Vishnu (/ˈvɪʃnuː/; Sanskrit pronunciation: [ʋɪʂɳʊ]; Sanskrit: विष्णु, IAST: Viṣṇu) is one of the principal deities of Hinduism, and the Supreme Being or absolute truth in its Vaishnavism tradition. Vishnu is the "preserver" in the Hindu triad (Trimurti) that includes Brahma and Shiva.
In Vaishnavism, Vishnu is identical to the formless metaphysical concept called Brahman, the supreme, the Svayam Bhagavan, who takes various avatars as "the preserver, protector" whenever the world is threatened with evil, chaos, and destructive forces. His avatars most notably include Rama in the Ramayana and Krishna in the Mahabharata. He is also known as Narayana, Trilokinath, Ishtadeva, Jagannath, Vasudeva, Vithoba, and Hari. He is one of the five equivalent deities worshipped in Panchayatana puja of the Smarta Tradition of Hinduism.
In Hindu mythology, Vishnu is depicted as having a dark blue to black complexion and four arms. He holds a padma (lotus flower) in his lower left hand, Kaumodaki gada (mace) in his lower right hand, Panchajanya shankha (conch) in his upper left hand and the Sudarshana Chakra (discus) in his upper right hand. A traditional depiction is Vishnu reclining on the coils of the serpent Shesha, accompanied by his consort Lakshmi, as he "dreams the universe into reality".
Yaska, the mid 1st-millennium BCE Vedanga scholar, in his Nirukta (etymological interpretation), defines Vishnu as viṣṇur viṣvater vā vyaśnoter vā meaning "one who enters everywhere". He also writes, atha yad viṣito bhavati tad viṣnurbhavati, "that which is free from fetters and bondages is Vishnu".
The medieval Indian scholar Medhātithi suggested that the word Vishnu has etymological roots in viś, meaning to pervade, thereby connoting that Vishnu is "one who is everything and inside everything".
Vishnu is a Vedic deity, but not a prominent one when compared to Indra, Agni and others. Just 5 out of 1028 hymns of the Rigveda, a 2nd millennium BCE Hindu text, are dedicated to Vishnu, and he finds minor mention in the other hymns. Vishnu is mentioned in the Brahmana layer of text in the Vedas, thereafter his profile rises and over the history of Indian mythology, states Jan Gonda, Vishnu becomes a divinity of the highest rank, one equivalent to the Supreme Being.
Though a minor mention and with overlapping attributes in the Vedas, he has important characteristics in various hymns of Rig Veda, such as 1.154.5, 1.56.3 and 10.15.3. In these hymns, the Vedic mythology asserts that Vishnu resides in that highest home where departed Atman (souls) reside, an assertion that may have been the reason for his increasing emphasis and popularity in Hindu soteriology. He is also described in the Vedic literature as the one who supports heaven and earth.
In the Vedic hymns, Vishnu is invoked alongside other deities, especially Indra, whom he helps in killing the symbol of evil named Vritra. His distinguishing characteristic in Vedas is his association with light. Two Rigvedic hymns in Mandala 7 refer to Vishnu. In section 7.99 of the Rgveda, Vishnu is addressed as the god who separates heaven and earth, a characteristic he shares with Indra. In the Vedic texts, the deity or god referred to as Vishnu is Surya or Savitr (Sun god), who also bears the name Suryanarayana. Again, this link to Surya is a characteristic Vishnu shares with fellow Vedic deities named Mitra and Agni, wherein different hymns, they too "bring men together" and cause all living beings to rise up and impel them to go about their daily activities.
In hymn 7.99 of Rigveda, Indra-Vishnu are equivalent and produce the sun, with the verses asserting that this sun is the source of all energy and light for all. In other hymns of the Rigveda, Vishnu is a close friend of Indra. Elsewhere in Rigveda, Atharvaveda and Upanishadic texts, Vishnu is equivalent to Prajapati, both are described as the protector and preparer of the womb, and according to Klaus Klostermaier, this may be the root behind post-Vedic fusion of all the attributes of the Vedic Prajapati unto the avatars of Vishnu.
In the Yajurveda, Taittiriya Aranyaka (10.13.1), Narayana sukta, Narayana is mentioned as the supreme being. The first verse of Narayana Suktam mentions the words paramam padam, which literally mean highest post and may be understood as the supreme abode for all souls. This is also known as Param Dhama, Paramapadam or Vaikuntha. Rig Veda 1.22.20 also mentions the same paramam padam.
