28: Avatars of Vishnu

Hey folks. Welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast, your nifty guidebook to the art and culture of the ancient world. I’m you friendly traveling companion, Lucas Livingston.

With all the current hype about Mr. Cameron’s latest titanic piece of cinematography, the CGI-wonder Avatar, I thought it might be enjoyable for us to explore the true meaning, history, and imagery of the traditional usage of the word “avatar.” The term has met widespread usage in recent years, especially in the realm of computer gaming and virtual reality, from World of Warcraft and The Sims to Second Life. But unless you were especially literate, eastwardly spiritual, or big into Dungeon & Dragons, you might not have had the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the true meaning of “avatar.” It comes from the Sanskrit avatara, basically meaning a being, who has crossed over or come down. In essence, an avatar is a physical manifestation or incarnation of a god on Earth, which we commonly encounter in Hindu narratives.

The Hindu deity most frequently associated with avatars is the god Vishnu. Vishnu is one of the most prominent and widely revered deities in the Hindu faith.

Vishnu is one of the Trimurti, the Hindu triad, or the “three forms,” where the concepts of cosmic creation, preservation, and destruction are personified by the three deities Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, respectively. As the divine preserver of the cosmos, it’s Vishnu’s job to manifest and restore dharma, or social justice and cosmic world order, whenever it’s threatened by some malevolence. The number of avatars of Vishnu ranges among texts, but the most commonly recognized number of his incarnations is 10, known as the Dasavatara, meaning the “ten avatars.” [1]

One of the most recognized avatars of Vishnu is the hero Krishna, a popular deity in his own right and the star of the Mahabharata, a great Hindu epic narrative. In Bhagavad Gita, the “Song of the Lord,” part of the Mahabharata, Krishna relates to his friend Arjuna:

“For whenever Right declines and Wrong prevails, then O Bharata, I come to birth.
To save the righteous, to destroy the wicked, and to re-establish Right I am born from age to age.” [2]

That quote is from chapter 4 of the Bhagavad Gita as told by the great 20th century spiritual leader and civil rights activist Mahatma Gandhi. We encounter another avatar of Vishnu in the supposed last words of Gandhi, featured as an epitaph on his tombstone, “He Ram.” Meaning “Oh God,” “He Ram” refers to Rama, the avatar, king of Ayodhya, and the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana. The Ramayana tells the tale of Rama as he battles the ten-headed Rakshasa demon Ravana, who has kidnapped Rama’s wife Sita. Ravana had become too powerful, ruling over the heavens, the earth, and the netherworld, invulnerable to all living and celestial beings, except man and animals. He was an arrogant and destructive ruler harboring evildoers. As the divine preserver of dharma, Vishnu promised to defeat Ravana on Earth manifesting as the human prince Rama, while his divine consort, Lakshmi, took birth as his future spouse Sita. Throughout his life as a man on Earth, his true identity and destiny were known by none, but himself and a few great sages.

Chronologically, Rama and Krishna are the 7th and 8th avatars of Vishnu, according to the list of ten avatars. [3] The 9th and most recent avatar is sometimes considered to be Buddha, also known as Gautama or Shakyamuni. That’s especially interesting, because, we usually encounter Buddha in, um, Buddhism, not Hinduism, but this is wonderfully exemplary of Hinduism’s traditional acceptance and incorporation of world religions. As opposed to “There’s only one god and I’m right and you’re wrong.” You could look at this as an expression of the core belief held by some that all of the many divinities of the world are extensions of a singular supreme divine force. Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu, who primarily promoted non-violence, or ahimsa, is still a popular belief among a number of modern Vaishnava Hindu organizations, including the West’s particularly recognizable, although modestly sized Hare Krishna movement. [4] Alternatively, some scholars have put forth the interpretation that Buddha as an avatar was an attempt to absorb this offshoot Buddhist heresy back into Hinduism. [5] There are always two sides to the coin.

Beyond Rama, Krishna, and Buddha, two avatars of Vishnu that we frequently encounter in art are Vishnu’s incarnation as a boar or boar-headed man, Varaha, and the man-lion Narasimha. Varaha is skillfully represented on this 11th century sandstone sculpture from Rajasthan, India at the Art Institute of Chicago. When the Earth began to sink into the ocean under the burden of all the world’s evil and corruption, Vishnu manifested as the avatar Varaha and lifted the Earth personified here as the goddess Bhudevi. This work captures the moment when Varaha and Bhudevi fall in love. Varaha gazes fondly at Bhudevi as she gently lays her hand upon his snout. Down below, his left knee bent, he rests his foot upon a lotus. Beneath the lotus are two nagas, serpent deities, who symbolize the oceans from which Varaha has lifted the Earth. And Varaha and Bhudevi live happily ever after, so the story goes. In other representations of the story, we encounter the evil demon Hiranyaksha, who kidnapped the Earth and pulled her beneath the cosmic oceans. Varaha descended into the oceans to battle Hiranyaksha for 1000 years. Once victorious, we see Varaha raising the Earth from the water.

