Published on 14th October, 2016, on dailyo.in
Narasimha, half-human and half-lion, is an avatar of Vishnu, described in the Puranas – the ancient Hindu chronicle of myths. Wolverine is a mutant, and a tortured superhero, a part of the Marvel universe, a creation of American comic book writers, and now a very popular character in Hollywood movies. The two are very different from each other. An avatar is not a superhero. A superhero is not an avatar.
In modern video games, the word “avatar” is used as a duplicate identity, like a mask to hide who you really are. This is how the West makes sense of a Hindu mythic concept. It is common for many Western writers to force-fit ideas from other cultures into a Western template. And so, for them, avatar is the Hindu version of superhero.
A superhero is a mortal human who attains superhuman powers, thus becoming extraordinary. And he or she uses these special powers to help humanity. The superhero is based on the mythological Greek hero like Heracles – different from other mortals as one of his parents is a god from Olympus – who goes on adventures, realises his destiny and, on the way, helps humanity. Wolverine is one such superhero, a mutant, with keen-animal senses, great strength, the ability to draw out and in his claws from his hand, and of course super-regenerative powers that makes him a near immortal and invincible. An angry frustrated loner, a failed samurai archetype, he struggles with his dark side as he tries to do good, and be good, not successfully all the time.
An avatar, by contrast, is God who takes the mortal form to help humanity. Narasimha is the form taken to kill an asura (often translated as demon in English), who has the boon that he cannot be killed by a human or an animal, which means he can only be killed by someone who is neither fully human nor fully animal – like Narasimha. Unlike a superhero, an avatar does not go on any adventure. An avatar has full knowledge of the future and of the opponent, and is actually playing a role, hence the word “leela” or the play of God.
Who is the beneficiary of this play-acting? The so-called villain. For in the story of Narasimha, the asura he kills is not being punished; he is being liberated from a curse. The asura, Hiranakashipu, we are told was the doorkeeper of Vishnu’s abode in his previous life and was cursed to become an asura for a lifetime because he stopped a sage from crossing the gates while Vishnu was asleep. Vishnu, by killing Hiranakashipu, is liberating him from the asura form. Thus, the story of an avatar demands belief in karma, and rebirth. The story of a Greek hero, or superhero, demands no such belief. In fact, the assumption is that the superhero has only one life to prove his worth as a problem-solver and to redeem himself, as in case of Wolverine, who must rid himself of his nasty past.
So a superhero is an ordinary man who becomes extraordinary. The journey is from small to big. By contrast, an avatar is the limitless divine (Vishnu) who becomes the limited divine (Narasimha, or any avatar). The journey is from big to small. Both benefit humanity. In the superhero’s case, that’s a choice: the option is to be a super-villain. In the avatar’s case, benefitting humanity is the whole point.
We often seek similarities between Indian and western stories. But we must probe the reason. Is it to say that Indians measure up to western standards? This is seen in people with an inferiority complex about India. Is it to say that the modern West is actually imitating the path charted by India’s past? This is seen in people with a superiority complex about all things Indian. Is it to say Indians and westerners are no different? This is seen in people who refuse to recognise the cultural difference.
Difference in cultures is rooted in the different assumptions of the culture. Indian culture revolves around faith in rebirth that makes it comfortable with diversity, and uncertainty and subjectivity. The world here is fluid and the avatar is patient with human insecurity born of limited knowledge. Western culture revolves around faith in one life, which makes it comfortable with equality, certainty and objectivity. Their world here is fixed and can only change if there is a revolution, which the superhero facilitates. In a world without problems, there is no need for a superhero. In a world where everyone is wise, there is no need for the avatar.