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Vishnu and His Avatars or How to Set Things Right

Hands up, who wants an avatar? I mean a real material manifestation of yourself, not a geeky graphical representation. — Okay, okay, you can put your hands down. Obviously everybody wants an avatar. Well, Vishnu has ten of them. That’s one of the benefits of being a Hindu god. Hinduism invented the whole concept! Also, he’s the preserver and protector of the universe. Now that makes one’s own existence seem quite irrelevant. Or has anyone here slept on a thousand-headed snake in the primeval ocean…? See!? So let’s make up for that with some knowledge about Vishnu’s avatars!

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Narasimha Disemboweling Hiranyakashipu, Folio from a Bhagavata Purana (Ancient Stories of the Lord), c. 1760-1770. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper, 12.1 x 23.5 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.

Hindus believe in the idea of rebirth. A soul passes through different lives. It reincarnates. As gods have never been born to earth, they don’t reincarnate, but incarnate – in the form of avatars. Vishnu did that several times and will do it again in order to set right things gone wrong. (Lately, he was sleeping and woke up on November 23. You better behaved on that day.

Megalomaniac: The Indian cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni depicted as Vishnu in an Indian magazine, 2013.
Megalomaniac: The Indian cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni depicted as Vishnu in an Indian magazine, 2013.

Interestingly, one of his incarnations is often referred to as Buddha. You might have heard about that one. Others offer more for the action-lovers among us. Narasimha was a man-lion who fought an evil king. This king thought himself invincible and wanted to slay his son for worshipping Vishnu. Narasimha ended up disemboweling him. Ouch. I guess that taught him a lesson.

Undeniably spectacular, the story has been represented in numerous sculptures, paintings and dramas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York dedicates an exhibition to Vishnu and his avatars from December 19 that focuses on the Narasimha myth, spotlighting five highly expressive wooden sculptural masks. Hinduism sure has some thrilling stories to tell through art, so give it a go!

Just slaughtered an evil king? It’s time for some yoga: Yoga Narasimha, Vishnu's Man-Lion Incarnation, 12th century. Copper alloy, 47.6 x 33 x 24.1 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Just slaughtered an evil king? It’s time for some yoga: Yoga Narasimha, Vishnu’s Man-Lion Incarnation, 12th century. Copper alloy, 47.6 x 33 x 24.1 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

You might have interest in a crash course in Indian art before. Ha, you know what? We made a few books for you:

Art of India

1000 Buddhas of Genius

Kama Sutra