In the Vahara avatar of Lord Vishnu, one wonders how the rescue of earth was affected?
Where was Vishnu? Was he reclining on Sesha, and creation was in abeyance? If so, earth would not have been created at all and would not be in need of rescuing.
If creation was already in progress, one needs to know where dwelt Lord Vishnu. And why take the form of a boar to facilitate the rescue?
And what was the Samudra Manthan? What Samudra (Ocean) was churned? Why was it giving up such goodies as the amrita, the celestial elephant Airavat, the unequalled equine Uchachaihsravah, and even the goddess Lakshmi. More than that, why, and how, is the moon one of the goodies that came out the churning?
Why would the devas and the asura work together to something like this, especially the asuras who already had the upper hand in their ongoing battle with the devas?
Who are Madhu and Kaitabh? And why did they rampage across the universe, undefeated by even the mighty Vishnu, only to succumb to the boon he asked of them to die when they could not defeat him either? Why Vishnu with a horse head – Hyagriva?
Why a half-man, half-lion incarnation? Only to give a messy death to some evil king? The questions can be endless, and some answers are hard to make sense of. Nevertheless, there must be some basis for these myths, maybe one lost in antiquity, or suffocated in interpretations over the generations that have rendered them so unlike what they should be.
Let’s start with an overview of the Das Avatars, the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu that practically forms the basis of Hinduism in our age. Why does the Lord need to take a fish form, one may ask? And ask this with some validity. There are many answers given to this, and most are based on interpretations of a holy man, which itself is based on what that holy man has understood of that particular scripture he is interpreting.
Yes, the raison d’être of our mythologies change from scripture to scripture, interpretation to interpretation, depending on what one wants to make of it. While the avatars of Vishnu is largely accepted to be 10, there are groups who believe in 22 avatars, or more. We will stick to Das Avatars for practical purposes.
Some say the first few avatars of Vishnu is the Hindu way of depicting human evolution.
Science says life was first formed in the waters of the earth, and then that life learned to live on the land (water creature to amphibian to land animal). The first avatar of Vishnu - Matsya, the fish - is said to depict the first step of evolution through from water to land.
The background to the Matsya Avatar is the great flood that makes up the starting point of present times in virtually every religion/mythology in the world. Lord Vishnu takes the form of a fast-growing horned fish to save Manu, who builds a ship and hooks it onto the horn of the fish to be towed to safety when the flood comes.
Over time, the facts associated with these events kept changing to suit the mentality of that generation. The evolutionary fish turned into the fish that saved Manu and his family for repopulating Earth after the devastating flood.
The second avatar of Kurma, the tortoise/turtle is the amphibian intermediary before life of the purely land-based creatures. That has turned into Lord Vishnu taking the shape of a turtle to base Mount Mandara while the devas and asura churned Kshirsagar (the Ocean of Milk, or Buttermilk Ocean) using the serpent Vasuki has the churn rope.
And the first land animal as per Hindu evolution is represented by the boar, which in the Dash Avatar tales is Lord Vishnu taking that anthropomorphic form to save the Earth from the evil grasp of the demon Hiranyaksha. Hiranyaksha is, of course, the brother of Hiranyakashyap, the father of Prahlad who was torn apart by the Narsimha (Nar Singh) avatar.
In between (or before all these) is the fascinating myth of Madhu and Kaitabha, the demons inadvertently spawned by Vishnu, and as strong as him, for which Vishnu had to take on an incarnation of horse-headed man to make these demons succumb. More on this later in the article.
Then comes the half man, half lion Narasimha (Nar Singh) showing our pre-evolution into the human cycle, followed by the dwarf avatar Vamana depicting the first man, small and cunning, relying on its intellect to survive in an environment where claws, fangs and brute strength ruled.
The next few avatars are all humans (Parasurama, Rama, Krishna and Buddha) until the last one, the yet-to-come Kalki avatar who/which is either going to be a white horse or be seen as riding a white horse. Again we have the fascinating horse amalgamation in an avatar. What is it with the horse and our celestial stories?
The Hindu cosmology does provide some different/better answers to understanding our mythology but we have to shift the arena somewhere else to make sense of the ‘myths’.
The Das Avatar of Vishnu is the history of the cosmos wrapped, or rather lost, in the dumbing down of its true origins – the story of the formation of the Milky Way galaxy.
The obvious link to the Milky Way is the creation mythology – Vishnu reclines/sleeps/is in yoganidra on Sesha/Anantha Naag in Kshirsagar (Ocean of Milk) until creation is to start. The kshirsagar is the Milky Way (thus named for its milk-like appearance in the sky above us), Sesha represents the spiral formation of this particular galaxy and Vishnu is the universal that governs/sustain this galaxy.
