In the Hindu religion, Kurma (Sanskrit: meaning "Tortoise") is the second avatar of Vishnu, the preserver god in the Hindu Trimurti (trinity), who appeared in the Satya Yuga as a giant turtle to save the earth from destruction. His enormous back was said to have provided a foundation for the mythical Mount Mandara, which was used by the gods (and demons) as a churning rod to stir the primordial milk-ocean thereby obtaining the purported nectar of immortality.
Hinduism teaches that whenever humanity is threatened by extreme social disorder and wickedness, God will descend into the world as an avatar to restore righteousness, establish cosmic order, and redeem humanity from danger. The avatar doctrine presents a view of divinity that is compatible with evolutionary thinking since it suggests a gradual progression of avatars from amphibian through mammal to later human and godly forms. Most importantly, the concept of avatar presents the theological view of a deeply personal and loving God who cares about the fate of humanity rather than ignores it. Time and time again, the various avatars are willing to intervene on humanity's behalf to protect its overall cosmic wellbeing (loka-samgraha).
Kurma in the Context of the Avatar Doctrine
The avatar doctrine is a seminal concept in certain forms of Hinduism, particularly Vaishnavism, the sect that worships Vishnu as the Supreme God. The word Avatar in Sanskrit literally means "descent" of the divine into the realm of material existence. Through the power of maya ("illusion" or "magic"), it is said that God can manipulate forms in the physical realm, and is therefore able to assume bodily forms and become immanent in the empirical world. Hinduism states that the Absolute can take on innumerable forms and, therefore, the number of avatars is theoretically limitless; however, in practice, the term is most ubiquitously related to Lord Vishnu, of whom Narasimha is an incarnation.
Hinduism recognizes ten major avatars, collectively known as the 'Dasavatara' ('dasa' in Sanskrit means ten). Scriptural lists of these ten divine manifestations frequently differ, however, the most commonly accepted lists claim that Kurma is preceded by Matsya, a fish, and followed by Varaha, a boar; Narasimha, a man-lion hybrid; Vamana, a dwarf; Parasurama, Rama with an axe; Rama, a noble man; Krishna, the teacher of the Bhagavadgita; Buddha, a spiritually enlightened being, and finally, Kalkin, the final avatar who has yet to arrive. These avatars usually take physical form for the purpose of protecting or restoring dharma, the cosmic principle of order, when it has devolved. Krishna explains this in the Bhagavadgita: "Whenever there is a decline of righteousness and rise of unrighteousness O Arjuna, I send forth Myself" (Shloka 4.7). Vishnu's tenure on earth typically involves the performance of a particular series of events in order to instruct others concerning the path of bhakti (devotion) and ultimately leading them to moksha (liberation).
The story of the Kurma Avatar, found in the Kurma Purana, reflects the usurping of the early Hindu Vedic deities (such as Indra and Varuna) with the popular gods of Classical Hinduism such as the Hindu Trimurti. The appearance of Kurma was eventuated by the negligence of Indra, the one-time king of the gods in the Vedas. It is said that Durvasa, an ancient sage, gave a garland of flowers to Indra. Indra placed this garland upon his elephant Airavata, who promptly threw it on the ground and trampled it. Having witnessed this desecration of his gift, the short-tempered Durvasa cursed Indra and all the other devas (benevolent gods) so that they would lose their strength. With the devas weakened, the asuras, a group of malevolent deities in the Hindu pantheon, moved forth to conquer them. An epic war (dubbed the Devasura) followed, which went on for many years. Though they fought valiantly, the devas could not score a decisive victory over the asuras. They even went so far as to petition Brahma and Shiva, the Hindu gods of creation and destruction respectively, for their help, but they refused to interfere
As a last resort, the devas went to Vishnu. The preserver god suggested that the devas pour medicinal herbs into the ocean of milk, and to use Mount Mandara as a churning stick so that they might mix up the elixir of immortality. However, the gods could not uproot the mountain. Thus, Vishnu advised them to make a pact with their enemies the asuras, so that both parties would share the nectar which resulted. This caused much apprehension among the devas—however, Vishnu simply smiled and provided reassurance. The gods and asuras eventually made their pact to jointly churn the milk ocean. Together they uprooted Mt. Mandara and used it as a churning stick, wrapping the serpent Vasuki around it and using him as the churning rope by pulling first one way and then the other. As the churning began, Vishnu instructed the devas to take the head end of the snake while the asuras were commanded to take the tail end. The asuras insisted that they should control the head end. However, this turned out to be a masterful use of foresight and reverse psychology by Vishnu, for when the churning began, the asuras were promptly eviscerated in strength by the poisonous breath from the mouth of the serpent.
