I've recently come by an excellent research on how the understanding of Shiva has been evolving through the ages and I wonder whether such a research has been made with respect to Vishnu. The book I am referring to is Mahadev Chakravarti's book.

My question is what sphere did he initially preside over and which spheres, possibly belonging to some non-Vedic deities, were further added to his domain? Like in the example of Shiva, to the Vedic Rudra image the death-fertility compound was added, stemming from the Dravidian culture according to the above-mentioned source. What I'm interested here are those spheres of governance themselves, their evolution and the possible changes in stress between them.

I have a hard time trying to describe Vishnu in terms: as god of x. It is as if he suddenly became god of "all", advancing from a mere swift warrior in Indra's army.

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    These authors are some misguided remants of the post English, era, Indian writers/indologists, who think this is some kind of briliant work they are doing in trying to carry forward the burden of Pre-Independence English Indologists works. Yes, you will surely have difficulty in identifying or compartmentalizing, Vishnu, especially, because, the word Vishnu, itself means "Vyapakatva" or "All Pervasive". So, Vishnu is the Supreme being and he is not just some minor deity like other deities as most of English bred pseudo Indologists seek to portray.
    – user808
    Mar 27, 2015 at 6:29
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    Also, it is true that one cannot grasp the all pervasive nature of Vedic Vishnu, because the Supreme ultimate god, can never come within the grasp of stereo typed human intelligence or understanding, unlike the other deities.
    – user808
    Mar 27, 2015 at 6:33
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    @Krishna but you've made an assumption that he is a supreme ultimate itself, while for example a Shaiva wouldn't agree with you. Nevertheless they do not deny that such deva exists. Therefore there must be something more precise to Vishnu understanding than identifying him with Brahman, doesn't it? Mar 30, 2015 at 0:36
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    @@infoholic_anonymous --The "Vishnu" name refers to all pervasiveness. It is Vyapaka mantra and names of other deities doesn't subscribe to vyapakatva like the name Vishnu. This itself is sufficient to show Vishnu's supremacy. If, someone doesn't want to accept, no problems. It is their loss.
    – user808
    Mar 31, 2015 at 9:20
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    Vishnu was originally part of the Trimurti godhead representative of the powers of creation, preservation, and destruction of the Saguna Brahman. There is a good source that traces the evolution of Vishnu and well as Shiva. 'Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization" by Heinrich Zimmer, edited by Joseph Campbell. Dec 21, 2015 at 4:00

3 Answers 3


First of all, to answer your side question, yes, there is something that is more particular to Vishnu that both Vaishnavite and Shaivites would acknowledge about him, and that is that he is the god of preservation. That is to say, Vaishnavites would say that Vishnu is the preserver but he is also ultimately responsible for the origination and destruction of the Universe, even though they might be instrumentally handled by other deities. And similarly a Shaivite would say that Shiva is the destroyer, but he is also ultimately responsible for the other functions like creation and preservation. But the one thing that Hindus of pretty much all sects can agree on is that Vishnu is at least instrumentally responsible for preservation, and that Shiva is at least instrumentally responsible for destruction, whatever else might lie behind their power to do so.

This core property of Vishnu, concerning his role in preserving the Universe and its virtuous inhabitants from Adharma, is summarized in a famous verse from the Bhagavad Gita:

To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I Myself appear, millennium after millennium.

Now let me tackle your main question, concerning the evolution in our understanding of Vishnu. Note that this isn't about an evolution in Vishnu himself, who has always been the same regardless of human misconceptions, and this isn't even an evolution for certain Trikalajnani sages, who presumably understood Vishnu correctly at all times. But it is true that society's understanding of Vishnu has evolved. Let me explain. (This is an expanded version of what I said in my question here.)

