Known as the preserver, Vishnu is one of three supreme Hindu deities, along with Brahma and Shiva. Vishnu, whose name means “All-Pervading,” is the protector of the world and the restorer of moral order (dharma). He is peaceful, merciful, and compassionate. To Vaisnavites, Vishnu is the Supreme Lord.
Vishnu is often pictured with his consort, Lakshmi (also called Sri), and usually has four arms. Each hand holds an emblem of his divinity: the conch, discus, club, and lotus. A curl of hair on his chest signifies his immortality, and he wears the jewel Kaustubha around his neck. He is usually depicted with a dark complexion, as are his incarnations. Vishnu is often shown reclining or asleep as he awaits the next annihilation and renewal of the world.
Vishnu is best known through his ten avatars (incarnations), which appear on earth when there is disorder in the world. Rama and Krishna, whose stories are told in the Epics and the Puranas, are the most popular incarnations of Vishnu, by far. Vishnu’s most popular and well-known avatars were Rama and Krishna, the great heroes of the epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Rama, the seventh avatar, saved humans from the demon king Ravana, while Krishna rid the world of many demons and took part in a long struggle against the forces of evil. The ninth avatar of Vishnu was the Buddha, the religious leader whose beliefs weakened the opponents of the gods and who founded the Buddhist faith.
Vishnu’s tenth avatar, Kalki, has not yet arrived on earth. According to Hinduism, Kalki will come one day, mounted on a white horse, to oversee the final destruction of the wicked, restore purity, renew creation, and bring forth a new era of harmony and order.
The ten incarnations of Vishnu are:
1. Matsya (fish)
2. Kurma (turtle)
3. Varaha (boar)
4. Narasimha (man-lion)
5. Vamana (dwarf)
6. Parashurama (warrior-priest)
7. Rama (prince)
8. Krishna (cow-herd)
9. Buddha (sage)
10. Kalki (horseman, who has not yet appeared)
A beautiful mantra in honor of Lord Vishnu is, Om Namo Narayanaya. This Mantra is said to open one up to the gateway of moksha.