As the churning continued, Mt. Mandara began to gradually sink into the mud at the bottom of the milk-ocean. In order to provide support for the mountain so it would not sink any further, Vishnu took the form of Kurma, the tortoise, and supported the mountain upon his broad back. The devas continued on with their churning, and eventually fourteen precious articles appeared on the surface of the water, including the Parijata tree, which granted wishes, the elephant Airavata, the moon (which Shiva took in order to adorn his head), the Halahala poison (which Shiva drank), the Kamadhenu, the cow which fulfills desires, Varuni, the goddess of wine, the apsaras, a group of goddesses, the white horse Uchchaisravas, and most importantly the goddess Lakshmi, who was so impressed by Vishnu’s status as supervisor of the churning that she promptly requested to be his consort. Then came the conch, the bow, the mace, and the jewel, all of which were taken by Vishnu. The last precious article to emerge from the milk ocean was Dhanwantri, the Lord of Physicians, who arrived carrying a bowl of amrit, the much-desired nectar of immortality. The asuras promptly commandeered the elixir, however, thanks to another trick on the part of Vishnu in which he appeared as the female Mohini in order to dumbfound the asuras by way of seduction, the devas attained the elixir of immortality for themselves. Thus, the power of immortality remained in the hands of the gods due in no small part to Kurma.
In Hindu iconography, Kurma is depicted as a tortoise, or else as a human being with a tortoise head or a tortoise body. His colour is black, although sometimes he is depicted as golden in colour. The number of limbs he possesses varies, as does the number of weapons he carries as a function of this. Two of his four hands carry the Shankha (conch-shell), and the Chakra (a discus), while the other two convey the Varada and abhaya mudras, gestures of charity and fearlessness respectively. On his head he wears the crown Kirita-mukuta. He often bears the swastika, a symbol of good luck and well-being. Kurma is commonly pictured with his consorts Sri and Bhumi, or else with Sri and the Pusti tree.
Although Kurma is not widely worshiped in modern Hinduism, he is still acknowledged as an important figure in Hindu cosmology. His mythological importance cannot be underestimated—thanks to Vishnu’s incarnation as Kurma, the cosmos was blessed with a wonderful bounty, suggesting Vishnu’s abundant creative potential. This bounty also includes a panoply of important mythological figures, as well as a number of symbols that have come to define the major Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu. Furthermore, it is because of Kurma that Vishnu met his wife, the beloved Lakshmi who has become one of the most widely worshipped goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. Although his is not the primary creation myth in Hinduism, perhaps no incarnation and his mythical exploits serve to illustrate Vishnu’s ability to support and sustain the universe better than those of Kurma. The fact that Kurma’s assistance also allows for the creation of negative elements such as the Halahala poison, which Shiva drinks, illustrates his status as a destroyer as well as a creator.
- Note: some Hindu sources replace the Buddha with Balarama.
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- Gupta, Shakti. Vishnu and His Incarnations. Delhi: Somaiya Publications Pvt. Ltd., 1974.
- Mitchell, A.G. Hindu Gods and Goddesses. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1982. ISBN 011290372X
- Parrinder, Geoffrey. Avatar and incarnation: the Wilde lectures in natural and comparative religion in the University of Oxford. London: Faber, 1970. ISBN 0571093191
- Tagare, Ganesh Vasudeo. The Kurma Purana. Motilal Banarsidass, India, 1998. ISBN 8120803523
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