A Word About this Book
In the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, Vishnu is the protector of the cosmos who preserves lie, making sure that all creatures enjoy a meaningful existence.
Respected by gods, feared by demons and adored by humans, Vishnu sits in the highest heaven Vaikuntha, instituting and maintaining the sacred, moral and ethical order of dharma to ensure harmony in the three worlds.
Whenever these laws are broken, whenever chaos and evil threaten the universe, Vishnu takes the form of man or beast to fight the forces of disorder and to reestablish dharma. Through these incarnations, or avatars, he maintains the integrity of the cosmic fabric.
Though Vishnu descended from Vaikuntha countless times, he is popularly known for his ten incarnations, the dasha-avatar. These are:
Matsya, the one-horned fish
Kurma, the mighty turtle
Varaha, the fierce boar
Narasimha, the man-lion
Vamana, the cleaver dwarf
Parashurama, the vengeful priest
Rama, the dutiful prince
Krishna, the righteous cowherd
Buddha, the compassionate sage
Kalki, the messiah
Several holy texts like Shrimad Bhagavata Purana mention many other incarnations, including:
Balaji, the cosmic child
Vishvarupa, the cosmic being
Yagna, the embodiment of sacrifice
Dharma, the personification of righteous laws
Dhanvantari, the celestial physician
Hamsa,the wise swan
Hayagriva, the horse-headed warrior
Sanat-kumars, the twin practitioners of tapas
Nara-Narayana, the twin practitioners of tapas
Vyasa, the compiler of the Vedas
Kapila, the propounder of Samkhya philosophy
Rishabha,the lord of farmers
Balarama, the lord of farmers
Prithu, the domesticator of earth
Mandhata, the establisher of varna-ashrama dharma
'Vishnu - an introduction' retells the tales of all these avatars. It recounts the lores associated with Vishnu's consort, Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and fortune; his son, Madana, god of pleasure and joy; his companions and his devotees. It also reflects on the history and philosophy of Vishnu and the significance of many Vaishnava beliefs and practices.
Without support of myths, religious rituals and ceremonies lose their sacred meaning and become mechanical practices, open to mutilation and ridicule. Today, not many people know why Vishnu is sometimes represented by a shalagrama stone or why he is always worshipped with sprigs of the Tulsi plant. Many hallowed practices that once provided psychological and spiritual support to the masses are gradually waning from the religious horizons of Indian society.
Myths and rituals are not merely products of faith. They are born out of man's need to explain his presence in the cosmos. They retain their validity in this modern world where the mystery of life still remains, despite advances in science. Sacred tales of gods and goddesses fill a void in our psyche and appeal to the core of our being, satisfying us in a way that logic and reason cannot.
For hundreds of years, tales of Vishnu have offared hope, love, strength and wisdom to the people of India. They were told and retold by bards in festivals in fairs.
This book brings together legends and lores from written and oral traditions of India to give an account of the heritage inspired by Vishnu. It does not claim to be an in-depth study of Vaishnava tales and traditions. It is, as the title states, an introduction. For those interested in a deeper knowledge of the subject, there is a bibliography at the end of the book.
I hope and pray that my book succeeds in animating the games gods play to amuse and uplift man.
And may it broaden the divine smile.
Back of Book
This is an attempt to understand the meaning of Vishnu worship in our time. Written in simple narrative style, it takes us through Vaishnava imagery, philosophy, belies, customs, history, folklore and myth.
The book reaches out to young and old alike, retelling familiar legends of Rama and Krishna as well as unfamiliar ones like those of Vishnu's consort and son. Also included are tales of his lesser known incarnations such as Prithu, Hamsa, Hayagriva and Mandhata.
Highlights include lucid explanations and a pictorial key to numerous symbol associated with Vaishnava customs and rituals, a map showing important Vishnu temples, a bibliography for those interested in learning more and over 200 illustrations of which many are in colour.
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