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FIRST or MATSYA AVATAR.
In this avatar Vishnu is fabled to have assumed the form of a fish, to restore the lost Veda, which had been stolen from Brahma, in his sleep, by the demon Hayagriva. This and the two following avatars seem to refer to the universal deluge; and the present would appear as the announcement of it to a pious king, Satyavrata; who, by some, has been considered to have been Noah of the Holy Scriptures. Hindu allegory has woven the legend into a sort of fairy tale, making Vishnu appear first in the shape of a minute fish to the devout monarch to try his piety and benevolence; then gradually expanding himself, he became one of an immense magnitude. He subsequently disclosed himself, and finally announced the flood, which, in consequence of the depravity of the world, was about to overwhelm the earth with destruction. "In seven days from the present time the three worlds will be plunged in an ocean of death; but in the midst of the destroying waves a large vessel, sent by me for thy use, shall stand before thee. Then shalt thou take all medicinal herbs, all the variety of seeds, and accompanied by seven saints, encircled by pairs of all brute animals, thou shalt enter the spacious ark, and continue in it secure from the flood on an immense ocean, without light, except the radiance of thy holy companions. When the ship shall be agitated by an impetuous wind, thou shalt fasten it with a large sea serpent to my horn, for I will be near thee, drawing the vessel with thee and thy attendants. I will remain on the ocean until a day of Brahma (a year) shall be completely ended.'"
As it was announced, the deluge took place; and Satyavrata entered the ark and did as he was directed, in fastening it to the horn of the fish; which again appeared, blazing like gold, and extending a million of leagues. When the deluge was abated, and mankind destroyed (except Satyavrata and his companions), Vishnu slew the demon Hayagriva, and recovered the lost Veda: or, in other words, when the wicked were destroyed by the deluge, sin no longer prevailed, and virtue was restored to the world.
Fig. 2, plate 5, represents Vishnu, having the body of a man issuing from the mouth of a fish. On his head is a crown, and in his four hands he holds the lost veda, the chuckra, the chunk or shell, and a sword.
SECOND or KURMAVATARA.
In this avatar Vishnu assumed the form of an immense tortoise to support the earth, while the gods and genii churned with it the ocean. Vishnu is here represented as a tortoise sustaining a circular pillar, which is crowned by the lotus throne, on which sits the semblance of that deity in all his attributes. A huge serpent encircles the pillar, one end of which is held by the gods and the other by the daityas, or demons. By this churning the sea was converted into milk, and then into butter; from which, among other things, were produced the amrita, or water of life, drank by the immortals; Sri, or Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune, and the favourite wife of Vishnu; the moon, "shining with ten thousand beams of light;" a white horse with seven heads; a physician or holy sage; a mighty elephant; Suradevi, the goddess of wine; a sparkling gem worn by Vishnu Narayan on his breast; the tree of plenty; and the all-yielding cow, Kamdenu. (See fig. 3, plate 5 and plate 6.)
Before dismissing this account of the karma avatar, I shall relate an extraordinary belief which prevailed among the Iroquois Indians, in which the tortoise is imagined to have acted an equally important part in the formation of the globe. They believed that before that period there were six male beings who existed in the regions of the air; but were, nevertheless, subjected to mortality. Among them there was no female to perpetuate their race; but they learnt that there was one in heaven, and it was agreed that one of them should undertake the dangerous task of endeavouring to bring her away. The difficulty was how he should get there; for although he floated in aether, it appears that he could not soar to the celestial realms. A bird, therefore (but whether the eagle of Jove, or the Garuda of Vishnu, or of what other kind, we are not told), became his vehicle, and conveyed him thither on his back. He saw the female, and seduced her by (what too many ladies of the present day are led astray by) flattery and presents; but of what kind we are also unfortunately left in ignorance. The supreme deity knowing what had taken place, immediately turned her, like another Eve, out of Paradise, and she was received by a tortoise on its back; when the otter (a most important party in North American legends) and the fishes disturbed the mud at the bottom of the ocean, and, drawing it up round the tortoise, formed a small island, which, gradually increasing, became the earth. The female had at first two sons (one of whom slew the other), and afterwards several children, from whom sprung the rest of mankind. This curious legend would appear to bear, in some parts, a strong affinity to the history of our first parents; and a great analogy, in others, to the mythology of the Hindus.
THIRD or VARAHA (Boar) AVATAR.
Whether this and the preceding avatar have any relation (as the first avatar is supposed to have) to the general deluge, or refer to a subsequent convulsion of nature, attended by a local flood, would appear to admit of some doubts. The best authorities, however, seem to incline to the opinion that all the three, clothed in different allegories, relate to the same awful and momentous event. Vishnu is here represented with the head of a monstrous boar, supporting the world, which had been overthrown and sunk to the bottom of the sea by a malignant demon, on his tusks. Fig. 1, plate 7, taken from a fine specimen of ancient sculpture in alto-relief, represents him armed with a richly ornamented shell and discus to attack the demon. One arm is stretched forward in a bending position, bearing Lakshmi on a lotus throne; with another hand he is leading Satyavama. Underneath is the figure of another female, issuing from something resembling a fish, on which Varaha has set his foot. Fig. 2 in the same plate, likewise taken from an ancient sculpture, represents Lakshmi or Varaha also armed for the combat. She possesses four heads (one that of a boar) and eight arms, with the last of which she wields various instruments of destruction. About her are figures of boars armed with bows