Avata Ras of Vishnu, Images of

views updated


AVATĀ RAS OF VISHNU, IMAGES OF In Hinduism, the trinity of gods—Brahmā, Vishnu, and Shiva—are believed to be responsible for creation, preservation, and annihilation of the Universe, respectively. Although Vishnu appears second in the triad, he is very popular because of his identity as the supreme being. In the Vedic period, he was not placed in the foremost rank, but in the post-Vedic period, Vishnu was identified as the supreme God who from time to time descends from heaven, assuming many avatāras (incarnations), to put an end to evil and to establish Dharma (religious law).

Incarnations of Vishnu are of three categories: avatāra, āveśa, and amśa. In the avatāra, Vishnu incarnates in complete form, whereas in the āveśa, he incarnates partially; this can be more or less temporary in nature. The avatāras of Rāma and Krishna are "complete," whereas the incarnation of Parashurama is only partial. In Amsa, by order of Vishnu, his attributes and aspects are occasionally born on Earth in the form of saintly beings to improve the lives of ordinary human beings.

The Purāṇas (ancient texts) enumerate ten to twenty avatāras, of which ten are major: Matsya (fish), Kūrma (tortoise), Varāha (boar), Narasimha (man-lion), Vāmana (dwarf), Parashurāma, Rāma, Balarāma, Krishna, and Kalki. There are three different versions concerning the eighth and ninth incarnations. According to the first tradition (Mahābhārata, Sāntiparvan, and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa), Balarāma and Krishna are accepted as the eighth and ninth incarnations. The second tradition (Bhāgavata Purāṇa and the Matsya Purāṇa) treats the eighth and ninth as Krishna and the Buddha. The third tradition (Agni Purāṇa) regards Balarāma and the Buddha as the eighth and ninth incarnations. Chronologically, this belief is of later origin. The second tradition, which regards Krishna and the Buddha as the eighth and ninth incarnations, came into vogue only after the Buddha was adopted as an avatāra of Vishnu, dropping Balarāma, who then was recognized as an avatāra of Sesha rather than Vishnu.

Matsya Avatāra

Matsya, the first of the ten avatāras of Vishnu, originated from the ancient flood legends. The earliest account of this myth is found in the Shatapatha Brāhmaṇa, which does not, however, mention Matsya, the fish, as an avatāra of any god. All that the fish did was to save Manu, the first man of Hindu mythology, from the flood, thereby helping him to become the progenitor of the human race. The epic Mahābhārata notes that Prajāpati assumed the form of a fish, whereas later Purāṇas speak of the fish as an avatāra of Vishnu, who saved Manu from floods.

As Manu was performing his rites in the river, a small fish fell into his folded hands. Manu first put it into a jar, then into a lake, and later into the sea because the fish grew so rapidly. Then the fish (Matsya) warned Manu of the coming deluge, which was to take place on the seventh day because the demon Hayagrīva had stolen the Vedas. Matsya instructed Manu to gather various seeds of creation and to enter a boat that would be waiting for him on the appointed day, along with the seven Rishis (Sages). On that day Manu entered the boat and tied it to a large fish that had one stupendous horn. This fish revealed himself to Manu as Vishnu, who later killed Hayagrīva and recovered the Vedas.

Iconography and images

The Matsya Purāṇa and Agni Purāṇa, Abhilashitārthachinthāmani, Rūpamandana, Shilparatna and Shilparatnākara prescribe the icono graphic features of Matsya Avatāra in natural fish form. The Vishnudharmottara is the only text that describes it as horned fish. In the Meru Tantra, Srītattvanidhi, and Chaturvargachintāmani (compendium), the image is described as only partly zoomorphic. The upper part of the body is represented as that of Vishnu with his usual attributes, and the lower part is that of a fish.

No independent shrine of this avatāra has yet been found in India. But images of a fish with one or two attributes of Vishnu are rarely represented in the Dasavatāra (ten avatars) panels in the temples and in the prabhavalis (arches) of sculptural images of Vishnu. The zooanthropomorphic images of Matsya Avatāra are found on the pillars of all Vishnu temples.


The earliest reference to this avatāra is found in the Satapatha Brāhmaṇa, which indicates that Kūrma, the tortoise, was an incarnation of Prajāpati. But several Purāṇas, including Vishnu, Bhāgavata, and Agni, proclaim Kūrma as an avatāra of Vishnu. According to them, Vishnu assumed the form of a tortoise to support the sinking Mandara Mountain at the time of the churning of the milky ocean to obtain ambrosia for the gods, so that they could retrieve their glory and power, which had been taken away by demons.