Before the time of the sage Vyasa, people had a very different understanding of which gods were important than the understanding we have today. The Vedic mantras had not yet been compiled into the four books we call the Vedas, but the mantras were still known among men, and they unfortunately led to a skewed perspective on things. Most of the Vedic hymns were addressed to gods like Indra, Agni, Vayu, Surya, Chandra, etc., because they were the most relevant to the Soma Yagna, but people got the impression that those were the supreme gods. It's only after Vyasa composed the Mahabharata and the Puranas that people got a correct view of the importance of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, etc. Until then, they were often viewed as minor deities, and people didn't even realize that e.g. Matsya, Kurma, and Varaha were incarnations of Vishnu! (For instance, there's no mention of Vishnu in the story of Matsya in the Shatapatha Brahmana of the Yajur Veda.)

In any case, it's interesting to trace the history of Vaishnavism (Vishnu-worship) before Vyasa came and cleared things up. Vaishnavism came from many different strands, which I'll identify by the name of Vishnu they venerated the most:

  1. Vishnu - There is Vedic Vishnuism, the worship of Vishnu as he's described in the Vedas, which mostly involves his incarnation as Vamana the dwarf. (I give quotes from the Vedas concerning Vamana in my question here.) Because Vamana is known for his taking three steps of land in order to restore rule of the three-worlds to Indra, it was incorrectly assumed that being Indra's helper was the general role of Vishnu. But there are still small references to the other attributes of Vishnu that would become more widely known later on. For instance, Rig Veda Book I Hymn 156 describes his various opulences:

    1. FAR-SHINING, widely famed, going thy wonted way, fed with the oil, be helpful. Mitra-like, to us. So, Viṣṇu, e’en the wise must swell thy song of praise, and he who hath oblations pay thee solemn rites.
    2. He who brings gifts to him the Ancient and the Last, to Viṣṇu who ordains, together with his Spouse, Who tells the lofty birth of him the Lofty One, shall verily surpass in glory e’en his peer.
    3. Him have ye satisfied, singers, as well as ye know, primeval germ of Order even from his birth. Ye, knowing e’en his name, have told it forth: may we, Viṣṇu, enjoy the grace of thee the Mighty One.

    Note that the birth is about the birth of Vamana, not Vishnu, but in any case we see here a reference to the power of Vishnu's name. And Rig Veda Book I Hymn 154 describes his role in upholding the Cosmos:

    1. Him whose three places that are filled with sweetness, imperishable, joy as it may list them, Who verily alone upholds the threefold, the earth, the heaven, and all living creatures.

    2. May I attain to that his well-loved mansion where men devoted to the Gods are happy. For there springs, close akin to the Wide-Strider, the well of meath in Viṣṇu's highest footstep.

    3. Fain would we go unto your dwelling-places where there are many-horned and nimble oxen, For mightily, there, shineth down upon us the widely-striding Bull's sublimest mansion.

    And verse 6 explicitly refers to Paramapadam, the supreme abode of Vishnu. The Shatapatha Brahmana of the Yajur Veda describes another property of Vishnu which would become more widely known later on, namely his role as the Yagna Purusha or lord of sacrifice:

    Vishnu first attained [the sacrifice], and he became the most excellent of the gods; whence people say, 'Vishnu is the most excellent of the gods.' Now he who is this Vishnu is the sacrifice; and he who is this sacrifice is yonder Âditya.

    Note that he is called an Aditya because Vamana is the son of Kashyap and Aditi; it's the same reason that in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says "Of the Adityas I am Vishnu". In any case, the fact that Vishnu is the Yagna Purusha would become more important later on; it's the reason that Vaikhanasas and others felt justified in replacing the daily performance of Yagnas with idol worship of Vishnu, because by worshipping Vishnu they were still effectively doing a Yagna.

  2. Narayana - There is the Pancharatra movement, which began with the sage Narayana, an ancient incarnation of Vishnu who was the son of Yama god of death and twin brother of the sage Nara. (Nara and Narayana were previous births of Arjuna and Krishna.) As I discuss in this question, the Shatapatha Brahmana of the Yajur Veda describes Narayana conducting a five-day (Pancharatra) Yagna and then becoming the entire universe:

    Purusha Nârâyana desired, 'Would that I overpassed all beings! would that I alone were everything here (this universe)!' He beheld this five-days’ sacrificial performance, the Purushamedha, and took it, and performed offering therewith; and having performed offering therewith, he overpassed all beings, and became everything here. And, verily, he who, knowing this, performs the Purushamedha, or who even knows this, overpasses all beings, and becomes everything here.

