Incarnations Of Vishnu
Whenever the forces of evil began to rule the world. Vishnu the great preserver left the heavens and descended on the earth in different forms to rescue mankind from evil. Vishnu is said to have taken ten incarnations but sometimes more than twenty-two forms are ascribed to him. Some of the forms are cosmic in character while some are based on historical events. It is interesting to note the evolution of these incarnations from lower to higher forms of life and their reflection on the history of the evolution of mankind.
Matsya, the fish incarnation symbolizes the forming of protoplasm and invertebrates.
Kurma, the tortoise symbolizes the amphibian form.
Varaha, the boar symbolizes the existence of mammals.
Narasimha, the half-man, half-animal incarnation shows the development of hands and fingers on animals and the evolution of the sub-human or ape form.
Vamana, the dwarf reflects the incomplete development of man.
Parashurama, the Rama-with-the-axe incarnation symbolizes the stone age. The axe symbolizes the start of the use of metal by mankind.
Rama shows the ability of mankind to live in cities and to have an administration.
Krishna (one who knows the sixty-four arts), reflects the development of the sciences.
The Buddha incarnation reflects the intellectual and scientific development of man.
Kalki:- In the years to come there will be a moral degradation in society and this future incarnation will save mankind.
In his first incarnation, Vishnu has the lower part of his body like that of a fish (Matsya) and the upper part like that of a man. He has four arms; with two he holds a conch-shell and a wheel, while the other two are holding a lotus or a mace or are in the protection and boon giving modes.
There are several explanations as to why Vishnu assumed the form of the fish. One of them describes him as turning into a fish so as to be able to tow a ship in which Manu, the progenitor of the new human race, had taken refuge from a devastating flood. The same story is found in the Mahabharata where the fish is described as having a horn. In the Bhagvada-Purana the story is further elaborated by the addition of a fight between Matsya and the demon Hayagriva, who had stolen the Vedas when Brahma was asleep.
Vishnu, in his second incarnation, is in the form of half-man half-tortoise (Kurma). The lower half being the tortoise. He is normally shown as having four arms. In the upper two he carries the conch-shell and the wheel while the lower two are in the protection and the boon giving postures or carrying a mace and a lotus.
When the gods were in danger of losing their authority over the demons, Vishnu advised them to churn the ocean so that they might procure amrita (ambrosia) which would make them strong and immortal. He promised to become a tortoise on which would rest the mountain Mandara, which was used as the churning stick.
Together with ambrosia, the churning brought to the surface the other thirteen objects that had been lost in the deluge. They were, Lakshmi (consort of Vishnu), Sura (goddess of wine) Chandra (the moon), Apsaras (celestial nymphs), Kaustabha (the precious gem for Vishnu’s body), Uchchaihshravas (the divine horse), Parijata (the wish granting coral tree), Surabhi (the cow that grants all desires), Airavara (the four-tusked elephant), Panchajanya (conch-shell) and Sharanga (the invincible bow). However, after more churning, the power of the ambrosia was almost neutralized by the appearance of its opposite, halahala (poison). Shiva held this poison in his throat and saved mankind. The poison was so powerful that it turned Shiva’s throat blue, giving him the name ‘Neel-kantha’ or the ‘blue-throated one’. The churning also brought out Dhanvantari (physician of the gods), carrying the pot of ambrosia (amrita) in his hands.
Varaha (the boar) is the third incarnation of Vishnu. Its images are divided into two main groups - those entirely in animal form and those having an animal’s head on a human body with four arms. As is with most of the Vishnu incarnations, two hands hold the wheel and the conch-shell and the other two may hold a sword, a mace or a lotus, or they may be in the protection and boon giving modes. In the illustration on the opposite page Varaha is shown with one hand holding a mace and the other in a protective mode, There is the same conflicting account of this as of the two preceding inc nations Matsya and Kurma, while some books describe it as an incarnation of Vishnu, others describe it as that of Brahma.
Vishnu turned himself into a boar (Varaha) and descended to the bottom of the ocean to rescue the earth which had been abducted and hidden there by a demon. After a long struggle Vishnu (as the boar) slew the demon, rescued the earth and brought it to the surface and made it ready to support life by modelling the mountains and shaping the continents. In this way the world was brought into being once again to begin another kalpa or cycle. The extrication of the world from the deluge of sin is symbolized by this legend and is a creation myth.
