Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday on August 27, 2012.
Vishnu is the preserver of cosmic order in Hindu mythology. This role often involves battling Asuras, conventionally understood as ‘demons’. Every battle involves a different demon and so Vishnu takes different forms for each battle.
When Hiranayaksha dragged the earth under the sea, Vishnu took the form of a boar, Varaha, plunged into the waters, gored the Asura to death, placed the earth on his snout and raised her back to the surface. This confrontation was highly physical.
Hiranakashipu was a different kind of Asura. He obtained a boon that made him near invincible: he could not be killed either by a man or an animal, either in the day or in the night, neither inside a dwelling nor outside, neither on the ground or off the ground, neither with a weapon nor a tool. To kill this Asura, Vishnu transformed himself into Narasimha, a creature that was half lion and half human, neither man nor animal completely. He dragged the Asura at twilight, which is neither day nor night, to the threshold, which is neither inside a house nor outside, and placing him on his thigh, which is neither on the ground nor off, and disembowelled him with his sharp claws, which are neither weapons nor tools. This complex confrontation was highly intellectual; a battle of wits.
Then came Bali, an Asura, who was so noble and so generous that his realm expanded beyond the subterranean realms to include the earth and sky. To put him back in his place, where he belonged, Vishnu took the form of a dwarf, Vaman, and asked him for three paces of land. When Bali granted this wish, the dwarf turned into a giant and with two steps claimed the earth and sky, shoving Bali back to the nether regions with the third step. This battle involved not so much defeating the opponent as it did transforming oneself.
A study of these avatars of Vishnu indicates a clear shift in war tactic. From Varaha to Narasimha to Vamana there is a shift from brute force, to brain rather than brawn and finally an exercise in outgrowing rather than outwitting. The demons are becoming increasingly complex — Hiranayaksha is violent, Hiranakashipu is clever and there is no real fault in Bali; his goodness disturbs cosmic balance. Each one forces Vishnu to change, adapt, and evolve. There is no standard approach; each approach is customized. What is significant is the shift from animal to human, from strength to cunning, from external drive to internal drive.