dashAk.rti k.rtE k.rSNAya tubhyaM namaH
by Dr. P. P. Narayanaswami
[Editor's Note: 1) This article is
also available in a PDF format
where the author has included the complete lyrics of the dasAvatAra compositions
in Sanskrit and diacritical English, with an additional composition in Tamil 2)
Here is another Sanskrit PDF
containing the complete lyrics of muttusvAmi dIkSitar's compositions on
Lord k.rSNa 3) This article has links to audio files, which are in Real Audio
(32 kbps, streaming stereo) format. To play these, you will need the Real One
player, available for free download, from Real
Networks 4) The audio clippings
included in this article, are strictly for informational and illustrative
In this note, we attempt to describe the da.sa avatAras (ten incarnations) of Lord viSNu, and discuss a few illustrative compositions in karNATik music that glorify the dasAvatAra theme.
The Ten avatAras
yadA yadA hi dharmasya
gLAnirbhavati bhArata |
paritrANAya sAdhUnAM vinAshAya
ca duSk.rtAm |
says Lord k.rSNa, to arjuna, in the battlefield. (Whenever righteousness is on the decline, and unrighteousness is on the ascent, Oh arjuna!, then I embody myself on earth. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of evil, and for the fulfillment of the kingdom of righteousness, I am born on this earth, age after age)
Accordingly, our purANas describe numerous and extremely varied forms of the avatAras that Lord viSNu took, at various stages, for various reasons. There are short lists as well as long ones; the emphasis often seems to be on the notion that viSNu's avatAras, like the perennial lake has canals by the thousands, are innumerable, as indicated in the following verse from the bhAgavata purANam (1.3.26):
Gradually, the principal avatAras of Lord viSNu has been set to ten. This list of ten appears in an inscription on the lintel above the figure of Lord shaN^karanArAyaNa in the varAha perumAL temple at Mahabalipuram of the latter half of the seventh century (during the pallava era):
matsyaH kUrmo varAhashca
narasiMho.atha vAmanaH |
In the above inscription, unfortunately, the first six letters were mutilated, and could not be read properly.
In the early hours of dawn, we hear the following shlOkam (No. 24), in the ever popular chant, shri veNkatEsha suprabhAtam, echoing in the seven hills of Tirumala (Tirupati):
mInAk.rte kamaTha kola n.rsiMha
Also, in jayadEva's love poem, gItagOvindaM, the invocation to Lord k.rSNa, praises the ten avatAras in the following manner:
All these avatAras manifest Lord viSNu, or a portion of himself, in a human, animal, or a human-animal form, to redress the balance of good and evil in the world by supporting the forces of good. As can be seen from the above quotes, all but one avatAra have been generally agreed upon by all available sources, but the ninth one, according to some sources is balarAma, the elder brother of Lord k.rSNa, while some other sources accept it as the buddha.
The word avatAra is derived from the root t.r (to descend), and is applied to Gods assuming the form of human, or any other shape, and continue to live in that form, till the purpose for which that form was assumed was carried out.
The first avatAra, the matsyA (fish) was taken by Lord viSNu, to defeat the asurAs who had stolen the vEdas, and to return them to the righteous people; and He saved manu, and via him, the seeds of all other beings from being submerged by a flood. In his kUrmAvatAra (tortoise), the Lord took the form of a tortoise, and supported on his back, the sinking mount mandara, to allow the gods and demons to proceed with the churning of the ocean in their search for the divine nectar am.rta. ViSNu manifested himself as a boar in the next varAhAvatAra, and lifted with his tusk, the earth which was sinking down in the ocean as a result of the oppression by the demon hiraNyAkSa. The next one is narasiMhAvatAra, a half-man-half-lion form, to save his devotee prahLAda, from the attrocities of the demon king hiraNyakashipu, the twin brother of hiraNyAkSa. The particular shape had to be assumed by the Lord, since hiraNyakashipu had earlier acquired a boon that he should not be killed by any human being or animals, in land or water or air, at day or night, at inside or outside his abode. He was killed by Lord viSNu, assuming the shape of narasimha, placing him on the lap, at dusk, at the threshold (which is neither inside, nor outside). The time period of these four avatAras is the k.rta yuga.
