(1) Vishnu in the Vaishnava tradition is the Supreme God, the all-pervading essence of all beings, and one who supports, sustains and governs the Universe. And, yet it would be rather incorrect to regard Vishnu as a single deity standing all by itself. Vishnu is the culmination or convergence of several gods; and is in fact a comprehensive manifestation of numerous gods.
(2) The saga of Vishnu’s evolution, expansion and his ultimate supremacy is truly fascinating. In the early Rig Veda he is one of the lesser gods; and he soon evolves, expands in the Vishnu Sukta, where he transcends into a brilliantly shining divine being that pervades and protects all existence. The virtues and powers of major Vedic gods Indra, Surya and Soma merge into Vishnu. By extension, Agni who is a form of Surya; Visvakarma (maker of all things) who too is regarded a form of Surya (RV10.170.4), and Vayu the complement of Indra all merge into Vishnu. They all are identified with Vishnu; and come to be known as forms of Vishnu. The Brahmana texts elevate Vishnu to far greater heights. Here Vishnu is celebrated as the supreme god into whom all gods including the very symbol of Vedic spirit Agni merge. Vishnu is regarded the source of all gods; all other gods derive their glory and splendour from Vishnu; and are emanations of his expressions.
(3) In the later texts, the ancient divinities Narayana merges into Vishnu; and become indistinguishable from Vishnu. Towards the end of Mahabharata, Vasudeva-Krishna joins the stream and is regarded as Vishnu. Then there is the transcendental aspect of Vishnu as Para-Vasudeva .That is followed by the prominent members of vrishni yadava clan (vyuha) – Krishna’s brother, son and grandson- as also their subdivisions , all regarded as various aspects of Vishnu. True to his name, Vishnu enlarged infinitely (vyapad vishnuhuh). The Puranas and the texts of the Bhakthi-cult wove elaborate and highly creative legends glorifying the Supremacy of Vishnu and rejoicing his countless manifestations, avatars. In the later ages, gods such as Srinivasa, Venkateshwara, Ranganatha, Padmanabha, Satyanarayana and other were all regarded not merely as forms of Vishnu, each with certain special affiliations, but as Vishnu himself.
Around these major forms of Vishnu, whole pantheon of minor and supporting deities took form; each assigned a specific aspect of Vishnu.
(4) Thus, like the proverbial inverted- tree with its roots in the air; and its branches and sub-branches spreading, flourishing elaborately downwards, the all encompassing Vishnu branched out, expanded and permeated the entire universe with his limitless expressions. All things merge in him; and all things emanate from him.
The awe-inspiring Vishva-roopa spectacle presented in Bhagavad-Gita is a colossal demonstration of the same principle.
(5) When we talk of Vishnu, we do not refer to a single deity but to Vishnu-tatva the all encompassing core-principle, the ever flowing stream of bliss (rasa) that pervades all existence.
In Rig Veda
1.1. Vishnu in the early Rig Veda is one of the thirty-three Devas; and is classified among gods of celestial region (dyusthana devatha) along with Varuna, Savitar and Pushan. Just about five or six suktas are devoted to him. He is ranked among the lesser- gods but is associated with the major god Indra. In early texts, Vishnu is not one of the seven solar deities (Adithyas), but later he is their chief.
1.2. He is described as a young and a handsome person with a huge and a lustrous body (brhat sarirah yasya sah – RV 1.155.18) He resembles Surya and has rays in his appearance. He has big-feet (urugaaya) and moves in huge strides (uru-krama).He lives and wonders in the mountains (girisha, giristhah) just as a mighty lion that lives atop a forested hill. He is ever active, full of youth (yuva) and energy. But, he is not flippant or childish (akumarah)… (RV 1.155.18)
1.3. Vishnu initially had a lower position to that of Indra. He is Indranuja and Upendra, the younger brother of Indra. He is also the close friend of Indra (Indrasya yujyah sakhah) (RV 1.154.4); and often partakes Soma drink in the company of Indra. Vishnu helped Indra in vanquishing Vrtra and in destroying ninety-nine fort-cities of Shambara (RV 7.99.5).