Narasimha, the fourth incarnation of Vishnu, is in the form of half-man (Nara) and half-lion (Simha), having four hands. Two hands carry a wheel and a conch-shell and two are in the boon giving and protection modes or tearing at the stomach of the demon-king. Vishnu assumed this form in order to overcome a demon king who could not be slain by a man or by a beast, either inside or outside a palace, by day or by night. Adopting the form of a lion-headed man, Vishnu approached the palace at dusk and hid himself in a pillar at the entrance, Out of which he sprang and killed the demon-king, Hiranyakashipu. According to some scriptures the incident took place inside a pillar, while according to others Narasimha placed the demon on his lap and tore out his entrails.
The symbolism here is of the lion-like characteristics of fierceness, bravery and independence that claim almost universal admiration.
Festival: Narsimha Jayanti
Held in April-May, Narasimha Jayanti celebrates the killing of the demon king Hiranyakashipu by Vishnu in the form of Narasimha. People observe a fast and meditate on Narasimha on this day and seek his blessings to have the qualities of devotion like that of Prahlad People give to the poor on this day in charity.
The fifth incarnation of Vishnu, is usually represented as a dwarf (Vamana) holding a water-pot in one hand and an umbrella in the other. He wears a ring of kusha grass on his third finger and occasionally carries a book. He has long lair, he wears ear ornaments and covers his body with a deer-skin or loin cloth. In his first four incarnations Vishnu appears in either a animal form or in a half-human half-animal form. The later incarnations starting from Vamana are all in human form. The first of them, Vamana, is perhaps significantly a dwarf, thus symbolizing the underdeveloped stage of mankind.
The story behind Vamana concerns Bali, the great- grandson of Hiranayakashipu. Bali’s rule was so successful that his reputation began to overshadow that of Indra who was obliged to seek Vishnu’s help in order to regain his supremacy. Not wishing to use harsh measures against such a praiseworthy ruler, Vishnu resorted to a stratagem. He disguised himself as a dwarf and asked Bali to give him a piece of land three paces wide on which he could sit and meditate. Bali granted the request and Vishnu then used his supernatural powers to take possession of heaven and earth in two steps thus depriving Bali of his kingdom.
But, in recognition of Bali’s generosity, Vishnu refrained from taking the third step and gaining the netherworld as well but installed Bali as its monarch. The story of Vishnu’s dwarf is a creation myth symbolizing the power of Vishnu to cover the universe.
Festival: Vamana Dwadeshi
Celebrated in August-September. The worship of Vishnu and Bali is recommended on this day. It is said that those who observe the day in due form and give freely to Brahmins will be reborn as kings who will possess the celestial kingdom, like Bali.
Parashurama, is almost always shown with an axe in his right hand. He is also shown as having four hands carrying a battle axe, a sword, a bow and an arrow. In this, his sixth incarnation Vishnu appears for the first time in a completely human form but at the same time he maintains his status as a deity.
As the story goes, a Kshatriya king had stolen Parash urama’s father’s wish-granting cow, Kamacihenu. Parashurama took his revenge for the theft by killing the thousand-armed king. But, in retaliation, the king’s sons killed Parashurama’s father. Vishnu took the form of Parashurama, not only to get revenge but to rid the world of oppression by the kings/Kshatriyas, which he did in the course of twenty-one battles. The story of this incarnation evidently points to a time in Indian history when there was a severe and prolonged struggle for power between the Kshatriyas and the Brahmins.
The story behind the name concerns the sage’s son, Rama, a brilliant archer, who did penance in the Himalayas to Shiva in gratitude for having this skill conferred on him. Shiva was pleased with his devotion and when fighting broke out between gods and demons, ordered Parashurama to defeat the demons. Parashurama showed reluctance. Shiva then gave him reassurance and he managed to defeat the demons. On completing the task Shiva gave Parashurama many gifts and weapons, including a magnificent axe (Parashu) after which he was known as Parashurama (Rama with the axe).
Festival: Parashurama Jayanti
On this sacred day, also known as Akshya Tritiya, apart from Parashurama, Lord Vishnu is also worshipped. Fasting, austerities and prayers are the highlights of this day.
Rama or Ramachandra, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, is normally shown as standing, having two arms, with one of which he holds a bow. He usually has his wife Sita by his right side, holding a blue Lotus. His brother Lakshman, shorter than Rama, stands by his left side, holding a bow and arrow. Hanuman, the monkey god, is usually shown kneeling a little in front and by Rama’s right.
Though a comparatively minor incarnation whose task it was to kill a ten—headed demon, Ravana, who held his wife captive, Ramachandra has deeply influenced the Indian psyche and has risen to be a deity whose life is a subject for literature and an example of moral excellence.