Iconography and images

The Purāṇas (Matsya, Agni, and Vishnudharmottara) and the Shilpa Shāstras (Rūpaman dana Abhilashitārthachinthāmani and Shilparatna) describe Kūrma in zoomorphic form. The Śrītattvanidhi describes it as half tortoise and half man, with two hands, the right hand holding a gada (throne), the left hand with a chakra (wheel).

There are very few shrines for Kūrmāvatāra. However, the images of Kūrma, in both forms, are found in the Dashāvatāra panels and in the prabhavalis of Vishnu dating to the medieval period.

Varāha Avatāra

The Varāha (wild boar) myth, which originated in the Vedic period, gradually developed in different phases over time and took final shape in the Puranic period. The myth of Varāha as the uplifter of the earth developed in two stages. The first stage, a long period from the Vedas to the Purāṇas, accepted the boar as the creator of Earth. According to Vedic tradition, the creator Prajāpati assumed the form of a boar to bring the earth from the waters; the cosmogonical section of the Purāṇas states that Lord Nārāyana, in his role of Brahmā, assumed the form of a boar to raise the earth.

The earliest reference to the boar called Emusha Varāha is found in the Rig Veda. The earliest reference to Varāha's association with goddess Earth is found in Bhūmi Sūkta of the Atharva Veda. The Samhitās and Brāhmaṇas identify Emusha Varāha with the creator Prajāpati, who brought up soil exactly the size of his snout. This soil became the earth.

In the second stage, the myth of Varāha was transformed into the avatāra cycle of Vishnu. According to Puranic legend, while Brahmā was engaged in the process of creation, the earth had merged in the Garbhodaka Ocean. Brahmā wondered how he could lift the earth out of the waters. In the meantime, a small boar, no larger than the upper portion of a thumb, emerged from his nostril. It quickly became gigantic, making a roaring sound as it ascended into the sky. The denizens of different lokas (the worlds above and below earth), realizing that the boar was not only a form of Vishnu but also a form of divine speech (Vāk), started chanting auspicious verses from the Vedas. The boar, smelling the earth, which had been hidden by the demon Hiranyāksha, entered the ocean, killed Hiranyāksha, then lifted the earth on his tusk and brought it to the surface.

Iconography and images

The Vaikhānasāgama prescribes the iconography of Varāha in three forms: Adivarāha, Nrvarāha, or Bhūvarāha; Yajnavarāha; and Pralayavarāha. In the forms of Bhūvarāha, Yajnavarāha, and Pralayavarāha, the image is depicted with a boar's head and a human body. While the image of Bhūvarāha is shown standing in the ālidhāsana pose, resting his right leg on the hoods of the cosmic snake Sesha, the other two forms of Varāha are shown seated in lalitāsana (sitting posture in which one leg is folded and the other is hanging and resting on the ground) on a simhasana (lion throne). An Earth Goddess figure is shown in the right hand of Bhūvarāha. In the Yajnavaraha form, both Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth) and Bhūdevī (Earth Goddess) are represented. In the case of Pralaya Varāha, Bhūdevī alone is shown.

The Purāṇas, Vayu, Matsya, Vishnu, Bhāgavata, Brahmānda and Brahmā compare each and every limb of Ādivarāha with various components of Yajña in the light of Vedic cosmogony. They, therefore, call it Yajñavarāha and this is purely in animal form. The Purāṇas describe the images of Nrvarāha and Bhūvarāha. They do not describe the iconography of Pralayavarāha and Yajñavaraha mentioned in the Vaikhānasāgama.

The images of Bhūvarāha are found in different parts of India. The earliest image of a colossal and majestic Bhūvarāha, datable to the fifth century a.d., of the Gupta period, can still be seen in cave number five, popularly known as the Varāha court, on the hill of Udayagiri, nearly 3 miles (5 km) southwest of Besnagar in the district of Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh. The whole panel on the wall depicts the legend of the Varāha avatāra in great detail. Depicted with a human body but the head of a boar, and standing in ālidhāsana pose, his left foot rests on the thirteen-hooded cosmic serpent, and his right foot is on the body of Kūrma. His right hand rests on his hip and his left hand is on his knee. Bhūdevī is shown seated on his left shoulder, holding his right tusk with her right hand.