In the Atharvaveda, the mythology of a boar who raises goddess earth from the depths of cosmic ocean appears, but without the word Vishnu or his alternate avatar names. In post-Vedic mythology, this legend becomes one of the basis of many cosmogonic myth called the Varaha legend, with Varaha as an avatar of Vishnu.
Several hymns of the Rigveda repeat the mighty deed of Vishnu called the Trivikrama, which is one of the lasting mythologies in Hinduism since the Vedic times. It is an inspiration for ancient artwork in numerous Hindu temples such as at the Ellora Caves, which depict the Trivikrama legend through the Vamana avatar of Vishnu. Trivikrama refers to the celebrated three steps or "three strides" of Vishnu. Starting as a small insignificant looking being, Vishnu undertakes a herculean task of establishing his reach and form, then with his first step covers the earth, with second the ether, and the third entire heaven.
विष्णोर्नु कं वीर्याणि प्र वोचं यः पार्थिवानि विममे रजांसि ।
यो अस्कभायदुत्तरं सधस्थं विचक्रमाणस्त्रेधोरुगायः ॥१॥ (...)
viṣṇōrnu kaṃ vīryāṇi pra vōcaṃ yaḥ pārthivāni vimamē rajāṃsi |
yō askabhāyaduttaraṃ sadhasthaṃ vicakramāṇastrēdhōrugāyaḥ ||1||
I will now proclaim the heroic deeds of Visnu, who has measured out the terrestrial regions,
who established the upper abode having, wide-paced, strode out triply (...)
The Vishnu Sukta 1.154 of Rigveda says that the first and second of Vishnu's strides (those encompassing the earth and air) are visible to the mortals and the third is the realm of the immortals. The Trivikrama describing hymns integrate salvific themes, stating Vishnu to symbolize that which is freedom and life. The Shatapatha Brahmana elaborates this theme of Vishnu, as his herculean effort and sacrifice to create and gain powers that help others, one who realizes and defeats the evil symbolized by the Asuras after they had usurped the three worlds, and thus Vishnu is the savior of the mortals and the immortals (Devas).
Seven germs unripened yet are heaven's prolific seed:
their functions they maintain by Vishnu's ordinance.
Endued with wisdom through intelligence and thought,
they compass us about present on every side.
What thing I truly am I know not clearly:
mysterious, fettered in my mind I wonder.
When the first-born of holy Law approached me,
then of this speech I first obtain a portion.
They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni,
and he is heavenly-winged Garutman.
To what is One, sages give many a title.
The Shatapatha Brahmana contains ideas which Vaishnavism tradition of Hinduism has long mapped to a pantheistic vision of Vishnu as supreme, he as the essence in every being and everything in the empirically perceived universe. In this Brahmana, states Klaus Klostermaier, Purusha Narayana (Vishnu) asserts, "all the worlds have I placed within mine own self, and mine own self have I placed within all the worlds". The text equates Vishnu to all knowledge there is (Vedas), calling the essence of everything as imperishable, all Vedas and principles of universe as imperishable, and that this imperishable which is Vishnu is the all.
Vishnu is described to be permeating all object and life forms, states S Giora Shoham, where he is "ever present within all things as the intrinsic principle of all", and the eternal, transcendental self in every being. The Vedic literature, including its Brahmanas layer, while praising Vishnu do not subjugate others gods and goddesses. They present an inclusive pluralistic henotheism. Max Muller states, "Although the gods are sometimes distinctly invoked as the great and the small, the young and the old (Rig Veda 1:27:13), this is only an attempt to find the most comprehensive expression for the divine powers and nowhere is any of the gods represented as the subordinate to others. It would be easy to find, in the numerous hymns of the Veda, passages in which almost every single god is represented as supreme and absolute".
The Vaishnava Upanishads are minor Upanishads of Hinduism, related to Vishnu theology. There are 14 Vaishnava Upanishads in the Muktika anthology of 108 Upanishads. It is unclear when these texts were composed, and estimates vary from the 1st-century BCE to 17th-century CE for the texts.
These Upanishads highlight Vishnu, Narayana, Rama or one of his avatars as the supreme metaphysical reality called Brahman in Hinduism. They discuss a diverse range of topics, from ethics to the methods of worship.
Vishnu is the primary focus of Vaishnavism-focused Puranas genre of Hindu texts. Of these, according to Ludo Rocher, the most important texts are the Bhagavata Purana, Vishnu Purana, Nāradeya Purana, Garuda Purana and Vayu Purana. The Purana texts include many versions of cosmologies, mythologies, encyclopedic entries about various aspects of life, and chapters that were medieval era regional Vishnu temples-related tourist guides called mahatmyas.