1.4. The six riks forming the first portion of the Vishnu Sukta (RV 1.154) are most significant in the evolution; and the ever expanding glory and splendor of Vishnu. The significance of this Sukta is enormous. The Sukta not only sets up the identity of Vishnu with Surya the sun but also goes beyond to state that Vishnu is the very source of all gods and the savior of all existence.
The essential nature of Vishnu, as he evolves rapidly in Vishnu Sukta of Rig Veda, is his association with light, brilliance and his omnipresence.
1.5. The first six riks of Vishnu Sukta (RV 1.154) revealed to sage Medhaatithi son of sage Kanva is the first Sukta in Rig Veda to be addressed entirely to Vishnu. The Sukta describes with awe and wonder the most celebrated three strides (Tri – vikramana) of Vishnu (idam vishnum vichakrame). It said that the first and second of Vishnu’s strides (those encompassing the earth and air) were visible and the third was in the heights of heaven (space) (RV 1.155.1).This last stride is described as Vishnu’s supreme abode (paramam padam) which only the wise (Suri) behold in their hearts, like the brilliantly shining sky. With those three great strides Vishnu came to be addressed as Tri-vikrama and as Uru-krama.
1.6. There are several interpretations to these three colossal strides of Vishnu. To start with, Vishnu is identified with Surya; and the strides are the path traversed by sun in morning (samarohana), noon (Vishnu pada) and evening (gayasiras). The three strides are also said to represent the three realms of earth (bhu), mid-air (bhuvah) and outer- space (suvah); as also wakefulness, dream and sleep. Vishnu, with these strides, is also said to have recovered for the Devas the worlds we see (iman lokan); the Vedic corpus; and the very speech system.
1.7. Yaska-charya opines, when Surya shines forth with the brilliance of his rays he becomes Vishnu. Yaska_charya in his glossary Nirukta (12, 19) concurs with the argument of two of his predecessors- Sakapuni and Aurnavabha- the three strides of Vishnu could refer to the three realms of earth, the mid-region and the heavens traversed by Surya. He says the three regions represent the three forms of Surya – as fire on earth (prithviagni), the lightening (vidyut) in the mid-region and as the burning energy (Surya) in the heavens.
1.8. Yaska-charya says that with the first step Vishnu pervades all creation through his energy; with the second he enters all creation by light; and with the third he encompasses all things and beings. He concludes that since Surya pervades (vashir, vyapta), enters (praveshena) and encompasses (vivis) all the three regions with his splendor and energy, he indeed is Vishnu. The realms are his manifestations when Vishnu is called Surya.
1.9. Another hymn (1-155-6) of Rig Veda suggests Vishnu set in motion the wheel of time (kaala chakra). consisting ninety-four elements : Samvathsara (year-1);Aayana (Half-year: 2);Ritu (seasons -5);Maasa (months-12); Paksha (fortnights-24);Aho-ratri (solar days-30);Yama( roughly hours or parts of the day- 8); and Lagnas in each day(12). The chakra in the hands of Vishnu is also regarded as the solar splendor (RV 5-63-4).It also denotes the cyclical nature of time.
With the identification of Vishnu with Surya, Vishnu is hailed as the soul (atman) of the universe. The virtues and powers of Surya merged with that of Vishnu.
1.10. Though Vishnu was identified with Surya, the sun, his movement across the space was both vertical and horizontal. The second mantra of the ‘Vishnu Sukta‘ says that the three enormous strides of Vishnu created space; empowered gods to secure and permeate all the three realms; and with that all the regions of the universe dwell in peace. It also enabled habitation of earth by human beings (jeevate no rajamsi RV. 9.88.41).
This all enveloping nature and benevolence towards all existence became in the later texts the substance for enlarging upon the enduring and endearing attributes of Vishnu.
1.11. A mantra in Rig Veda (6.69.8) says that Vishnu along with Indra took the famous three strides for the sake of all beings. Even elsewhere in Rig Veda, Indra, Indra-Vishnu, Vishnu are all used together, suggesting Indra and Vishnu are one. In this process, Vishnu, in place of Indra, became the lord of the universe. The attributes and titles that once applied to Indra were transferred to Vishnu. Not merely that; Indra-nila azure sky-blue as that of sapphire or emerald associated with Indra the lord of blue-sky and of dark clouds , now became the body-color of Vishnu . In the later legends of the Puranas, Nara and Narayana; Arjuna and Vasudeva-Krishna preserve the old association between Indra and Vishnu. Indra is called Hari and Vishnu is Upendra.
