Category Archives: Visnu


Vaikuntha Visnu with avatar heads (Kashmir, 7th century CE), Museo Del Arte Orientale (MAO), Turin, Italy.

The core concept of Vaisnavism is the worship of Visnu as the supreme deity of the Vedic pantheon and ultimate reality in a panentheistic sense. This essential idea appears in one way or another in most Vaisnava sects today, however  not all groups practice the religion the same way nor do they point to the same literature as the most important source material (Chari 31-34). The actual period during which Vaisnavism arose is unclear, however there is inscriptional evidence of a Vaisnava sect as early as the 2nd century B.C. (Chari 21) and there was certainly a well-established tradition by the 6th century A.D. (Jash 933). To understand Vaisnavism and its many faces it is necessary to understand its history, including what texts it derives its theology from.

A monotheistic approach centring on a single god within the Hindu multiplicity can be traced all the way back to the Rg Veda (Chari 4). Although this text praises many deities – recognizing the individuality of them all – there are a few verses which have been pointed out as evidence for a monotheistic take on the pantheon, such as the much-quoted line “There is one Being (sat) but wise men call it by different names (ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti)” (Chari 5). The Upanisads offer an even clearer description of this idea in the form of Brahman and Narayana, which constitute the Supreme Reality that Visnu is associated with (Chari 4). Narayana specifically refers to a very panentheistic concept of ultimate reality as apart from and a part of creation (Chari 13-14). This concept gives a solid Vedic base for the later vision of Visnu; in fact, the Ramayana directly associates him with Narayana: “Rama, you who have truth as your valour. You are the god Narayana…. Sita is Laksmi and you are Visnu” (Doniger 202-203). Because of these monotheistic readings of the Vedas, Vaisnavas often retrospectively cite them as a true source of Vaisnava doctrine (Chari 13), however in reality Visnu is a very minor character until later in Hinduism (Jash 933). After the Vedas, the Agamas – religious treatises surrounding proper modes of religious worship – realize Vaisnavism in full, elaborating on concepts of the Supreme Deity found in the Vedas. The Vaisnava Agamas emphasized exclusive worship of Visnu and introduced practices of arca (worshipping the god in an image form), the consecration of icons, the building of temples, and prescription of daily rituals, all in a specific Vaisnava style (Chari 15).

It is after the Agamas, however, that perhaps the biggest development occurs. That is with the two great epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both of which feature Visnu as their hero.  In the Ramayana, dharma is of key importance but in terms of Vaisnava doctrine the most valuable concept in this story is self-surrender or prapatti (Chari 263). An example of this tenet is the episode wherein Vibhisana deserts his worldly life for the refuge of Rama, visualizing the spiritual process of total surrender to God. This epic is also a great celebration of Laksmi. In most sects of Vaisnavism Laksmi, or Sri, is inseparable from Visnu, so the celebration of her firm dharmic character in the Ramayana is as much a testament to her as it is to Srivisnu (Chari 17). In the Mahabharata, Vaisnava doctrine is broadly consolidated, and this is particularly compelling evidence for Vaisnavites as Visnu himself in the guise of Krnsa is expounding much of these beliefs. The Bhagavad Gita especially reads almost like an encyclopedia of Vaisnava doctrine when read from that perspective; it points out three different potential paths of worshipping Visnu (jnana, karma, bhakti), it describes the essence of his endlessness, it lays out the state of complete focus on Visnu that is necessary to be a Vaisnavite, and it contextualizes many of the existing forms of Hindu worship in a Visnu-centric way (Chari 123-138).

Visnu directly associates himself with Narayana and the Bhagavan (the ultimate soul that is one with Brahma), and heavily endorses bhaktiyoga – an essential element of Vaisnavism – in this text. Bhakti worship is a huge development not just in Vaisnavism but in all of Hinduism. Although there is evidence of a concept like bhakti worship in older sources, it is not until the Bhagavad Gita that bhakti is focused explicitly on (Prentiss 17). As well, this text is the very first to prescribe the practice as a direct path to moksa. Bhakti gained popularity and was transfused into many different sects due to its ability to satisfy multiple spiritual goals at once, and appeal to most people:

“…bhakti presented an alternative to dominant forms of religiosity, both the asocial sannyasin [renouncer] and the temporally defined practice of ritual. In the former, religious experience was engendered by physical separation from society; in the latter, time was the mechanism by which religious experience was set apart from social formations. In contrast, bhakti represented the possibility of religious experience anywhere, anytime” (Prentiss 20).


The essential practice of bhakti is characterized by devotion and love for God for no other purpose than to the loving itself. The philosophy of bhakti is fundamentally simple:  “…those who honour me [Visnu] with devotion, are within me, and I am also in them.”  (Patton 109). A devotee must be entirely committed to and entrenched in thoughts of Visnu and in doing so they will become one with Visnu as the absolute reality. But within this simplicity, there is much room for debate regarding what constitutes such a state of focus, what is or is not devotion, and many other aspects of the practice (Prentiss 9). However, despite the uncertainty surrounding much of it, the essential goal of bhakti is always the same, and that is to be united with God in a loving union – not just to enter into the Supreme Reality that is him through moksa, but also to culminate a relationship of mutual love during ones human life.

Somewhat contemporary to the epics are the Puranas, companion literature for the Vedas that contain stories of the conception of the universe and the lives of important Hindu figures, such as Krsna. The oldest Purana is the visnupurana which provides precedents for all the basic Vaisnava doctrines. Some of these important precedents include explicitly titling Visnu as the Godhead – that which all emanates through – and associating him with Brahman of the Upanisads (Chari 18-19). The six attributes of Visnu are also introduced in this text. These attributes are not the only in Visnu’s possession, as the Bhagavan he has an unlimited amount of attributes but they are simply seen as the six most important qualities. The first is jnana, which here means omniscience, then sakti meaning power, bala meaning strength, aisarya meaning lordship, virya meaning energy, and tejas meaning splendour (Chari 188-190). Another key contribution of the Puranas is affirmation of the inseparability of Sri and Visnu, although Sri provides different skills and qualities apparently, Sri and Visnu are one so they actually share all their traits (Chari 19).

