Vishnu and the Story of Varaha
Vishnu [VISH-noo], the invincible protector and preserver of the universe, serves as a hero figure who reestablishes cosmic order in many Hindu stories. He embodies the characteristics of goodness and mercy. When the balance of the universe is disturbed by destructive forces, Vishnu will prevail over the spiritually ignorant demons and restore dharma or moral order. Vishnu is associated with many different incarnations or avatars, whose form he assumes while restoring universal order in these stories.
Varaha, the boar, is one of the fourteen incarnations or avatars of Vishnu. In this incarnation, Vishnu rescues the earth when it is seized by the demon Hiranyaksha and dragged down to his abode at the bottom of the sea. Hiranyaksha was immune to the attacks of every creature except, through an oversight, the boar. In this form, therefore, Vishnu descended into the depths, slayed the demon, and saved the earth. The other gods’ appeal to Vishnu underlines his role among the Hindu deities as preserver of the universe.
In Vishnu as Varaha, the Earth Goddess, Prithvi, whom Hiranyaksha has attempted to drown, appears on the shoulder of Vishnu. Her inclusion in the sculpture indicates Vishnu’s success in conquering Hiranyaksha and saving the earth.
Listen to guest lecturer Darielle Mason describe Vishnu's creation.
Hinduism is a complex system of beliefs. It incorporates many religious texts and many local and village gods, along with the principle trinity of Brahma [BRAH-mah], Vishnu, and Shiva [SHEE-va]. Followers of Hinduism strive for liberation (moksha) from the endless cycle of life a rebirth (samsara). Hindus believe in reincarnation, the notion that opposing forces are aspects of one eternal truth, and the attainment of positive karma in hopes of being reborn into a higher caste. Through trade and cultural connections, Hinduism became a major influence on many cultures throughout Asia, such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
The conventional triad of Hindu deities includes Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. In principle, these gods are equal in power and influence, representing three aspects (creation, preservation, and destruction) of One Divine Power.
In the Hindu creation story, Brahma is responsible for all of creation. Hindu cosmology records the time of creation in terms of the days and years of the life of Brahma. His four heads symbolize the four Vedas [VAY-duhs], Hindu’s oldest scriptures, and the goose or geese he often rides represent knowledge. These themes add to the perception of his role as counselor and teacher of the gods. However, Brahma has lost popularity in the modern era and is rarely worshiped by Hindus today. Instead, Shakti, a figure who embodies all Hindu goddesses, has become the third most popular figure in the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses.
Shiva, the destroyer god, embodies seemingly contradictory benevolent and violent natures, making him a formidable figure. During the Guptas Dynasty, 320-650 A.D., Shiva simultaneously represented the god of love and the god of destruction. He is also associated with asceticism—a severe lifestyle free from worldly comforts--, meditation, and fertility. Shiva has several manifestations and appears in many stories that highlight various aspects of his character.
Dharma is the natural and moral balance of the universe, and is what Vishnu, in all his incarnations, seeks to restore when the world is disturbed by evil forces.
Dharma is commonly translated into English as “divine law” and is a force that upholds and supports Hindu principles. Consequently, for many practicing Hindus, dharma refers to one’s social and religious duties as defined by divine law. An individual’s dharma or duties are based both on their stage in life and caste (static social classes said to be predetermined by the good or bad karma of past lives). The caste system includes brahmins (priests), kshatriyas (warriors), vaishyas (merchants), shudras (laborers), and untouchables.
Listen to guest lecturer Darielle Mason describe Hindu devotion rituals.
Attributes are objects that carry special meaning or symbolism. They can be used to both identify a figure and gain insight into the figure’s purpose or character. Vishnu’s three common attributes include the conch shell, wheel or discus, and club. These attributes all serve as weapons to destroy ignorance, which traps humans in the endless cycle of death and rebirth (samsara), in addition to carrying individual meaning.
The conch shell, held in one of Varaha’s four hands on the right side of the sculpture, is used as a musical instrument. Its sound is intended to ward off demons. The clockwise spiraling of the conch is symbolic of infinite space and the balance of the laws of nature.
The wheel or discus appears on Varaha’s chest. He would have held it with a hand which has broken away from the larger sculpture. Originally signifying the sun wheel, this attribute represented the cycle of life and death. It is also considered a weapon.
The club, held up in one of Varaha’s right hands, is a weapon that protects the wearer and also represents the power of natural laws and time, which destroy everything in their path.
The lotus flower appears above Varaha’s head and like Vishnu’s attributes, its inclusion is significant. Whole flowers represent beauty, happiness, and renewal, and lotuses commonly appear as the thrones of Hindu gods. The lotus flower, which grows out of the mud, represents emergence from earthly ignorance and release from the cycle of rebirth.
Vishnu’s Incarnations or Avatars
Vishnu commonly appears as a youthful, four-armed, kingly figure, wearing a crown and holding in his hands a conch shell, wheel or discus, and club. His mount is Garuda, a hybrid man-bird, on whom he rides into battle.
