Saturday, October 12, 2013

Dashavataram - The fascinating legend of the ten avatars of Vishnu!

Dear lovely Aalayam family,

Continuing on the festivities of Dasara and Diwali, its time for some story telling. On the anvil of Vijaya Dasahami,  literally meaning the victory on the dashmi, the tenth lunar day of the Hindu calendar month, lets sit down and revisit some well loved, and well worn fables!

As the legend goes, Dasara or "Dasha-hara" literally means removal of ten referring to Lord Rama's victory over the ten-headed demon king Ravana. So, who is Rama? Want me to start the story? 

Ok, here goes, my favorite part of the legend associated with Dasara Bombe Habba is the Dashavataram, (Sanskrit: अवतार, derives from daśa, meaning 'ten' and avatāra, meaning 'descent'). According to the legend, God Vishnu incarnates on Earth from time to time to eradicate evil forces, to restore harmony and to liberate the worthy ones or devotees from the cycle of births and deaths.

Vishnu's avatars follow an evolutionary pattern, from fish and amphibian, through mammals and men. And it is through these avatars that Vishnu maintains his role as the great preserver of all creation.

I took a humble stab at staging these little wooden statues I have of the ten incarnations in different media- Sand, Grass, will see it. You see, it is with poignancy that I put these dolls away until next Dasara, and I figured this is the perfect time to share the legend behind each of these avatars with each evocative picture..preserved here in Aalayam...for current and future generations to see. 

The first incarnation is in the form of an enormous fish known as Mastya. In this form, Vishnu saved the four Vedas from being lost forever in the great flood (pralaya),  you see these Vedas or sacred texts were being smuggled away during this flood, by a demon called Hayagriva, and this demon was descending into the ocean. So Vishnu quickly took the form of Matsya and vanquished the demon to deliver the Vedas back to the rightful sources. 

And in a very interesting parallel to the Bible, in this fast approaching flood, signalling an end to all life on earth, Vishnu had just enough time to save one special person from the ocean - he saved "Manu", the forefather of all mankind!

The second avatar of Vishnu is Kurma, the strong turtle. During a routine battle between the gods (devatas) and the demons (asuras), the gods lost all their strength due to a curse. The only way they could  redeem themselves off the curse was to churn the primitive ocean of milk using a mountain as a churning stick to get the ambrosial nectar out. And, for this they had to collaborate with the enemy camp - the asuras.

 But,  the asuras drove a hard bargain, they wanted a share of the nectar of immortality. Agreeing to a settlement, the devatas and the asuras got to work. But, soon, the mountain began to sink!, Lo and Behold, Vishnu quickly took the form of the turtle Kurma and crawled under the mountain to keep it afloat with its strong shell! The nectar was out, the devatas cheated the asuras off their share, regained their strength, and peace was restored, at least in God land!

The rugged boar is the third incarnation of Vishnu. So, remember the great pralaya (flood)?, soon after that, when the creator was busy revamping the new world, a demon called Hiranyaksha stole Bhoomidevi (Mother Earth) and kept her for himself. The gods were outraged by this atrocity and summoned Lord Vishnu - of course! 

Vishnu, quickly transformed himself into a giant boar & used his powerful sense of smell to search for the demon who was in hiding. Once he found the demon, he hooked the Mother Earth on to his tusks and rescued her from the demon. Varaha, or the boar, rammed the demon with his powerful tusks and that was the end of the demon! Bhoomidevi was saved, and was sanctified by the touch of Lord Vishnu in boar form!!

After the great boar Varaha destroyed Hiranyaksha, his brother, Demon King Hiranyakashipu, raged with revenge and anger. He tortured Vishnu's followers, despite having his own son, Prahalada, as a devout follower of Vishnu. You know, to add insult to injury, the king was protected by an enchantment that he could not be killed by god, man or animal, or that he would not die on earth or in space, by burning or drowning, during day time or night, indoors or outdoors! How's that for a water tight enchantment huh? 

The king was irritated that Prahalada would not stop believing in Vishnu, and challenged Vishnu to appear else, he would behead his own son! But, appear he did, Vishnu, in half-man, half-lion form (Narasimha), as the fourth incarnation of Vishnu. In a smart and covert move, Narasimha was able to kill the king during twilight hours, and place his body on his lap, above the earth, yet, not in space, standing in a doorway threshold. Now, how's that for finding a loophole? 

The fifth incarnation of Vishnu is a clever drawf "Vamana". Another king of demons, called Bali relocated from the underworld on to the earth and banished  Indra, the head of gods away from the earth. In order to vanquish Bali's ego, and to push him back to where he belonged, Vishnu, shrunk down to the size of a unassuming dwarf and asked Bali if he could have just as much land, as much was covered by his three steps. Looking at Vamanas short legs and feet, Bali laughed and agreed. 

Vishnu, then revealed himself to the demon king, transforming from Vamana's dimunitive form into that of a giant, that kept on growing until he was looking down at the earth from outer space!! Vishnu, then took his three fateful steps. One step covered everything Bali owned in the heavens. The other covered the entire earth. Having nowhere to put his third step, Vishnu asked Bali where he should rest his final step. A man of his word, Bali offered his head, on which Vishnu rested his foot, thus vanquishing the demon king's ego for good!

