The most fundamental of Hindu deities, is the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva - popular deities include Ganesha, Krishna, Hanuman and goddesses like Lakshmi, Durga,Saraswati.
Vishnu is associated with certain features that distinguish him from other gods. Focussing on his role as the preserver of life their symbolic meanings grant devotees a profound insight into the sublime nature of the lord.
Vishnu's charm and beauty - his lotus shaped eyes, winsome smile, thick long hair, broad shoulders, lithe limbs and dark complexion - rouses love in devotees and passion in poets. They reflect rasa - life's mystery, beauty and awe.
Vishnu is blue as the sky, and like the sky always watches over the earth. He is dark as the rain-clouds whose presence brings joy after the hot dry days of summer. Like the colour black, Vishnu is omnipresent, seen even in the dark.
His four arms represent the four directions of the cosmos that he supports at all times.
On his chest is a characteristic tuft of hair called Shreevatsa - the symbol of Shree-Lakshmi, his consort, who is the goddess of life, protected and loved by him.
Brahma, the creator, sits on a lotus that springs from Vishnu's navel. This is the primal lotus that bloomed when life began.
Vishnu is known across the three worlds for his smile that is at once seductive and mysterious. The smile radiates happiness and celebrates the delights of worldly life. It also mocks man who, obsessed with his ego, has lost sight of the divine. And for all the troubled souls of the cosmos, the smile of the lord offers reassurance and love.
Garments and jewellery
Vishnu adorns his dark body with bright yellow robes, the pitambar, as he plays the role of Surya-Narayana, the sun-god, who radiates warmth and light.
His earrings are shaped like a makara. Makara, or Capricorn, is a fabulous sea-monster: part-fish, part-go,' part-elephant. Some describe it as a dolphin or a crocodile. It is the insignia of Vishnu's son, Madana, lord of desire, union and growth. When Madana's bod, was destroyed by Shiva's third eye, his spirit entered Vishnu who took over his functions, presiding over the life-giving rites of conception symbolised by these characteristic earrings.
Vishnu wears a jewel called Kaustubha either round his neck or on his crown. This jewel, also called Chintamani or Parasmani, is a wish-fulfilling gem that rose from the ocean of milk and is said to symbolise the sun.
As Krishna, the celestial peacock who enchants his devotees with his divine dance, he wears a peacock feather on his crown.
Vishnu has two garlands round his neck: the jewelled Vaijayanti, that acknowledges his many triumphs over demons, and another, the Vanamala, made of wild flowers, that symbolises love which binds him to his devotees.
Vishnu is a warrior god, constantly fighting darkness, tamas, using light, jyoti. He battles the forces of adharma, that threaten the stability of the world, using many
Weapons: Kaumodaki, the mace; Sudarshana, the discus; Nandaka, the sword; Sharanga, the bow; Parashu, the axe. Vishnu, bearer of these five weapons, is known Panchayudha.
A demon called Gada was renowned for his charitable nature. "If you are so generous can you give me your bones?" asked the lord. Gada immediately tore open his body and pulled out his bones. From these the celestial artisans, the Ribhus, made Vishnu his mace. Gada's flesh turned into five metals - gold, silver, copper, iron and tin - which the Ribhus smelted for Vishnu's sword.
Vishnu once promised Shiva 1008 lotuses. To test his devotion, Shiva stole one of the lotuses. When Vishnu discovered this loss, he offered Shiva one of his lotus-shaped eyes instead. For this act, Shiva gave Vishnu a discus with jagged edge called the Sudarshan-chakra which rotates round the lord's finger. When flung, it beheads his enemies before returning to his hand.
Every Hindu god is associated with musical instruments. Brahma has his lute, Shiva, his drum. Vishnu is associated with wind instruments like the flute, bansuri, or the conch, sankha.
Vishnu charms the innocent with his flute and warns the wicked with his conch. As Krishna, the lord played the flute in the pleasure-gardens of Vrindavana and blew the conch Panchajanya on the battlegrounds of Kurukshetra.
When there is peace and harmony, Vishnu rests on the coils of the serpent Ananta-Sesha; when there is disorder, he rides the eagle Garuda to battle the forces of chaos and corruption.
Ananta-Sesha represents endless Time. When the world is dissolved, Vishnu - the lord of Time - rests on it; when the world evolves, the lord dances on its hood. Both Lakshmana and Balarama, brothers of Rama and Krishna respectively, are believed to be avatars of Ananta-Sesha.
Garuda, the mighty eagle, the lord's mount and insignia, is said to be the sun itself, his golden wings being its rays, rising in the east and setting in the west guided by his master, Vishnu. Hanuman Rama's monkey friend - is sometimes identified
with Garuda. Vishnu is also associated with parrots, vehicle of the love-god. In fact Garuda, in paintings, is shown more as a beautiful parrot than a fierce eagle.
Vishnu's spirit is said to reside in the banyan, vata, and the pipal, ashvattha, trees which are believed to be immortal and auspicious. In their shade he gave discourses when he incarnated as Kapila, Buddha, Datta and Narada. On their leaves he lies afloat when the waters of doom cover the surface of earth during pralaya.
The lotus in the lord's hand represents as well as detachment, for though this beautiful flower grows in muddy water, neither water nor dirt are ever seen sticking to its petals. Like the lotus, Vishnu is the partaker of life's pleasures who never gets ensnared by the charms of the world.
A cane of sugar, the shaft of the love-god's bow, is often used to represent Vishnu, Madana's father. Like the sweet sap of the sugarcane, life's rasa has to be squeezed out by anyone who truly seeks to enjoy the world.