B_, the Ambiguous Ninth Avatar of Vishnu

As we’ve seen earlier, there are two competing theories as to why mythic motifs keep recurring through the world; one is that they are archetypal, and therefore come unbidden from the depths of the collective unconscious, and the other is that they are a kind of cultural cross contamination (in the best sense), also known as dispersion theory.

Now, as with most things, there is a middle path; maybe motifs disperse because they are archetypal.

The problem with that theory is that it makes too much sense, and leaves little room for people to get defensive about their respective positions.

I’d say “don’t shoot the messenger”, but we know that’s who always gets shot first.

To quote Sophocles in his play Antigone, “no one loves the messenger who brings bad news”.

That asides, we find ourselves in an interesting predicament when it comes to talking about the ninth, penultimate Avatar of Vishnu (note: many people use the word penultimate to mean final; it actually means right before the final).

Herein lies the problem: The ten Avatars are very syncretic; that’s to say that the followers of Vishnu happily integrated many pre-existing mythologies over time, making them into the ten Avatars.

A good number of  scholars believe this to be case for the two most popular Avatars, Rama (number seven) and Krishna (number eight – possibly number nine, as we’ll examine in this post).

This is part of the reason that the ninth Avatar is so ambiguous; because the answer to his identity is a matter of which sect of Vishnu you belong to.

According to some, he is Balarama, Krishna’s twin brother.

According to others, he is none other than – wait for it –

Siddhartha Gautama Buddha.

Yes – the Buddha.

What makes this even more complicated is that while the Buddha was an anti-Vedic/Hindu atheist, in some of the Jataka tales, which are folk tales regarding his previous lives, Rama is listed as a previous incarnation of the Buddha.

Then, there is another notion that the aforementioned Balarama is actually the eight Avatar of Vishnu, making Krishna the ninth and final Avatar (this point of view dismisses the tenth Avatar entirely).

Other Vishnu devotees consider Balarama to be an incarnation of Vishnu’s cosmic serpent, Sesha.

Which view is heterodox? I honestly can’t say.

However,after consulting a Hindu comic series called Amar Chitra Katha (Scholarly – no. Funny – I think so), I’m going with them on this:

das_avatar_ack
Amar Chitra Katha, my “official” source. Note, that Vishnu is resting on Sesha, the Naga, or serpent. Naga symbolism is also prevalent throughout the Buddhist world.

So here is the story of Balarama, for my purposes the ninth Avatar of Vishnu:

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Balarama means the “strong” Rama, so called because of his physical prowess. As a pre-Vishnavite (i.e. followers of Vishnu) deity he was primarily agricultural; he is still revered as a farming God, having taught humans about the best tools for cultivation.

He is typically at Krishna’s side; the great departure of this is in the Mahabharata, the epic poem about two rivaling families. Much like his brother, he was close to both sides, having instructed two of their greatest warriors (Duryodhana, who led one clan, and Bhima, one of the five siblings from the “good” branch of the family) in the art of wielding the mace.

Unlike his brother, he stayed out of war, only coming on the last day.

To his horror, he witnessed his teachings used by his two pupils to violent, fatal ends.

It would be Bhima who ended the war by using a mace against Duryodhana’s thigh (much like Achilles, this was Duryodhana’s one weak spot. It’s a great story in and of itself, but I digress…)

While Balarama was upset to point of wanting kill Bhima, Krishna reminded him that Duryodhana had attempted to rape Bhima’s wife, Draupadi (once again, a story worthy of retelling, but not in this context), which finally calmed him down.

Unfortunately, there really isn’t much more to say about Balarama, which is why he was probably so – disposable.

Khajuraho22
Balarama holding a plough, from the Khajuraho complex (this from the Parshvanatha temple, which is Jain (see below)).

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There are different takes on Balarama and Krishna in both Jainism and Buddhism.

For instance, in the Jain tradition, after each of them dies, they go to very different places. Krishna goes to the third Hell, Naraka, while Balarama goes to the sixth heaven.

Similarly, in the aforementioned Jataka tales, it’s Balarama, not Krishna, who is considered a previous incarnation of the Buddha. Krishna, on the other hand, is demoted to being a reincarnation of one of the Buddha’s disciples, Sariputta.

Confused?

Me too.

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So is there a take-away?

Just one: this a clear example of syncretism at work, where one cultural tradition absorbs the mythic motifs of another.

It’s also a reminder that sometimes, syncretism is sloppy.

Sometimes a square peg fits into a round hole; other times, it just doesn’t.

Either way, I’m sticking with the comic books on this one, if for only one reason:

The Buddha was, as already stated, anti-Hindu/Vedic, and an atheist to bat. That’s why Buddhism isn’t considered a Hindu sub-religion; it is its own belief system, especially given that it openly rejects all form of Vedic authority.

And that’s why I’m calling this:

Let’s leave Balarama as the ninth Avatar, which gives us room to move on to the End…

Kalki, the Destroyer, the tenth and final Avatar of Vishnu.

Jagannath_Balabhadra_Shubhadra
Balarama, Laksmhi and Krishna; this is a depiction in the Jaganath style. (the Jaganath festival is actually the root of the word Juggernaut. Once again, a story for another time…)

 

 

 

8 thoughts on “B_, the Ambiguous Ninth Avatar of Vishnu

  1. In one of the versions which I’ve read, Balarama is mentioned as the avatar after Rama, followed by the Buddha and Kalki. The story of Balarama fuses his avatar and that of Krishna into one narrative. Now two aspects of this have always confused me. The first as you mention is the Buddha, who isn’t popular in the Hindu tradition and Buddhism is viewed as a separate school of thought. The second is that Krishna is a known avatar and Balarama less commonly so. Even if one was to allow for this inconsistency, which must have arisen out of the differing stories that are popular throughout the subcontinent, I can’t understand how two different avatars of Vishnu couldn’t exist not just in the same time frame but as twins or step-brothers as the story goes.

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    1. It makes for an interesting conundrum, doesn’t it?! Of course, then there’s Parashurama, who interacts with Rama, Krishna and (in the future) Kalki, so Vishnu crosses his timelines as often as Dr. Who does (sorry, I’m a nerd!). What is equally perplexing is that Mohini isn’t counted on the list of Avatars, though Mohini is clearly an incarnation of Vishnu…in short, I wish I had a solid answer for you, but this is one question that has perplexed me since I was young, which made even approaching this post difficult. Let me know if you find something definitive!

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      1. I think Mohini is among the lesser Avatars. I have a book about those but they don’t make for great stories as such.

        By the way, I had to read this comment over again since I practically stopped reading after “Doctor who”. That’s what’s been occupying me for the past year and I find it tough to find people who could be interested to even hear me speak of it.

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      2. Of all the myths that I’ve studied, I’m probably the most well versed in the Whoniverse!

        As far Monhini goes, she plays a crucial role in the Churning of the Ocean that leads the Devas to Soma, so I have to give her some props.

        Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

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      3. Oh! Who’s your favourite Doctor? I like the tenth one the best because he was my first Doctor but I have a hard time choosing among them.

        If you’re interested, my email friends have a blog about all things Who. You could check it out, if you want. Here’s the link:
        https://junkyardview.wordpress.com

        I know the role Mohini plays but she’s just not included amongst the ten on mainstream Hindu culture. That doesn’t reduce her importance in any way, I think.

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      4. I do love me some Ten, but (as overplayed as he is) I started with Tom Baker, Lord of Space, Time, Scarves and Jellybabies 🙂 I took a look at the site you shared, and I thoroughly approve! Have a great day, and whatever you do, Don’t Blink!

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