In a similar manner, with the fall of the mighty Varuna, the first of the Great Kings, his kingship initially passes on to Indra while his spiritual powers are inherited by Prajapathi. In the next phase, Vishnu and Prajapathi together inherit Varuna’s glory and majesty. The powers and attributes that were once associated with Varuna are divided into two distinct spheres; Vishnu the power of creation and encompassing all existence; and, Prajapathi the symbolic spiritual power. In the Brahmana texts both Vishnu and Prajapathi are identified with Yajna.
Indra too had a brief span of life as the premier god; and he did not become a Supreme God. Instead, he had to yield place to another god. Eventually, Indra surrenders to Vishnu the newly emerging super- god; and bequeaths to him most of his powers and virtues. Similarly Prajapathi who was not endowed with any other special powers pales into insignificance just as his two predecessors – Varuna and Dayus. Prajapathi loses his power and authority over creation, sustenance and ordered existence to Vishnu. Prajapathi merges into Vishnu just as the other gods
As regards Agni and other gods : Agni is the devatha of earth-realm (bhu), Indra is of the mid regions (bhuvar) and Surya is celestial realms (suvah); and Vishnu as tripat (pervade three regions) encompasses all the three. Vishnu is thus said to symbolize the essence (rasa) of all existence.
By extension, Agni who is a form of Surya; Visvakarma (maker of all things) who too is regarded a form of Surya (RV10.170.4), and Vayu the complement of Indra all merge into Vishnu. They all are identified with Vishnu; and come to be known as forms of Vishnu.
In a similar move, along with Agni , Soma too was identified with Vishnu .
Vishnu (until then a minor god) emerges as the all compassing god, the god of all gods. The virtuous attributes and powers of all other gods are transferred to the incomparable God Vishnu. Into Vishnu all the gods merge; and in him they find their identities.
Thus , by the end of Rig Veda,its until then major gods such as Varuna, Prajapathi, Surya, Indra and Soma all merged into Vishnu. Eventually, it is Vishnu (neither Varuna nor Prajapathi nor Indra nor Agni nor Soma ) that is revered as the omniscient and omnipresent Godhead; he is ‘ashrutkarna’ ‘whose ears hear all things; and Svayambhuva – Self-existent or Self manifested.
1.12. There are sufficient indications in the Rig Veda and Vishnu Sukta in particular about the virtues of Vishnu: his compassion, being the savior of all existence, the protector of those in distress, his powers, valor etc (RV 6: 49; 13; 7: 100, 1; 155). He is also hailed as the protector of the fetus (bruna), bestower of progeny (RV 7:36), friend (bandhu) of the good people (1. 154.1), a compassionate protector (3, 55, 10) etc.
His all-enveloping nature and benevolence towards all existence were expanded and glorified in the later texts. Vishnu’s three great strides and his act of rescuing the Devas, their lore, their values etc inspired the development of series of avatars. The puranas enlarged upon the enduring and endearing attributes of Vishnu. The legends of the Vamana- King Bali; and the celestial Boar were woven around the hymns of Vishnu Sukta.
1.12. Yaska_charya explains, the term Vishnu is derived from the root “vishair” which brings forth the sense of pervasion (paryaptha). Vishnu literally means that which pervades (vyapad vishnuhuh). He explains, the essence of the term Vishnu is its brilliance, universal pervasion and omnipresence. That essential nature of Vishnu is brought forth through several expressions: Vishnu is ‘Vishnu vishateh ‘ one who enters everywhere; he is veveshti vyapnoti vishvam yah, the one who enters and covers the whole universe, or is omnipresent; and ‘yad vishito bhavati tad vishnurbhavati, that which is free from fetters and bondages is Vishnu.’ In other words, Vishnu is not limited by space, time or substance. The Vishnu Sukta thus elevates Vishnu to sublime heights and regards him as the omnipresent dimension of the Supreme Lord.
