That nectar-like Lord
whose sweetness never cloys
that ambrosial Lord of Arangam,
with ever fresh garland of wild flowers
upon whose chest Lakshmi Devi sports,
They sing his praises
mind intoxicated with love
dancing and singing in wild joy
lost to the world around
calling upon him repeatedly,
The eyes that feast upon
this crowd of devotees,
blessed indeed are those eyes!1
36vishnu Bhu-Varaha, Vishnu's Avatar as Gigantic Boar, Embracing Goddess Earth, thirteenth century, bronze, 45.5 x 30 x 27 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum. Photo: V & A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum
Bhu-Varaha, Vishnu's Avatar as Gigantic Boar, Embracing Goddess Earth, thirteenth century, bronze, 45.5 x 30 x 27 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum. Photo: V & A Images/Victoria and Albert MuseumThus sang Vaishnava saint Kulashekhara in a hymn dedicated to the beautiful lord Vishnu enshrined in the temple at Srirangam. Vishnu is the god who wears a long lower garment and a crown and sports on his chest a mole-like emblem called the shrivatsa. He favours the sacred basil leaf and wears a long wild-flower garland. In his two rear hands he holds his attributes: a discus – his weapon of choice – and a conch shell, whose sound is heard in all Vishnu temples. His right front hand invariably makes the gesture of benediction while his left hand typically rests elegantly on his hip. Vishnu is always found in bodily form within the sanctum of his temples; additional figures of Vishnu are sculpted in stone on temple walls and created from bronze. Vishnu’s prime consort is Lakshmi, also known as Shri, goddess of wealth and fortune, from whom he is rarely separated. His second consort is Goddess Earth or Bhu devi, also known as Bhu Lakshmi, whom he rescued from drowning in cosmic waters.
It is believed that Vishnu is incarnated on earth whenever righteousness decreases and unlawful behaviour is on the rise. In the sacred text of the Bhagavad Gita, he explains:
To protect men of virtue
and destroy men who do evil,
to set the standard of sacred duty
I appear in age after age.2
The list of Vishnu’s ten avatars varies slightly: an inscription dating from about 600 at Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu lists them as Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise), Varaha (boar), Narasimha (man-lion), Vamana (dwarf), Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Kalki, the avatar that is yet to come. Theologians explain that there is no lessening of the godhead when Vishnu takes birth on earth. The Vaishnava poet-saints of Tamil Nadu viewed Vishnu as manifesting himself in five ways, ranging from para, the highest form, seen only in heaven, through the avatars, to the archa or image of worship. They assigned an exceptionally elevated position to this image which is both a personal god and a supreme deity.
1 Kulashekhara, Perumal Tirumoli, 9.3, in Dehejia 1988, p. 94.
2 Miller 1986, p. 49.