Anyone familiar with Indian mythology is familiar with the Dasavatar or ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Hindu mythology also has the concept of the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Maheshwara – Creator, Preserver, Destroyer.
Questions abound. Have you, for example, ever wondered why the concept of Dasavatar is only for Vishnu? Why have the originators of the idea of incarnations for deities not formulated any such numbered endeavours for Shiva or Brahma? I will not even attempt to answer this question.

Let’s go back a bit. More rationally, to be precise.
In India, the earliest acknowledged source of recorded history is the Manu Smruti, followed by Kautilya’sArthashastra. They were not religious expositions. Rig Veda and the other 3 Vedas were certainly composed much earlier, during the early Aryan stage of Indian civilization, and that too in a purely oral form. They were passed down by the word of mouth, from father to son, teacher to pupils, sage to disciples, without so much as a change in syllable or intonation over a thousand years, no mean feat considering the over-dependence that we have today on the written word. They were reduced to writing only during the reign of the Gupta kings, called the Golden Period of Indian History partly because of that. The Gupta dynasty gets the credit for the works of literature during its time, and also for the compilation of such oral matter into the ‘taal-patra’ writing. Sanskrit became the symbol of culture, the lingua-franca. It became the adopted language of expressions for even those Jain munis and Buddhist monks who earlier had preferred local languages and dialects for preaching. The estimation is that events relating to the Mahabharata were compiled in book form around the fourth century AD. During the Gupta period, for example, the Manu Smruti was revised, and the Mahabharata and Ramayana were given final touches. However it, by default, also meant the loss of imbibitions for future generations: the original intonation was lost, the sense and reading was lost, the way it was to be deliberated was lost. When the written word became more important to the scholars, no one bothered to remember the originals, especially the way it was pronounced to effect. When written copies were made, changes crept in. Thus basically only the text remained then – open to any kind of modification, interpretation and/or literary twisting.

It was the same also with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and other compositions like Shiva Purana, Vishnu Purana, VarahaPurana and Garuda Purana, to name but a few. Two simple but lucid examples of how later authors created or modified mythological stories are Sarala’s Mahabharata and the introduction of the character of Belalsena as the other son of Bhima who could have finished off the entire Kauravas in one stroke but was not allowed to.

The same minds that created these stories also built in embellishments to suit their thinking, with intention to reinforce the brahminised order and to maintain their ritualistic hegemony/monopoly. Brahmins, as priests and masters of the religious ceremonies, had to have a ‘direct communion’ with God, the very Gods they were supposed to be propitiating on behalf of the common, ‘unlearned’ man, and thus earn their own living. Their incomes and their own dominating social existence at the top of the pecking order depended heavily on how much the other people could be made to rely on them and believe in them. Hence some brainwashing was in order. This was part of the brainwashing. Such mythical stories would obviously include Gods, Godhood, undoubting beliefs, unflinching faith, and a weakling who subsequently attained his or her objective because his or her faith invited positive divine intervention. (Then of course, inevitably followed the concepts of fate and karma and pre-determinism, but that’s another story!)

These self-anointed upholders of the social order justified their status too, in a parallel manner, otherwise their credentials to modify these stories would itself be in question. They said, Brahm is in all of us, Brahman is one who has imbibed and realized the Brahm in himself. So others who have not realized should follow the Brahman who has realized it. In this way the Brahman became the socio-religious leader – and subsequently the caste system got its base for rigidisation.

Thus they ‘created’ the Gods, in the likeness of humans – presumably to make them better identifiable and more easily acceptable (think about introducing a fresh new God having the physical form of a crocodile or a tiger and you will know what I am talking about) – and the deities evolved from stones and vague shapes to more humanized pieces of metal or wooden art. To give a modern analogy, Santoshi Mata had no scriptural sanction, but a hit Bollywood movie made her into a deified Goddess, and today in the last 30 years after the movie was released she has her own legends. Where did these legends come from? To prove the point, like this case only, someone created all Gods and Goddesses in earlier periods, each someone adding a new figure or entity as suited his or her convenience or needs of reinforcements. Not only were such deities required, but it was also necessary that they shed their ethereal existences from time to time and ‘come down’ as incarnations to live in the midst of human beings in ‘martyaloka’ and solve their problems.

To state the main point, this meant that the stories about gods and goddesses could gather momentum over time to become established mythologies and legends, as required by their creators. These myths are garnished and fitted into the main group of legends such that it would pass muster from the listeners of these legends.

The Dasavatars find primary mention in the VarahaPurana (and notMatsyaPurana, which logically should have been some kind of a starting point). Any learned listener of these tales or a rational reader makes the intelligent guess that the Dasavatar represents the evolutionary ladder (a la Darwin). The first avatar Matsya (fish) represents the initial development of life in the oceans, followed by the amphibians that straddled both water and land, like the Kurma (tortoise). The Varaha avatar with its story of the rescue of mother earth, i.e., the planet, symbolized the domination of the land-based animals. Then came Narasimha avatar as big and strange animals (symbolic of extinct unknown species) romped the lands. Humanoids developed with some midget species, bringing in Vamana avatar – does it not coincide with the latest findings that we had some midget ancestors like homo floresiensis and homo erectus (Dmanisi)? Early man progressed from cave dwelling to forest clearing capabilities as with Parashurama or Rama with the axe (parashu), also called Rama-Jamadagnya. This was followed by the initial settlement and expansion times with Rama (Rama-Purushottama) and his bow and arrow. Settled agriculture required the capabilities to till the land as postured by the avatar with plough, Balarama or Rama with the ‘bala’ (strength), also variously called Rama-Haladhara. Then came Buddha, the illuminated and enlightened one, the embodiment of peace and wisdom, symbolic of intellectual advances. Kalki, the futuristic avatar, is yet to arrive in response to some catastrophe. By this logic then Kalki would represent the end of evolution, the stage of salvation for humankind, and the return to satyayuga.

It’s interesting to note that the trio of Ramas, viz. Parashurama, Rama and Balarama, represented the progress of man in intervals from the early human cave dwelling stage (vamana) to the developed stage of an intellectual (Buddha). This perhaps indicates that the person or persons who conceived the Dasavatars knew something about the descent of man and the progress of events on the grand evolutionary scale. In a way they preceded Darwin and his theory. Equally Buddha would not be the Buddha of Lumbini: the incarnation would have stood for wisdom in man, a stage of advancement of civilization, and not for any person in particular.

It’s even more interesting to note that the most well known avatar of Krishna does not fit in the original formulation of the VarahaPurana. Krishna had to come in as an avatar when the Mahabharata became an epic in itself and outshone all other stories in its web of complexities, its brilliance of plots and sub-plots, and its richness of characters – something that the Ramayana could not impart or achieve. Although all the characters in the Mahabharata have some or the other phenomenal powers or peculiarities, the character of Krishna is more complex. The Puranas introduce each avatar as a necessity for Lord Vishnu to intervene whenever some grave danger or great evil threatens mankind. The terror of the evil king Kamsa is the reason why the Lord should step in as Krishna. There the role of this incarnation should have been. However that role is but a very small part in the entire epic: the story of the reason for his reincarnation does not mention his future role in the fratricidal war between the houses of the two cousins. This gives rise to the immense possibility that at some point of time someone (perhaps more than one) thought it better to bring in Krishna as a brother to Balarama, thereby edging the latter out in importance in the entire plot structure of the Mahabharata. (It also introduces Subhadra as their sister, whereas the original story has the action shifting to Yashoda after Krishna is born and transported across the river Yamuna: there is no mention of a sister there, born to mother Devaki.) Thus you have Krishna as a cowherd in his childhood until he slays his uncle Kamsa, and then suddenly refuses the throne and the story makes a quantum jump from Vrindavan to the island of Dwarka where he lives like a king.

Providing the basis for such justifications in the storyline of the Mahabharata, Krishna becomes accepted as a full-fledged (if that’s the right word) incarnation of Vishnu.
Would that make gyara-avatars or eleven incarnations?
Now that would sound odd, wouldn’t it? Besides, there were other claimants to the list. So, to make a long story short, you had some stories about sixteen avatars of Vishnu. This was not very good either; it didn’t quite get accepted.

The Garuda Purana (I.202) mentioned 19 avatars or murtis: Matsya, Trivikrama, Vamana, Narasimha, Rama, Varaha, Narayana, Kapila, Datta, Hayagriva, Maharadhwaja, Narada, Kurmi, Dhanvantari, Shesha, Yajna, Vyasa, Buddha and Kalki. This was at variation to the original Dasavatars.

Then came (modified at a slightly later stage, of course) the most elaborate of them all – the twenty-two avatars of Vishnu, in the BhagavatPurana (I.3), which included the original list in toto and then some. This list catered to every taste, every whim and fancy of the then story-tellers who bandied stories and juggled them about: though the basic rule of evolution may not be very clear in the series of twenty-two but they do follow the same logic, inherent in the original outlines, of progress from primitivism to salvation. To enumerate, the 22 avatars are – Brahma (the Creator), Nara-Narayana (the omniscient saint and his wisdom), Kapila (the philosopher-rishi), Narada (the musician), Dattatreya (the conjuror or magician), Yajna (the sacrificer), Dhanvantari (the physician), Mohini (the enchantress), Veda Vyasa or Vyasa Deva (the writer of the Vedas and scriptures), Matsya (the fish), Kurma (the tortoise), Varaha (the boar), Narasimha (the lion-man), Prithu (the first king or farmer-king), Vamana (the dwarf), Rama-Jamadagnya or Parashurama (Rama with the axe), Rama-Purushottama (the charmer, the repository of all virtues), Rama-Haldhara (Rama with the plough) or Balarama (Rama the strong), Krishna (the seducer or the dark one), Buddha (the enlightened one), Rishabha (the wise being, the JinaTirthankara), and Kalki (the final accomplishment).

The interesting thing here is that two brothers Balarama and Krishna both find place as incarnations of the same God. The BhagavatPurana also simultaneously admits that Vishnu’s incarnations are innumerable, but mentions Kumara (the eternal adolescent) as another avatar. Thus there is no consistency within this Purana itself, as it should have been had it been written by a single author or by a group of individuals at the same point of time.
The VisvakasenaSamhita includes Buddha and Arjuna too in the list of secondary avatars of Vishnu. All this goes on to prove that authors and creators of these myths have had their way in moulding the originals. Since there are no written authentications available regarding these alterations and amendments, we have go by certain assumptions. This is not to say that such processes have stopped. No. There have been attempts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by some lesser knowns to portray Jesus as an avatar, some even going to the extent of identifying that as Kalki. Some have tried to draw parallels between Mohammad the prophet and Hindu Godhood, and attempted his ‘avatarisation’. Last but not to give up, a writer today in Ganjam (Orissa) has recently written the Gandhi Purana in oriya, wherein Gandhi is the avatar of Vishnu: the author has fitted in bits and pieces of ‘created’ mythologies and tried to show how the Lord God came down to earth this time as the Mahatma. Who knows, five centuries later…

Let me now take you on a very different line of thought. More precisely, towards the Jagannath temple at Puri. One of the four ‘dhams’ (places of pilgrimage) of India, Puri, otherwise known as Shreekshetra, the abode of Lord Jagannath, has since earlier times been a centre of pilgrimage (Shree stands for the Lord and kshetra is area or region.) Visited by sants and seers like Shankaracharya, Ramanuja, Chaitanya, Nanak, Vivekananda, among others, Lord Jagannath has been the melting point of all faiths. (However this may be questionable, as non-Hindus are not permitted to enter the temple premises; they can view the temple from the Raghunandan Library right in front, albeit with a small donation.)

Legend has it that Puri was once upon a time a thickly wooded hill called Neeladri (or, Nilachal) inhabited by the Sabaras (pre-Aryan and pre-Dravidian tribes of the Austric linguistic family). It is also now accepted that Lord Jagannath, the deity (originally Nila-Madhava of the Sabara chieftain Vishwavasu), originated as a purely tribal entity.

The temple however is mainstream. It stands on a raised plinth with a staircase and portico (not normal for any tribal deity) leading to the entrance of the temple. The temple itself rises to a height of about 59 metres. The entire complex houses several other smaller temples, each with its importance, shrines with their own legends, and a huge kitchen. Although the primary task of the kitchen is to cook food for the deities who have to have a variety of items in the course of the day, in reality however it caters to half a lakh devotees who queue up for the mahaprasad. The twenty-two steps are supposed to represent the devotee coming closer to God: indeed many people worship each step as they climb on to the next. The temple was initially presumed by many to be a simple and unembellished structure, but recent opening up of the layers of plaster has confirmed underneath the typical KalingaNagara type temple architecture with the ‘shikhara’ ending in a cupola. The architectural style is similar to that of the Sun temple, Konark, built by the king Narsimha Deva I of the Ganga dynasty in 13th century AD (between 1238 and 1264). There are conflicting accounts regarding the timing of its construction: some records put it around 1030 AD, while others deduce the time to be in the 12th and 13th century AD. While most regard the king Chola Ganga Devaof the Ganga dynasty to be the man behind the construction, there are others who challenge even that. The final position is unresolved.

