History of Literature

The Avatars of Vishnu


The Avatars of Vishnu

Vishnu is one of three important Indian gods, of which the other two are Brahma and Shiva. Each has a role: Vishnu is the protector and restorer of the world, Brahma the creator, and Shiva the destroyer. Confusingly, although Brahma created the world, both he and Shiva were horn from Vishnu, Brahma emerging from Vishnu's navel, and Shiva springing from bis forehead. Vishnu is also called the "wide-strider" because he can cross the whole world in three strides. There are endless stories about Vishnu, of which the most important relate to his incarnations, or avatars, in which he has come to earth, in animal or human form, to help humankind. In theory, there have been nine avatars and a tenth is yet to come, although many stories exist that detail other appearances. Lakshmi, Vishnu's wife, has always accompanied him in his incarnations - for example, as Prince Rama's wife Sita, or as Krishna's lover Radha, and his wife, Rukmini. That Lakshmi can be incarnated twice in the Krishna story and that other avatar stories exist is indicative of the way in which myths grow, appropriating elements from different sources at different times, often resulting in a varying versions of a common theme.



The God Krishna

During her eighth pregnancy, Krishna's mother Devaki was imprisoned by her evil brother King Kamsa because it was prophesied that her eighth child would kill him. But Devaki smuggled out the baby, Krishna, and he was placed in л family of cowherds. Although he was evidently a god (his mother saw the universe in his mouth and, as a baby, he killed the ogress Putana, who fed him poisoned milk), Krishna was playful, and many stories tell how he stole butter and teased the girls. With Balarama, his brother, he has main' adventures, killing King Kamsa and winning his bride, Rukmini. Although it is said that Vishnu put one black and one white hail' from his head in Devaki's womb to create the brothers, Balarama is clearly an avatar of Ananta, the world serpent, for the snake comes out of his mouth w hen he dies. Krishna himself is killed after a long life by a hunter, who shoots him by accident in the sole of his foot, his only vulnerable spot.




This 18th-centmy picture from Rajasthan in northern India, shows the ten official
avatars of Vishnu. In the centre Vishnu is shown as Krishna, accompanied by his lover
Radha and two cowgirls. The other nine incarnations - five human, four animal, and
one composite - run around the edge.










Krishna and the Copis

Krishna is shown playing his flute, attended by Radha, his favourite gopi, one of the young women of his adoptive tribe who were all in love with him. The stories of Krishna are so extensive that, like Rama, he can be considered as a god in his own right, although he is a manifestation of Vishnu. His name means "black" and, with his flute, may suggest a tribal origin for this avatar.

The Buddha

The Buddha, the ninth avatar shown here with the attributes of Vishnu, was an historical figure. He taught humankind how to free itself of desire, and the illusion of this world, and its endless reincarnations. The Buddha's previous incarnations ate recounted in the Jataka Tales.



Vishnu and Lakshmi

Vishnu and Lakshmi


Vishnu and Lakshmi are shown riding the sacred bird Garuda, who is linked
with tire and the sun, up to their heaven of love. The marital devotion of Vishnu
and Lakshmi extends through all of Vishnu's incarnations. Lakshmi was born
from the ocean at the churning; of the sea of milk, which provides her with
a garland of fresh flowers every day.

One of her names, Padma, the lotus, identifies her with the perfection of this
flower. The holy river Ganges is at her service, and two elephants shower her
with its water when she bathes. Also known as Shri, prosperity, Lakshmi is
the goddess of good fortune, and also of growth and fruitfulness.