The earliest image of Yajñavarāha in zoomorphic form, belonging to the Gupta period, is still standing majestically in Eran in the Vidisha district of Madhya Pradesh. The colossal image, measuring nearly 14 feet (4.2 m) long, 6 feet (1.8 m) wide, and 12 feet (3.6 m) high, is depicted with Bhūdevī, who is shown hanging from the right tusk. The huge body, with a long and wide vertebral column, is meticulously carved with 1,185 figures of sages in twelve rows. On the snout, a striking figure of the two-armed Vāk is shown, standing in samabhanga position, keeping her hands at her sides. This is the only form of Varāha that includes the figure of Vāk. In later years, when Vāk was merged with Sarasvatī, she came to be depicted in the form of seated Sarasvatī, with Vina in her hands, on the snout of Varāha. The depiction of Vāk on the snout of Varāha, which began in the fifth century a.d. in the Gupta period, continued into the periods of the Pratiharas, Chandellas, and Paramaras, until the fourteenth century in Madhya Pradesh. A few images of Yajñavarāha have been found in Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan, but none earlier than the twelfth century. A rare depiction of Yajnavarāha, measuring nearly 6 feet (1.8 m) long, 2 feet (.6 m) wide, and about 4 feet (1.2 m) high, datable to the eighth century and the Pratihara dynasty, from Badoh-Pathari in Vidisha, is preserved in the Gurjaramahal Museum of Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. Starting from the vertebral column of Varāha, the entire body is carved with figures of various creations in nine rows, indicating four aspects of the Supreme God. A fine Chandella specimen of Yajñavarāha, datable to the tenth century, still stands majestically in the Varāha shrine at Khajuraho, in Madhya Pradesh. It is nearly 9 feet (2.8 m) long and 6 feet (1.8 m) high, carved with 689 figures in eleven rows. In this image the symbolic representations of various components of Yajña (sacrifice) in the form of gods and goddesses proclaim Yajñavarāha as the supreme creator and the depiction on the vertebral column reveals three important factors: pure creation; emanations of Vyuha (concept of Vaishanavism); and synchronization of the emanations with the trinity of Gods of the Purāṇas. Among the avatāras, Varāha avatāra is the only one assumed by Vishnu for the purpose of creation.

Narasimha Avatāra

The incarnation of Narasimha (lion's face with human body) constitutes the transition from the stage of beast to the human form. The earliest reference to this avatāra is found in the epic Mahābhārata, which informs us that in order to protect the Devas (gods) and the people, Lord Madhusudana took the avatāra of Narasimha. The myth of this avatāra is described in the Harivamsa. The demon Hiranyakasipu obtained a boon from Brahmā, according to which he could be killed by no gods, no Asuras (demons), no Rishis (sages), no astras (weapons), no dry or wet object. He could be killed neither in heaven nor on earth and neither by night nor by day. He could be killed with only one stroke of the hand. Once he was granted the boon, he became a terror to gods. Hence, answering the prayer of Brahmā to rescue them, Vishnu assumed the form of Narasimha and killed the demon by tearing off his chest with his long, sharp nails. However, the Purāṇas, including the Kūrma, the Padma, the Vishnu, and the Bhāgavata, narrate the myth differently. The most popular form of the myth relates that, in answer to the prayer of Prahlada, son of Hiranyakasipu, Vishnu emerged out of a pillar in the form of a man-lion (lion's face with human body) and killed the demon with his nails.

Iconography and images

The image of Narasimha is described in two forms: Girija Narasimha, or Kevala Narasimha, or Yoga Narasimha; and Sthauna Narasimha. In the first form, the deity is shown in the form of a lion coming out of a mountain cave. In the second, the deity is shown emerging from a pillar. Images of Narasimha are found in both standing and seated postures. A sixth-century image of Narasimha, with mane hanging to the shoulders and a fierce face with a lolling tongue, is found in the Varāha temple in Kadvar in Gujarat. He is seated, resting his right bent leg on the back of Prahlada, and his two human hands are shown tearing off the belly of the demon. There are innumerable images of Narasimha found throughout India, and several temples are dedicated to him.

Vāmana Avatāra

Vāmana-Trivikrama, the fifth incarnation of Vishnu, occupies a very significant place in the evolution of Vaishnavism. In this avatāra, Vishnu reveals himself in human form in two sizes, dwarf and gigantic. The Vāmana myth had its origin in the Rig Veda, which refers not only to the three steps of the solar deity Vishnu, but also to the two forms, that of a young dwarf and that of a giant. The earliest legend of this avatāra is found in the Shatapatha Brāhmaṇa. The Purāṇas narrate that Bali, the grandson of Prahlada, through his penances acquired enough strength to vanquish the gods, including Indra. So Vishnu, who was born to Indra's mother, Aditi, went to Bali at the time of sacrifice and asked him to give the gift of as much space as could be measured by his three footsteps. Bali confirmed it by the ceremonial pouring of water, in spite of warnings by his guru, Sukracharya. At once Vishnu, as Vāmana, assumed a gigantic form and encompassed Prithvi (Mother Earth) with one step and svarga (heaven) with the second step; he lifted his foot as high as Satva loka (upper region), where Brahmā worshiped the foot. The third step he kept on the head of Bali and sent him to Patala loka (Nether region).

