Vishnu is the second of the Trimurti( Brahma, Vishnu,Shiva) and he sustains and protects the Universe. His role is a lot more complex than Brahma’s.
“The world rests as the lotus in the palm of my hand, the cosmos revolves around my finger like a discus. I blow the music of life through my conch and wield my mace to protect all creatures.” – Krishna Upanishad
While Brahma creates the Universe, Vishnu is the source of all Creation.
Vishnu is the All-Pervading One. His name is derived from “vis’ in Sanskrit which means both ‘to spread’ and ‘to be present everywhere’.
Even when there was Nothing, there was Vishnu, present as a nameless, formless, dormant energy. In this un-manifested (nirguna) state, even Vishnu was not aware of his own being. He just was. Just because he was not perceived, does not mean he did not exist.
In this Nothingness, when the first ripple of awareness stirred , spontaneously and of its own will, the formless energy became Vishnu, the Supreme Being, Parabrahman.
As Parabrahma, Vishnu lies in a dream like state on the serpent Adisesha Ananta who is Time, without beginning or end. Ananta floats for all eternity on the waters of the Ksheer Sagar ( the ocean of Cosmic Consciousness).
When Brahma begins the process of Creation, it is Vishnu who expands into everything and becomes part of everything. Now he is Brahman, the Cosmic Consciousness.
As if he is seeing a dream, Vishnu watches Brahma create the Universe. By the act of watching his dream, Vishnu sustains the Universe. When Vishnu wakes from his dream one cycle of Creation ends.
Vishnu who dreams up the Universe must also now protect it. To maintain the order of Creation, Vishnu becomes The Protector. He takes the form of Ishwara or God.
This form of Vishnu looks very different from the one reclining on Ananta. He is standing,radiant as the sun and has four arms. In his hands he holds the Conch, The Discus, The Lotus and The Mace.
From the Nirguna Brahman( formless energy) Vishnu thus becomes Saguna Brahman, a God with forms and attributes. Vishnu is now the Supreme Lord, Parameshwar.
At times, when world descends into total chaos, Lord Vishnu comes to its rescue in the form of an Avatar, or incarnation.
The ten incarnations of Vishnu in the physical world are:
- Matsya (fish)
- Kurma (turtle)
- Varaha (boar)
- Narasimha (man-lion)
- Vamana (dwarf)
- Parashurama (warrior-priest)
- Rama ( man who was like God)
- Krishna (God who was born as man)
- Buddha (the enlightened one)
- Kalki (horseman, who has not yet appeared)
References to Vishnu are found even in the Rig Veda, the oldest of the scared texts.
Almost all Hindus worship Vishnu, either in his original form or as one of his Avatars. Chanting the Sahasranama, the thousand names of Vishnu, describing his thousand attributes, is an ancient way of worshiping him, and is still used today. A way that has no doubt re-enforced the greatness of the Supreme Lord on the Hindu psyche since the early ages.