One version of the cosmology, for example, states that Vishnu's eye is at the Southern Celestial Pole from where he watches the cosmos. In another version found in section 4.80 of the Vayu Purana, he is the Hiranyagarbha, or the golden egg from which were simultaneously born all feminine and masculine beings of the universe. The Vishnu Purana presents Vishnu as the central element of its cosmology, unlike some other Puranas where Shiva or Brahma or goddess Shakti are. The reverence and the worship of Vishnu is described in 22 chapters of the first part of Vishnu Purana, along with the profuse use of the synonymous names of Vishnu such as Hari, Janardana, Madhava, Achyuta, Hrishikesha and others.
The Vishnu Purana discusses the Hindu concept of supreme reality called Brahman in the context of the Upanishads, a discussion that the theistic Vedanta scholar Ramanuja interprets to be about the equivalence of the Brahman with Vishnu, a foundational theology in the Sri Vaishnavism tradition. Vishnu is equated with Brahman in Bhagavata Purana, such as in verse 1.2.11, as "learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this non-dual substance as Brahman, Paramatma and Bhagavan."
The Bhagavata Purana has been the most popular and widely read Purana texts relating to Vishnu avatar Krishna, it has been translated and available in almost all Indian languages. Like other Puranas, it discusses a wide range of topics including cosmology, genealogy, geography, mythology, legend, music, dance, yoga and culture. As it begins, the forces of evil have won a war between the benevolent devas (deities) and evil asuras (demons) and now rule the universe. Truth re-emerges as the Vishnu avatar first makes peace with the demons, understands them and then creatively defeats them, bringing back hope, justice, freedom and good – a cyclic theme that appears in many legends. The Bhagavata Purana is a revered text in Vaishnavism. The Puranic legends of Vishnu have inspired plays and dramatic arts that are acted out over festivals, particularly through performance arts such as the Sattriya, Manipuri dance, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, Kathak, Bharatanatyam, Bhagavata Mela and Mohiniyattam.
Some versions of the Purana texts, unlike the Vedic and Upanishadic texts, emphasize Vishnu as supreme and on whom other gods depend. Vishnu, for example, is the source of creator deity Brahma in the Vaishnavism-focussed Purana texts. Vishnu's iconography typically shows Brahma being born in a lotus emerging from his navel, who then is described as creating all the forms in the universe, but not the primordial universe itself. In contrast, the Shiva-focussed Puranas describe Brahma and Vishnu to have been created by Ardhanarishvara, that is half Shiva and half Parvati; or alternatively, Brahma was born from Rudra, or Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma creating each other cyclically in different aeons (kalpa).
In some Vaishnava Puranas, Vishnu takes the form of Rudra or commands Rudra to destroy the world, thereafter the entire universe dissolves and along with time, everything is reabsorbed back into Vishnu. The universe is then recreated from Vishnu all over again, starting a new Kalpa. For this the Bhagavata Purana employs the metaphor of Vishnu as a spider and the universe as his web. Other texts offer alternate cosmogenic theories, such as one where the universe and time are absorbed into Shiva.
The Sangam literature refers to an extensive regional collection in the Tamil language, mostly from the early centuries of the common era. These Tamil texts revere Vishnu and his avatars such as Krishna and Rama, as well as other pan-Indian deities such as Shiva, Muruga, Durga, Indra and others. Vishnu is described in these texts as mayon, or "one who is dark or black in color" (in north India, the equivalent word is Krishna). Other terms found for Vishnu in these ancient Tamil genre of literature include mayavan, mamiyon, netiyon, mal and mayan.
Krishna as Vishnu avatar is the primary subject of two post-Sangam Tamil epics Silappadikaram and Manimekalai, each of which was probably composed about the 5th century CE. These Tamil epics share many aspects of the story found in other parts of India, such as those related to baby Krishna such as stealing butter, and teenage Krishna such as teasing girls who went to bathe in a river by hiding their clothes.
Ideas about Vishnu in the mid 1st millennium CE were important to the Bhakti movement theology that ultimately swept India after the 12th century. The Alvars, which literally means "those immersed in God", were Tamil Vaishnava poet-saints who sang praises of Vishnu as they traveled from one place to another. They established temple sites such as Srirangam, and spread ideas about Vaishnavism. Their poems, compiled as Alwar Arulicheyalgal or Divya Prabhandham, developed into an influential scripture for the Vaishnavas. The Bhagavata Purana's references to the South Indian Alvar saints, along with its emphasis on bhakti, have led many scholars to give it South Indian origins, though some scholars question whether this evidence excludes the possibility that bhakti movement had parallel developments in other parts of India.
