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Many Paths to One God

God of Preservation

Vishnu represents that aspect of the divine reality that maintains and sustains the creation. The endless creative force of Brahma gives life to all beings, and Vishnu's infinite sustaining force protects this life.

Just as the feminine Supreme Energy, Vishnu has a "thousands names" which symbolize in fact just as many of his aspects. The daily repetition of Vishnu's thousand names is a living proof of his devotee's faith and ardor.

Vishnu's blue body is often depicted in blue. The color blue symbolizes the infinite. Vishnu is represented as an infinite force. He has no form, no name, and he is incommensurable.

The garland of flowers around Vishnu's neck is a symbol of God's worship. The precious stone decorating his neck indicates that Vishnu fulfills his worshiper's desires and the crown is a symbol of the Divine's power and supreme authority. His two earrings stand for the dual nature of creation.

Vishnu wears yellow clothing. The yellow color is associated with the terrestrial life. The dress of Vishnu, therefore, symbolizes his incarnations as a man, fighting for justice and destruction of the evil.

"Vishnu, the Preserver, sustains the whole creation and has the power of manifesting himself under numerous forms. In the great Cosmic Ocean, He sustains both the sun of the infinite and the eternal spirit of existence, which is the master of the universe."

Vishnu Purana

Vishnu the Preserver, is often depicted as lying on Ananta, a many-headed serpent. He lives on Meru with his wife Lakshmi. Vishnu usually rides through the heavens on Garuda, a man-bird, endowed with highly unusual powers, which spreads courage and Vedic knowledge.

Very often, Vishnu appears under the form of a young, very handsome man, with four arms (several arms is an indication of the divine, showing that they can perform several functions in the same time). 

In his hands, Vishnu is shown holding a shell, a disk, a lotus, and a scepter. The symbolism of the shell is two-folded: on one hand it represents Vishnu's relationship with the primordial waters and its use as a musical instrument, reminiscent of the primordial waters, and on the other hand the shell represents the five elements, and consequently the origin of manifestation.

The lotus is a symbol of the spiritual development and cosmic harmony. It also signifies the appearance of life on the neutral immensity of the primordial waters.

The opening of the lotus bud represents the realization of the possibilities contained in the "seed" of the human being. The scepter is a symbol of power and authority.

The disk is a solar symbol, and the classical image of Vishnu, the ascendant, unifying, intellectual tendency of a human being. It represents the power that destroys the ignorance and the darkness, just as it is a symbol of a killing weapon, and of the sun. It destroys the evil through the process of illumination.

Vishnu is more a god of love. For a Vaishnavite, salvation is usually won by bhakti, a loving devotion to God as preserver. Vishnu is considered the guardian of mankind and the keeper of the Dharma. He preserves the order in the universe. Every time the humanity decays, Vishnu takes on the form of an avatar, a divine model coming on earth, to show people new paths for spiritual development. He has taken nine incarnations.

His first incarnation was a fish, Matsya; the second a turtle, Kurma; the third a wild boar, Varaha; the fourth a lion; the fifth a dwarf, Vamana; the sixth a warrior, Parasurama; the seventh a hero, Rama; the eighth Krishna; the ninth Buddha. 

Vishnu's tenth incarnation, Kalki, is supposed to come about at the end of this age, Kali Yuga. He is said to be the cosmic rider of Apocalypse, who will take on the role of destroyer of what is evil on earth. 

The most important incarnations of Vishnu are Rama and Krishna.

To Hindus, Rama, who is nearly always noble and righteous, is the ideal man. Sita, incarnation of Lakshmi and his loyal wife, is the ideal woman. All sects reverence Rama. No name is more commonly given to Hindu children, and all Hindus would like to die with his name on their lips. When Mahatma Gandhi fell, mortally wounded by a fanatic assassin, he murmured "Ai Ram, Ai Ram" (O Rama, O Rama).

Krishna, even more popular and lovable, is the subject of countless stories and legends. As a youth Krishna flirts with the Gopi milk maidens and has an affair with one, Radha. These erotic experiences are interpreted symbolically. Individual souls are drawn to God as the milkmaidens were attracted to Krishna, and one should give one's self to God in complete surrender as Radha did to Krishna.

