I recently donned my dancing bells after many years for a performance in my son’s school. It was exhilarating to perform in front of young admiring eyes with the creative juices lending shape to expressive mudras and intricate movements. It was storytelling week and 3 of us moms came together to portray a mythological story, through the classical dance form, Bharatnatyam. Hindu mythological stories are generally based on the rivalry between the Devas (Gods) and the Asuras (demons) signifying the time transcending conflict between good and bad. One such story comprising of many sub-stories is the Dashavatar (Dash –meaning 10 and Avatar- form), the 10 forms taken by Lord Vishnu, the protector of the Universe to nurture good and fight against evil.
The first form taken by Vishnu is MATSYA (fish). Long ago, a demon, Somasuran snatched the holy Vedas from Brahma, the creator of the world and jumped into the ocean to hide the Vedas. Vishnu then took the form of Matsya—a huge fish—and swam to the depths of the ocean, destroyed the asura and brought back the Vedas to earth.
KURMA, the tortoise, is the second incarnation of Vishnu. Once, the Devas and the Asuras decided to get together to bring out the Nectar of Immortality, hidden deep in the ocean. They had to churn the ocean for the Nectar to come out of the water. For this, they used a mountain, Mount Mandar as the churning staff and the King of snakes, Vasuki as the rope. With the Devas on one side and the Asuras on the other, they churned and churned, when suddenly, Mount Mandar started to sink. Vishnu then took the form of a huge tortoise—Kurma—lifted the mountain on his back so that the churning could continue. Of course, when the nectar finally came out, Vishnu ensured that only the Devas received it by tricking the asuras.
VARAHA, the boar, is the third form of Vishnu. Hiranyaksha, a demon desiring to take control of Mother Earth, rolled her into a mat and carried her to the bottom of the ocean. When Mother Earth called for help, Vishnu took the form of Varaha the boar. He dived into the ocean, destroyed Hiranyaksha , picked up Mother Earth between his long tusks, and put her back in her place in the universe.
NARASIMHA (Nara, meaning man, and Simha, meaning lion) is Vishnu’s fourth avatar. Hiranyakashipu , a demon was blessed with a boon wherein no man, no animal and no weapon could kill him. His young son, Prahald, was a great devotee of Vishnu and always prayed to him. One day, Hiranyakashipu livid with his son asks, “Where is this Vishnu of yours?” Prahlad replies that Lord Vishnu is everywhere; he lives in a grain of sand as well as in a big pillar. Angrily, Hiranyakashipu walks to the nearest pillar and breaks it open. Lord Vishnu appears as Narasimha (half man, half lion) from the pillar! He takes Hiranyakashipu on his thigh and disembowels him with his sharp claws.
VAMANA the dwarf is the fifth avatar of Vishnu. Bali, an Asura king and grandson of Prahlad , had defeated all the gods and became king of all three worlds. During a Yagna (a religious ceremony conducted in the presence of fire) held by Bali, Vishnu appears in the form of a small, holy man. As per custom, Bali promises to grant anything he wishes for. Vamana says that he only wants three paces of land. Bali is amused and grants him the wish. Vamana then starts growing in size until he reaches the sky! He takes the whole earth with his first stride; heaven with his second. Then he turns to Bali and asks for the third piece. Bali has now realized that this can be none other than Lord Vishnu, so he bows down and offers his head. Vishnu steps on his head and pushes him to the underworld, where he still rules as king.
PARASHURAMA is the sixth avatar of Vishnu. He was born to the holy sage Jamadagni and his wife Renuka. Though born a priest, Parashurama was a warrior who was an expert in wielding the axe, his favourite weapon, which he received after many years of penance from Lord Shiva. He avenged the death of his father killed by a king of the Surya Vamsha dynasty by destroying the entire dynasty with his axe. He fought evil forces throughout his life and became a symbol of justice.
Virtuous RAMA, the prince of Ayodhya is the seventh form. Rama is considered the ideal man; courageous, respectful, kind, strong, brave, loving, and just. To fulfil a promise given by his father to his step mother, Rama, his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana have to spend 14 years in exile in the forest. One day, the 10-headed demon king Ravana, wanting to teach Rama a lesson as he had once spurned his sister Surpanaka, carries away Sita to his kingdom, Lanka. Ram fights a huge war with Ravana with the help of a great monkey army, including Hanuman, kills Ravana and rescues his wife, Sita.
BALARAMA (Bala meaning strength of the arms), older brother of Krishna is the eighth form of Vishnu. In one incident, when Balarama was feeling tired and dizzy, he called out to the Yamuna River asking her to flow near him so he can take a bath. The proud Yamuna refuses angering Balarama who uses his plough to dig trenches around her that reduces the mighty Yamuna into small streams.
Mischievous and naughty KRISHNA is the ninth form of Vishnu. Brought up by his foster mother, Yashoda, he charmed all the women in the village in spite of troubling them with his pranks and antics. His uncle, Kamsa, a terrorizing King, sends innumerable demons to kill Krishna right from his infancy as it is prophesised that Krishna would kill him. Krishna not only destroys all the demons but also fulfils the prophecy, killing Kamsa eventually. Krishna is also the conferrer of the Bhagavad Gita, the spiritual and philosophical doctrine of life.
KALKI, the tenth and the last avatar of Vishnu is yet to appear. It is said that Vishnu will take the form of Kalki in this current era, known as Kali Yuga and will move with ‘great speed’ on a ‘Big White horse with a sword ‘in his hand. He will come finally when evil and immorality at the pinnacle, destroy wickedness in this world, restart creation and restore truth in people’s lives.
For the non-believers, the Dashavatar is also construed as the evolution of life starting from water based creature to more physically and intellectually developed life forms. But in the end, it’s a great story depicting humanity, values of life, andt of good winning over and evil!