    The being that Narayana venerated/turned into is described in the famous Purusha Sukta, and the end portion of the Purusha Sukta in the Shukla Yajur Veda (known as the Uttara-Narayana) describes Narayana himself:

    1. In the beginning he was formed, collected from waters, earth, and Visvakarman's essence. Fixing the form thereof Tvashtar proceedeth. This was at first the mortal's birth and godhead.
    2. I know this mighty Purusha whose colour is like the Sun, beyond the reach of darkness. He only who knows him leaves Death behind him. There is no path save this alone to travel.
    3. In the womb moves Prajâpati: he, never becoming born, is born in sundry figures. The wise discern the womb from which he springeth. In him alone stand all existing creatures.
    4. He who gives light and heat to Gods, first, foremost Agent of the Gods, Born ere the Gods—to him the bright, the holy One, be reverence
    5. Thus spake the Gods at first, as they begat the bright and holy One: The Brahman who may know thee thus shall have the Gods in his control.
    6. Beauty and Fortune are thy wives: each side of thee are Day and Night. The constellations are thy form: the Asvins are thine open jaws. Wishing, wish yonder world for me, wish that the Universe be mine.

    Note that in verse 22 Narayana's wives are called "Hri and Lakshmi". In any case, because Narayana peformed a five-night (Pancharatra) Yagna and became all things, people started following so-called Pancharatra texts which gave detailed procedures to worship Narayana. Among the oldest standalone Pancharatra texts we have are the Satvata Samhita, the Jayakhya Samhita, and the Ahirbudhnya Samhita. But there's a Pancharatra text even older than these, and it's part of the Mahabharata! (I discuss the Narayaniya here.) It's called the Narayaniya, and it's an 18-chapter religious discourse between Yudhishthira and Bhishma in the Shanti Parva in the Mahabharata, specifically chapters 335-352. (It's similar to the Bhagavad Gita, an 18-chapter religious discourse between Krishna and Arjuna, and that's no coincidence: the Bhagavad Gita is also considered a Pancharatra text, but it's become so universally accepted by Hindus that people forget its sectarian association.) But it is believed by some that the Pancharatra tradition did not originate in the Pancharatra Agamas we have now, but rather in a now-extinct Vedic Shakha (recension), known as the Ekayana Shakha of the Shukla Yajur Veda, which would have been founded by the sage Narayana. That would explain why the description of Narayana's deeds is in the Shatapatha Brahmana of the Shukla Yajur Veda, and the Uttara-Narayana hymn is in the Shukla Yajur Veda itself. But as far as I can tell the existence of the Ekayana Shakha hasn't been conclusively established.

    In any case, the Pancharatra texts advocate the worship of Narayana through Pancharatra Yagnas (apparently free of animal sacrifice); through Karma Yoga (action without desiring a fruit); through recital of the Ashtakshari mantra (Namo Narayanaya), which Narayana is said to have taught his brother Nara; and through idol worship (akin to Vaikhanasas), although this may have originated with the Bhagavata movements.

  3. Vasudeva - There is the Bhagavata movement, which worshipped four forms of god, Vasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha. known as the four Vyuha forms. (These are also the names of Krishna, his brother Balarama, his son Pradyumna, and his grandson Aniruddha, but this wasn't recognized at the time.) The Bhagavatas were originally distinct from the Pancharatras, but these groups merged and now it's hard to tell what their unique characteristics were. Idol worship in temples was probably one of them though; Yamunacharya's Agama Pramanya quotes the sage Atri condemning the Bhagavatas along with other Brahmanas who work in temples for money:

    The Avalukas, Devalakas, Kalpadevalakas, Ganabhogadevalakas, and fourthly those of the Bhagavata profession are corrupt Brahmins.

