(Sanskrit, vish, "encompass," or vis, "to penetrate"), the second god of the Hindu Trimfirti, and considered, by his worshippers the supreme god of the pantheon. In the Rig-Veda Vishnu is a representation of the sun, who "strides through the seven regions of the earth," and "in three ways plants his step." According to one authority, these three steps mean the manifestation of the sun at its place of rising, on the meridian, and at its place of setting; or, according to another, its manifestation on earth, in the intermediate space, and in heaven; and a later commentator remarks that Vishnu in the first of these manifestations represents fire, in the second lightning, and in the third solar light. From this position which Vishnu holds in the Rig-Veda, it appears that he was not regarded as supreme, or even as equal, to the other deities who occupied the foremost rank in the Vedic period. But when we come to the epic times of Sanskrit, to the Mahabhda-rata and Ramaydna, then we find the sun-god of the Vedas rise into sudden prominence, and become identified with tie eternal prime essence itself. In the Mahabhda-rata, however, although treated as one of the triad, he is now and then spoken of as if he were not of equal honor with Siva. But the Ramscriyna is wholly devoted to his praise. In that epic he is the chief of the gods, and his supremacy is in every way conspicuous and complete.
If we are to believe the votaries of Vishiu and those who have written in praise of him, we must believe that he stands alone I as the incomparable chief of the Hindu pantheon. He is presented to us under almost innumerable aspects. As the supreme deity he formed heaven and earth. He is the indefinable omnipotent, and the comrade of the gods of fire and the spacious firmament. He reclines on the lotus; is as fierce as the long-tusked boar; is shaded and guarded by the serpent, of many heads; is the lord of innumerable hosts of the monkey-warriors of Hammian; the primal fish of the ocean of births; the eternal tortoise who can bear on his back the weight of the universe; the man-lion; the fulfiller of all space, who can take upon him the form of a dwarf. Brahma, with his four heads, springs from his navel. He is the husband of the peerless Sita, who is so pure that even the flames of a furnace cannot take effect on her person; and is the loved of the Gopis, the thousand shepherdesses whom he divinely seduced; while the lovely Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity, sits at his feet and fondles her lord. He rides on Garudia, a creature partially man, partially bird. He wields the axe, drives the plough, or sits on the throne. He is the hero of the Ramayana, and is lauded in the Mahabha-rata under a thousand names.
But the most remarkable thing about Vishnu as a god is his Avatars (q.v.), or incarnations, in which he is presented to us as the champion of gods and men. The myths concerning these arose from the idea that whenever a great physical or moral disorder disturbed the world, Vishnu descended in a small portion of his essence to set it right, and thus preserve creation. Such descents of the god are called Avatarus (Sanskrit, ava, from, and tri, to descend), and consist in Vishnu's being supposed to have either assumed the form of some wonderful animal or superhuman being, or to have been born of, human parents in a human form, but possessed of miraculous powers. Some of the avatars are of an entirely cosmical character, while others are probably based on historical events, the leading personage of which was gradually endowed with divine attributes, until he was regarded as the incarnation of the deity itself. They are ten in number, and, with the exception of the last, belong to the past; the tenth is yet to come. The usual enumeration is as follows:
1. Matsya (q.v.), or fish; 2. Kirma (q.v.), or tortoise; 3. Varaha (q.v.), or boar; 4. Narasingha (q.v.), or man-lion; 5. Vamana (q.v.), or dwarf; 6. Parasurtma (q.v.); 7. Rfma (q.v.), or Ramachmadra; 8. Krishna (q.v.) and Balarama; 9. Buddha (q.v.); and, 10. Kalki.
This number and enumeration, however, were not at all times the same. The Mahrabhdrata mentions ten, but with names differing somewhat from those given. The Bhogavata-Purdna mentions twenty-two, while other works speak of twenty-four, or even call them numberless. It is because of the peculiar attractiveness to the Hindu mind of many of the avatars that Vishnu sprang up to such sudden popularity, and has maintained his position so long. The sensuality connected with many of the legends is the greatest attraction to his votaries. It will be admitted by all who have read the Puranas that Brahma is represented as a liar who lusts after his own daughter; that Siva is an adulterer, and abominably vicious and ferocious; and that Vishin is a fornicator as well as a thief from his cradle. It is difficult to choose the object of worship from such a triad. But the Brahman feels that he has no authority to judge the gods by any mortal standard. All terrestrial matters, good or evil, are only regarded as affording sport to the idle gods, who are, by virtue of their divinity, above all responsibility. Vishliu's wife is Sri or Laksshni (q.v.), and his paradise Vaikunltha. When represented he is of a dark hue, with four hands, in which he holds (1) a conch-shell blown in battle, the Panchajanya; (2) a disk, the Sudarsoza, an emblem of sovereign power; (3) a mace, the Kamodaki, as a symbol of punishment; and (4) either a lotus, as a type of creative power, or a sword, the Nandaka. Various other representations are mentioned under the different avatars.
See Wilson, Translation of the Vishnu Purdana (Lon. 1864); Burnouf, La Bhagycvata-Purana (Paris, 1840-47); Langlois, Marivansa (ibid. 1834- 35); Lassell, Indische Alterthumskunde (Bonn and Leipsic, 1852-66); Muir, Original Sanskrit Texts (Lond. 1858-63); Moor, Jindui Pantheon; Muller, Chips from a German's Workshop (N.Y. 1872); Williams; Hinduism (Lond. 1877).