The next one is the vAmana avatAra, that took place in trEtA yuga, is in the form of a dwarf (vAmana). One hundred ashvamedha sacrifices had made King (mahA)bali as powerful as indra himself, or even surpassed his might. Born as a dwarf son of kashyapa and aditi, Lord viSNu went to one of bali's sacrifices, and begged for a piece of land just as wide as three of his footsteps. The King readily agreed. But then viSNu assumed a huge form (vishvarUpa), measuring the three worlds with three feet of land, and deprived King bali of all his supremacy over Gods. At once, bali begged to spare him, and requested he would like to visit his land and the subjects once every year for ten days, The festival of ONam that is celebrated in the month of August in Kerala, is to welcome mahAbali (mAvEli, as they affectionately address him) to his old kingdom, and signifies this incident.
The sixth avatAra of viSNu is parashurAma (or bhArgavarAma), the youngest son of jamadagni, and rENuka. He relieves the earth of oppression, by killing the entire kSatriya race twenty-one times. One of the episodes in the purANas mentions parasurAma's killing of his own mother at the request of his father, when his elder brothers refuses to do so, and later her revival from death as a result of a boon from his father.
The next avatAra can be located approximately at the juncture of trEta and dvApara yugas. Lord viShNu was born as a human being, rAma, the eldest of the four sons of King dasharatha of ayOdhya, the purpose of this incarnation being to kill the rAkSasa rAvaNa. The duration of this avatAra is supposed to be one of the longest. The entire epic poem rAmAyaNa, written by sage vAlmIki, comprises of 24,000 stanzas spread over seven kANDams, and is devoted to this epic story.
The story of krSNa, who is conneced to the dvApara yuga received much attention in the epic of mahAbhAratam, and the bhAgavata purANam. The mission was to kill the demon kaMsa, and the eighth avatAra served this purpose. As we mentioned earlier, the ninth avatAra, according to some sources, is balarAma, the brother of k.rSNa, and is remembered as the killer of pralaMba, and a host of other demons; but many other sources attribute the avatAra to be buddha. The bhAgavata purANam explicitly mentions Lord buddha as an avatAra on several occasions (c.f. 2.7.37, 1.3.24, 6.8.19, 10.40.17-22). For instance,
tataH kalau saMprav.rtte
saMmohAya suradviSAm |
(then, in the beginning of kali yuga, the Lord will appear as buddha, the son of a~njana, for the purpose of deluding those who are envious of the faithful heist.)
The same purANam also teaches the famous prayer, nArAyaNa kavacaM (protective shield of Lord nArAyaNa), in which all the ten avatAras are invoked. The Mahabalipuram inscription mentioned earlier attests to this fact. The shani purANa (49, 1-9) describes what characterizes the images of the ten avatAras should possess, and states that the image of the ninth avatAra, buddha, should be represented as having a calm face, long ear lobes, fair complexion, wearing an upper garment, seated in padmAsana (lotus pose), and his hands should have the varada, and abhaya poses (conferring favor, and protection).
On the other hand, the dance treatise abhinaya darpaNam of nandikeshvara does not include buddha in the dashAvatAra hasta mudra sections.
Finally, in his last future avatAra, supposed
to take place in the end of kali yuga, Lord viSNu will be born as the fierce kalki,
riding on a white horse. The mission is to destroy all the mLecca, to liberate
the world from kali (the embodiment of strife), to re-establish the perfect
dharma, and to inaugurate a new k.rta yuga, to start all over again.
The composers of karNATik system of music snatched every opportunity they could avail, to sing in praise of the various gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Obviously, they turned their attention to the ten incarnations of Lord viSNu, and there are numerous k.rtis and kIrtanaMs, glorifying the ten avatAras. Invariably, these compositions involve at least ten stanzas, or couplets, one for each incarnation. Naturally, the tendency among composers was to employ one rAgam for each stanza, thus carving out brilliant, and soul-stirring rAgamAlika compositions.
The foremost among these, undoubtedly, is the
first gItam in poet jayadEva's gItagOvinda mahAkAvyam, which starts with "praLaya
payOdhi jalE". There are ten stanzas, one describing each avatAra, each
ending with the phrase "jaya jagadIsha harE", and a concluding stanza,
recording the author's signature. The ninth segment in this composition refers
to buddha. Since jayadEva did not fix any particular rAga structure, musicians
sing this gItam to the tunes of
Next we turn to the last century, during the period when the musical trinity (tyAgarAja, muttusvAmi dIkSitar, and shyAma shAstri), flourished and nourished the karNATik music scene, with their beautiful compositions. As far as I know, muttusvAmi dIkSitar was the only one among the three, who composed a song depicting all ten incarnations of viSNu. His creation is a rAgamAlika on the dasAvatAra theme, but in praise of Lord venkaTEsvara of Tirupati. This is a rare piece and unfortunately not popularized widely, like many of his k.rtis. The mudra "guruguha" appears in the second couplet of this song, and strangely there is no rAga mudra. This is rather unusual for dIkSitar's compositions. Set in rUpaka tALam, the featured rAgas are the five ghana rAgas, nATTai, gauLa, shrI, Arabhi and varALi, followed by five maN^aLa rAgas (auspicious) kEdAraM, vasanta, suraTi, saurASTraM and madhyamAvati. The rAga chosen for the concluding segment is very appropriate, as a maN^gaLa rAga. The ninth incarnation in this song is described as balarAma. In this song, dIkSitar attributes the tenth incarnation to Lord venkaTEsvara himself who is the presiding deity of this present kali yuga, rather than to the customary avatAra, kalki. As can be seen in the last lines of this composition, dIkSitar offers his prayers to Lord venkaTEsvara of Tirupati, who is the savior of all beings in this kali yuga.
