The Hindu TriadAs we have seen, the idea of a triad of gods is rooted in the earliest Indian beliefs and seems to have its origin in solar cults, for the 'three-bodied' sun created with his fertilizing warmth, preserved with his light, and destroyed with his burning rays. Though the triad remained, its members changed, so that the Adityas (Varuna, Mitra and Aryaman) gave way to Agni, Vayu and Surya, and Vayu in turn gave way to lndra. These deities were sometimes thought of simply as the three most important gods, some-times as components of a single god embracing the world: Agni is the earth god, Vayu or Indra is the god of the atmosphere and Surya is the god of the sky. In the Rig Veda, Indra is closely united not only with Agni but also with Vishnu (in his earl form). But in the Brahmanic and especially in the Upanishadic period Vishnu, not lndra, is the most important god left from the Vedic pantheon and is thus fitted for a place in the triad. Similarly Rudra or Shiva is early identified with fire, from his role as god of red lightning, and can take the place of Agni. The first conjunction of the Hindu gods was in Harihara, where Vishnu and Shiva were treated as one deity. But this union ran counter to the tradition of the triad, and perhaps for form's Brahma, being officially the All-god was added to make up a triad.
ShivaRudra, Shiva's Vedic forerunner, was the red god of storms and lightning, the terrifying god living in the mountains and god of cattle and medicine who must be propitiated. As god of lightning, Rudra became associated with Agni, god of fire and consumer and conveyor of sacrifice. With Rudra as his antecedent, Shiva could claim as his inheritance the position of priest of the gods and of candidate for divine supremacy.
VishnuIn the Vedas Vishnu distinguishes himself only for the 'three steps' with which he measures out the extent of the earth and heavens. The significance of this act is amplified to include other functions in the epics, where Vishnu is equated with Prajapati, the creator and supreme god. As Prajapati he encompasses Brahma, Vishnu himself as preserver, and Shiva as destroyer. As the preserver he is the embodiment of the quality of mercy and goodness, the self-existent, all pervading power which preserves and maintains the universe and the cosmic order, dharma. Vishnu is the cosmic ocean, Nara, which spread everywhere before the creation of the universe, but is also called Narayana, 'moving in the waters'; in this character he is represented in a human form, sleeping on the coiled serpent Shesha, or Ananta, and floating on the waters. Brahma is sometimes said to have arisen from a lotus growing from his navel as he slept thus. After each destruction of the universe Vishnu resumes this posture. According to Vishnu's adherents, he is unlike Brahma and Shiva in that he has no need to assert his own superiority. Indeed, his mildness combined with his power proves him to be the greatest of the gods. As the preserver, Vishnu is the object of devotion rather than of fear, and this affection is similarly extended to his wife Lakshmi, goddess of fortune.
Though Vishnu existed as a god in Vedic times, his role as preserver is essentially a late development. It depends upon two assumptions. First, the theory of samsara, which teaches that every human is born many times over and that each life represents a punishment or a reward for his previous life, according to how well he has followed his dharma, or the path of duty laid down for him in that particular condition of life. If in each life he has faithfully performed his duty, he may hope to progress steadily upwards, until he becomes a saint, or even a god. On the other hand, if he does not perform his duty he progresses as steadily towards life as a demon. The second assumption is that gods and demons represent the two poles of existence, and that both are active in the world, a constant struggle being carried on between the two forces. In the normal course of events, good and evil are evenly matched in the world; at times, however, the balance is destroyed and evil gains the upper hand. Such a situation is deemed unfair to humans and at such times it is Vishnu as preserver who intervenes by descending to earth in a human incarnation or avatar.
Such avatars are therefore not chance events, and during each one Vishnu has a specific task to perform. It is sometimes thought that Vishnu is called upon to descend to earth in this way once in each cycle of universal time. There are ten avatars in the present Mahayuga, the first four of which are said to have occurred during the Kritayuga, and the seventh, eighth and ninth of which are the best known. Late texts, however, say that there are twenty-two, or even that they are innumerable.
An interesting twist to the theory of bhakti is seen in the myth relating to Sisupala, King of Chedi, who hated Krishna so much that he thought of nothing else but him or Vishnu, even in his sleep and even as he lay dying. And the consequence of this was that Sisupala too gained release, simply from concentrating his thoughts so exclusively on the god. Besides the avatars, Vishnu has a thousand names, the repetition of which is a meritorious act.
Nevertheless, Vishnu's especial function as preserver remains linked to the older beliefs and is exercised through his avatars, when he descends to earth as a great hero and saves mankind and the universe. As a mortal hero, Vishnu guards the righteous, destroys evil-doers and establishes the reign of law, dharma.
Vishnu's avatars: MatsyaVishnu's first incarnation, as a fish,is one borrowed from the mythology of Brahma, and already described in connection with Manu. In the Vishnu myth, the sage is called Vaivaswata and is the seventh Manu and progenitor of the human race. The object of the incarnation was to save Vaivaswata. Vishnu took the form of a small golden fish with one horn, but grew until he was forty million miles long when he predicted the deluge. He gave Vaivaswata further help by towing his ship with a rope attached to his horn and by advising him to allow the ship to descend slowly with the waters rather than allowing it to become high and dry on the peak of the Himalayas.
