Hindu myths and legends illustrate Hinduism’s world vision in vibrant color. They portray worlds inhabited by people, by super people, by gods and demons, by legendary heroes and evil doers, by fantastic creatures endowed with extraordinary powers, and by great warriors wielding remarkable weapons.
These tales tell of places unbound by time or space, places that exist in our imagination, and places we can visit today. They tell of flight through the heavens. They discuss creation and destruction. They speak of God’s manifestations and God’s power. They bring laughter and tears and they thrill, frighten, comfort, and teach generation after generation of Hindus. Ancient stories told and retold never lose their fascination. They weave themselves into the fabric of Hindu life and take on new life when fresh miracles come about or when nature and science amaze us with feats that we once thought could not be performed outside of our imaginations.
Among the most intriguing narratives in Hindu mythology are the stories related to the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver, in the holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The term avatar is understood to mean incarnation or manifestation, but the actual translation from Sanskrit is “descent.”
People do not worship all the avatars and all are not human. Hindus adore Rama and Krishna above Vishnu’s other incarnations, but Vishnu came as a savior in all of them. Hinduism has consistently viewed Vishnu as the savior. While Brahma is the Creator who starts cosmics and Shiva is the Destroyer who ends them, Vishnu, the Preserver, is the one who strives to maintain cosmic order, intervening whenever needed. It is interesting to note that the order of the avatars’ appearance parallels the sequence of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Vishnu’s first descent is in the form of a fish, a creature of the water. Matsya saved a ship attempting to escape from a great flood and guided it to safety. The second avatar was in the body of Kurma, a tortoise who restored the nectar of immortality to the gods. The tortoise is a reptile, a life form that followed fish in the evolutionary sequence. Lord Vishnu incarnated for the third time in the body of a land animal, Varaha, the boar. Varaha saved the Earth from the demon who carried her to the bottom of the ocean. After a battle which lasted a thousand years, the boar rescued Earth and restored her to her rightful place in the universe.
Narasimha, the giant man lion, was Vishnu’s fourth descent and the last which took place in the Satya Yuga, the earliest age in Hindu cosmology. Narasimha symbolizes the emergence of mankind from the animal kingdom. Vishnu manifested in this form to save Prahlada from his father, a demon who was enraged by his son’s devotion to Vishnu. Narasimha destroyed the demon and made Prahlada ruler of the earth and the underworld.
The fifth, sixth, and seventh avatars of Vishnu take place in the second age known as the Treta Yuga, a period when man progressed from the stone age, to the iron age and then to a society ruled by kings. Thus, while Vishnu’s first four incarnations relate to struggles with demons and the forces of nature, the next three are about social and political struggles among men.
In His fifth incarnation, Vishnu appeared as Vamana, the dwarf who restored heavenly and earthly power to the gods and in his sixth, He appeared as Parashurama, Rama with an ax. His mission was to rid the world of evil and Parashurama went around the world twenty-one times killing bad kings and re-establishing the rule of the virtuous ones. Vishnu’s seventh incarnation was as Lord Rama, widely worshipped and glorified in the epic Ramayana.
Vishnu’s eighth avatar is as Lord Krishna who came to earth to preach the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna is probably the most deeply beloved of God’s avatars. His descent occurred in the third age known as the Dvapara Yuga. Vishnu’s ninth avatar, as Lord Buddha, the Enlightened One, took place in the fourth and current Yuga known as the Kali Yuga. Buddha preached a doctrine of reform that became Buddhism.
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