    (I see five groups, not four, but who's counting?) Most of what we can gleam about the Bhagavatas are in the criticisms of them; for instance, in his commentary on this Sutra and the following Sutras of the Brahma Sutras, Adi Shankaracharya interprets the Brahma Sutras to be criticizing the views of the Bhagavatas with respect to the Vyuha theory.

  4. Krishna - there is Krishnaism, the worship of Krishna due to the various miracles he had performed in his time on Earth, particularly those he performed as a child growing up in Vrindavana and the like. When Krishna's great-grandson Vajra came back to Mathura after the flood of Dwaraka, he promulgated the cult of Krishnaism, focusing on Krishna and his various relatives like Balarama, Pradyumna, Aniruddha, and Samba.

The Bhagavatas and Panchartras eventually realized that Narayana was just an incarnation of the Bhagavata deity Vasudeva, so the two movements merged into one, and then the Bhagavatas realized that it wasn't a coinicdence that the four forms of god they worshipped shared the names of Krishna and his family members. And then finally, when people realized that Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu, Vaishnavism as we understand it today was born, since people now knew that Narayana, Vasudeva, and Vishnu were all the same god; the Mahanarayana Upanishad summarizes this insight in its famous verse, "Narayanaya Vidmahe, Vasudevaya Dhimahi, Tano Vishnu Prachodayat".

For more information, I suggest you read books on the history of Vaishnavism, for instance Suvira Jaiswal's book "The Origin and Development of Vaisnavism" and S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar's "Early History of Vaishnavism in South India". (Those aren't necessarily my favorite books on the history of Vaishnavism, they're just the first two ebooks I found in my computer's hard drive on the subject.)

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    A History question for you Keshav "it was incorrectly assumed that being Indra's helper was the general role of Indra (assuming you meant Vishnu)". Do you mean that people who worshipped Vamana did not know about the all-pervasive and supreme nature of Vishnu? Because AFAIK there was Prahlada, who adored and worshipped Vishnu even before Mahabali. so surely there was a general knowledge about the Deity of Sri Vishnu, isn't it. Thanks a lot
    – Sai
    Apr 22, 2015 at 17:04
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    @Sai Yes, the people worshipping Vamana did not understand that Vishnu was supreme. But they did know he was all-pervasive, because that's the etymological root of the word Vishnu, but they mistakenly thought that it just referred to the fact that when Vamana grew in size, he encompassed the entire Universe. They didn't realize that it referred to the omnipresence of a supreme being. As far as Prahlada, he's an unusual case because his mother stayed with Narada. Sages like Narada knew the truth about Vishnu, but the common people were misinformed because their knowledge was gleamed from Yagnas Apr 22, 2015 at 17:15
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    @Sai And they didn't even know that Vamana was an incarnation of Vishnu, they just thought that that's who Vishnu was. They thought that Vishnu was genuinely the son of Kashyapa and Aditi and that he was the little brother of Indra. Apr 22, 2015 at 17:22
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    Interesting though your analysis is, I don't know how what you say can be possible. There have been devotees of Vishnu right from Chatuh-sana, manu and Kardama to Arjuna. And all of them were very prominent. Ambarisha even built temples and worshipped Vishnu - or one can say, his Kula Daiva, Ranganatha. This being the case, obviously the people would have understood that for their king to celebrate Periya Perumal thus, he cannot be some ordinary sentry of Indra.
    – Surya
    Dec 10, 2015 at 11:42
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    And how is it that people didn't know Vasudeva and Narayana are the same? I mean, dull-wits too have limits!
    – Surya
    Dec 10, 2015 at 11:43

Not sure where to begin. The book you are quoting seems to be misguided, and as one of the comments says, a hangover from the pre-independence English Indologists, more often referred to as Orientalists, who nurtured a view of Hinduism as a polytheistic religion of savages. Modern Western academicians, sometimes referred to as Neo-Orientalists, have continued this tradition wrapping it in modern Western universalism.

