The Ten Avatars of Vishnu

The cyclical nature of creation in Hinduism denies any one of the Trimurti the role of sole creator of the universe or trichiliocosm, so its three manifestations, hypostases (substantiations) and avatars (prosopa or "persons”) needed to be reconciled to avoid dualism, analogous to the ostensibly monotheistic Christian Trinity. Vishnu and Shiva each have his adherents, (Brahma fewer because he was clearly created from Vishnu and is often regarded as an avatar of that god’s creative aspect.) Some veiled rivalry between them can be discerned behind certain parallel myths. Shiva is certainly more feared, volatile and destructive, having beheaded his son and deprived Brahma of one of his, and therefore, the one most worthy of propitiation and worship, if not affection. Vishnu, in contrast, as guarantor of permanence and order, is more dependable, intervening to save the day for gods and humans when all else fails. It is no coincidence, then, that his avatars are the heroes of the two Hindu epics, Krishna in the Mahabharata and Rama in the eponymous Ramayana, the imaginative wellsprings of so much of the art of India and Southeast Asia and the two most beloved figures of bhakti Hinduism.  These two are the highest manifestations of Vishnu's Dashavatara (Sans. > dasa ten + ava- down + tar to cross, hence “descents,”) where the god takes on human or animal form to extinguish demonic forces which threaten to usurp the rule of dharma or divine order. This becomes literally true in his tenth, future manifestation, where, at least for his followers, he displaces Shiva as the destroyer of the world at the end of each kali yuga  when no dharma remains in the universe to defend. 

In taking on human and even animal form, Vishnu's avatars become subject to suffering and mortality, a kenosis or emptying of amrta/ amrita, the elixir of eternal life, and hence their immortality, parallel with Christ's incarnation, as well as Fraser's "type" of the vegetative deities, such as Osiris and Adonis, who must die each Fall so they can be resurrected each Spring. Vishnu's Dashavatara are not seen as self-sacrifices, perhaps because as a god he can be in two places at the same time but much is made of his avatar, Rama’s self-sacrifice and sorrow, and the carefree, self-delighting Krishna must die because of his insensitivity to the pain of others.  

The ten avatars can even be seen as reincarnations of each other, progressing towards apotheosis and moksha, release from mortal reincarnation. Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891,) the founder of Theosophy, author of A Course of Miracles and synthesizer of the world's religion into an occult system, revealed first to her, (having hitherto escaped notice,) may have been the first to note the parallels between Vishnu's Dashavatara and Darwin's then-recent discovery of the “evolution of species.” In this "phylogenic theory," the avatars advance form the lowest phylum of vertebrates to the more-than-human, just shy of a god, Krishna. The stages of this evolution are: 1) Matsya, a fish, 2) Kurma, a turtle (reptile,) 3) Varaha, a boar (mammal,) 4) Narasimha, (a leogryph, a half-lion, half-human hybrid,) 5) Vimana, a dwarf (the first human avatar, but an "imperfect" one,) 6) Parashurama, a pugnacious warrior (human physical strength; the “survival instinct;” the “animal” side of humans, ungoverned libido,) 7) Rama, the ideal king (maintaining dharma; ruling over his own and his subjects' passions; the superego) 8 / 9) Krishna, human joy  (free of the responsibilities which make Rama's life tragic, therefore irresponsible, carefree but careless,)  10) Kalki, the horseman of the apocalypse, (in a sense, beginning the "origins of species" again, after humans have degenerated to a less than bestial state, necessary in a cyclical view of history like the Hindu.)

The Jesuit, paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955,) not surprising saw in evolution an evolving God, slowing turning  his initial material creation into a "Noosphere,"  the world as Plato’s nous or mind — here the “mind of God.” The similarity with medieval Scholasticism’s “book of nature” or Hegel’s logical dialectic ascending to an Absolute Idea are not coincidental in the French priest.  In both Hinduism and Buddhism, the soul must purify itself over many lifetimes and through literally super-human mental and physical exertions to purge its physicality and realize its full potential for divinity, a process of entheogenesis by purgation or  “eidetic reduction,”  the via negativa or renunciation of the human element (which might logically be conceived not as becoming one with god but rather becoming nothing.) 

There is an ancient Christological tradition, represented today primarily by Mormonism, which views Jesus as becoming, (not “begotten of the Father,”)t he son of God and divine through his gradual enlightenment, his teaching and his ultimate sacrifice; therefore, Christians who live virtuous lives can expect to become "latter-day saints" and upon their deaths to become divine and enter Paradise. This has a curious similarity with Khmer kingship whose posthumous names at the temples prepared for them  from Preah Ko (881) to Preah Khan (1191) implied that they were avatars of a god, or, at least, tapped to become one, hence gods-in-waiting or in-training. Through the devaraja cult, Shiva appears to have beamed down his “auspicious” (one meaning of “Shiva”) presence, so the king became a “channel” for his dharma and itsrepresentative on earth or chakravartin, as well as, a mirror for hiso darshan across their kingdom – if not their avatar, then their aedicule, shrine or temporary dwelling.  In a religion of emanations, the Khmer seem to have understood the political, if not theological virtue, of not pressing for too clear a distinction between symbol, simulacrum and original. 

