A number of several older theological faiths and beliefs prevalent in the northern Indian society at that time in the history (ca.300 BC or later) were synthesized into a uniform model of incarnations. The ten divinities conceived by earlier civilization sects were recomposed and unified into the concept of ten avatāras of Lord Vishnu. The words ava (=downward) + tāra (=passage) refers to the descent of God into earth in human/animal forms. These include:
1. Matsya -The fish God
2 Koorma-The Tortoise
3. Varāha-The Boar
4. Narasimha- The Lion Man
5. Vāmana-The Dwarf
6. Parashurāma-The Axe Rama
9. Balarām/ Buddha and
All these incarnations are essentially adoption and mythification of ten different faiths that prevailed at different time periods of evolution of civilization in the Indian subcontinent.
The stories are also more or less, probably unknowingly, arranged according to evolution of life starting with the primitive vertebrate fish and culminating with most evolved human beings
1. The acceptance of ‘Matsya’ or The Fish God as an avatar throws light into one of the major disputes relating to the deciphering of Indus valley civilization. The seals unearthed from the archeological sites of Indus valley civilization, like Harapa and Mohenjodaro, contain a large number of images of fish pictograms. These fish symbols were interpreted as representing stars according to Iravattam Mahadevan (on the basis of dual meaning of the word “meen” in Dravidian languages); whereas Asko Parpola maintained that these represent the Fish God revered by the inhabitants of the Indus valley. It appears that the interpretation of Asko Parpola is more in order. The concept of the Fish God worshipped by the Indus valley people (mainly Dravidians?) remained in the mindsets of the people long after the destruction of Indus valley civilization. Later in the history, the same concept/myth was adopted into Vaishnavism (Vishnu cult) as Matsya avatār, the initial incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
2. The role of the Giant Tortoise, the Koorma avatār, is remembered in the occasion of mythological churning of the Sea (Samudra mathana) for obtaining the amrutha. The rivalry between the Sura (divine persons) and Asura (demons) groups manifested in this legend is an exaggerated version of churning of buttermilk for obtaining butter. During the early history cattle grazing and dairy activities were widespread in the subcontinent. Even Krishna belonged to the family of cattle keepers (Yadavs). The mythical legend visualizes Mount of Meru placed on the Koorma as the churning rod tied with Adishesha ( the serpent associated with Vishnu), as the churning rope pulled in a tug of war fashion by Sura and Asura groups on opposite ends. The whole churning process is done in the sea (instead of buttermilk pot) and ‘amrutha’ (the elixir) is sought out of this churning instead of butter. The entire mythical fantasy glorifies the rivalry and animosity between Vedic Aryan and Jew tribes that shared similar and contemporaneous cultural evolution during the time.
3. Similarly the Great Boar was worshipped in northwestern subcontinent during the early historical period. The Boar spirit-god (‘daiva’) ‘Panjurli’ worshipped by Tulu tribes must have been the original source of this myth. According the legend of ten incarnations, the Boar God (Varaha) rescued the Earth from the fury of the Sea and it also eliminated Hiranyaksha, the brother of Hiranyakashipu.
4. The Narasimha (the Lion-man or the half man-half lion avatār) represents the story of an innocent boy Prahlada rescued from the clutches of the tyrant father Hiranyakashipu, but with lot of fantasies attached to it. According to legends, Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha were the Asura brothers born to sage Kashyapa, the grandson of Lord Brahma. Sage Kashyapa had four wifes namely Diti, Aditi, Vinita and Kudroo. Diti and Aditi were sisters of Gauri, the wife of Lord Shiva. Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha were born to Diti. The Sura class (Gods) were born to Aditi. Vinita gave rise to Garuda (the Eagle), the carrier of Vishnu. Kudroo gave rise to Nagas, the serpent class. The Naga worship was in vogue since earliest days of civilization.
The Garuda (eagle) concept itself is interesting. Abraham, the prophet, was traveling on horse-back. The original Brahma derived from Abraham, was also horse mounted. (However, the Brahma’s configuration subsequently changed with time.) In the fashion of original Brahma, it became a convention later to depict swift carrier animals (sole vehicles of that time) for all Gods. Incidentally the eagle is also the killer of snakes. Thus myth creators chose Garuda as vehicle for the Vishnu, maybe also to subjugate the dominance of the Naga cult.