1.13. With that, Vishnu at once emerged as the omnipresent divine-principle supporting and sustaining all the realms (bhuvanani vishvah); and as the spiritual source of the highest order. The Vedic seers urge the aspirants to celebrate the glory and magnificence of Vishnu the friend (bandhu) who is praised widely (urugaya). Vishnu, they say, is the ever flowing stream of bliss; and pray to him for spiritual enlightenment and bliss. For, though Vishnu is cosmic in nature, he dwells (jivase) in each being as its essence, spirit and strength (RV 1.155.16)
Behold the glorious achievements of Vishnu, who is the close friend of Indra and who established a cosmic order for protection of all beings in all the realms
‘May I attain his favorite path in which god – seeking men delight – (the path) of Vishnu with giant strides, in whose exalted station is a (perpetual) flow of felicity – for he is truly a friend (to all).’
1.14. Thus, by the end of Rig Veda, Vishnu swiftly and gracefully strode across, evolved into the ever flowing stream of bliss, the very essence that protects and pervades all existence with its brilliance.
In the Brahmanas
2.1. Vishnu is elevated to far greater heights in the Brahmana texts.
The Brahmanas are centered on the yajna. The Taittiriya and Aitareya Brahmanas hail Vishnu as the Yajna-purusha and identify him with yajna (yajno vai Vishnuhuh) — (AB: 1.15.4), (TB: 2.1.83). He is the protector and preserver of the yajna (TB 188.8.131.52).He is the Yajna pathi (master of yajna) whom all the sacrifices are meant to please.
2.2. It is said the Devas derive their power (shakthi), pervasion (vyapthi) and position (pada) from Vishnu, as he is the very source of all gods. He is the Supreme God (AB: 1:1:1).
2.3. Devas gained the realm of earth, thanks to the prowess of Vishnu and therefore Aitareya Brahmana (1.30.19) declares Vishnu as the guardian and protector of the gods (devanam dvarapah). Vishnu is the face (Vishnu mukhah vai devaha) and the comprehensive image of all gods (vishnur sarva devatah).
2.4. While Vishnu is Aditya (Sun), the gods are his brilliant rays. It is said the primary meaning of the term Deva “to shine” (div to shine divyati) was thus derived.
2.5. Satapatha Brahmana (14, 1, 1 and 5) declares Vishnu as the best and the foremost (sresta) among all the gods. Aitareya Brahmana (1:1:1)praises Vishnu as the greatest or oldest god (parama), higher than Indra and higher than Agni the least or the youngest among gods (avama). All other gods are ranked in between (tadantarena sarva anya devata).
This is an astounding statement.
Agni, in Rig Veda, occupied a very special position. The Rig Veda opens with a rik in salutation to Agni (Agni meele purohitam … RV. 1.1.1). Agni is not merely the principal deity, he is also the chief priest who conducts the yajna; he is the mantra; he is the yajna; he is the offering; he is the one that receives the offerings. Rig Veda often refers to Agni as the Rishi (RV.9.66.20); the first and the foremost among the Rishis (1.31.1; 3.21.3); he is the knower-of everything (10.91.3) and the one that pervades all life and existence.He is the enjoyer, devour (sarva baksha), digester, heat, lust and passion. He spreads, takes over and rules. Agni is the fire of life, the subtle energy in all beings and the fire of inner awakening. He is the symbol of life, wisdom, knowledge, compassion and lordship. Agni is the symbol of Paramatman and all the other gods are different aspects or manifestations of Agni.He is the Vedic symbol of the Supreme.
Similarly, Indra is the most prominent god in Rig Veda. He is the first among the gods and is described as “Yo jata eva prathamo manasvan” he who from his very birth is the first among the Devas, the lord of the universe etc. More hymns are addressed to Indra than to any other deity in the Rig Veda, with the exception of Agni. For; he was revered for his beneficent character, as the bestower of rain and the cause of fertility. He was feared as the awful ruler of the storm and wielder of lightning and thunder.
Considering the Brahmanas’ preoccupation is with the Yajna, it is surprising Agni was relegated to such low position in those texts. There is no explanation anywhere how or why such an amazing turn – around came about. From then on Vishnu is regarded the Supreme Lord of the universe.
In the Upanishads
3.1. The Kathopanishad regarded as one among the major ten Upanishads states that the final destination of one’s spiritual journey is the abode of Vishnu (tad vishno paramam padam)… he who holds the reins of the mind, he reaches the end of his journey, and that is the highest place of Vishnu.
The other Upanishads like Maitri Upanishad regarded Vishnu as the Supreme Being.