The canon of the Dashavatara is fairly consistent across Puranic sources except for the penultimate manifestation. In some enumerations, Buddha is placed ahead of Rama and/or Krishna, based on his teaching of ahimsa or non-violence, (of which neither hero was a particularly apt exemplar.) Other schools regard this as craven co-optation of a heretical false prophet who was an atheist or, a least, cautiously agnostic about the Vedic Pantheon. These latter place Krishna in 9th place and replace him in 8th by Balarama, his elder brother. When bhakti marga or bhakti Hinduism, emotional attachment and devotion to a specific deity, became the dominant soteriological vehicle of that religion, starting in the 12th Century, Krishna proved especially appealing, perhaps because of his humble origin and seeming exemption from the practical constraints of ordinary life. Indeed, some of his devotees believe that even Shiva and Vishnu are avatars of Krishna, as supreme lord, not the reverse, which would require a radical revision of the Dashavatara outlined below. Sometimes Buddha is also replaced by a local deity, for example, Jaganath in Odisha (Orissa) or the boy, Vitobha, in Maharashstra. In any event, the Dashavatara should not be seen as either exhaustive or rigid, qualities inimical to Hinduism, for example, the Pancataratra lists no fewer than thirty-nine different avatars of Vishnu, including his mount, the bird-man Garuda. Therefore the listing below may be the most common but is neither canonical or inclusive.

1. Matsya – Vishnu first incarnated himself as a fish who wraps Manu and a representative of each species in a cyclone so they could repopulate the next world, after the decadent old one has been destroyed in a deluge, announced by his tenth avatar, Kalki.  Manu, the primeval man, is derived from the word for man in Sanskrit and Germanic languages and manu hand and humanus, humans, that is, those with hands, in Romance languages. The story has obvious parallels with the Gilgamesh Epic and Noah's biblical flood, despite their Semitic rather than Indo-European origin. In Hinduism, each mahakalpa has fourteen manvataras of 306,720,000 solar years and each manvatara has its own Manu or creator. 

2. Kurma – Vishnu's turtle avatar has already been encountered in the most frequently illustrated Khmer myth, "The Churning of the Ocean of Milk," where he acts as the pivot against which Vishnu himself holds Mt. Mandara, while the devas and asuras twist the serpent, Vasuka, to produce amrta, the elixir of immortality. As in the creation myth where Balarama/ Lakshama/ Shesha/ Ananta are all avatars of Vishnu, here the god  works here in cooperation with  his avatars.

3. Varaha – Hiranyaksha, a demon, had eaten the earth and taken it to the floor of the cosmic ocean. Vishnu, incarnated as the boar, Varaha, returns it in the form of Bhumi/ Bhumidevi on his tusk to the surface, after a 1000-year long battle. 

4. Narasimha – Narasimba is a "leogryph," a half-man, half-lion hybrid or chinthe, the heraldic symbol of the neighboring cultures of Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Brahma had granted Hiranyakshayapa, the elder brother of Hiranyaksha (see 3 above,) a boon: that he would not be killed indoors or out, during day or night, on the ground or in air, by a living or inanimate weapon. As a result of his brother’s death, he used his invulnerability to persecute anyone worshipping the gods — notably his son, Prahlada, a Vaisnavite devotee. Narasimba solved this "riddle" with more than leonine ingenuity by disemboweling Hiranyakshayapa on his doorstep at dusk with his claws as he lay across his thighs.

5. Vimana – Bali, through extreme ascetic austerities, gained the power to defeat even the king of the Vedic gods, Indra, and extend his tyranny across the trilokyas or ”three worlds" – earth, heaven and the netherworld. Vishnu appeared to him in the form a brahmin dwarf, Vimana, his first fully human incarnation, though in less than perfect form, and asked Bali for one wish: that he be given as much land as he could cover in three paces.The demon acceded to this seemingly foolish request from a dwarf, whereupon the god expanded himself immensely, covering the entire earth with his first stride and the entire aether or atmosphere with his second. Bali, realizing the dwarf was an avatar of Vishnu, humbly or prudently, asked that the god use his head as the stepping stone for his third stride and, hence, was crushed into the underworld, where he reigned as king. In Hindu mythology, Yama is also king of the underworld and Vishnu's "three strides" should cross the three worlds of earth, the aether and heaven including Mt. Meru, which would make him ruler of the other gods. In still another myth, the myth of the lingodbhava or “the emergence of the linga,” to which this may offer an oblique alternative, Shiva's linga becomes so engorged that Vishnu, as Varaha, his boar avatar, cannot reach its base nor Brahma on his hamsa its tip.

