While glorified with a 1000 names in the famous stotra of the early Sātvata tradition of the Mahābharata, in the texts of an even earlier period the god primarily went under that name Viṣṇu. Indeed, even the litany of the 1000 names begins with viśvaṃ viśṇur vaśatkāraḥ signaling the connection to that ancient layer of tradition, with viśvam i.e, “everything” being an etymological elaboration of his name Viṣṇu, “the all-pervader”. Further, vaṣaṭkāra indicates his link to the Vedic ritual (the vaṣaṭ offering to Viṣṇu is already specifically mentioned twice in the Ṛgveda) wherein we can trace the meteoric rise of this god as the head-deity of one of the great sectarian streams of the āstika-s.
His later rise notwithstanding, it should be borne in mind that Viṣṇu is a prominent deity of early Indo-European vintage. Mentioned 113 times in Ṛgveda itself (Table 1), one can already sense his prominence in the pantheon. His cognate in the Germanic world Víðarr provides evidence of his importance in the early undivided IE days. In the Gylfaginning of the Icelandic prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson, who still had links to the old Germanic heathenism, described Víðarr thus:
“Víðarr is the name of the silent asa. He has a very thick shoe, and he is the strongest next after Thor. From him the gods have much help in all hard tasks.”
Here, his being “strongest next to Thor” is mirrored in the ārya tradition where Viṣṇu is nearly equal/equal to his elder brother/friend Indra. Víðarr “helped the gods in the hard tasks”, a specific feature shared with Viṣṇu in the ārya tradition. Finally, his thick shoe is related to the stride Víðarr takes in the final battle of the gods, Ragnarok, where he tramples the nether jaw of the demonic Fenris-wolf and opens its mouth wide apart to slay it. In the ārya tradition, likewise Viṣṇu’s three demon-conquering wide strides are well-known and this gives him his alternative name in the Veda, Urugāya, “the wide-goer”. This is related to again related to the etymology of Víðarr = “wider” and the very cognate of Víðarr, vitara, appears in the śruti in the context of Viṣṇu: athābravīd vṛtram indro haniṣyan sakhe viṣṇo vitaraṃ vi kramasva || : Then Indra spoke as he prepared to slay Vṛtra: “friend Viṣṇu stride widely.” The strides of Viṣṇu are also said to make space by widening the universe for Indra to swing his vajra to slay Vṛtra. This is parallel to Víðarr holding the jaws of the Fenris-wolf wide apart.
Both Viṣṇu and Víðarr are mentioned as possessing a special world/realm. In the case of Viṣṇu, who is called the “cowherd” or the cattle-protector, it is wide pasture in a mountainous realm. Víðarr’s is a case it is mentioned a thick with grass. Finally, we may note that Víðarr is one of the deities to survive the Ragnarok and usher in the new Germanic “satyayuga”. Among the ārya-s, as the “time-god”, he is seen as again surviving the yuga-s in the later Viṣṇu-centric traditions.
Figure 1. Viṣṇu (an image of seal impression of seal from Gandhāra; Northwestern India showing a Hunnic or Iranic lord worshiping the god) and Celtic Taranis (an ancient Gaulish bronze found in 1774 CE at Le Chatelet, France)
In the Celtic world, the chief Gaulish deity of the Indra-class, Taranis, appears to have absorbed elements of his partner, the deity of the Viṣṇu-class. We go somewhat out on a limb to suggest that the late iconography of Taranis, before the end of the Gaulish religion, was actually influenced by that of Viṣṇu carried either directly by Indian or Indianized Iranic travelers to the West or from them via intermediaries to the Gauls (Figure 1). Examples of this influence are seen in the wheel-wielding images of Taranis and his depiction on the famous Gundestrup cauldron. In the case of the latter, the Indian influence is clinched by the elephants associated with the goddess (probably Rhiannon) who is depicted similar to Lakṣmī the wife of Viṣṇu. We postulate that this influence was because they could see obvious parallels between their deities and the Indian counterparts, which in turn was a consequence of Taranis absorbing elements of the original Viṣṇu-class deity.