3.2. It appears; therefore, by the time of later Upanishads Vishnu was regarded the highest divinity, the core-principle of existence and the very purpose of spiritual pursuit.
Only those Vedic gods whose characters were not explicitly known, and who offered significant traits to be developed into rich and complex mythology survived and flourished. For instance; Vishnu and Rudra were minor gods, but their profile indicated traits which could be expanded and enriched veraciously. Let’s take the case of Vishnu; he had the nucleus of ‘tri-pada-vikrama’ the collasal figure measuring the universe with his three enormous strides; his solar nature; lustrous body; his friendship with Indra; vague references to his unparallel valor;– all these were excellent material for developing him into concrete mythological supreme god…From Indra he imbibed the demon-killing valor; from Surya and Savitr the brilliance and sheen associated with gold; from Mitra the kindly , compassionate and benevolent attitudes towards all existence; and , from Bhaga the fortune bestowing generosity. From solar gods in general he inherited associations with Devayana; and consequently his roles as a savior……The component Vedic gods disappear one after another, after bequeathing their virtues to their successor. They last only so long as their living trait remains relevant to the spiritual needs or material aspirations of the society. “
Excerpts from ‘The Indian Theogony’ by Dr. Sukumari Bahttacharji (Cambridge University Press, 1970)
Continued in Part Two
– Narayana, Krishna and Para-Vasudeva
(i) The Rig Veda does not of course offer the iconographic details of Trivikrama. Those forms and details were evolved at a much later period. There are numerous forms of Trivikrama depictions. In the puranas, the gigantic Trivikrama image got entwined with the legend of the dwarfish Vamana. The Vaikhanasa-agama (ch.58) offers a detailed account of Trivikrama measuring out the three realms. He is depicted in three variations:
(i) with left-leg lifted up to the level of the knee of the right leg (which is placed firmly on the ground) to signify act of measuring the earth;(2) left leg lifted up to the level of the navel (nabhi) to signify occupation of the mid-regions; and, (3) left leg raised to the level of forehead, to signify occupation of celestial regions and beyond. The images of Trivikrama are to be scaled in superior (uttama) dasa-tala measure.
(ii) Sometimes, Trivikrama is depicted with six arms ; and also with two or four arms (as in Badami caves); or with eight arms (as in Mamallapuram) holding a variety of ayudhas. But there is no uniformity among the texts about the ayudhas.
(iii)According to Vishnudharmattara (85; 55-77) the face must be lifted up to blow the conch held in two hands; and the eyes must be wide open. The other hands should carry cudgel (danda), noose (pasha), discus (chakra), mace (gadha), sword (khadga) and lotus (padma).The well known image of Trivikrama at Mamallapuram carries a different set of ayudhas, such as bow, arrow, shield etc along with the usual ones.
(iv) Trivikrama, as a form of Vishnu, is usually visualized in dark complexion, like that of a ‘water bearing cloud’ wearing a red garment. At times, his body is depicted in red color. He is richly ornamented. His huge form must evoke awe , reverence and wonder in the hearts of the viewers.
Vamana holding an umbrella as also king Bali and several deities are shown separately in the same panel.
(i) As mentioned earlier, there are no specific indications in the Rig Veda about the iconographic features of Vishnu. The Vishnu of Rig Veda is essentially a shining blissful spiritual source; he is yet unattached. His associations with his consort Lakshmi, Ananta sepent, water etc were all yet to come about. But centuries later most elaborate iconographic systems were developed depicting Vishnu in varieties of forms, postures and dispositions along with his entourage. Among the various texts devoted to Vishnu-iconography, the 5th century Vaishnava texts Brahmiya Chitra-karma sastram and Vishnudharmottara present graphic details of Vishnu icon. Generally, Vishnu is depicted either as standing (sthanaka), seated (asana) or lying down (sayana); and there are numerous variations in each type of depiction. The image of Vishnu is made with eight, four or two arms. (Please click here for details).