The Bhagavata Purana summarizes the Vaishnava theology, wherein it frequently discusses the merging of the individual soul with the Absolute Brahman (Ultimate Reality, Supreme Truth), or "the return of Brahman into His own true nature", a distinctly Advaitic or non-dualistic philosophy of Shankara. The concept of moksha is explained as Ekatva (Oneness) and Sayujya (Absorption, intimate union), wherein one is completely lost in Brahman (Self, Supreme Being, one's true nature). This, states Rukmini, is proclamation of "return of the individual soul to the Absolute and its merging into the Absolute", which is unmistakably Advaitic in its trend. In the same passages, the Bhagavata includes a mention of Bhagavan as the object of concentration, thereby presenting the Bhakti path from the three major paths of Hindu spirituality discussed in the Bhagavad Gita.
The theology in the Bhagavad Gita discusses both the sentient and the non-sentient, the soul and the matter of existence. It envisions the universe as the body of Vishnu (Krishna), state Harold Coward and Daniel Maguire. Vishnu in Gita's theology pervades all souls, all matter and time. In Sri Vaishnavism sub-tradition, Vishnu and Sri (goddess Lakshmi) are described as inseparable, that they pervade everything together. Both together are the creators, who also pervade and transcend their creation.
The Bhagavata Purana, in many passages, parallels the ideas of Nirguna Brahman and non-duality of Adi Shankara. For example,
The aim of life is inquiry into the Truth, and not the desire for enjoyment in heaven by performing religious rites,
Those who possess the knowledge of the Truth, call the knowledge of non-duality as the Truth,
It is called Brahman, the Highest Self, and Bhagavan.
Scholars describe the Vaishnava theology as built on the foundation of non-dualism speculations in Upanishads, and term it as "Advaitic Theism". The Bhagavata Purana suggests that God Vishnu and the soul (Atman) in all beings is one. Bryant states that the monism discussed in Bhagavata Purana is certainly built on the Vedanta foundations, but not exactly the same as the monism of Adi Shankara. The Bhagavata asserts, according to Bryant, that the empirical and the spiritual universe are both metaphysical realities, and manifestations of the same Oneness, just like heat and light are "real but different" manifestations of sunlight.
In the Bhakti tradition of Vaishnavism, Vishnu is attributed with numerous qualities such as omniscience, energy, strength, lordship, vigour, and splendour. The Vaishnava tradition started by Madhvacharya considers Vishnu in the form of Krishna to be the supreme creator, personal God, all-pervading, all devouring, one whose knowledge and grace leads to "moksha". In Madhvacharya Vaishnava theology, the supreme Vishnu and the souls of living beings are two different realities and nature (dualism), while in Ramanuja's Sri Vaishnavism, they are different but share the same essential nature (qualified non-dualism).
Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity (both material and spiritual), is the wife and active energy of Vishnu. She is also called Sri or Thirumagal in Tamil because she is the source of eight auspicious strengths for Vishnu. When Vishnu incarnated on the Earth as the avatars Rama and Krishna, Lakshmi incarnated as his respective consorts: Sita (Rama's wife) and Rukmini (Krishna's wife). Lakshmi and Padmavati are wives of Lord Vishnu at Tirupati. In Hinduism, Lord Vishnu had incarnated as Lord Venkatachalapathi at Tirupati, although this grand form of him is not counted as one of the dasavatars.
Trimurti (three forms) is a concept in Hinduism "in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the maintainer, preserver or protector and Shiva the destroyer or transformer." These three deities have also been called the Hindu triad or the "Great Trinity", all having the same meaning of three in One. They are the different forms or manifestations of One person the Supreme Being.
Shiva and Vishnu are both viewed as the ultimate form of god in different Hindu denominations. Harihara is a composite of half Vishnu and half Shiva, and artwork related to Harihara is found from mid 1st millennium CE, such as in the cave 1 and cave 3 of the 6th-century Badami cave temples. Another half Vishnu half Shiva form, which is also called Harirudra, is mentioned in Mahabharata.
Vishnu's mount (Vahana) is Garuda, the eagle. Vishnu is commonly depicted as riding on his shoulders. Garuda is also considered as Vedas on which Lord Vishnu travels. Garuda is a sacred bird in Vaishnavism. In Garuda Purana, Garuda carries Lord Vishnu to save the Elephant Gajendra.
