Review: The Book of Vishnu, by Dr. Nanditha Krishna


Vishnu 450px-Bronze_sculpt_NMND-5

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.





Narayana – Beginning the cosmos



Markandeya, one of the ancient sages, or rishis, was walking across vast expanses of the earth. Everywhere there was water, nothing but water, gray currents rushing over what had once been dry land. The sky was gray too, and there was no sun or moon, only the unending gray.


This was after mahaprayala, the great destruction, the time in between the time when the world was destroyed and the time when the new world would be created. Markandeya walked and walked and encountered nothing.


Then, he spotted a speck in the distance which he walked towards. The branch of a nagrodha tree was floating on the water. The nagrodha is the sacred banyan or fig tree, whose aerial roots grow downwards from the branches into the ground. On the floating tree branch, sitting on top of a curled up serpent was a child, a boy. Amazed, Markandeya asked the child, “Who are you?” The boy replied, “The waters have always been my home. I have called the waters “nara,” and my name is Narayana. I am the one who creates, preserves, and destroys the universe.”


In the very fascinating book, The Book of Vishnu, Dr. Nanditha Krishna retells this story, connecting it to other myths in other cultures.


In ancient Egypt, Horus was worshipped as the morning sun, Ra as the noonday sun, and Atum as the setting sun. With each new dawn, Horus-Ra was reborn from the waters and appeared seated on the petals of the lotus. With the close of the day, the lotus petals closed, enfolding the god Atum.




The lotus is also central to the story of Narayanan. Seated on top of the lotus that grows from the navel of Narayanan is the God Brahma, who creates the world.


In the Babylonian story of creation, Enki, who is the god of the waters, lies sound asleep at the bottom of the ocean. The gods call to him, complaining about the lack of food on the earth, but he does not respond. Then his mother, Nammu, mother of all the gods, wakes him up and sends him off to begin the work of creation. Enki’s head is a snake and his tail is a fish.


The snake is also the couch on which the child Narayana lies, on top of the fig tree branch floating on the waters. The snake has seven, or maybe a thousand, heads and is worshipped by Hindus as the god Adi Shesha, meaning the one who remains. It is he who remains after the cosmos is destroyed.


The tail of the fish recalls the fish, Matsya, who was the first incarnation of Vishnu, and Vishnu is the same God as Narayana – Narayana being an aspect of Vishnu. Or, looked at from another perspective, it is Narayana who is Brahman, the supreme being – the one ultimate reality who is both beyond and within all the gods, all the ages, and the entire cosmos.




These stories, like poems or metaphors, reveal visions of mystical reality. It is not that one story is true, and another is not. It can be helpful to regard the truths of all faiths and spiritual traditions as expressing views of reality. All are true in that they give insight through various windows to the truth that lies beyond.


In another, earlier, book, The Art and Iconography of Vishnu-Narayana, Dr. Nanditha Krishna examines extensively the derivation of the name Narayana and the possible history of this legend.


In the Tamil language, spoken in Tamil Nadu, the word tannir, which is tan (cool) plus nir (water) means cool water. In other Dravidian languages, spoken in south India, the word for water is nira, niru, or nir. But in Sanskrit, the language in which the early scriptures, the Vedas, were written, the words for water are apa or jala, which are completely different. Consequently, one might look to a Dravidian source for the origins of the story of Narayana on the waters.


Also in Tamil, the word ay means to lie down or to go to sleep, and the syllable an is a grammatical masculine ending; this gives the meaning for Narayana as “he lies down or sleeps on the waters.”


It would seem to make sense that the south of India, bordered on all sides by the ocean, might be the source of this evocative story of Narayana, who rises from the waters to re-create the world, after the mahapralaya, or great destruction.


To find these two of Dr. Nanditha’s books, along with several others of her books, click here.


For The Book of Vishnu, click here.


For The Art and Iconography of Vishnu-Narayana, click here.


Top photo: “This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to Australia, the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.” / Wikimedia Commons / Collection of the Kalabhavan Banares Hindu University. / Eighteenth century Vaishnava painting decipting Vishnu, on the serpent Anant Shesha with consort Lakshmi, sage Markandeya paying his respects to Vishnu, while Brahma emerges in a lotus.


Second photo: “Scanned from The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt by Richard H. Wilkinson, p. 117; artwork from the Book of the Dead of Anhai” / Wikimedia Commons / “This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.” /  “Nun, god of the waters of chaos, lifts the barque of the sun god Ra (represented by both the scarab and the sun disk) into the sky at the beginning of time.”


Third photo: Ramanarayanadatta astri / “This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.” / / “Matsya pulls a boat carrying Manu and Saptarishi [the seven rishis] during Pralaya.”


© 2014, Sharon St Joan


The Bay of Bengal
The Bay of Bengal


The boy who


On the sea swell

Like a rainbow fish on the wave,

Your face,


Radiant as the ancient moon, unseen

Beyond the present cosmos,

Deep blue, the petaled lotus,

Swift, your hurled discus;

Salt tides murmur in the humming strain

Of the conch shell.