Vaisnavism in the South

The ancient Vaisnava mystics and saints in the South were known as Alvars, and the Vaisnavism teachers as Acaryas. They had a powerful exponent of these views in Ramanuja, who attacked the Advaita interpretation of the Upanisads and gave recognition to three ultimate realities, God, Soul and Matter, the last two being dependent on the first.

As early as the 2nd century B. C. the renowned Besnagar Column had been erected by a Greek named Heliodorous, who had been converted to the Bhagavata or Vaisnava faith of which the Pancaratra doctrines then formed an integral part; its scriptures were Satvata Samhita, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavata and Visnu Puranas. The origin of the Pancaratra doctrines which form the basis of Srivaisnava culture has been traced further back to the well known Purusasukta of the Rg-Veda. The Satapatha Brahmana refers to the Pancaratra sacrifices performed by the primeval Narayana, the idea of Nara and Narayana (Primordial man and the deity Visnu) being an integral part of ancient Indian thought. There are more than a dozen Vaisnava Upanisads. It was in the period from the 10th century up to the 17th that many Vaisnava works were produced. The Vaisnavas regard the Pancaratra literature as almost equal to the Vedas.

The Vaisnava Samhitas and other works insist on knowledge of and devotion to, the supreme Godhead rather than on Vedic studies or sacrifices. It is worthy of note that in the Bhagavata Purana (11th Skanda) the A!vars were prefigured or adverted to; several great devotees of Visnu, the Purana states, would appear on the banks of the Tamraparni, Krtamala (Vaigai), Payasvin ( Palar), Kaveri (Cauvery), and Mahanadi (Periyar).

The Alvars lived between the 5th and the 12th centuries. The first group included Saroyogin or Poygaiyal var, Bhatayogin or Bhutattalvar, Mahadyogin or Peyalvr and Bhaktisara or Tirumalisai-Piran. Nammalvar or Satakopa, who came in the next group, was perhaps the greatest of the Alvars. Others in this group included Madhurakaviyalvar, Kulasekhara Perumal, Visnucitta (or Periyalvar) and Andal, his adopted daughter. In the last of the groups were Bhaktanghrirenu (Tondaradippodiyal- var), Yogivahana (Tiruppanalvar) and Parakala (Tirumangaiyalvar). The Divya Prabhandha constitutes the collection of the Alvars' compositions in the Tamil language.

Vaisnavism in the North

One of the most influential Vaisnava cults was founded by Vallabhacarya, a Telugu Brahmin who lived in the 15th century. He migrated to the North and in his numerous works in the North he gave an interpretation of the Vedanta differing from that of Ramanuja, as also of Sankara. He called his doctrine Suddha Advaita, pure non- dualism. The world is real, and not an illusion. God is Nimitta- Karana, the causative being. 

Discarding the Maya theory Vallabhacarya asserts that God cannot be described by negatives but only by his holy and gracious attributes, and is personified in Krsna He is not only karta, creator, but also Bhokta, enjoyer. Though he has no need to assume a bodily form, he often does so to please his devotees. 

Regarding Bhakti as the chief means of salvation and superior to Jnana, (knowledge) Vallabha opposed all kinds of asceticism. The body is the temple of God, he said. The famous Upanisadic precept Tatvamasi was by an ingenious interpretation, modified by Vallabha as Atatvamasi, "That thou art not". Vallabhacarya's doctrines were fully interpreted and expounded by his son Vitthala.

Later, in Northern India, there arose the Caitanya movement. Nimbarka had already elevated Radha, the consort of Krsna, to the highest position. Jayadeva, the author of Gita-Govinda, and other poets like Vidyapati, Umapati and Candidas, adopted the Radha-Krsna cult. 

Caitanya, the great Vaisnava teacher of the 15th century transformed the Vaisnava faith and extended his influence in most parts of Northern India. He accepted converts from Islam, the foremost among them being Haridas, Rupa and Sanatana. Salvation, according to his doctrine, consists in the eternal experience of God's love. Caitanya exercised great influence over later Indian thought.

Excepted From: Hinduism by Dr. C.P.Ramaswami Aiyar, et.al., 
The Gazetteer of India, Volume 1
, Publications Div., Government of India, 1965.

See Also:

Ten Avataras of Vishnu

Lakshmi - Goddess of Wealth

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