This is regarding the Avatars of Vishnu.  It is quite fascinating how Buddha managed to enter the list (he is number 9 on the list). Apparently a number of communities give that spot to Balarama (Krishna’s brother), notably Iyengars and other Vaishnavite communities. I have also seen this in a few temples (don’t know which “denomination” (if such a thing exists in Hinduism) these temples belong to) which have Balarama as #9.

The most popular explanation (which I have no reason to disagree with) about the Buddha’s entry into the list is that it was a clever ploy to prevent the spread of Buddhism, which threatened to become the largest religion in the subcontinent in the few centuries before and after christ. By including Buddha in the Hindu Pantheon, and by declaring him to be an avatar of Vishnu, an attempt was made to describe Buddhism as just a branch of Hinduism. Looking at the way Buddhism has developed after that in the subcontinent, I have reason to believe that the ploy was successful.

Regarding the construction of the list, there are again two possibilities. One view says that it was constructed not more than two millenia ago, and it was constructed only as a response to Buddhism. That it was something like “Ok here is the Buddha. He threatens us. So let’s make him one of ours. Let us declare him to be an Avatar of Vishnu. But then, we need more avatars to make this look credible. Let us include evolution into this and put in a few animals, etc. and have a nice list. But we have only 9, and there is no logical person who can finish this list. So let’s assume that he will happen sometime in the future, when the world ends. So here is The List”.

The other possibility is that one such list already existed, and the Buddha was included in the list. Though 8 is not an inauspicious number, it is unlikley that there were originally 8 avatars. Which means that there were originally 10, including possibly Kalki, and the Buddha replaced one of these 10. Looking at the other popular version of the Dashavatara, it is likely that the Buddha replaced Balarama in the list.

This raises a couple of interesting questions:

  • What avatarish thing did Balarama achieve in order to be an avatar? Which demon did he kill? I only recall him being mentioned fleetingly in the early stages of the Mahabharata, and he walked away from the war later on. So what message did he carry?
  • Balarama being an avatar, and his being a brother of another avatar Krishna, means that two avatars coexisted. In fact, someone on the list pointed out that Parashurama is a Chiranjeevi, so he has coexisted with all avatars following him. So we need to dissociate the avatar concept from the concept of rebirth and reincarnation. In any case, fascinating stuff
  • It is remarkable that Hinduism was flexible and nimble enough to turn the Buddha into an avatar when they saw him threaten them. The presence of mind of the people who thought of this workaround is commendable. I wonder where Hinduism lost its flexibility after that.
  • I also wonder how this was implemented. Hinduism has no supreme leader. And in the days when the Buddha was included into the list, there wasn’t even a Postal system, leave alone conference call facilities. How did this idea spread and gain enough credence to become the norm, then? Where did this idea of making the Buddha an avatar originate? How did t hey disseminate it? Who was the powerful set of people who were instrumental in the design, development and distribution of this idea?

It’s all fascinating stuff. And if any of you have any theories regarding the points I’ve raised here, please leave a comment.

31 thoughts on “Avatars”

  1. I had once read a story dunno the authenticity or the source… Rama and Lakshmana are actually Vishnu and Shesha(the snake upon which Vishnu rests) after Ramavatar shesha(or one of Vishnu’s associates, I’m not sure) says to Rama(Vishnu) during the next Avatar, I’ll be the elder brother for all the suffering is inflicted upon the elder one and thus Balarama is the older brother in the “Sampoorna avatar” aka Krishna avatar!
    I’m not sure of the authenticity.

    I am reading a book by A N Murthy Rao called “Devaru” which raises interesting questions like you’ve done. It’s an atheistic book, but not a propaganda so it makes mandatory reading and its in simple Kannada 🙂

    1. yeah balarama being an avatar of Shesha sounds more credible than him being an avatar of vishnu. but as other commenters have pointed out, maybe the bhakti movement wanted to put more emphasis on krishna, and away from buddhism, so they put this double whammy

  2. interesting ….
    also, shankaracharya established the four mattas (or mutts) in four regions of India to counter the spread of Buddhism. Buddhism, though it took birth in India, has spread only in south east asian countries. i guess all the tactics worked.

