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The God Vishnu: Incarnations, Attributes & Facts

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Vishnu is understood as the Preserver in Hinduism, so it is not surprising that he and his many incarnations are worshiped more than any other Hindu gods. Learn more about these incarnations and Vishnu in this lesson.

Vishnu the Preserver

Vishnu is one of the most popular Hindu gods - more people follow him than any of the other gods! These followers are called Vaishnavas and worship Vishnu as well as his incarnations. Vishnu is part of the trimurti, or the Hindu ''trinity'' which includes Brahma the creator, Shiva the destroyer, and Vishnu the preserver. Stories of Vishnu typically include three wives or consorts: Lakshmi, Ganga, and Saraswati. While he eventually sent the latter two away, Lakshmi remained his wife.

The number of people who follow Vishnu compared to the other gods makes sense when you learn more about him. Vishnu is associated with most of the good in the world and acts as a balance to Shiva acting as a destroyer. He acts as a preserver, both creating order and keeping it on a cosmic level. He is also viewed as a guardian of humans, often being depicted as a superhero.

Vishnu's Attributes and Appearance

Vishnu is usually easy to pick out when you see pictures of Hindu deities: he is typically depicted with four arms and blue skin. In each of his four hands, he holds a different symbol that reflects something about him. First, he holds a conch shell that symbolizes the sound ''Om,'' the sacred word that supposedly was spoken to create the world. He also carries a chakra or type of disk that emphasizes mindfulness and a lotus flower to symbolize freedom and the beauty of life. Finally and quite different from the other symbols, Vishnu carries a mace which acts to symbolize strength, whether of the body or mind. You may also notice light and sun symbolism around Vishnu, which is quite common since he is often associated with the sun.

Image of Vishnu with his four symbols in his hands
Image of Vishnu with his symbols

Incarnations of Vishnu

Krishna

Like many other Hindu deities, Vishnu appears through various avatars, or earthly incarnations, when a certain purpose needs to be fulfilled. Vishnu has ten total avatars - nine that exist now and one to come. Perhaps the most popular and famous of Vishnu's avatars is Krishna. Krishna is sometimes blue, sometimes not, in artistic representations, but what is most intriguing about him is his personality. Instead of being an adult avatar, he is sometimes depicted as a child or even a baby. Some temples have places where you can rock baby Krishna's cradle or push child Krishna on a swing, and Krishna is often depicted playing a pipe to indicate his fun nature. As an adult, Krishna takes on the role of preserver and philosopher, which is clear in the epic written about him called the Mahabharata.

Image of child Krishna stealing butter
Image of child Krishna stealing butter

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