As a preserver or savior figure, Vishnu returns to the earth periodically in a series of incarnations to vanquish disruptive forces of ignorance, save his devotees from peril, and restore universal order. His incarnations likely incorporate local or regional gods whose cults became intertwined with his over the centuries.
The hybridity (intermingling of various human and animal forms) of Vishnu’s many avatars follow an evolutionary trajectory. They begin with forms of animal-man, then man, and finally divinity.
Vishnu’s ten most common incarnations include:
Matsya the fish
Matsya, Vishnu’s first incarnation, takes the forms of both fish and man. His four arms hold the four attributes typical of Vishnu: the lotus, conch shell, club, and wheel. Matsya is associated with the story of Manu, one of the first ancestors of mankind, who was ordered by a fish to build an ark in preparation for a great flood. The ark held pairs of each animal aboard, and when the flood arrived, the ark was pulled by a large fish.
Kurma the tortoise
In this second incarnation, Vishnu appears as a hybrid figure with the upper body of a four-armed human holding various attributes and lower body that has been replaced by a tortoise. In Hindu mythology Vishnu transformed himself into a tortoise so that his hard shell could provide support to the mountain as it churned the ocean of milk in an attempt to cause the nectar of immortality to rise to the surface, allowing the gods to become invincible against the demons they engaged in battle.
Varaha the boar
In this third incarnation of Vishnu, either a man with the head of a wild boar or a boar alone, he rescues the world when it is seized by the demon Hiranyaksha and dragged down to the demon’s abode below the waters. The gods appealed to Vishnu to rescue the world from the watery depths and restore order.
Narasimha the lion
Vishnu’s forth incarnation is Narasimha, a half man and half lion, whose purpose was to defeat the demon King Hiranyakashipu. It is said that Hiranyakashipu could not be killed by man or animal, inside or outside, by night or day, by any weapon. Narasimha (neither man nor animal) killed him on the threshold of his house (neither inside nor outside) at dusk (neither day nor night), by mauling him with his claws (without weapons).
Vamana the dwarf
Vamana is the fifth incarnation and the first with an entirely human form. Vamana is typically depicted with two arms, carrying a parasol, water jug, or book.
Bali, who had overtaken the three realms of heaven, earth, and underworld and banished the gods from heaven, was tricked by Vishnu as Vamana into releasing heaven and earth only to be relegated to the underworld as king.
Vishnu’s sixth incarnation is Parashurama, a young brahmin (priest) shown dressed as an ascetic with a battle axe and sometimes a sword or bow and arrow. This avatar recalls the story of a lengthy battle between the castes of brahman and warriors after the theft of the priest Jamadagnya’s magical, wish-granting cow by the king.
Rama, “pleasing,” is portrayed as a young king, usually holding a bow and arrow and accompanied by his wife, Sita. He is the hero of the Ramayana epic and personifies the ideal, righteous ruler and the vanquisher of evil.
The epic recounts Rama’s story as the first born son of Dashartha, king of Ayodhya, who is banished from the court by his plotting stepmother in an attempt to secure her own son’s position as king. He retreats into the forest with his faithful wife, Sita, and his half-brother, Laksmana. During their exile, Sita is abducted by the demon king of Lanka, Ravana, and Rama begins a lengthy quest to rescue her. After prolonged battle, King Ravana is killed and Sita freed from captivity. At which time, they all return to Ayodhya, where Rama is established as king.
Krishna is the most widely venerated of all Vishnu’s incarnations and considered by many a god in his own right. Within the context of Vishnu’s avatar, Krishna’s central purpose is to destroy the tyrannical King Kansa of Mathura.
Warned that one of his cousin Devaki’s children would grow up to destroy him, King Kansa imprisoned both her and her husband and slayed their children. However, Krishna somehow survived and was taken to the cowherding village of Vrindaban, where he was raised by Nanda and his wife Yashoda. When the moment came for him to fulfill his destiny and destroy Kansa, Krishna left his village and travelled to Mathura. After Kansa’s demise, Krishna established himself as prince of Dwarka, settling with his 16,108 wives and continuing his heroic ventures.
The Buddha is Vishnu’s ninth incarnation. He appears seated on a lotus flower in serene meditation. He has the traditional top-knot, long earlobes, and ascetic garments of the Buddha.
This incarnation dates to a time when Buddhism achieved wide popularity in India, particularly amongst the lower castes (a social class of people). The brahmans (priests), who felt threatened by these teachings, denounced the Buddha as a simple incarnation of Vishnu who came to the earth to preach a false religion and separate the steadfast Hindus from the heretics.
Another interpretation explains that Vishnu came to the earth as Buddha to combat the arrogance and oppressiveness of the brahmans and to rid Hinduism of misused and overblown rituals. Buddha’s teachings regarding the path to enlightenment appeared in Hinduism around that time.
The tenth incarnation of Vishnu is Kalki, who will appear at the end of time in the form of an ominous rider, gripping a sword and riding a white horse. His coming will signal the end of the present age, a time of steady moral and spiritual decline. Kalki will punish the wicked, comfort the virtuous, and restore the rule of Dharma (law), before he finally destroys the Universe. After a hiatus, the world will begin again in a period of purity and peace, and Kalki will return to the heavens.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”