Hindus believe that whenever systems of universe go out of order God Vishnu, the preserve mode of the Almighty, appears to re-establish the order (Dharma). All appearances are in some worldly form called Avatar. So far Lord Vishnu, has manifested Himself nine times in different forms as under mentioned narratives unfold: –
1. Matsya (fish) – According to the legend, the King Satyavrat was washing his hands in Kritmala river when a little fish swam into his hands and begged for own safety. King Satyavrat put fish in a jar, in which soon she outgrew. Thereafter the king had the fish successively moved in to a tank, a river, and finally in the ocean. The fish then warned the king that a ‘Great Flood’ would occur in a week resulting in destruction of all life. Thereafter King Satyavrat built a boat to take with him some ‘seeds of all kinds of life’ to preserve and re-create the species on earth. The fish towed the boat to a mountain top for saving seeds of life. The legend has been narrated in detail in Matasya Purana and can be compared with Nohah’s Ark episode. This is suggestive of freezing and preserving DNA of species.
2. Kurma (Tortoise) – Vishnu took the form of a tortoise and sat in the bottom of the ocean to facilitate churning of ocean after the ‘Great Flood’. The top of Sumeru Mountain was placed on the back of Kurma by the other gods to churn the ocean of knowledge to re-discover the ancient treasures of the Vedic knowledge. This is an allegorical depiction of scientific concept as everything emerged on planet earth from ocean after the ice age that followed the Great Flood during Matasya Avatar. Scientific explanation is that after every deluge the planet gets submerged in water. Water gets frozen and followed by ice age and is followed by re-emergence of life on planet Earth. These scientific treasures of knowledge have come to us through Kurma Purana.
3. Varaha (Boar) – Vishnu manifested in the form of Varaha to defeat a horrible demon Hiranyakshya, the brother of great King Hiranyakashipu. Varaha is often depicted in art either in purely animal form or as having a boar’s head on a human body. In the latter form it has four arms, two of which hold Vishnu’s disc and conch-shell and the other two hold a mace, and lotus. The earth is held between the boar’s tusks. The avatar symbolizes the resurrection of the earth from a Praleya (deluge), cycle of destruction and recreation. When ocean recedes, land reappears. It is noteworthy that even in ancient mythological paintings of Varaha Avatar; Earth is always shown as a round earth in comparison to flat earth conceived by other faiths. It underlines scientific Hindu concept in geographical field that West learned much later. Detailed narrative of Varaha Avtar is contained in Varaha Purana.
4. Narasimha (Man-lion) – Vishnu in the form of Narasimha emerged from the pillar which King Hiranyakashipu, had smashed to challenge the omnipresence of Vishnu. The geographical location of this avatar is said to be in present Iraq. Besides other things the narrative highlights the omnipotent and omnipresent aspect of God. The presentation of Narasimha is human body having lion’s head and power implied that God can appear from anywhere and in any form beyond the comprehension of ‘enlightened humans scientists’ to restore order in the Universe. Nothing is impossible for Him. God’s attributes are thus beyond the rationality of human beings of all times.
5. Vamana (The Dwarf) – Vishnu disguised as Vamana asked demon King Bali to donate a piece of land equal to three paces of His Dwarf form. King Bali known for his virtues agreed, against the fore-warning from his guru Sukracharya. As soon as Bali committed the donation, Vamana grew in size. He took the earth in one step, the heavens in the second and offered to forego the third step leaving the underworld for Bali to keep, but virtuous Bali did not wish to leave his promise unfulfilled and offered his head to support the third step of Vishnu. Vamana was pleased and pushed King Bali to the underworld as eternal Master. In reward Bali was made immortal, and is said to be in the underworld to this day. Vamana Puran contains the narrative.
6. Parashurama (Rama with axe) – Parashurama appears in Ramayana and also in Mahabharatha epic. He had received an axe after doing penance for Lord Shiva. He was the son of Rishi Jamadagni, whom King Kritveerya-Arjuna once visite with his army. In his Ashrama located in the forest, Rishi Jamadagni, fed the royal guest and his army with the blessings of his divine cow Kamadhenu. The king was surprised and got tempted to take Kamadhenu which the Rishi did not oblige. The king thereafter sent his soldiers to take the cow by force. Consequently, Parashurama killed the entire army and the autocrat king with his axe. The King’s sons revenged and beheaded Rishi Jamadagni. Thereafter, in counter revenge, Parasurama killed the entire clan of Kritveerya-Arjuna, conquered entire territory and donated the same to Rishi Kashyapa who lived on the coast of Kashyap Sagar. The Sea named after him was called Kashyapian Sea. Today the same is habitually mis-spelt by the British as Caspian Sea. Parashurama Avatar thus signifies the earliest crusade in the world against the corrupt and characterless administrators (Khashatriyas), a remedy much-needed today also. Parshurama punished corrupt kings twenty-one times for their oppressive and tyrannical attitude. He is thus the predecessor of human rights movement for the protection of civil liberties of oppressed mankind.
7. Rama – While Parshurama represented public outcry against oppressive rules, in contrast Rama is seen as an ideal ruling personality dedicated to Dharma and noble virtues. He is regarded as a role model as a King, son, husband, brother, friend and disciple. The powerful and multifarious character of Rama not only continues to be acted on stage, but is regarded as a mode of perfection to be emulated. Astronomical data in the epic Ramayana, narrating the life and exploits of Rama has been interpreted to suggest that his reign would have been at approximately 2015 BC. However the calculators over looked the fact that celestial phenomena reoccur periodically in every Yugas – a time frame of several million years, to be discussed subsequently. Celestial measurements of time cannot be used to establish time frames of human life. Weighing tools for elephants and ornaments made of gold cannot be the same. The rule of Rama is called Ram Rajya and it suggests an ideal state where everyone is happy and satisfied. Though Thomas More, a British author conceived an ideal state ‘Utopia’ in 15 th century, but in India Rama Rajya was aspired to be established by every noble king.