As the hero of the great epic of India, Raniayana, he has also passed into the mythology of countries other than India whose cultures have been influenced by it. Rama is also considered a saviour and friend and is said to have the power of intercession for the (lead. When a (lead body is carried for cremation, the pall-bearers loudly repeat the words ‘Ram nam satya hai’ (Rama’s name is truth). Rama represents the qualities of fidelity, gentleness and steadfastness. In the same way his wife Sita (incarnation of Lakshmi, wife of Vishnu), is regarded as the embodiment of all that is most admired in Indian woman hood—faithfulness and affectionate compliance. They are looked upon as an example of constancy in marriage.
Celebrating the birth of Rama, this festival is held in March-April all over India. At this time, temples dedicated to him are beautifully decorated with lights and flowers. Priests recite the Ramayana and highlight the important aspects of the life and character of Rama. The name of Rama is recited constantly as that is supposed to purify the heart.
Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, is considered the most important of the ten incarnations. He is usually shown as blue or black-skinned, having two hands and playing the flute. In paintings he is shown standing on one leg with the other crossed in front, resting on its toes. He usually wears colourful garments and is richly ornamented. He may hold a conch-shell or a curved stick in his hand. By his side would be his consort Radha and usually some cows (he was born as a cow-herd). In the paintings he is shown as dancing with the cowherds, girls (gopis), as a child eating butter, or as Arjuna’s charioteer addressing him in the battlefied.
Vishnu manifested himself as Krishna so as to kill the evil king Kansa. The king had been forewarned that the eighth child of Devaki would kill him, so he imprisoned Devaki and slaughtered her new born babies one by one. The seventh child, Balaram was saved by his kinsmen. When the eighth child was born, there was a big storm; the doors burst open, the guards fell asleep and Vasudeva (Krishna’s father) walked out of the prison, taking the baby Krishna with him to Yashoda with whom he spent his childhood.
This incarnation of Vishnu has accumulated a great variety of myths. Krishna shows all the aspects of human development usually associated with childhood, adolescence and adulthood. There are few stages in a mortal worshipper’s life, a counterpart of which cannot be found somewhere in the stories relating to the activities of Krishna. Although many of the stories about him concern his superhuman deeds, he also reveals human characteristics. The flute playing adds to the pastoral character of many of his stories and the effect it has on the gopikas provides a rich source of speculation on its symbolism which is apparent in a lot of poetry and in many dance forms, notably Kathakali in South India.
Celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna, Janamashtami is held in August-September all over India. Temples are decorated, bells are rung, the conch-shell is blown and Sanskrit hymns sung in His praise. Devotees observe a fast for twenty—four hours which is broken at midnight, the time when Lord Krishna was born. The idol at that time is washed with milk and His name is chanted 108 times. In most l)laces and particularly in Mathura and Brindaban, tableaux (hankis) depicting episodes from Krishna’s life re the highlights of the day. Special sweets are prepared for this festival.
Buddha, the ninth incarnation of Vishnu, appears at the start of the present age. He has short curly hair and his feet and palms have marks of the lotus. Calm and graceful in appearance, he is seated on a lotus flower. The lobes of his ears are shaped like a pendant and he is shown wearing a yellow robe. The hands are in a boon giving and protection mode.
This incarnation is symbolic of the uneasiness that the Hindu priests felt for the Buddhists and their teachings which were becoming very popular with the masses. The Bhagwat-Purana says that ‘as Buddha, Vishnu deludes the heretics’. As Buddha, Vishnu advised the demons to abandon the Vedas, whereupon they lost all their powers and enabled the gods to establish their supremacy. The doctrines supposedly put forward by Buddha are far removed from Buddha’s teachings as understood by his followers. Ironically, the Buddhists did n some sense turn to Hindu belief. The mythology and cosmology that became attached to Buddhism as it became a popular mass religion were rooted in Hindu belief and the Hindu gods inhabited some of the lower heavens of the Buddhist cosmos.
Festival: Buddha Purnima
It is celebrated in April-May. Three great events in Buddha’s life on the same day has made Buddha Purnima the most important festival in the Buddhist world. It is celebrated all over the world with great piety, devotion and fervour. Buddha’s images and portraits are taken out in a procession on this day.
Kalki, the future and the last incarnation (avatara) of Vishnu, will appear at the end of the present age (Kali-yuga), when moral excellence would no longer exist, the rule of law would disappear and all would be darkness. Kalki would then ride forth on a horse, blazing like a comet and save man kind and re-establish Dharma or Righteousness. Kalki would usher in the Golden Age, a new era of purity and peace and then return to heaven.
In some texts Kalki is described as riding a white horse and holding a flaming sword. In others he is described as being four armed, holding a sword, a conch-shell, a wheel and an arrow. In still others he is described as a horse-headed man carrying a club instead of an arrow. When riding a horse he sometimes carries a bow and arrow.