Saturday, 30 September 2017

Fixing The Symbolism Of The Dashaavataar Mythology

The mythology of the ten incarnations of the god Vishnu is one of the best-known in Hinduism. It is known as Dashaavataar (dasha - ten, avataar - incarnation).

A beautiful representation of Vishnu popularised by ISKCON, a Western-oriented sect of Hinduism
(yet another favourite example of mine to illustrate the advantages of cultural cross-pollination)

Each of the avataars of Vishnu is believed to have appeared at a critical juncture, to save the world and the righteous from the depredations of some evil character or natural calamity. A nice twist is that the tenth avataar, Kalki, is depicted as one who has not yet arrived. This is a future avataar who will save humanity from a final apocalypse.

There's also a very intriguing interpretation of the dashaavataar that treats it as an allegory for the theory of evolution.

I will cover these aspects, but first, there are two major problems with the dashaavataar as it stands.

One, the exact identities of the ten avataars is not settled. There are two major variants in the popular narration.

Two, a significant avataar is omitted in both of the popular variants, and this needs to be addressed.

Let's look at both these issues before I propose my variant.

1. Who are the ten avataars of Vishnu, exactly?

This rendition, popular in the North of India, has the following avataars:


In the South of India, this version is more popular:




The differences may not immediately be obvious, so the following diagram should make things clearer.

The first set (the typically North Indian variant) is shown on the left, and the other is on the right.

In other words, one variant treats the eighth and ninth avataars as Krishna and the Buddha, respectively, while the other treats them as Balaraama and Krishna. Krishna's place in the overall line-up is secure, but there is some jostling for the eighth position.

The problem with Balaraama as an avataar is that his value is not clear-cut. This avataar exists at exactly the same time as Krishna, so it is not quite clear why two avataars should have appeared at the same time. Besides, this also violates the no-two-avataars-at-once rule that is often invoked to explain the retreat of the otherwise unbeatable Parashuraama when he finally confronts Raama.

The inclusion of Buddha, on the other hand, is troublesome because it seems to be more of a cynical ploy to deny the separate identity of another religion by co-opting it under the Hindu umbrella. If the Buddha is just another avataar of Vishnu, then Buddhism is just another sect of Hinduism and not an independent religion in its own right. In addition to angering Buddhists, this interpretation doesn't seem to have much scriptural basis, since the teachings of Buddhism are quite distinct from the mainstream Hindu canon (significantly, in rejecting the supreme authority of the Vedas).

[As an atheist, I also enjoy my mythology unadulterated by actual history. Treating a real-life historical character like the Buddha as an avataar of Vishnu is, to my mind, a bit like saying Noam Chomsky is a member of the Justice League. While I admire both Chomsky and the superheroes of the Justice League, I prefer them in separate compartments.]

I would find this juxtaposition cringeworthy

2. A significant omission

In addition to the above question of who the eighth and ninth avataars really are, there is a significant one that is entirely missing! Every avataar listed above appears exactly once, as per scripture. However, there is another avataar of Vishnu who appears at least three times at different junctures to save the day! Yet this avataar is curiously never included in the two common variants of the Dashaavataar shown above.

The missing avaatar is Mohini.

Mohini is a female avataar, and Vishnu takes this form on at least three occasions:

1. To distract the asuras (demons) when amrit (the nectar of immortality) is being served to the devas (gods)

2. To turn the power of the demon Bhasmaasura against himself, and thereby save Shiva

3. To mate with Shiva to produce the warrior-god Ayyappa, since a prophecy holds that only the progeny of Vishnu and Shiva can vanquish the demoness Mahishi

It is most curious that an avataar of such obvious (and repeated) utility should be neglected in the pantheon. I ascribe this to the pervasive misogyny of Hindu society, in which brahmin males have traditionally controlled the narrative.

Here is Mohini doing her thing.

Mohini using her charms to persuade the swarthy asuras to wait while she first serves the nectar of immortality to the clean-shaven devas. (Predictably, the asuras get nothing)


Mohini tricking the demon Bhasmaasura into copying her dance moves and ultimately touching his own head, turning himself into ashes, saving the cowering Shiva from his rashly granted boon


Mohini seducing Shiva, so as to enable the birth of Ayyappa, a god with their combined powers


3. My proposed version of the Dashaavataar

My version makes room for Mohini, and removes the two troubling inclusions that detract from the elegance of the sequence.


Why do I believe this is the most elegant? Ah, for this we need to look at the evolutionary analogy.

4. The Dashaavataar as an allegory for evolution

The idea that the Dashaavataar represents evolution has been around for a long time. The first five avataars represent the physical evolution of animal species, while the latter five represent the sociological evolution of humankind. The sixth avataar is the crossover point.

Physical evolution from lower forms of life to humankind:

1. Matsya - Fish
2. Kurma - Turtle/tortoise (reptile)
3. Varaaha - Boar (mammal)
4. Narasimha - Half-beast/Half-man (early primate)
5. Vaamana - Midget/dwarf (early hominid)
6. Parashuraama - homo sapiens

Sociological evolution:

6. Parashuraama - A violent, merciless society
7. Raama - A society governed by the rule of law, but an unbending one
8. Krishna - A pragmatic society that understands subtlety, diplomacy, Realpolitik, and shades of grey
9. Mohini - A gender-equal society that is also accepting of gender fluidity
10. Kalki - Future human society

I would say the world is currently in transition from the Era of Krishna to the Era of Mohini.

I would recommend this version of the Dashaavataar as the preferred mythological narrative for both believing Hindus and cultural Hindus to embrace. It is scripturally supported and its symbolism plays well to modern sensibilities.
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