Iconography and images

The iconography of Vāmana and Trivikrama is given in the various Shilpa Shāstras. The Vaikhānasāgama classifies the images of Trivikrama into three categories, based on the level to which the foot is raised. The Naishadhīyacharita, in its description of the Trivikrama image, says that the raised foot of Trivikrama is shown as touching the image of Rāhu, who is holding the foot of the deity like a shoe. The black Rāhu, with a severed head, is compared to the shoe. A fine specimen of this description is found in a niche in the Sūrya Kunda, opposite the Sun Temple at Modhera, in Mehsana district, Gujarat. A similar representation exists in the Ghanadvara Harihara Temple at Osia in Rajasthan. There are a few temples dedicated to Vāmana and Trivikrama.

Parashurāma Avatāra

In this avatāra, Vishnu incarnates as the son of Jamadagni and Renuka to suppress the haughtiness of the Kshatriyas. Parashurāma (Rāma with an ax) possessed divine power for only a short time. Hence his avatāra is considered to be avesa. Parashurāma is also called Bhargava and Jamadagneya. The legend of this avatāra is found in the Mahābhārata, Agni Purāṇa, Vishnu Purāṇa and Bhāgavata Purāṇa.

Iconography and images

The image of Parashurāma is described in every Shilpa Shāstra as holding a bow, an arrow, a sword, and a battle-ax. Kerala is known as Parashurāma kshetra (country). His images are represented in the Dasāvatāra panels.

Rāma Avatāra

Among the avatāras, Rāma and Krishna are considered to be sampoorna (complete). Rāma, the son of King Dasharatha of Ayodhya, was first regarded as an ideal person, a hero. It was only later that he was deified. The legend of Rāma is given in seven kandas (sections) in the epic poem Rāmāyaṇa, written by Valmiki. The main purpose of this avatāra was to establish Dharma in the universe. Valmiki relates the legend, in which Rāma forsakes the throne and goes to the forest to fulfill the promise given by his father to his stepmother Kaikeyi. His wife Sītā is abducted by the demon Ravana, and eventually Rāma battles Ravana, defeating and killing the demon. Thus the legend emphasizes the triumph of right over wrong, and of virtue over vice.

Iconography and images

The iconography of Rāma is given in the various Purāṇ as and Shilpa Shāstras. He is always represented holding a bow and arrow. The story of Rāma has universal appeal and has been told in almost every language. There are innumerable temples dedicated to Rāma. In these temples, the image of the standing Rāma is accompanied by his wife Sītā to his left and his brother Lakshmaṇa to his right.

Balarāma Avatāra

Balarāma is known as Baladeva, Balabhadra, and Samkarshana in the Shilpa texts. He is the elder brother of Krishna. In the Harivamsha, Balarāma is described as the manifestation of Ananta, the cosmic Sesha. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa narrates that in the womb of Devaki a part of the luster of Lord Vishnu, known as Ananta, entered as the seventh child. Then, under the command of Vishnu, Yogamaya transferred Ananta from the womb of Devaki to that of Rohini, the second wife of Vasudeva at Gokul. Because of such transfer, the child came to be known as Samkarshana. He was called Bala as he would be the mightiest of men, and Rāma as he would give delight to the world. In the Mahābhārata he is called the plowman, Langalin, or Halayudhadeva.

Iconography and images

The various Purāṇ as and Shilpa Shāstras describe Balarāma as holding a hala (plow) and a musala (pestle). The images of Balarāma are very rare. They are generally shown in the Dasāvatāra panels in the prabhavali of Vishnu.