A key figure in the development of Vaisnavism is the acarya Ramanuja. He was a major contributor to Vaisnava literature, propagating Vaisnava cult through the written forms and apostles (Chari 23). Much of his works owes its basis to his predecessors, Nathamuni and Yamuna. Nathamuni rediscovered the hymns of Alvars, composers of Tamil verses dedicated to Visnu, and arranged them into four parts. He also introduced recitation of Vaisnava hymns as part of worship and advocated for self-surrender as the more important aspect of devotion to God as opposed to rigid bhakti-worship(Chari 23). Yamuna expanded on some of this, especially the concept of self-surrender which he wrote a concrete doctrine for (Chari 23-22). From this, Ramanuja ventured to carve out a solid space for Vaisnava worship in the orthodox schools of Hinduism which were evolving simultaneously. He criticized the advaita vedanta, which was popular at the time, especially because it did not recognize bhakti as a legitimate way to moksa. He worked to establish Visnu as the supreme Ultimate Reality, and the worship of Visnu for the sake of a blissful divine experience as the best goal for humankind. His discussions and doctrines also elaborated on a key aspect of Vaisnavism, the organic relationship between God, the soul, and cosmic order in the “body-soul” (Chari 25). In addition, he also described moksa and bhakti in explicit terms, especially how combining jnana, karma, and bhakti creates the most effective path to moksa (Chari 24-26).

After Ramanuja propagates Vaisnavism throughout India there is a blossoming of distinctive sects with unique beliefs and practices. Madhvacarya began the Dvaita school which is dualistic and supports bhakti as means to moksa; it also promoted the Dasa-kuta devotional movement that saw bands of saintly persons singing devotional songs (Chari 32). Ramananda instigated a school in Northern India that saw Rama especially to be Brahman. He did not believe in the caste system and instead supported universal brotherhood (Chari 32-33). Nimbarka started the Dvaita-dvaita school which maintained that Brahman was Radha-Krnsa and did not advocate temple worship; he saw self-surrender more than bhakti as means to moksa (Chari 33).

An especially distinct sect of Vaisnavism was founded by Sri Krsna Caitanya (Chari 33-34). The unique element of this sect is the concept of a devotees relationship to God, which is framed as bhakti but in a particularly loving and somewhat romantic-erotic in nature. The pivotal imagery for this concept comes from the tales of Krsna as a boy playing with the gopis as they are found in the Bhagavata Purana. The central allegory made in these stories is that the gopis long for Krnsa as an image of the devotee longing for their god, the erotic themes of the stories accentuate the metaphysical overtones implied beneath the descriptions (Doniger 228). The intimacy between lovers is seen as a parallel for the ideal closeness between one and one’s God: as such the use of sexual imagery visualizes this nebulous concept. When Krnsa steals the gopis clothes and forces them to stand before him naked there are obvious erotic themes playing out involving submission and vulnerability. These exact same concepts can are mirrored in the implied spiritual counterpart of the scene where a devotee is stripped of their concealing features to reveal their fundamental self in the face of God. “Though they were greatly deceived and robbed of their modesty, though they were mocked and treated like toys and stripped of their clothes… they were happy to be together with their beloved” (Doniger 230). The gopis are perfect devotees, even after having their identity and pride taken away by God – in other words, after having performed self-surrender – they find joy in the presence of God. This heightened emotional attitude towards Vaisnavism began a large movement, associated with Radha-Krsna, that affected multiple sects, but is perhaps most prevalent still in Caitanya Vaisnavism (Chari 34).

Despite the differences in all these different sects and schools of Vaisnavism, there are still overarching themes. Bhakti and self-surrender are always prevalent concepts, urging devotees to give up the cemented concepts of the self in favour of love for Visnu in hopes of joining with him eventually. The basic metaphysical concept of Visnu’s absolute presence and being is always involved. Krsna describes himself as: “… whatever powerful being there is – be it splendid or filled with vigour, it comes to be from only a small part of my brilliance,” (Patton 122). Indeed this is essentially the belief of Vaisnava philosophy and theology. The human being is just a small aspect of the indescribable enormity of Visnu, and so to pay reverence to him and to love him is to accept the truth of existence. Only through reflection on Visnu in this insurmountable way can one become joined with him spiritually and when one is properly joined with him it becomes clear that there truly is nothing else but Visnu. “Joined in this way, with me as the highest goal – you will come to me alone.” (Patton 110).



Chari, S.M. Srinivasa (1994) Vaisnavism: Its Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Discipline. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

Patton, Laurie L. (trans.) (2008) The Bhagavad Gita. London: Penguin.

Prentiss, Karen (2000) The Embodiment of Bhakti.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Doniger, Wendy (1994) Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook Translated from the Sanskrit. New Delhi: Penguin.

Sarbadhikary, Sukanya (2015) Place of Devotion: Siting and Experiencing Divinity in Bengal-Vaishnavism. Oakland: University of California Press.

Jash, Pranabananda, and Prabananda Jash (1979) “Vaisnavism in Ancient Southeast Asia” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 40: 932-942

Sircar, Mahendranath, and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2000) Studies in Vaisnavism and Tantricism. New Delhi: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan.

Mishra, Kishore Chandra (2002) “The History of Vaisnavism in Western Orissa” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 63: 181–190.

Toffin, Gerard (2012) “A Vaishnava Theatrical Performance in Nepal: The Katti-pyakhã of Lalitpur City” Asian Theatre Journal  29:126-163.

Glucklich, Ariel (2008) The Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation











Tamil Hymns














Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Margaret Kieper (November 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.


