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.







Arunachala arises from the plain of Tamil Nadu, in southern India, a commanding presence over the landscape.

It is the king of mountains; dotted here and there are many other rocks rising up out of the flat plain – rounded, extremely ancient, a remnant of some distant geological event, none is in any way a rival to Arunachala.

The story told about the origin of Arunachala is that one day the Gods Brahma and Vishnu were having a discussion about who was more important than the other.  Overhearing this argument, Shiva thought they were both being rather silly, and he manifested as a tremendous towering column of fire, stretching as far up as the eye could see, and reaching far down into the center of the earth.  Brahma and Vishnu were amazed at this display of power.  Brahma became a swan; the swan is Brahma’s vahana or vehicle, and he flew far, far up into the heavens searching for the top of the column of fire.  He was never able to reach the top; it seemed limitless, extending up forever into infinity.

Meanwhile Vishnu took the form of a  boar; the boar Varaha is one of the avatars or manifestations of Vishnu, and boars are very good at digging in the earth.  Vishnu as the boar dug and dug, with all the energy he possessed, but he was never able to get to the bottom of the column of fire that was Shiva.

Both Brahma and Vishnu conceded that the extent and magnificence of Shiva’s power was far greater than either of theirs. (Of course, not everyone agrees with this story, since it is told from a Shaivite perspective.)


Overtime, Shiva, the beautiful column of fire, congealed into rock and became the great mountain of rock, Arunachala, worshipped for thousands of years as the holy presence of Shiva himself.

Modern day scientists know that fire, or molten rock, does indeed congeal into rock; it is known as igneous rock and is one of the primary ways that the mantle of rock on the earth is formed. The English word “igneous” comes from an ancient Indo-European word, from which comes also the Sanskrit name, “Agni,” who is the Hindu God of Fire, first worshipped many thousands of years ago by the authors of the Vedas.

While modern science has a very detailed grasp of the geological processes that form the rocks of the earth, there seems to be less acknowledgement and less awareness of the presence of a divine spirit — of the Gods, who are the origin and the essence of these processes.  It is considered more acceptable these days to acknowledge only the physical and not the spiritual. Yet perhaps this is a mistake, and perhaps the ancient seers were more accurate than we are today in their perceptions. Perhaps the myth is more truly the reality.

Arunachala is now, as always, one of the most sacred sites in India. The five elements, which are earth, air, water, fire, and ether or space are represented in the geography of India as five sacred sites of the God Shiva, each having a temple at a particular location. Arunachala is the site of the element fire.

Sri Ramana Maharshi, the early twentieth century saint who lived at Arunachala, said that Mount Kailash, in the Himalayas, is the abode of Shiva, but Arunachala is even more holy and is Shiva himself.

Photos: © Sharon St Joan / Arunachala

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.



Varaha and the rising seas

Climate change is one thing when it is an abstract discussion about how high the sea will rise in around a hundred years when we are no longer here – or when we feel sad watching the poor polar bears in distress, but the polar bears do live quite a long way away – climate change is quite a different, much more menacing threat when it effects New York City, filling part of the subway system, used every day by five million people, with saltwater that poured in from the sea for the first time in 108 years.  During the huge storm, Sandy, much of the hardest-hit state, New Jersey, was underwater.  Storm-caused fires destroyed 110 homes on Long Island. Suddenly, climate change is no longer some sort of ghost lurking on the edges of reality, it has appeared, and is a real presence, with a concrete form.


There is little that is more frightening than the threat of a basic change in the earth’s climate. Terrorism, economic hardship, and political instability can come and go, but the climate is something much more fundamental, and we can only survive on a planet that remains conducive to life.


TV footage of the many feet of water flooding the tracks, the deserted platforms, and the tunnels of the New York subway has a macabre feeling, like some long-dead civilization, rediscovered by a perplexed explorer of the future.


As humans, we have destroyed so much of the earth that now, it is not only the forests, the wild animals, and the oceans that are suffering – but our destructiveness has come back to haunt us, and it is we ourselves who now endure the consequences of the harm we have caused.


There have been great upheavals in the past – and even more in the far distant past – the past that is revealed to us only in mythology, a past so distant that it lies beyond what we call the beginning of history. A past so far back that it can readily be disregarded by anyone who wishes not to see it.  Yet, it is intriguing, for example, that legends of the Great Flood exist in so many different cultures on earth.  There is geological evidence too that supports the occurrence of this flood.


There have been ages that have come and gone, long, long before this present age.  Only in our moments of greatest blindness do we assume that what we call “history” is the only history that has existed.  There were worlds before ours, and there will be worlds to come.


These past worlds leave memories in the traditions and mythologies of the world, none more vivid or more evocative than in the traditions of India.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna, in her book, Sacred Animals of India, tells one of the stories of Varaha, the boar, who was the third incarnation of Vishnu.  Originally, the universe was entirely water, and the earth, who was the wife of Varaha, was very tiny, just the size of a human hand, lost in the water.  Brahma, God the Creator, became a black boar named Emusha, who had one hundred arms. Then Emusha rescued his wife, the earth, by lifting her with his tusks out of the water.


Ultimately, Vishnu and Brahma are both aspects of God, so it needn’t be confusing that they seem interchangeable, and that the earth is the wife of both.


In another version of the story, Hiranyaksha, a demon, wanted to control the earth, so he rolled her up in a mat and threw her into the ocean.  When she was thrown into the water, she let out such a loud cry, that it was heard all the way up in heaven, where Vishnu lives.  Hearing her cry, Vishnu became the giant boar, Varaha, in order to rescue the earth.  A battle ensued that lasted a thousand years, and finally, the victorious Varaha lifted the earth on his tusks from down in the depths of the sea, and placed her gently on top of the water, where she rests today.

To imagine the earth drowning in the water is not so entirely different from the story of the great flood, although there is also in India a more specific story of the Great Flood, the legend of Manu and Matsya.


Worlds tend to end in fire or floods, and for the earth to be cast into the water and then to be saved by Varaha, the incarnation of Vishnu, may be seen as portraying the end of one age and the beginning of another.  As the waters close over the earth, she is not completely abandoned though, because her divine husband arrives to save her, and life begins anew.


Whatever the future may bring and however long our current age may last, the point of considering a more cosmic perspective is not in any way to diminish the reality of human-caused climate change (or to look at it one way, perhaps it is we who sometimes act like the demon, Hiranyaksha, carelessly casting the earth into the rising seas).  Anyway, a look at a very ancient view, told in the mythical stories of India, may give one a more detached overview – a glimpse that transcends the level of our human predicament.


Top image: Artist: Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) / Color woodblock print / Wikimedia commons / Public Domain / The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Second image: “Varaha, avtar of Vishnu, killing a demon to protect the Earth, and the earth goddess, Bhu or Bhu devi, which he lifts on his tusks above the black ocean. c1740. gouache on paper. probably Chamba, Pahari region, north India. Date c 1740. Source British Museum” / Wikimedia Commons / In the public domain in India

Third image: Sharon St Joan / Rescued pigs at Blue Cross of India