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 aside, 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.
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:
So here is the story of Balarama, for my purposes the ninth Avatar of Vishnu:
Balarama means the “strong” Rama, so called because of his physical prowess. As a pre-Vaishnavite (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.
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.
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…