Krishna Avatāra

Krishna avatāra is also considered to be the sampoorna avatāra of Vishnu. However, in Gujarat, Krishna is regarded as the incarnator, rather than as an incarnation. The legend of Krishna is enumerated in the Vishnu Purāṇa, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, and the Brahmavaivartha Purāṇa. The Vishnu Purāṇa narrates that in order to relieve the earth of the burden of demonic asuras, Vishnu incarnated himself in the eighth conception of Devaki, and at his command Yogamaya was born to Yasoda, the wife of Nanda at Gokul. Devaki was the cousin of King Kamsa, who had imprisoned her and her husband Vasudeva, fearing the prophecy that he would be killed by their eighth child. He killed all six children of Devaki as soon as she gave birth to them. The seventh child, however, was Balarāma, and the eighth was Krishna, who was taken away to Gokul, where he was exchanged with the female child of Yasoda, to whom Yogamāya was born as a baby girl, as ordained by Vishnu. When the baby girl was thrown upon the floor by Kamsa, it sprang up high and, after warning Kamsa that his destroyer was already born, disappeared. Krishna was so called because of his dark complexion. His many childhood pranks are described in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Krishna plays a major role in the Mahābhārata war, helping the Pandavas to win over their Kaurava cousins, who had denied them justice. The Bhagavad Gītā, which is the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna at the battleground of Kurukshetra, speaks of the relationship between Jeevatma (man's soul) and Paramatma (god).

Iconography and images

The Vaikhanasagama, Agni Purāṇa, Visnudharmottara, and Chaturvargachintamani all describe Krishna. The most popular image of Krishna is that in which he holds a flute in his two hands. He is also depicted in the form of a child. He is then called Balakrishna. There are innumerable temples dedicated to Krishna throughout India.

Kalki Avatāra

Kalki is treated as the last avatāra of Vishnu. He is predicted to appear on a white horse toward the end of the Kaliyuga (the current "Black Age"). The Purāṇas (the Vishnu, Agni, and Bhāgavata) narrate that a portion of the divine being will be born as Kalki in the family of one Vishnu Yasas, an eminent Brahman of Sambala village, and will be endowed with eight superhuman powers. He will put an end to wrong and will establish Dharma. According to the Vaikhanasagama, Kalki should be depicted with the face of a horse and the body of a man, with four hands holding shankha (mace), chakra (wheel), khadga (sword), and khetaka (shield).

Images of Vishnu

In addition to the images of the avatāras of Vishnu, the Shilpa Shāstras provide detailed descriptions of the image of Vishnu himself, shown in standing, sitting, and reclining positions. In the first two postures, Vishnu's images are described as having from two to twenty hands, with a single face or four faces. The four-armed images of Vishnu with a single face are prescribed with twenty-four specific names chosen from the Vishnusahasranama. Though the images are alike, the order in which the attributes of shankha (mace), chakra (wheel), gada (throne), and padma (lotus) are placed differs according to the nomenclature. The four-faced Vishnu with eight and ten hands is called Vaikuntha Chaturmurti (four-faced), twelve- and fourteen-armed is Ananta, sixteen-armed is Trailokyamohana, and twenty-armed is called Vishvarupa. The Shilpa Shāstras do not describe an eighteen-armed Vishnu. In the reclining position, Vishnu is represented lying on the coil bed of Seshanaga.

Avatāra (earthly incarnation) is the instrument through which Vishnu fulfills his function of protecting the universe and Dharma.

Haripriya Rangarajan

See alsoKrishna in Indian Art


Agni Purāṇa. Anandashrama Sanskrit Series. 1900. Edited and translated by Shastri Manmatha Nath Dutt. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series, 1967.

Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Edited and translated by G. P. Bhatt and J. L. Shastri. New Delhi: Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology Series, 1976–1978.

Brahmanda Purāṇa. Edited and translated by J. L. Shastri. 1936. Reprint, New Delhi: Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology, 1983.

Brahma Purāṇa. Edited and translated by G. P. Bhatt. New Delhi: Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology, 1985.

Brahmavaivartha Purāṇa. Mumbai: Venkateshvara Press, 1910. Harivamsa. Edited by Vaidya Parasurama Bhandarkar. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1969.

Kūrma Purāṇa. Mumbai: Venkateshvara Press, 1927.

Mahābhārata. Book XII: Shantiparvan. Edited by S. K. Belvalkar. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1949–1951.

Matsya Purāṇa. Mumbai: Venkateshvara Press, 1913.

Padma Purāṇa. Mumbai: Venkateshvara Press, 1867.

Vayu Purāṇa. Edited by G. P. Bhatt. New Delhi: Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology Series, 1987.

Vishnudharmottara. Edited by Stella Kramrisch. Kolkata: Calcutta University Press, 1928.

Vishnu Purāṇa. Translated by H. H. Wilson. Kolkata: Punthi Pustak, 1961.


Rangarajan, Haripriya. Spread of Vaishnavism in Gujarat up to 1600 a.d.: A Study with Special Reference to the Iconic Forms of Vishnu. Mumbai: Somaiya, 1990.

——. Varaha Images in Madhya Pradesh: An Iconographic Study. Mumbai: Somaiya, 1997.