In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Viṣṇu

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • History
  • Festivals

Hinduism Viṣṇu
Sucharita Adluri
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0137


Vishnu (Skt. Viṣṇu) is one of the great gods of the Hindu pantheon, whose earliest mention is in the Vedas. As an ally of Indra, he is a minor deity in the Vedic corpus, but he shares certain important features with his epic and Puranic counterpart. Though theories have been proposed as to the way in which the Vedic Vishnu, transformed, comes to dominate later Hinduism, it is still a subject of controversy. In epic and Puranic Hinduism, Vishnu is one of the Hindu trinity (trimūrti), as the preserver. However, from a Vaishnava (Skt. Vaiṣṇava) perspective, he encompasses all three functions, as he manifests and consumes creation(s) in cosmic sport (līlā). As the supreme sovereign, Vishnu upholds dharma, as he takes on various incarnations (avatāra) to assist the inhabitants of the triple world (triloka). In his descents he is said to be accompanied by his consort Shri/Lakshmi (Skt. Śrī/Lakṣmī). In addition to the popularity of some of his incarnations, such as Krishna (Skt. Kṛṣṇa) and Rāma, who are preeminent as independent deities, Vishnu and his regional manifestations are the focus of various ritualistic, devotional traditions, which became the source for the development of art, music, and temple-building. Furthermore, Vaishnavism is closely allied with the Vedanta exegetical tradition and has given rise to several schools of philosophy. Identifying the Brahman of the Upanishads with the god Vishnu, these schools represent the theistic branch of Vedanta. Even as Hinduism spread to Southeast Asia, Vishnu remained as one of the major deities around whom various religious and royal cults developed.

General Overviews

Most introductory works on Vishnu, focus on the Vedic and classical mythology of the deity, and/or on the development of the various sectarian traditions associated with him. Bhandarkar 1972 and Gonda 1960–1963 utilize textual and epigraphic material to demonstrate this, while Kumarappan 1979 relies mostly on textual sources. Colas 2005 maps the history of the more systematized and institutionalized Vaishnava philosophical and ritual traditions, and Clooney and Stewart 2007 explores what constitutes Vaishnavism. A study of the representations of Vishnu in a variety of media is provided by Cummings 2011 and Kamalakar 1993. De 1961 and Jash 1982 provide a history of the development of Vaishnavism in East India and Bengal respectively.

  • Bhandarkar, R. G. Vaiṣṇavism, Śaivism, and Minor Religious Systems. Reprint. Poona: Indological Book House, 1972.

    Originally published in 1913, this work is dated, but it is nevertheless a starting place for the study of Vishnu. Traces the development of Vishnu worship from the early centuries BCE up to the 17th century CE.

  • Clooney, F. X., and Tony K. Stewart. “Vaiṣṇava.” In The Hindu World. Edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, 162–184. London: Routledge, 2007.

    Discusses relationship between bhakti and avatāra theory; also examines the singularity and plurality of Vaishnavism through a close examination of the Srivaishnava (Śrīvaiṣṇava) and the Gauḍiya sectarian traditions.

  • Colas, Gerard. “History of Vaiṣṇava Traditions: An Esquisse.” In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Edited by Gavin Flood, 229–270. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631215356.2005.00014.x

    Provides an excellent overview; examines the influential Vaishnava traditions over several centuries by examining the most recent scholarship. Concludes with a discussion on possible directions for future scholarly research.

  • Cummings, Joan, ed. Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior. Ocean Township, NJ: Grantha Corporation, 2011.

    Catalogue of the 2011 Brooklyn Museum exhibit that comprises about 170 paintings, sculptures, and ritual objects. Explanations of incarnations, attributes, and consorts accompany introductory essays by well-known scholars. These four essays explore the textual and iconographic importance of Vishnu within the Hindu Pantheon, the coalescence of Vedic Vishnu, Nārāyaṇa and deified clan heroes that contribute to later depictions of the deity, and representations of the god in the Tamil South, and in Western India.

  • De, Sushil K. Early History of the Vaiṣṇava Faith and Movement in Bengal. Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1961.

    Utilizing Sanskrit and Bengali sources, this volume traces the history of the Caitanya sectarian tradition, its philosophy, and devotional practices.

  • Gonda, Jan. Die Religionen Indiens. 2 vols. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer Verlag, 1960–1963.

    An invaluable resource with extensive notes and citations. Volume I illustrates the early development of Vaishnavism, and Volume II addresses the development of ritual traditions and medieval schools.

  • Jash, Prananananda. History and Evolution of Vaiṣṇavism in Eastern India. Calcutta: Roy and Chowdhury, 1982.

    Explores formation of various subsects that make up Vaishnavism in eastern India, such as Gopāla-Kṛṣṇa, Lakṣmī-Nārāyaṇa, and Rādhā-Mādhava. Includes a chapter on avatāra.

  • Kamalakar, G. Vishnu in Art, Thought, and Literature. Hyderabad: Birla Archeological and Cultural Research Institute, 1993.

    Multiauthored volume, with articles pertaining to depictions of Vishnu in text, iconography, epigraphy, numismatics, and painting. Quality of some plates is compromised and articles are very concise.

  • Kumarappan, Bharatan. The Hindu Conception of the Deity. New Delhi: Inter-India Publications, 1979.

    Primary objective is to ascertain how the Vedantin Rāmānuja’s (11th–12th CE) identification of Brahman as Vishnu was scripturally inspired. However, it also provides numerous references to early Vedic literature and Vaishnava sources on the nature of the deity.

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