Hiranyaksha had an older brother named Hiranyakashipu and he’s downright angry. Hiranyakashipu wanted to avenge his brother’s murder at the hands of Vishnu, so he offers many years of penance to Brahma and gains special powers in return: that he may not die indoors or outdoors, during the day or at night, nor on the ground or in the sky. He can’t be killed by human, divinity, or animal. Oh, and he also become supreme ruler of everything. So, he had a son named Prahlada, who, much to his father’s disappointment, was a devout follower of Vishnu. One day as the sun was setting and nighttime was encroaching, Prahlada, as any angst-ridden child would do, challenged the notion that his father was the supreme lord of the universe, saying that Vishnu’s the all-pervasive, omnipresent lord of everything. Hiranyakashipu points at a column in the courtyard and smugly says, “So, your omnipresent god is even in that column, there?” Prahlada says he is, at which point Hiranyakashipu smashes the column in a fit of rage. Vishnu bursts forth from the fractured column as the avatar Narasimha, not human nor beast nor divinity, but the part-man, part-beast incarnation. He grabs Hiranyakashipu at that moment of twilight, neither day nor night, lifts him onto his lap, neither ground nor air, and tears into him right there in the courtyard, a liminal space neither indoors nor outside. Crafty fellow, that Vishnu.

In this amazing 11th century black basalt sculpture from the Art Institute, we see a fierce six-armed Narasimha digging into Hiranyakashipu, stretched across his lap. The column is shown on the lower left next to his right leg. He’s also standing on another demon, who’s trying to stab him with a knife. Below the lotus flower base, we see the prostrate donor couple who commissioned the work of art, which was originally set up in a temple.

The last avatar of Vishnu to get an honorable mention here is the dwarf Vamana. As we might come to expect, a demon king had taken over the cosmos. This time his name was Bali, but he wasn’t so bad. He was the grandson of the pious Prahlada, the Vaishnava son of Hiranyakashipu. But still, that was just too much authority for one person to have. So, the diminutive Vamana requested that he could have as much land as his his little legs could cover in just three steps. Bali consented and Vamana suddenly grew to an immense size becoming the mighty Trivikrama, which means “Three Steps.” With his first step, he covered the world, with his second step he covered the heavens and netherworld, and with nowhere else to step, Bali offered his own head for the third and final step. The god was so impressed by this pious gesture that he renamed him Mahabali, meaning “The Great Bali,” and granted him immortality up in heavens.

So, one thing you could say that James Cameron got right in the movie Avatar is that the avatar in the film, Jake Sully, came to the Na’vi people in a time of great trouble. It wasn’t the character’s original intention to be their savior, but perhaps it was his destiny. Likewise, Cameron probably wasn’t even thinking of the original sacred context of the avatar when he scripted the film, but it makes for an interesting connection. And hopefully you’ve found our journey here not only enjoyable and educational, but maybe you can even impress your friends with some enlightening conversational insights as Avatar goes up for its 9 Oscar nominations at the 82nd Academy Awards on March 7th.

Be sure to check out the website at ancientartpodcast.org for the image gallery with image credits, the transcript with references, and lots of other fun stuff. I welcome your feedback and suggestions at info@ancientartpodcast.org or with the online feedback form. I’d also love to get your comments on YouTube, in iTunes, or on the website, itself. You can follow me on Twitter at lucaslivingston and on Facebook at facebook.ancientartpodcast.org. Thanks for listening and see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.

©2010 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org


[1] The Dasavatara of the Garuda Purana is a series instructions that Vishnu gave to his animal companion Garuda, whom we met back in episode 17 of the Ancient Art Podcast. For multiple lists of the avatars of Vishnu according to different scriptural traditions, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar.

[2] The Gita According to Gandhi (4.7-8).

[3] “Daśāvatāra,” Wikipedia.

[4] “Gautama Buddha in Hinduism,” Wikipedia.
See also:
“Krsna Will Accept You Anyway You Like.” Lecture given on March 31, 1974 by founder of ISKCON – A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
“Sri Dasavatara-stotra and Upaaya” (from Gita-govinda) by Jayadeva Gosvami.

[5] (Wendy Donniger) Wendy O’Flaherty, Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, University of California Press, 1976, page 203.

4: Statue of Osiris

Hello and welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast, your guidebook to the art and culture of the Ancient Mediterranean World. I’m your host Lucas Livingston.