KurmaThe second incarnation, as a tortoise Kurma, is also borrowed from the Brahma myth a relatively simple one where Brahma or Prajapati assumes the form of a tortoise in order to create offspring. In the Vishnu myth the means of creation and the objects created are more complex During one of the periodic deluges which destroyed the world in the first age some things of value were lost, the most important of which was amrita, the cream of the milk ocean, whose absence threatened the continued existence of the universe. Accordingly Vishnu descended to earth as a tortoise to help to recover these objects. Gods and demons together set about producing amrita by churning the ocean of milk, using Mount Mandara as a churning stick. Such was the weight of Mount Mandara that the operation would have been impossible unless Kurma had lent his curved back as a pivot on which to rest it. With Vishnu (Kurma) supporting the whole, with the help of the potent herbs which they had thrown into the ocean, and using the serpent Vasuki as a churning rope, gods and demons proceeded with the task, and in due course all the precious objects lost in the deluge rose up out of the milky ocean.
The ocean gave forth not only the water of life, amrita, but also Dhanwantari, bearer of the gods' cup of amrita and their physician; Lakshmi or Sri, goddess of fortune and beauty, Vishnu's wife Sura, goddess of wine; Chandra, the moon, which Shiva took; Rambha, a nymph, who became the first of the lovely Apsaras; Uchchaisravas, a beautiful white horse, which was given to the demon Bali, but afterwards seized by Indra; Kaustubha, a jewel, which went to Vishnu; Parijata, the celestial wishing tree, which was later planted in Indra's heaven and belonged to his consort lndrani; Surabhi, the cow of plenty, which was given to the seven rishis; Airavata, a wonderful white elephant, which became Indra's mount after he stopped riding a horse; Sankha, a conch shell of victory; Dhanus, a mighty bow; and Visha, the poison vomited out by the serpent, which Shiva nearly swallowed.
VarahaTwo main versions exist of Vishnu's third incarnation, as a boar. The first of these versions again derives from an earlier Brahma myth, and claims that Brahma and Vishnu, who were one, took the form of a boar, a water-loving creature, in order to create the world out of the cosmic waters. The boar, Varaha, having observed a lotus leaf, thought that the stem must be resting on something, so he swam down to the depths of the ocean, found the earth below and brought a piece of it to the surface. The second version of the myth relates that Brahma had been induced by the propitiation of a demon, Hiranyaksha, to grant him the boon of invulnerability. Under cover of this boon Hiranyaksha began to persecute mortals and gods and even stole the Vedas from Brahma and dragged the earth down to his dark abode under the waters. But Hiranyaksha, when reciting the names of all the gods, men and animals from whose attacks he wished to be immune, forgot to mention the boar. Accordingly Vishnu took the form of a boar forty miles wide and four thousand miles tall, dark in colour and with a voice like the roar of thunder. He was as big as a mountain, mighty as a lion, with sharp white tusks and fiery eyes flashing like lightning. With his whole being radiating like the sun, Vishnu descended into the watery depths, killed the demon with his tusks, recovered the Vedas and released the earth, so that it once more floated on the surface.
NarasinhaVishnu's fourth incarnation was designed to free the world from the depredations of the demon king Hiranyakasipu who, like his brother Hiranyaksha, had obtained from Brahma the boon of immunity from attacks by human, beast and god; he had Brahma's assurance that he could be killed neither by day nor by night, neither inside nor outside his house. Protected by this immunity, Hiranyakasipu overreached himself. He forbade worship of all the gods and substituted worship of himself. He was therefore particularly incensed to discover that his own son Prahlada remained an ardent devotee of Vishnu. Hiranyakasipu tried persuasion and he tried torture, but still Prahlada refused to give up his worship of Vishnu. Hiranyakasipu finally ordered serpents to bite him to death. But Prahlada was unaffected, and the serpents fell into feverish disarray, their fangs broken and fear in their hearts. Vast elephants were sent against Prahlada; he was thrown over precipices; he was submerged under water. But all to no avail: Hiranyakasipu could not kill his son. Finally, one evening, the demon king, in exasperation at his son's repeated assertion of Vishnu's omnipresence, pointed out a pillar in the doorway of his palace and demanded to know if Vishnu was there inside it. Prahlada declared that he certainly was, whereupon Hiranyakasipu said that he would kill him, and he kicked the pillar. At this Vishnu stepped out of the pillar in the form of Narasinha, a creature who was half-man and half-lion, and tore Hiranyakasipu to pieces. The circumstances of Hiranyakasipu's death fell outside the conditions of Brahma's boon, for the time was evening neither day nor night, the place was the doorway of the palace not inside nor outside the demon's house, and the assailant was a man-lion neither human, beast nor god.
The Varaha and Narasinha avatars are sometimes represented in a composite figure, Vaikuntha.