Hindu God Vishnu - The Preserver
Vishnu is one of the principal Hindu deities, worshiped as the protector and preserver of the world and restorer of dharma (moral order). He is known chiefly through his avatars (incarnations), particularly Rama, Krishna and Buddha. In theory, Vishnu manifests a portion of himself anytime he is needed to fight evil, and his appearances are innumerable; but in practice, ten incarnations are most commonly recognized.
Vishnu appears to be a prime example of how older gods and cults have been absorbed into Hinduism. Thought to be linked with an earlier sun god, Vishnu's ten incarnations may also be examples of older gods that have been amalgamated.
Vaishnavites, one of the largest Hindu groups, are the devotees of Vishnu as Ishvara, the Supreme Being, worshipped in the forms of his manifestations or incarnations. Because of his pervasive presence, images as the focus of worship are of great importance, as are temple architecture and carving.
The Nine Avatars of Vishnu
Vishnu's preserving, restoring, and protecting powers have been manifested in the world in a series of ten earthly incarnations known as avatars. The avatars arrive either to prevent a great evil or to effect good upon the earth. Nine are said to have descended already: three in nonhuman form, one in hybrid form and five in human form. The most important are Rama, fearless upholder of the law of dharma and Krishna, youthful hero of the Bhagavad Gita Vishnu's final avatar is expected to arrive at a time when the earth is at the end of its present cycle, with the purpose of destroying the world and subsequently recreating it.
Matsya the Fish: Saved Humanity and the Sacred Veda Text from the Flood.
The first avatar, Matsya the fish, was taken by Vishnu at the end of the last Kalpa or age, when there was a deluge that destroyed the world. Choosing a sage, Rishi Satyavrata, Lord Vishnu commanded him to gather together the seven great sages, samples of the birds, animals, plants and seeds and wait in a boat. The gigantic golden fish then dragged the boat through the turbulent oceans all through the long night till the storm ended and Brahma created the present world. The story is very similar to the story of Noah and the arc from the old testament of the Bible.
Kurma the Turtle: Helped Create the World by Supporting it on His Back.
Vishnu's second avatar was Kurma the tortoise sent to help the Devas (heavenly beings or lesser gods). Obtain the nectar of immortality which the Asuras (demons) also sought. The Devas and Asuras churned the ocean to get this nectar, using a giant snake, Vasuki, as the churning rope and Mount Mandara as the churning rod. To prevent the mountain from sinking into the ocean, Vishnu as a giant tortoise supported the mountain under water until the nectar of immorality emerged which Vishnu gave to the Devas alone.
Varaha the Boar: Raised the Earth out of Water with His Tusks.
At the end of the last deluge in the last Kalpa or age, Bhoomi Devi (Mother Earth) sank to the bottom of the ocean. Vishnu, taking the form of a large boar, Varaha, dived into the ocean and carried the goddess out of the ocean supported by his two tusks and his massive snout.
Narasimha: Half-Man, Half Lion - Destroyed a Tyrant Demon King.
In order to destroy Bali, king of demons, Vishnu took the form of a midget, Vamana. He appeared during a huge yajna or sacrifice being conducted by the king when the latter was arrogantly distributing gifts to all who asked it to show his power and wealth. Vamana asked for just three feet of land, measured by own small feet. With the first foot Vamana, exploding in size changing from the midget into the immense god Vishnu, covered the earth. With the second he covered the heavens. When there was no place for the third foot to land, Bali, to show his humility before the god Vishnu, offered his head for Vishnu's third foot. Vishnu third foot pushed him down into the nether regions but Bali's act of humility before Vishnu was glorified throughout the ages.
Parashurama the Brahmin: Destroyed the Warrior Caste.
When the Kings of the earth became autocratic and started to harm ordinary people and sages in the forest, Vishnu took the Avatar of Parasurama and destroyed all the princes who were harassing the people.
Buddha: The Enlightened One.
When the priesthood became arrogant and priests used rituals to exploit the people.Vishnu took the Avatar of the Buddha to purify Hindu practices of excessive ritualism. He taught that all sorrow stemmed from attachments and desires. He also advocated a Middle path consisting of the eight fold path.
Kalki the Horse: Yet to Come to the Earth.
In sculpture the standing Vishnu is dressed in royal garments and holds in his four, sometimes two, hands the sankha (conch), cakra (discus), gada (mace), or padma (lotus). On his chest is the curl of hair known as the srivatsa mark a sign of his immortality. Around his neck he wears the auspicious jewel Kaustubha.
The conch represents "Om", the first sound of creation and also the beginning of matter, since sound and matter are consider to be synonymous.
The discus is thought to represent the sun. Vishnu, like Shiva, was originally a minor deity with only five out to 1,028 hymns in the Rig Veda addressed to him. He seems to have been derived from a solar deity. The discus is a vestige of his solar origins.
Vishnu's weapon, the mace, represents the elemental force from which all physical and mental powers derive.
The Lotus is associated with water, fertility, and the creation myth in which Brahma comes forth from the lotus growing in the navel of the sleeping god Vishnu.
Vishnu's consort is the goddess Lakshmi.
Garuda, the giant eagle or kite, is Vishnu's vehicle. He is often shown as a winged human-shaped figure with a beaklike nose. Garuda carries Vishnu to Vaikuntha (heaven) where he lives.