(ii) The general features of Vishnu the God of godsas depicted in texts are: His head should be in the form of an umbrella, his neck like conch, his ears like sukthi; he should have high nose, strong thighs and arms. His chest must bear Srivatsa crest symbolizing Lakshmi his divine consort; and also the foot-print of sage Brighu. He should be richly adorned with a beautiful crown, set of ear-rings, garlands of flowers (Vanamaala) and the Kaustubha gem. His complexion should be new-cloud-like-blue as of the limitless sky symbolizing his infinite nature, and he should be clad in yellow robes. His serene and gracious countenance should be lit up with blissful gentle smile uplifting the hearts of the devotees.
(iii) But usually, Vishnu is depicted with four arms representing his presence in the transactional and spiritual worlds. The two hands on the right side display the abhaya mudra or lotus, and discus; and, his hands on the left hold the conch and mace. And, in case he is made with only two arms, then the right hand bestows peace and hope (shanthi-kara-dakshina hastha) and the left holds the conch. This is how the image of the Lord Vishnu is to be made for prosperity.
When Vishnu is two armed and carries discus and mace, he is known as Loka-paala-Vishnu. Most of such images are believed to be of the Kushana period ( first to third century); and, are usually small in size , easily carried.
(iv) Vishnudharmottara (part 3.ch 44.1-21) presents a unique portrayal of the four-faced Vishnu (chatur -mukhi Vishnu). It mentions that the image of Vishnu, the god of gods, should be made with four faces and eight arms. The Eastern face (turned towards the viewer should be a peaceful (saumya) human face representing Vasudeva and the virtue (guna) of bala (power). The face to the right, the Southern face, should be Narasimha representing Sankarshana and jnana (knowledge).The face to the left , the North face, should be Varaha (the celestial boar) representing Pradyumna and aishwarya ( wealth, prosperity) . And, the face to the back, the west face,should be Kapila (raudra or ferocious) representing Aniruddha and shakthi (strength).
[According to Vaikhanasa ideology, the four aspects of Vishnu -Purusha, Satya, Achyuta and Aniruddha– are identified with Dharma (virtue), Jnana (wisdom), Aishvarya (sovereignty) and vairagya (dispassion). Of the four faces of Vishnu, Purusha is to the East; Satya to the South; Achyuta to the west; and Aniruddha to the North. Purusha facing east is fair in complexion, wearing yellow garments.Satya to the South is collyrium (kajal) Blue hued (?) ; wearing red garments.Achuyuta located to the west of Vishnu is golden colored; wearing dark blue garments. And Aniruddha located to the north of Vishnu is coral colored.]
Four faced Vishnu Kashmir c.10th century
There is another representation of Vishnu as Caturmurti – with four faces and four hands (not eight hands).The specimens of this type of depictions, now, are mostly in public and private museums outside India. One such Caturmurti is in Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California, USA ; and the other is in MuZéO collection Paris France. Both are estimated to belong to mid 8th century; and both are from Kashmir region.
Caturmurti in a musem at LA USA Caturmurti in a museum at Paris France
In these images, the crown on Vishnu’s head is surrounded by a large and a prominent discus (chakra) . Vishnu has placed his upper-right-hand on the head of Chakra-purusha who is short, stout and potbellied resembling a Yaksha. Similarly Vishnu’s upper-left-hand too is placed on the head of another short figure. His normal right-hand holds a lotus, while his normal-left-hand holds a mace (perhaps). These are rare representations of Vishnu; and one hardly gets to see them in present-day India.
There are also depictions of Vishnu with ten arms holding several Ayudhas and served by Sesha , Garuda and other celestial beings
There is also a description of Asta-bhuja Vishnu, the Vishnu with eight arms. Of the eight hands the four on the right side must have the sword (nandaka), mace(kaumodaki), arrow and abhaya -hastha mudra of assurance and protection (the fingers raised and the palm facing the devotees); and the four hands on the left side esha and hold the bow(saranga), buckler, discus (sudarshana) and conch (panchjanya).
The same text mentions that Vishnu should be mounted on Garuda, bedecked in rich ornaments, long garland of forest- flowers (vanamala) with Kaustubha gem adorning his chest. He should be clothed in splendid yellow (pitambara) garments. His complexion should resemble water-laden fresh clouds.
Sources and References
Brahmiya Chitrakarma Sastram by Prof G Gnanananda
Vaidika Sahitya Charitre by Dr. NS Anantarangachar
Vishnu Sukta by Prof.SK Ramachandra Rao
Trivikrama and Vishnu drawings from
Other pictures from internet