Closer to the Indo-Aryan realm, our Iranic cousins have deity called Rashnu Razishta, the heavenly judge, who superficially plays a Citragupta-like role. His name and sudden appearance without parallels elsewhere in the IE world suggests that he is none other than a cognate of the Indo-Aryan Viṣṇu. His name probably underwent a folk-linguistic mutation from ‘vi’ to ‘ra’ for the Iranians probably (wrongly) interpreted the ‘vi’ as a prefix with a negative connotation and “corrected” it to ‘ra’ the proper one (A suggestion also made by Puhvel/Dumezil though, in my opinion wrongly, opposed by some Indo-Europeanists). His popular worship among the Iranians is hinted by the occurrence of his name as part of personal names found in the Persepolis Fortification Tablets from the time of the Achaemenid emperor Darius-I: Rashnudāta and Rashnuka and the Parthian name Rashnumithra. Rashnu’s link to Viṣṇu is indicated by his accompanying Mithra to his right on his chariot when he rides forth for battle. In the Zoroastrian strain of the Iranic religion, Mithra with his vazra has taken the place of Indra and Rashnu retains the role of Viṣṇu now as Mithra’s assistant instead (Note that even RV Viṣṇu is specifically linked to Mitra, e.g. in RV 1.156.1 and RV 8.52.3). Notably, Yasht 12 to Rashnu (which has been clearly redacted to interpolate Ahura Mazdā’s name for Rashnu in the initial manthra-s) shows that he held an important role in the ritual and he is described as tall, forceful deity praised in superlative terms indicating the importance he once held in Iranian realm:
rashnvô ashâum rashnvô razishta rashnvô spênishta rashnvô vaêdhishta rashnvô vidhcôishta rashnvô parakavistema rashnvô dûraêdareshtema rashnvô arethamat bairishta rashnvô tâyûm nijakhnishta…
O holy Rashnu! O most-true Rashnu! most-beneficent Rashnu! most-knowing Rashnu! most- discerning Rashnu! most-fore-knowing Rashnu! most far-seeing Rashnu! Rashnu, the best doer of justice! Rashnu, the best smiter of thieves (tâyu = Skt stāyu)…
Keeping with his far-seeing nature, the yasht is unusual in describing the Iranic karshvare-s (world regions) and heavenly constellations as the regions seen by Rashnu as he flies along. This peculiar feature of the yasht, seen with no other Iranic deity, points to two parallels with Viṣṇu: (1) The listing of the realms is suggestive of Viṣṇu pervading them or striding over them. (2) Among the places Rashnu is invoked there are 3 stations mentioned in succession the quarters of the earth, boundary of the earth and all over the earth. Apart from reminding one of the three strides, it also reminds one of the ṛk where Viṣṇu is described as fixing the boundary of the earth by the pegs at the quarters (RV 7.100.3).
In conclusion, we see that the Viṣṇu-class of deities, despite their spotty occurrence in what has come down to us of the IE traditions, can be traced to a prominent proto-deity in the early IE religion. Here, by early we mean at least the time when the western thrust of the IE people from their Yamnaya homeland took place — the group from which the Germanic, Celtic and Indo-Iranian branches ultimately derive. This conclusion is of importance in understanding the rise of Viṣṇu in the Indian tradition. We shall explore the early stages of that by looking at the counts of the occurrence of the name Viṣṇu in several Vedic texts (Table 1). These texts span the entire range of Vedic tradition from the earliest RV to the Ṛgvidhāna which clings to the very edge of the late Vedic literary activity. In between lie the Saṃhitā-s of the 3 other Veda-s, the khila of the RV, the Brāhmaṇa-s, the Śrauta-sūtra-s and the Gṛhya-sūtra-s. Across these texts the most common name of the deity under consideration is Viṣṇu. He is known by other names like Urugāya, Śipiviṣṭa and the epithet evaya in the core Vedic period. In the latest Vedic texts we encounter the name Nārāyaṇa (e.g. Taittirīya-āraṇyaka), which became prominent in the epic period. However, all these names are generally rare making the count for Viṣṇu a good proxy for estimating the extent of his mentions.
Table 1. The occurrence of Viṣṇu in Vedic texts
First, let us get some caveats regarding this table out of the way. These texts are of very different sizes; thus, someone could claim that the counts could simply reflect the size differences. Hence, one would wish to normalize it by text size. But what unit do you use for normalization? The word would be the ideal unit but it is difficult to obtain for all these texts because of samasta-pada-s typical of Sanskrit not being separated in each case. An alternative is the size of the file in bits. However, this depends on the encoding/format used and we do not have all the texts in a common encoding/format. Next, we have ascii or utf-8/16 encoding files for many of them but not all. The rest were counted using the html files on the TITUS system. We cannot be sure of the completeness of all the texts in TITUS. This said, we can still use the absolute counts reasonable well by comparing “apples with apples”. The Saṃhitā-s may be approximately seen to be of the same order of magnitude. The Brāhmaṇa can be again approximately compared, and the equivalent classes of kalpa texts can be similarly compared.