8. Krishna – The story of Krishna’s life on Earth is approximately 5100 years ago or 3102 BC, However, while Krishna played key role in the Mahabharata, wherein thousands of lines are dedicated solely to extolling His life and his philosophical Gita. His place in Hinduism is complex. He appears under many names, in a multiplicity of stories, among different cultures, and in different traditions. Sometimes those seem to contradict each other. Krishna has played various roles during His stay in the world. He was Arjuna’s charioteer, an excellent statesman. He was a master musician to have given lessons even to Rishi Narada in the art of playing Veena – an ancient string instrument even being played today. He revealed supreme Truth of Yoga, Bhakti and Vedanta. He had mastered every one of the sixty-four fine arts. For all these reasons He is regarded as a full and complete manifestation of God.
9. Buddha (the Enlightened) – Vishnu took form as Siddhartha Gautama to guide people of India away from ritual recommending animal sacrifice, that was being over-indulged at the time. To this end he advocated Ahimsa or non-violence. Some politic conscious Buddhists today do not consider Buddha to be an avatar of any god, and view such a notion as an attempt to ‘absorb’ Buddhism within the fold of Hinduism. The general decline of Buddhism in India has been attributed to this absorption. Buddha is a subject frequently represented in statues. Generally Buddhists do not consider Siddhartha Gautama to have been the first or last Buddha. According to Buddhists, Buddha himself has been taking avatars like Supreme God Vishnu in the name of Boddhisatvas.
10. Kalki is the name of the tenth and final Maha Avatara who will appear towards the end of current Kaliyuga, the age of darkness and destruction. The name Kalki is often a metaphor for ‘Eternity’ or ‘Time’. There are several origins of the Kalki Prophecy. One of the earliest mentions of Kalki is to be found in the Vishnu Purana. There are many modern mutations of the Kalki Prophecy. So much so that it has been jokingly asserted that there are hundreds of people in India claiming to be the Kalki Avatar of ultimate might and righteousness, however some of them even from jail cells.
The doctrine of Incarnations
The subtle point is that Hinduism did not confine the God into one person or one name. Hinduism permitted her believers to even equate themselves with God. No intermediaries and touts are required for any individual to approach the Almighty. One need not be referred to Him through some God’s relative or agent sent on earth to gather individual complaints. On the other hand any individual, if he so desired can proclaim himself to be a God and start his own registration cell to enroll followers. There lies the freedom from blasphemy or fundamentalism in Hindu religion. It is a scientific truth that whenever systems of the universe go out of gear, Nature representing Almighty restores the balance and order.
Various interpretations of Avtar Doctrine
Hindu traditions permit numerous interpretations of what Avatars are. According to one thought, the concept of ten Avatars of Lord Vishnu in a way represents the organic evolution theory. In order to indicate the aquatic origin of the animals, the Lord incarnates in the form of a Matasya, a fish. An amphibious animal Kurma, a turtle, follows this. Third incarnation is Varaha, a boar that is completely a terrestrial animal. Narasimha represents a beast’s attempt to obtain a human form. In Vamana avatar, a pigmy human being is represented. In Parashurama tremendous physical strength could be recognized. In Rama, one can identify perfect human qualities. Krishna is a savior of our environment. Buddha is old age before reaching Moksha – freedom from worldly desires and wants. Kalki represents our own destruction by neglecting attention to our fauna and environment.
Some interpret the ten avtars to be various stages of human life. Matsya is the sperm, Kurma is the embryo in the womb, Varaha is the baby in filth inside the womb, while Narasimha is half human and half animal shape of the new-born at birth. Vamana is the child stage, Rama is youthful house holder, Krishna is Vanprastha yogi, Buddha is the old age living in contentment and having no desires. The last Death is yet to come in the form of Kalki.
An ancient Javanese myth tells that once upon a time only spirits lived on Java Island. Then so many people came to live there and the spirits were crowded out and forced to live in the volcanic craters or in the sea. Thus the Javanese believed that their world began with migration. The story illustrates how blurred the line in between ancient legends or myths and facts. (The story of Varaha Avatar supports the myth when Hiranyaksh, ‘stole the Earth under the sea and it was rescued and recovered by Vishnu in the form of Varaha’. There are other incidents when demons drove away Devas from their Swarga abode. Similarity and contradiction between legend and history may be ascertained from the fact that from Java to Australia, several rocky islands sometimes lie submerged in sea and some other time get revealed. The name of the continent also seems to have derived from its predecessor Astralaya alias Andhralaya. Oldest human skeletons were also found on Java Island.
The incidents surrounding the Avataras are part of mythology contained in Bhagwat Purana, and it is open to the individual belief of a person to agree with it or not. The incidents may be indirectly referring to some geographical development, some event in human history, or some merely to underline some abstract values. Hinduism does not insist anyone to accept a particular belief, as there are many Hindus who believe in formless concept of God and do not subscribe to Avatar theory. They regard the same attempts to glorify the lives of ordinary human beings to divinity, when political theory of Divine right of the kings was in vogue. Whatever be the case, at least, these Puranic incidents are magnificent literary works of fertile human imagination to feel proud of our ancestral heritage.
Hinduism has thus unified abstract scientific knowledge and humanized illustrations for the development of individuals in the form of spiritual literature and mythology. There is freedom from blasphemy or fundamentalism in Hinduism.
Chand K Sharma
(Next: Splashes – 10- Library of Hindu Scriptures)