Posted by: Vikram | December 19, 2012

A political meaning of the Vishnu avatars

(This post has been written based on my received knowledge of Hinduism, and readings on the internet and books. And as such, it is based on the analysis of a layman, so please excuse any errors. I would be grateful if you could inform me of them.)

Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases I send myself forth.
For the protection of the good and for the destruction of evil,and for the establishment of righteousness,
I come into being age after age. (Gita:4.7–8)

Through his many avatars, and especially Rama and Krishna, Vishnu attracts great devotion and love in India. Mainstream Hinduism today tends to emphasize the devotional aspects of the Vishnu avatars and related aspects of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. However, a political aspect of the major Vishnu avatars appears if one pays attention to not just who Vishnu appears as, but whom (s)he defeats and vanquishes.

Let us recap the major avatars of Vishnu (and the antagonists) in sequential order: Matsya, a fish avatar who saves Manu, the progenitor of man from the demon Damanaka; Kurma the turtle who churns the oceans for an immortality nectar; Varaha a boar that kills the demon Hiranyaksha. Next comes Mohini, the female avatar who kills the demon Bhasmasura; followed by the half-lion half-man Narasimha who defeats the demon Hiranyakashap and saves his son Prahlad. A major change in the nature of the Vishnu avatars and the antagonists occurs after this fifth avatar.

In his sixth avatar, Vishnu appears as a dwarf to remove the demon king Bali from the throne of heaven. In the seventh avatar, Vishnu appears as a human for the first time, as the Brahmin Parshurama who defeats the human king Kartavirya Arjun and his formidable army. The eighth avatar is Lord Rama, who is born a king, but abandons his throne for the forest and defeats the unbeatable warrior, great scholar, maestro of the Veena, ruler of a prosperous kingdom, the demon-king Ravana. The ninth avatar, Krishna, is raised in a cowherd’s family, and orchestrates the defeat of human Emperor Duryodhana, ‘the unconquerable one’ and ruler of the known world.

The latter avatars of Vishnu always appear to defeat kings. And with each avatar, the antagonist (who is always a king) becomes grander and more impressive. It is interesting to speculate on why this particularly sequence appears. Why is the evil or adharma always manifesting as a monarch ? And why is this monarch a stronger and seemingly more capable one with each avatar ?

The avatars of Vishnu appear in the various Puranas, whom historians typically date from the early centuries of the first millenium (100-200 CE). By this time, monarchy as a principle of authority was firmly established in India and the country had seen the first sequence of kingdoms and its first major empire (the Mauryan empire) had emerged, ruled and collapsed. The reemergence of empire (after the Mauryans) in India indicated that monarchy was here to stay, replacing the tribe and clan based Mahajanapada system that endured from 600 BCE to 300 BCE.

The Vishnu avatars defeat of increasingly powerful kings might thus be seen as a search by religious scholars for a new equilibrium in the societal balance of power. The deeds of the avatars and the reasons for their appearance can be seen as an attempt to institute a check against the kings power, which was otherwise becoming absolute. Thus, the religious scholars of ancient India can be seen as advocating some form of human rights, and seeking to constrain the unchecked coercive power of the king.

And looking from this viewpoint, one realizes that perhaps the main reason for the collapse of the great Indian empires was not the machinations of outsiders, but emperors who did not heed the message of the Vishnu avatars.


  1. 1. bali and ravaNa, having conquered svarga can be considered equally powerful. On the contrary, “non-emperor” duryodhana is much less powerful. So, the claim of successively greater power is incorrect.

    2. “And looking from this viewpoint, one realizes that perhaps the main reason for the collapse of the great Indian empires was not the machinations of outsiders, but emperors who did not heed the message of the Vishnu avatars.”

    One small step for maan.. I don’t get this realization.

    3. The more common politicalesque interpretation is this: “Disunited, fighting without coordination, the deva-s were defeated time and again by the asura-s (usually made powerful by boons from the relatively innocent shiva or brahma). To circumvent that, the deva-s and shakti-s had to unite/ collaborate in the form of avatAra(s). Mortality of victims – even that of the avatara-s is explained by bad karma. This is seen not only in the avatara-s of viShNu, but also of shakti.

    Hence, unity is strength. Lack of forethought, and decadence/ arrogance are bad – for the deva-s and the asura-s. Bad karma inevitably leads to bad results – even for the great deva-s and avatara-s.”

    Of course spiritual interpretations are even common, but that is left aside.