Some Hindus believe that Harihara is the Supreme God. In the Hindu tradition the supreme gods are Visnu and Siva.  Visnu is known as Hari and Siva is known as Hara. In Sanskrit Hari means a yellowish or khaki color, which represents the sun and the Soma plant. Put together Hari and Hara are Harihara, which is a combination of the two gods. Harihara is also commonly known as Shankaranarayana; “Shankara” is Siva while “Narayana” is Visnu. Devotees believe that Siva and Visnu are different aspects of the same reality. Sometimes they are thought to have been brought together because they were ‘rivals’ but there is no evidence to show that this is the case. Harihara is occasionally used in philosophical terms to indicate Visnu and Sivas unification of different aspects of the Supreme God (Olson). The most famous philosophical analogy is the yogurt and milk analogy, which says that yogurt is a groundwork of milk but yogurt cannot be used as milk. Siva is an expansion of Krishna but Siva cannot act as Krishna. Also Siva has a connection with the material world while Visnu and Krishna do not. It is thought that Visnu is a part of Krishna as the whole.

Harihara image (Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi)

Harihara was very popular in Cambodia in the beginning of the seventh century. It is thought to be popular in Cambodia because previous Cambodian rulers had worshiped Siva in the seventh and eighth century. The rulers tried to maintain and control southern Cambodia, which had a strong connection to Visnu. The northern rulers wanted an icon that would represent the unification of the south and north, which lead to Harihara. Evidence of Harihara worship was most commonly found deity during the seventh century in the Preangkorian Khmer empire (see Lavy 22-31). Archaeological evidence relates to clay Harihara figurines, which suggest that Harihara was the main deity being worshiped in seventh century Cambodia.  The worship of Harihara did not spread to India or Southeast Asia until many centuries later. The worship of Harihara began to die out of the Khmer culture in the thirteenth century.

Temple for worship of Harihara are very rare. One of the main temples for worship is in Shankaranarayana village. Shankaranarayana is located east of Kundapura in Karnataka, India. The village gets its name from the temple. The temple is thought to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World that was created by Maharshi Parashurama (Meister 167-170).

The main festival for Shankaranarayana is the Shankaranaraya Jaatre. The festival begins four days before Makar Sankranti, and celebrates the sun passing from one zodiac sign to another, and runs for a week. The first six days of the event consist of a variety of rituals devoted to Harihara. The last day of the festival is the main event, when Rathotsava is celebrated. This occasion frequently falls on January 16. At the Rathotsava festival, more then ten thousand people from different parts of India come to worship (Meister 170-173).

When Harihara is depicted with four arms, the right side is shown as Siva while the left side is Visnu. Siva is portrayed as being the destroyer and in his right upper hand holds a trident; the points on the tridents are believed to represent trinities for example, past, present, and future or creation, maintenance and destruction. Some people also believe that it represents the three channels of energy or nadis. The right side of the head of Harihara consists of Siva’s matted locks with a headdress. Siva’s third eye is visible on the right side of the forehead as well. On the left side of Harihara Visnu is shown calm and holding in his upper left hand the wheel emblem; his head is also portrayed with a crown; the crown represents Visnus’ supreme authority while the wheel represents the circle of life, unity, the sun, and reincarnation (Lavy 21).

Although not widely known, Harihara is a significant and interesting deity within the Hindu tradition.


Lavy, Paul A. (2003) Journal of Southeast Asia Studies: “As in heaven, so on earth: the politics of Visnu, Siva and Harihara images in Preangkorian Khmer civilization.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Meister, Michael A. (1976), Artibus Asiae. Vol. 38, Artibus Asiae Publishers.

Olson, Carl (2007) Hindu Primary Sources. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation:

Cambodian History





Related Websites:

Article written by: Rose Naigus (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Visnu Purana

The Puranas were composed as a tool to popularize the religion of the Vedas and still contain the essence of the Vedas (Sharma 1). The Puranas utilize themes from the Vedas to create connections with stories and deities of contemporary importance during their time of composition (Rodrigues 273). The works of the Puranas are derived from different ages and have been compiled under different circumstances (Wilson ix). It is not easy to date the Puranas. For instance, it is noted that the Visnu Purana lacks any cleat particulars that aid in ascertaining the date of composition (Wilson lxix). The Puranas were composed in Sanskrit and therefore, were not directly accessible to the common person and were disseminated by Brahmin scholars (Sharma 5). It is believed that Puranas were composed within the oral tradition of recitations in temples, courts, and for royal patrons (Rodrigues 290). The Puranas have been regarded as traditional Indian history compiled and transmitted in order to preserve the past as a repository of values for the present and future (Matchett 138).

It is commonly held that there are eighteen major or Mahapuranas together with many lesser Puranas, called Upapuranas (Rodrigues 290). The number eighteen may not be intended to single out specific Puranas from the others, but instead it may be a symbol of their close connection with the Mahabharata, just as there were eighteen paravans in the Mahabharata, eighteen chapters in the Bhagavadgita, eighteen days of the Mahabharata battle, and eighteen armies fighting in it (Matchett 134). The Puranas make up a great deal of literature derived from the oral tradition and are usually categorized along with the Epics as they tell of historical information together with myth. The Mahapuranas and Upapuranas were written in Sanskrit and most contain five laksanas, or distinguishing marks. The five distinguishing marks are: Sarga, the creation of the universe; Pratisarga, secondary creations, or the destruction and renovation of worlds; Vamsa, genealogy of gods and patriarchs; Manvantara, the creation of the human race; and, Vamuanucaritam, dynastic histories (Sharma 4). The five laksanas provide order for the events of the Purana and provides the listener with a view of time and space in which the narrated events occur (Narayana Rao 89). It is suggested that the five distinguishing marks found in Mahapuranas and Upapuranas are shared with other traditional religious scriptures of the world, including the Bible (Sharma 4).