    1. the tactics clearly worked. and i think it was a concerted effort from several parties which is why it succeeded.

      i wonder why hinduism went into a shell after the islamic invasion

  3. According to one theory, the Buddha mentioned in the dashavatara is not the founder of Buddhism, but instead represents the intellect. As the avataras evolve from fish to turtle to boar to animal-man to a dwarf to finally Krishna, the complete man, next step in the evolution is where man evolves to be just intellect and nothing else (maybe computer?).

    1. buddha as in buddhi? possible but we cant’ conclusively say anything

      the computer thing is funny. i’m reminded of this tshirt which shows evolution with the man settling down in front of the computer in the final stage.

  4. According to the Penguin classics excerpt of (I think) Bhagavat Purana, the appropriating Buddha story is even more complex. In this, Vishnu assumes Buddha avatar in order to teach the asuras Buddhist and Jain rituals so that they no longer worship the devas and are incapable of being granted boons. Very interesting.

    1. finally it was the parsis who started worshipping the asuras (ahura; iranians converted all s to h)

      maybe that’s why they are almost extinct now.

      1. Assimilating other faiths/communities by saying that their target of devotion (TOD) was actually already a part of the Hindu pantheon is a long Hindu tradition. Buddha is probably the most famous example of the same. Pure genius IMO to convert/assimilate the TOD rather than going around converting individual followers.

        Of those who didn’t assimilate they were either told that their TOD was a bad guy ( which seems to be the case of the Parsis rather than them choosing to worship Asuras as defined by Hinduism ) or were assigned the lowest castes.

  5. Interesting one – at ACK, we get this question almost everyday…Of course, one way of looking at it is that different sources quote different theories…Hindus may have chosen to believe that Buddhism is an avatar while others may not…Balarama btw was called Rama (in line with Lakshmana wanting to be born as Rama, the elder bro in next janma) and due his feats displaying strength he was called Balarama…Apparently, he achieved a lot in his childhood and youth, but as usual, his feats were overpowered by Krishna’s miracles…So as usual ended up playing second fiddle. Moral: You cannot change destiny

    1. i think the best prayer to Balarama would be Shine On, You Crazy Diamond (remember when you were young, you shone like the sun; shine on, you crazy diamond)

      and what is the “official ACK line” (if there is one) on the dashaavatara? who do you put at #9? and do you have a list of shesha avatar also?

  6. Have a theory that its Balarama who ended up replacing Buddha and not Buddha who replaced Balarama in the Dasavatara.

    1) Balarama is just too insignificant. No temples, no major stories. Balarama being an avatara of Adisesha seems more believable to accept.
    2) In the Ramayana, there is a point where Rama meets Parasurama (while he is on his way back from Mithila after marrying Sita) and that is supposed to signify the end of the Parasurama avatar. No such fundaes between Balarama and Krishna.
    3) A couple of historical Iyengar perspective points that show that Buddha being a part of the Dasavatara wasn’t exactly alien and present quite sometime back.
    a)Chennakesava temple at Belur was built by Vishnuvardhana during Ramanuja’s time in Melkote. There the Dasavatara has a Buddha and not Balarama. (11th-12th centuries AD)
    b)One of the azhwars (I think Nammazhwar) does have one poem praising the Lord for taking the Buddha avatar.

    The Dasavatara is not present in the Vedas, surely a creation in the Purana time. And is just a randomly made up list AFAIK. (else how do you explain the absence of perfectly valid avatars like Mohini, Venkateswara of Tirupati, etc)

    So my theory is that there was nothing called the Dasavatara originally. But looking at the popularity of Buddhism, junta (who are they actually, God knows) wanted to somehow co-opt Buddhism into the mainstream and hence came up with this list. This helped in weakening Buddhism.

    Once Buddhism’s popularity reduced, the Hindu junta wanted to kill it off completely. Hence wanted to replace Buddha by an indigenous to the scriptures character. For some reason ended up with Balarama.

    1. 1. agreer about the shesha avatar being more credible. again, i’m asking you what i’ve asked several others who have commented here. are there any other known avatars of shesha?

      2. did parashurama hand over a baton to rama when they met? 😛

      fair argument overall. what we need to do is to find the first ever mention of the dashaavatara and try to date it. that might offer a clue.