When creation is ready to start, a lotus comes out of Vishnu’s navel (the centre of the Galaxy) and Brahma is enthroned upon it. Brahma then sets forth the basis of all creation.
Before we can go into the Das Avatars and how they relate to our galaxy, let’s deal with the Madhu and Kaitabha phenomenon that has baffled Hindus for generations.
There is a lot of talk - among astronomers, astrologers and people of science - that the sun has a double - a planet or star that shadows it – and which affects the progress of our sun as well as its very temperament. Some say the double is an opposite of the sun, either in opposite orbit or in the opposite side of the sun in relation to their orbits.
The story of Madhu and Kaitabha is the story of the sun and its double (doppelganger?) in their initial days of rampaging around the galaxy. It is the story of how the force of the galactic centre finally curbed their wild orbits into a semblance of order around itself.
When they finally settled in their orbits around the galactic centre or Vishnu Naabhi, Madhu and Kaitabha are said to have succumbed to the Lord. That is why Vishnu is called Madhusudhana (the forceful pacifier of Madhu), rather than Madhu Mardhan (the destroyer of Madhu).
Pretty much the same cosmological concept applies to the Varaha avatar. The mythology says the Earth is lost among the disorder and chaos of the galaxy, and was rescued by Vishnu in his boar form.
This could very well be from the time when the moon was formed from a collision between two planets – one of which lost a chunk of itself and then was formed into what we call the earth. The collision takes place in time immemorial – the planet orbiting the sun is then called Tiamen.
Another planet, in another elliptical orbit (but not around our sun) crosses Tiamen’s orbit with disastrous effect. A chunk is blown off to become the moon later on, the debris from the collision form the asteroid belt and Tiamen is thrown off course by the impact.
Lost among the debris of the solar system (the asteroid belt) and buffeted and banged about, the former Tiamen has to be rescued and restored to its orbit around the sun.
Was Hiranyaksha the rogue planet that slammed into Tiamen, later to be called the Earth? It is said that Vishnu battled a 1000 years to restore the earth. Was the gravitational pull of the rogue planet so great that a major effort had to be made by the galactic centre to pull the earth back on course?
Thus we come to the story of the Samudra Manthan. One of the goodies that came out of the manthan was the moon itself. It is one of the several things that came out of the churning (some versions also say the Sun came out of the churning too).
The Samudra manthan is the story of the formation of the galaxy, of the diverse and disparate elements coming together to form various other elements, some good (the nectar of life, the celestial toys, medicine, apsaras,etc). And some bad - the halahal poison that endangered everyone and which Shiva is said to have sucked in and kept in his throat.
Substitute the halahal poison for the initial calamitous antimatter-like substances that could have destroyed the galaxy, substitute Shiva for the blackhole at the centre of the galaxy (Vishnu Naabhi) that had to come in help quell and isolate the production of this antimatter-like substance, and the story starts making sense, somewhat.
Once the destructive elements are subdued, the goodies can come into being. Each of the elements represents some thing of the beauty (see notes below for a list of what was produced in the churning).
The Moon (and in some versions, the Sun) was, in another age, churned like butter out of the primordial ocean by the “gods” and “demons.” And that could be the basis of the Samudra manthan myth.
As before, ‘clarifying’ additions were made to this observation by the ancients (or their descendents) and we ended up with the ‘understandable and acceptable’ version of today. Which is that the devas went to Lord Vishnu and asked for his intercession in the drubbing they were taking from the asuras. Lord Vishnu came up with the plan to whip up some amrita (nectar of immortality) by churning the ‘ocean’, invited the asuras to partake on the basis they would share in the bounty but cunningly only allowed the devas to become immortal. (It’s your choice what you want to believe as a Hindu, but it is good to open your mind to other explanations.)
Many believe that the ancients intimately knew the workings of the universe, but focussed more on the workings of the Milky Way as it was the galaxy in which they resided.
When the ancients wrote of the early days of the galaxy when things were falling into place around the centre, they would have had either akashik records to fall back on or would have had direct knowledge (supra-knowledge) of the phenomenon that was the beginnings of our galaxy.
How could they pass on the knowledge of this phenomenon to the people? Maybe they related it as they saw it and it was later changed to more palatable rendering so that more people could ‘understand’ the story of creation? Who knows? But one thing is clear – there were records of what happened in our skies and these records were either wilfully or inadvertently changed to suit some people.
