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Vishnu is one of the three main gods of Hinduism: Brahma creates the world, Shiva destroys it and in between Vishnu preserves it.

Vishnu supports the dharma of the world – the moral order. But sometimes evil takes over the world. To restore the balance, Vishnu appears on earth. The earthly form he takes is called an avatar.

He has appeared on earth nine times and will appear one more time. Once he appeared as the hero Rama, another time as Krishna, that blue man in the Bhagavadgita. He was also Buddha.

He will come a tenth time when the world is about to end.

Some worship Vishnu as the greatest of all gods. The Vaishnavas say he is the only true god.

Vishnu has a thousand names. To say them all brings merit.

Vishnu has four arms. So does his lover, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune. He flies on the king of the birds, Garuda and sometimes sits on a huge snake called Seshanag in the middle of a vast milk ocean between worlds. He is pictured as a blue or black man. He likes to dress in yellow.

Vishnu holds something different in each of his four hands: a shell that says “Om”, a lotus flower, a club and a disc.

His ten avatars in order of appearance:

  1. Matsya – a fish who saved mankind when water covered the whole earth.
  2. Kurma – a turtle who held a mountain on his back to help the gods to overthrow the demons.
  3. Varaha – a pig who saves the earth when it fell to the bottom of the sea.
  4. Narasimha – half lion, half man.
  5. Vamana – a dwarf. The demon Bali had taken over hell, heaven and earth. Vishnu, appearing as a dwarf, gets Bali to agree to give him everything he can step over in three steps. It is a trick: Vishnu grows into a giant and steps over the heavens and the earth.
  6. Parasurama – a hunter who rids the earth of evil kings.
  7. Rama – a man, the hero of the Ramayana. He overthrows the evil king Ravana and saves Sita, his beloved (who is Lakshmi, of course).
  8. Krishna – a blue man, the hero of the Mahabharata, a long story, the most famous part of which is called the Bhagavadgita. He drives Arjuna’s chariot into battle, a showdown between good and evil that he has brought about. Krishna tells Arjuna the answers to life’s great questions.
  9. Buddha – an all-knowing man who appeared in the 400s BC and founded Buddhism. Some say Balarama, not Buddha, was the ninth avatar.
  10. Kalki – a man on a white horse who will come near the end of the world.

Krishna and Rama are the best known and are worshipped as gods in their own right.

Some say there were more avatars, but these are the generally accepted ones.

It might seem strange for Vishnu to appear as a pig, for example. But he does that to trick whatever demon has taken over the world.

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