In our second podcast episode on the Mummy Case of Paankhenamun, I mentioned that the Art Institute has a really nifty statue of Osiris, the kind of statue that you’d commonly find in the burial chambers of well-to-do Ancient Egyptians. In this episode, I want to take a closer look at this statue and see how it fits in to the broad context of Egyptian funerary practice and ideology.

Here we have a statue of the Egyptian god Osiris, king of the gods, god of the dead, and lord of the underworld. This statue is dated to Ptolemaic Period, the time between the deaths of Alexander the Great in 332 BC and Cleopatra in 30 BC, when Egypt was ruled by a line of Macedonian Greek Pharaohs. It’s really during the earlier Late Period of Ancient Egypt when this statue type becomes common. You might more frequently encounter a statue of this type referred to as Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, a later composite form of god similar to Osiris, but incorporating aspects of the cults of Ptah, the ancient creator god of Memphis, and Sokar, and somewhat lesser known god of … nebulous origin. Sokar seems also to come from Memphis and was already associated with Osiris way back in the Old Kingdom and with Ptah even earlier.

When I say that this is a common type of statue, just what is it that makes up this “type?” Well, you’ve got the tightly bound mummy of Osiris standing upright on a large rectangular base that juts pretty far out in front of him. The base of this figure, as with many of its companions, is hollowed out to form a little cavity that would contain a scrap of papyrus with a spell from the Book of the Dead or a miniature mummy figure somewhat inappropriately referred to as a “corn mummy.” I’ll say a little more on that later. Sometimes the base isn’t hollowed out, but the statue itself is and then the little papyrus scroll is rolled up and shoved inside.

Also characteristic of this statue type is the crown that Osiris wears. You come across a variety of different crowns on Osiris, but the popular one for this figure is the twin-plumed crown with solar disk and ram horns, like the one we encountered on the anthropomorphic Osirid djed pillar on the mummy case of Paankhenamun.

But this Osiris statue at the Art Institute’s collection is a real beauty. I’ll give you a little challenge. You just try to find a more exquisite statue of this type and if you think you’ve found one, then drop me an email at scarabsolutions@mac.com. The artist has chosen a pretty diverse palette here including various reds, greens, blues, white, and yellow pigment, and gold leaf. The choice of colors might remind you of Paankhenamun. Similarly the gilding of his face. The skin of the gods in Ancient Egypt was said to be made of gold, so Osiris is shown that way here and Paankhenamun was appropriately represented similarly on his mummy case, when upon death he joins the pantheon and is identified with Osiris. Now, just to set the record straight, the mummy case and the statue of Osiris come from completely different tombs and completely different times. This figure comes from the tomb of a woman centuries after Paankhenamun. We know her only by her name from the inscription on this figure. Her name is Wsr-ir-des, which translates into something like “Osiris made her.” The inscription is a similar, but much later version of the offering prayer that we already encountered on the wall fragment from the tomb of Amenemhet.

The decoration of Osiris’s body is particularly exquisite with the elaborate netting meant to resemble detailed beadwork that may have originally adorned the mummy of Wsr-ir-des. An incredible necklace adorns his chest with rows of beautiful rosettes and lotus blossoms and items that may represent polished gemstones, tear-drop-shaped rubies and lapis lazuli. Falcon heads with solar disks suspend the necklace at either side, clasping it together in back. As with the beaded netting, the necklace was perhaps based on an original example that may have accompanied Wsr-ir-des in her tomb or could have previously been known to the artist.

We discussed in the earlier episode on Paankhenamun how the pedestal that the djed pillar stands on looks like a doorway, reminiscent of the niched façade of early royal tombs and the surrounding walls to mortuary temples. This niched façade motif shows up all over in Egyptian art and architecture, going back as far as Egyptian history itself. One of the earliest examples is even seen on the Narmer Palette, the ceremonial plaque traditionally interpreted as commemorating the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the first king, Narmer. This little design is called a serekh, which is kinda like an early version of the cartouche, the emblem that surrounds and designates the king’s name. With its niched architectural façade pattern, it can be read symbolically as the gateway to the royal palace, literally housing the name, while figuratively housing the king. Later during the Old Kingdom this niched motif is seen in the surrounding perimeter wall of the mortuary temple and pyramid complex of King Djozer. The niched façade motif quickly takes on a funerary context and as funerary art and architecture evolves, we see it being used a little differently. Sarcophagi adopt a distinctly architectural appearance, incorporating the niched façade pattern and cavetto cornice (that curved eaves at the top), seen here in a line drawing of the sarcophagus of King Menkaura, now somewhere at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