You float by on the branch of a green


Your smile an enigma,

Sad, yet ever glad


You drift off to sleep.

Who are you,

Lord of the shadowy sea

And the moon-risen grace?

Who are you

Walking out from the edge of the brave

Woods, dense and deep,

At the dawn

Of all the time-tilled rings?

You sail on the wings

Of the great dark swan,

Or dream on the white coiled train

Of Adi Sesha,

Who will be

The only one to remain.

You carry the key,


To the tall

Stone gate,



You are the singer of the song,


Of all the notes gone


And all

That await

The shining rain-lit moment,

An era yet to be.

© Sharon St Joan, June 12, 2013

Photo: Sharon St Joan

In the beginning…


It is said in the Mahabharata, Book Three, Section 270, that after 4,000 yugas (ages), “the earth became flooded with water,” extending everywhere as one immense sea.  Not only were the Sun and the Moon darkened, but even the winds had been destroyed.  With no wind and no living creatures, there was utter silence everywhere.  In the Cosmos, all the planets and the stars were gone too.  There was nothing.  The Supreme Being whose name is Narayana, who has a thousand heads, with many eyes and thousands of legs, who cannot be perceived by human senses or the human mind, who lies entirely beyond our perception, began to grow tired and looked for a place to rest.


Narayana lay down, using for his bed the coils of the great serpent Sesha. Sesha, with a thousand hoods, shone brilliantly as 10,000 suns. He was as white as the jasmine flower, as white as the rays of the moon glimmering on the dark waters of the sea, as white as milk or as the white lotus flower.  All the brilliance of the lights of Sesha did not keep Naranyana from falling asleep though, because he was so very tired. From eon to eon, Sesha floated on the cosmic waters, as he shone through the blackness in which nothing else existed – only the sleeping Narayana.


Eventually – there is no way to tell how long, maybe a trillion years, or maybe just a little while – there is no way to know because without the planets and the stars, one cannot measure the passing of time – Narayana woke up and opened his eyes; he looked around at the dense gloom surrounding him, and began to plan a new creation.  At just that moment, a lotus flower grew out of his navel, and in the center of it sat the four-faced God, Brahma, who set about the task of creating the universe. Brahma willed into being the great rishis.


Rishis are seers and inspired poets – female as well as male, who wrote the Vedas, the oldest books on earth. Divine beings, with a form similar to humans, rishis were without the limitations and mortality of human beings.  They, in turn, created all of creation – the yakshas, rakshas, pisachas, all the animals, the humans, and the plants too.


A yaksha is a nature-spirit, usually benevolent; these are the gods who live in the forests and the trees, in a lake or a mountain, or in a flower or a river.


A raksha is a demon, or evil spirit; they may disrupt rituals or ceremonies, harass priests, or possess people, and they are practitioners of black magic.


Pisachas are very low-level demons, rather like an ogre or a troll.

While the creation was very young and just beginning, and the universe was still dark and all covered in water, Vishnu, who is a form of Narayana, was looking for a way to set the creation off on a good start, to enable the beings to grow and thrive in a world suited to life.  Like a fire-fly, Vishnu flitted here and there in the darkness, seeking a way to establish the creation on a firm footing.


From a distance, as he watched the earth drowning in water, entirely submerged, and unable to help herself, he felt a great wish to come to her aid.  There came into his head the image of a giant boar playing in a stream, splashing the water with his tusks.  Surely a boar would be able to overcome the destructive waters that plagued the earth.


At once Vishnu became the giant boar; he was big, maybe 50 miles long, with huge pointed tusks; his fur was black like storm clouds rolling across the sky, and his roar was the sound of thunder overhead.  As large as a mountain, he hurled himself into the depths of the sea.  Far, far down he went bravely into the deep waters, until he spotted the round earth, looking tiny and lost.  On his tusks, he brought the earth up out of the sea, setting her gently on dry land, so that she could begin to dry off.  All the newly created beings emerged, shaking the water out of their hair, their fur, or their feathers, relieved to see the sunlight.


Then they began to lead their lives on the dry land of the earth.  It was a beautiful earth, filled with lakes, forests, birds, flowers, and animals.

Ever after, whenever urgent help is needed by the creation which may be lost or in peril, Vishnu returns in whatever form is suitable to set things right again.










Top image: Author: Anonymous / circa 1870 / Wikimedia Commons / “This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.” / Vishnu and Lakshmi on Shesha Nāga.


Second image: Author: PHGCOM / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.” / Four Armed Vishnu, Pandya Dynasty, 8-9th Century.


Third image: Sharon St Joan / One of the rescued pigs at Blue Cross of India


To order the Mahabharata, book 3, click here.  (You might like to order books 1 and 2, at the same time.  There are 18 books in all so starting with the first three might be a good idea.)


To learn more about Vishnu, you might like to read The Book of Vishnu, by Dr. Nanditha Krishna.