Vishnu is known for his incarnations (‘avatars’), when he descends to earth “for the protection of the good and for the destruction of the wicked”, to restore the balance between good and evil. An avatar is an embodied portion of Vishnu’s divine essence in earthly form. Even though there are still disagreements as to how many times Vishnu has reincarnated on earth, it is generally recognised that there have been nine main incarnations already, with the tenth one believed to appear at the end of the present age.
His first incarnation was as a fish, Matsya, when he saved the saint, Vaivaswata, in a story very similar to Noah’s; in the form of Matsya, Vishnu took the ark-equivalent of the saint’s boat through the floods to the safety of Mount Himavan.
Then came the turtle incarnation of Kurma, which held up the mountain that was being used to churn the great ocean to produce the nectar of immortality.
The third incarnation was the boar, Varaha.
The demon, Hiranyaksha, through prayer and severe penances, was awarded a boon by Brahma – the demon asked that no god, nor beast, nor man would be able to kill him. But he’d omitted the boar in his list of beasts. He then started to terrorise the earth, pushing it under the sea, and stole the Vedas from Brahma. Taking the form of the boar, and using his tusks, Vishnu brought the earth back out from under the ocean. He killed Hiranyaksha and returned the Vedas to Brahma.
The next incarnation, the half-man half-lion Narasimha, I found particularly frightening when I was young, because I’m so used to Vishnu being a serene god. The demon-king, Hiranyashasipu, brother of Hiranyaksha, underwent even more severe penances than his brother to gain the boon that he sought – immortality. Brahma, impressed with the demon’s austerity, granted him his wish. Hiranyashasipu was very specific – he stated that he could only be killed by a creature that was neither man nor beast, not in daylight or at night, neither inside nor outside of a building, and not on earth or in the sky. Having obtained his wish, he then believed himself to be the greatest of the gods and forbade his people to worship any other god but himself. However, his young son, Prahlad, was already an ardent devotee of Vishnu, and refused to stop worshipping him. His enraged father tried numerous ways to punish his son, to force him to give up Vishnu; he even tried to have him killed. But Prahlad remained unharmed. Finally, Hiranyashasipu demanded that, if Vishnu was so great, his son show him where the god was. To which, Prahlad replied that Vishnu was everywhere. In a blind rage, the demon-king knocked down a pillar, shouting if perhaps Vishnu might be in there. To his horror, Vishnu appeared in the ruins of the pillar as a half-man half-lion. He snatched up the unfortunate Hiranyashasipu and carried him to the doorway. In the twilight hour, he sat with the demon laid across his lap and ripped him open with his claws. The only one brave enough to approach the angry god and calm him with his prayers was Prahlad.
Vishnu’s fifth incarnation, the dwarf, Vamana, happened in the time of Prahlad’s grandson, Bali.
Bali was the king of the underworld, and there came a time when the demi-gods feared his growing power, believing he would eventually conquer the earth and heavens. Vishnu was born as a dwarf into the household of a Brahmin priest. When he had grown to adulthood, he went to Bali and asked the king to give him land which he could cover with three steps; the king agreed. Vamana then transformed himself into Vishnu – with his first step, he covered the heavens; with his second, the earth. He then asked Bali where his third step should be. The king bowed, and offered his head. Putting his foot on the king’s head, Vishnu pushed him back down to the underworld. But he rewarded Bali for his generosity and humility, giving him the lamp of knowledge and allowing him to return to earth once a year to light millions of lamps to dispel the darkness of ignorance. And that part of the legend is linked to the second day of Diwali.
The sixth incarnation is that of Parashurama, a Brahmin priest, born to remind the Kshatriyas (the ruling and military elite, charged with the protection of society) of their sworn duty, for they had grown arrogant.
Blessed with great physical power, Parashurama always carried an axe, which had been presented to him by Shiva, whom he was devoted to. When a powerful king stole the Kamadhenu cow from Parashurama’s father, the latter, enraged at the theft, went to get his cow back; this cow was not an ordinary one for it was reputed to give endless quantities of milk. Unfortunately, in the process of retrieving his cow, he killed the king. In retaliation, the king’s son, killed Parashurama’s father. To avenge his father’s death, Parashurama killed those Kshatriyas who had forgotten their duty to protect the people and uphold the law.
The next three incarnations are Rama, Krishna and Buddha – the most well-known and worshipped of Vishnu’s incarnations. And I will cover these separately over the next couple of weeks.