A further classification is found within the eighteen Mahapuranas distinguishing between goodness (Sattva), passion (Rajas) and ignorance (Tamas) (Sharma 4). The Visnu, Naradiya, Bhagavata, Garuda, Padma and Varaha Puranas are considered to be pure or that of goodness and purity (Wilson xii). These are believed to be Vaishnava puranas. The second classification includes the Matsya, Kurma, Linga, Siva, Skanda and Agni puranas which are Tamasa or are considered to be Puranas of the darkness. These Puranas prevail from the quality of Tamas which refers to ignorance and gloom and are seen to be indisputably Saiva puranas (Wilson xii). Finally, the third classification includes Brahmanda, Brahmavaivartta, Markandeya, Bhavishya, Vamana and Brahma Puranas which are designated from Rajasa, or as being passionate. These Puranas are to represent the property of passion (Wilson xii). The Visnu Purana, according to the Padma Purana, is found within the Sattva category (Sharma 4).

The form of the Puranas is one of a dialogue and the immediate narrator is commonly believed to be Lomaharshana or Romaharshan, the disciple of Vyasa (Wilson x). Vyasa is a Sanskrit term meaning ‘arranger’ or ‘compiler’ of the Puranas as spoken by Brahma (Wilson x). The Puranas have different speakers for different listeners and no speaker ever directly narrates in any of the Puranas (Narayana Rao 94). The two poems, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are considered to be safe sources for ancient legends of the Hindus, and it is believed that most, if not all, Puranas are drawn from these texts (Wilson lvi). Further, the Visnu Purana contains twenty-three thousand slokas and has six major sections (Sharma 309).

The first of the six books within the Visnu Purana focuses on the details of creation of the universe through the dialogue of Maitreya, attending the sage Parashara (Sharma 309). The first book first explains how the universe proceeds from eternal crude matter and how forms are created and developed from the simple substances previously evolved, or the concept how forms reappear after temporary destruction. This book tells of how creations are periodical and termination occurs when not only all gods and all other forms are annihilated but at the end of the life of Brahma, when again, the elements are merged into a primary substance (Wilson lvii). This is said to take place at the end of every Kalpa, or day of Brahma, and affects only the forms of inferior creatures and lower worlds (Wilson lvii). Visnu is claimed to adopt the form of Brahma to create the universe and when the universe is to be destroyed, Visnu then adopts the form of Siva and performs the act of destruction (Sharma 309).

The first book also illustrates the creation of beings that Brahma produced. Demons were created from Brahma’s thighs, gods emerged from Brahma’s mouth, ancestors or pitris were created from the sides of Brahma and the humans were created last (Sharma 309). The four varnas or classes of people are credited as being derived from Brahma: the brahmanas from his mouth; the kshatriyas from his chest; the vaishyas from Brahma’s thighs; and the shudras from his feet (Sharma 309).

The second book tells the story of India receiving its name from Bharata and explains of the seven circular continents, their surrounding oceans and to the limits of the world (Wilson lx). Although the topographical system described are mythological fictions containing no truth with respect to India or the Bharata, the mountains and rivers are verifiable along with verifiable truths surrounding cities and nations that are described (Wilson lx). This second book also tells of Bharata as a king turned Brahman, who attains liberation, which is peculiar to this Purana (Wilson lx)

The third book explains the authorities of their religious rites and beliefs together with describing the caste duties, the obligations of different stages of life and the celebration of rites, in harmony with the Laws of Manu (Wilson lxi). These descriptions are a distinguishing feature of the Visnu Purana which is further characteristic of being work of an earlier time than the other Puranas (Wilson lxi). The Visnu Purana directs no self-imposed observances, no holidays, no birthdays of Krsna, no nights dedicated to Lakshmi, no sacrifices and no models of worship other than those corresponding to the rituals put forth in the Vedas.

The fourth book includes comprehensive information about ancient history including dynasties and individuals which is thought to be somewhat of a genuine chronicle of persons and possibly occurrences (Wilson lxii). Although aspects surrounding the longevity of the princes of some earlier dynasties can be discredited, it is understood that a consistency in the succession of persons is based on a credible foundation (Wilson lxii).

The fifth book contains another distinguishing characteristic of the Visnu Purana in that it is almost entirely occupied with the life of Krsna (Wilson lxviii). This unique characteristic is an argument against its antiquity and this book leads some to question its originality (Wilson lxviii). Finally, the sixth book tells of the dissolution of the world and the end of all things by fire and water and then proceeds to tell of universal renewal (Wilson lxix). The annihilation of the universe and the release of the spirit from bodily existence, as described in the Visnu Purana, is often comparable to other doctrines. The telling of the cyclical dissolution of the world followed by the perpetual renovation of the world in the sixth and final book of the Visnu Purana, exhibits commonly accepted opinions of the ancient Hindu world (Wilson lxix).


Matchett, Freda (2005) “The Puranas” in The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, Gavin Flood (ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Narayana Rao, V. (1993) “Purana as Brahminic Ideology” in Purana Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts, Wendy Doniger (ed.). Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Rodrigues, H. (2006) Hinduism: The eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Sharma, P.R.P (2007) Encyclopaedia of Puranas. New Delhi: Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd.

Wilson, H.H. (1989) The Visnu Purana: A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition. Delhi: Nag Publishers.

Further Reading and Related Websites

Ramanujan, A.K. (1993). “On Folk Mythologies and Folk Puranas” in Purana Perennis: Reciprocity and Transformation in Hindu and Jaina Texts, Wendy Doniger (ed.). Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Related Topics






The Mahabharata












Naradiya Purana

Bhagavata Purana

Garuda Purana

Padma Purana

Varaha Purana

Matsya Purana

Kurma Purana

Linga Purana

Siva Purana

Skanda Purana

Agni Purana

Brahmanda Purana

Brahmavaivartta Purana

Markandeya Purana

Bhavishya Purana

Vamana Purana

Brahma purana




Written by Gail MacKillican (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Bengal Vaisnavism

The Vaisnava-Sahajiya cult is found in Bengal, and is part of the larger tantric bhakti, or devotional movements. The cult’s roots can be traced back to the eleventh or twelfth century C.E., although the Vaisnava-Sahajiya cult rose as a separate entity in the sixteenth century. Because information about the cult is very difficult to find, this article will mainly discuss the Vaisnavas in Bengal as a whole and specify, where possible, the differences between the Vaisnavas and Vaisnava-Sahajiyas.

