The Ten Avataras – 1: A Psychological Study of the Evolution of Humankind

Swami Satyadharma Saraswati

The Birth and Death of a Universe

The ten avataras or incarnations of Lord Vishnu that are described in many of the Puranic myths are pregnant with meaning. They represent not only dharmic principles and ideals, but also the creation of this world and the evolution of consciousness throughout the entire spectrum of being, from mineral to vegetable, animal, human, and godman. All manifest beings, whether sentient or insentient, are endowed with some form of consciousness. How the multitude of beings within this sphere of creation came to be invested with form and consciousness is told in the form of myths through the symbolic representation of the ten avataras.

Although the incarnations of the cosmic consciousness, or Lord Vishnu, are said to be as innumerable as grains of sand, the ten great manifestations of his divinity are: (i) Matsya (fish), (ii) Kurma (tortoise), (iii) Varaha (boar), (iv) Narasimha (half man/half lion), (v) Vamana (dwarf), (vi) Parasurama (Rama with the axe), (vii) Ramachandra, (viii) Krishna, (ix) Buddha, (x) Kalki. Here, in the order of each divine advent or incarnation, we will describe the evolution of man during this manvantara, or period of creation, from a scientific as well as a psychological and philosophical point of view.

First of all, in order to understand the significance of each divine descent, we need to deal with the concept of Time, because all that happens in the universe takes place in Time. In Time all exists and into Time all merges back. Everything exists within Time and is supported by Time. When viewed individually, this power is known as jiva; when viewed universally it is known as Time. All created beings, including Brahma, the creator, are ruled by Time. In Indian philosophy Time is not measured by centuries or millennia, but by aeons. Each aeon is called a manvantara, which means the epoch of one Manu (the successive progenitors or forefathers of the earth). He rules the world for a fixed period of time allotted to him. One manvantara extends for a period of 30.7 crore (307 million) human years. Fourteen such manvantaras make a day of Brahma, which is called a kalpa. At the end of one kalpa, when the night starts for Brahma, all creative work is suspended and all created worlds merge into dissolution or pralaya.

The next morning when Brahma awakens, all the worlds start manifesting again stage by stage, and the process of creation continues as in the previous day. One year constitutes 360 such days for Brahma and his life span is 100 such years. One life span of Brahma is the interval between the opening and closing of the Lord’s eyes once. When the Lord opens his eyes once, one Brahma is created. At the end of a Brahma’s life, when the Lord closes his eyes everything, including Brahma himself, dissolves in the great deluge, or mahapralaya, back into the Lord. No one knows when this mahapralaya will end, when the Lord will open his eyes and start his sport of creation again.

A manvantara is one-fourteenth of one kalpa or daytime of Brahma. Each manvantara has its own Manu, so in one daytime of Brahma, 14 Manus and creations come and go. Each manvantara comprises 71 chaturyugas. One chaturyuga consists of four ages: Satya, Treta, Dwapara and Kali, lasting 32.2 lakh (3,400,000) human years. The function of the Manus is to maintain worldly order and progress. In different aeons and ages, the Lord appears as divine incarnations and lends support and guidance to the Manus in their efforts to maintain the world order. At the end of each chaturyuga the Vedas are swallowed up by Time, bringing about dissolution before the start of a new chaturyuga. The present Brahma has completed 50 years of his life. We are now living in the first day of the 51st year of Brahma in the seventh manvantara, in the 28th chaturyuga. The advent of the ten avataras describes the evolution of man within this manvantara and chaturyuga with its four eras: Satya, Treta, Dwapara and Kali.

The first descent of consciousness and energy marks the earliest manifestation of creation in the present aeon or manvantara, after the dissolution of the previous creation at the end of the last aeon. This descent is symbolised by a period of deluge, a kind of cosmic menses in which the unmanifest first forms itself into a gaseous or watery existence, pregnant with the potential forms of all beings to come. The entire creation is thus born from the primal waters, so water here represents the source of all life. This is why Varuna, Lord of the oceans, was originally considered to be the supreme cosmic power. Later Varuna was superseded by Indra, Lord of the senses. This indicates the evolution of consciousness into human form, which is ruled by the senses. Still later, Indra is replaced by Vishnu, the universal principle, representing the development of higher consciousness in man. The advent of the first three avataras: Matsya, Kurma and Varaha, may be associated with earlier chaturyugas in this manvantara. However, the later avataras relate to definite eras within this present chaturyuga.