    • Vishvas, viewed from the metric of conquering swarg, Bali and Ravan might be equally powerful, and much more powerful than Duryodhana. Certainly Ravana was by himself much more powerful than Duryodhana.

      But I am looking at power from a different perspective. How difficult was it for Vishnu to defeat Bali ? From my readings, not very difficult. It was much more difficult for Vishnu to defeat Ravana, he had a formidable army. Rama needed a lot of help from Vibhishana to finally vanquish Ravana.

      To defeat Duryodhana, who has warriors like Bhishma, Drona and Karna in his army, Krishna has to even employ very questionable methods.

      So I think my claim has some justification.

      Regarding my realization, I would like to ask you how ‘disunity’ and ‘acting (fighting) without coordination’ appear on a societal scale.

      • 1. Ok – we must be very clear about this: Krishna did not fight in the war, nor can duryodhana be said to be the the central villain from krishNa-s perspective. bhAgavatapurANa, where kriShNa’s super achievements are actually the focus, describes more capable and tougher foes – narakAsura (who had to be killed in collaboration with satyabhAma – incarnation of his mother bhUdevI- in svarga) and shishupAla. duryodhana is nothing in comparison – just one of many bad kuru-s who needed to be cleaned up without getting his hands “dirty” so to speak.

        2. Reg: I would like to ask you how ‘disunity’ and ‘acting (fighting) without coordination’ appear on a societal scale.

        I did not fully understand your question – can you please state what kind of response you want more precisely (with an example)?

      • 3] Reg Ravana and bali: Because of his boons, could only be defeated by mortals, while with bali, superpower trickery could be used. So naturally, it was harder for viShNu.

        4] Not sure if you realize: mahAbhArata is not the story of kRShNa, mainly. Most of his famous exploits are from bhAgavatapurANa. kRShNa enters mahAbhArata sort-of fully formed.

    • Replied to your last comment in a new comment. Sorry about the delay.

  2. Vishvas, I agree that by himself Duryodhana was nothing compared to others Krishna defeated. The point is not who specifically Duryodhana was. The point is what he represents. A powerful, arrogant king with very powerful warriors in his army. In the popular chronology of Vishnu avatars, Krishna clearly comes after Rama, despite the interweaved structure of the Puranas that you have pointed out.

    The other question is important. I am asking, how is it that disunity and lack of coordination become so pervasive that an existing political structure collapses and a new one (possibly even alien to the current population) takes it place. So for example, we have the Gupta empire, which prevailed in the Northern part of the subcontinent for a considerable time and had some very capable rulers. What were the roots of disunity and collapse of Gupta authority ? My claim is that the roots of collapse of a monarchical structure lie in the absolute power of the monarch. And that is what the Hindu scriptures were trying to constrain.

    • I agree that disunity and lack of coordination are inherent in hereditary monarchies – sooner or later an imbecile is born in the greatest of traditions.

      Hindu scriptures (not just nIti-shAstra-s but also in the epics, dramas and poetry) constrain the absolute power of the monarch by clearly saying what the king must and must not do. Bad kings are called .. bad kings – eg: kArtavIrya arjuna example you quoted. They espouse federalist hierarchy of kings. But, they don’t seem to try to constrain absolute monarchy in a way that would avoid the results of having bad kings. Instead, their answer seems to have been – Empires grow weak, kinglets assert independence, one of them grows powerful and becomes the new empire.

      In all this, the assumption seems to have been that regime changes have a negligible/ transient effect on the general society, as all kings, through their struggles were expected to maintain some standards of conduct. This benign Darwinianesque arrangement is analogous to competition among businesses, regulated by common law, during which consumers/ rest of the society does not suffer. It is this assumption which seems to have failed during some alien conquests.

      The frequent example given for disunity/ lack of coordination and its results (in the context of avatara stories) are stories of chANakya and the founding of the maurya-shaasana. The janapada-s disunited could not repel the Ionian invaders, so the great chANakya had to get an empire started and guide it.

      Other such relevant examples include muslim conquest of north India, mAdhavAchArya guiding harihara and bukka-rAya with the vijayanagara empire, samartha rAmadAsa’s guidence to shivAji and letters to his successor, the AjnA-patra, perhaps even govind singh’s reformation of the khAlsa.

      All these, it should be noted, yielded in similar hierarchical arrangement of chiefs rooted at a pretty-absolute monarch.

      • Thank you very much for this informative reply VishVas. I appreciate it.

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