We can see amalgamation of several myths in these legends. The origin of Gods (Sura class), Demons (Asura class), Naga class and Garuda were theologically explained in these fantasies. The word ‘daitya’ (=giant) has come from Diti. Apparently, the daityas (the Asura class), were huge in build: possible connotation to tall Caucasian race.
5. The story of Vamana, the dwarf, is somewhat perverse. It demonstrated the glorification of the mischievous demand of a dwarf who asked land for placing three steps and cunningly subjugated the righteous King Bali, who was a very popular king respected and loved by his subjects. The respect for King Bali continued among his subjects even after he was vanquished to ‘Patala’. Tulu and Malayali people since ages traditionally celebrate a special night of lights, in honour of King Baliyendra, during every Deepavali. Thinking in terms of natural justice, there was no fault on the part of King Bali except that he belonged to the so called Asura class.
6. The Parashurama was a determinant, powerful man who killed many Kshatriya kings to avenge the insult done to his family. To distinguish from the Rama proper of Ramayana, this man was called Parashu-ram, the word ‘parashu’ referring to the weapon which he carried with him, the axe.
But the real fantasy attached to the Par ashram in the West Coast of India, Konkan Karavali and Malabar, is that he retrieved the coastal land from the Lord of Sea. He made agreement with the (Arabian) Sea that land upto where he can throw his axe, be vacated by the Sea. This is an interesting story of retreat of the Sea attributed to a fantasy superhuman character. Regression and transgression of the Seas is a phenomenon that has occurred all over the globe at during the historical past. The most recent regression documented in the West coast is about 6000 years ago, according to geologists. People living during the time of regression of the Sea, witnessed the dumbfounding phenomenon and the story was passed down the history through oral transmission from older to younger generations. After a few generations the story was attributed to this hero Parashurama, who they imagined could do this kind of feat using his superb axe.
7. The story of Rama may be a prehistoric pre-Vedic folk-tale told and retold to generations from elder members to younger ones. The characteristic presence of monkeys or primitive human beings (apes or ape-like hairy men) puts the date to prehistory. The story was blended with mild doses of fantasy and was repackaged by Valmiki, a hunter turned poet approximately during the period 500 to 800 BC. At the time of re-composition of the Ramayana, the concept of Brahma was evolving from the primitive concept of horse-mounted tribal hero based on the life of Abraham (Tulu Brahma: the Bermer) to four headed God of creation. Brahma was eulogized and blown into a fantasy of greatness as analysed in detail by S.S N. Murthy. He was also pictured as a ten-headed deity. It is interesting to note that much of the geography of southern India and Srilanka have been described in Ramayana. People must have been freely traveling by foot at that time in these areas.
8. The Krishna again was a mass hero, popular since his childhood days. The epic of Mahabharata is an unbelievably expansive canvas of blow-ups and fantasies built around an actual late to post-Vedic war of ten kings, as analysed by S.S.N.Murthy and others.
Both Rama and Krishna are hailed as blue-skinned (eulogy for the pleasantly dark- skinned) God incarnates. The emphasis on ‘blue skin’ reveals that there were light skinned people at that time. It also indicates that these Rama and Krishna were from the dark-skinned natives of that time.
9. Balarām, Krishna’s brother, was considered as one of the incarnations in the beginning but later was replaced by Buddha, who was more popular at the time of synthesis of the concept of ten incarnations.
10. Kalki is the futuristic fantasy of the ten incarnations that hopefully wishes that God shall come again to set things right, if bad continues to prevail on the world. It was an empty slot reserved for the unseen future mass Hero.
The Balaram-Buddha changes suggest that the list of incarnations were compiled at the time of Buddha and peak of Buddhism.
I have recounted the simplistic analysis of the sociological growth and evolution of theological concepts in our land. For theological documentation of the ten incarnations of Vishnu, kindly peruse Guru Vishwanath’s blog posts dated August-September 2005.
In Tulunadu and Kerala, initially, at least from ca. 500 BC, it was the dominance of spirit worship that has continued to sway even today. Shiva and Ganesha temples were introduced after 5th Century AD by Kadamba Kings, who dominated over local Alupa chieftains. The Kadamba Kings followed Shiva cult possibly under the influence of Pallava Kings.
By the time of Acharya Shankara (ca 9th Century AD), the Krishna cult spread to Tulunadu and Kerala. According to legends, the Krishna was the deity in the family of Shankara. Madhvacharya of Udupi further popularised the Krishna cult during the 12th century in the West Coast.
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