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Hinduism, also known as the Sanatan Dharma (Eternal Religion), is essentially henotheistic in nature; it believes in one supreme God, the Brahman, while recognizing other Gods (and Goddesses) as different forms or manifestations of that Supreme Being. At the same time, interestingly, It can also be considered as Trinitarian because Brahman is conceived as Trimurti, a triad of three entities: Brahma, the Creator of the universe; Vishnu, the Preserver (of the creations); and Shiva, the Destroyer, symbolizing the cycle of birth, life and death in cosmic balance.

The concept of an infinite cycle of creation, destruction and regeneration of the universe on a cosmic time scale (1 Kalpa or Cosmic Cycle = 1000 Chaturyugas = 4.32 billion years = 1 day of Brahma) is unique to the Hindu religion. So is the concept of successive Yugas (epochs) or periods of time, such as Satya yuga (or Kreta yuga), Treta yuga,  Dwapara yuga and Kali yuga; the world being created, destroyed and recreated every Mahayuga, a cycle of the four Yugas within, in turn, a bigger cycle of creation, destruction and recreation of the universe. The world is presently considered to be around 5000 years into the final 432,000 year Kali yuga phase of the current Mahayuga.

Vishnu, considered the peace-loving deity of the Hindu Trinity (and the most important to many Hindus), is the preserver of the universe and the sustainer of life on earth on the principles of righteousness, truth and order. The importance of Vishnu increased rapidly during the Vedic period. From being a minor deity in early Aryan religion, Vishnu became one of the most important in the pantheon of gods, by the end of the Vedic period. Vishnu, meaning ‘the All-Pervading one’ (from the Sanskrit root ‘viś’ meaning ‘to enter or pervade’ and the suffix ‘nu’), is considered to be omniscient and omnipotent.

In Hindu mythology Vishnu resides in Vaikuntha (the abode of gods) and his vehicle is Garuda, a giant winged eagle with a human-shaped figure and a beaked nose. Vishnu is depicted as a dark (a dark blue color analogous to the color of the infinite sky) majestic kinglike figure with four hands bearing, respectively, a conch shell (shankha), a discus or a spinning wheel (chakra), a club or mace (gada) and a lotus flower (padma).

The shankha, held in the upper left hand, represents the primeval sound of the five elements – air, water, fire, earth and sky – the building blocks of creation. The chakra, held in the upper right hand, called the ‘Sudarshan chakra’  is the celestial disc of the sun for dispelling darkness and restoring peace on earth; derived from the Sanskrit words ‘su’ meaning ‘good’ and ‘darshan’ meaning vision, it symbolizes a weapon for overcoming one’s mind-set and ego to be able to visualize the eternal truth. The gada, held in the lower left hand, is called the ‘Kaumodaki’ and signifies the God’s absolute prowess to destroy evil, while the padma, in the lower right hand, symbolizes purity, truth (satya) and knowledge (gyan); the building blocks of the rules of   conduct (dharma).

The most common representation of Vishnu shows him floating on the infinite space of the cosmic ocean reclined on the coils of the hydra-headed serpent-deity Shesh-Nag (also known as Ananta, the timeless). The other common depiction is of Vishnu, with his four hands, standing on the waves. As long as order prevails in the universe, Vishnu sleeps on the coils of Ananta Nag. However, when this order is disturbed Vishnu either mounts his vehicle Garuda to go and fight the forces of evil and chaos or sends one of his Avatars (incarnations) to save the world.

The notion of an Avatar is an important aspect of Hindu mythology and theology. It is based on the premise that whenever ignorance and evil are ascendant and threaten the moral order, the Supreme Being incarnates itself in some form, or descends to earth, to defeat the forces of evil and restore equilibrium. 

There are differing source data in Hindu mythology and religious scriptures (Puranas and Upanishads) on the number of Avatars of Vishnu. The Garuda Purana and the Bhagavata Purana both mention twenty-two, with a proviso in the latter, that the incarnations of Vishnu are many; the Matsya Purana, on the other hand, refers to twelve incarnations.  However, it is generally accepted that there are ten incarnations of Vishnu. Of these ten universally accepted Avatars, nine are said to have manifested themselves (each at a different time and era) while the tenth is yet to appear in this world. Each manifestation has a related legend which essentially demonstrates the restoration of righteousness and Dharma in the world, through the divine intervention of Vishnu. The ten incarnations are: 

1.            MATSYA (Fish) Avatar: (Satya Yuga).  During the deluge before the latest re-creation of the universe, the four Vedas (the holy scriptures) which were required by Brahma for the re-creation, were drowned deep in the waters. Vishnu took the form of a fish to retrieve the sacred scriptures.  Another legend has it that Vishnu in his Matsya Avatar instructed Manu (the progenitor of mankind in each creation) to build a huge boat and gather samples of all species in it. The Matsya then pulled the ark to safety through the deluge and floods to enable Brahma to start the work of re-creation.   

2.            KACHYUP or KURMA (Tortoise) Avatar: (Satya Yuga).   The gods (Devas), suddenly lost their immortality due to the curse of a sage, soon after the new creation of the universe. Afraid of the Asuras (Demons), they turned for help to Vishnu who advised them to churn the ocean to obtain Amrita (Ambrosia), which would restore their power. The churning had to be done with the Mandara Mountain as the churning stick. Vishnu then assumed the form of a Kachyup (tortoise) to hold up the mountain on his back to enable the churning to be done. The help of Vishnu in restoration of immortality of the Devas is another example of the upholding of the dominance of Dharma.