Satya yuga, the earliest age within the chaturyuga, is described as an era of truth, harmony and righteousness, during which there was no need for the descent of a divine incarnation because all was in perfect order. This age of perfect order, balance and harmony refers to the state of immanent existence just before the manifestation of creation and just after the manifest creation dissolves back into its source of unmanifest existence. In philosophical terms, this dimension is also represented by the union of Shiva and Shakti in the cosmic field, where pure consciousness and pure energy exist in total harmony, and the three gunas or qualities of nature – sattwa, rajas and tamas, also remain in total equilibrium.

So, Satya yuga represents the unmanifest state of pure consciousness and energy before the onset of creation. In this dimension of existence, all the devas or divine beings live in luminosity, in a state of total balance and harmony. There is no discord or distress, no need for battle or insurgence, as nothing yet exists to descend into or contend for. From this state of pure, unmanifest, totally harmonious being which exists during the Satya yuga, the first vibration or emanation of creation is felt, due to the desire of the universal Lord to become many. The Divine unmanifest wishes to perceive itself through the manifest dimension of name and form. Thus the Lord decides to invest a multitude of forms with his own consciousness and energy, so as to live through them in the world of time, space and object. So, with the first emanation or vibration, the totality of unmanifest consciousness and energy begin to separate. A slight cosmic throb takes place, and with this a portion of cosmic energy imbued with cosmic consciousness begins to descend into the manifest dimension.

1. Matsya Avatara

matsyaSo it is within the murky depths of the primal cosmic waters that Vishnu, the Lord of the universe, first descends in the form of Matsya, the fish. In this context, water represents the earliest descent of consciousness into the unconscious state, where it takes the form of nebulous fluidity. In the Vedas it is said, “In the beginning darkness was hidden by darkness. All was an ocean of unconsciousness.” From the depths of the unconscious, which is also referred to as hiranyagarbha, the golden womb of creation, all manifest beings are born. Hence, the first being to be born in the form of Matsya, the fish, represents the initial glimmer of individual consciousness within the depths of the unconscious. The fish is a life form which survives only in water. It cannot live on land or in the air, which represent abodes of higher life forms, higher forms of consciousness. So, at this stage of evolution, the individual consciousness remains ensconced in the depths of the unconscious with no other immediate possibilities of development.

The advent of Matsya is also linked with Vaivasvata Manu, who is the progenitor of the human race for this present aeon. This myth is consistent with the Christian version of Noah and the Ark. Here Vaivasvata is instructed by Matsya to build an Ark and stow within it the seeds of potentiality of all existence: mineral, vegetable, animal and human, for the future propagation of the world, along with the seven Rishis, the agents of creation who will guide its conscious evolution. Matsya, with the help of the serpent Adishesha, representing the principle of Time, pulls the ship to a place in the cosmic ocean where the highest peak of the Himalayas is just emerging. There he moors the Ark and leaves it in readiness for the new creation. So Manu was conveyed into the manifest dimension by Matsya and became the procreator of all species for the present age, which was just becoming. From a historical point of view, this myth also conveys that the advent of all life and civilisation has its roots on the Indian subcontinent at the feet of the Himalaya mountains, and not elsewhere as many scholars have speculated.

There is another important myth in relation to the advent of Matsya which describes the destruction of the three worlds, represented as the Vedas, in the previous aeon. While Brahma, the creator, was asleep, the Vedas are stolen away from his lips by Soma. Here Vedas are not to be understood as mere books. They are the shabdas, words or sound vibrations from which the entire manifest world is generated. From these sounds, all forms in the universe arise. All objects are nothing in essence but the permutation and combination of different sound vibrations. So, it was said that Brahma created the world through the Vedas and Soma stole them away to Patala, the lowest level of evolution, thus bringing about the dissolution of the world at the time of pralaya. Therefore, Vishnu in the form of Matsya dived into the waters in order to recover the Vedas and restore them to Brahma so that creation could begin anew. Here Matsya represents rajas, the first form of activity that took place in the latent immobile universe at the time of dissolution or pralaya.

Continued in the next issue