Today they are available to us as metaphors, allegories, parables – of the celestial battles in the sky between devas and asuras, or Shiva’s contention with Prajapati, or any of the many stories out of our Puranas.
Sadly the observation of the ancient into the workings of the universe appears to have changed into the power struggle between the devas and the asuras, of greed and violation of trust and cunning and betrayal – all the things that make humans human. In ‘humanifying’ the information, we lost the true knowledge of the heavens.
Creation in Hinduism is cyclic – it will happen again and again. Many says each cycle will have its own set of avatars, repeating the avatars as required again and again. Sounds like premises of the Matrix movie.
Yet the universe is an expanding entity, and each cycle must have some difference to the preceding one.
Each cycle or age is denoted by an astrological sign. The Age of Pisces is variously said to have either begun in 330 BCE or AD1 (Year One) and it is the age that we are in presently.
Does the Matsya avatar mythology denote the beginning of this age? Is Jesus Christ’s symbol of the fish (as the fisher of man) another allegory of the start of the Age of Pisces?
And does this mean that when the next cycle starts, will it start with a different incarnation? Say if the age starts of with the astronomical positioning in the Leo quadrant, will the first incarnation be that of the lion or lion-man?
These are the questions few can answer, and I look forward to the day when I do come across someone who can provide valid answers. It will be an honour to know someone like that.
Ages exactly 2000 years each
Many astrologers find ages too erratic based on either the vernal point moving through the randomly sized zodiacal constellations or sidereal zodiac and, instead, round all astrological ages to exactly 2000 years each. In this approach the ages are usually neatly aligned so that the Aries age is found from 2000 BC to 1 AD, Pisces age 1 AD to 2000 AD, the Aquarian age 2000 AD - 4000 AD, and so on. This approach is not consistent with the precession of the equinoxes. Based on precession of the equinoxes, there is a one degree shift approximately every 72 years, so a 30 degree movement requires 2160 years to complete.
The list of products from the Samudra Manthan (Other lists have additional products):
Lakshmi, the Goddess of Fortune and Wealth -Vishnu's consort
Kaustubha, the most valuable jewel in the world
Parijat, the divine flowering tree with blossoms that never fade or wilt
Varuni, goddess and creator of alcohol
Dhanvantari, the doctor
Chandra, the moon
Kamadhenu, the wish-granting divine cow
Kalpavriksha, the wish-granting tree
Airavata, the elephant of Indra
Apsaras, various divine nymphs like Rambha, Menaka, Punjikasthala, etc.
Uchhaishravas, the divine 7-headed horse
Sharanga, the bow of Vishnu
Shankha Vishnu's conch
Amrita the nectar of immortality.
The symbolism of samudra manathan
The story represents the spiritual endeavor of a person to achieve self-realisation through concentration of mind, withdrawal of senses, control of desires and practice of austerities and asceticism.
The Devas and Asuras represent the positives and negatives respectively of one's personality. The participation of both the Devas and the Asuras signifies that when one is seeking bliss through spiritual practice, one has to integrate and harmonise both the positive and negative aspects and put both the energies to work for the common goal.
The ocean of milk is the mind or the human consciousness. The mind is like an ocean while the thoughts and emotions are the waves in the ocean.
The Avatars and Yugas
The Avatar concept is the very cornerstone of Hindu theology. According to it, the Supreme Power manifests itself in animal or human forms on earth, with the divine mission of cleansing it of the periodically increasing evil. The Avatar concept is closely related to the measurement of time in Hindu theology which has its basis on one working day of brahma. According to the Bhagwat Purana, Brahma, the creator, is the causal effect of the predetermined periodic creation and dissolutin of the universe.
Each creation of Kalpa is equal to one day and each dissolution or Pralaya is equal to one night in the life of Brahma. A Kalpa and a Pralaya last for 4,320 million human years each. Every Kalpa has 1000 cycles of 4 Yugas (ages). Each cycle of 4 yugas is completed in 4,320,000 human years.
The Yugas are called Satya, Treta, Dwapara and Kali. The Avataras which are considered most significant are ten in number and they form the "Dasha Avatar" these ten start with the form of a lowly fish and work up to the noble man, cast in the image of God.
The fanciful find a parallel to Darwin's theory of evolution in the progression of these Avatars. The Avatars enable the common folk to speak of or listen to stories of divine doings which is a simple way of proceeding towards Godhead; particularly in our Kali Yuga with its 'sick hurry and divided aims'.
- Nalinesh Arun is a former Fiji journalist who lived in India for many years. He is now based in Christchurch