But what is not disputed by any rational observer is that this certainly could not be a tribal temple, not only in terms of its architecture but also in terms of its scale, grandiousness and references to mythology and legends. Again, however, there is no doubt that the structure of the deity is basically tribal, made as it is of wood and having more in common with the totem worshipping tribes of Central and South Americas than with traditional stone- or metal-deity worshipping communities in India itself. This would mean that mainstream Hinduism ‘took it over’.
A bit of surer history now

The origins of the bhakti cult can be traced back to South India in the 8th century AD and to Shankaracharya. However, it came into limelight after Islam made its strong entry in India. The bhakti cult embodied the reform movement in Hinduism, in response to the inroads that Islam, with its liberal outlook and its concepts of equality of status and one God, was making into the Hindu society with its multiplicity of Gods, evils of caste system, and untouchability. The lower castes began to be attracted towards the less cumbersome religion that Islam offered. Then, fortunately for Hindu society, many social and religious reformers came to the forefront. They tried to explain to the common man that oneness of God and brotherhood of mankind are not the exclusive possessions of Islam, as the fundamental principles of the Vedas and Upanishads and of Hinduism are the same as those of Islam. This process carried on till the middle of the second millennia.
The bhakti cult in north India (coinciding with the sufi movement) developed the concept of Krishna as the incarnation of Vishnu. The childhood escapades of Krishna (leela) formed the theme of most of their bhajans. ChaitanyaMahaprabhu (1485-1531) popularized the kirtan (musical gathering) as a special form of mystic experience. Many regard Chaitanya himself as an incarnation of Vishnu.

If, at all, the ninth incarnation in the Dasavatars stood for the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism (as historically recorded), then by this logic it would mean that under the onslaught of Buddhism, Hinduism actually accepted this way of life into its own and made it into one of the avatars, thereby subsuming this religion. This would also mean that this avatar was added after Buddha, the person, existed. And, equally importantly, this would prove the theory of alterations in the Hindu mythologies to suit certain very tangible purposes. Likewise, Jainism got underway and their Tirthankara became recognized as an avatar of Vishnu. (Perhaps that’s one reason why Buddhism and Jainism are regarded as offshoots of Hinduism and not as independent religions.)

Thus other worshipped identities came to be subsumed into the Hindu fold when, to give credence to their preachings, these reformers inducted new legends and new mythologies into the fold of the erstwhile Hindu myths and beliefs. So it was with the Jagannath temple and its deities too.

To suppress the existence of another God, which would go against their monotheistic arguments, and to cover up the totem-like figure, which would be unacceptable to prevalent Hindu mythological beliefs, and also to grant it the Hindu deification status, the story began about how the divine architect-sculptor Vishwakarma started to shape the idols but could not complete the hands and the rest of the body due to the inopportune entry of King Indradyumna into the chamber where he was working. That’s perhaps why you find no mention of this particular legend in the compilations of the Puranas, which were actually done during the Gupta period (i.e., by the 6th century A.D.).

The very name given to the tribal deity, Nila-Madhava, which means Blue-Krishna, can be doubted, and very logically too. The original Sabaratribals, who were so removed from the main kingdom areas that King Indradyumna took several years to trace them out, should not, very technically, have had any idea about mainstream Hindu mythologies. Hence a term connoting Krishna sounds illogical as a name for what at that time was a purely tribal entity. More probable would be that the story, concocted later, would have given this name to the tribal deity that later became Purushottam-Jagannath. The gathering movement for a Hindu re-assertion of identity towards the 11th and 12th centuries rather coincides with the timing of the construction of this temple (and the presumed induction of new legends), when it subsumed the local tribal beliefs and made it into its own. This, the history books tell us, happened under the banner of bhakti movement. (Is it also little coincidence that AdiShankaracharya visited Puri because this place fitted in with his concept of the four ‘dhams’ or ‘muths’ in the four directions in India, in perfect geographical symmetry, a part of his attempt to rejuvenate Hinduism?) Why was it that all the stated leaders of the bhakti cult visited Puri on and off? Was it to grant a particular place a much needed legitimacy? Or, conversely, was it that King Chola Ganga Deva decided to build the magnificent temple due to the ‘pressure’ of such frequent visits by religious luminaries? The Dasavatar now proved inadequate, perhaps insufficient, to cater to this new resurgent mood. Now that new avatars and new mythologies had to be ‘adjusted’ into the fold, the version of the twenty-two avatars of Vishnu came into prominence. These twenty-two avatars also indicated the same path of evolution of life and progress of man from the subsistence-based cave dweller to the leisure-inducted intellectual. If the last avatar (the would-be Kalki) represents the last stage of human evolution – in other words, moksha, or in western words, the end of evolution – then is it just a coincidence that King Chola Ganga Deva built the twenty-two steps leading to the shrine of Lord Jagannath? Or, was there this very deliberate thought behind it, that each step would under the revised numbers be symbolic of man’s ascent to the other world, to liberation, to moksha, therefore closer to God, i.e., Jagannath? Perhaps another story?