      1. Well, after winning Sita’s hand in Mithila, when Rama is on his way back, he meets Parasurama. Parasu has the second bow, identical to the one Rama strung and broke in mithila(ironically, parasurama is said to be a devotee of shiva here; janaka had the bow from vishnu and parasu got the bow from shiva). Anyway, he challenges rama, and rama uses the bow to destroy parasu’s years of tapas. *this* is when the avtaar-al changeover takes place.

        1. ah ok. somehow never knew these fundaes. for some reason, I’ve never had as much enthu to read the Ramayana as I have for the Mahabharata. I should get a good version and put it sometime.

  7. According to historians, Mahabharat was written over a period of 1000 years and completed in 4th century AD. Buddha was somwhere between 300-400BC.. looks like the later writers included Buddha and dropped Balarama (because lack of character development of Balarama by earlier writers and rise of buddhism).

    There might also be some geographical correlation as the rulers of India during that age and buddhist schools were around the same area..around Patna.

    1. whoa ok
      this is interesting. i thought the mahabharata as we know it was more ancient than that (say around 500-600 BC types)

      as for geography, the bihari rulers quickly converted to buddhism, i think (led by ashoka), as did the Kushanas in NWFP adn surrounding areas. so hinduism was in serious trouble then.

  8. Buddhism concentrated the religious duties to monastaries so when muslim invaders burnt them down the religion suffered irrepairably

    1. but i’m sure that before that buddhism had been irreparably weakened by these efforts by hindus – of establishing matts, anointing buddha as an avatar of vishnu, etc.

  9. Balarama is too imperfect a character to be regarded as a Vishnu incarnate. The Mahabharata contains instances of Balarama supporting Duryodhana and also vocally sympathising with the Kaurava viewpoint.

    Also, as pointed out before, the epic did not assume its present form till 4th cen AD or maybe even later. During Buddha’s day (5th cen BC), the epic probably existed in a form that would be unrecognizable to us today. Perhaps Balarama character did not even exist in the 5th cen BC version.

    The inclusion of Balarama in Dashavarata is most likely a result of the Bhakti cult which did not gather steam till 1000 AD. So, Buddha’s inclusion most definitely precedes that of Balarama.

    1. i don’t think imperfection is a barrier. krishna also had several grey areas (which is what makes the mahabharata so much more fascinating than the black-and-white ramayana)

      and overall your argument of buddha preceding balarama makes sense

  10. Hehe… he did shine on in earlier stages, but the funda is or so supposedly, he realised that the price for being the elder brother( which was not the case in Ram avatar) was that the elder would ascend the throne as opposed to the younger one. So, he deliberately slowed down. One incident in Mahabharata where Balrama shows his usual flair is when he sides Duryodhana over Bheema when it comes to the skills with the mace

  11. The version of the dashavatara I know, has neither. The vamana and trivikrama are considered two different avataras, which makes sense.

  12. Catching up with the old blog entries.

    1. The co-existence business – apparently there are two classes of avatars – poorna-avatar, and amsha-avatar (complete and partial avatars). The poorna-avatars are god in human form. The partial guys achieve divinity or become god temporarily to carry out some specific unearthly thing that they are supposed to do. Parashurama and Balarama (and Buddha perhaps, if he is included ?) are amshaavatars, the rest are all apparently poornaavatars. The purpose of Parasurama’s life is obvious, and as said in a post above, his life as god ended when he met Rama and passed on his divinity to the latter. Heard all this somewhere, so can’t vouch for the correctness and have no idea where this is all written.

    2. I don’t have much idea what the “purpose” of Balarama’s life was. There is a theory (which Mohan hinted at ) that avatars represent the evolution. It starts in water, then becomes an amphibian, animal and half-man. Parasurama represents stone-age (axe), Rama the inventions of bow and arrow. Balarama fits in neatly here as the representative of the discovery of agriculture (plough). Krishna is the modern man and Kalki some kind of doomsday.

  13. Googled for poorna avatar. According to several sites, there are only three poorna avatars – Rama, Krishna and ….. Sai Baba.

  14. We have a tendency to circumvent the core issues and drift towards inconsequential matters. The Dasavathara is shows the ascent of life, Evolution of life, having started in water as the Fish and shows the nodes of developmental stages, concurring with Darwin. From Vamana onwars, it is Anthropology- Parasurama with the Stone axe representing the Stone age, SreeRama with the Bow and arrow-the Metal age, Balarama with the Hala, the plough representing agriculture-the modern man….and moving towards Kalki who end the cycle.

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