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As one of the most important gods in the Hindu pantheon, Vishnu is surrounded by a number of extremely popular and well-known stories and is the focus of a number of sects devoted entirely to his worship. Vishnu contains a number of personalities, often represented as ten major descents (avatars) in which the god has taken on physical forms in order to save earthly creatures from destruction. In one story, the earth was drowning in a huge flood, so to save it Vishnu took on the body of a giant turtle and lifted the earth on his back out of the waters. A tale found in the Vedas describes a demon who could not be conquered. Responding to the pleas of the gods, Vishnu appeared before the demon as a dwarf. The demon, in a classic instance of pride, underestimated this dwarf and granted him as much of the world as he could tread in three steps. Vishnu then assumed his universal form and in three strides spanned the entire universe and beyond, crushing the demon in the process.
The incarnation of Vishnu known to almost everyone in India is his life as Ram (Rama in Sanskrit), a prince from the ancient north Indian kingdom of Ayodhya, in the cycle of stories known as the Ramayana (The Travels of Ram). On one level, this is a classic adventure story, as Ram is exiled from the kingdom and has to wander in the forests of southern India with his beautiful wife Sita and his loyal younger brother Lakshman. After many adventures, during which Ram befriends the king of the monkey kingdom and joins forces with the great monkey hero Hanuman, the demon king Ravana kidnaps Sita and takes her to his fortress on the island of Lanka (modern Sri Lanka). A huge war then ensues, as Ram with his animal allies attacks the demons, destroys them all, and returns in triumph to North India to occupy his lawful throne. Village storytellers, street theater players, the movies, and the national television network all have their versions of this story. In many parts of the country, but especially in North India, the annual festival of Dussehra celebrates Ram's adventures and his final triumph and includes the public burning of huge effigies of Ravana at the end of several days of parties. Everyone knows that Ram is really Vishnu, who came down to rid the earth of the demons and set up an ideal kingdom of righteousness--Ram Raj--which stands as an ideal in contemporary India. Sita is in reality his consort, the goddess Lakshmi, the ideal of feminine beauty and devotion to her husband. Lakshmi, also known as Shri, eventually became the goddess of fortune, surplus, and happiness. Hanuman, as the faithful sidekick with great physical and magical powers, is one of the most beloved images in the Hindu pantheon with temples of his own throughout the country.
Another widely known incarnation is Krishna. In the Mahabharata (Great Battle of the Descendants of Bharata), the gigantic, multivolume epic of ancient North Indian kingdoms, Krishna appears as the ruler of one of the many states allied either with the heroic Pandava brothers or with their treacherous cousins, the Kauravas. Bharata was an ancient king whose achievements are celebrated in the Mahabharata and from whose name derives one of the names for modern India, that is Bharat. During the final battle, Krishna serves as charioteer for the hero Arjuna, and before the fighting starts he bolsters Arjuna's faltering will to fight against his kin. Krishna reveals himself as Vishnu, the supreme godhead, who has set up the entire conflict to cleanse the earth of evildoers according to his inscrutable will. This section of the epic, the Bhagavad Gita , or Song of the Lord, is one of the great jewels of world religious literature and of central importance in modern Hinduism. One of its main themes is karma-yoga , or selfless discipline in offering all of one's allotted tasks in life as a devotion to God and without attachment to consequences. The true reality is the soul that neither slays nor is slain and that can rejoin God through selfless dedication and through Krishna's saving grace.
A completely different cycle of stories portrays Krishna as a young cowherd, growing up in the country after he was saved from an evil uncle who coveted his kingdom. In this incarnation, Krishna often appears as a happy, roly-poly infant, well known for his pranks and thefts of butter. Although his enemies send evil agents to destroy him, the baby miraculously survives their attacks and kills his demonic assailants. Later, as he grows into an adolescent, he continues to perform miracles such as saving the cowherds and their flocks from a dangerous storm by holding up a mountain over their heads until the weather clears. His most striking exploits, however, are his affairs as a young adult with the gopis (cowherding maidens), all of whom are in love with him because of his good looks and talent with the flute.
These explicitly sexual activities, including stealing the clothes of the maidens while they are bathing, are the basis for a wide range of poetry and songs to Krishna as a lover; the devotee of the god takes on a female role and directs toward the beloved lord the heartfelt longing for union with the divine. Krishna's relationship with Radha, his favorite among the gopis , has served as a model for male and female love in a variety of art forms, and since the sixteenth century appears prominently as a motif in North Indian paintings. Unlike many other deities, who are depicted as very fair in color, Krishna appears in all these adventures as a dark lord, either black or blue in color. In this sense, he is a figure who constantly overturns accepted conventions of order, hierarchy, and propriety, and introduces a playful and mischievous aspect of a god who hides from his worshipers but saves them in the end. The festival of Holi at the spring equinox, in which people of all backgrounds play in the streets and squirt each other with colored water, is associated with Krishna.
In iconography Vishnu may appear as any of his ten incarnations but often stands in sculpture as a princely male with four arms that bear a club, discus, conch, and lotus flower. He may also appear lying on his back on the thousand-headed king of the serpents, Shesha-Naga, in the milk ocean at the center of time, with his feet massaged by Lakshmi, and with a lotus growing from his navel giving birth to the god Brahma, a four-headed representation of the creative principle. Vishnu in this representation is the ultimate source of the universe that he causes to expand and contract at regular cosmic intervals measuring millions of years. On a more concrete level, Vishnu may become incarnate at any moment on earth in order to continue to bring sentient creatures back to himself, and a number of great religious teachers (including, for example, Chaitanya in Bengal) are identified by their followers as incarnations of Vishnu.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress