Monday, November 29, 2010

Vishnu's X-files

Vishnu is definitely too cool for comfort. Just think of it: The Ultimate Caretaker of The Universe simply abiding his time lying sideways on an infinite-headed serpent (who is named Ananta as well), resting his torso on an elbow. From his navel emerges a lotus, on which The Four-Headed Creator of The Universe remains seated. And then, there's The Owl-Riding Finance Goddess for company.

However, the most dramatic bit was possibly his ten avatars. The concept was simple:
Problem: Earth (or thereabouts) in peril. By peril I mean serious stuff, not a cat up a tree or losing a pen-knife. Hi-end things like global catastrophes or planet thefts.
Customer Care: Get Vish on the 1-800 hotline.
Vish's solution: He appears as an avatar to save the Earth or whatever is in trouble. This avatar  is vastly different from James Cameron's. I agree that there are a couple of blue ones, four of them do have a tail and they were all there for a good reason, but the thing is - all of them centred around The Earth.

Let us go through the list first:
Matsya (the fish), Koorma (the tortoise), Varaha (the boar), Nrisingha (the lion-man), Vaaman (the dwarf), Parashuram (the Ram with an axe), Ram (the unprefixed Ram), Krishna (The Dark Lord), Buddha (of Buddhism fame) and Kalki (the guy from the future).

Note the first six: a fish, a reptile, a mammal, a half-human, a dwarf (possibly a Neanderthal) and The Battle-Axe Man. The next two are normal humans, followed by a historical character and a name from the future.

Well, it seems that those writing the Vishnu Puran definitely knew their evolution!

Anyway, let's get back to the avatars, one by one now: what they did, why they appeared and what actually happened.

Ages back, there used to be this guy called Manu. Apparently he was The First Man (the word maanav literally means Manu's son). This puts him at par with Adam (who, admittedly, had Eve, The Garden of Eden, a serpent and an apple for company). But then, Manu also went on to collaborate with The Fish to make an Ark, which puts him at par with Noah as well.

With no person to talk to, no girl to fantasise, no Tendulkar to watch and no SMS joke to forward he didn't have much activity other than roaming aimlessly along water bodies.

It goes like this. Manu was taking his usual afternoon walk along a pond or whatever it was. He found a curious-looking fish. A minnow, rather. Out of some typically mushy piscine affection he took the fish and put it in a bronze gamla at home.

In vain.

Just like Hashim Amla, the fish proved bigger than it seemed at first, and soon outgrew the gamla. Manu went on transferring it to vessels of ascending size: a basin, then a tank, then a pond, then a lake (is a lake larger than a pond in general?), then a river, and finally, an ocean.

The fish came back, more humongous than ever, some time back. It told Manu (mostly because he formed the entire contemporary audience) to take samples of all animals (in pairs) and plants, build a boat single-handedly and do a Noah. Our hero obliged.

The fish came back, this time even bigger, this time adorning a massive horn. The vessel was tied to the horn, and the deluge started. It went on for days, drowning everything in vicinity, and then, with time, things subsided. The animals were let loose, and life continued.

The first woman came along somewhere. Manu learnt a thing or two from observing animals or from instinct and did a JL (3) H (2), and humanity sprung into existence, and continues to grow (and consume tonnes of fish every day). I really thought that Fardeen Khan's birth might end the process, but it didn't. Strange.

Vishnu's role as a fish was over. He put on some body spray, transformed himself back to a blue God and went back to his favourite leaning posture on a lotus, absolutely alone, being bored to death, er, immortality.

Way before they started defeating hares in sprints and started appearing as mosquito-repellent coil brands, tortoises existed on Earth. Hindus have always looked upon tortoises as gargantuan animals (remember Supratik and Vibhavasu?).

This, however, was the more famous tortoise.

The Gods, at one point of time, had developed an irresistible fetish towards immortality. Vishnu suggested that the ocean be churned to obtain amrita (ambrosia). They needed a fulcrum of sorts, and they decided none less than a mountain - Mandar. They needed a rope large enough to tie around it, so that they could pull it from both sides. Vasuki, the king of serpents, volunteered (I've never understood why: some folks are going to get ambrosia by pulling at your both ends, and all you'd get in return is possibly months of headache and tailsore).

The Gods also realised that their combined strength wasn't good enough to churn the ocean. So they invited the asurs (and offered them a 50% share of amrita once the ocean was churned).

There remained a problem, though. Obviously the Gods and asurs weren't very proficient in physics, so they didn't realise that if they pulled Vasuki from both sides, the mountain shall rapidly drill a hole into the bed of the ocean.

So they needed a base. Vishnu had to step in. He emerged as a tortoise and slid beneath the mountain. Given that he was Vishnu, he had an impregnable super-hard shell which countered all possible centrifugal (or was it centripetal?) force the Gods and asurs could muster.

The ocean was churned for ages, and a lot of non-trivial stuff was extracted. The following list is as exhaustive as I could make it (please ignore the sequence - I wasn't there to note these down):
Varuni: Not to be confused with Varun. Varuni, the Goddess and creator of sura (alcohol) popped out. This led to wine, Scotch, Irish pubs and the Mukherjee duo - Debdas and Keshto.
Apsaras: These were dancers who usually performed for the Gods, and in their free time, seduced sages and random people for fun. They sometimes got pregnant themselves (Menaka by Vishwamitra, giving birth to Shakuntala) or got men to ejaculate in random places, yielding the same results (Ghritachi, Bharadwaj, random pot, Drona, mentioned in detail here). The Gods usurped them unfairly.

Just a thought - do you realise how boring life was for everyone before the churning?

Uchchaishrava: A dazzlingly white, seven-headed horse. Claimed by Indra. For whatever reason, the claim was granted as well.
Airavat: A grotesque white elephant with four tusks. Once again, claimed by Indra (who for sure had some fauna fetish), and strangely enough, it was granted.
Kamdhenu: A cow who fulfilled every need. She has turned up in various places throughout Hindu mythology. Note the name: possibly in those days fulfilling every need and kam were synonymous.
Parijat: Cute-looking tree that with perpetually fresh flowers, also known to fulfill wishes the same way kamdhenu did. The advantage was that unlike cows, the flowers couldn't wander away, so had a better asset value. This one was also dispatched to heaven.
Vishnu's stuff: Vishnu finally got paid for his efforts. In quick succession, there emerged from the ocean shankha (Vishnu's conch), sharnga (Vishnu's bow), Kaustubh (Vishnu's famous jewel) and finally, Lakshmi (who appropriately shares a first name with Mittal), to make Vishnu's incredibly eventless slumber on a lotus somewhat eventful. All these were given away to Vishnu unquestioningly.
Halahal: This was apparently the most potent poison known. Shiv emerged out of nowhere, and swallowed the stuff in one gulp: it turned his throat blue (hence the name Nilkantha). Years later I watched a movie based on the ocean and the colour blue, and the impact was as lethal as halahal itself.
Dhanwantari: This was a curious character. He looked exactly like Vishnu, was a human (one of the first surgeons ever), got a Kolkata-based chemists' chain named after him and walked out of the ocean. To add to the picture, he had amrita in his hand.
Chandra: The Moon. Visualise this - the churning was on, and suddenly, slosh! twang! whoosh! A decent-sized orb sprang up and fled into oblivion.

The asurs, who had not put a claim to a single thing till now, obviously went for the grab. Vishnu knew it was time to come out of the shell. He emerged as Mohini (I'm not sure whether it was a girl called Mohini, or whether it was a mohini, which roughly translates to seductress). Whatever it was, he (she?) could coax the asurs to gift her the amrita.

Now, back to his normal self, Vishnu sat down with the other Gods to have a taste of ambrosia. Rahu, an asur disguised as a God, joined the queue (why does this remind me of this picture?). Surya (The Sun) and Chandra recognised him (of course, they were the ones with the light), and Vishnu did his third bit in the chapter - used his Sudarshan Chakra (a remarkably sharp small disc) to behead Rahu. However, Rahu had already taken a mouthful of amrita, so his head remained immortal.

Obviously, he wanted to have his revenge, but for whatever reason, he targetted Surya and Chandra, not the beheader himself. Every now and then he tries to gobble them up, resulting in eclipses, only being compelled to release them through the open throat. A popular television soap was produced, inspired by Rahu's fruitless exasperation.

The next one was a great boar. Given how bored Vishnu was by now, it was time he took up some boardom as well.

There was this cool asur called Hiranyaksha (The Golden-Eyed, if you're interested). He was superior to Archimedes in the sense that he didn't even need a place to stand - he somehow managed to grab hold of Earth, and hid it inside an ocean (where?).

This time it was Brahma who called Vishnu for help. Vishnu, just like Pumbaa, had a gala entry, rescuing a crucial character as he made his appearance. He ran into the ocean, dug his tusks into the bed, boar bore a hole into the mud and scooped out Earth from earth (huh?). Of course, Hiranyaksha didn't take all this too sportingly (I don't blame him: after going through the really thankless job of planting an entire populated planet in an ocean bed it's really difficult to sit back and accept gleefully the spectacle of a boar undoing your efforts) and it took our hero the small matter of a thousand-year-long-duel to fell the asur and go about Earth-digging in peace.

Mind you, this was no minor event. The entire ball-play with our planet marked the end of the Satyayug, and Hiranyaksha's Earth-drowning was, well, what you call a pralay. His job fulfilled, Vishnu returned to his comfort zone that now included Lakshmi, a side-posture, a snake, a lotus and other random stuff.

We Bengalis call him Nrisingha, which I believe is also the Sanskrit word. Why, then, am I using the Hindi version? Because it had a Sunny Deol movie named after it, and as we all know, anything involving Sunny Deol always gets priority.

Hiranyaksha had an elder brother called Hiranyakashipu (The Golden-Haired, or in other words, blonde). Like most blondes he considered himself uber-smart. For example, when Brahma refused to grant him immortality, he wished that he could be killed by something neither human nor animal; neither inside or outside his house; neither on earth nor in air; by a weapon neither animate or inanimate; and during neither day nor night. He didn't consider the loopholes.

He also had a strangely oriented son called Prahlad who was curiously obsessed with Vishnu. It's one thing being a Meera and spending days singing bhajans: Blondie couldn't stand his son being obsessed with another male God (who was also Prahlad's uncle's murderer), and tried to disprove Vishnu's superiority and absolute existence. He even tried to get Prahlad killed, but the latter was somehow saved every time, thanks to some kind of divine interference or the other.

Blondie, enraged, asked his presumably non-trivially oriented son whether Vish was omnipresent. At the obvious yes, he showed a pillar and asked asked the same (well, he was a blonde, and the concept of subsets were probably alien to him). Prahlad stated the obvious. Hiranyakashipu, determined to thrash his son's inclination towards another man, kicked the pillar hard.

Out stepped Narasimha. The asur was no match for him. The semi-animal took him to the courtyard at twilight, placed him on his own thighs and attacked him with its nails, thereby violating none of Blondie's five conditions. The asur was ripped apart, Prahlad was made king, and blonde jokes took birth.

Prahlad (oh, how I wish Vishnu left that family alone!) had a grandson called Bali (not to be confused with King Baali of Kishkindhya). Through years of warfare he conquered the whole of underworld, Earth and heaven, which led to Indra requesting Vish for another intervention.

Remember Bradman telling Gavaskar "These big blokes have the power, but we little ones have the footwork, huh!" in 1971? Vishnu, being Almighty personified, had hatched a master-plan. the plan involved footwork, and he knew that a shorter stature would help him. So he emerged as a dwarf with (for whatever reason) a wooden umbrella.

Bali was executing a massive yagna of some kind (presumably involving some human and/or animal sacrifice, given his name, though I do not have any concrete proof to support this). The completion of this would have given him absolute authority over the three worlds.

Amidst all this, in walked Vaaman, a diminutive Brahmin boy; out of courtesy, Bali offered him all he wanted. Vaaman asked for the land he could cover in his three steps. Bali thought this was a perfectly normal request to make (he was, after all, the great-grandson of a blonde, and genes do speak a lot).

Vaaman grew. And grew. And grew (He grew a lot, but I shall type only two "and grew"s; if you really want to know how big he grew read the next line). He grew so big that his first step covered the whole of heaven, the next one took care of Earth. Bali knew that he had been taken for a ride: he let out a wry smile (I made that up) and asked Vaaman to place the third foot on his own head.

Thus conquered, Bali was banished to the underworld. Unlike the Mumbai dons who went on to face the same feat in subsequent years, Bali was given full authority of the underworld. He was also granted immortality by Vishnu himself, so life wasn't really as uncool as it seemed to be.

His work done, Vishnu reclaimed his normal height, well within the three-sigma limits this time, and went on to rest in favourite pose.

Parashuram was actually named Ram. He went on to be named Parashuram because he carried (and used to glory) a parashu (axe). I shudder at times, getting an icy chill down my spine as I imagine people calling me Laptopabhishek.

Parashuram was born of Jamadagni (a Brahmin) and Renuka (a Kshatriya descendant). They had a bagful of sons, and were living quite happily.

One of the chores of Renuka was to fetch water from a nearby place. One day she saw a gandharva near the water body, and ogled at him with such intensity that bringing water completely slipped her mind (must have been one heck of a gandharva!).

Jamadagni, being quite an accomplished legilimens, saw through her. He asked his eldest son to decapitate Renuka. The son refused. He logged this request to the rest of his sons and ran it in a loop, which came to a halt at Parashuram.

Parashuram beheaded his mother. No, this is not a typo. He really did it. The weapon? Yes, you've guessed it right. He didn't stop at that - he did the same to the errant brothers.

Jamadagni was exalted (you aren't reading this, right, Ma or Baba or Bhai?). He asked his ideal son to register a boon of his choice. Pars asked him to bring the family back to them and erase their recent memories. It was granted.

Have you ever heard of a chain of actions this spectacular to be rendered to a zero-result sequence?

Anyway, let's move on. Jamadagni had owned Kamdhenu at some point of time (could she be leased?). The Haihay king Kartaviryarjun (who apparently had a thousand hands) happened to pass by his ashram, and obviously wanted to snatch The Coveted Cow. Jamadagni tried to stop, and was beheaded (using 0.1% of the available hands, I presume).

The Human Millipede, it should be mentioned, was no mean warrior. He had defeated Raavan's army single-handedly (now, is that an oxymoron?), and had kept Raavan a prisoner in his cellar, only to free him at Pulastya's request.

He also had a thousand wives, and, well, "entertained" them simultaneously (equality of rights, you see). This would probably mean about three to four hundred women dangling helplessly in mid-air, but I'm sure he rotated his wives based on hand number. When the 1,001-strong Haihay Royal Family bathed in the Narmada, His Highness stopped the mighty river, converting it into a cute pool.

The word Kartavirya means son of Kritavirya, which means "The One with the Successful Semen". With such a son, whoever had named Daddy was miraculously accurate.

Parashuram didn't flinch, though, however formidable his opponent might have been. He found Kats, cut off all his hands (reminds me of a haircut, for some reason), there was a swish and a thud, and that was that. However, he didn't stop at that. He killed all his kin. He didn't stop at that either. He killed all the Haihays. Next step: he eliminated all Kshatriyas (!) alone. And then (no, I do not know how the Kshatriyas kept on reproducing), he eradicated all Kshatriyas from the Earth TWENTY-ONE times.

Yes, I know what you're thinking. When the eradication program was executed the first time, whatever Kshatriya progeny survived was very few in number, and the number possibly got fewer with every execution. So the process got easier every time, possibly at an exponential rate.

Once his bloodbath was quenched Parashuram did an ashwamedh yajna. It was easy, since there wasn't really anyone to stop the horse.

The catch, however, lies elsewhere: Vishnu didn't go back after all this: he stayed back. He was an immortal, you see, one of only seven: the others being Vyas, Hanuman, Vibhishan, Ashwatthama, Kripacharya, and our hero from the previous story, Bali.

So Vishnu remained on Earth, or at least a fragment of his did. The rest went back and continued to exist in that familiar posture.

Everyone knows a lot about Ram, so I shall not get started on that. Ram was born to kill the mighty Raavan. Exactly why Parashuram couldn't do it himself is not clear (after all, he had killed Kartaviryarjun - the man who had defeated Raavan easily). Perhaps he was too proud to seek simian help.

Ram, despite being a rather uncool character, had his strong aspects: he was a fantastic warrior, and killed both Raavan and Kumbhakarna himself. In fact, he faced Raavan thrice and defeated him on every occasion. True, he was felled by Indrajit twice and was captured by Mahiravan once, but then, both of them were successful against virtually anybody they had faced.

He was also smart (he was called RAM, come on!). When Makaraksha came to fight him in a chariot covered with ox-skin, had it pulled by oxen, carried calves on and cows beside his chariot, Ram used Vayuvan (The Wind God's Arrow). It resulted in a twister, and blew everything away, giving Ram a clear view of Makaraksha.

Another example was the fact that when he had his first conversation with Sugriv, he didn't go and join hands with the incredible Baali (not to be confused with Vaaman's victim). Baali had humiliated Raavan once, and he would have seemed an obvious choice over Sugriv. But Ram knew that Baali was too strong a personality to handle and mould, and stuck to the weaker of the two - one that went on to become his puppet.

The most curious aspect, though, was Ram's encounter with Parashuram. Ram did break the Haradhanu and got to marry Sita (this has always seemed weird to me: suppose you're asked to write a code, and you break the computer, would the client consider the work as completed to satisfaction?). On their way back to Ayodhya, Ram ran into Parashuram.

A double role! Not a Ram aur Shyam, but a Ram aur Ram!!

P: So you think you rule?
R: I do, dude.
P: I know what you did with Haradhanu. Now do the same with my bow.

Ram obliged, and broke this one as well. Parashuram lost all his power and moved out of sight. He performed some yajnas, and it took ages for him to regain everything. Vishnu got his fragment back (just one, not both) and continued to rest in the same pose.

There's some confusion regarding the identity of the eighth avatar. When I was a kid I read in one of those general-knowledge books that do not meet the 40-micron mark that it was Balaram. I have seen sources that agree to this.

However, sources suggest that it's actually Krishna. These sources outdo the previous ones in both quality and quantity. Even then, I was prepared to remain confused between the two for a lifetime, till I realised that I should give preference to the one that shares its name with a Suniel Shetty movie.

Like Ram, there has been too much literature already on Krishna, so wasting cyberspace might not be the best of ideas. There are a few factoids, though, that might be worth a mention:

Krishna was the only avatar who retained the weapons of Vishnu. The Sudarshan Chakra and the Koumudaki Mace are examples.

Krishna had an epic clash with Jambavan (of Ramayan fame); the duel went on for days, and ended in a stalemate. They became friends, and Jambavan gave his daughter's hand to Krishna. With time The Blue Man (not to be confused with a member of Men in Blue) and the bear's daughter broke open new avenues in the field of genetics, and gave birth to a stunningly handsome boy (whose father couldn't compete with him in this aspect) called Shamba. Shamba, when he grew up, went to the swyamvar of a princess and abducted her from a full court (like Bhishma had done with Amba, Ambika and Ambalika ages back). Shamba married her. This was none other than Lakshmana, whose father was - hold your breath - DURYODHAN.

Krishna had promised that he would not get involved in The War directly. He broke this promise as many as thrice in a span of five days:
On day nine he got furious at Arjun's inability to harm Bhishma, and he himself rushed at Bhishma with Sudarshan on his fingertips. Bhishma laid down his weapons, prepared to accept death quite gleefully. It took Arjun some effort to bring Krishna back and attack Bhishma with renewed ferocity.
On day thirteen Bhagadatta, the king of Pragjyotish, rode his gargantuan elephant and attacked Arjun. He possessed the Vaishnavastra, given away by Vishnu himself at some point of time. The weapon was unstoppable, unless Vishnu himself intervened. So Krishna stood up and intercepted it, and it turned into a startling garland called Vaijayantimala, who went to act in classics like Madhumati, Naya Daur, Sangam, Prince and Jewel Thief. Okay, not the last bit.
On day fourteen, when the bookies were raising their stakes on Jayadrath surviving Arjun's wrath before sundown, Krishna hid The Sun. The Kauravs started celebrating, and Jayadrath tried to have a proper peek: Arjun did the rest. The Sun returned.
Of course he helped them in other ways as well: reciting The Gita, driving the chariot with unparalleled skill, saving Arjun brilliantly on the seventeenth day when Karna's arrow aimed for his head (when he realised that Arjun had no defence against the arrow Krishna pressed the chariot down hard and the arrow took Arjun's crown), and of course, was the supreme motivator and strategist that turned the tide for the Pandavs.

Amidst all this, let us not forget Parashuram, of course. He taught and fought Bhishma, taught and cursed Karna, and was seen appearing here and there, proving his omnipresence. Krishna did die an inglorious death, but Parashuram continued to battle on. The Axe-Effect, you see.

I've always found it really amusing that the ninth avatar was actually a real character - one who was actually the founder of an entirely different religion - a religion whose followers were mercilessly slaughtered by Hindus at one point of time.

Why would someone do that? I mean, you hail someone as a reincarnation of your top-ranked God, and then you massacre his followers? What kind of a logic is that?

The only explanation is possibly the fact that Buddha was declared as an avatar much later: when Buddhism took off, it was largely looked as heinous by Hindus. They tried to compensate somewhat for that in the years to come. What they didn't realise that the best way to pay a proper tribute was to follow the life he had led and preached: to remain non-violent and to serve the world, to be happy in others' happiness, and to learn to be simple and to forgive.

The Hindus didn't do that. They simply insisted on making him an avatar and make movies like this. What they didn't realise was that in doing so they actually achieved this.

Hinduism has a past so rich that it has seldom required to the future. The tenth avatar, however, lies hidden somewhere in the depths of the years to come:

When Earth shall be overloaded with sins and crimes, Kalki shall be there to save and end it permanently. This shall mark the end of Kali Yug, and hence, everything. That day might not be too far away, given that Fardeen Khan still acts, Himesh Reshammiya still sings and Tata Sky has been blasphemous enough to use the term jhingalala in small-scale commercials.

There are rumours that since he shall be the tenth avatar, and since he shall believe in making things even, he might be heard uttering the phrase do, char, chhe, aat, dus, ... bas!, the last word denoting the termination of the Earth.

There's one catch, though. Given that the classical Hindu military strategies, formations and weapons would not exist any more, who is supposed to train Kalki?

Come on, isn't it obvious? He was declared an immortal for this very reason. I can almost hear him say - "decapitate your mother unquestioningly whenever asked..."

Ruthlessness hasn't really come to that, right? Or maybe it has.

Dark days ahead.


  1. ``Given that the classical Hindu military strategies, formations and weapons would not exist any more, who is supposed to train Kalki?''

    - Rajnikant :D

  2. I have always wondered what exactly do you need to be high on to write something like the Hindu Mythology. Has to be something better than Colombia's finest export.

    Another great post to be filed under 'mythology revisited'.

  3. Why is Bibhishan an immortal? He was a traitor and a wuss. His nephews and brother are way cooler.

  4. Hindu Mythology niye hotat eto nara ghaata.....keno????

  5. too good..too good.. tumi ei boring bapar sapar gulo ke eto 'masti'fy kore lekho je ghyams lage...
    I had a blast of laughter while going thru this... :D kudos!!

  6. I know you're not single, but are you in an open relationship?

  7. *yawn*
    last post was a bomb
    this-a damp squib.
    what are you feedin on dear abi?
    mayb insecure of approachin apocalptik 2012?

  8. @ March Hare, traitors are immortal, cool people are getting lesser by the day. Tai na?

  9. Ok, so I may as well be one of the "supporters" of mythology on this wall: I *never* thought mythology to be boring. The Mahabharata is by far the most amazing and complicated and fascinating story EVER told. Not to mention, it contains the Gita inside it. Just HOW cool is that?

    I grew up on my Amar Chitra Kathas and the TV Series before going on to following Tolkien and JKR (and KKR). The Mahabharata remains at the top. Then there's daylight, and then Graeme Pollock.

    And yes, Kalki might just be approaching with the Mayan 2012, I agree :)... Did you see that movie - or better still, its trailer?

  10. (1) It is really cool that the Dashavatara indeed follows the path of Darwinian/modern-day evolution :).

    (2) It is also interesting that in Hindu mythology, there are seven souls (not Horcruxes, mind you) living on forever - of course, in seven different human beings. And yet, which of them "has gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality", by killing all the Kshatriyas twenty-one times?

    You guessed it - (an incarnation of) "Lord V---" ;) !