Caitanya (1486-1533), was a major figure in the development of the Vaisnavas. He was very instrumental in asserting the doctrine that the god Krsna is a supreme deity and not simply an incarnation of Visnu (Dimock 107-108). In his lifetime, Caitanya travelled through the South of India, and with him brought back many religious texts, including the Brahma-samhita and the Krsna-karnamrta. Although he did popularize the Krsna-centric bhakti movements, Caitanya was not the originator of the tradition in Bengal. Caitanya is believed by some to be either an incarnation of Krsna, or the god Krsna himself (Dimock 108). Some in the cult even see him as the ultimate divine figure in human form. Later biographers, such as Murari, even used events from Krsna’s life to fill gaps in Caitanya’s life (Stewart 1997 225). It is interesting, then, that Caitanya is only known to have written a total of eight devotional, not philosophical, verses (Dimock 109). Caitanya died in 1533, and there are very many mythical accounts of how this occurred. To those who believe he was a god, he did not die but ascended to heaven. While others claim he died of a foot infection (Stewart 1991 231). It was then left to other theologians and philosophers to write and outline the doctrine of the cult.

The six Gosvamins were theologians who were sent by Caitanya to Vrndavana, which was a holy place for worshipers of Krsna. There, they were supposed to establish a pocket of Vaisnavas, and also outline the basic doctrine of the movement (Dimock 110). These six men, most of whom knew Caitanya personally before his death, were extremely influential in establishing the doctrine and rituals of the Vaisnavas in Bengal (Dimock 110). However, according to Dimock, they rarely made mention of Caitanya and his divinity.

The main sacred texts of the Vaisnava-Sahajiya cult are the puranas and the Vedic texts. Of the puranas, the Bhagavata is considered the greatest by the Vaisnavas, as it tells the story of the life of Krsna (Dimock 108).

As mentioned above, the Vaisnavas and Vaisnava-Sahajiyas of Bengal believe that the one supreme god is Krsna. Krsna to them is not just an avatara, or incarnation of Visnu, but a powerful god himself. The overall doctrine of the Vaisnavas is explained extremely well by Edward C. Dimock in his article “Doctrine and Practice among the Vaisnavas of Bengal.” The following three paragraph explanation of doctrine is paraphrased from information on pages 113-115 of this article.

In Vaisnava belief, divinity bears three aspects of reality: Brahman, Paramatman, and Bhagavat. The true essence of the highest of these, Bhagavat, is Krsna. In the Bhagavat are “infinite energizing powers,” or saktis. These saktis are also divided into three groups: svarupa-sakti, jiva-sakti, and maya-sakti. The most divine of these three is svarupa-sakti. The jiva-sakti, evident by its name, has connections to the Creature, or the jiva. The jiva is found in all humans and is not fully in the divine, but also not completely without the divine. In contrast, the maya-sakti is the cause of both pain and pleasure in the material world. It is felt only in the lower areas of life. Within the Bhagavat, the jiva shares the divine quality of pure bliss, or ananda. In order for the jiva to gain absolute bliss and complete independence from the maya (worldly existence), a person must be involved in bhakti, or devotion. Once this release takes place, the jiva is only affected by svarupa-sakti.

As Dimock explains, bhakti is “selfless dedication to the Bhagavat.” In bhakti, there must only be the desire to please the god Krsna, as opposed to the desire of the jiva to release itself from earthly pain, or to experience the complete bliss of the divine. To the Vaisnavas, knowledge, works, and ritual are not enough to secure absolute release, unless they are practiced in conjunction with bhakti.

The greatest quality expressed within the Bhagavat is “belovedness.” Earthly love is not as perfect as this “belovedness.” Therefore, only the pursuit of the love within Bhagavat can be truly satisfying, both to the devotee and the god. This mutual pleasure and love attracts the devotee to the god, and also the god to the devotee. Just as the bhakta (devotee) needs the god as the object of devotion, Krsna needs the devotee. By demonstrating Krsna’s beauty and sweetness towards the god through bhakti, the devotee allows Krsna to taste his own goodness. And through his love for the bhakta, Krsna understands his personal beauty. The bhakta assumes a worshipful attitude towards the god, which is known as bhava. The experience of the pure ecstasy that is the love relationship between Krsna and the bhakta is called rasa. The doctrine of the Vaisnavas goes much deeper than this; however, there is no place in this article for a full explanation.

The sexual imagery, doctrine, and practices of the Vaisnavas of Bengal relate directly to the stories of the Bhagavata. The Gopis in the Bhagavata are women who are the wives of others, but who still completely devote themselves to Krsna. In this devotional love, Krsna participates in “love play” with them (Dimock 123). Radha is the main Gopi in this story, and is often seen as the consort of Krsna. Also in the Bhagavata and poetic theory, women seem to be divided into two distinct categories: svakiya and parakiya. Svakiya refers to “she who is one’s own,” while parakiya refers to “she who is another’s” (Dimock 123). The Gopi in the story are parakiya. Because of this, their love for Krsna is considered pure and intense, as the desire to satisfy the beloved above one’s own pleasure can only result from a parakiya relationship.

To the Vaisnavas, the highest state and experience in earthly life is the act of sexual union (Dimock 125). One of the major separating factors between the orthodox Vaisnavas and the Vaisnava-Sahajiya sects is that the former use the imagery of sex only as symbolism, while the latter have ritualized the human erotic experience in tantric practices as an experience of the divine (Dimock 127). Through human coupling, devotees are able to experience first-hand the ecstasy and beauty of the god.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Dimock, Edward C. (1989) The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaisnava-Sahajiya Cult of Bengal. University of Chicago Press. (Recommended reading; not referenced in article.)