Another beautiful composition on the ten incarnations is the "dashAvatAra rAgamAlika" composed by mahArAja svAti tirunAL. This is a very popular rAgamAlika that can be heard in concerts, and there are pre-recorded tapes that include this piece. The song starts with the phrase "kamalajAsya h.rta" and narrates the incidents in each avatAra, and employs the ragas mOhanaM, bilahari, dhanyAshi, sAra.nga, madhyamAvati, aThANa, nATTakura~nji, darbAr, Anandabhairavi and saurAStraM. This rAgamAlika is set to Adi tALaM. balarAma is mentioned as the ninth incarnation, and his killing the demon pralamba is also indicated. As is usual with all svAti tirunAL compositions, the concluding phrase is "paN^kajanAbha" (a synonym for Lord padmanAbha, the presiding deity at the huge temple located in Tiruvanantapuram), which svAti tirunAL adopted as his mudra (signature).
The following composition of
saint annamAcArya, in telugu, describes the two hands (cEyi) of Lord viSNu,
and in each line, appropriately draws a parallel analogy to one of the ten
avatAras. The lyrics given below are approximate, and Balamuralikrishna
has sung parts of it in rAgaM mishra harikAmbhOji.
ciluka gubbalikinda cetu cEyi (kUrma)
kalikiyagu bhUkaNtha kaugilincina cEyi (varAha)
valanaiana konagolla vADi cEyi (n.rsimha))
tanivoka baliceta dAnamaDigina cEyi (vAmana)
vonaramuga bhUdAnamosagu cEyi (parashurAma)
monasi jalanidhiyammu monaku teccina cEyi (rAma)
enayaNgelu dhariyincu cEyi (balarAma)
purasatula mAnamulu poLLacesina cEyi (k.rSNa)
turagamu barapeTi doDDa cEyi (kalki)
A dashAvatAra rAgamalika, "pArkaDal alai mEle" in tamil, popularized by M. L. Vasantakumari, is again on the ten incarnations. It is actually a film song composed for the tamil movie, "rAjA dEsingh". Peddapulivaru Rangadasu, a composer from Andhra Pradesh, composed a shabdam (a kucipuDi dance composition) on the same lines as jayadEva's first aSTapadi in the gItagOvindam. The opening shlOkam for the kucipuDi dance employs jayadEva's companion verse given earlier, but the ten couplets, though similar in structure are quite different.
It is amazing to note that the dashAvatAra theme has entered the maN^gaLaM (concluding auspicious piece in concerts) too. There is a famous maN^gaLaM composed by the saN^gIta pitAmaha, saint purandharadAsa that runs as follows, offering benedictions to limbs of lord viSNu from head to feet, by associating one limb with one avatAram. The song is usually sung in the auspicious rAgam madhyamAvati.
makuTa kE maN^galaM, maccAvatAra kE
Besides these rAgamAlika compositions, the theme of the ten incarnations are echoed in numerous other compositions. The caraNam of the k.rti, "shrI satyanArAyaNam" by muttusvAmi dIkSitar, in rAgam shubhapantuvarALi has the lines "matsya kUrma varAhAdi dashAvatAra prabhAvaM". The pallavi line of a popular k.rti in rAgam nalinakAnti starts off with the phrase "dashAvatArA dAmodarA". Finally, there are numerous stOtrams on some, or all ten of the avatAras. Many of these can be found in the bhAgavata purANam. There is a vAmana stOtram residing in the padma purANam, and among the several narasiMha stOtrams, the one by Adi shaN^kara is famous. A single work containing all ten avatAras that comes to my mind is a dashAvatAra stuti composed by vAdirAja, consisting of 34 stanzas in a rare and lengthy metre in sanskrit, that is very musical.
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