Got the Whole World On His Tusks: Varaha, Vishnu’s Third Avatar

Compared to the two previous Avatars of Vishnu, Matsya the Fish and Kurma the Tortoise, Varaha, Vishnu’s third “official” incarnation, isn’t given much backstory. Historically, there are a few reasons for this:

a) the oldest extant version of the myth has Varaha as an incarnation of the creator deity Brahma, not Vishnu.

b) followers of the god Shiva were quick to put their own spin on the Varaha mythos, one in which Varaha is subdued by Shiva in the form of a most extraordinary beast. Called Sarabha, this creature is a chimera – part lion, part bird, occasionally a deer, with eight legs and the ability to jump entire valleys in a single leap. More powerful than a lion or an elephant, Sarabha takes on both the third and fourth Avatars of Vishnu – but only in Shaivite (i.e. Shiva) cannon. Sarabha would eventually find his way into Buddhist iconography as well.

c) While several Hindu kings enjoyed Varaha as a symbol of virility, and adorned him in temple and coinage alike, the Mogul occupation of India blunted the celebration of the boar god. Islam deems boars and pigs unclean animals; with the spread of Islam, especially in North India, there was a marked decline in the worship of Varaha.

So, what do we know about this elusive Avatar? Like his immediate predecessors,  his time-frame places him around the deluge, when the primordial waters were a clear and present danger. Going back to his first incarnation, it was Vishnu who saved humanity from the Flood. Likewise, in his second form, he had to submerge himself in the primal waters to hold up Mt. Meru, the axis mundi of the cosmos. These same primal waters are present in the Varaha myth as well.

For many reasons – it depends on the version – the Earth is sinking back into the primordial ocean. In most versions, an Asura, a fallen demi-god, is to blame. Named Hiranyaksha, he had magically protected himself from being assaulted by a list of animals and humans – except he forgot to mention boars.

Always read the fine print (apparently, not even divine beings read the license agreements before checking “I Accept”).

Varaha_avtar,_killing_a_demon_to_protect_Bhu,_c1740
Varaha holding up the Earth and slaying Hiranyaksha, 18th century, North India

At any rate, Hiranyaksha drags the Earth, personified as the goddess Bhudevi, to the depths of the cosmic ocean. Vishnu, knowing the loophole in Hiranyaksha’s contract, takes the form of a giant boar – giant as in 40-90 miles wide, and between 4,000 and 9,000 miles tall. Black as night, with tusks bright as the sun, Varaha descends into the waters, rescues the girl (or, in this case, the world), and kills the bad guy.

Unfortunately, that’s about it.

In some versions, he goes on to mate with the Bhudevi; this is usually where the Sarabha mythos interrupts the story, though followers of Vishnu refute it. Unlike other Avatars, Varaha is a stand alone tale; there is no larger framework to insert him into, outside of the narrative of the Ten Avatars.

Despite the lack of an overarching mythology, Varaha as an icon is noteworthy. Instead of trying to wring blood from a stone (story wise), maybe it’s simpler to let the stones speak for themselves:

Khajuraho_India,_Vamana_Temple,_Varaha_Sculpture
Anthropomorphic Varaha, Khajuraho (Narasimha) temple, India
Varaha-mahabalipuram
Anthropomorphic Varaha holding Bhudevi, Mahabalipuram temple, India
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Zoomorphic Varaha, Khajuraho temple, India. This statue is nearly six feet tall.

Next on our list: Avatar four, Narasimha, the Lion-Man.

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