Vishnu, is a form of God, to whom many Hindus pray. For Vaishnavas, He is the only Ultimate Reality or God, as is Shiva for Shaivites. In Trimurti belief, He is the second aspect of God in the Trimurti (also called the Hindu Trinity), along with Brahma and Shiva.
Known as the Preserver, He is most famously identified with His avatars, or incarnations of God, most especially Krishna and Rama. Additionally, another important name for Vishnu is Narayana.
Followers of Vaishnavism, unlike Smartas, do not believe that Vishnu is one of many personal forms of God or Saguna Brahman but believe Him to be the Ultimate Reality (i.e., Brahman) exclusively. A Smarta, on the other hand, would consider Vishnu and Shiva to be different aspects of the same Supreme Being. See Ishta-Deva for greater discussion.
Unlike Shaivism, Vaishnavism believes that Vishnu incarnates periodically for the establishment and protection of righteousness, good dharma and destruction of evil adharma; see avatar for more information.
Smartas who follow Advaita philosophy, believe that deities such as Vishnu or Shiva are various forms of one ultimate higher power ("Brahman"), which higher reality has no specific form, name, face or features. This idea is encapsulated in the term "Nirguna Brahman" ("featureless reality"). The Vaishnava sect (worshippers of Vishnu) however believe that God can transcend all personal characteristics yet can also have personal characteristics for the grace of the human devotee. Personal characteristics are considered an aid for the devotee to focus on God. The Vaishnava sect also believe that it is not necessarily wrong to view a form of God as long as it is recognized that God is not limited to a particular form. Nonetheless, there are many sects of Vaishnavas, most notably Vadakalai Iyengars, who believe that Vishnu's authentic form is not beyond human comprehension, and that His form is exactly as shown in pictures and idols.
Vaishnavite Hindus also worship Vishnu in an abstract form (i.e., God with vague form) as a saligrama stone. Use of the saligrama is similar to the use of lingam, a form of Shiva.
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