Onam is a major annual event for Malayalees and celebrated as a cultural festival across all communities in and outside Kerala. Cultural programs including dance, drama and invited talks by eminent personalities of Kerala across the world. Many start their talks by narrating the story of Mahabali, Vamana and how Onam came to be celebrated as a festival by Malayalees. And some highly learnt people question the very essence of celebrating Onam by Malayalees as Kerala was created by Parasurama who is the sixth avatar of Vishnu while Vamana who sent Mahabali to Patal is the fifth avatar. Which means Mahabali could not have ruled Kerala as the song goes Maveli Nadu vanidunna kalam….. because Kerala did not exist while he was the king.
This leads us to the wider question of Dasavatara and the timeline of each Avatar.
Dasavatara is the ten primary incarnations (avatars) of Vishnu to restore cosmic order. The list of avatars varies in puranas and also from place to place. Common list includes Matsya, Kurma; Varaha; Narasimha; Vamana; Parasurama; Sri Rama; Balarama; Sri Krishna and Kalki. In some cases, Buddha is added either in place of Krishna or Kalki.
Let us understand the time lines of Hindu mythology
Yuga, Manvantara and Kalpa – There are four Yugas, namely Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapara Yuga and Kali Yuga. Each Yuga Cycle lasts for 4,320,000 years (12,000 divine years) with its four yugas and their parts occurring in the following order. Krita (Satya) Yuga: 1,728,000 (4,800 divine) years, Treta Yuga: 1,296,000 (3,600 divine) years, Dwapara Yuga: 864,000 (2,400 divine) years and Kali Yuga: 432,000 (1,200 divine) years. According to scholars, the current Kali Yuga started around 3102 BC.
There are 71 Yuga Cycles (306,720,000 years) in a manvantara, a period ruled by Manu, who is the progenitor of mankind. There are 1,000 Yuga Cycles (4,320,000,000 years) in a kalpa, a period that is a day (12-hour day proper) of Brahma, who is the creator of the planets and first living entity. There are 14 manvantara (4,294,080,000 years) in a kalpa with a remainder of 25,920,000 years assigned to 15 manvantara-Sandhya’s (junctures), each the length of a Satya Yuga (1,728,000 years). A kalpa is followed by a pralaya (night or partial dissolution) of equal length forming a full day (24-hour day). A maha-kalpa (life of Brahma) lasts for 100 Brahma years, which lasts for 72,000,000 Yuga Cycles (311.04 trillion years) and is followed by a maha-pralaya (full dissolution) of equal length. We are currently halfway through Brahma’s life (maha-kalpa), i.e., Kali yuga of the 28th Caturyuga of the 7th Manvantara on the first day of the 51st year of Brahma. If you are enterprising enough, try calculating the number of Caturyuga that have elapsed from the very beginning of time and how many times the Dasavatara would have occurred!
The big question is, did the avatar occur in each Caturyuga? Which means each of the avatar have occurred 18,000,000 times till date. Or is it whenever required only? An interesting story about Rama and Hanuman explains this enigma
When Ram Rajya was established and everything was going right, then all devas felt that it is time for Vishnu to return back to Vaikunta, his abode. They approached Yam raja. Yama raja tried many times but was not able to reach Ram and take away his life because Hanuman guarded Ram’s life. Rama understood the problem Yama raja was facing and decided to trick Hanuman. Ram dropped his ring. The ring fell into a crack in the floor. Ram then asked Hanuman to go and fetch the ring. Hanuman could change his large body into as small as a fly. So he jumped into crack. He followed the crack until he reached patal-loka. When he reached patal-loka he was greeted by Vasuki, the king of snakes. The king of snakes knew the secret of life and death. He asked Hanuman what was he looking for? Hanuman replied, I am hanuman and I am looking for Ram’s ring. He said, come with me I will give you ring. He took Hanuman to a room full of Ram’s rings. And asked him to take anyone. Hanuman was surprised and asked him how can there be so many rings? Vasuki replied that each ring represents one kal chakra. In every chakra, there is a treta-yuga in which there is a Ram and a Hanuman. Every time Ram will drop his ring and a monkey will come to Patal loka searching for his ring. By the time monkey returns back to earth Ram is gone. Hanuman then understands the kal-chakra and he let go his dear God.
But Matsya avatar happens during the time of Vaivasvata Manu, which is the current and the seventh Manu and happens only once during his time. Which means 6 manvantara has already elapsed means a minimum of 6000 Caturyuga have elapsed. That also means Matsya avatar happens only once in 14 manvantara, i.e., once in 14000 Caturyuga.
Now let us look at other avatars. Easiest ones are the third and fourth avatars, Varaha and Narasimha. Both happens in Satya Yuga and to eliminate the Demon kings Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakasipu, both brothers born to Rishi Kasyapa and Dithi.
Once, Hiranyaksha assaulted the defenseless Mother Earth and pulled her deep into the cosmic ocean. Gods appealed to Vishnu to save the earth goddess and all life. Vishnu took the Varaha avatar (wild boar) and went to rescue the goddess. Vishnu rescued mother earth after defeating and killing Hiranyaksha.
