era of purity and peace and then return to heaven. In some texts Kalki is described as riding a white horse and holding a flaming sword. In others, he is described as being four armed, holding a sword, conch-shell, wheel and arrow, and also as a horse headed man carrying a club instead of an arrow. When riding a horse she also sometimes carries a bow and arrow.

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