With these caveats in place, one thing that stands out is the extraordinary prominence of Viṣṇu in the Vedic tradition represented by the Yajurveda. This is clearly in contrast with the other Vedic tradition, namely that of the Samaveda. Tellingly, the one Samavedic text that is enriched in Viṣṇu is the Mantra-brāhmaṇa, which is primarily a collection of yajuṣ-es within the Samavedic tradition. This short collection of yajuṣ-es has the same order of magnitude of mentions of Viṣṇu as the SV Kauthuma-saṃhitā and Pañcaviṃśa-brāhmaṇa, both of which are several times the size of the Mantra-brāhmaṇa.
The divisions in the Vedic tradition correspond to the roles of the ritualists: the hautra tradition of the RV practitioners, the ādhvaryava tradition of the YV practitioners and the chāndoga tradition of the SV practitioners. The AV practitioners are associated with the role of the Brahman but in reality have their own parallel śrauta tradition. We see that in the ādhvaryava tradition the prominence of Viṣṇu is across the three sections, i.e. the Saṃhitā, the Brāhmaṇa and Śrauta-sūtra-s that roughly corresponding to temporal layers within the tradition. Further, in the hautra tradition, the Śrauta-sūtra-s have more mentions of Viṣṇu than their Brāhmaṇa-s, which are larger than the sūtra-s in size. Again, notably, with one exception (we will come to that in the end) the Gṛhya-sūtra-s have relatively low occurrences of Viṣṇu across the board relative to the corresponding Śrauta-sūtra-s.
Now, in the śrauta practice the adhvaryu plays the most important role in terms of the physical actions of the ritual (of course accompanied by yajuṣ incantations). He also issues calls to the hotṛ and udgātṛ to play their parts. The hotṛ in contrast primarily plays the role of reciting the Sāmidhenī-s and the śastra-s and the like, while the udgātṛ’s main role is the singing of the stotra-s during the Soma ritual. While the YV and SV texts as we have them today clearly postdate and presuppose the core RV, we know from the internal evidence of the RV that there were already YV and SV practitioners alongside the composers of the RV. E.g.: udgāteva śakune sāma gāyasi : You O bird sing a sāman like the udgātṛ. tvam adhvaryur uta hotāsi pūrvyaḥ praśāstā potā januṣā purohitaḥ | : You (Agni) are the adhvaryu, the primal hotṛ, the praśastṛ (an assistant of the hotṛ who is also known as the upavaktṛ or the maitrāvaruṇa who plays a special role in recitations to those two gods), the potṛ (the assistant of the Brahman who specializes in prāyaścitta-s) and from birth the purohita. Further, the parallel in the Zoroastrian tradition suggest that at least the hotṛ, the adhvaryu and some version of the brahman go back to the proto-Indo-Iranian period.
While these ṛtvik-s function in unison in the śrauta rituals their mantra collections and activities suggest that they originally represented alternative ritual traditions within the early Indo-European fold, which were brought together under a single framework by at least the proto-Indo-Iranian period. While under a common framework they clearly maintained their own parallel traditions, techniques of composition and ritual principles. When we take this in to account, along with the evidence for the presence of a prominent Viṣṇu-class deity in the early Indo-European religion, we can account for the development of Vaiṣṇava tendencies in the Veda: we posit that it was not that Viṣṇu rose to prominence in the middle Vedic period (as opposed to the early Vedic core RV with the Aindrāgna and old Āditya dominance) from nothing but was always a special deity in the ādhvaryava tradition of the Indo-Aryans. What happened was the rise to dominance of the ādhvaryava tradition in the Indo-Aryan śrauta ritual. Conversely, it is conceivable that on the Iranian side the hautraka tradition dominated, at least in early Zoroastrianism where Zarathustra calls himself the cognate zaotar.