Dimock, Edward C. (1963) “Doctrine and Practice among the Vaisnavas of Bengal.” History of Religions (summer): 106-127.

Stewart, Tony K. (1997) “When Rahu Devours the Moon: The Myth of the Birth of Krsna Caitanya.” International Journal of Hindu Studies (August): 221-264.

Stewart, Tony K. “When Biographical Narratives Disagree: The Death of Krsna Caitanya.” Numen (December): 231-260.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Bhakti movements

The Bhagavata



Tantric practices (Hindu)


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Caitlin Jackson (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Garuda: King of the Birds

Garuda is a Hindu deity and is not to be confused with the Garuda Purana, which will be briefly described later. Garuda is described as having the body of a human with a face of an eagle. His hair is tied in a top knot, and with beautiful strong wings, he is known for having an abundance of strength. In different epics, Garuda is described as having either two or four arms, wearing snakes as anklets and bracelets, similar to what Visnu is depicted as wearing (Dallapiccola 2002). The Indian myth of Garuda and how he became to be Visnu’s vahana is found in the Mahabharata, an 180,000 line poem written in Sanskrit by a sage called Vyasa, and is filled with courage, betrayal and maternal love (Mcleish 1996).

The myth of Garuda starts with Kasyapa, a tortoise-man, who had two wives named Vinata and Kadru (Wessing 208). He impregnated both his wives at the same time and mentioned that he would grant them both a boon since he was very pleased with the services they provided him. Kadru asked Kasyapa for a thousand nagas (half human beings and half serpents, usually of the feminine gender (Wessing 208) while Vinata asked Kasyapa for two sons, which would be more powerful and heroic than Kadru’s thousand nagas. After granting Kadru’s and Vinata’s boons, Kasyapa disappeared in the forest. (Mani 581)

Both Kadru and Vinata took great care of their eggs. On the 500th year, Kadru’s thousand eggs hatched and all kind of nagas came forth, but Vinata’s eggs showed no sign that they would be hatching anytime soon. It truly pained Vinata as she watched Kadru playing with her children, so that out of curiosity, Vinata secretly cracked open one of her eggs. Out came Garuda’s oldest brother, Aruna, a half grown child. He was upset not only having his egg cracked prematurely but for having his rest disrupted as well. For having done so, Vinata was punished and was to be Kadru’s slave. She would be freed 500 years from then, when her second egg would hatch naturally (Mani 581). Aruna would later become the vahana of Surya.

Garuda was born 500 years after the birth of Aruna, in the shape of a human, having a head of an eagle with a beak, and with wings and talons instead of toes and fingers. Due to his golden skin colour, Garuda was initially and accidentally worshiped as Agni, the god of fire.

Garuda figure (Srirangam Temple, South India)

While his mother was still enslaved to Kadru for having lost a bet, and Garuda was not able to bear the sight of his mother enslaved and performing Kadru’s demands. Garuda took it upon himself to free his mother from Kadru’s enslavement, and asked Kadru what the price of his mother’s freedom would be. She replied, “Amrta from Devaloka,” an elixir that would revive the strength of the gods and render them immortal. Garuda informed his mother of his journey to find the elixir to purchase her freedom and she wished him well. She asked that his wings be blessed by Vayu, his lower body by the sun and the moon and the rest of his body by the Vasus and he then embarked on his journey (Mani 581). As a final word of warning to Garuda, his mother warned him to not eat anything, for it would burn his throat.

After having embarked on his journey, Garuda found his father Kasyapa in the forest, where he told him of his journey and asked Kasyapa if he could have something to eat. Kasyapa replied by telling him the story of a fight between two brothers, Vibhavasu and Supratika, who were enemies at the time and had been transformed into an elephant and a tortoise, respectively. Kasyapa told Garuda that he could eat them without his throat burning. Since Vinata settled for two eggs that would lead her children to be powerful, Garuda had an enormous amount of power. Because of this power, he was not able to sit down to eat the elephant and the tortoise because anything he would approach or sit on would collapse within a blink of the eyes, due to the vibration his powerful wings created. (Mani 581)

Garuda faced many opponents and events throughout his journey before he had reached the heavens, where the Devas where protecting the pot of Amrta. The same moon and sun that had blessed Garuda’s lower body attacked him when he got closer to the pot of Amrta. Garuda not only defeated the moon and the sun but also defeated anybody that was against him, for his strength was unmatchable. The strength of his wings, when flapping, created a dust storm which blinded his opponents (Mcleish 1996). As he got closer to the tower of flames where the Amrta was kept, he noted two wheels with serpents protecting the elixir. Even though he was blinded by looking into the eyes of the serpents, he defeated the serpents with his beak, grabbed the elixir and flew away.

Mahavisnu, proud of Garuda’s achievements, granted him two boons. Garuda asked to become Visnu’s vahana and to be immortal without having to drink the elixir so that he could return safely and deliver the elixir to his mother Kadru. Indra attacked Garuda as he was flying away with the elixir, by striking him with lightning. Indra told Garuda that the only way they would become friends and be at peace would be if Garuda would return the elixir back to the heavens. In another version, Indra took the elixir before Garuda was able to take it and a few drops of the elixir spilled onto the ground. The drops of the elixir fell near the snakes that were protecting the pot. The snakes both split their tongues and tried to lick off as much elixir as they could which; is the reason why snakes are immortal and shed their skin to be re-born once again (Mcleish 1996).

Garuda replied that the elixir was not for him and that the only reason that he stole the elixir was to release his mother from her sister’s slavery. When he returned to his mother, she was released from Kadru’s enslavement. From that moment on, Garuda wanted to take revenge on Kadru. He decided that he would slowly eat all of Kadru’s nagas. After a certain time that Garuda was hunting and eating the nagas, they came to him with a deal that a naga would come to him day after day for him to feed on and Garuda accepted.