The concept of avatar within Hinduism is most often associated with Vishnu, the preserver or sustainer aspect of God within the Hindu Trinity or Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu's avatars descend to empower the good and fight evil, thereby restoring Dharma. An oft-quoted passage from the Bhagavad Gita describes the typical role of an avatar of Vishnu:
Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases I send myself forth.
For the protection of the good and for the destruction of evil,
and for the establishment of righteousness,
I come into being age after age.
The Vishnu avatars appear in Hindu mythology whenever the cosmos is in crisis, typically because the evil has grown stronger and has thrown the cosmos out of its balance. The avatar then appears in a material form, to destroy evil and its sources, and restore the cosmic balance between the ever-present forces of good and evil.
The most known and celebrated avatars of Vishnu, within the Vaishnavism traditions of Hinduism, are Krishna and Rama. These names have extensive literature associated with them, each has its own characteristics, legends and associated arts. The Mahabharata, the Krishna Charit Manas for example, includes Krishna, while the Ramayana, Ram Charit Manas includes Rama.
The Bhagavata Purana describes Vishnu's avatars as innumerable, though ten of his incarnations (Dashavatara), are celebrated therein as his major appearances. The ten major Vishnu avatars are mentioned in the Agni Purana, the Garuda Purana and the Bhagavata Purana.[note 1] Thirty-nine avatars are mentioned in the Pancharatra. The commonly accepted number of ten avatars for Vishnu was fixed well before the 10th century CE.
The ten best-known avatars of Vishnu are collectively known as the Dashavatara (a Sanskrit compound meaning "ten avatars"). Five different lists are included in the Bhagavata Purana, where the difference is in the sequence of the names. Freda Matchett states that this re-sequencing by the composers may be intentional, so as to avoid implying priority or placing something definitive and limitation to the abstract.
Perumal (Tamil: பெருமாள்), or Perumaal or Thirumal (Tamil: திருமால்), also known as Maayon (as he is described in the Tamil scriptures), was appropriated as manifestation of Lord Vishnu in later Hinduism is a popular Hindu deity among Tamilans in Tamil Nadu as well among the Tamil diaspora.
Vishnu is referred to as Gorakh in the scriptures of Sikhism. For example, in verse 5 of Japji Sahib, the guru is praised as who gives the word and shows the wisdom, and through whom the awareness of immanence is gained. Guru Nanak, state Christopher Shackle and Arvind Pal-Singh Mandair, teaches that the Guru (teachers) are "Shiva (isar), Vishnu (gorakh), Brahma (barma) and mother Parvati (parbati)", yet the one who is all and true cannot be described.
The Chaubis Avatar text of Sikhism lists the 24 avatars of Vishnu and this includes Krishna and Rama of Hinduism, and the Buddha of Buddhism as avatar of Vishnu. Similarly, the Dasam Granth includes Vishnu mythology mirror that found in the Vaishnav tradition. The latter is of particular importance to Sanatan Sikhs, including Udasis, Nirmalas, Nanak-panthis, Sahajdhari and Keshdhari sub-traditions within Sikhism; however, the Khalsa Sikhs disagree with the Sanatan Sikhs. According to Sanatan Sikh writers, the Gurus of Sikhs were avatars of Vishnu, because the Gurus brought light in the age of darkness and saved people in a time of evil Mughal era persecution.
While some Hindus consider Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, Buddhists in Sri Lanka venerate Vishnu as the custodian deity of Sri Lanka and protector of Buddhism. Vishnu is also known as Upulvan or Uthpala Varna, meaning Blue Lotus coloured. Some postulate that Uthpala varna was a local deity who later merged with Vishnu while another belief is that Uthpala Varna was an early form of Vishnu before he became a supreme deity in Puranic Hinduism. According to Chronicles Mahawamsa, Chulawamsa and folklore in Sri Lanka, Buddha himself handed over the custodianship to Vishnu. Others believe that Buddha entrusted this task to Sakra (Indra) and Sakra delegated this task of custodianship to god Vishnu. Many Buddhist and Hindu shrines are dedicated to Vishnu in Sri Lanka. In addition to specific Vishnu Kovils or Devalayas, all Buddhist temples necessarily house shrine rooms (Devalayas) closer to the main Buddhist shrine dedicated to Vishnu.
