Guest Post: God of Many Avatars: Understanding Vishnu in Comics

Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases I send myself forth.
For the protection of the good and for the destruction of evil,
and for the establishment of righteousness,
I come into being age after age.
— Bhagavad Gita 4.7–8

What do The Elder Scrolls, Warhammer 40,000, and Marvel Comics all have in common? A certain many-armed Hindu god named Vishnu.

Given the superheroic duty of protecting all cosmic order, Vishnu is said to have 10 avatars, and over 1000 names. Appropriately, pop culture has only given Vishnu more faces and names. From appearing as himself in Marvel Comics, or serving as inspiration the warrior-poet god Vivec in The Elder Scrolls, and the terrifying Four-Armed Emperor of Warhammer 40,000, Vishnu’s fiery ethos and passion have made themselves as important to pop culture as any of the better-known Western deities and legends.

Why, then, has Vishnu not received the same attention and direct acknowledgement as the likes of Zeus, Thor, and Hercules? In truth, Vishnu is starting to join our tapestry of films and comics, and in this blog we’ll be breaking down some of the core facets of Vishnu and how these aspects and story themes have slowly made their way into western pop culture.

Who Is Vishnu?

A battle-crazed warrior, laying a one-man siege to the fortress of a demon king. A guardian of humanity, protector of a higher cosmic order from the forces of evil and chaos. A raging man-lion, and a dwarf who can travel all of creation in three steps. All these, and more, are the incarnations of Vishnu, one of the central and most heroic deities of the Hindu pantheon.

While Brahma serves as “the creator” and Shiva “the destroyer”, Vishnu is considered the preserver of order, or Dharma. Many of his incarnations are warrior characters, often charged with righting a wrong—both personal and cosmic. However, in his more deitific incarnations, he is often portrayed with four arms, and evinces mystery, compassion, and light.

While he is famous for his more heroic incarnations like Rama or lion-headed Narasimha, Vishnu is most often portrayed as a four-armed deity, reclining on the coils of Sesha, King of the Serpents, as he dreams the universe into being.

Vishnu in Popular Culture

Up to this point, pop culture portrayals of Vishnu have not always been super developed in the West. Regrettable appropriations of his tale, such as in Indiana Jones and Western cartoons, are usually there to serve as an exotic strawman, or a punchline.

Fortunately that’s quickly changing. The Myths of India series has presented the stories of Vishnu in classic comic style. The story of Rama is well told in this series, as well as the story of Narasimha—but even still, this is a small drop in the bucket compared to the endless tellings and retellings that characters like Hercules and Thor have enjoyed over the years.

We’re also looking forward to River Comics’ upcoming series focusing on both Vishnu and his best-known avatar, Krishna. Given the varied stories and characterisations that almost all Hindu deities enjoy, it stands to reason that Vishnu will have many stories to share with us in the months to come.

Katie Tejada is a writer, editor, and pop culture enthusiast. She enjoys writing about all things comics, films, and television, as well as travel and events. She has a love for adventure, interest in interiors, and a knack for covering developments in a range of industries, from HR to real estate, finance and more.

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Author: thecomicvault

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