The Ten Avataras – 5: A Psychological Study of the Evolution of Humankind

Swami Satyadharma Saraswati


Vamana is the fifth incarnation in which Lord Vishnu assumes the form of a dwarf, or a young Brahmin boy. From Vamana onwards, the avataras take human form. The fact that here the human form is very small and young indicates that human consciousness is in the early stages of development and has not yet reached maturity or full potential. The image of a dwarf may also allude to the miraculous psychic abilities attributed to beings which are diminutive in size. Yakshas are dwarf-like beings with supernormal powers. Vamana, the dwarf, was able to expand himself in a miraculous way, so as to encompass the entire universe. Thus he showed himself to be coextensive with all existence.

This is an ancient myth, which has its origins in the Rig Veda, where the three steps of Vishnu represent the three phases of the solar cycle: rising, midday and setting sun. This signified control over the solar cycle, which was considered to be the source of all life, physical as well as spiritual. A later myth relates to the previous avatara, as it concerns the great asura king, Bali, who was the grandson of Prahlad. Although an asura, or demon, Bali lived an austere life and governed his people with righteousness. The word bali means ‘sacrifice’, and Bali himself was known for his performance of yajna, or sacrifice, although such actions were considered inimical to the asuras.

By performance of the Vishwajit Yajna, which means ‘conquest of the universe’, Bali had defeated Indra, who was king of the gods, and driven him from his kingdom. At the time of Vamana’s descent, Bali was in the process of performing one hundred Ashwamedha Yajnas, under the direction of Sukra and the Rishis of the Bhrigu family. The completion of these yajnas would have made him the undisputed and invincible emperor of the three worlds: Earth, Sky or the intermediary space, and Heaven. So, naturally, the gods were distraught and went to Lord Vishnu for aid. He descended in the form of Vamana, and entered the sacrificial hall where the Ashwamedha Yajna was underway.

Bali was greatly impressed with this radiant youth, who approached him like the rising sun at dawn. Before the brilliance of Vamana, Bhrigu and the assembled Rishis seemed to pale into a mere shadow. They all began to wonder whether this sagely young visitor, holding in his hands an umbrella, a water vessel and a staff, was Surya, the sun deity, Agni, the fire deity, or the Sage Sanatkumar come to witness the sacrifice. As Vamana entered the hall, the Bhrigus, overwhelmed by his radiating glory, stood up to receive him. King Bali, the master of the yajna, offered him a seat and said, “I presume that you have come here seeking some boon. Whatever you want, ask that of me and it shall be yours. I shall grant you anything that you ask for.”

After praising the king’s generosity, Vamana said, “I wish to possess only as much land as I can cover with just three steps.” At this request Bali laughed, thinking the boy foolish to ask for so little, and told him he could ask for much more. But Vamana remained adamant, saying that he would be fully satisfied with these three feet of land, so Bali consented. Then the form of Vamana began to expand and became immense in stature, encompassing the entire cosmos. With the first step he covered the earth; with the second, the sky and the heaven. For the third step there was no place, so Bali asked Vamana to place his foot upon his head.

Thereupon Bali immediately sank down to Sutala, one of the lower and instinctive worlds. But even in the face of total devastation, being banished and dispossessed of all his kingdoms and wealth by a gift of charity, Bali remained unconcerned and unruffled. He recognised in Vamana the supreme teacher, and understood that through this downfall he had gained enlightenment. The Lord in the form of Vamana then said to him, “Whomever I really wish to bless, I first take away his wealth. For wealth makes a man proud and egotistic, and blocks all spiritual progress.” Then Vamana gave a boon to Bali, who had remained steadfast and true, that he would become the Lord of the gods in the coming age.

The three steps taken by Vamana in the presence of Bali and his asura retinue signify the potential development of human consciousness from the lower instinctive states to encompass the three states of consciousness, i.e. conscious, subconscious and unconscious. At that point of evolution, however, the instinctive personality was overaggressive and completely dominated the more developed and sattwic levels. So it was pushed back down to the lower levels, represented by Sutala, but with the promise that in time to come, humanity would develop all the expanded states of consciousness known to the gods. In other words, through the expansion of consciousness, the instinctive man would indeed become godman. This myth thus represents the point in time and also the path by which higher consciousness began to develop in mankind.

Continued in the next issue