John Holt states that Vishnu was one of the several Hindu gods and goddesses who were integrated into the Sinhala Buddhist religious culture, such as the 14th and 15th-century Lankatilaka and Gadaladeniya Buddhist temples. He states that the medieval Sinhala tradition encouraged Visnu worship (puja) as a part of Theravada Buddhism just like Hindu tradition incorporated the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu, but contemporary Theravada monks are attempting to purge the Vishnu worship practice from Buddhist temples. According to Holt, the veneration of Vishnu in Sri Lanka is evidence of a remarkable ability over many centuries, to reiterate and reinvent culture as other ethnicity have been absorbed into their own. Though the Vishnu cult in Ceylon was formally endorsed by Kandyan kings in the early 1700s, Holt states that Vishnu images and shrines are among conspicuous ruins in the medieval capital Polonnaruwa.
Vishnu iconography such as statues and etchings have been found in archaeological sites of Southeast Asia, now predominantly of the Theravada Buddhist tradition. In Thailand, for example, statues of four armed Vishnu have been found in provinces near Malaysia and dated to be from the 4th to 9th-century, and this mirror those found in ancient India. Similarly, Vishnu statues have been discovered from the 6th to 8th century eastern Prachinburi Province and central Phetchabun Province of Thailand and southern Đồng Tháp Province and An Giang Province of Vietnam. Krishna statues dated to the early 7th century to 9th century have been discovered in Takéo Province and other provinces of Cambodia. Archeological studies have uncovered Vishnu statues on the islands of Indonesia, and these have been dated to the 5th century and thereafter. In addition to statues, inscriptions and carvings of Vishnu, such as those related to the "three steps of Vishnu" (Trivikrama) have been found in many parts of Buddhist southeast Asia. In some iconography, the symbolism of Surya, Vishnu and Buddha are fused.
Ancient Egyptian God Horus too is a part of a trinity, just like Vishnu is, states James Freeman Clarke. According to Richard Leviton, the younger Horus riding on elder Horus is similar to Vishnu riding on Garuda. According to James Cowles Prichard, while the trinity concept is present in both Egyptian and Indian mythologies, Horus cannot be clearly identified with Vishnu and the link doubtful.
During an excavation in an abandoned village of Russia in the Volga region, archaeologist Alexander Kozhevin excavated an ancient Cult image of Vishnu. The idol dates from between the 7th and 10th centuries. In the interview, Kozhevin stated that "We may consider it incredible, but we have ground to assert that Middle-Volga region was the original land of Ancient Rus. This is a hypothesis, but a hypothesis, which requires thorough research."
Vishnu iconography shows him with a dark blue, blue-gray or black colored skin, and as a well dressed jeweled man. He is typically shown with four arms, but two armed representations are also found and discussed in Hindu texts on artworks. The historic identifiers of his icon include his image holding a conch shell between first two fingers of one hand (left back), a chakra – war discus – in another (right back). The conch shell is spiral and symbolizes all of interconnected spiraling cyclic existence, while the discus symbolizes him as that which restores dharma with war if necessary when cosmic equilibrium is overwhelmed by evil. One of his arms sometimes carries a gadda (club, mace) which symbolizes authority and power of knowledge. In the fourth arm, he holds a lotus flower which symbolizes purity and transcendence. The items he holds in various hands varies, giving rise to twenty four combinations of iconography, each combination representing a special form of Vishnu. Each of these special forms is given a special name in texts such as the Agni Purana and Padma Purana. These texts, however, are inconsistent. Vishnu iconography show him either in standing pose, seated in a yoga pose, or reclining. Hindu texts on iconography describe design rules of these.
Some of the earliest surviving grand Vishnu temples in India have been dated to the Gupta Empire period. The Sarvatobhadra temple in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, for example, is dated to the early 6th century and features the ten avatars of Vishnu. Its design based on a square layout and Vishnu iconography broadly follows the 1st millennium Hindu texts on architecture and construction such as the Brihat Samhita and Visnudharmottarapurana.
Archaeological evidence suggest that Vishnu temples and iconography probably were already in existence by the 1st century BCE. The most significant Vishnu-related epigraphy and archaeological remains are the two 1st century BCE inscriptions in Rajasthan which refer to temples of Sankarshana and Vasudeva, the Besnagar Garuda column of 100 BCE which mentions a Bhagavata temple, another inscription in Naneghat cave in Maharashtra by a Queen Naganika that also mentions Sankarshana, Vasudeva along with other major Hindu deities and several discoveries in Mathura relating to Vishnu, all dated to about the start of the common era.