The sixth incarnation of Vishnu is Parashurama, also known as Rama with an ax. His story occurs when the warriors or the Kshtriyas were dishonoring their name by corruption and disrespect to the priest caste or the Brahmins. A Brahmin boy called Parashurama wielded his ax when a kshtriya king stole a priest's magical cow,sending a clear message that the Brahmins were now capable of protecting themselves! 

The story gets more populist as we go forward. Vishnu's seventh incarnation is in the form of Rama, the great hero of the epic story Ramayana. Rama was banished from his rightful kingdom by his wicked stepmother and was exiled for 14 years! His wife was abducted by the nefarious king Ravana. Rama takes the help of the monkey god Hanuman and his army to vanquish Ravana and get his wife Sita back!

The tenth day of Dasara marks the end of the war of Ramayana, where Ravana was killed. Aptly called Vijaya Dasami, meaning the tenth day of Victory! It is said that Rama's legacy as the ideal man, husband and king, is an inspiration to millions of Indians everyday! (Although I think he should have stuck to Sita, and not banished her again after people starting talking bad about her honor!, well, that is a story for another day) 

The eighth incarnation of Vishnu is Krishna. Krishna vanquished the evil political king called Kamsa and played a very strategic role in the Mahabharata war, playing both sides in a almost nefarious fashion between the Pandava and the Kaurava army. Krishna is revered as a god today by millions of people around the world, thanks partly to the Hare Krishna movement, which celebrates the love between Krishna and his devout lover Radha!

The ninth incarnation of Vishnu is Buddha. Overburdened with  dogma and pointless rituals, animal sacrifices and violence of modern day, Vishnu manifested himself on earth as Buddha. Buddha's radical thinking inspired to end the cycle of rebirth and attain the state of bliss known as nirvana.

By practicing the principles of detachment, mindfulness and meditation, he preached, and practiced, that one could overcome the suffering of existence.  Buddha is often depicted on a lotus, calmly meditating, and wearing a simple garment, usually a robe! 

Kalki is the tenth and final Maha Avatar of Vishnu. Also known as the avatar of the future. He is to appear at the end of the present age of Kali Yuga (Age of Darkness), when the environment is polluted and society is shrouded with hate and corruption. Kalki will arrive as a one man army to demolish the imperfect earth. He will appear as a crusader riding a white horse, brandishing a flaming sword and acting as a final judge and savior of mankind.....

Well folks, that is the legend. And the most awesome part of the whole legend is the speculated link to the theory of evolution. Think about it!

  • Matsya - fish, the first life in water (Aquatic Life)
  • Kurma - turtle, the life in land and water (Amphibian Life)
  • Varaha - animals on land (Terrestrial Life)
  • Narasimha - beings between animal and human (Hominids)
  • Vamana - short human beings (Dwarfs and Primates, the start of the Homoerectus)
  • Parasurama - humans using weapons (Early Man, knowing the use of arms)
  • Rama - humans living in community (Early Man, living in organized society)
  • Krishna - humans with animal husbandary (Evolved Man, with knowledge of politics and commerce)
  • Buddha - humans with evolved awareness and actualization (Zen is in folks!)
  • Kalki - humans with the power of destruction (Current Man, with Nuclear Power)

Is that not enough food for thought? The legend of the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu, never fails to fascinate me!

Does it intrigue you?


p.s. Thank you to Sanjay Patel for his inspiring book "The Little Book of Hindu Deities" and little nuggets of fascinating story that brought back all of my grandmother's tales I had heard in my childhood. 

The pictures are  photographed by me. Copyrighted to Aalayam. Use with permission please. And, in case anyone is interested, the Dashavataram set of wooden figurines are available at the Desi Angadi in Bangalore. 


  1. Shreeprada! Thank you for visiting and commenting. Do come back, we have a whole line up of festive posts planned this habba season!


  2. Hi
    Thank You for the wonderful post!
    But as far as I am aware, Venkatesha is the ninth and Kaliyuga Avatara of Vishnu.
    This is the first time I come across Buddha as one of HIS avatars!
    I would love to read the references/ source.

  3. Hello Deepa! Welcome to Aalayam. And thank you for your comment and feedback!!

    Re. the ninth avatar of Vishnu, legend has it that, it is Balarama, some stories say Buddha..but Hindu purists do not agree, because Buddhism and Hinduism have two different philosophies (on the surface at least!)

    The sources are all over the web. No particular one. Mostly stories that my grandmother told me when I was growing up! Just thought I'd delight Aalayam readers with the same fabric of storytelling, myth and legend, that forms the basis of our roots!

    Would be happy to hear your thoughts!


  4. First of all..I'll love the pics. So beautiful photography!! Even thesis he first time I have seen Buddha included in dashavatharam. And thanks for the full pic of gombe :)

  5. Nayana, thank you!! This post was just a way to keep the stories alive for the generations to come! Thank you for commenting!


  6. That is a beautiful post... beautiful idols with such detailed cultural references. I now want these in my own collection... I remember visiting Angadi for a my silk shopping many years ago when my brother lived in Bangalore... wonderful memories! I like the confluence of Buddhism and Hinduism in your story. I think we need to seek more similarities cause deep down we are one ;-)
    Thanks for a wonderful post.

  7. Thank YOU Shalini for stopping by and commenting. I believe in the principles of Buddhism ,and see immense parallels with Hinduism. I hope you do add these timeless bombes to your collection!