6. Parashurama Vishnu's sixth avatar was the perfect human specimen, the axe-wielding Parashurama, who, though born a brahmin, was an anhimarathi, a warrior endowed with supreme power in every form of warfare. A kshastriya (the traditional Hindu warrior and noble caste) king asked Parashurama's father for a sacred cow which could grant his every wish; when the brahmin refused, the king killed him and Parashurama vowed to slaughter every kshastriya twenty-one times over (he was not endowed with great logical abilities.) When he had nearly succeeded, his grandfather, a rishi or sage and a chiranjivi or immortal, as a result of doing penance in the mountains of Odisha, appeared before him and told him to spare some kshastriyas, since both castes were necessary to convey and thenenforce dharma or divine writ. This established the precedent that a brahmin must never kill a king or a king a brahmin. Parashurama then became a yogi as penance. The myth is seen as spelling out the mutually supportive roles of the two ruling Hindu castes or varnas (Sans. > colors,) priests and warriors; (the other two are tradesmen and laborers; those outside the caste system were once classified as “untouchables” or but now dalits.) The myth also warns about the unbridled, aggressive energies or libido of "natural man" the pre-agrarian hunter/gatherer/warrior and nomad/ pillager, cf. the vastu purusha who must be penned in by geometry in the Vastu Shastra.  

7. Rama – Rama, the son of the king of Ayodhya, hero of the Ramayana and the Hindu ideal of kingship, lived a life of sacrifice not happiness. When his wicked stepmother asked his father to fulfill his promise to grant her one wish, she demanded that he send Rama, the legitimate heir, to the Dandaka forest for fourteen years, so her son could rule. (The parallels with the Pandava's unjust exile in the Mahabharata are clear and inherent to the succession disputes in any feudal society, cf. the frequent dynastic changes of Khmer history or the "War of the Roses" in England.)  Rama, in typically exemplary feudal fashion, insisted that his father fulfill his oath and departed with his faithful wife, Sita, and loyal brother, Lakshmana, (also an avatar of Vishnu,) into exile during which Sita was abducted by the demon, Ravanna. Her rescue consumes most of the remainder of that epic. Upon Rama's triumphal return to Ayodhya, still commemorated by the Diwali festival, he reluctantly complied, as a responsible king, to the baseless suspicions of his subjects, who demanded that Sita prove her chastity while captured by Ravanna, by undergoing the test of fire or Agni. She passed this rite but, in some versions of the epic, pined away with grief over Rama's distrust; in others Later Rama banished her and his son, again in response to the unjustified sentiments of his subjects. Overcome with remorse, he then drowned himself in sorrow at his tragic fate.

8. Balarama or Krishna – Balarama was Krishna's older brother and appears to have been syncretized from a pre-Vedic fertility deity, the same hypothetical origin as Shiva; he has chthonic connotations, associated with plowing the earth, (as Krishna has with herding cattle on its surface) and is accordingly  venerated by farmers. His place above Rama in the Dashavatara is confirmed by his name which means "Strong Rama;" he parallels Lakshmana, Rama's loyal half-brother and, like him, is associated with the serpent, Shesha or Ananta, another of Vishnu’s avatars. Upon hearing of Krishna's death, he sat down  in a meditative position until he ascended to the the realm of the gods.

8/ 9. Krishna or Buddha – Vishnu's ninth incarnation contrasts in many ways with Rama, his seventh. Krishna is playful, self-indulgent and a trickster; he is not weighted down by earthly responsibilities but enjoys the freedom of a divinity. During the Battle of Kurekshetra in the Bhagavad Gita, however, it is he who convinces Arjuna to overcome his reluctance to kill his kinsmen by arguing for his higher duty to enforce dharma and the Pandavas' rightful succession as first born. When the 100 Kauvaras are dead, Krishna rather tactlessly offers his condolences to Gandhari, their mother, whose line he been instrumental in exterminating. She curses him for not halting the slaughter, predicting that his own clan, the Yadavas, will annihilate each other. Years later in a drunken brawl, the Yadavas do just that. A hunter, Jara, mistaking Krishna for a deer, kills him but not before the god forgives him. Through his yogic powers Krishna returns to his heavenly abode, after 126 years on earth as Vishnu’s avatar. 

10. Kalki – Vishnu is predicted to appear at the end of each kali yuga of 432,000 solar years, the fourth or dissolution stage of a mahayuga, in the form of a "Horseman of the Apolcalypse," on a white horse, his sword "blazing like a comet," (see appendix II on Hindu chronometrics.) Kala means time in Sanskrit, in the sense of Kronos, who devours his own children, and as represented by a kala, the self-devouring face or kirtimukha found on almost every Khmer lintel. Kala can also means black in Sanskrit, suggesting a  relationship with Kali, the fearsome goddess of destruction, and with Kali Ratri, the 7th form of the warrior goddess, Durga or Shakti, also a defender of dharma and the punishing aspect of the Earth Mother or Great Goddess type.