During the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom, as private individuals begin to participate in the luxury of elaborate funerary rites, the niched façade motif begins to show up decorating the exterior of coffins. Here’s one Middle Kingdom example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Coffin of Khnum-nakht. Beautifully detailed hieroglyphic bands of funerary spells and invocations form the decorative pattern of the niched façade. The architectural idea of the coffin is further elaborated with the appearance of a false door, which would originally decorate a wall in the offering chamber of the deceased as a spiritual doorway through which the decedent’s ka emerges to receive the nourishment of the offerings left behind. The false door itself also repeats the niched pattern, suggesting the grand entry of an Old Kingdom royal mortuary temple. Above the false door we see two eyes staring out, the Eyes of Horus, through which the deceased can look out to observe the people bringing offerings. Now, once Khnum-nakht was interred and his tomb sealed, people wouldn’t be able to see the coffin, but he likely had an attached chapel with a false door and offering scene, perhaps with the Eyes of Horus, where one would leave offerings for his ka.

Here, for example, is one such offering scene that may have decorated the panel area above a false door, similar to the wall fragment that we looked at in our earlier podcast on the Mummy Case of Paankhenamun. Both come from the Middle Kingdom, when this was all the rage for the Egyptian nouveau riche. Not to be confused with the example from the earlier podcast, which shows Amenemhet with his wife Hemet and son Amenemhet, here we see Amenemhet (no relation) with his mother Yatu. And notice the Eyes of Horus above.

It took a few eons before the private individual could participate in all the pomp and circumstance of an elaborate funeral and burial, which previously had been reserved for royalty. This change takes place around the time of the First Intermediate Period after the collapse of the Old Kingdom. And then it took another eon or two before said individual could participate in the same rite of passage upon death, the Osiris resurrection mystery.

I already summarized the myth of Osiris’s murder, dismemberment, and resurrection. Osiris has always has a strong connection with death resurrection, and fertility, chiefly in an agrarian sense. This apparent contradiction of embodying both life and death didn’t seem to bother the Egyptians. We find what seem like contradictions and dichotomies throughout Egyptian mythology, which might make us scratch our head and wonder. But the Egyptians were never burdened by our Western tradition of Platonic logic. What we may perceive as a contradiction could have been perfectly alright to them. Getting back to Osiris, the Egyptians weren’t unique with their association of fertility, life, and death. We find a similar concept of a particular deity presiding over both life and death or creation and destruction in various cultures throughout history, like the Greek Demeter or Hindu Shiva, just to name a couple.

After Isis gathers up and puts together all the pieces of Osiris’s dismembered body, Osiris essentially becomes the first mummy and it’s in this state that he is almost always depicted, all tightly wrapped up. Being the first mummy, his murder arguably is also the first instance of death in Egyptian myth, and the first entombment. The ideas of life, death, fertility, entombment, and resurrection all come together in the statue of Osiris. The pedestal that Osiris stands on bears a striking resemblance to that Coffin of Khnum-nakht and the drawing of the sarcophagus of Menkaura. The pattern painted on the wooden base is meant to mimic the traditional niched pattern of early mortuary temple façades, Old Kingdom sarcophagi, Middle Kingdom coffins, and false doors. And just as there is always something further behind the façade, ultimately a mummy, here too as I briefly said earlier, we often find a little corn mummy under the trap door in the cavity of the box. I said that the corn mummy is a misnomer. That’s the case because there was no corn in Ancient Egypt. Corn is a New World crop. Egyptian grew a variety of other grains like barley and emmer, but not corn. Now, this is all semantics with a distinctly American bias. “Corn” is just the word used by English anthropologists to denote the staple crop of a region. Corn as it’s known to your average American is technically and more properly referred to as “maize.” So. The corn mummy is composed of earth and grain, the key ingredients, which when mixed with water, create life. Germination parallels resurrection, two distinct aspects of Osiris.

The corn mummy plays out in microcosm the whole ideology of death and resurrection in Ancient Egypt.

And kinda like a series of nested Russian dolls, we find the corn mummy within its tomb, which in the form of the Osiris statue is placed within the larger tomb of the deceased.

How’d-ya-like them apples!

As always, I encourage you to check out the website — scarabsolutions.com. If you’re listening this podcast in iTunes, you can just click on the link in the artwork display. I’ve added a couple useful links on the website. One to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which I talked about last time. The MFA has a great online database that lets you browse or search over a third of a million objects in its collection. And their collection of ancient art is something to be envied.

I’ve also added a link to the Met’s online collection, where you’ll find the Coffin of Khnum-nakht and a gazillion other works of art.

And in a year or two the Art Institute may also begin to participate in the 21st century by putting the bulk of its collection online in a searchable database with images.

I’ve also added a new section to the SCARABsolutions website featuring links to a few of my other favorite podcasts, which of course I highly recommend, including the Art Institute’s new MuseCast. So check it out, or just search the iTunes Store for the Art Institute of Chicago.

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org