A review by Sharon St Joan
Recently, I reread this beautiful book, and when I had finished it, I was so captivated by it, that I started rereading it all over again for the third time.
The Book of Vishnu by Dr. Nanditha Krishna illuminates a major aspect of the Hindu faith – the God Vishnu, who he is and how his following has grown and evolved over thousands of years.
“When Ishwara creates the universe, he is called Brahma; when he protects, he is called Vishnu, and when he destroys evil, he is called Shiva.” On the first page, in a clear and elegant explanation, Dr. Nanditha Krishna, writes about the place of Lord Vishnu as one of the three primary Gods of Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion. These Gods, however, as Dr. Krishna states, in reality are not three at all, but on the highest level, as Hindu sages have understood throughout the ages, they are three different expressions of one God. And yet (since Hinduism is filled with paradoxes), they are also three.
Dr. Krishna traces the evolution of the worship of Vishnu throughout history. He is mentioned, often along with Indra, in the Rig Veda, the oldest book in the world. Over time, other gods were incorporated into the persona of Vishnu, as his popularity grew, spreading throughout India. For example Narayana, one of the main aspects of Vishnu, must originally have been a non-Vedic deity. Dr. Krishna traces the linguistic roots of the name Narayana, to show that the name has its origins in Tamil, not Sanskrit. Narayana is the God who floats on the sea before the beginning of creation, reclining on the serpent Adi Shesha, who serves as his couch. He is an ideal representation of peace and detachment. One might say that the many stories of Vishnu, with so many names, from varying sources, are the ways that peoples of the different regions of India saw the same God, and when over the centuries these varying views were amalgamated, a fuller understanding and a truer picture of Vishnu, viewed from many perspectives, emerged.
In the book there are countless insights into the long history and myths of India, along with fascinating comparisons with other ancient faiths, including intriguing similarities with the Osiris tradition of Egypt and with the Sumerian god Enki.
Mentions of many fascinating Vishnu temples are included; for example, there is a temple in Tamil Nadu where the form of Vishnu is the boar, Varaha (who saves the earth). It is a place of worship and many miracles for both Hindus and Moslems. In the spring both communities together transport the statue of Varaha to the coast for a bath in the sea, to commemorate Varaha’s feat of rescuing the earth from being drowned in the sea waters.
It is a delightful book to read, reflecting the charming nature of Indian stories that are told from generation to generation, such as the myth of Manu and the fish during the Great Flood. Manu (a Noah figure) rescues a tiny fish to save him from being eaten by larger fish. He grows up, is cared for by Manu, and eventually saves Manu and his boat carrying all the animals and the seeds of all the plants on earth. As it turns out, the little rescued fish, named Matsya, is in reality an avatar of Lord Vishnu.
Kindness to animals is implicit within the psyche of India because there is no arbitrary line drawn between the human and the animal – or the plant and even the rocks, the mountains, and the rivers for that matter. All of nature is seen as interconnected. A perfect illustration of this are the avatars of Vishnu. Vishnu, the loving God, who incarnates whenever the world is overcome by evil to set things right again, has taken up an earthly form at least ten different times – first as a fish, then a turtle, then a boar, next as a man-lion – and the six following incarnations are in human or human-like forms. Interestingly, this follows the theory of evolution, which the ancient Hindu sages clearly must have known about.
Animals are present also as the vahanas, or vehicles of the Gods, who are also divine. The vehicle of Vishnu is Garuda, the eagle.
The poetic and beautiful simplicity with which this book is written is a remarkable achievement, especially since Hinduism is amazingly complex, having arisen over at least five thousand years and maybe much, much longer, with millions of intricacies, countless philosophies, thousands of sacred texts, and hundreds of thousands of gods, goddesses, and other beings, all intertwined within the multiplicity of the rich cultural traditions of India, a land of many peoples, who even today according to a recent survey by the Bhasha Research & Publication Centre, speak over 780 languages. So, achieving clarity and lucidity in the midst of this overwhelming multiplicity is truly remarkable.
Like a garden of many flowering plants, The Book of Vishnu is filled with enchanting details and little-known connections between the myths and stories of various Indian traditions.
Top photo: Daderot / Wikimedia Commons /”I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain. This applies worldwide.” / Bronze sculpture in National Museum, New Delhi, India.
Second and third photos: Sharon St Joan / From a collection of paintings in the Ramalinga Vilasam Palace – Ramanathapuram, built in the 17th century, in Tamil Nadu. The second photo is Varaha and the third is Matsya.
Fourth photo: KRS / Wikimedia Commons / GFDL-WITH-DISCLAIMERS; Released under the GNU Free Documentation License. / A statue of Narasimha at Hampi in Karnataka.
The photos are not in the book.
To see The Book of Vishnu on Amazon, click here.