Vishnu is all-pervading, all-encompassing. He is the aspect of the Supreme who sustains the whole universe. According to Indian mythology he takes only three steps to cover the length and breadth of the universe. He uses two strides to cover earth and the third one to touch Heaven. The first two strides are visible to human beings, but the third one is invisible to us. It is said that even the birds flying in the welkin cannot see Vishnu's third stride.

The first mention of the cosmic god Vishnu is found in the Rig Veda. According to the Rig Veda, Vishnu has ninety steeds and each of these ninety steeds has four names. Ninety multiplied by four is three hundred and sixty. It is from here that we get the three hundred and sixty degrees of the circle, which represent the entire expanse of our material world. The four names of each steed are also connected in the legends with the four seasons of the year.

Very often aspirants are consumed with the desire to know who among the principal gods is most compassionate: Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva? All these three gods have boundless spiritual power, but when it is a matter of Compassion, the most compassionate is Vishnu. Brahma and Shiva also have compassion; they are powerful and they show infinite Concern for our day-to-day life. But when it is a matter of immediate and direct Compassion, Vishnu stands first.

Let me tell you a story: the great sage Bhrigu was also an astrologer of the highest magnitude. He wanted to know for certain who was the most compassionate among the three principal cosmic gods: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. So he went to Brahma's house without permission and entered like an intruder. Then he spoke roughly with Brahma. Brahma became furious. He said, "What right have you to enter into my house and argue with me unnecessarily? There is no rhyme or reason to your actions."

So the sage left and went to see Shiva's compassion. He went to Shiva's house and forced open the door. Then he started unjustly criticising Shiva. Shiva's anger is the quickest. Shiva immediately got furious and he was about to turn the sage into ashes, but the sage quickly left his house and soon arrived at Vishnu's house. Vishnu was fast asleep, lying on his back. Slowly the sage approached him. He said to himself, "This is the time for me to test Vishnu's Compassion." So he placed his right foot on the middle of Vishnu's chest. Vishnu opened his eyes and to the sage's utter amazement, caught his leg and most devotedly and soulfully began massaging his foot. "I am so sorry," Vishnu said. "Are you hurt? My chest is strong and you placed your foot on my chest. Perhaps you are hurt." So immediately the sage came to understand which god is the most compassionate of the three.

From this story we learn that when we want to approach the most compassionate aspect of the Supreme, we should approach Vishnu.

The adoration of Vishnu as a divine personality actually originated in the Puranas. The Puranas are traditional stories and teachings based on the spiritual philosophy of the Vedas and the Upanishads. The Puranas are very simple and appealing; they are colourful tales and dissertations especially adapted for the common people and contain none of the esoteric or philosophical content of the older sacred works, the Vedas and the Upanishads. They are pure enjoyment, written for the edification of the masses.

In the Puranas, Vishnu is worshipped with intense, divine emotion. This worship gradually developed in India until it reached its peak in the Vaishnavism, or Vishnu-worship, of Sri Chaitanya in the 16th century A.D. The cult of Vishnu became a most significant part of Hinduism and it remains so today.

Vaishnavism is love for God, love itself. In Vaishnavism no ritual or intellectual capacity is necessary. What is required is only the heart's love for the Highest, for the Absolute. Vaishnavism does not care for the rituals of the Vedas. It does not care for the countless gods mentioned in the Upanishads. The Vedanta system says that the world is an illusion. But Vaishnavism, on the strength of its love, says no, the world is reality.

Mahatma Gandhi, India's greatest patriot and political leader, was a Vaishnava to the marrow. He taught India the meaning of non-violence. This concept of non-violence comes from Vaishnavism. Vaishnavism says that where there is love, there can be no violence; there can be no destruction. Gandhi's use of non-violence came into existence from divine love, and this feeling of love in its purest sense comes from the Vishnu cult, Vaishnavism.

Spiritual seekers in most religions want to merge with the highest Truth. Usually human aspiration wants to lose its individuality and become totally one with the Divine. But in Vaishnavism it is different. The lover and the Beloved will become one, but the lover wants to keep his own individuality. Why? He feels that if he becomes inseparably one with the object of his adoration, then the sweetness, the closeness and deepest intimacy, which is ecstasy itself, will not be felt. That is to say, when an aspirant becomes one with his Lord, then both of them are now Lords. At that time, the aspirant's sweetest feeling for his Beloved will disappear.

A child and his father are inseparably one; the child's consciousness and the father's consciousness are one. But the child feels that although he and his father are one, his father is most compassionate and most forgiving. The child gets joy in playing the role of the inferior, in feeling that he is in touch with someone who is all-pervading, who is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. He doesn't want to be equal to his father. You can say that here the individuality wants to test its love at times in a separated consciousness. Pure Vaishnavites get the greatest joy when they feel deep in the inmost recesses of their heart that they are the slaves of God.

Vaishnavites are ready at every moment to dedicate their existence to the service of God; they want to remain the dearest children, the chosen children of God. But they don't want to become God. They want to maintain their individuality in absolutely the purest sense of the term.