The Hindu gods, like all concepts of God across different cultures, have evolved as man evolved culturally.

Shiva, as part of the trimurti Godhead, is the god of destruction (and consequently death). This was not an add-on by the Dravidian culture as the other author connotes. There is ample evidence of this in the Aryan ruins at Mahenjo-Daro between 2,000-4,000 BC. Heinrich Zimmer says in Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization p 126:

Already in Mohenjo-Daro the lingum occurs, side by side with other important symbols similar to those employed in later Hindu iconography.

Vishnu was also part of the trimurti Godhead. He was the sustainer of creation. Later Vishnu came to represent the Supreme Godhead. Again, Heinrich Zimmer sees this development as part of the Vedic period and as an outcome of the the development of the Aryan during the Vedic period and not due to Dravidian.

There is a myth as to the Dravidian being a separate culture and language from the rest of Indian culture. This was first fostered by the early English Orientalists of the 1800's. The history of this is covered in extensive detail in Chapter 6 entitled 'Inventing the Dravidian Race' of Breaking India.

I would suggest for further reading:

  1. Myths and Symbols in Indian Arts and Civilization by Heinrich Zimmer and
  2. Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines by Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan
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    If there are no Dravidians, then what are the Dasa kingdoms described in the Rig Veda, where people don't do Yagnas? Mar 28, 2015 at 14:41
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    @Keshav - Is there any explicit reference to Dasa kingdoms in Rigveda as Dravidians or those who inhabited Dravida desa or southern part of Bharata varsha?
    – user808
    Mar 28, 2015 at 16:48
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    @KeshavSrinivasan There were many many kingdoms throughout India, that did not in and of itself make any one geography separate from the Vedic family. Rajiv Malhotra's "Breaking India" has an Appendix B entitled 'Ancient Tamil Religion in Sangam Literature'. In one part he mentions that "...yagnas were very common in the life of ancient Tamils, as portrayed by Sangam literature." He then gives many specific ancient Tamil references. Mar 29, 2015 at 5:27
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    @KeshavSrinivasan In the same appendix he also points out specific 'pan-Indian' narratives and references in Sangam literature. The book even looks at recent scientific works that have attempted to analyze different Indian populations using DNA. The book is a good read. Mar 29, 2015 at 5:28
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    I certainly agree that the Tamil people of the Sangam period were involved in Vedic practices, but the question is whether there was an earlier Dravidian culture in pre-Sangam times. The Vedas certainly spend a lot of time describing the Dasas and their non-performance of Yagnas, and there are a lot of references to Vedic kings fighting the Dasa rulers. Anyway, thanks for the book recommendation. If I can give you a recommendation, Edwin Bryant's book "The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate" gives a fair and balanced look at the debate. Mar 29, 2015 at 5:42

In Sanskrit the word Vishnu literally means "all pervasive" or "one who is everything and inside everything".

People these days over complicate answers about this topic because the modern world has forgotten the foundations of Sanskrit. While the knowledge itself is not lost (it's easily available online), many people are simply unaware of it. In Sanskrit the meaning of every word is equivalent to the meaning of it's parts. Likewise Sanskrit names are only given when they specifically represent properties of the Being/object being described.

So in other words, Vishnu has always been God of everything because that's more or less the meaning of the word itself.

  • This doesn't answer the question or looks like an incomplete answer. Please answer the question "how the concept evolved" nevertheless answer could be denying such evolution
    – Pandya
    Aug 24, 2021 at 16:30
  • @Pandya Yes my answer is denying the evolution in question, with the fundamental reason being due to how words behave / are constructed in Vedic Sanskrit. More specifically it is impossible to completely translate Vedic Sanskrit because the words are inherently holographic in nature, in the sense that all words have multiple meanings which equal the sum of their dhatu roots (and more technically). All Sanskrit words are basically compressed sentences of meaning. It is quite a remarkable language. Aug 24, 2021 at 21:47
  • Ok. Please update the answer accordingly.
    – Pandya
    Aug 28, 2021 at 14:13

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