Throughout his life, Garuda faced many opponents and went through many adventures, such as helping Galava, a disciple of Visvamitra, fighting Airavata, searching for the Saugandhika flower and saving Uparicaravasu (Mani 584). To this day, Garuda is a sign of speed and force due to the abundant strength he has. The image of Garuda is widely used throughout Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Thailand and Mongolia. It is a symbol depicted from flags to royal crests and hotels, and even on the national airline of Indonesia. Although the image portrays a different form of Garuda, they all carry the same meanings: speed and strength.

Garuda Statue (Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal)

In the early 1970’s, a statue dating from the 7th century was discovered in Kathmandu, Nepal, depicting Garuda kneeling and praying (Exhibit 1). Garuda is normally depicted as devouring snakes or carrying Visnu on his back, with two of his arms folded in anjalimudra (where the hands and palms are clasped together near the chest) and his other two arms holding Visnu’s feet (Dallapiccola 2002).

According to myth, after Garuda became Visnu’s vahana, and Visnu subsequently wrote the Garuda Purana, a set of instructions for Garuda to follow. The Garuda Purana contains all kind information regarding funeral rites, the reconstitution of a new body, judgement of deeds and the many stages between death and rebirth (Dallapiccola 2002). Although the Garuda Purana is extremely long and consists of many stories, it is still widely read by Hindus to this day.

References & Further Recommended Reading

DALLAPICCOLA, Anna L. (2002) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. New York: N.Y. Thames & Hudson

DOWSON, John (1979) A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology. London: Trubner’s Oriental Series.

MANI, Vettam (1979) “Garuḍa” Purāṇic Encyclopaedia. 1st ed.

MCLEISH, Keenth (1996) Myths and Legends of the World Explored. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd.

VAJRĀCĀRYA, Gautamavajra. Sheperd Slusser, Mary (1974) A Newly Discovered Garuda Image in Kathmandu, Nepal. Artibus Asiae, Vol. 36, No. 4 P. 292-293

WESSING, Robert (2006) Symbolic Animals in the Land Between the Waters: Markers of Place and Transition. Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 65, No. 2 P. 205-239

Related Topics for Further Investigation


  • · Airavata
  • · Agni
  • · Amrta from Devaloka
  • · Anjalimudra
  • · Aruna
  • · Devas
  • · Flower of Saugandhika
  • · Galava
  • · Garuda Purana
  • · Indra
  • · Kadru
  • · Kasyapa
  • · Mahabharata
  • · Nagas
  • · Purana
  • · Supratika
  • · Surya
  • · Uparicaravasu
  • · Vasus
  • · Vayu
  • · Vibhavasu
  • · Vinata
  • · Visvamitra
  • · Vyasa


Noteworthy Websites Related to Garuda





Written by Maxime Babin-Lavoie (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.


Visnu is one of the most important deities in the Hindu religious system. In western culture many people are aware of Visnu, even if they do not understand who or what he is in Hindu literature. He has even been mentioned and parodied on “The Simpsons” speaking volumes to how Visnu has permeated culture and pop culture all over the world. Hindu deities are often given very human characteristics. As in western religion Hindus tend to attribute more human characteristics view of their gods’ psychology, while still acknowledging their divinity (Barrett 608-615). In studies described by Barrett participants were asked to what degree they saw Visnu to be beyond normal human attributes. Even though most people thought that Visnu had supernatural powers, they still were more likely to remember more human attributes in stories about him. For example, they were more likely to remember Visnu moving from place to place rather than being in more than one place at a time. They also saw him as needing to be near a source to see or hear it, rather than show him as being able hear or see everything around him (Barrett 615). Visnu is often depicted as blue, associating him with the sky or the clouds. He is depicted as human like in appearance but with four arms. In his arms he wields a conch shell, a club, a discus and a lotus flower (Rodrigues and Robinson 167). Visnu also has a divine consort, Laksmi, the goddess of prosperity and good fortune (Rodrigues and Robinson 155). [For more information on Laksmi see Solomon].

Large bas relief depicting Visnu reclining on the cosmic serpent Ananta during the pralaya, the period between the cycles of creation; Mahabalipuram, India
Large bas relief depicting Visnu reclining on the cosmic serpent Ananta during the pralaya, the period between the cycles of creation; Mahabalipuram, India

The worship of Visnu is, of course, not just a modern development. Visnu was worshipped as the supreme deity by the Vaisnava communities of the Pancaratrins and the Bhagavatas of ancient Northern India (Reddy 1) and is still worshipped as the supreme god by vaisnavas today. Worship via images and rituals are very important, and many of the rituals performed by the Pancaratrins and the Bhagavatas are very similar to the way that worship is done in the modern Vaisnava Temples. Vaisnava image worship is very important. Visnu is typically thought of to have 5 forms, each representing a different aspect of the deity (Reddy 4); para refers to the “all pervading” (Reddy 4) nature of Visnu. The vyuhas are emanationsfor the cosmological functions of creation, preservation, and dissolution” (Reddy 4). The vibhava are depictions of Visnu in a form of one of his avatars. The antaryamin depictions are those that appear within humans. Finally, there is the arcavatara form, which is Visnu in statue form. This final form is incredibly important to idea of image worship of Visnu as it is believed that the deity actually exists within the Statue. In this way by worshipping an image, you are directly worshipping the deity himself (Reddy 4). Sometimes images are worshipped as Visnu by Hindus, doubles as an image of the Buddha to Buddhists, such as those at Bodhgaya. This can, understandably, cause tension between the two groups (Kinnard 35). Another important part of worship, as described by the Vedas, is sacrifice. The sacrifice is an important task because, in a way, the sacrifice feeds the god. The sacrifice to Visnu by humans helps maintain the cosmic balance (Gonda 22). Perhaps the most important aspect of Hinduism concerned with Visnu is the Literature concerned with him. The legends and literature concerned with the deities are the best show of their power and their interaction with the mortals of this world. In these stories, the deities often are represented as “guardians of order and morality” (Valk and Lourdusamy 179). With their supernatural power and knowledge, the gods protect and restore the balance to a position of Dharma (Valk and Lourdusamy 179). As the preserver, Visnu is especially important in this task of protecting and preserving the karmic balance. The Vedas often identify Visnu with the sacrifice, showing his importance in the literature, and that he must be a figure of considerable power and notability. (Gonda 22) However, Visnu’s role in the Vedas seems to be secondary in comparison to other deities such as Indra or Soma, where in later texts he is the protagonist of the story (Syrkin 8). In the puranas, Visnu is a member of the trimurti where he is the preserver of creation, Brahma is the creator and Siva is the destroyer (Bailey 152). Visnu is represented as the “heroic force” in the trimurti. [For more information on the trimurti see Bailey]. A number of texts, including the sastras, state that all kings on earth were born with a bit of Visnu within them, illustrating the quality of Visnu’s character and power (Bailey 152). In the Mahabharata Visnu appears as Krsna, a very important character who helps to restore the Dharmic balance to the world. The Ramayana deals with Visnu as Rama and speaks of his righteous actions in the face of adversity (Buck 234).

