Vishnu, or Visnu, is one of the three primary gods in Hindu religion. Within the Hindu notion of the cyclical cosmos, Vishnu plays the role of the preserver, and is defined as the “pervader” in the Rig Veda, an ancient Hindu oral text. As the name implies, Vishnu pervades all and preserves the cosmos by crossing down to earth on multiple occasions in order to solve some dilemma of cosmic proportion. There are multiple schema detailing the number and nature of Vishnu’s “crossings down”, known as Avatara, or avatars in English. The most common of these schema, and that which will be enumerated here, is of the ten Avatars of Vishnu. These are as follows:
- 1) MAISYA – the fish
2) KACCHAPA – the sea turtle
3) VARSHS – the boar
4) NARASIMHA – the man-lion
5) VAMANA – the dwarf
6) PARASURAMA – a priest who kills some evil warriors
7) RAMA – the perfect man, epitome of Dharma, and protagonist of the Ramayana
8) KRSNA – also known as Krishna, the dark lord
9) BUDDHA – the figure of peace and non-harm, or ahimsa
10) KALKI – the one who has yet to come
These Avatars of Vishnu arrive over the course of millions of years, as the time span in Hindu cosmology is perhaps the most expansive of all religions. Each of the Avatars of Vishnu carries out of a specific purpose, and their stories are related in a number of religious myths, some of which take on their own identities as important religious texts. The Ramayana, for example, is arguably the most widely read text in India. The Ramayana relates the tale of Rama and his wife Sita. They are considered to demonstrate the ideal of male and female identity and behavior in terms of religious and social rightness. Their story is one of romance and adventure, and through the course of the drama, Rama and Sita are able to display idyllic behavior through their actions, words, and interactions with each other as man and wife.
The stories of other Avatars of Vishnu hold, perhaps, less religious and social significance, but are equally entertaining and exciting. Kacchapa, the sea turtle retrieved the “nectar of immortality,” or amrtam from the bottom of the sea, saving the day for the Demigods. Buddha, as he has been incorporated into Hindu theology, is seen as both good and bad. He is often considered in Hinduism as an Avatar of Vishnu who, though he taught the valuable lesson of non-harm, was generally wrong in his philosophy, i.e. Buddhism. His philosophy, however, did not interrupt Hinduism too seriously, as he convinced the demons in the world of this incorrect philosophy, and thus led them astray, which was befitting because they were demons. Perhaps in another example of religious pugnacity, Kalki, according to the delineation of the Ten Avatars of Vishnu, will eventually save the day for Hinduism in India by killing all the Muslims.
Narasimha, another popular Avatar of Vishnu, has quite an interesting story. As the story goes, a man named Hiranyakashipu was given to worshiping Brahma instead of Vishnu, because the last Avatar of Vishnu, Varaha, had killed his brother Haranyaksha. For his worship, Hiranyakashipu received a boon from Brahma that he could not be killed inside or outside, by a man or an animal, on the ground or in the sky, nor during the day or night. To his annoyance, Hiranyakashipu’s son Prahlada was a devotee of Vishnu, and he one day decided to kill his son over this annoyance. Prahlada, however, was protected by Vishnu, who crossed down as half-man, half-lion Narasimha. Narasimha killed the evil Hiranyakashipu in the threshold of a door, at dusk, by putting him over his knee and snapping him in half.
Krishna is the most well-known Avatar of Vishnu, and is the subject of a religious subtext called the Bhagavad Gita, which is part of a larger religious text known as the Mahabharata. Krishna has a special importance for Krishna devotees including followers of the Hare Krishna movement. While they simultaneously ascribe to the notion of the Avatars of Vishnu, Krishna devotees consider Krishna to be higher and more important than Vishnu.