I love the concept of Dashavatar, the ten avatars of Vishnu, the Sustainer and the marvellous stories that tell us of the arrival, and purpose, of each avatar. Why does Vishnu get to have ten avatars, but not Brahma, the Creator, or Shiva, the Destroyer … or indeed the many other deities that constitute the Hindu pantheon?
To understand that, it helps to look at the idea of the Trinity as a whole … Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
If we observe life, it doesn’t take a lot to recognise the cycle of birth, existence and death around us. This fundamental life cycle is symbolised through the Trinity.
More subjectively, we are rarely short of ideas or thoughts. They rise spontaneously, without much effort on our part. However, a majority of our time and effort goes in working towards obtaining and growing, or at the very least holding on to, what we have obtained through our efforts. In other words, in maintaining our income, commitments, values, etc.
Life’s endeavour is to select those thoughts and/ or ideas that appeal the most, fleshing them out and developing them into goals and actionable plans, maintaining commitment towards those goals, and performing actions to take them to their natural conclusion i.e. achieving our goals. This is where we oftentimes need help … and when we may be prompted to reach out to the divine to help us overcome obstacles, find the right connections, get strength to continue on the path … hence the many avatars of Vishnu, the Sustainer.
If you look at the ten forms taken by Vishnu, they cover creatures from the sea, amphibians, four legged creatures that live on land, a mix of animal and man, a primordial man, a dwarf, and the fully evolved man! The avatars cover a broad range of life forms indicating the one Spirit, or life force, or whatever one chooses to refer to it, that pervades life. That Spirit is common to all encouraging us to look beyond differences to that which unites us. More than that, each avatar comes on earth to help those who are fighting negative forces. He comes to restore order, dharma, and uphold the influence of the good over evil.
And so we find the dashavatar is often a subject favoured by the traditional artists across India.