In the Hindu religion, Vamana (Sanskrit: "dwarf bodied-man") is the fifth avatar of Vishnu, the preserver god in the Hindu Trimurti (trinity). He appeared during the Krita Yuga in the form of a poor Brahmin dwarf, where he tricked the demon king Bali to permit him possession of all the land he could cover in three strides. With this condition in place, Vamana transformed back into Vishnu in his cosmic form and covered the earth and the sky in two steps, then banished Bali to the underworld with the third step.
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).
Vamana 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 has Vamana preceded by Matsya, a fish; Kurma, a turtle; Varaha, a boar and Narasimha, a man-lion hybrid; and followed by Parasurama, a man bearing an axe; Rama, a noble man; Krishna, the teacher of the Bhagavadgita; Buddha, a spiritually enlightened being and Kalkin, the tenth and 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).
Vamana entered into creation as a response to the tyranny of Bali, great grandson of Hiranyakshipu, perpetual rival of Vishnu and the reigning king of the demons. By his acts of sacrifice, Bali became incredibly powerful, usurping Indra so as to attain rulership over the cosmos. Indra and the other gods begged Vishnu to come to their rescue, due to the fact that the demons were about to overrun the universe. Aditi, Indra's mother, asked that Vishnu be born of her for purposes of killing Bali. Vishnu complied, emerging from her womb as Vamana, a dwarf. Once he had reached boyhood, Vamana went to Bali and begged his charity. Shukra, the priest of the asuras, warned Bali that he was indeed dealing with an incarnation of Vishnu. Nonetheless, Bali agreed to give Vamana anything he wished to have, considering this visitation by an incarnation of Vishnu to be a great honour. Vamana requested that Bali reward him with a piece of land equal to three of his strides, upon which he could sit and meditate. Confident with the small size of Vamana's stride, Bali gladly rewarded him the condition of his request. Vamana promptly grew in size and easily covered the earth, the heavens and the midworld in two strides. There was no space left for the third stride, so Vamana placed his foot on the head of the demon king and pushed him into the nether regions, so he could serve as monarch there. Thus, the world was saved from the tyranny of the asuras.
In Hindu iconography, Vamana is typically depicted as a small man, the first of the fully human avatars. He is usually represented with two arms, depicting Vamana before his transformation into Vishnu. His first arm is extended in supplication, begging for alms. The second arm carries an umbrella or a waterpot (kamandalu). Tucked under one of his arms is a danda, or stick. He wears yellow clothes and a lion-skin or a deerskin cloth around his waist, which is often tied with an Upavita cord. He is dark in colour or black. He has a shikha, a small tuft of hair, upon his head. In his ears he wears a pair of earrings which are significant, since in the form of a murti or icon, Vamana is associated with a devotee's left or right ear. His third finger bears a ring made from grass. Iconographic depictions focusing on the Vamana's three steps to reclaim the universe are called Trivikrama; when depicted in this form Vamana is shown with one leg raised as if taking a step.
As a dwarf, Vamana may have symbolized for classical Hindus an early, underdeveloped state of humanity at the beginning of the Treta Yuga. In contrast to more ferocious avatars such as Narasimha, Vamana uses intelligence and trickery rather than brute force in order to conquer evil. Through a cunning strategem, Vamana is able to overcome his diminutive size in order to uphold the dharma. The story of the three steps is one of the most famous in Hindu mythology, and with good cause: as a creation myth, in upholds important symbolism that originates in the Rg Veda. The three steps maintain the three divisions of reality in Hindu cosmology—sky, earth and underworld—and this myth illustrates Vishnu's ability to preside over all three of these realms.
- Note: some Hindu sources replace the Buddha with Balarama.
- For some Hindus, the three strides taken by Vamana in this story are thought to represent the rising, culminating and setting of the sun.
- Bassuk, Daniel E. Incarnation in Hinduism and Christianity: the myth of the god-man. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1987. ISBN 0391034529
- 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
- Soifer, Deborah A. The Myths of Narasimha and Vamana: Two Avatars in Cosmological Perspective. State University of New York Press, 1991.
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