These observations can be summed up by one statement in the ādhvaryava tradition: yajño vai viṣṇuḥ |: The ritual is verily Viṣṇu. Thus, by identifying Viṣṇu with the ritual he is identified with the core activities of the ādhvaryava tradition. Hence, this is consistent with this frequent mention within this tradition. This proposal is further strengthened by the two special devatā-dvandva-s that are common though not unique to the YV tradition but not found in the RV Saṃhitā, which is otherwise rich in devatā-dvandva-s. The main dvandva featuring Viṣṇu in the RV is Indrāviṣṇū, where he is linked to his usual partner Indra. The devatā-dvandva Agnāviṣṇū, found in the AV, RV-brāhmaṇa and frequently in the YV tradition, marks the special position of Viṣṇu not only as the last of the deities to receive the sacrifice but also tacitly or not so tacitly indicates his supremacy by placing him at the end of the pantheon (Aitaryeya-brāhmaṇa: agnir vai devānām avamo viṣṇuḥ paramas tadantareṇa sarvā anyā devatā | : Agni is the lowest of the gods, Viṣṇu is the foremost, all the other deities lie in between. While primarily positional it also hints the primacy of Viṣṇu). The second is the dvandva Viṣṇū-varuṇā seen, for example, in the Taittirīya and the Aitaryeya-brāhmaṇa traditions. This dvandva has a special role that is typical of the ādhvaryava tradition, proper completion of yajña, the invocation of Viṣṇu protects from the badly done yajña while the invocation of Varuṇa protects the well-done one and between the two all is taken care off viṣṇur vai yajṅasya duriṣṭam pāti varuṇaḥ sviṣṭaṃ | tayor ubhayor eva śāntyai ||).
Thus, the unusual situation of dvandva-s not found in the RV but shared by the RV brāhmaṇa-s and YV tradition, and the prominence of Viṣṇu in the “little YV” within the SV, i.e., the Mantra-brāhmaṇa, suggests that these are late entrants into the SV and RV tradition from the YV tradition. Indeed, the even greater prominence of Viṣṇu in the RV Śrauta-sūtra-s as opposed to the Brāhmaṇa-s again indicates the ādhvaryava dominance now entering the hautra territory. Thus, it suggests that the rise of Viṣṇu was essential a feature of adhvaryava dominance in the śrauta ritual. This in contrast to the protogonic Prajāpati, who while emerging late from the para-Vedic periphery, uniformly affected all the Vedic traditions. The Prājāpatya-s competed with Viṣṇu for the two figures of the primordial turtle Kaśyapa and the primordial boar Varāha. While the former was originally associated with Indra (from the RV itself), the latter is hinted to be associated with Viṣṇu in the early AV tradition recorded in the Paippalāda-saṃhitā. However, the Prājāpatya-s laid a strong claim to both before Viṣṇu eventually won and claimed both the figures as his avatāra-s in the Post-Vedic period.
Finally, we saw that the Gṛhya-sūtra-s have a low frequency of mention of Viṣṇu with the exception being that of the Taittirīya-affiliated Vaikhānasa tradition. The Gṛhya-sūtra-s for most part generally record an archaic core of household rites of passage quite different from the śrauta rituals. Thus, the absence of a special role of Viṣṇu beyond specific contexts like the fertility ritual for preparing the womb for the embryo is not unexpected. Now, one of the two earliest sectarian Vaiṣṇava traditions arose among the Vaikhānasa-s. Thus, what we are seeing in the case of the Vaikhānasa-gṛhyasūtra is the emergence of this tradition which went on to become a still extant system of the combined iconic and fire worship of Viṣṇu. The second sectarian tradition centered on Viṣṇu, the Pañcarātra, explicitly identifies itself with the Śukla-yajurveda. Thus, we may say that rise of Vaiṣṇavam itself is an internal development within the ādhvaryava tradition, with the two early schools emerging from each of the main Yajurvedic divisions. Once these had emerged they influenced the latest of the Vedic texts across the traditions. We see this in the case of the Ṛgvidhāna, which, for a relatively short text, has several mentions of Viṣṇu in the context of what appears to be an early Pāñcarātrika section.
To conclude we may ask what about the Sātvata tradition that affiliates itself to the Pāñcarātrika tradition? We have evidence that Viṣṇu’s primary manifestation in that system the Vāsudeva along with the 3 other vyūha deities and the goddess Ekānaṃśā probably have para-Vedic roots in the Indo-Iranian borderlands. Likewise, with the watery Nārāyaṇa or his humanized dyadic form of Nara-Nārāyaṇa. But these traditions always saw itself as a part of Vaiṣṇava system. Hence, we posit that they are part of greater “Vaiṣṇava” tradition of old IE provenance that in addition to influencing the ādhvaryava tradition also had “lower” para-Vedic registers such as these. Nevertheless, this tradition’s links to the old Viṣṇu are hinted by certain specific features, for example: (1) The Vāsudeva in his human manifestation (Kṛṣṇa Devakīputra) consorts with a large number of women. Viṣṇu consorting with a bevy of goddesses is already mentioned in RV 3.54.14. This also relates to his early fertility role as the protector of the sperm of males. (2) Already in the RV Viṣṇu is repeatedly mentioned as being the cowherd or the cow-protector (RV 1.22.18; RV 3.55.10). Thus, this aspect of the Devakīputra of the Sātvata religion are likely merely a humanization of an old trait of the deity.