3.            VARAHA (Boar) Avatar: (Satya Yuga). The earth (prithvi or goddess Bhudevi) was swamped deep under the cosmic ocean at the end of the deluge before the re-creation of the present universe. At this time, Hiranyaksha, an Asura (demon) who had attained extraordinary powers through penance, was wreaking havoc among the Devas (gods). On the request of Brahma, who needed the earth for his work of recreation, and of the Devas, who needed succor from Hiranyaksha, Vishnu assumed the form of a Varaha (boar). He carried the earth from the bottom of the ocean on his tusks in this Avatar; also slaying the rampaging Asura in the process.  

4.            NARASIMHA (half-man half-lion) Avatar: (Satya Yuga). Hiranyakashipu, a demon king and a tyrant, had through severe penance, obtained a boon from Brahma that no natural-born man or animal could kill him; nor could he be killed in heaven or earth, by any weapon, either during day or night.  He started considering himself as the supreme God and banned the worship of gods; even trying to kill his own son Prahlada, who was a Vishnu devotee. Vishnu assumed the form of Narasimha (neither man nor animal); emerged from a pillar (not natural born); during evening (neither day nor night); laid the demon-king across his thighs (neither heaven nor earth) and tore his entrails out with bare claws (no weapon). 

5.            VAMANA (Dwarf) Avatar: (Treta Yuga). The legend associated with this Avatar has it that the valorous demon- king Bali, a descendant of Hiranyakashipu, empowered by severe penance, defeated Indra, the king of the Devas and conquered the whole world. Fearing that he would overcome all three worlds ( Swarga, Marta and Patala or heaven, earth and the nether worlds), the Devas appealed to Vishnu. Taking birth in a Brahmin family and growing up to be a dwarf, Vishnu approached Bali for alms when the latter was performing a religious sacrifice. Bali, in an expansive mood promised him whatever he wanted – which was as much land as he could cover in three strides. Vishnu then covered heaven and earth in two strides to emancipate the Devas and banished Bali to the nether world.  

6.            PARASHURAM Avatar: (end of Satya Yuga or in the Treta Yuga as per different scholars). Vishnu took birth as a Brahman (priest) in this Avatar to free the Brahmans from the depredations of the Kshatriyas (warrior caste) who had become arrogant oppressors of the Brahmans. His name derives from the axe-like weapon (Parsu) he carried - a gift from Shiva.  He annihilated the Kshatriyas in battles twenty-one times. Parashuram and Rama, the seventh Avatar, are generally depicted as living at the same time even though the former is said to have appeared in this world before Rama.

7.         RAMA Avatar: (Treta Yuga).  Vishnu, in this Avatar, incarnates himself as Rama, the Kshatriya king central to the Ramayana epic. By far one of the most popular heroes (along with Krishna) of Hindu mythology, Rama exemplifies the ideal, son, king, father and man. The legend, on the one hand, is a romantic exploit of good triumphing over evil (the slaying of Ravana, the demon-king, by Rama). On another plane, it is a complex dissertation on love, war, brotherhood, fidelity, societal customs and traditions etc. 

8.            KRISHNA Avatar: (Dwapara Yuga). Vishnu, in this Avatar, incarnates himself as Krishna, one of the central figures in the epic Mahabharata. The epic, while being a tale of two warring clans of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, is also a discerning study of human nature, human weaknesses, statesmanship, war and politics. Krishna is also the friend, philosopher and guide to Arjuna, the Pandava prince in the Kurukshetra war in the epic. His philosophical discourse to Arjuna on the eve of the war, in response to the latter’s reluctance to wage war on his own kin, is revered as a sacred Hindu scripture – the Bhagavad Gita.  

9.            BALARAMA Avatar: (Dwapara Yuga). Balarama is the ninth Avatar according to Puranic (Puranas are part of Vedic scriptures) view. Balarama was the elder brother of Krishna and is said to have ably supported the latter in his fight with the evil king Kamsa whom Krishna killed.  Balarama also killed the feared Asura (demon) Dhenuka, among others, thus upholding righteousness over evil. His principal weapon was the plough (Hal).  

BUDDHA Avatar: (Kali Yuga). Certain schools of thought hold the view that Balaram is not an Avatar of Vishnu but that of Shesh Nag on whom Vishnu reclines.  These schools consider Gautama Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist religion to be the ninth incarnation of Vishnu.  

10.       KALKI Avatar is the tenth and final Avatar of Vishnu. This Avatar is yet to appear. As per prophesy, this Avatar will manifest itself at the end of the present Kali Yuga which will also be the end of the current Mahayuga. He will ride a white winged horse and have a blazing sword in his hand. He will preside over the destruction of this world and all the evil-doers in it for the next cycle of re-creation.

A careful analysis of the ten Avatars, from lower to higher forms of life, shows a close resemblance to modern theories of evolution.  The first three, from Matsya to Varaha, symbolize the development of protoplasm and invertebrates and the gradual evolution through amphibian to the mammalian stage. The Narasimhan and the Vamana may well depict the sub-human ape-like and incompletely developed pre-historic man. Parashuram indicates the evolution of the modern man with the ability to use tools, while Rama, Krishna and Buddha represent mans intellectual and social development.

The timing of the Avatars also appears significant. While the first four in the Satya yuga represent the early evolution of life, the incarnation as Rama coincides with the pinnacle of monarchy in the Treta yuga. Similarly, notions of code of conduct and social justice were honed in the Dwapar yuga with the advent of the Krishna Avatar.


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