After Hiranyaksha ‘s death at the hands of the Varaha avatar of Vishnu, Hiranyakasipu, his younger brother comes to hate Vishnu. He decides to kill Vishnu by gaining mystical powers, which he believes Brahma, the chief among the devas, will award, if he undergoes many years of great austerity and penance, just as Brahma awarded powers to other Rakshasas. After many years of extreme severe austerities and tapasya, Brahma appears before Hiranyakasipu and offers him a boon of his choice. But when Hiranyakasipu asks for immortality, Brahma refuses. Hiranyakasipu then makes the following request:
Grant me that I not die within or outside of any residence, during daytime or at night, not on the ground or in the sky. Grant me that my death not be brought by any being other than those created by you, nor by any weapon, nor by any human being or animal. Grant me, further, that I not be killed by any demigod or demon or by any great snake from the lower planets. And Brahma granted the boon. In consequence of these boons, Hiranyakasipu become so mighty that he defeated Indra, the King of Gods and ruled the whole universe for a very long time. He ensured that all his subjects in all the worlds will only pray in his name and not in any other GODs. All offerings should also be only in his name. While the world obeyed, his son Prahlad always prayed to Lord Vishnu. In spite of continuous persuasion and threats Prahlad did not change. Hiranyakasipu became so angry that he asked his son Prahlad where is his God Vishnu, for which he replied that Vishnu is everywhere. Is he in this pillar? Asked the king. Prahlad said yes and the king took his Mace and smashes the pillar with all his might. Vishnu in the form of Narasimha appears from the broken pillar and moves to attack Hiranyakasipu to defend his disciple Prahlad. Vishnu has chosen here to appear in the form of Narasimha in order to be able to kill Hiranyakasipu without violating the boon given by Brahma. Hiranyakasipu cannot be killed by human, deva or animal, but Narasimha is none of these, as he is a form of Vishnu (a deva) incarnate as part human, part animal. He comes upon Hiranyakasipu at Sandhya (twilight – when it is neither day nor night) on the threshold of a courtyard (neither indoors nor out), and puts the demon on his thighs (neither earth nor space). Using his nails (neither animate nor inanimate) as weapons, he disembowels and kills the demon.
Now let us discuss the two avatars of Vishnu, the Kurma avatar and Vamana avatars.
Long ago when Sage Durvasa visited the realm of Gods he presented Indra, the king of Gods, with a garland made of flowers of exquisite fragrance. Indra tied it on to the tusk of Airavata (the elephant of Indra). When the beetles which gathered on the garland for honey became a nuisance, Airavata destroyed that garland. Durvasa who got angry at this and cursed the gods as a whole that they would get wrinkles and grey hair. The gods were advised by Mahavishnu that if they got Ambrosia (Amrita) from the sea of Milk by churning it they could escape from this. Accordingly, Indra visited the Asura King Mahabali and requested for help with an agreement that once they get the Ambrosia, it will be shared between Gods and Asuras. They made use of Manthara mountain as churn and the huge snake Vasuki as churning rope, and the churning commenced. The gods took hold of the tail of the snake and as the churning was proceeding when the churn-drill, the mountain of Manthara, having no fixation at the bottom sank down. Then Mahavishnu took the form of a Kurma (turtle), and got under the Manthara mountain and lifted it up on his back and the churning continued.
It was to expel the Emperor Mahabali, that Mahavishnu incarnated as a dwarf to Sage Kasyapa, the son of Marici and the grandson of Brahma, and Aditi his wife. Mahabali is the grandson of Prahlad and the great grandson of Kasyapa and Diti. Bali got the name Mahabali because of his prowess and was the emperor of the Asuras. A fierce battle began over the Ambrosia, received after churning the sea of Milk, between the Asuras and the gods. In the battle Indra cut Mahabali down with his Vajrayudha. The Asuras took the body of Mahabali to Patala (the nether world) where their teacher Sukra brought him to life again. Then Mahabali worshipped the Bhargava and became more powerful than before and went to heaven again and renewed the battle. This time he defeated the Gods altogether and subjugated the realm of the Gods who were scattered to all sides. The devas or gods are the sons of Kasyapa born by his wife, Aditi. She felt very sorry at the defeat of the gods. Seeing that she was silent and sad Kasyapa asked her the reason. She replied that she was thinking of ways to enable the gods to recover their lost power and position. Kasyapa advised her to please Mahavishnu by observing Dwadashi vrata (fast of the twelfth lunar night). Aditi did so and Vishnu appeared before her and asked her what she desired. Her request was that Vishnu should take birth in her womb and recover Indra to his lost power and position. Thus Vishnu took birth as the younger brother of Indra in the shape of Vamana (dwarf).
At this time Emperor Mahabali was celebrating a sacrifice on the bank of the River Narmada after having subjugated the whole of the world. A large number of hermits gathered there. Vamana also was among them. He requested Mahabali to grant him three feet of ground as alms. The teacher Sukra warned Mahabali against granting the request. But the emperor granted the request and asked Vamana to measure the ground. Vamana immediately enlarged his body and measured the heaven, the earth and the Patala (the upper realm the earth and the lower realm) in two steps and asked for place for the third step. The honest Mahabali showed his head and requested to complete the three steps. Vamana put his step on the head of Mahabali and pushed him down to Patala. Thus the gods regained their lost places.
From the two stories above we can conclude that both Kurma avatar and Vamana avatar happened during the time Mahabali was the asura king. Which means Varaha and Narasimha happened much before during the period of his great grandfather Hiranyakasipu in Satya Yuga.
So my confusion continues about people explaining that Dasavatara explains the evolution of life much before Darwin’s principle. From fish, living only in water to tortoise, an amphibian to Boar a land animal to half man half animal, dwarf, violent man (Parasu Rama), principled man (Sri Rama) and joyful person (Sri Krishna). If the reader has an explanation, please do write.