As hinted to earlier, Visnu has a number of Avatars.An Avatar is a physical manifestation of Visnu.This physical manifestation occurs by Visnu’s own choice, as he is not bound to this form by karma. He uses these Avatars to fulfill a specific purpose in this world, often restoring the cosmic balance (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions ). Essentially these Avatars show Visnu’s true role- preservation of creation and righteousness. Visnu has ten major avatars associated with him, but there are others as well, depending on the tradition. In some traditions even the Buddha is an avatar of Visnu (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions). The ten main avatars of Visnu are Matsyavatara, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parasurama, Rama, Balarama, Krsna and Kalki. Matsyavatara (1st avatara) or the fish, rescues Manu, the ancestor of humanity (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions). Kurma (2nd avatara), also known as the tortoise, was an important player in the Legend of Amrita, essential to the immortality of the gods. The Varaha avatar (3rd avatara) also known as the Boar, was a form assumed by other gods, but Visnu took this form in order to “raise the earth from the Cosmic Ocean” (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions). Visnu’s Narasimha (4th avatara) form is a man-lion and battles the demon Hiranykasipu (Flick 238). Visnu’s Vamana avatar (5th avatara) used by Visnu to trick the demon king Bali, before defeating him (Flick 238). [For more information on Narasirhha and Vamana see Flick]. Parasurama (6th avatara) was a brahman destined to live a warriors life. Rama (7th avatara) was the hero of The Ramayana, a very important epic in the modern Hindu world. Rama’s wife in the Ramayana is Sita, who is also divine. [For more information on Sita see Singaravelu]. Although Rama is a prince, he goes into exile to serve the dharmic balance. While in exile he accompanies Visnu’s true purpose, the slaying of the demon, Ravana (Buck 239). [For more info on Rama see Buck]. Usually the 8th avatar is said to be the Buddha and that Buddhists have just misunderstood the message given by him. The Buddha is viewed as a great teacher with great vision providing a path to enlightenment that anyone can follow, which is often attributed to Visnu. However some have a problem viewing the Buddha as an avatara of Visnu because of the differences in religious belief between Hindu and Buddhist practitioners. These people view Balarama as the 8th avatara The Balarama and Krsna(9th avatara) avatars of Visnu are linked. Balarama is the elder brother of Krsna (Oxford), where Krsna himself is a very important character in the great Hindu epic, The Mahabharata, within which Krsna advises the Heroes of the story about how to correct the adharmic balance of the cosmos. Within the Mahabharata is the set for the Bhagavad Gita, which is one of the most important pieces of Hindu literature. Within in it Krsna reveals to Arjuna his divine nature in an attempt to get him to fight to restore the balance to a Dharmic position. Krsna describes himself as “as the ultimate Purusa, higher even than Brahman” and it is within the Bhagavad Gita that Krsna reveals the 3 Yogas, as well as other revelations (Gier 84). The final avatar of Visnu, Kalki is usually depicted as a warrior who will punish the evil doer, and is seen as the next avatar of Visnu to come (Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions).

Bibliography and Related Readings

Bailey, G. M. (1979) “Trifunctional Elements in the Mythology of the Hindu Trimurti.” Numen, Vol. 26, No. 2

Bowker, John(2000) Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Barrett, Justin (1998) “Cognitive Constraints on Hindu Concepts of the Divine.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 37, No. 4

Buck, Harry (1968) “Lord Rama and The Faces of God In India.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 36, No. 3.

Flick, Hugh (1993) “Book Review: The Myths of Narasimha and Vamana: Two Avatars in Cosmological Perspective.” Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 52, No. 1

Gier, Nicholas (1995) “Hindu Titanism.” Philosophy East and West Vol. 45, No.1

Gonda, J. (1983) “Vedic Gods and the Sacrifice.” Numen Vol. 13, No.1.

Reddy, Prabhavati (2006) “Vishnu’s Universe In Ritual Space: The Abhisheka Ceremony of Penn Hills’ Venkatesvara.” Journal of Ritual Studies 20 (2).

Robinson, Thomas, and Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) World Religions: A Guide to the Essentials. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers,.

Singaravelu, S. (1982) “Sita’s Birth and Parentage in the Rama Story” Asian Folklore Studies. Vol. 41.

Syrkin, A. (1988) “The Salutary Descent.” Numen, Vol. 35, No. 1.

Solomon, Ted (1970) “Early Vaiṣṇava Bhakti and Its Autochthonous Heritage.” History of Religions. Vol. 10, No. 1.

Valk, Ulo and Lourdusamy, S. (2007) “Village deities of Tamil Nadu in myths and legends: the Narrated Experience.” Asian Folklore Studies. Vol.66

Related Topics for Further Investigation




















Credible Websites for Further Investigation

Written by Adam Lazzaretto (Spring 2008), who is solely responsible for its content.