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The Avatar Kurma Churns the Ocean of Milk with Help from Devas and Asuras

The Avatar Kurma Churns the Ocean of Milk with Help from Devas and Asuras

Today is World Turtle Day when we celebrate all things chelonian. “That is wonderful, but what does it have to do with the fabulous Hindu tableau above?” you are probably asking. Well, the second avatar of Lord Vishnu, the preserver of all life, (who appears again and again in the world as different incarnations) was the turtle deity Kurma. The story is told above, but here is a streamlined narration to go with the painting.

Vishnu as Kurma

Vishnu as Kurma

The story begins with an elephant mishap: the great sage Durvasa presented a magnificent garland to Indra, king of the gods, who in turn presented the wreath to his magnificent war elephant. Unfortunately the elephant had limited aesthetic appreciation of the gift and trampled it. Deeply offended, Durvasa cursed the gods to lose their strength, radiance, and immortality. Thus cast down, the gods desperately looked for a solution from Vishnu, who advised them to quaff the nectar of immortality. Sadly there was no nectar available and the only way to produce more was to churn the ocean of milk with such force that the sacred milk clarified into the elixir.

tortoise_sm

To complete the task, the gods allied themselves with the demon Asuras (power-hungry beings of near divinity who frequently fought the gods). The gods took the pillar-like Mount Mandara as a great butter churn and, with help from Vasuki, the king of all snakes, they began to churn the ocean of milk. So great was the force of gods and Asuras combined that Mount Mandara begin to sink into the ocean. Vishnu then transformed himself into the vast turtle Kurma and swam beneath the Mountain. His flippers churned the froth. The gods, demons, and great snake all exerted themselves to their utmost, and the turbulent ocean of milk became refined. Fourteen precious treasures arose from the sea, culminating in the sacred nectar of immortality.

kurma-avatar-of-vishnu

The picture at the top (which you should enlarge!) shows the gods on the left and the Asuras on the right. The king of nagas is acting as a drill rope wrapped around Mount Mandara. Vishnu sits atop the mountain and does not seem especially turtle-like. Fortunately I have included some paintings and drawings of him as a great turtle.

Hopefully you can learn a valuable lesson from this powerful myth! (Do not give treasured wreathes to elephants? Milk is healthy? Be kind to turtles? I don’t know…)

Anyway Happy World Turtle Day!

Maybe the point is that turtles are beautiful and should be considered sacred

Maybe the point is that turtles are beautiful and should be considered sacred

Holi Celebrations

Yesterday, March 20th, 2011 was the Hindu festival of Holi, the festival of colors. According to myth, Hiranyakashipu, a king among the demons, was granted a boon by Brahma after undergoing a long period of intense asceticism.  Brahma decreed that Hiranyakashipu could not be killed “during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or in the sky; neither by a man nor an animal.”  Emboldened by his apparent invulnerability, Hiranyakashipu initiated an evil scheme to supplant the gods (because of his wickedness, I am going to include him in my “deities of the underworld” category as I customarily do whenever I write about the Asura).  He demanded that all beings worship him instead of the rightful deities and he visited hideous torments upon those who disobeyed.  The demon’s own son Prahlada was one such protestor. Prahlada maintained stalwart and absolute devotion to Vishnu, despite his father’s threats.  In order to make an example for the rest of the world, Hiranyakashipu poisoned his son, but the poison turned to nectar.  Enraged the demon ordered Prahlada put to death by being crushed by elephants, but this too went awry.  After several other attempts to kill Prahlada also failed, Hiranyakashipu decided to burn his son on a great pyre.  In order to ensure that nothing went amiss Hiranyakashipu decreed that his sister Holika, who had her own boon of fire resistance from Brahma, would hold Prahlada in the flames.  However when the fire was lit Holika, despite her gift of being completely flame resistant, was burnt to death and her nephew Prahlada was spared.

Lord Narasimha Killing the Demon Hiranyakashipu

Vishnu, the demon-slayer (who from time to time assumed mortal shapes such as human, pig, or turtle) then came to Hiranyakashipu as a lion avatar, Narasimha.   Narasimha attacked the demon king at twilight as the latter was on the steps to his dwelling. Vishnu in his Narashima avatar-form clawed the renegade demon to death while holding him (the demon) on his (Vishnu’s) lap.  The conditions of the boon were met because a god incarnated as a lion monster is neither man nor animal and Vishnu was holding the demon above the ground but not in the sky. Additionally twilight is neither day nor night and steps are neither in nor out of a dwelling.  However, what exactly went wrong for Holika and caused the utter failure of her special power still remains a topic of debate among Hindu theologians

Holi with old-fashioned color squirt guns

These fateful events are celebrated on Holi which also celebrates the passing of winter and the coming of spring. Holi is the festival of color and the first day of the festival (which is always a full moon) is celebrated by all manner of dying, painting, and friendly pelting of family and friends with colorful pigments. As an artist I love the idea of a festival of color and spring is clearly the perfect time for such a celebration. I have tried to fill this void in my life with Easter-egg dying but the color has been leaching out of Easter as it loses its preeminence among Christian festivals.  So, to celebrate Holi, and the return of color to the world after the austerity of winter, I am going to devote the rest of this week to some of my favorite colors and pigments.  Feel free to chime in with your favorite colors of any sort, this is a topic which I love dearly.

I haven't been to India yet, but I think I'm going to love it.

Varaha Fighting Hiranyaksha

In the epic stories of Hinduism, Lord Vishnu, the sovereign protector of the universe, was always fighting power hungry demons and monsters (for example one such myth explains the formation of Lake Lonar).  Some of Vishnu’s opponents, however, were much more terrible than others.  Among the very worst was a filthy albeit incredibly puissant asura named Hiranyaksha (asuras were malevolent and greedy demon-gods).  Hiranyaksha was the son of Diti, an earth-goddess who sought–through means of her monstrous children–to overthrow Indra (the king of the gods). Hiranyaksha had golden eyes and a written pledge from Brahma that no god or man or beast could kill him.  Through some oversight, the boar alone was missing from the list.

Not satisfied with the many atrocities he had committed and the many beautiful things he had stolen, Hiranyaksha grew truly ambitious. He stole the entire earth and carried it to the bottom of a polluted ocean.

From time to time, Vishnu took on mortal incarnations–or more properly, “avatars”–to conduct his battles against the forces which sought to destroy or subvert the world. In his third avatar lifetime, Vishnu appeared in the form of a colossal boar, named Varaha in order to fight Hiranyaksha. Varaha sprang out of Brahma’s nostril as a tiny pig, but he grew and grew until he had reached a size sufficient to lift the entire world.  This great boar dived down into the cosmic ocean to find Hiranyaksha and kill him. For an entire millennium, the two opponents battled in the poison depths. Finally Varaha gained an advantage. With his tusks he tore open the demon and with his great mace he smashed Hiranyasha’s head. Varaha/Vishnu then lifted the earth back to its correct position with his snout!

Varaha lifts the world from the poison sea (by Harish Jahari)

The story nicely follows up on the porcine theme of last month’s post and Hiranyaksha is an interesting addition to the Deities of the Underworld category, but what real relevance can such an abstract story have for us?  Surely nobody could be so greedy and insane as to try to steal the entire earth and drown it in poisons.  And if such a terrible thing were to happen, what reviled but titanic force could spring from Brahma’s head to assume the role of the big pig and rescue earth from wicked corpora…um demons.

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