Ramakrishna used to say that if you want to maintain your ego or separativity, then maintain it in the form of a slave or a servant so you can say, "I am God's child. How can I do anything wrong? How can I wallow in the pleasures of ignorance?" This kind of ego is better than the ego where you bind yourself by trying to show your supremacy and do many other wrong things. But he also used to say that he did not want to become sugar, he wanted to maintain a sense of separativity so that he could taste the sugar. In Vaishnavism also, the individual seeker wants to taste the highest divine Nectar, so he wants his individuality. He feels that if there is a subtle gulf between his consciousness and that of God, then he will feel supremely fortunate that he is in constant touch with his Lord. Whereas other philosophies say, "Let us become one, totally one, with our Goal." Ramakrishna used to pray to his Mother Kali, "O Mother, keep me in this world with the Rose and the Kase." This means he wanted his connection with the world to be full of a sweet-sour taste and juice. He said, "Do not make me a dry ascetic. Keep me here on earth so that your children can love me." From Vaishnavism we get the sense of sweetness, affection, love, intimacy and ecstasy. Vaishnavism means love within and without, the love that expands and not the love that binds. The prayer of a devout Vaishnava is, "O Lord, give me the pure love, intensified love, which transcends all human love."

Vaishnavism plays its role in philosophy as well as in religion. You all know that Vedanta, especially Shankara's Vedanta which is pure monism, came directly from the old traditional Vaishnavism. There are other philosophical systems derived from this as well:

Vishishtadvaita. Vishishtadvaita is qualified monism. Qualified monism means the oneness of the soul and matter in the fold which is the Absolute Being. Matter and spirit are inseparable and their inseparable qualities come from the transcendental Being. The founder of this system was Ramanuja, who was a great devotee and great scholar.

Dvaita. Dvaita means dualism. In this doctrine, matter and soul are entities separate from each other. They are also different from God; they do not have inseparable oneness with God. God and man are not one; also man and the soul are not one. The founder of this system is Madhava, another great intellectual giant, although Madhava and Ramanuja were not as intellectual or as spiritually developed and profound as Shankara.

Dvaitadvaita. In Dvaitadvaita dualism and monism go together. At one moment soul, matter and God are inseparable; but the next moment they are easily separated. When we go deep within, we feel soul, matter, man and God are inseparably one; the inner existence and the outer existence are one. But when we live in the body, in the outer consciousness, we feel that the body has nothing to do with God, that we have nothing to do with God. Again, we feel that God, on His part, has nothing to do with this ignorant body, mind and heart.

Shuddhadvaita. Shuddhadvaita means pure monism. Shuddha means pure in Sanskrit and advaita means monism. Shuddhadvaita means pure monism. Here the reality of God is seen all around. The world is not an illusion or a dream; the world is not unreal. The world is Reality itself. The founder of this system stood at daggers drawn with Shankara. Of course, Shankara's philosophy has been considerably misunderstood by seekers and even so-called great philosophers.

The word 'Avatar' means the direct descendant of God, the incarnation of the Supreme Being. Although an Avatar descends directly from God, our Indian tradition holds that there are ten major Avatars, and all are various incarnations of the God Vishnu. Some of them are animal avatars. The name of the tenth avatar who is yet to come is Kalki. This is what tradition says, this is what the scholars say. But from the spiritual point of view, the Avatars are connected with Vishnu only in so far as Vishnu represents the Supreme in His aspect of the divine Sustainer, the divine Continuity and supreme Unity behind and above all change. There have been quite a few Avatars. Sri Chaitanya was an Avatar, Sri Ramakrishna was an Avatar, Lord Rama and Sri Krishna were Avatars.

Let me conclude with an amusing story. Vishnu and Brahma once entered into competition. They wanted to know who was the better of the two. Since they needed a judge, Shiva became the judge. Shiva said, "All right, soon it will be known who is the better of the two. I am placing a white column of light here. Whoever can reach the top or the bottom of the column and come back to me first will be the winner." Brahma said, "All right, I will try to climb up this white column of light," and Vishnu said, "I will try to climb down." When they started climbing immediately the column of light became long, longer, longest. Brahma and Vishnu tried their utmost, but they could not reach the end; it was impossible. For years both of them continued, but the moment they felt that they would be able to touch the end, the column of light extended itself.

Finally Brahma lost his patience. He said, "The best thing is for me to go and tell Shiva that I touched the top. How will he know whether I reached it or not?" As Brahma was coming down, he saw a white bird. He asked the bird to act as a witness. "When I come," he said, "you will tell Shiva that I touched the top." The bird agreed. Brahman and the bird came down, but poor Vishnu was still struggling. Brahma said, "I touched the top end of the white column of light, so I am the winner." Shiva said, "Wait, let us hear what Vishnu has to say." Just then Vishnu came in. Shiva asked, "Vishnu, what news from you?" "I am sorry," Vishnu replied, "I tried my utmost but I failed. I could not touch the end of that mysterious column of light." Shiva immediately became furious with Brahma for lying to him. What could Brahma do? He had been caught. Shiva opened his third eye, which was full of destructive fire, and he really wanted to kill Brahma. Shiva said, "You told me a lie, so I will cut off one of your heads." Then he cut off one head of Brahma. That is why we see only the four front heads of Brahma; the back one was cut off by Lord Shiva. So here Vishnu proved himself a sincere man. He did not know how to tell a lie. The creator, however, told a lie and this is the punishment he got from Lord Shiva.