In order to understand the Hindu Gods, and their history and significance in the world, one must first understand that Hinduism, as a religion, is a Monotheistic Polytheism. This means that all the Gods that are pervasive in the Hindu Religion are all manifestations of one single God.
There is a basic Trinity in Hinduism. This is called the TRIMURTI. The Trinity consists of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. All three are Gods, and are manifestations of the Supreme God. Brahma is known as the Creator; Shiva is the Destroyer; and Vishnu is the Preserver and Maintainer of Cosmic Order, also known as DHARMA.
"Vish" is the Sanskrit word meaning "to pervade". In the Sacred Texts of Hinduism, namely the Bhagavad Gita, Vishnu is called to bring good to earth and to ward off evil. He comes to earth in the form of avatars, or reincarnations of himself. It is said that Vishnu is not allowed to come as his true self.
He has nine most common reincarnations or avatars of himself; and one which has not manifested on earth yet. However, he is not limited to the number of avatars he can have. He has the ability to manifest himself through an infinite number of avatars.
Recently, in November of 2007, a girl was born to a family in India with 8 limbs. The girl was born on the day celebrating Vishnu. Her family took the malformed child as a gift from God and as a blessing. They believed that the child is an avatar of Vishnu. They named her Lakshmi; who is the wife of Vishnu.
They never-the-less had their child undergo an operation to remove the accessory limbs, which it turned out was actually a parasitic twin, born with another spinal cord and a kidney and only attached to the child at the hip. The operation took 27 hours to complete and the today the child is doing fine.
There are a group of Hindus called Vaishnavites who solely worship Vishnu. They worship him as the avatar, "Ishvara", the Supreme Being.
In the paintings most commonly drawn of Vishnu, he is represented as a man, the color of the sky (blue and white), indicating that he is omnipresent. He has a SRIVATSA, which is a curl of hair on his chest. This is important, as it signifies his immortality. Vishnu's wife, Lakshmi is usually in the painting as well, seated next to him, massaging his feet. He is usually drawn resting on a coiled serpent, "SHESHA"; and he holds 4 essential items.
1. "SANKHA" or the Conch. This represents "OM" which is the first sound of creation and the beginning of matter. OM signifies that sound and matter are one and the same.
2. "CAKRA" or the Disc is the reminent of the solar deity that Vishnu was derived from.
3. "GADA" or the Club which is the weapon Vishnu uses through which all of his physical and mental powers flow.
4. "PADMA" or the Lotus is associated with Vishnu and represents water, fertility and creation.
The 10 most common avatars of Vishnu are:
1. MATSYA THE FISH
Matsya is a golden fish who saved humanity from a flood. The story is very similar to Noah and the Ark, where a flood destroyed all the living creatures of the earth, and in this story a Sage was called upon to gather samples of living creatures, and plants and to wait on a boat. Matsya was the fish who pulled the boat through the water until the great flood ended, and Brahma created the present world.
The heroic Rama who rescued his wife, Sita from the demon Ravana. Rama then went on to kill Ravana as well.
"The enlightened one", and the avatar which is said to have saved Hinduism from practices of excessive ritualism.
Other Avatars are
5. KURMA, The Turtle
6. VARAHA, The Boar
7. NARASIMHA, Half man, half lion
8. VAMANA, The Dwarf
9. PARASHURAMA, the Brahmin
And finally, the Avatar that has not yet come to earth is KALKI the horse. Kalki will come when the earth is ending; he will come to destroy the world and to recreate it.
Vishnu is a beloved Hindu God, and is called the Peaceful God or Shanti. He never sleeps, and he does not tolerate Ego. He will fight for the good of earth and its people. He is the preserver and maintainer of Earth.